PODCAST — Episode 8, recorded
Maria Anastassiou and BFMAF Programmer Myriam Mouflih in conversation about the film ‘Way My It Did I’.→
Maria Anastassiou (1982, Cyprus) is an artist and filmmaker based in London. She uses analogue and digital media in moving image, social practice and curatorial projects. Her work is informed by experimental ethnographic approaches to documentary and structuralist film traditions. Many of her projects are collaborative and defined by an exchange with other artists and the public, across disciplines and presentational platforms. Between 2014-2017 she took part in ‘Corners’, a collaboration with artists and audiences from the peripheries of Europe. In 2013 she co-founded collective-iz, a curatorial initiative creating expanded and immersive cinema events that examine new critical contexts for contemporary and historical avant-garde film. In 2010 she co-founded the film project ‘Unravel-The longest hand-painted film in Britain’ that won the Deutsche Bank Award for Art and involved more than 5000 people across the UK in creating a 16-hour long 16mm film. She is the recipient of an Acme Artists’ Studio Residency (2017-2023) at Highhouse Production Park. Her work has screened and exhibited at Courtisane Festival (Ghent), LUX (London), Whitney Museum of American Art and Microscope Gallery (New York), among others.
Myriam Mouflih is a film programmer and sometimes writer from Glasgow, UK. Her research has focused predominantly on Artists Moving Image from the African continent and the diaspora. Since 2017, Myriam has programmed for Africa in Motion Film Festival and served on the committee of Transmission Gallery from 2018-2020. She is also a member of the LUX Scotland Advisory group and was on the jury for the Margaret Tait Award 2020/21.
Hello, welcome to the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. My name is Myriam and I’m on the programming team for the festival this year. Today I’m in conversation with Maria Anastassiou about her film, Way My It Did I, which is screening as part of the Berwick New Cinema Competition. Maria Anastassiou is an artist and a filmmaker from Cyprus and based in London. So, hi Maria, thanks for taking the time to chat to me today.
Hi Myriam, it’s nice to meet you and thank you for inviting me.
We’re delighted to be screening your film, Way My It Did I. I was really struck by the film and in this selection process by how beautiful it was. I think that’s very much to do with the type of filmmaker you are and the type of work that you make. Also obviously working with 16mm, you get this beautiful effect, but I was also just struck by how much of a collaborative process it seemed and how all these different voices were feeding in. And that was something that I really appreciated. So I guess I was wondering if you could talk about the origins of where the film came from? I know it was a commission as part of ‘New Geographies’, which was a three year project highlighting overlooked or unexpected places across East Anglia. And it was produced by Art Exchange Gallery and the University of Essex. So yeah, I was wondering if you could talk about where the desire to make the film came from?
Okay. So the film was, as you said, it was commissioned by New Geographies. The idea to make this film came about from a combination of circumstances in my life at the time and a response to where I found my place during that time. So the idea goes back to 2016 and the Brexit referendum, at that point after the referendum, I decided after having lived in the UK for 15 years, I decided that maybe it’s time to apply for British citizenship because it was a really uncertain time. I knew I wanted to stay in this country. I didn’t know how everything will develop.
So I thought some stability will be provided by applying for the citizenship. So in order to apply for the test for anyone who has gone through that process, you have to read the ‘Life in the UK’ manual handbook. But in reading the ‘Life in the UK’ test, I found myself feeling somehow really disempowered by that experience and the telling of the history of Great Britain, the UK, in a very reductive way. And I have my own relationship to the British Empire, I come from Cyprus. Cyprus is an ex British colony. In some ways we’re still living with the effects of that as with every ex colony. It’s the effects of colonisation is still relevant today. I was entering this, almost an opportunity to learn British history through this process of applying for the citizenship.
And I was really disappointed by it because it really didn’t deal with anything to do with any critical point of your history or even examine or present what it is to be a citizen of a place, what it is to be a good citizen, an active citizen. Everything was more information and in a very reductive way. As well as that, the text painted an unrecognisable picture of a place and people that I have come to love and call my home as well. Had to learn about the kings and the queens and the wives of Henry VIII, but there was no mention of the effects of empire and even less so, just about a paragraph in it on the slave trade. And these are just a couple of examples of very obvious things.
