Interview with Rhea Storr
Answering our questions from her family home in the Yorkshire countryside, London-based artist Rhea Storr discusses her film A Protest, A Celebration, A Mixed Message, shot during Leeds West Indian Carnival.
The film was commissioned as part of the Louis Le Prince Experimental Film Prize. Can you tell us about this prize, and the context behind the film’s creation?
I won the prize upon proposing a new film which would look at Leeds West Indian Carnival, its history and connection to forms of power. I wanted to refute the idea that carnival is benign or purely about play. Often, I think people wrongly assume that because carnival is a form of popular culture, it has nothing political or intellectually challenging to say. That’s not true. At the same time I wanted to explore a certain frustration at trying to convey a mixed-race perspective. The prize was at the time facilitated by the Northern Film School and Leeds International Film Festival. I’m very grateful to the Northern Film School for allowing me to use their resources, equipment and work with some of their students. Being able to work on analogue film and make a surround sound track was a privilege, especially seeing as sound system culture is so important to carnival.
Carnivals seem to be a recurring motif in your body of work. What do they represent for you?
My interest in carnival stems from my own British-Bahamian cultural heritage. Learning about Junkanoo - a carnival of the Bahamas - is a way to understand more about my heritage. Junkanoo has very specific rules and is wholly different from Notting Hill Carnival in the UK, for instance. Junkanoo costume themes are political and consider national pride, religion, issues in the news - they depict other countries and nations. Junkanoo operates on a huge scale and has a social function other than enjoyment (although that features too!) The same political interest is true of Notting Hill, its genesis of which was borne out of civil unrest and racism towards the Black community in Britain. Ultimately, carnival is a subversion of power and a resistance. For me it’s a rich motif, I can’t leave it alone, negotiating what those systems of power are and how they operate with respect to Black artists and Black performers.
"Ultimately, carnival is a subversion of power and a resistance."
In the film you look into the camera, you address the spectator directly, and share very personal reflections. What were the challenges of making a film in the first person?
For me it seemed logical that I would address the camera directly. That particular shot is a challenge to the viewer in itself, asking the question but not necessarily asking for the reply. I didn’t plan to be in the film but the text really was my voice, my thoughts, my perspective. It didn’t seem logical to cast someone as a stand-in for me when the film is about being visible. There’s also a sense in which I made myself vulnerable by being so present in the film. A certain still, my body in the countryside, is often used for publicity. It’s really made me think about the extent that anyone, as an artist/filmmaker, brands themselves or gives themselves over to an audience. Especially as a Black artist/filmmaker. What should you hold back?
Behind the soft-spoken voice there's a real tension in your words, underlined by the music. What came first: the text or the visuals? Or did you work on both alongside each other?
The text is what holds the film together and was written before shooting. The project had a limited amount of film. The direction for shooting was open but had strict guidelines as to the action I wanted to see within the shots. I start by writing a lot and then cutting it down to the bare bones. The writing happens because of a frustration, or because there’s something I don’t quite understand. It’s a sort of poetic, automatic process that gets refined over subsequent edits. Carnival is always vying for your attention and grabbing your senses, so the calm voice is there to unsettle, a way to attract attention through its contrast. So I hope the text comes through as urgent but measured at the same time.
"The writing happens because of a frustration, or because there’s something I don’t quite understand. It’s a sort of poetic, automatic process that gets refined over subsequent edits."
You used Super 16mm (then converted to digital). Why do you choose to work with celluloid? How do you think it impacts your work?
I’m interested in the way that analogue film forces you to engage with a subject. For carnival in particular, the grain of the film chimes with the textures of costumes. Analogue film, with its textures and imperfections, is a fitting medium to make work about the body. With only a little film because of its expense, I’m usually forced to make judgements early on about what’s important, what’s vital to the film. I think analogue bestows on the subject a certain value judgement. Often, I’ll use the light leaks in film, or develop it with alternative methods, anything to disrupt the image making process, to revive what usually gets excluded. There’s also some distance between shooting and editing, the results aren’t instantaneous like digital. I like this distance, the editing process is often formative of the film for me. Analogue film can also be quite social and often you need to rely on other people at some point in the process. That’s why I am involved with not/nowhere, an artist’s workers cooperative run primarily by people of colour. not/nowhere teaches people about analogue film, amongst other moving image practices.
"Analogue film, with its textures and imperfections, is a fitting medium to make work about the body."
In the film you explain you're doubly invisible: as a mixed-race person, and as a person of colour living in the countryside. Do you see your camera as a way to shift this power (im)balance?
I wouldn’t call myself invisible exactly but sometimes struggling to see my experiences reflected in images. Growing up in a very rural area in the 1990s I didn’t get to engage with many other people of colour. Yet within my immediate family lots of aspects of Bahamian culture were lived out in that countryside setting. How do you reconcile carnival with rolling Yorkshire hills? To me it’s lived! I’m aware that the image seems peculiar or absurd to others because it’s an image that’s not often shown. I’d argue that there’s no shorthand for Black bodies in the countryside in the way that there is for Black ‘urban’ bodies.
"I was frustrated by a feeling that there are certain popular but uncritical works which take advantage of the currency that Black culture currently holds, a sort of capital of cool which can do more harm stereotyping than good."
"At one point the good guys and the bad guys weren't so separate": this powerful sentence stresses the ambiguity of the colonial heritage. Your film, in both form and content, seems to embrace ambiguity and paradoxes, and celebrates our right to find our identity within this complexity.
Yes! Where I make bold statements in the film, I like to destabilise them. This to me, is a healthy way to approach questions concerning identity. It leaves the door open for change. I think Stuart Hall writes most comprehensively on race as a ‘floating signifier,’ especially coming to Britain from the Caribbean. It has been suggested to me that being mixed-race is a personal journey. That’s true but it’s not only personal. Mixed-race people can exist in community. My perspective is such that I just can’t take statements that start with ‘Black is…’ or ‘white is…’ at face value because my body is inscribed with this ambiguity. Interracial relationships shouldn’t be sensationalised. At the same time, I wanted to be absolutely clear, I was frustrated by a feeling that there are certain popular but uncritical works which take advantage of the currency that Black culture currently holds, a sort of capital of cool which can do more harm stereotyping than good.