Only four films released theatrically in the UK have ever been directed by a black British woman. A shocking statistic that becomes even more stark when we consider one was only released earlier in 2014 (Amma Asante’s Belle) while the other (Destiny Ekaragha’s forthcoming Gone Too Far!) premiered as recently as last year’s London Film Festival.
We have brought together ten diverse female talents from this year’s London Film Festival programme whose work demands attention. More than just a list of up and comers, these are films and performances that raise as many questions as they answer. An important question is viewpoint – what makes a film diverse? Included here are films directed by white men about non-white women (My Friend Victoria, Catch me Daddy) and films directed by women but depicting subjects both within (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Appropriate Behaviour) and outside (Girlhood) their cultural identity. Collected here also are performances by young actors that confront and challenge preconceived understandings of racial compartmentalisation and femininity (Dear White People, Honeytrap, Margarita with a Straw).
This is a selection that demonstrates the complexity, texture and richness of the contribution of women of colour to our contemporary international cinema, a sign, we hope, of a much needed change in their visibility.
Debbie Tucker Green – Second Coming
Debbie Tucker Green’s fearless writing as a playwright for the Royal Court and Young Vic has earned her a reputation as a provocative dramatic poet. She moved to the screen in 2011 when she adapted her one-woman monologue on knife crime, Random, into one of the most unique pieces of television drama in recent memory. In her feature debut Second Coming she presents nine months in the life of a tight-knit family who seem to have been blessed with an immaculate conception. Reweaving the lyrical rhythms gifted to her through her heritage as a black British woman, Tucker Green references poets like Louise Bennett and Ntozake Shange by way of songwriters and performers like Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill and Akala; a blend that translates into a startlingly authoritative and defiantly authentic new voice in British cinema.
Jessica Sula – Honeytrap
Jessica Sula started her career on Channel 4’s Skins. In Rebecca Johnson’s Honeytrap, she plays the lead, Layla, a confused young girl whose battle with her fragile sense of identity sees her getting mixed up in the dangerous social dynamics of an inner-city gang. Sula’s powerfully nuanced performance is given added poignancy in light of the film’s concern’s with young, black and female self-image. Producer Sarah Sulick said of the search for their lead, “Our casting director did an exhaustive search and we saw many talented actresses, but Jessica really stood out. The fact that she is of Trinidadian descent — like our main character — adds another layer of authenticity to a story that is very much rooted in a specific place and time: contemporary south London.”
Sameena Jabeen Ahmed – Catch Me Daddy
Daniel Wolfe’s directorial approach to the subject of honour killing in Catch Me Daddy subtly explores notions of race and class in Britain. Wolfe’s references are carefully chosen; from British social realist cinema as lensed by the acclaimed cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, The Angel’s Share), by way of the American western and hints to the photography of the quintessentially English photographers like Martin Parr. Newcomer Sameena Jabeen Ahmed does more than just add authenticity to these disparate references, she delivers a performance that defies presumptions on culturally specific victimhood and female teenage rebellion and signals an exciting new talent to watch.
Karidja Touré – Girlhood
Celine Sciamma has already given us two striking portraits of young girls whose conformity to gender and sexual identity was fluid and changing (Water Lilies, Tomboy). In her third film, she moves away from the bourgeois middle classes of France, and turns her eye on the lesser seen of French cinema – the female, young, black and poor of the underprivileged ‘banlieues’ of Paris. At the centre of her story is Vic, played by the startlingly assured newcomer Karida Touré. Flawlessly depicting fragility, confusion, rebellion and resilience in her accomplished performance, where she appears in almost every frame, Touré elevates the bleakness of Vic’s prospects into a intricate depiction that is as joyful as it is heartbreaking.