Yeah. I didn’t expect the critical history course, but I also didn’t expect a text that is more about appeasing race anxieties by providing a narrow and conservative and propagandistic view of history rather than promoting a sense of active citizenship. So at that moment that I was studying to take this test, there was a direct correlation between how I was learning about British history and what was actually happening with the Brexit process, and how the Brexit campaign had unfolded. So those two things were very related for me in the sense of having an idea of the British Empire that is completely uncritical and is just something to celebrate rather than something to reflect on and try and understand from past mistakes. So that was one of the elements that was happening at the time. And then in the meantime, I moved into an Acme studio in Purfleet which is just outside of London in the Thames Estuary.
It’s a very interesting place on the outskirts of a big city. It’s not quite countryside, it’s not quite urban, but it’s where all the services and transport networks pass through to supply, in a way, the city of London. So it was interesting, also looking into theories of edgelands and understanding a little bit more how to create this landscape that was quite alien to me at the time. I became interested in exploring this landscape and having a response to it, the industrial zones on the edge and the port terminals that I can even see from my window here. And I can hear at night the ships docking, just the different sights and sounds that one encounters in this area, but then also, that are very industrial on one hand, and on the other hand, there’s a lot of wilderness in these zones.
And then of course the river, being aware also of how the river has, and still is, a literal connection to the rest of the world in terms of commerce, but also in terms of migration. And then also the river is a UK border as well and it’s something that took me a while to get my head around it, until I saw a border police boat. And I was quite shocked on the day that I saw that, because it just didn’t occur to me that the River Thames, even this far into it, is still a UK border. So in doing that, I also started to wonder about migrant communities in the area and then also finding myself outside of the metropolitan area and feeling isolated in a sense of—you just take it for granted when you live in a city that you will be surrounded by multicultural, variety of people.
And I think that is why I like living in the UK, because I can have that experience on a daily basis. Whereas when you move away from the city a little bit, and especially in a place like this, then there wasn’t so much of that. So I started to wonder where I could find or speak to other people who had migrated and how their experience was in the area. And so this created the question for me: how can I belong to this place and how do other migrants that share similar experiences with me, organise and create communities? So these were the two main questions at the time, these two main parallel events in my life and in the UK. And the thing that brought these two together was when I was responding to a ‘New Geographies’ call. And it was very soon after I had moved here, I read about them, the Tilbury Cruise Terminal which is where the Windrush Empire, Windrush arrived in 1948.
And that brought the first generation of Caribbean migrants into UK. And so that was a way in for me, a way to respond to it, to ask the question of what the migration in the area looks like now? And how do the more recent migrants into South Essex, what is their experience and how do they relate to this landscape and how are they navigating these pre-Brexit period that we were going through when I was making the film?
Yeah. I think it’s particularly interesting that link you made about the Port of Tilbury and Windrush, and about contemporary migration. These roots still feeling like there’s a familiarity and if you think about the Thames River, the Thames Estuary and the history of commerce, migration, shipping that has been going on, that has built the British Empire. London wouldn’t exist without that river point. The British Empire wouldn’t exist without that.
So, I think that was particularly interesting for me to think about. In the period that you were making the film, what does it mean to be a migrant worker? What does it mean to be a migrant among so much anti-migrant hostility, awful home office policy? I guess that’s one of the things I’ve really appreciated, was seeing the people who lived in these communities and getting a sense of their experiences. I was wondering if you could talk about how you met the people who participated in the film and how did you come to make that collaboratively with them?
In the film you can see people reading out questions. The way that those questions were collected, was through a process of actually creating a space for dealing with the anxiety that was present about the lead up to Brexit. I invited a lawyer from the European Commission, who was making available legal sessions for new citizens. So I was able to have access to this service and I invited the lawyer and the translator to come to Tilbury, to give these sessions, in order to create a space where information could be shared in terms of that, because that, in a way, what I have in common with someone who is working in a warehouse, is the fact that we were having that same anxiety. That’s how honest I can be about that, because we have different lives and we have different realities, and I couldn’t pretend to have the same issues as someone who is doing that. So through those sessions, that answered questions for me, also in those moments, I was able to have that exchange with the local Romanian community.
And in order to organise that, I spent a lot of time having lunches and meals in the local Romanian restaurant and just meeting people as I was spending time there essentially. So I was quite, I was following quite a lot, an intuitive process of meeting people as well. As well as actually putting ads on around town to ask for a translator, putting posters up for the events and so on. But really the events were the moment that people came together and people got to know me in the town as well and what I was doing. Through those events as well, I also collected the questions that people are seen reading out and asking to the camera. So on the one hand, we have the questions from ‘Life in the UK’ test, then on the other hand, we have the questions that were asked during the Q&A sessions of these legal sessions that were held in the restaurant.
