British Palestinian filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky explains how colonialism is always central to the stories he tells
Piercing looks of suspicion open Saeed Taji Farouky’s short film set in Victorian Britain. Commissioned by Channel 4’s Random Acts, They Live in Forests, They Are Extremely Shy provides a snapshot into the era of an inhumane, but acceptable, curiosity of the wealthy class. The three-minute fiction is set in the Colonial Exhibition of 1886 and shot in sinister black and white, allowing for the contrasting facial expressions of its characters to be laid bare.
The film features Aboriginal actor Tom E. Lewis who plays David, the “civilised barbarian” dressed in his master’s clothing, being led through the exhibition’s artefacts. When he is introduced to “one of our more impressive displays” – a fellow tribesman in a display box – time stands still.
I caught up with British Palestinian director Saeed Farouky, who is also a board member with the Arab British Centre, in between a hectic trip abroad and the Safar Film Festival. We discussed why he chose the story of They Live in Forests and why the film is so interconnected with current struggles.
What was the inspiration behind the story?
I had this image in my mind of a person going into a museum and seeing themselves or their tribe on display. When I started researching the concept, a lot of real events centring around human zoos came up.
There were three in particular: one was about an inuit native Canadian kid called Minik, who saw his father’s bones on display; another was a guy called Ota Benga from the Congo, who toured these kind of colonial exhibitions around the world; and one of them was an Aboriginal man, a native Australian called Bennelong, and that’s the one I fixated on, but combined elements of the three.
For me, the film was always going to be about colonialism.
Did you have any film influences in terms of the style you picked?
Yes, a lot of it was colonial photography – that’s one of the reasons why it’s in black and white – particularly the kind of tableau vivant (“living picture”) where they would pose people. These images were always about fulfilling the colonial fantasy, racism disguised as intellectual curiosity. They contain so many layers about the subjugation of the human, but also how you can simultaneously denigrate and fantasise about them. They were really influential in the way we shot the film, framed it, created the set and the bodies.
Recent film Embrace of the Serpent shares a few parallels with this. A huge influence was also Hungarian film Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) by Béla Tarr, which is incredibly slow, but absolutely beautiful. It’s about the crumbling of Hungarian society, through the metaphor of a travelling circus.
How do you think racism, disguised as intellectual curiosity, continues to this day?
A lot of documentaries, and even mainstream news, are still heavily influenced by the perception that “our view is superior”. Sometimes you see filmmakers wanting to do the right thing, they say, “Oh, I made this film because I want to give a voice to the refugees,” then you watch the film and it’s all about the filmmaker. As a Palestinian, I see this in films about Palestine all the time.
The skill of being a storyteller, journalist or filmmaker is realising how to use your skillset in a conversation with those people. But the vast majority of the time, they approach looking for characters and quotes to fit their stereotypes. And that’s straight out of the colonial history of photography and painting – it’s what’s called orientalism.
How do you avoid this?
You need to approach every story as a collaboration. It means that sometimes you’ll have to start from scratch. It requires a lot of patience as you develop the story. You need to be explicit about what it is you’re doing and the nature of the film.
I took the dialogue with Tom and our two cultural consultants very seriously. I came to them with an idea, but if that idea didn’t fly with them, we would have made a completely different film – even though the script and funding was approved. Tom, especially, verified that this story represented a very serious issue and a very real one.
Tell me about the main character.
The character’s name is David and he’s from the Northern Territory – one of the last areas to be colonised by the British in Australia. In a strange way, it meant they had an advantage, because they knew the history of the massacres, the techniques, and so on. The British weren’t able to just bulldoze the place.
In this fictional world, David is invited as an ambassador to Britain to discuss the future of his northern tribe. He is Victorianised, in the sense that he wears a suit and speaks English, and so on. But then he’s invited to the Colonial Exhibition of 1886, and there he sees the taxidermied body of another Yolngu warrior.
At that moment, he makes a break from being “the good native” to being a real human. He cradles and mourns over the body. I think that, for the first time, he realises who these people are, or he understands the reality of the situation.
Have you had those moments of self-realisation, like David in the film?
This is the birthplace of the Victorian epic drama, which is always white, almost always about men, and that’s it. If you want diverse cinema, then you have to really stick your neck out.
