Identities, Passions and Commitments
An interview with the British Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar
Christiane Jungblut & Wera Reusch
Q: You once wrote that there is a particular history that informs the thematic concerns and aesthetic sensibilities of your work. Could you describe the particularities of your history?
A: I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and came with my family as immigrants to England in 1967. The history of British colonialism has had a big impact on the Indian diaspora and my family is part of that diaspora. My mother was born in Kenya, she was then educated in India and married there and then came back to live in Kenya. Subsequently she was forced to leave and make a new life in England. She has basically lived in three different continents of the world within her lifetime. I find that quite incredible and clearly this history can’t fail but to influence the way I think about the world and about questions of home, identity and belonging.
Q: How do you find the ideas for plots and figures?
A: My work spans many themes and ideas which often come from my own passions and commitments. For example, one of the first videos I ever made called Sari Red, is a visual poem of remembrance for a young South Asian woman, Rabinder who was killed by three white racists on the streets of London. When I had first heard about this incident I was upset and angry at what had happened to her. I felt as if that could have been me or my friends. She was killed because she shouted back at them when they were screaming racist remarks at her and her friends. The three white men were driving a van which they drove onto the pavement and straight into her, crushing her to death. There have been so many racist murders in England and sometimes these become part of the statistics. I wanted to make a video which would rescue this brave young woman from being yet one more statistic and evoke her life, her dreams and her potential.
Another film I have made was with the writer, Alice Walker called Warrior Marks in 1993. Alice had written a novel called Possessing the Secret of Joy and she wanted to make a documentary that dealt with the subject of her novel, which was female genital mutilation. She asked me if I would work with her on making a documentary on this subject. I had no hesitation in agreeing to do this because I see this issue as a human rights issue especially after talking to many women campaigners in Africa and in England.
What I wanted to do was to make a film that did not portray women as victims but as resisters, women as fighters, women who have actually survived and continue to survive–despite what has been done to them. I wanted women’s voices that articulated the ways in which women have been fighting against this.
I remember having a long conversation with Awa Thiam, an African feminist who wrote an extremely important book published in the UK called Black Sisters Speak Out, a feminist analysis of African women’s oppression. Awa had written a chapter on clitordectomy and female circumcision in her book and had been ostracised in Senegal for being so vocal and outspoken. She had come under massive attacks from people, who asked “Why are you exposing our culture in this negative way?” I remember asking Awa when I met her in Senegal, “How do you feel about us coming here and making this film?” She said: “You know, I work on the basis and in the belief that there is universal sisterhood and that we are all in this together. You in the West may be fighting against other things, but for us the struggle against female genital mutilation is a priority. You can help us and join us in our struggle against this by exposing it further and actually taking it out there in the world and putting it on the world’s agenda, in the world arena. This will put a pressure on our governments. It’s going to be helpful for those of us who are isolated and who have been struggling against this for many years.”
It was refreshing for me to hear her, having come from the late 80s and early 90s talk of post-feminism, with so much cynicism around the bankruptcy of feminism. To meet a woman who still has that quite wonderful optimistic belief in the idea of universal sisterhood, which many of us did in the 70s but which has got lost along the way as we got more fragmented and disparate … but that’s a whole other discussion.
Q: You are not only dealing with feminist, but also with lesbian and gay issues. Would you call yourself a lesbian filmmaker? And what is a lesbian film?
A: I am a filmmaker first and last. Of course my experience of the world is informed and shaped by my various identities, passions and commitments and have a direct influence on the films I make and how I make them but that shouldn’t define me in a specific way. I would like to think that I should be able to make any films and about anything that interest me and that shouldn’t be constrained by who I am. I wouldn’t even want to attempt to define what a lesbian film is.
Now what makes a film lesbian is a very interesting discussion in and of itself. Let me try and answer that from my experience of making a short documentary called Jodie: An Icon which looked at the ways in which the Hollywood actress Jodie Foster has been constructed as an icon for lesbians through her various screen personas. One of the points that emerged from this ‘deconstruction’ and from the interviews with her fans who are lesbians was the conclusion by Claire Whatling, a writer from Manchester who said, “There are as many lesbian films as there are lesbians watching them.” What she was saying here and it’s something I agree with, is that we will read into images what we would like to read into them, depending on our own hungers, desires and needs.
