Film In Conversation
EPHRAIM ASILI with Ekrem Serdar
The fiction of historic time at once brightens us and wears us away […]
It even contaminates the present that we are left to embody.
Hollis Frampton, “Incisions in History/Segments of Eternity”
In seven years, the filmmaker Ephraim Asili has completed a remarkable cycle of five films regarding his own relationship with the greater African diaspora. These films—Forged Ways (2011), American Hunger (2013), Many Thousands Gone (2015), Kindah (2016), and Fluid Frontiers (2017)—document not only his travels across Brazil, Canada, Ethiopia, Ghana, Jamaica, and the United States, but also a personal search for the connections of cultures across space and time. American Hunger, for example, features images of a vandalized statue of Ghana’s first prime minister Kwame Nkrumah accompanied by recordings of his speeches in which he declares his hope for Ghana’s future. Asili cuts from this lost vision of accomplishment and idealism to a shot of a woman on the street in Ghana holding a mass-produced bag bearing Barack Obama’s face, bringing together the legacy of US imperialism and the complicated feelings that accompanied the first black president of the United States. With its observational 16mm cinematography and its precise use of sound and music, Asili’s work is critical and speculative, listening intently to the resonances of words and gestures that span centuries and oceans.
Fluid Frontiers, the final work in the series, took the filmmaker closer to home: Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, to investigate the contemporary landscapes of both these cities through the legacy of the Underground Railroad and the Black Arts Movement, as represented by the publications of Broadside Press. The film allows Asili to bring the regions tragic, vital history into its present. The film recently had its US premiere at the Projections program of the 2017 New York Film Festival.
Special thanks to Amanda Nowadly.
Ekrem Serdar (Rail): I’m wondering if we could start with you telling me a bit of your background.
Ephraim Asili: I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia—Roslyn, about fifteen minutes from the city limits. Both of my parents are African Americans from Pennsylvania. I started going to college near Erie but then dropped out and moved in with my father for a few months, after which we had a falling out, and I was living on and off the streets for a little bit. I would stay at a youth hostel sometimes, crash at different friends’ places. That went on for about a year, maybe a little under. After living on the streets I started getting involved with MOVE, who were very generous and understanding. They had a lot of very interesting information to share about family dynamics, how the system imposes these blocks where fathers and sons don’t get along, and why that works the way that does. They were very open with me about family and definitely filled that space. Then around the same time I ended up finding a more stable job at AmeriCorps. While on an AmeriCorps retreat, I met a woman who played in a hardcore band and was very punk and anarchist, and that was very attractive and appealing. We married, and I became very close to MOVE through her. I left AmeriCorps and started working in after-school centers until I had to get a full-time job as a landscaper.
Rail: Was it while you were involved with MOVE that you became interested in film?
Asili: There was a screening at the MOVE house of a rough cut of a documentary about the family, narrated by Howard Zinn [MOVE!, Ben Garry & Ryan McKenna, 2004]. The filmmakers had brought a rough cut of the film to show the family. I’d never seen a film as a rough cut. Two things happened there. First, I thought the rough cut was way more interesting in its loose, rough sort of way than the finished film. The other thing that happened was this film by these two guys who came and spent less than a year with the family, was suddenly getting all this national attention. I thought, wow, how much more effective this is than standing around handing out flyers! We were all very good at being organized and protesting, which is a very important skill, but no one studied creative writing or filmmaking. Or those that did didn’t treat it artistically. It was kind of a means to an end.