There are moments when you realise you are being co-opted, or you realise you’re the token Muslim, token Arab or token woman, and it suddenly becomes clear – and you have to ask yourself, “Am I going to go on with this?” The older I get, luckily, the more willing I am to call bullshit and say I’m not happy with a situation.
What I loved about working with Tom is that this is also the story of his life. He’s half black, half white, and for a time he was rejected by both cultures. He made a film about it called Yellow Fella, about growing up biracial within this very racist system in Australia.
Victorian society was infatuated with the idea of lesser races and those doomed to die. How does the film reflect this history?
The practical answer is that there were colonised people, and indigenous Australians, who came to Britain, but we never hear about them.
The idea of displaying human remains, too, is very controversial – it’s almost never shown in films. The British museums have the largest collection of indigenous, Aboriginal remains in the world. For Aboriginal activists, it’s a big deal to come here and confront, for example, the British Museum, and say, “We want these items back.” The film is part of the process of opening up that dialogue.
Places like the Natural History Museum were born straight out of the Colonial Exhibition in London and would have once had exhibitions which we consider abhorrent.
That’s what I love doing – looking at the sore spots of history and poking them. It’s not about blaming anyone or collective guilt, it’s about acknowledging that this happened.
Is there a collective amnesia about Aboriginals in Australian culture?
They’re absent from popular culture until they can be coopted. I find that as a Palestinian too – there are certain symbolisms, ceremonies, music or dress, that people can latch onto and say, “Now, this is interesting, I want to use this,” but they don’t actually want to engage with the Palestinian cause. Thankfully, the Aboriginals have incredibly strong networks to push for better representation.
Where are the main Aboriginal movements based?
Whereas Aboriginal artworks from other parts of Australia were destroyed along with the people, by the time the colonisers reached the Northern Territory, they started preserving some of the work. Aboriginals from the Northern Territories have been really good at pushing protocols.
Within film, they have this powerful document, which I really want other indigenous people to look at, about how we should treat their culture – characters, stories, images, or art. It explains that you need to engage people and work on the story with them. I hope it can be a blueprint.
Do you think there are comparisons to be drawn between indigenous struggles in Australia and America, in light of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests?
Yes, definitely. Within activism, there is a lot of solidarity between them. One of the main issues is resource extraction, particularly for Australians, because a lot of their mining industries are based where Aboriginal people live. They’re very active in challenging them or coming up with frameworks where it’s advantageous for them.
Why did you make a conscious choice to ask crowdfunders who voted for Brexit to retract their donations?
Honestly, it was a very easy decision for me to make. I understand not everyone who voted “Leave” is racist or xenophobic – in fact, I know some of those people. But they are influencing our lives in ways that they don’t know. For me, it’s just as important to protest the underbelly of those decisions and the implicit effects.
It was a message about a political approach that is against everything that I stand for and the story of my family who are migrants. I didn’t want money in the film that was related to something I consider racist. Sure, I’m willing to forgive a small error, but when it’s something on this scale, for very selfish reasons, that will adversely affect so many people’s lives – I mean, at what point do we draw the line?
What next for you, Saeed?
I’d love to make They Live in Forests a feature length film, but not right away. At the moment, I’m working on a film on contemporary London, which is a lot easier!
Most of my work is about similar themes – being vocal about colonialism and post-colonialism, and the hangovers of that which we’re suffering from. But also about the film industry itself – making a film with a diverse group of people.
I’m also working on a documentary on resource extraction and how it affects the local population. That’s all I can say so far!
This interview was first published on The Platform.
Saeed Taji Farouky’s film They Live in Forests will appear on Channel 4’s Random Acts at midnight on Thursday 8th December 2016. Following the broadcast, it will be available to view on the website.
There will also be an exclusive screening in Newcastle on Friday 2nd December, followed by a panel event with Saeed. The event is free, but you need to reserve a place here.
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Zainab Rahim is the joint editor-in-chief of a comment website called The Platform, which is a space for writers and researchers seeking to advance marginalised narratives. Her own writing focuses on arts and culture, local history and global politics. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @zainoted.
Photo Credits: Saeed T Farouky and Andy Berriman