Q: One of the most surprising facts in your films is that although you deal with double and triple problems, there is also double and triple fun. You probably have a good sense of humour …
A: I have developed a sense of humour over the years and the person who has helped me to discover this about myself is the wonderful writer and poet June Jordan. As our friendship has developed over the years we have laughed and giggled a tremendous amount and thanks to June I have rediscovered a childhood delight in laughter and giggling. I am also an aspiring Buddhist and I have found the role of humour in spirituality quite wonderfully surprising. Reading the biography of the Dalai Lama, I found his incredible ability to laugh and smile and dissolve his anger in the face of the genocide of his people and his country by the Chinese government a real inspiration.
Q: From portraying the political activist Angela Davis (in A Place called Rage) to the rock musician Ani DiFranco (in The Righteous Babes) there seems to be a shift in your creative work during the last decade. How would you characterise this shift?
A: The shift is as much to do with wider cultural and historical changes as it is to do with my own development as an activist and filmmaker. I would hate to stand still. Culture is not monolithic but always on the move and fluid and I like to be able keep in tune with these changes and shifts. For instance, my most recent film The Righteous Babes (1998) about women rock musicians and feminism is very much informed by my feminism which was there when I made the film A Place of Rage in 1991 with Angela Davis.
In The Righteous Babes I was interested in making visible the interface of popular culture and various debates and discourses around feminism, its supposed demise, its relevance to women today and its changing nature.
The landscape of feminism and popular culture and in particular rock music is one that I wanted to explore in this film. We are immersed in popular culture and in particular rock & pop music through the proliferation of music videos, radio stations, television programmes deifying rock stars and countless magazines devoted to the world of music. This form of popular entertainment has taken on a monolithic presence in our daily lives. It is an area that as feminists we cannot afford to ignore.
I wanted to make a film that reminded us that before the Spice Girls there was a whole history of women in music who were truly subversive, truly challenging, feisty, intelligent, passionate and in your face than these five girls in their platform boots throwing high kicks.
My own background as a filmmaker who has focused on pertinent social and political ‘issues’ for the last decade, particularly those effecting women as well as my ongoing commitment to feminism inform the shape, content and visual style of Righteous Babes. I wanted to make a film that made feminist ideas accessible to a broader audience.
Q: Can you tell us something about your current film-projects?
A: I am trying to make a documentary film on Drag Kings and I am also talking to the writer Eve Ansler who wrote The Vagina Monologues about doing a film on the how the majority of women in the world are not comfortable in the bodies they are born in and how this experience often leads women in different cultures to change, reshape and violate their bodies in order to ‘fit in’.
Pratibha Parmar is an award winning filmmaker whose work has been exhibited widely at international film festivals and broadcast on television in many countries.
Her documentary films include Sari Red (1988), a video poem of remembrance made in memory of a young Asian woman killed by three white youths on the streets of London and Khush (1991), a film exploring the lives of Asian lesbian and gay men in Britain and in India. A Place of Rage (1991) highlights the lives of African-American women and their role in the civil rights movement, focusing on Angela Davis, June Jordan and Alice Walker. In 1993 she produced and directed Warrior Marks. This film was made in collaboration with Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple who was also the Executive Producer. Jodie: An Icon (1996) captures celluloid magic moments from the rich cinematic history of Jodie Foster’s screen career and explores the different ways in which lesbians have claimed this Hollywood actress as an icon. The most recent documentaries of Parmar include The Righteous Babes (1998), an hour long documentary about popular culture, feminism and rock music and A Brimful of Asia (1989), a documentary about the explosion of 2nd Generation Asian talents in music and fashion in the U.K.
Her drama Wavelengths (1997) is a contemporary, stylish story about human communications in the age of cyberspace, set in London in a gay bar where drag queens and deaf designer dykes hang out.
U.K.: Cinenova, 113 Roman Road, London E2, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
USA: Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, Suite 500, New York, NY 10013, email: email@example.com
Canada: Groupe Intervention Video (GIV), 5505 Boul. Saint-Laurent, bureau 3015, Montreal (Quebec), H2T 1S6, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.givideo.org + V TAPE, 401 Richard St West, Suite 452, Toronto, Ontario, M5V 3A8, Canada, email:email@example.com, www.vtape.org
Japan: Stance Company, 2-12-13 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, Tel: 813 3818 9889, Fax: 813 3818 7778, (Stance distribute Japanese sub-title version of Warrior Marks only)