What follows is an edited version of a conversation between Amir Muhammad and Julian Ross & Maryam Tafakory, first published in Issue 3 of the magazine (pp.112–115).
CHECKING OUT AND LOOKING IN
Amir Muhammad: I just saw your short film, Maryam, I was Five When I Became a Woman.
Maryam Tafakory: Oh, God. That’s the first film I made!
AM: I noticed that narration is in English…
MT: It is.
AM: I also saw an extract of another film of yours, Taklif, which I think is in Persian, is it?
MT: Language in film interests me and ways you decide to work with a language that isn’t your mother tongue, whether you use or abuse it for a particular purpose. I didn’t know what I was doing with words when I started making films but gradually I started manipulating the texts in ways to work with or against the narrative thread. You have to decide whether or not translation or the lack thereof becomes part of your methodology and a cinematic device. But of course, you are constantly in this state of being in between two languages, always in translation.
AM: My issue is dedicated to “Fiction.” So I have an anecdote about a fiction writer: I once interviewed an English writer who was my favorite novelist at that time, Martin Amis. And I asked him, “Who do you write for?” His answer was quite simple and profound: “I write for a younger version of myself.” So your issue will be about filmmakers from Asia living in the West?
Julian Ross: It’s not just filmmakers from Asia living in the West. We’re going to also look at some intra-regional migration as well, people who live in one part of Asia moving into another.
AM: So people who are working in a different realm or a different context from where they came from?
JR: Yeah… the issue will be called “In & Out.” And it’s a title actually inspired by and exhibition called “In & Out of Amsterdam” that took place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art a few years ago. It focused on American artists in the 1970s who were working with conceptual art. Amsterdam became one of their homes during the 70s. And this whole exhibition was thinking about this process of traveling, having multiple homes, and how that influenced their work. I saw the exhibition catalogue in the public library when I just moved to Amsterdam from Tokyo and it became one of my entry points into the city. I’m half Japanese and half British. I was born in the UK, grew up in Japan, and now I live in the Netherlands.
MT: And I’m half Iranian half British, grew up in Iran and moved to London ten years ago.
JR: So in that sense our experiences involve the movement from Asia to the West. Still, what we want to do is dismantle this binary structure of the East and the West and think about other modes of traveling. Although we haven’t completed our list of filmmakers and curators who we’ll get in touch with, I hope that the people who we invite and their experiences will mark different experiences of migration that involves Asia in some sort of way.
AM: Okay. So who are some of the filmmakers you’re thinking of?
JR: We don’t want to be too specific in case they don’t end up in the issue. But we could share some ideas we’ve had…
MT: We’ve discussed postcards or email correspondents between contributors. We’re thinking about a magazine form that could reflect being “in transit.” We’re also considering how much of the content will be image-led rather than textual. And we’re discussing translation as well, which I think will inevitably form a part of this issue… similar to what I said to you Amir about the use of language in my early films. We might ask some of our contributors to submit a text that they wrote in their own language and not in the language that they had to adopt when they moved. We don’t know if we’ll translate these texts, it depends on the kind of texts we receive.
JR: We’ve also discussed the translator as a character in films. The film Lilting (2014), by a Cambodian director who lives in the UK called Hong Khaou, features an interpreter as a character who becomes a bridge of communication between a young British man and the Chinese mother of his boyfriend. The boyfriend has died in an accident and the mother is still unaware of their relationship. The interpreter, a young British-Chinese woman, doesn’t just interpret but she also guides the conversation, as she’s more knowledgeable on cultural differences, but also because she’s less emotionally invested, at least in the beginning. She becomes a surrogate for us in a way… Also, I was watching Okja just yesterday, and there are great jokes involving a Korean-American interpreter in the film who ends up tattooing “Translations are sacred” on his arm after being called out on deliberately mistranslating.
AM: Are there films that are somehow emblematic or suggestive of this whole idea of moving in and out?
JR: Well… there was Filipino filmmaker in the 1960s in New York who hung out with Jonas Mekas and people, called Henry Francia, whose work I saw at the Orphan Film Symposium in Amsterdam. At the LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Image in London in 2012, Shanay Jhaveri presented a nice programme called “Questions of Travel” mainly in relation to India.
AM: Speaking of “In and Out” and India… I remember watching the Mohsen Makhmalbaf film Scream of the Ants (2006). I saw it in India and I remember at the end some people booed… well, the filmmaker wasn’t there so it wasn’t a big newsworthy thing. I remember thinking the whole film felt very obviously made by a foreigner, which is not in itself an issue. But it sought to explain India in a reductive way. Because I remember in an early scene, this middle-class Iranian couple is traveling in a taxi or something and she is taking pretty photographs. Then the man takes the camera away from her and says something like: “I will show you the real India.” And he takes picture of slums and miserable-looking people. It was one of the most patronizing pieces of shit I had ever seen.
MT: (laughs) I guiltily haven’t seen Scream of the Ants yet. Makhmalbaf has made many films outside Iran. When his political views made it difficult for him to work in his home country and most of his films banned, he left Iran. He has made films in Iraq, Tajikistan and India… Both his daughters and his wife make films and the whole family have made several films on womanhood which is why I have been writing on some of those films for my PhD. It’d be great if we could include a dialogue with him, his wife and daughters. Also, Julian and I were thinking that the previous issues were quite male-centered, so we thought we’d attempt to change that.
AM: That’s great. Yes, I love A Moment of Innocence, that’s one of my favorite films.
JR: Yeah, it’s an amazing film.
AM: But what about films that are co-produced by many different countries so they have to appeal to different audiences? Obviously, this is talking about a more commercial type of film but there are examples like Invisible Waves by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Do you remember that one? It was kind of an attempt to make a pan-Asian film. Do you think you would address something like that?
MT: So far looking at the list of our potential contributors, they are mostly non-commercial, but this may change of course. It’s not something we’ve discussed yet.
JR: We’ve also been inspired by Hamid Naficy’s book Accented Cinema. While many people have been critical of this, Naficy’s idea of “accented cinema” places the director as the main subject of film. He traces together all these films by people who migrated to another place and suggests that there’s a common style between their works. What ties all these different directors — from Jonas Mekas, to the Black Audio Film Collective, to Chantal Akerman — is that they, or their ancestors, moved from what they once called home to another home. So his book is about how their shared experience of migration is reflected in their film style and the themes they cover. So our way of thinking through this is tied to the director or the artist and her/his experience of migration, a departure from what they once called home.
AM: There isn’t much the other way around though, of people from a Western nation who go and settle in an Asian context, because of the way capital works.
JR: It’s definitely something we should address, but counterexamples do exist. There’s the Dutch filmmaker David Verbeek who has made films in China, but I don’t think he lives there anymore. For us, it’s important the filmmaker lives in another place, rather than just traveling there, so the films aren’t really travelogues or ethnographic studies.
AM: There’s also Donald Richie because he used to make films. When I lived in Tokyo in 2004, he was one of the first people I met… at Starbucks in Ueno station. One of the first things he said was, “I have lived in Japan for 50 years. Every day I feel like a foreigner.” He didn’t say it in a sad way, it was just very matter of fact. I think Japan is one of those places, where if you don’t fit in, you kind of never fit in, but you accept that. You know? You take that and it can be quite bracing to know that you are always on the outside because just physically you look different — compared to this melting pot ideal of, like, New York, where everyone can fit in.
JR: I really like his short films. Maybe we’ll look into Donald Richie’s writing. We’re also thinking of inviting all our contributors to suggest a filmmaker or an artist who has written about their experiences of migration and maybe translate as part of the issue as well. We’ll see!