Esi Eshun talks to Five Years’ Esther Planas
about the background to her film, The Unbecoming.
- Could you tell us how the film came about? What were your starting points?
Thematically, the film had several starting points which seemed to coalesce in a fairly succinct way. Perhaps the two earliest strands relate to the discovery I made of the daughter of Olaudah Equiano, one of 18th century Britain’s foremost Abolitionists, also known as Gustavus Vassa. As a child, Equiano was kidnapped from what is now Nigeria and sold into slavery in America, and on arrival in Britain, he become a public figure after publishing his highly influential narrative detailing his experiences.
His daughter, Joanna Vassa, in contrast, is unknown and more or less undocumented, although a few facts about her - such as her marriage to and possible estrangement from a clergyman - have survived. So I began speculating about her, imagining her to be as fiercely articulate, determined and courageous a figure as her father had been, while also imagining how her life chances would inevitably have been constrained by her mixed race status, her gender and the immediate circumstances in which she’d lived.
I began wondering how it might be possible to memorialise a figure of whom almost no trace exists except a gravestone and some known associations with other people. I knew that Joanna Vassa had died in 1857, and in order to situate her life within some kind of wider historical context, I began to explore international events at the time, and came across the story of J Marion Sims, a hugely influential figure in American medicine, whose story is particularly pertinent to the present moment.
In America, J Marion Sims is known as the Father of Gynaecology. Until three years ago, his statue stood in Central Park in New York, opposite the New York Academy of Medicine. A plethora of literature has been published recently documenting the way in which he achieved preeminence - significantly, by experimenting on a number of slave women whose bodies were loaned to him by their owners. Their injuries, often incurred in childbirth, prevented them from working efficiently in the fields, so their owners, eager to continue making a profit from them, handed them over to Sims. In common with the widespread assumption at the time - one that, clearly, still exerts an influence today - Sims believed that Black people’s ability to feel pain was dramatically lower than that of other peoples, and so he felt compelled to experiment on the women without the use of anaesthetic, which is something I touch on in the film. Interestingly, in 2018, Sims’ statue was the only one that the New York’s Mayor’s office deemed problematic enough to be removed from its stand, instead, authorising it to be relocated to a graveyard and replaced by a new statue.
So these were the two main starting points, but I folded them into a narrative set during WWI, which allowed greater exploration of the theme of eugenics running throughout the film.
- Tell us more about the role of eugenics in the narrative.
Eugenics was an idea birthed in Britain in the late 19th Century by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. It’s best known today as the basis for ideas which culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust. It is effectively the foundation for scientific racism and it gave credence to many policies centred around filtering and cauterising so-called undesirable elements from society. One of the earliest eugenics policies in Britain was the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which legitimised the institutionalisation of people deemed mentally and morally unfit. So you had people considered to have learning disabilities confined alongside others whose lifestyles simply diverged from the norm - a category that disproportionately affected working class women. These groups would be locked up, sometimes indefinitely, in a complex of buildings known as colonies, ostensibly for their own and for society’s protection, but also in order to prevent them from, among other things, passing on their hereditary traits to any offspring.
Eugenicist ideas were extremely influential in Britain and around the world and were considered by many to be a mark of progressive thinking. For example, there are visual references in the film to socialist philosopher Bertrand Russell’s idea of giving out colour coded cards as indicators of intelligence so that only people with the same type of card could marry each other. I think he borrowed the idea from Plato.
Anyway, eugenics as a system of ideas is evidently considered beyond the pale these days, and yet you can see its legacy everywhere. Among Galton’s talents, he was also a pioneer in the field of statistics, as well as in meteorology, and he was central in the introduction of finger printing in crime detection. He set up a department of Eugenics at University College, London, and it wasn’t until 2020 that the buildings dedicated to him and his eugenicist colleagues, were finally renamed.
- A section of the film relates to the German Empire in Africa.
What can you tell us about that?
I discovered that a building local to Five Years had been used as an internment camp for German civilians and other enemy aliens during WWI. Then I found out that there was a network of such facilities across the British Empire which were used to detain Germans POWs and civilians displaced from their own colonies in Africa and Asia. During the war, as Britain and France took over control of the former German colonies, they operated a policy of dispersal in order to break the settlers’ physical and psychological attachments to their own Empire. The loss of Germany’s Empire is considered by many to be a key factor in their later desire to acquire territories closer to home. Also, although I don’t dwell on it too long in the film, I set up a distinction between the kind of enemy camps operated during the war and the use of concentration camps at a slightly earlier stage, by both Britain in South Africa, and a little later, by Germany in what is now Namibia.
- Can you tell us more about the process of making the film?
Just before lockdown, I was due to launch a series of events called Dysphorias organised in conjunction with the Storytelling Festival in Islington. I’d scripted a shorter version of The Unbecoming that was entirely audio based. But the idea was to continue working on it over time. When lockdown occurred, I saw it as an opportunity to conduct extra research and to develop the piece into a video work, allowing the resonances with the extraordinary times we were living in to be explored. Because the original piece was intended as part of a storytelling festival, I wanted it to be constructed in a fairly conventional, narrative based manner. However, I also wanted to convey a lot of information directly and indirectly through archives in a way that’s perhaps more common to documentary films. Later, I realised that there was also inevitably an element of the home movie about the work because it was filmed in my flat and built around my performances. So you have several different time frames internal to the film overlapping with those related to its making.
