Performing Identities

& Meanwhile on Set...
(films screened on 21—27 March) d
As part of the Common(ing) Thread programme Performing Identities, the directors of the paired films Meanwhile on Set... (dir. Jennifer Martin) and BECOME THE DRAGON — 成龙 (dir. Isabel Wang Pontoppidan) met for a Zoom conversation about their works.

How do characters allow you to speak of your own experiences?

Isabel: I initially made BECOME THE DRAGON — 成龙 because I had a lot of things to say, but I didn't really know how to articulate it. I felt very caught up in tropes and stereotypes, so I constructed these two alter egos in order to share my own thoughts and feelings more liberally.

Jennifer: For me, it was just simply relating to myself in some way; as a spectator, as a viewer. For Meanwhile on Set... the starting point was thinking about the cultural proliferation of certain tropes and stereotypes, and different racist ways of narrativising people and their experiences. The trope of a period drama romance between a young enslaved girl and her master is something which my experience was as a spectator, basically as a viewer. That’s how I was relating to the characters thinking about how we encounter these stories so frequently in culture, and so uncritically in culture.

Isabel: That’s also something I thought a lot about recently; how individuals of diaspora experience themselves in media, and how does that then affect my performance of myself, which in many ways is something I think that culture is. Sometimes I wish I was blissfully unaware of these things, because I find it very difficult to navigate. When you constantly question your own authenticity, it leads through in your work, but also in your life and everything that you do.

We would be interested if you could elaborate a bit more on your use of costume in the works and the political nature of such.

Jennifer: The process for Meanwhile on Set... started from watching so many films and interviews, particularly focusing on Black British actresses and Black-biracial, multiracial British actresses. So I had a set amount of films, people and interviews to focus on within that remit. I was thinking about how these characters are presented; how the actors’ roles might shift in certain ways, by looking at the depiction not just within one film, but over the arc of their careers.
Meanwhile on Set.... is split as the period drama, action film, and a talk show. Costuming felt very important to bring us into these worlds. You have the costumes that are particular to the artifice of those things, and then the production of the film within the film.
From the very beginning, it was the idea that the actors would be in the full body morph suits that were similar to their skin tone underneath the rest of the costuming that would completely screen them out. The idea with that was for it to operate as a glitch in the cinematic system, in the scopic regime. It's something that I’ve referred to as them becoming ‘fully epidermalised.’ It’s also them being essentially reduced and seen only in that way of being screened out. Their individuality does not matter, and they are not treated as ‘full humans’ in that way. I was very much thinking around Frantz Fanon at that time as well.

Isabel: It’s fun to think of what costumes can provide in terms of potential. That’s very prevalent in your film, Jennifer, that they bring a completely different layer to the work. I was also using costumes because I knew from the beginning that I would play both of these roles and I had to differentiate them somehow.
In general, I was researching a lot about how China has been portrayed historically in the West. It’s very much about ornamentation and Orientalism. China’s maybe one of the cultures that has been commodified the most—also for hundreds of years—and somehow Western aesthetic perceptions of China haven't really changed since 1700s. It still very much feels like baroque Qing Dynasty, Rococo with dragons and all these ornaments everywhere. I’ve been thinking a lot about how that relates to people of Chinese descent, or thinking if you can find similarities between these objects, people and their costume?
I approached the costume from my own interests, because at the time, I was watching a lot of Chinese cinema. I was watching a lot of Jia Zhangke. His first feature film Xiao Wu [小武, Pickpocket] from the 1990s was with a bunch of men in huge oversized suits. There was something about the strange image of the Asian body in very Western symbols. In Chinese a suit is called 西装 which means something along the lines of  ‘western outfit’. When I see pictures of my mom in the eighties and nineties, everyone was wearing giant suits. There was something very nostalgic for me with that. So I wanted to use that. And then when I was a child, I would always draw Chinese ladies with gowns and especially the hairpins. So I decided to go with that too. It was also important that I made or altered all these costumes myself; yet I'm not a seamstress. These pieces are a bit janky and not very seamless on purpose.

Jennifer: Isabel, I was drawn to how in and out of time your costumes felt in terms of all the different things that they point to. You mentioned the 80s and 90s with the suit. But also there’s something that folds in on itself. I can imagine it now as well. It feels like all these things point us to different directions.

Isabel: Yeah, definitely. Now it's been almost a year since I wrote the script and made the costumes. I also have a bit of distance from it finally. They are in a way, as you say, a bit out of time. These costumes are very quintessential, and also in your film, the leading role in the talk show sequence is wearing a classic sequinned gown. It’s very no-nonsense somehow. Immediately when you see this, you understand the context. That's the power of costume, and the power of using tropes as well that I think is fun to play with, or useful at least.

Jennifer: In your film, there is a sharp focus on your two characters. We see them, and the way they are presented and presenting themselves. We also see those moments of the management of that, where there is a narrow window into this world that you brought us into. I think when we get just these elements of the construction, we understand it, but then also it undoes itself in the process of that through its own kind of limitation, through our focus on it.

Isabel: Yeah, true. In that sense, it’s very intense somehow, or extremely specific. I think that also runs through both of our works: the narrow confines of the way they’re filmed as well. It’s not crazy cinematography or anything, It's really plain. I wanted mine to look as confessionals of reality TV shows, basically. So again, in both works, it’s very clear what's like being looked at, but then the contents go somewhere completely different. I wonder also for you how you decided to go with it, because in a sense, it’s a very simple set up and then you can play within those frames somehow.

