Bruce Haines: Although you have had many screenings of your work both in the UK and abroad, I wanted to ask what it means to be showing within a gallery context for the first time?
Alia Syed: There are relatively few spaces to show experimental film nowadays - the Lux has disappeared, the Arts Council Experimental Film and Video Board have gone, the BFI no longer fund work - and galleries have become more interesting spaces to work in. Yet I am hesitant about showing my work in a gallery because it is not like in a cinema space, where you sit down, watch the film and give it time.
BH: Was the avant-garde film world an important part of your background as a filmmaker?
AS: Yes. I was attracted to the film department due to the fact that there was a community of people who were not only committed to making work but who were also engaged with how that work was positioned within wider social and artistic contexts. There were fiercely contested debates about representation, identity, and feminism, ideas that I could engage with as someone from Scotland with a mixed-race background.
BH: What did you first start making films about?
AS: I was intrigued by London and its distinct areas and communities juxtaposed against each other and thought I could go out and film-specific landscapes. And I did things like filming the wind in the grass and snow and stairwells - quite formal things to do with shape and form and rhythm. I made Unfolding and Swan in 1989 as part of my degree show. Unfolding was set in Deptford in a council launderette. I was interested in making a film about women's workspaces; the launderette is a functional space, but it is also a place where women meet socially. I got to know the women, took my Bolex (a wind-up camera) and after a while, I felt comfortable enough to start filming. It made me aware of the way in which documentaries can be a form of control. On the one hand, it was a straightforward documentary and, on the other, it questioned my role as a maker. It took a long time to make and was extremely rigorous. The filming of Swan, in contrast, all happened very quickly. And I edited the film in a night.
BH: It is a very distilled image as if you have already taken away the extraneous material, the surroundings, and so on.
AS: Yes, the distance between the camera and the swan was negligible. I never imagined I could get so close. I had lots of footage that I was unhappy with and, I re-filmed the imagery that I was interested in, which I felt was not so much beautiful as quite sexual. I was interested in the violent mythological creature that rapes.
BH: The story of Leda and the Swan?
AS: Yes. I am still very interested in mythologies and re-writing them.
BH: Five years later you made Fatima's Letter (1994), which returned you to working in an unmediated public space, a busy tube station.
AS: I chose Whitechapel because it is a place of migration and various communities have come and gone throughout history.
BH: It is probably your most overtly politicized film, as it deliberately looks at an area that has a high percentage of Bangladeshi and Pakistani residents.
AS: I made Fatima's Letter when I was at the Slade School of Art, where it was difficult to raise issues of race. I was involved in debates raised by Sankofa and Black Audio Collective and had become very aware in my own life about issues to do with race, identity and culture.
BH: At that time, did you feel separate, in some ways, from your peers?
AS: The community at the London Filmmakers' Co-op was ostensibly white, as was the Slade. How you perceive your personal power and how you can personally deal with difficult situations is important in these environments. At times, I found it painful, which is not to say that people were overtly racist or unsupportive. There were people who were dealing with issues of gender, homophobia, sexuality, etc., but all of these debates were still quite separate.
BH: So your films bring together various different strands of those issues?
AS: Yes, but Fatima's Letter is also a romantic as well as a political film. It is about traveling in London and feelings of isolation, but also about how you watch people and fabricate stories about them, trying to make connections. In public spaces, there will be some people who look familiar - they remind you of home, of some auntie or cousin, or your best friend in Glasgow. It is not necessarily that they look like them, but a certain gesture or way of moving, or an intonation of voice will suddenly transport you into a completely different space.
BH: Is there a narrative in Fatima's Letter and where does it originate from?
AS: The initial story is a letter that I wrote to a friend while I was with my family in Manchester. It was during Eid, the Muslim festival, and I did not feel comfortable because I did not have the right clothes, my salwar kameez. The men were in one room and the women were in another. Younger women and children only went into the men's quarter if they were going to give them sweets after dinner. I now feel quite at home in that environment, but at the time I did not, because I was influenced by a certain type of 'white' feminism.
