We talked to British-Jamaican filmmaker Cecile Emeke about her thoughtful web series, which shines a light on the lives of black people everywhere.
A one-time math student and athlete, Cecile Emeke dropped out of university to pursue a career as an artist and filmmaker. Since then, the North London-based 23-year-old British-Jamaican has amassed an impressive and prolific creative portfolio. Her work attracts a passionate online following, who respond enthusiastically to her commitment in telling stories traditionally outside the mainstream—specifically stories centered on the experiences of young black women. Her brilliant observational sitcom Ackee and Saltfish follows two best friends, Olivia and Rachel, as they wander around East London in search of the eponymous Jamaican dish (for those unfamiliar, ackee is a nutty fruit related to the lychee). Fake Deep features six actresses reciting an evocative poem, written by Emeke, about socially conditioned misogyny and its effects; Lines, meanwhile, is a captivating short in which a series of young women share their personal interpretations of the lyrics to their favorite songs.
Yet arguably Emeke's most impressive achievement is her ongoing web series Strolling, a discrete string of beautifully shot documentary shorts dedicated to illuminating the diverse yet frequently connected experiences of the international black diaspora. Alongside England, Emeke has filmed in France (Flâner), Holland (Wandelen), and Italy (Passegiando). Each episode is dedicated to one young person, who speaks openly and critically on a variety of issues, from feminism, sexuality, and race to philosophy, art, and capitalism. Emeke, an unobtrusive presence, lets her subjects speak at length, but these are no talking-head exercises: The films have an immediately identifiable, idiosyncratic style characterized by slinky editing, subtly lilting musical cues, and razor-sharp sound design.
Last week, Emeke released her debut American episode of Strolling. Its subject, Gabby, speaks on a variety of issues, including the ambiguous effects of the global hyper-visibility of black American culture ("It has become so commodified that it's become the norm," she observes). She also speaks on the complexities of biracial identity and the growing embrace of minimalism in black culture via the example of Soulja Boy's skeletal beats. Like each episode of Strolling, it functions as both a refreshing fountain of personal expression and a further layer of connective tissue in Emeke's ambitious diasporic project. Earlier this month, I spoke to the artist about how Strolling came about, and the crucial importance she places on the accessibility of her work, among other things.
VICE: What was your inspiration for Strolling?
Cecile Emeke: Some people don't have the privilege that I have, to live in London, where there's a lot of black people around me. I've been lucky to have powerful, transformative conversations about so many subjects. But I remember it wasn't always like that for me. Strolling started off with the very simple thing of realizing that I'd love to be able to capture these conversations and share them for other people. I thought, Let me just create it, and as I started, it grew organically.
I thought, Oh, it would be great to connect with people all over the world—people in Paris, Lisbon, Moscow, or in New York. The black diaspora is everywhere, and there's so much I don't know about other people that I'd love to know. I want as many black people as possible, of all different backgrounds, to be aware of these stories. I think seeing Strolling once will change how you view what it means to be black, just seeing that one episode of black girls in Italy, or seeing one black boy in Paris, and to share in his experiences.
Something I find exciting about Strolling is the element of cultural preservation. This documentation is going to be there for future generations. In many cases in the black diaspora, we are not given our history, we've had to go and find it. For example, my Jamaican grandmother passed away recently, and she took so many secrets and stories with her...
I'm 23 now, and I have no idea what a 23-year-old black woman in the 1980s or the 1960s or the 1940s was thinking about; I don't know those kinds of inner thoughts, or the very mundane moments—I have no idea about these things to the point that it was like they didn't happen; it wasn't real. Strolling is amazing for me because it's great to know that while future generations might not know everything, here's one person, for ten minutes, talking about what they were thinking, what they were going through, how they felt, in 2015. That's really important.
A lot of the key artistic work that deals with the black diasporic experience, by the likes of Ceddo and Black Audio Film Collective, is quite hard to access. And thinkers in the field, like Paul Gilroy and the late, great Stuart Hall, have produced dense, academic work. You've spoken in the past about wanting to bridge the gap between the academia and regular viewers.
I don't like the fact that most black people have to earn the right to access and understand this information; to find a place within a white, academic, elite institution and seek it out—it should be commonplace. When I first discovered different black artists and thinkers at university, I couldn't help but feel a pang of resentment and pain, alongside the the joy of discovering this great work, because I was confused and frustrated about why I was only now being introduced to them—I wondered how my life would have been different if they'd been introduced to me earlier. I don't think it 's necessarily the fault of these people that their work is largely inaccessible, but there's a wider conversation to have in regards to that. I didn't want Strolling to be something you discover for the first time when you're 19, studying at university. The best feeling is when a young, random schoolchild comes up to me in their uniform and tells me they've seen it and love it.