I realized that I really needed to learn a creative skill, and I was feeling kind of stifled by the activist work I had been doing. That was at 25. I had a total collapse of my marriage and entered film school at Temple University. I just couldn’t fight this urge anymore. It felt like it was eating me alive. I ended up moving to a different neighborhood, and, other than seeing my son, dropped everything other than film and music. I didn’t keep in contact with a lot of people. It was just kind of a one-track mind, and I kept that very intensively through Temple and, later, my grad studies at Bard College. I made a documentary with the Sun Ra Arkestra [Points on a Space Age, 2007] for my thesis project at Temple, and got introduced to experimental film at Bard. At Bard, Jeanne Liotta, who was one of my instructors, asked me if I had ever tried shooting with a Bolex. That old machine that’ll cost me hundreds of dollars in film costs? I was a real smart ass about it. She was like, alright, whatever, just throwing it out there. But the next year, I was doing all this work with my hands—sewing, drawing—and she convinced me to use a Bolex. Then suddenly I got obsessed, got a bunch of film, bought a plane ticket to Ethiopia, and shot my first 16mm film [Forged Ways, 2011].
Rail: Was that your first time traveling outside the States?
Asili: I had been to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Brazil, but nothing prepared me for what Ethiopia would be like. I went alone—no translator, no tour guide—and I was getting around with public transportation. As an African American you’re treated differently. For some there’s this connection, long-lost brother thing; for others it doesn’t matter, you’re just American. It shattered a lot of preconceptions, which I wanted to happen. I didn’t want to have this abstract connection, I wanted real knowledge. The culture, the history of Ethiopian royalty, and just being so far east—it was amazing. On the other hand, being approached by people on the street who are hustlers who want to go to the US, are looking for sponsorship, and me just coming there as an African American, and not necessarily having a lot to give people, there was a sense of, “you can’t just come here to hang out.”
When I went to Ghana to shoot American Hunger it was more familiar in the sense of what I expected Africa to be like. The culture had more overlap with places like Jamaica, New York, or Philly. There are a lot of languages spoken there, but the official language is English, so communication was a lot easier. However, physical appearance—there was no mistaking me for a Ghanaian. Some kids were like,“Look, a white American guy!” They were like, “You are not dark, so you must have white blood. You speak English, and have all these cultural markers.” But there was much more of an understanding of the transatlantic slave trade there too. I really loved my time in both places, and had so many genuine conversations about relationships between Africans and African Americans. I needed to have a more grounded sense of where I stand in the world, what it means to be African American—or black, for that matter—in relation to other ethnic groups, be they other black ethnic groups or not, and I think it’s all been very clarifying in many ways.
Rail: I think this idea of where you stand in the world might be a good moment for us to jump forward a bit to your latest film, Fluid Frontiers, which was shot in Windsor and Detroit, but also features all these people reading poems from Broadside Press, bringing the past into the present. How did you come across Broadside?
Asili: I had gone out to Detroit for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and while I was there it was the 50th anniversary of Broadside Press. I went back to New York and I was reading this book called The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s by James Smethurst. It’s a study of literary nationalism in the Black Arts Movement, and breaks down the movement by city. That’s when I read about Dudley Randall, the founder of Broadside Press. He was a librarian, and he saved $12 from every paycheck to invest into the press and distributed his books very inexpensively so people could have access to poetry. I was thinking more and more of the city of Detroit, and how this press might relate to people working in the factories, being on the line, keeping these beautiful books in their back pockets, maybe reading a poem or two on their lunch break. So a romantic or not so romantic idea around that. I started buying Broadside books online, and I realized how beautiful these books were, that you really did want to walk with them and have them with you.
Around that time I got an invitation from Media City Film Festival’s Mobile Frames residency program. I started to formulate this idea of kind of shooting portraits of the books themselves and also of local people, perhaps having people read the books out loud. It was a film focused on people reading this radical poetry around Windsor and Detroit.
I also wanted to problematize the way the Black Arts Movement is often oversimplified. I wanted to feature poems that were centered around faith, self-love, family dynamics, as opposed to anti-this anti-that. I also wanted to challenge myself. I’m reluctant to call myself a feminist—I don’t want to give myself credit where I don’t deserve any—but I wanted to take on the challenge of dealing with issues related to black women specifically. It comes up in my work, but is not always directly addressed; Broadside Press gave that opportunity. I was struck by how many women Broadside first published, like Audre Lorde and Sonia Sanchez, and I wanted to feature this part of Broadside’s legacy.