Guslagie Malanda and Nadia Moussa – My Friend Victoria
Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria is based on Doris Lessing’s short story Victoria and the Staveneys, which follows a young black girl’s relationship with a more affluent, liberal white family, traced from her formative childhood through to her adulthood. Lessing’s story explores the mutual delusions about race in contemporary society and in choosing to tell the story through the eyes of Victoria’s beloved adopted sister Fanny, Civeyrac raises an implicit question on viewpoint in filmmaking. With Civeyrac directing his story with a lightness of touch that allows his leads – newcomers Guslagie Malanda and Nadia Moussa – to shine through, this is a film that handles race and the cinematic gaze with restraint and new insight.
Shonali Bose and Kalki Koechlin – Margarita, With a Straw
A female director working in India, Shonali Bose takes a courageous approach to a number of traditionally taboo subjects in Indian culture in Margarita, With a Straw. The film follows the coming of age of a young girl with cerebral palsy whose determination to live a full, and sexual existence is complicated by her realisation that she is bisexual. The film stars Kalki Koechlin, (That Girl in Yellow Boots, Dev D) an actor whose inclusion adds another layer of expressiveness to the character‘s sense of isolation and confusion. An actor of French origin who was born and brought up in India, she has often referenced her outsider status in her film choices. “Growing up in India as a white-skinned woman, I was always the odd one out – there was a sense of alienation that came with that, and you end up alienating yourself because everyone comes to you like the white girl, the easy ‘Baywatch’, loose-moraled white girl.”
Tessa Thompson – Dear White People
Justin Simeon’s brilliant film on race relation in post-racial, post-Obama America is an urgent piece of satire for our confused times. At its heart is the brilliant Tessa Thompson (For Coloured Girls, Veronica Mars) who plays a biracial student whose complicated relationship to her black identity leads her to become confusingly embroiled in some grassroots student activism. Thompson has said playing the role was a deeply important experience for her “Part of the reason I responded to [my character] Sam was because I went through some really profound places in high school … I am multiracial and I went through different phases—at one point I listened to Wu-Tang and hip-hop, and then the next year I listened to Joni Mitchell. I love what it says in the end—that we are so complex and we can reconcile these different parts of ourselves.”
Meron Getnet and Tizita Hagere – Difret
Difret follows the struggle of one female lawyer to take on the patriarchal Ethiopian court system that fails to protect its young girls from the horrors of forced marriages. Following a young brutalised girl who faces execution for murder after defending herself against her attacker and a female lawyer who vows to defend her rights, the film is executive-produced by actor and global campaigner on gender equality, Angelina Jolie. Under the weight of the subject matter, and indeed the cause, the chemistry between the two leads Meron Getnet and Tizita Hagere is instrumental in elevating the story from a tale of women as victims of a patriarchal system, to a story about sisterhood, solidarity and the possibilities of collaborative activism.
Ana Lily Amripour and Sheila Vand – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Ana Lily Amirpour is a painter, a sculptor, comic book creator and the lead singer in a rock band who loves Die Antwoord, Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Bee Gees and the films of Sergio Leone, David Lynch and Sophia Loren. She is also of Iranian descent, born in London and residing in LA. Bringing her disparate influences together in a film that defies characterisation (Feminist Iranian spaghetti western anyone?), Amripour’s film dwells insistently on mood and ideas. Her central character, know only as ‘the girl’ is flawlessly played by Iranian American actress Sheila Vand, whose kohl-brimming eyes and floating vampire hijab results in a performance that plays with ideals of eastern feminity and otherness.
Desiree Akhavan – Appropriate Behaviour
Desiree Akhavan writes, directs and stars in a Brooklyn-set film about a girl in her 20s who is struggling to find her way in the world. Inevitably, her work has been compared to Lena Dunham’s. So much so that when asked to describe her work, the college professor described her as “the gay, Iranian Lena Dunham”. At first glance the description appears a reductive dismissal, but dismissing Appropriate Behaviour as a copy minimises the importance of the director’s bisexual Iranian American perspective. Transformative rather than derivative, Akhavan’s work gives us an important new take on the quarter-life crisis film.