In the film, for example, you can see evidence of the way my body changes at intervals. Sometimes, you can see that I’ve lost weight, at other points, that my muscles have become flabby, perhaps through lack of exercise.
- Is that mainly because you were shielding during lockdown?
Yes, for health reasons, I was required to stay at home for 3 months, to not leave the flat at all, and I was horrified by that at the beginning. But in that first week, I began to feel flu-like symptoms, which, much later were diagnosed as Long Covid, so in fact, I couldn’t leave the house, even if I’d wanted to. But after several weeks, I began to venture out and that’s when I took images of the environment around me. But for the most part, the location was just my flat. The limitations of the environment and my equipment meant that I extended the possibilities of the material by taking lots of still photos as well as moving images. I then processed them by making use of overlays to add poetic texture, to expand spatial dimensions, and to accentuate the sense of temporal instability at play.
- You also used quite a few archive images.
The library images were all publicly available and carefully chosen to add layers of information that couldn’t be addressed in the narrative. For example, one image is an illustration from a book by Charles Darwin called The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872. In it, he suggests that certain physical gestures, corporeal behaviours, correspond to specific emotions, and that anger can be associated with a person’s hair standing on end. The woman used to illustrate this idea was a patient in a mental hospital. But to me this woman looked as if she had a mixed race heritage, with what seemed to be basically Afro hair, and I wondered to what extent you could disentangle her diagnosis and her experiences from preexisting attitudes, unconscious or otherwise, towards her appearance.
- As someone with a background in performance myself, I appreciated the embodied nature of your own performance, the centrality of your body and your use of gesture within the film...
In the film, I perform the role of a woman who narrates the story of her own internment, as well as that of her partner, in the different types of colony we’ve spoken about. I recorded a voice over and also filmed myself in a number of set ups, making use of posture, gesture and movement in relation to expressive lighting, colour and camera angles. I wanted the performance to be improvised and spontaneous, and to convey a primarily emotional response to the conditions the character was narrating. I think the viewer has a sense, almost, of stumbling across events taking place in private spaces including in the character’s own psychic space, which is peopled with figures experiencing their own varieties of injury and injustice.
In effect, I wanted to make the narrator character both particularised and not. As a spectator, you rarely see her body in full, it’s mostly in fragments. But in the voice over and in certain modes of performance, she asserts her own subjectivity very clearly, despite the fact that the film as a whole demonstrates how this society, and others like it, have constructed mechanisms to forcibly deny complex subjectivities to the kinds of people deemed to be similar to her.
Evidently, I wanted to convey the disparity between the various ways in which she’s seen and the ways in which she sees herself. But the relationship that both she and her partner have towards notions of identity, and to some extent, to modernity, is quite difficult to fix. They both elude easy categorisation, in clear contrast to official attempts observed within the film, to classify and instrumentalise them both. For similar reasons, I guess, I wanted to give space to the aesthetic and lyrical dimensions of the film, to assign them value, both relative to the overall content, and in their own right.
- The film operates across several temporalities in order, in part, to comment on what’s going on today. Do you think we’ve reached a point at which the type of injustices you explore in the film can be adequately addressed?
The film is insisting on the continuity of processes, by means of which, certain groups of people are consistently denied the status of full human beings. And yet, my hope is that, over the past year, we’ve arrived at a pivotal moment of change. Certainly, I’m very aware that the public as a whole, here in the UK, are much more receptive to the realities of social and racial injustices in particular than they were even two years ago. There’s a greater understanding of the ways in which conditions of oppression repeat themselves over time. But there’s also a lot of work to be done around the stories Britain tells itself about its role in Empire. It still positions itself within a saviour paradigm, and as a consequence, people remain unaware about the nature and extent of its past actions at home and abroad, and their continuing impact today.
The Unbecoming (2020)
4K Digital video. 28 mins, 24 secs
Film Screening : 28 February- 8 March 2021
Set against the backdrop of early twentieth century historical events, The Unbecoming is a lyrical testament to loss, belonging, fragility and what it means to be considered less than fully human.
Created in isolation during the artist’s coronavirus shielding quarantine, the film puts the physical and technical constraints of its making at the heart of an approach which brings together performance, poeticised image making, narrative speculation, and archival materials, to consider enduring misconceptions around the limits of bodily, social and political freedoms.
Invoking several overlapping and unstable spaces and timeframes, the film draws on extensive research to tell the imagined story of a woman held in an ambiguous state of internment.
As performed by the artist, it is both a partial record of her own physical responses to confinement, and a memorial to lesser known aspects of the carceral, colonial and socio-engineering legacy of Britain and its present day allies.
Supported by Arts Council England.