Rail: What was the process like of meeting and shooting the readers in the film?
Asili: I wanted some of the readers to be from Windsor and some from Detroit. Historically, the black people in that region are descendents of the Underground Railroad. So for me there was this legacy of the Underground Railroad manifesting itself in Broadside Press. [Media City Festival director] Oona Mosna connected me to the Sandwich First Baptist Church, which was a terminal point on the Underground Railroad. I’d ask people if they were interested in participating and if there was a good place they’d like to meet and film. Sometimes I would suggest a place, sometimes they would. I never gave them the poems beforehand. I had about 20 poems picked out, and when we met I’d ask if they’d be interested in reading this or that poem, wondering what they would get out of it. That was the process in Windsor. One great moment in Detroit was when I found some Broadside books at this bookstore. The clerk said “Wow, you’re buying all these Broadside Press books! I love Sonia Sanchez.” So I asked if she’d like to be a reader, and she asked me to come back during her lunch break the next day. She stepped out in front of the bookstore, read the Sonia Sanchez poem, and you can even see her work walkie talkie on her hip. That was one of those moments that I had in mind when i was making it—literally getting a worker to read this poem on their work break.
For me the piece isn’t about poets being articulate or being poets, but it’s about poetry interacting with people. For some of the poems, I wanted to get a sense of the reader searching for meaning in the poems, that they’re not necessarily convinced of what the poet is saying to them. In some poems the readers are getting a little frustrated, while in others their confidence grows along with the poem, or there are other emotional shifts. I told them that I don’t care how long it takes you to read the poem, just that you don’t stop no matter what. Even if you get a word wrong. This idea of people struggling or not struggling with language on camera. Visually, I was interested in creating an image of the people that is empowering when projected. I was thinking very much how that would look on a big screen, not looking down at an audience, but in a way that you can’t avoid them, and they’re in a position of power in relation to the gaze. Practically, it was important to me that the book be well-framed along with the face of the reader and the landscape. All three of those at once.
Rail: There’s also the recurring voiceover that we first hear over some black leader in the beginning of the film and that threads together both the cities and the film in general. How did this come about, and what is that recording?
Asili: I had gone to the Church on a Sunday, and they invited everyone in the church to a performance afterwards. So I go down, and this lady goes into a one-woman performance about Harriet Tubman freeing slaves from the south, poisoning her master, and all this intense stuff. And she’s really owning the performance. The reality of that church is, it has trap doors, slaves would hide there—she’s sharing this real history of this church. I left the service blown away. I grabbed a record by Margaret Walker a couple days later in Detroit, which had a track called “Harriet Tubman.” It was eerie how closely the performance inside the church resembled Margaret Walker’s reading.
The stories of the black settlers of Detroit don’t look the same without Harriet Tubman, so by making this maneuver in the film, it brings everything in the present. I wanted Harriet Tubman to be present in this future.
Rail: You mention that Fluid Frontiers is the last part of the African diaspora series. Now that you’ve completed it, how does it feel looking back?
Asili: There aren’t really too many moments of my life that aren’t on these films. Apartments that I’ve lived in, people that I’ve gotten to know, or don’t know anymore. Events I’ve gone to, and the travels I’ve taken—it’s all in there. I really tried to push myself to learn something new about making films with each one and not fall into a pattern. This set of five films represents a sort of culmination of intellectual and emotional pursuits. I don’t want to pretend to be more naïve than I am, but I feel like I’m learning from these five films, about myself in relation to the diaspora, about myself as a filmmaker, and what cinema means to me right now. By making the delineation between this body of work and what comes after, I can incorporate what I’ve learned into future works. When I first came up with the concept of the diaspora series, the idea was always for it to be one long film, but it came up at the tail end of grad school when I didn’t have money. I was able to shoot the film in Ethiopia with student loan money that I should’ve been using to pay bills. The idea that I could somehow shoot all these films from all these places, it seemed impossible—a small miracle if I were able to pull it off.