Still from The Name I Call Myself

Rhea Dillon’s film is look­ing at soci­etal issues from within

The Name I Call Myself is the latest film by the 23-year-old artist asking the big questions.

While still a stu­dent at Cen­tral Saint Mar­tins, film­mak­er and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Rhea Dil­lon has already carved quite the rep­u­ta­tion for her work cov­er­ing issues from queer cul­ture and black­ness with­in west­ern soci­ety to beau­ty ideals and female empow­er­ment. A mem­ber of female col­lec­tive BBZ (Bold Brazen Zamis), Dillon’s films, includ­ing Black Angel and Process, often holds heavy weight – she her­self being a queer Black British woman mak­ing work amidst high polit­i­cal ten­sions and dai­ly diver­si­ty bat­tles. But while it’s easy for us to cri­tique the world-at-large, we often for­get to look at the issues with­in our own communities.

I thought about that phrase before you leave your house, sort out what’s going on at home’”, men­tioned Rhea while dis­cussing the process for her lat­est short film The Name I Call Myself, adding I would think about how the black com­mu­ni­ty actu­al­ly has issues with­in our com­mu­ni­ty as opposed to always think­ing about how soci­ety does us wrong”. The nar­ra­tive, then, was born – a split-screen film delv­ing into the issues with­in her own com­mu­ni­ty – the, at times, shun­ning of LGBTQ+, colourism, and dad­dy issues”, as she notes. The film offers the view­er an inti­mate look into the every­day lives of diverse mem­bers of the black com­mu­ni­ty as they are, total­ly raw and unfil­tered – a les­bian cou­ple, drag king and non-gen­dered par­ent and child co-exist in a soci­ety attempt­ing to erase them, while backed by a sound­track includ­ing Ms. Car­rie Stacks’ cov­er of Sug­ababes’ Run For Cov­er and the spo­ken words of Audre Lorde. 

Nat­u­ral­ly, the artist decid­ed to hone in on Black Britain where, as Rhea sug­gests, there are sim­ply not enough ref­er­ences. Black­ness is often so sin­gu­lar­ly told through African-Amer­i­can eyes. Even peo­ple I look up to some­times refer to African-Amer­i­cans and black­ness and they align the two togeth­er as if there’s noth­ing out­side of that” – this film chal­lenges that; it is Britain through the lens of a young Black British woman; about the com­mu­ni­ty, for the com­mu­ni­ty, drawn from influ­ences such as W.E.B du Bois, John Akom­frah and Sonia Boyce. 

Stripped back and shot doc­u­men­tary-style, the film will be shown tonight in an inti­mate pri­vate view where the exhi­bi­tion space will be accom­pa­nied by the scent of Bal D’Afrique from Byre­do offer­ing a mul­ti-sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence with the per­fume fus­ing ele­ments of Africa and Europe – Rhea’s nod to the African diaspora.

We spoke to Rhea about The Name I Call Myself – the process, mean­ing and influ­ences behind her lat­est film.

Still from The Name I Call Myself

What is the film and instal­la­tion about?

The film and the instal­la­tion is pre­dom­i­nate­ly about black and black queer Britain and the exis­tence of how queer­ness is like an own­er­ship of those two in a space. The title being The Name I Call Myself is very much reflec­tive one­self. When you’re star­ing in the face of soci­ety right now, queer­ness isn’t as respect­ed in Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties. We’re very much in a bub­ble where it feels hap­py and excit­ing, but real­is­ti­cal­ly it’s still not at the point it needs to be. For me, it’s very much about being true to your­self, tak­ing own­er­ship of your­self and not being afraid to be who you are – that’s The Name I Call Myself.

What was the rea­son for you telling this narrative?

I got to a point where I was think­ing about the treat­ment of black peo­ple in soci­ety, but then I thought about that phrase before you leave your house, sort out what’s going on at home’. I would think about how the black com­mu­ni­ty actu­al­ly has issues with­in our com­mu­ni­ty as opposed to always think­ing about how soci­ety does us wrong. That then got encap­su­lat­ed in three head­ings; one was dad­dy issues – the stereo­type of the black male not stay­ing with their chil­dren. Sec­ond­ly is colourism – the issue of bleach­ing and mixed girls being cool­er or pret­ti­er than dark skinned girls. Last­ly, I encap­su­lat­ed a zami which is the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty and how it’s at times shunned from the black com­mu­ni­ty. I decid­ed I want­ed to focus on these in some way at least in my next few projects – for this, I honed into zami – the LGBTQ+ side. I feel you can’t talk about the black com­mu­ni­ty and not talk about colourism, so col­orism comes into play as well.

How would you like an out­sider to inter­pret this film? 

I coined a term – Humane Afro­fu­tur­ism. When you go back to the core def­i­n­i­tion of Afro­fu­tur­ism, it’s about the advance­ment of black peo­ple in soci­ety and then the added-in sci­ence fic­tion. I want­ed to strip back the sci­ence fic­tion part and go back to the advance­ment; the lev­el­ling and the respect­ing of black peo­ple amongst white peo­ple in soci­ety as being the greater’ race. When I make work it’s often to refract what hap­pens already. With our hair, for exam­ple, the future for black peo­ple should very much be a respect of our hair and us not being polit­i­cal­ly aligned every time we style it. I often describe afro hair as a crown on people’s heads and I think over time that crown becomes very heavy due to all the pol­i­tics that is ingrained in our hair. I have a lot of chil­dren in my films because peo­ple respond the most to chil­dren and under­stand the effect it will have on their whole future. It’s impor­tant to try and change how we are to help them have a bet­ter future, by reflect­ing on the com­mu­ni­ty that we have and also show­ing that it’s noth­ing dif­fer­ent to your own life. 

