Embodied Thoughts on Zinzi Minott’s Fi Dem III: Ancestral Interference
by Rabz Lansiquot
Zinzi Minott has made a new short video work as part of the Fi Dem series every year since 2018 and intends to continue doing so. On her website, she describes Fi Dem as “a commitment to the Windrush generation, and a continued investigation of Blackness, diaspora and the heritage of her family”. The work is usually released on Windrush Day, June 22nd, but, of course 2020 had other ideas. I, as a filmmaker, curator and descendant of Caribbean migrants, follow this body of work intently and have had the privilege of being in conversation with Minott about it in both professional and personal settings. This essay is a personal, embodied and possibly fragmented reaction to the latest iteration, Fi Dem III: Ancestral Interference, which premieres this year at BFMAF.
In the first weeks of lockdown—before the personal losses, state sanctioned murders, uprisings and other traumas that pop up as a Black queer person living in a global pandemic during late capitalism—I managed to find the clarity of mind to sit down to read Dionne Brand’s novel At The Full and Change of the Moon, and watch Med Hondo’s epic West Indies. Brand’s book tells the story of one families lineage; from an escape from the plantation in the Antilles (through both maroonage and suicide) to scattered migration to Canada, the U.S and The Netherlands. Hondo’s film charts a similar lineage in an MGM-style musical adaptation of Martinican playwright Daniel Boukman’s Les Négriers, taking us on a journey from the introduction of sugar cane cultivation in 1640, to the slave trade, to the broken promises of migration and independence. It wasn’t until I saw Fi Dem III: Ancestral Interference that I truly understood why these two works haunted—and touched—me so.
Minott poetically describes her concept of ancestral interference as follows: “the feeling of a rage or anger bigger than your own rage, a pain bigger than your own pain, it is the feeling of being tired of a fight you have only just begun…of being on the march forever, of screaming from a place deep inside that does not belong to you”. She articulates this as an action taken by the ancestors, who “meddle…interfere…scream…rage…[and] remind” us to fight, and why we fight, and what we are fighting for.
Like Hondo and Brand, Minott crafts a replication, as well as an exploration, of ancestral interference in Fi Dem III. As with the two previous works in the ongoing series, she plays with glitch in both the visual and sonic elements of the film. The brightly coloured glitch footage used in Fi Dem II recurs, a nod to the strained dissonance she feels as a queer Black woman about the largely overlooked Windrush Day being positioned in the midst of the highly commercialised Pride month. Queerness is in the glitch, is the glitch, when the world requires us to celebrate a part of ourselves whilst diminishing another. Footage flashes, parts are missing, layered on top of one another. Sound crunches, crashes, is broken apart and stuck back together. Loudness and silence are pressed right up against each other, revelling in the discomfort they create. Minott asks us to “read between the glitch”, to be attentive to the dissonance, to listen to the interference.
The novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon and the film, West Indies both deal with ancestral interference, with the reverberation, the echo, that history which flows through our veins. Fi Dem III allows me to understand that feeling which haunts me. It gives name to that weight I carry. It gives meaning to those moments where my emotions seem to swell from an unconscious, otherworldly place. It’s the kind of work which tells you that yes, that really happened, and yes, this is what you must do. I know that many reading this essay may not understand what I mean by that, and those same folks probably felt similarly watching the film, but, if you know…you know.
Throughout the Fi Dem series, Minott reuses footage; the brightly coloured glitch, dominoes at a Nine Night, a ship on the horizon. She reuses sound; 1950’s archive voiceovers as well as sirens, airhorns and MC’s voices familiar for those of us who grew up in and around sound system culture. She throws aspects of previous works back and forth, meddles with them and repeats them, forgoing linear time as ancestors do, as generational trauma does in our bodies.
