Exploring the Multiplicity of the Black Experience in Europe with Cecile Emeke’s Strolling

, 2 May 2017

British film maker Cecile Emeke has gained popularity and respect from global audiences in recent years, creating works formatted for the web which often platforms the experiences of women of color. She has been praised by publications such as the BBC and the New York Times, and became a guest writer on Issa Rae’s HBO series Insecure. Recently her comedic series Ackee and Saltfish was picked up by the BBC Three. This spring, audiences in Berlin had an opportunity to see a feature length screening of her documentary web series Strolling at Agora Rollberg Cinema on March 11.  The event, in collaboration with Berlin Feminist Film Week, was accompanied by a Q&A with Emeke herself, allowing viewers to gain more insight into her work.

Strolling was originally filmed in London and was soon made in other locations under translated titles: Flâner (France), Wandelen (Netherlands) and Passeggiando (Italy). Walking with subjects through their home environments, Emeke transforms interviews into intimate conversations. These dialogues, not so coincidentally, often touch upon the labour required for certain intersectional identities to move through the machinery of European urban centres. Giving much-needed visibility to the young African diaspora of Europe, the filmmaker avoids the problematics of representation by establishing an informal relationship with her subject and elevating the voices of as many people as possible. In this scenario, black and brown bodies become vessels of knowledge about the pressures and systems they withstand.  As Hannah Black explains in her recent ruminations on gossip, one important feminist strategy is taking word of mouth seriously instead of giving reverence to the media and academia as the source of absolute truth. Emeke uses her camera to liberate the mouths of others instead of her own and, like the medieval witch in Black’s essay, “makes it seem like the social might have…. Its own reality.” The subversive knowledge garnered from affective experience needs to be shared and spread as aggressively as possible in environments where algorithms erase sentiments of a less than mainstream disposition. Online distribution is a political tool.

The public presentation of meditations on Afro-European experience was especially welcome in Berlin, where people are still petitioning to remove racially offensive language from street signs and park-like ‘kolonies’ that recall the ‘people zoos’ that existed there not so long ago. Local activist and artist Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor was invited to take part in the Q&A with Emeke as the organizer of Black in Berlin; a salon on black identity created in response to an infamous issue of the English language publication Ex Berliner entitled ‘Africa in Berlin’ that was disseminated in 2012. Taylor explained, “A lot of times in Berlin the art scene is under-researched, underpaid, and over-hyped. People are programming people of color, and black and brown people because it’s trendy, but not really supporting them in the way that they need to be supported… So my goal is to destabilize these white-dominated, patriarchal capitalist structures of power and really put us [people of color] at the center.”

While Strolling exists within the language of activism and knowledge-sharing, it also holds court with the edifying forces of the aesthetic product. The cinematography floats back and forth through what might be considered a traditional frame, capturing textures, light, and the weight of a physical posture. Emeke creates a relaxed tone with her filmmaking style and the personal nature of the conversation which integrates everyday realities with cultural and political histories.

If the original form of Strolling puts the viewer at ease in some ways, the 50-minute selection which Emeke presented in Berlin confronted them with intellectual intensity. The screening compiled sections of her interviews, tapping into the “collective unconscious of the black diaspora,” as she mentioned during the Q&A session afterwards. This fast-paced format organizes the fragments of many episodes under headings which included ‘Negationism,’ ‘Erasure and Denial,’ ‘Reparations,’ ‘Citizenship,’ and ‘Language.’  Afterwards, Emeke explained how coincidental these connections were. The interviewees were randomly selected via social media and were not staged or held up to an academic framework. There could be no more convincing representation of the global reality of antiblackness than these interviewees scattered throughout Europe, unknown to each other but speaking of the same experiences. Emeke commented that she “felt privileged that people were so vulnerable and so open.”

Some of the interviews in the series hint at Emeke’s motivations for staging most of her works in Europe. A woman in the Netherlands wonders why the local discourse around racism highlights the fight for civil rights in the US, while erasing the legacy of those who gave their lives to fight colonial masters in the Antilles and Suriname. There are no Dutch words to describe these conflicts, so these problems become something that happens ‘over there’ in English-speaking countries. America has become Europe’s race-relations scapegoat and a way to ignore and erase its own history of colonialism and exploitation.

In light of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, excerpts from Passegiando ‘Episode 1,’ on the topic of citizenship, are particularly interesting. Two sleek and fashionable Afro-Italian women explain how they were born in Italy and truly felt Italian until reaching the age of 18. At this point, the Italian government gives them (and other second-generation immigrants in Italy) a short period of 12 months to apply for citizenship. “[The government] do everything to delay the acceptance of me being Italian,” said one of the interviewees. They also expressed their frustration at a perception that crime exclusively belongs to people of color and how this shapes immigration policy, commenting, “Italians talk about immigrants coming here, stealing, killing, and committing a lot of crimes, what about the mafia you have exported all over the world? Are you kidding me? You have exported crime everywhere!”

After several interviews, it becomes apparent how the rules of citizenship imply a form of racial cleansing. It is common knowledge that the descendants of most European countries can claim heritage and apply for citizenship while the diaspora of colonized countries do not have such an advantage. A British Nigerian in ‘Episode of 7’ of Strolling comments on the relationship between immigration policy and the historical flow of wealth to Europe. “It’s Great Britain, but they take out the empire bit, so we don’t know how Britain became so great. We learn about the Victorians a lot, we learn about the Industrial Revolution, but we didn’t know what was funding the revolution in the first place. We don’t know that whilst there’s this booming revolution in England, there’s people from Britain in Nigeria and India, and so forth, murdering, and pillaging, and colonizing. And then people want to talk about how immigrants come here and take our jobs, but you’re the ones who took our resources.”

Perhaps, the key to unraveling the fictions that enable white supremacy and structural violence behind immigration policy is noting that Europe has not yet come to terms with its colonial past as a reprehensible part of its heritage. The interviewee in ‘Episode 7’ goes on to say, “The BBC and all the bloody news stations will talk about the atrocities that are going on around the world, Boko Haram, the kidnapping of 200 girls, but they don’t want to talk about how Boko Haram is basically rejecting Western education. They wouldn’t exist if the British, the same people who are reporting, didn’t come to mess up the country in the first place.” This brief summary of UK history and media outlets gives Ash — the character in BAFTA winning Prodigy Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum sitcom with a terrifying white savior complex — relevance beyond the fictional form which he exists in. The series is bildungsroman describing the experience of a second generation member of the African diaspora growing up in Tower Hamlets and Ash is instrumental in one of her more unfortunate romantic mishaps.

When asked if recent political developments had given Emeke new impetus for her work, she said, “Personally, I don’t feel any urgency… This is just part of what these systems create.” Instead, the filmmaker spoke to the theme of the fight to construct feelings of belonging that often came up in her interviews: “I think it’s important to broaden our perspective to human history, that this has happened to a lot of people, a lot of times… As a British person learning more about my British history than most people even know, in ways I belong in Britain more than other people when I go deeper, and I used to feel that I don’t belong… But who really belongs anywhere? People go everywhere all the time!”**

Screening of Strolling and Q&A with director Cecile Emeke, at Agora Rollberg in collaboration with Berlin Feminist Film Week, March 11, 2017.