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.
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.
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.
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.