Fi Dem III, more explicitly than its previous iterations, confronts slavery. It begins with a 3-D rendered sea, rough and illuminated by the moon, waves rising and falling. This sea conjures the image of the middle passage. That deadly crossing, that limbo. 1 The fact that the HMT Empire Windrush, on its journey from Jamaica to London in 1948, also crossed that same ocean where captives from Africa were transported, is another tragically absurd layer of meaning. Footage of a field of sugarcane, lightly blowing in the breeze also reminds us of the trade’s purpose: the extraction of labour to sell and consume goods. The sea and the cane both reappear throughout the film, at points becoming overplayed with flashes of scarlet red. A further reminder of the blood spilled overboard—those killed and those who chose death over the deadly unknown—and on the plantation—a result of work, of punishment or rebellion. The red water is reminiscent also of Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, emphasising his implication that the blood will be, as it always is, that of the Other.
The use of COVID-19 deaths statistics, which showed that Black Caribbeans were almost three times more likely to die as a result of the virus than their white British counterparts, alongside a replication of the famous diagram of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship creates an explicit thread between the injustices of the past, and those of the present.
Whilst all of the Fi Dem series so far sit with science fiction in some way, Fi Dem III has a distinct sci-fi aesthetic. This is the result partly of the conditions within which the work was made; in self isolation, with a significantly reduced capacity to film organically and a significantly heightened sense of life mediated by technology. The artificial humanoid forms made up of ones and zeros, whose slow march appears and reappears on screen during the film also reference the wildly under-theorised link between slavery and robotics. Enslaved people were rendered fungible, mutually interchangeable and indistinguishable from each other, by those minds who created the philosophical and epistemological foundations to justify and support the practice of chattel slavery. That fungibility still persists in an age where a mechanised replacement for human labour is closer every day, and the fear that the machines may become intelligent to the point of rebellion is a common theme of exploration in both the scientific community and popular culture. These issues of what humanity is, who is or isn’t human, and what kinds of threats those who are non-human, yet conscious, pose, are complex and vital to Minott’s ongoing exploration of the legacies of Windrush.
In our conversations, Minott describes liking the possibility of Fi Dem as a form of propaganda, work made to further a specific political cause, in service of something bigger than its own making. I would add to this that Fi Dem III is an example of what Stephen Best & Saidiya Hartman, in their essay ‘Fugitive Justice’, term “redress discourse”; work that can be positioned in the space between “grievance and grief; between the necessity of legal remedy and the impossibility of redress…in which all captives find themselves–the interval between the no longer and the not yet, between the destruction of the old world and the awaited hour of deliverance”. 2 To pull that apart a little, Fi Dem III acknowledges the need for, and pushes toward, revolution and reparations to address slavery and its ongoing impact of the Black people of the Caribbean, whilst also foregrounding the fact that neither of those things can undo, or adequately account for, the material, emotional, psychological and epistemological harm already done.
Fi Dem III affirms us, as descendants of the Windrush generation and thus of the enslaved, in our grief and in our rage to sit meditatively—and to allow it to galvanise us to fight.
- Many claim that limbo, the dance often appropriated as a children’s game in the UK, symbolises aspects of enslaved people entering the galley’s of a slave ship for the first time.
- Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, “Fugitive Justice,” Representations 92, no. 1 (2005): 3.
Rabz Lansiquot is a filmmaker, programmer, curator and DJ. They were a leading member of sorryyoufeeluncomfortable (SYFU) collective from its inception in 2014 and now work alongside Imani Robinson as the curatorial and artistic duo Languid Hands, who are the Cubitt Curatorial Fellows for 2020-21. Rabz was Curator In Residence at LUX in 2019, developing a public and educational programme around Black liberatory cinema. Their first solo exhibition ‘where did we land’, an experimental visual essay exploring the use of images of anti-black violence in film and media, was on view at LUX in Summer 2019. They have put together film programmes at the ICA, SQIFF, Berwick Film & Media Festival, were a programme advisor for LFF’s Experimenta strand in 2019, and are on the selection committee for Sheffield Doc Fest 2020. Rabz is also training to deliver workshops in working with Super 8 and eco-processing at not.nowhere.