Searching for Another Cypher

Interview with Alia Syed
By Atif Ghani

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With Fatima's Letter's recent screening at this years Desh Pardesh [1993] cultural festival, and its previous selection as part of the 1992 New Direction in British Film and Video, Fatima's Letter stands as an example of an emerging British work which successfully weaves between existing experimental and black cultural conventions and extremely difficult fiscal conditions. On a budget of £250 [$500 Canadian], Alia has successfully crafted a dreamlike exploration into memory, identity, imagination and sexuality. The text which is spoken in Urdu, centres around the thoughts of an Asian women as she awaits an oncoming train.

I recently had a chance to talk with Alia. Aside from discussing issues of money, dreaming, the construction of images, and the 1980s Black aesthetic, we talked specifically about Fatima's Letter.

Atif: What was your initial inspiration for Fatima's Letter?

Alia: The original idea was quite simple; I wanted to make a film about looking at people, about how you can make assumptions about people without really knowing anything about them. Finding certain people attractive, fantasizing about them, wondering where they are coming from and where they are going to. Race is a very strong signifier as is gender. I wanted to incorporate all of these ideas into the film.

Atif: How did you conceptualize representing the issue of race?

Alia: Initially I was going to explore issues of race without mentioning race itself. What usually happens when you are reading a piece of text is this: "She had long hair, she wore a flowery dress, and she was smiling" but you haven't mentioned race, however you automatically assume she is white because race hasn't been mentioned. This process allows white people to become neutral, it plays into ideas of objectivity and rationality. You have the neutrality of white western thought, as opposed to the subjectivity of 'other' forms of thought. But I found this process to clinical so I searched for another cypher that would represent otherness. Eventually I develop a female character: the film became a document of what she see's as her journey. The narrative takes the form of a letter to her friend Fatima and is spoken in Urdu. Through this it is implied that the woman is from Pakistan or India it doesn't matter which, her background is clearly Muslim. Language and the process of translation become the main metaphor for otherness.

Atif: I think that Fatima's Letter is particularly successful in not taking on the 'burden of representation' in being an 'Asian film' or being a 'woman's film.' Rather really going beyond those categorical limits and thereby critiquing their closed or essentialist assumptions. Upon reflection, was that juggling between both attempts by others at categorization and past representations of blackness a tricky process in making Fatima's Letter?

Alia: Rather than providing answers I was more interested in questioning how we see ourselves in relation to categories of race and gender. The element of disguise, playing around with stereotypes, using 'dress' to say important things such as, 'Not all women are women and not all sailors are sailors Some of them are just pretending.' The film continually attempts to question our assumptions and how we define ourselves and others. This process was tricky. It was a challenge.

Atif: Your film was clearly within a certain Avant-Garde, Experimental Tradition of British cinema. And in some ways because of its genre, it will be seen by particular types of audiences. As an example, Fatima's Letter was shown at this years Desh Pardesh cultural festival. Although I was not in attendance, I am assuming that there was a higher percentage of members of the audience of Asian background, as opposed to somewhere like the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London where the audience was predominantly white. What is your sense of the different forms of reading of your work depending on the context within which it is screened?

Alia: I think my film can work on many different levels but it is geared towards building a dialogue with other Asian people, particularly other Asian women. I think that the issues are particularly pertinent to Asians.

Atif: What about the fact that it will be consumed by a white audience?

Alia: Yes I am aware that it will be consumed by a white audience. But I don't think the film is only about issues of race, it is also about film as film. A lot of people appreciate the aesthetics of the film regardless of their background; it's structure, the composition of the shots, etc. I am interested in the formal aspects of filmmaking as I am in the issues of representation. I think there is a very close relationship between the two.

I think that the film is problematic in many ways. For instance, the idea of a women not looking at anyone is quite a stereotypical image. The idea actually came from my own experience. I find myself staring at people. On the whole, people do not like to be stared at, so you develop ways of looking without looking directly, like looking at people's reflections. I didn't want to portray a 'strong women.' I have problems with the concept of strength. We all have our weaknesses and strengths. The idea of the strong women, the feminists, the radical women within essentialised western discourse in a way discards everything that is Asian, or at least the relationship between the two is very complex. I wanted to show how women can negotiate a space in which they can be themselves within an Asian culture. There are many different kinds of strengths, not all exist within a western discourse.