There’s a lot of weight on black women – they are very much Atlas in Greek mythology”

What were some of the chal­lenges dur­ing this process? 

It’s def­i­nite­ly the hard­est project I’ve done. Black Angel was made in LA – I didn’t know any­one and I’d nev­er been there before, so if peo­ple were like I can’t do it’, it was fine because I didn’t know them! Also, the process was sup­port­ed by Now­ness so I had a pro­duc­er – for this film I pro­duced and cast it myself. I have an under­stand­ing and a respect for people’s men­tal health in terms of their capac­i­ty and what they could do that week or the time of day. When it comes to film it’s almost always major­i­ty white guys who are involved because that’s just how the film indus­try is. I’d ask every­one to use they/​them pro­nouns, or just say the name to save your­self from offend­ing any­one – this is all so new. All these dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties of dif­fer­ent peo­ple that they’ve cho­sen for them­selves, I’m not expect­ing them to instant­ly know that but I’m just try­ing to give them a bridge to respect that and so we’re just going to go with they/​them on set today. 

How did you go about casting?

I tried to cast not just from Black Lon­don, but from the Black British com­mu­ni­ty. For exam­ple, Leo, who is at the end of the film, is from Leeds – I want­ed to make it from a Black British per­spec­tive as much as my bud­get could allow and to rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent parts or areas of the com­mu­ni­ty with­out try­ing to tick a box, where it then becomes tokenistic. 

Why did you use film and not photography?

I love both, but film for me is a space where you can real­ly chan­nel a sto­ry and take a pause from life. One of the rea­sons for the split screen was W.E.B. Du Bois’ idea of dou­ble con­scious­ness – but there’s anoth­er rea­son. A sta­tis­tic came out last year that we now only look at a min­i­mum of two screens when we’re out and about, so you’re on your phone while you’re watch­ing a film – for a direc­tor, that’s a night­mare. I decid­ed to take these two screens that the view­er can focus on, so then you don’t have to be look­ing at some­thing else – that’s the tongue-in-cheek, cheeky ver­sion of why there are two screens. I think we need that, though – one of the rea­sons I love film is because it gives you that time to pause and to delve into anoth­er person’s world and I think it’s the only medi­um where you are ful­ly con­nect­ed for a peri­od of time – you’re locked in and hav­ing a break from the world. I think we real­ly need it, espe­cial­ly now. 

Still from The Name I Call Myself

What were some of your influ­ences for this film? 

Black­ness is often so sin­gu­lar­ly told through African-Amer­i­can eyes. Even peo­ple I look up to some­times refer to African-Amer­i­cans and black­ness and they align the two togeth­er as if there’s noth­ing out­side of that. Being part of the West­ern world and being black and British, I think as much as we are small­er than Amer­i­ca, we def­i­nite­ly have as much to say. I asked a few of my friends what comes to mind when they think of Black British cin­e­ma and they either couldn’t think of any­thing, or they came up with Kidult­hood, which I think is an impor­tant film, but at the same time it’s sad to have only one ref­er­ence and for it to be a gang-affil­i­at­ed film about black­ness. I want­ed to have some­thing that was sit­u­at­ed in Britain and, as a result of that, I want­ed to look at black British artists and cre­atives. I even­tu­al­ly found this amaz­ing book by Van­ley Burke – he had doc­u­ment­ed a lot of Black Britain up in the North, pre­dom­i­nant­ly Liv­er­pool when Win­drush came in 1948 – his pho­tos are beau­ti­ful. John Akom­frah and the Black Audio Col­lec­tive are major. I love art and I guess that’s why despite study­ing fash­ion I want­ed to move into art – I love instal­la­tions and expe­ri­ences. Also, Liz John­son Artur who I was lucky enough to have my first exhi­bi­tion with, and also Sonia Boyce. 

How have your expe­ri­ences of being a black woman shaped your out­look on Britain as a society?

I always remem­ber read­ing the famous Mal­colm X speech on Amer­i­ca, but specif­i­cal­ly the line where he says the most hat­ed per­son in Amer­i­ca is the black woman’. The most hat­ed’ res­onat­ed with me a lot. He said this back in the day, but it’s still very much reflect­ed today. Being in Britain and being in the Brex­it peri­od, it’s almost like everyone’s up in the air right now – not just specif­i­cal­ly black peo­ple. We’ve always been up there – you can join us in feel­ing dis­placed [laughs]. Being a black woman, it’s hard any­where in the West­ern sphere. There’s a lot of weight on black women – they are very much Atlas in Greek mythol­o­gy; hold­ing up the world and often the last to be remem­bered or thanked. 

If there is one state­ment the view­er should take away after watch­ing this film, what would you like it to be?

I guess that we’re alright. And not that we’re alright to talk to, but that we’re alright. 

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