Some of the questions are, some very simple, some of them are more complicated. Some of them express a certain anxiety. For me at that moment, that was an important formal sort of structure that allowed me to enter this space and have this exchange with the people that I was meeting there. I found the questions revealed something more about the connection of all of us, anyone who’s a migrant to a place that suddenly has become hostile, to use the word. I was also using this project in a way to establish myself in this new area that I was living in. And so it was important for me to follow leads and be quite loose. In the film you can see three different groups that I’ve worked with, one was the Romanian residents there.
And then a way that I found to get into the port was by visiting the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest. And in the case of this crew that I met, the Gerda crew, that we see in the film, one of their members, the chief engineer singing the karaoke, that gave the film its name as well. They were actually docked in Tilbury for six months at the time, they were quite open for me and my assistant to go on board and I visited them a few times. And then on the other hand, there were also the West African asylum seekers that work with the Red Cross that we see in the film as well, taking part in a Know Your Rights workshop, and then the workshop that we see in the film. So my idea with that was to try and see how their experience is also influenced in some ways by the hostile environment as well.
And it all goes back to that because, obviously they have different needs and different realities to the Romanian immigrants and to the Filipino seafarers, but it all connects in the sense that, it was just quite extraordinary to find in a small place like this, the variety of migratory experience, and actually to realise how they are influenced by the same powers that takes away certain control over these people’s lives and creates barriers to how they can stay or not in this country.
That’s interesting to think about different migratory experiences and how those things are different depending on where you’re coming from, what your situation is, even your economic status. All those things really impact the ease or the difficulty with which you can navigate the immigration system. I was wondering as well, if you could talk about using 16mm film and what your relationship with that is?
On one hand, it was, I am having a material experience when I am filming. I am relating to the materials that I find in the landscape. And for me it was important to enter this place through the surfaces because I was interested in what is visibly there in front of me. And that’s something that for me, gets lost with digital. There is also the economic factor of working with 16mm film and when I say economic, I mean the economy of the film itself and how I am when I am filming, how my collaborators or my subjects, if you will, are, when I am filming with a Bolex camera that is hand-cranked and I only have a small reel. And I only have 3 minutes in that reel, but every shot cannot last more than 20 seconds because of the hand-cranked mechanism.
So all of these elements created a series of constraints. I would usually know that I only have maybe 12 or 15 minutes of footage to spend on that day. And I think that just created a really important rhythm for me that… I think also, I wanted to use 16mm film against mainstream media in a way. I think it was important to, that the material reflected also the fact that this is a very contested and very widely documented and widely visible issue of migration and how it was reported in the mainstream media. As a critical point of view to mainstream representations, 16mm gave me the chance to do something else with this, with the subject, that could not have been done, I think otherwise. And then in addition to that, there’s also the element of almost a performative occasion that happens when I’m shooting with 16mm.
And especially when I’m doing that with people who don’t have the experience of that camera, there’s a different relationship that gets developed between myself and the participants that has a lot to do with a certain amount of shared risk taking in that moment of filming, in the fact that there is no playback. There’s also the shared imagination of the latent image that myself and my subject have in that moment. And I found that to be something very powerful. But of course, everyone is very image savvy these days, there is no denying that. People use their phones more than I do to take pictures. They take more pictures in a day than I do.
I saw this whole time of this 18 months of working in Tilbury with these people as a, that my camera was like a keyhole, if you like, rather than a continuous recorder. Working with film was more like looking through a keyhole and having the confidence that what you did see in that day is enough for that day. And then you move on to the next. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I think I would still be editing it if I shot on digital.
Yeah. Just what you were saying about trusting that you have enough and not having to shoot everything and going with your intuition, especially when people maybe are so surveyed or watched all the time that you can just take those moments and be like, “this is enough.” I think that’s really nice.
Exactly. And also it allows me to also imagine the sound quite a lot, because I think when you are shooting a synchronous sound, you have to come back to the edit and really create that whole world from scratch. Having a completely silent footage to go through and then start to create the soundscape for that, I think something else happens. I did some of the sound recordings myself, but I also worked with Tom Fisher, a really amazing sound artist. He brought a lot of music into the soundtrack for me. Recording all the different machines that are found around the port. All the different industrial sounds, the metal fences around the port, putting contact mics onto different surfaces and just getting pure frequencies out of them and creating an immersive experience of being there.
So maybe this is a nice time to end. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
Thank you. Thanks for your questions. Really nice questions.