Some people just get off on the exoticism of the film. They have already constructed a reading before watching. However I do play with the idea of exoticism within the actual story. I draw a parallel of how the sailors attempt to consume the sweets/women and how the text is read. The 'women' suffocate the sailors to death as they entice the sailors. I do the same with how I reveal the text.

Atif: The dominant illusion or metaphor which I responded to in Fatima's Letter was that of translation. In that the process of translation allows us a partial understanding, but we can never gain full meaning. In that moving between cultures is at once difficult and simultaneously creates a very exciting space because it is undefined and unstructured. I really enjoyed how you played with English subtitles.

Alia: An integral part of the whole process was that the reading would be disjointed. You would be prevented from reading a certain segment and because of the camera movements, how the text was placed in relation to the image underneath. People who have no knowledge of Urdu would be prevented from reading a certain section until I, the film maker choose to reveal that section. It's culturally specific, in a way. I think that the idea of understanding simply because something has been 'translated' is problematic.

Atif: That is interesting because you are then using that power as a filmmaker in controlling the film gaze, which in the past has been used as a sign of displacement. But in this situation you have taken the traditional marginal perspective, and subverted the powerlessness of the margin into a power. The power is in the form of knowledge, and control in the accessing of this knowledge.

Alia: Yeah, I think that there is a power in marginality. I find that it is an interesting space to occupy. It is a lot more challenging because you are aware of and have a number of insights into both cultures.

Atif: You repeat the same images and sounds within the text over and over. The layering of the images, the voiceover, the English translation, and the background sounds which are not in sync provide the viewer with a real material awareness of the camera in constructing a particular series of images and emotional responses. Aesthetically, I found watching Fatima's Letter a very rich sensual experience. Was this use of layering through repetition something which you felt comfortable in utilizing?

Alia: I often use repetition, I think that it's quite a standard experimental technique. In Fatima's Letter, because information is being given out slowly through time it allowed me to play with the idea of creating characters and identifying somebody as belonging to somewhere. So for me the use of repetition is political. Because you are given a certain amount of information, or you have been given no information, you are constantly put in a situation where you have to reassess how you are reading, what you are seeing.

Atif: I see your work as part of a second generation of Asian and Black cultural production. What do you make of your work being viewed in this manner?

Alia: Do you mean being defined as part of a movement?

Atif: Yes, the newness of this movement stemming from the structural changes to the material condition of making films in Britain today, as well as the move away from what I term the 'cult of the victim' in which being displaced/marginal/de-centred immediately assumes a sense of victimization. What I sense from this (second generation) movement is a more self-reflexive type of awareness of the issue of identity, and an overt challenge to the attempts at categorizing these works.

Alia: To see things which are similar in Black and Asian work, say the representation of the subject, I don't know to what extent it is useful to have (these categories) hoisted upon you. I think that it can be disempowering.

Having to make your work fit into a certain category, be it to have some sort of credence with the 'community' or the funding bodies so that it can fit into the current definition of 'marginal,' is not always very useful; it can be limiting.

Yet, I don't want not to be thought of as part of a movement. It is very important to have those parameters drawn up if only to break them. The broadly based Black film movement of the 1980s drew up certain parameters, and I think that it is important to begin redrawing these parameters. But the problem is that there is no presently emerging discussion surrounding any experimental work.


  1. "There is no money in Britain. To say there is no money, well okay you can do things without money. But it's not just a question of money. It is a question of importance and validation or valuing of cultural production be it video, film, painting, sculpture, whatever." (Alia Syed)
  2. "I dream a lot, and certain things will trigger certain responses. With no concrete reasons, like something very subtle, like how somebody would walk, how they might look back, and it will just take me back somewhere. How the shadows and sounds will take you back. Smell for me is a real trigger. Sometimes I will smell something and I will just be taken somewhere, although I won't know where I have been taken back to, it has taken me somewhere. You can't grasp it. It is always beyond your grasp. Just watching things, remembering things and placing things and how things become familiar." (Alia Syed)
  3. "I have always been interested in interweaving images, particularly very disparate images together to construct something new." (Alia Syed)
  4. "[People] may be very critical of the work of filmmakers such as Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah. But at the same time, those films such as Testimony and Territories created an idea of a black aesthetic, which is really important. Whether you are going to use that aesthetic or work against it, at least there is a point from which to work from." (Alia Syed)
Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Atif Ghani
Atif Ghani is an Edmontonian, living and playing in London.
Alia Syed
Alia Syed is a British experimental filmmaker and artist.
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