"Thinking of the online space as a format is important for someone like myself—a black woman."
How important is the online aspect of your work, the availability?
I think, to some people in film circles, the online space devalues the work. But that comes from an ahistorical understanding of film in a wider context. What does it mean when we devalue film in the online space, when the industry of film is largely set up to only support, distribute, and serve whiteness? The offline space involves going through layers of bureaucracy that are steeped in the traditional hierarchies of any institution (whiteness, patriarchy, capitalism, ableism, etc.), or having huge amounts of money at your disposal. I think this is where white privilege comes into the conversation: Your average white filmmaker doesn't have to think about any of these things. Their culture is preserved, accessible, and almost omnipresent. White filmmakers, artists, writers, etc., don't have the moral dilemma of either doing what's "best" for the work or what's "best" for their culture. I know not all black filmmakers will operate with these things in mind. But thinking of the online space as a format is important for someone like myself—a black woman.
Strolling isn't just a film series for many people in the black diaspora—it's more than that. For me to go down traditional routes with the concept, while gaining more prestige in the film space, would have meant withholding basic access to information from people about their own culture. The online space completely breaks that down, because all you need is internet access: Strolling might pop up on your news feed, someone might send it to you, or you might read an article about it.
You have an incredible communion with your viewers in the online space. The comments sections on YouTube, for example, are an integral part of the experience—productive and cathartic.
Some of the feedback and comments I get are overwhelming—from people who feel like they've never been affirmed in the way that they have through the series, or they never knew so many people out there thought like them. It's bigger than me, I think, because the conversation carries on after I'm not there, whether it's in the comments, on social media, or whether it's people meeting up after an episode. I don't think you need a face or a leader for any kind of movement, so that it has this effect is really powerful.
Can you discuss the process of working with your subjects?
I'm quite an easygoing, regular person, so I think one reason that people are so open is to do with who's behind the camera. I just work with whoever the person is: Some have loads to say, so we'll get the camera rolling and have a back-and-forth conversation. Sometimes, people want to do it, but they are a little bit more shy, and they haven't been around a camera before. So, you just take it slow and eventually build it up. I think the best way to film a conversation is to have a genuine chat like you would in real life, which isn't a film set—there are no cuts. Often, the conversation might be six hours long, but the episode's only nine minutes long.
Strolling is a collaborative process with your subjects, but you also bring a distinct visual style to it. Can you talk about that?
I threw out the conventions of documentary filmmaking, which often, though not all the time, is quite objective, with a clear narrative, and clean-cut shots. I do everything handheld, with really intimate close-up shots: We see people's hands, ears, faces, and arms. I really try to focus on the person, their subjective, individual story. I think the universality [of Strolling], and the way it resonates with people, comes from the fact that the approach to each episode is very specific.
I'm interested in the idea of the different experiences you found with international blackness and what it means to different people. With that in mind, what was it like going to the US for that?
One of the things that comes across in Strolling is how much specific-to-Europe black European history is widely erased. Especially in schools, you don't really learn about it ever. However, you learn so much about African-American history, so that affects your views, your society, and the way you think about stuff. Also, I'd lived in America before I shot there: I did African-American studies classes when I was in university in Miami. So I knew much more about the American history and context than I did about, for example, Italy. I still learned a lot filming in America, but it was less, "This is brand new information," and more getting deeper into issues that people are already aware of.
A lot of people really want to see American episodes of the series, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing—it's just interesting. For some people, it kind of validates the series. I've had people in the industry say, "Oh, I love Strolling, but you really need to go to America. That's where you need to do it, that's what people care about." Which is really disheartening. I wanted to make Strolling because I think everyone's stories are equally important. Trying to have that conversation across the whole diaspora, America included, was what was missing, to me.
Episodes of Strolling arrive at a prolific rate, and you shoot quickly. Do you get exhausted doing it?
It is quite exhausting. My passion for it has carried me through so far, but I'm getting to that place where it is quite draining. Basically, you're shooting films with no money that other people shoot for $10–15,000. After doing that for so long, you realize why that money is so necessary. We rely a lot on donations. What makes it all worth it is connecting people around the world.
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Check out Strolling and more of Cecile's work at cecileemeke.com.