BH: What has changed do you think?
AS: Nothing. I am still a feminist, but I think that people describe and experience their power differently. In fact, women like being in spaces where men are not around; they become a lot more social, less formal. Women-only spaces can be empowering.
BH: And is it just as empowering for you, then, to go to a public space and film women who are seemingly having quite private moments?
AS: No, I do not feel comfortable, because I see that as an intrusion. When I filmed Fatima's Letter, I rarely filmed people directly. Often I would be watching women but I would not film her. Instead, I would film the shadow that she made with her dress on the platform, or I would film a reflection, movement, feet, and hands. If people feel that you are focusing on their faces, they do not like it. Initially, the reason I filmed in this way was to consider the representation of blackness and the power that lies in description. The fact that white is seen as neutral dehumanizes and simplifies those who are not white.
BH: Tell me about the woman who is narrating the story.
AS: The story is written in English and I wanted the voice to be that of a woman. I was looking for a way of dealing with issues of cultural difference and asked my cousin who had come from Pakistan to translate the story into Urdu. I was interested in how the English text relates to the story in Urdu. It was about the desire to understand and the way that Asian women are both categorized and exoticized. It is to do with the space you occupy and the power you take. The starting point for Fatima's Letter was ideas of race and gender, but it sort of slips to become about how you place yourself within the text. The film alludes to how you position yourself among the pervasive structures of White, Male, Capitalist, Protestant, Heterosexual. And in the process, you become the subject, your own personal identity becomes an issue in how you understand and do not understand that text. You stop being a neutral viewer.
BH: That leads us on to The Watershed (1995), in which hands rubbing a woman's back and hair hint at an alternative subtitle. There is a relationship being played out that you have alluded to as a kind of abusive power. What do you mean by that?
AS: Well, there has been an abuse of power for both parties. The woman's abuse is sexual and the man is his displacement as a refugee. Two instances of abuse, but I think the woman is forefronted.
BH: Do you think of Fatima's Letter and The Watershed as poems?
AS: Yes, definitely. Oral history is important in my family. My father tells lots of stories about leaving India, going to Pakistan, the whole Muslim diaspora. My grandmother relates amazing stories about her Welsh mining background and the socialist movement. And that interest in oral history is something that I put into my film work.
BH: The interest in displacement comes from your personal history too. In Fatima's Letter, did you consciously set out to make the film reminiscent of an imagined Asia?
AS: I suppose so. As a child, going to India and Pakistan was fantastic, because I had a great time. I had so much family and everyone was always very welcoming. But as a teenager, I found it more difficult and tended not to go. But then, as an adult, I have found a place within that culture and formed important relationships. Being unhappy in London, you remember other places. When traveling on the East London Line or visiting Whitechapel, I would encounter smells that reminded me of India or Pakistan. The way that a horn sounds in summer would transport me back to the horns in Karachi. It is to do with occupying more than one space at a time.
BH: And also, the memory of being a woman occupying a different space in an entirely different country.
AS: Yes, very much so. And also, when I made Fatima's Letter, it was after the Rushdie affair. Islamic culture and Muslims were under attack, which was one reason why I did not want the film specifically to delve into questions of race and color. Instead, I wanted it to intimate a different culture and a different way of being, which I think the film succeeds in doing.
BH: Spoken Diary (2001) is your most recent film and seems to bring together elements of The Watershed with the uneasiness of the street. Is this coda, a resolving of interests foregrounded in your previous films?
AS: Not really. Spoken Diary is more concerned with an interior and an exterior reality; it is about how the protagonist perceives her exterior reality through her different emotional states.
BH: What do you mean by an interior reality?
AS: I filmed a game that we used to play as children - of trying to slap each other's hands - and used it as a metaphor for touching but not touching. There are moments of intimacy and playfulness, but also moments of aggression. The exterior reality is that the woman is traveling through London, but as she does so, her head is in a different space, so there is that feeling of dislocation again. The diary is written in the third person. The protagonist does not want to be the person she is, so she invents an alter ego and, by doing so, she can survive. The film is about fighting depression and the act of writing is her way of rewriting her own story.