Jennifer: Yeah. I was always focused on having the three actresses centred. To put them really as a focus, and sideline their white male counterparts. For example, the frame only gets an arm in the shot, or a voice to indicate a sense of the behind. I wanted to not show their faces, in order to keep our focus on the women when these things were being said to them. This then became a device to shift focus to the language being used, which is repurposed from existing films and interviews.
I wanted to speak about the historically sustained system rather than individual people we could direct our anger and judgment to. By just hinting, I wanted to draw the implications back to the viewer. I wanted to generate a sense of what would be on screen, off screen, or at the edges of the screen.
It’s really interesting to see that similarity between our two works. There is a sense between things in front of the camera and behind the camera, and that sense of what we do and don't see. I think it tunes us into language and gesture in different ways.

Isabel: I was also really surprised, because after watching your film, I thought ‘I should watch my own now.’ I had forgotten that I also use all those tools, too. It was striking to see how these completely change the perspective. As a viewer, you just consider a completely different facet of the person who’s on camera at their job, or performance, and this may not be who they really are.
In your film, it’s very harsh and quite confronting how these women are spoken to, but you don’t question for a moment that this doesn’t happen. It’s very interesting to hear that the dialogues are also drawn from existing films and interviews.
In the talk show segment, I really loved when she stops to addresses the audience. Every time I watch a talk show, I have a fantasy in my head that if I were a famous actress and went on a talk show, I would do this and not play by the rules. Talk shows are such a tense situation. Especially the scene with this Black woman feels horribly familiar. That’s also what makes it really powerful. It feels scripted but also in a very normal way.

Jennifer: In a sense, all of those things have been normalised. These are things that I’ve—or we’ve—encountered steadily. During the research, I came across these moments where you're like, ‘wait, I have to rewind that part,’ to make sure that it was exactly what it was. You start Googling and ask to yourself, ‘has no one complained about this?’ but it's the case that no one has most of the time.
A lot of the material I used was quite recent. Most of the talk show was very much inspired by an interview from 2015 or 2016. As Meanwhile on Set... is made in 2018, it is not a far distance, but there is a difference in how we engage with things now. I would say now people speak back to culture, speak back to these type of instances, zoom in on these instances in a different way, memeify them. The circulation of these moments is different. That also allows for a different type of criticism. On the other hand, the majority of what I was looking at were films from the nineties, and there are still things that haven't been critiqued, nor to the level that you would expect them to be.
Isabel, I wonder if you could talk a bit about the sense of performing the reality TV structure. How does it fall into, or take place in your film?

Isabel: At first I had imagined it more like an interview, but then the reality TV format seemed visually a bit funnier and more lowbrow. In the beginning, I was just writing a bunch of monologues of the English speaking character. I didn’t really know what to do with them, but I also knew that it needed to have a counterpart. There was also the question of whether the two characters should be conversing with each other, or whether it should just be these two monologues cut into each other.
I chose the format because reality TV conveys the sense that it’s real, but everyone knows it’s fake. It immediately resonated with what I was doing. In the research and development, I always questioned the authenticity and performativity of culture, and their interconnectedness. But of course, performativity implies inauthenticity. The conclusion was always that there’s no such thing as cultural authenticity and everything we do is a performance. That’s also what I wanted to permeate in the work. In that sense, I like to see parallels with the talk show because it's also ‘celebrities being real people,’ but everything is very scripted.

Jennifer: It’s like another job in itself.

Isabel: For sure. And I always wonder what goes on behind the scenes because it just seems insane.

Jennifer: I don't know if you've ever read, and I’ve only read parts of it, but Erving Goffman theorises around performance, onstage, and backstage. What happens backstage can also be considered a part of the performance. I think that this frame of the stage and backstage—or in front of and behind the camera—resonates with both of our works. But neither space is being—just to use the same language that we were talking about—completely authentic spaces, or being spaces where the performance stops entirely.

Isabel: Yeah, that’s very accurate. That’s really hitting the nail on the head as far as what I was trying to say!
In their works, Isabel Wang Pontoppidan and Jennifer Martin both use constructed characters to examine the understanding of racialised and cultural identity. Meanwhile on Set... features costumed actors in three different scenarios — Period Film, Action Film and Talk Show — that each 'unpick a condition of acting for British black and black bi-/multi-racial actresses'. In BECOME THE DRAGON — 成龙 we meet two alter egos played by Wang Pontoppidan herself that embody perceptions of Chinese diasporic cultural identity. As an artist 'hailing from somewhere between Denmark and China', her personas unpack the power and potential of hybridity, exploring the liminal positionality between the East and the West.
In both films we encounter a staged performance of cultural identity, challenging the imposition of external expectations on cultural authenticity and stereotypes. This also entails muddying the distinction between the worlds behind and in front of the camera, making visible the lived experience of the actor within filmmaking. The artists’ use of costume visualises this process, as well as offering a way for the characters to 'slip in and out of [their] skins'. For Martin this is through the use of full-body morph suits whereby the actors to become 'fully epidermalised', whilst for Wang Pontoppidan this is achieved through her self-made costumes that allow her to slip between identities of the ‘fake Chinese, the inauthentic dane, the Eurasian mongrel’.
Artwork by Daeun Lim
Curated by The New Flesh & First Cut