BH: What inspired you to make the film?
AS: I walked to New Cross from Brixton in the middle of the night while six months pregnant. I decided that if I walked at a constant pace, I would not show fear or anxiety. I did not feel threatened. In fact, I enjoyed walking through Brixton, Camberwell, and Peckham, so that is one of the initial starting points of the film.
BH: Throughout this fifteen-year period, it is absolutely impossible to separate out your sense of personal biography from what you are making films about.
AS: Perhaps, but I think that what is important is that the fiction of each film speaks truth, not whether that truth is my truth or not.
BH: A universal truth?
AS: No, but somebody's truth. I do not believe that any work can be objective. I transform an initial experience into a film-making experience, and that is what is important - the story that exists in the film, not the initial idea.
BH: Tell me about the new film you are working on now?
AS: Eating Grass is the first part of a surreal trilogy detailing aspects of domestic life in a city whose most exclusive locality is called 'Defence'. The title is a reference to a quote made by President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan who, in response to India exploding a nuclear device in the early 1970s, promised the Pakistani people that they too would have their own nuclear weapon at all costs even if it meant 'eating grass'. There are five separate stories that will form a cohesive whole, each story relating to a different time of the day allocated for Muslim prayer. The emphasis of the piece will be on how women's freedom and the 'defense' of their honor are continually manipulated by the generals and moulvis in the name of Islam.
BH: Can you tell me about how your films will be shown in the New Art Gallery, Walsall?
AS: When you enter the gallery, you will see Swan first, which will be shown in the belly of the gallery. Although Swan is silent, when you view it, you will also hear the soundtrack and be aware of two other films that are being shown on either side of it. The sound and memory of one film will alter the viewing experience of another. In The Watershed, I want to draw the audience's attention to the fact that the film has a beginning and an end, so that when it ends, there will be darkness and silence in that space. You will then become aware of the soundtrack of Spoken Diary and the line: 'She keeps writing until the pages go black, keeps writing until a tunnel appears, a tunnel back to you.' At that point, the viewer is in darkness.
BH: So the three films literally come together as one piece of work?
AS: Yes. They really related to a sense of the physicality of the body - of touch and sensuality - and when combined, they will create a single piece. As opposed to being in a cinema, where real-time is taken over by film time, your gaze can roam in the gallery and the viewer is more active. I have to negotiate not only the film space but also the physical territory of the viewer and the gallery. I have to think of individual journeys through that space as part of the whole viewing experience.
BH: The issue of control and power is something, then, which is reasserted not only through how you make the films but also through how they are represented.
AS: Yes, and how you view them. In a gallery, you are not sure that your audience will sit through from the beginning to the end of the film. I think that Spoken Diary is at its strongest when it exists in moments.
BH: And the different moments suspend time, which is what happens in both Fatima's Letter and The Watershed. There is no sense of time moving on.
AS: Although all of my films have a beginning and an end, they are cyclical. The way that I edit, through repetition, is an organic process. The narratives are all circular, not linear.
BH: Is Jigar the essence of all your different films?
AS: When I was told to find a title, I was looking for a word that would describe what all of the films are about: desire, love physicality, the body. 'Jigar' means liver in Urdu, but is used to describe the lover as an integral part of your being; it provides balance in the sense that the liver detoxifies. It is the lover you cannot survive without. But in Urdu, it also encompasses a whole gamut of emotions: of being in love, falling out of love, and not being with the loved one. For the gallery to work, it has to become a dark, interior space, a bodily experience, because the films deal with both rhythm and sound, which affect you physically. That is why I called it Jigar.
BH: And who do you think the films speak to?
AS: I want them to speak to whoever wants to listen or whoever can find a space in themselves that is somehow reflected within the space of the narratives of the films.
Alia Syed would like to thank Lis Rhodes for her involvement.