Isaac Julien CBE is a filmmaker and installation artist, born in London in 1960 where he currently lives and works. Continuing our association with Untitled Magazine, we reproduce an interview he gave in 2004
“In most of these films, I wanted to perform a translation not just in theoretical
terms but across genre and politics, a translating of territory and temporality, a
cinema which demands a self-interrogation and a translatability across the
technologies of representation » —Isaac Julien, Creolizing Vision iduring Documenta,
Anthony Downey One of the key sources for your most recent work, Paradise
Omeros (2002)— first shown at Documenta 11 last year and more recently at
Victoria Miro Gallery —was Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros (1990). Could you
talk a little about the relationship between the two?
Isaac Julien I think in a way my relationship to Derek’s poem is tangential, Paradise Omeros takes Derek’s poetry as a point of meditation. When you take a text and then you meditate on that text, it forms a point of departure. Derek’s writing builds a world in Paradise Omeros through an assemblage of different kinds of points of view; in a way he takes language and piles one image upon another and stacks them in a dense and very intertextual manner to get across his point of view. In relation to how I’m working
it is not strictly speaking the same approach because we are dealing here with a different medium, film, and we are dealing with a different set of conventions. The live performance at Victoria Miro Gallery that accompanied the exhibition was a way of bringing out into the open the different strategies at work when making a film; and the way in which that process entails gathering a lot of information and sampling that
information into your own voice. The idea of the performance was to actually open it out and to have someone like Hansil Jules, who plays the protagonist of the film, to sing the operatic rendition of that work which was turned into a song cycle by Paul Gladstone— Reid, the composer of the film. So you have these different influences and these in a way produce a melange, of sorts, that draw all those aspects together into a statement.
I was also thinking on the level of thematic comparisons to be had, insofar as Walcott is examining the question of hybridity and creolité — both of which would seem important aspects of Paradise Omeros.
Well, I think that Derek might say he is trying to do something else. I think it would be very difficult to take Derek’s work and to say that it is only about hybridity and creolité. So I wouldn’t want to reduce his work to that, but you could understand aspects of my work within some of the debates which were part of a conversation about creolité that developed through one of the Documenta 11 platforms last year.
ľve tried to think about the process of creolization, globalisation and their effects on contemporary artistic forms and practices. You could say that hybridity and creolité— which I do not think are necessarily the same thing —are ideas l use in order to grapple with questions of translation and relocation. Those are the things that are at work in Paradise Omeros and they do lend themselves to questions of creolization.
At one particularly affecting point in the film the protagonist is chastised by his father and
exhorted to ‘Speak English’ rather than Creole —to what extent does this reference the role of language in the estrangement of identity rather than its definition ?
I think absolutely. The Creole language itself was a language which was in flux, a language that was constructed as a counter strategy to the structuring influences of, say, French. The language was deliberately using utterances that could not be translated to the ‘master’. This language, however, is probably not going to survive the digital revolutions of new computer technology; it’s not going to be a language that will be formatted into the digital age as such. The Creole language used to be called ‘patois’ and is really derived from a melange of sorts —basically broken 16th and 17th century French. It’s a language that was only recently recognised as a language, so I think this reference to identity is precisely about a certain kind of relationship that has an agonistic aspect to it. I would also say it is about ‘slippage’ and the various methods of suppression in a language. That is why in Vagabondia (2000), and in the beginning of Paradise Omeros those languages — the language of Creole —are purposefully untranslated and therefore distancing to some viewers which in turn reveals the poetics and «sounding» of Creole as a language, rather than it’s literal meaning.
Your work engages in a number of formal explorations of cinema as a medium,
not least your practice of splitting or fragmenting the screen. There are obviously
conceptual and formal issues here – how do they relate to one another?
I’ve been very interested in the notion of ‘creolizirg vision’ and I’ve been thinking
about the idea of why three screens and why that might be appealing to me. It is
appealing to me because it has become, what some people might say in quotes, a
‘trademark’; but it may have something that appeals to me beyond being just a
trademark — of how, for example, you might aesthetically portray cinematic
questions. I have been very interested in thinking about the advent of silent cinema
and Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927] — what happens to it at the end when it goes into
three screens. I’m also thinking about structuralist film which was interested in
making multi-screen work, or what was then being called ‘expanded cinema’, and
embedding those type of practices with a subjectivity that has at its centre this quest
—for thinking about the way in which digital technology, alongside questions of
globalisation and translocation, might inhabit your perspective as a viewer. .
So the multi-screen works for me because I like the idea of thinking about multiple images and, of course, fragmentation is appealing, as is the question of doubling and mirroring —all of which I can portray through multi-screening. The thing is to think through concepts visually, where you construct an argument on par with a philosophical debate. Those aspects are more evident in a film like Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Mask(1996); they are also in films like Vagabondia and Paradise Omeros, but they’re not as illustrated.
Your work also engages in a number of intertextual frames of references. In
Paradise Omeros, there is a character who echoes Robert Mitchum’s role as a deviant
preacher in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), specifically the scene in
which he explains Good and Evil —why this movie and this particular scene?
Well first of all I adore Night of the Hunter because it is a sort of black and white kitsch. l also love the performance of Robert Mitchum. My rendition of the ‘Good and Evil’ scenario portrayed in the film is more in keeping within thought about post September 11th and about a culture and a world where
questions of xenophobia and xenophilia are to the forefront. I am also thinking of globalisation and its discontents. I see the ‘Good and Evil’ speech as illuminating that form of discussion or discourse.
The ‘Good and Evil’ speech, when we first hear it, is in patois; when we
later hear it reprised, it is in English — why this reversal, which would seem
to initially translate the original speech only to return it to its original language?
Whilst creolizition and creolité is the subject of a whole book, we never know what the Creole language sounds like — so that is the first reason as to why you initially hear it in Creole. It is a language that gets debated but seldom heard. I think it is important to think of what it sounds like and also it is underlining the fact that these on screen conversations are taking place in these Anglophone spaces. The same conversations would have a different impact in Francophone spaces. When I hear it in Creole, for example, it is not at all distanciating for me. It is also about who is viewing and who is listening. It is also about knowledge — about how knowledge is being constructed and the distanciation is really only in relationship to the non-Creole subject. I’m not trying to essentialise Creole, I’m just putting out an idea of how spectators are never viewing in a neutral fashion.
Is this part of what you articulate in your essay as the project of
I think language and vision are bound together, of course. We can think
about the question of language and how important that is in relationship to
vision — and how inseparable those two things are, especially in pieces like
Paradise Omeros and Vagabondia.
What current projects are you working on, or what are you going to be
working on in the coming months?
There is a project that I am thinking about — the lce Project— which I won’t say anything more about for now. There is also a project with the Pompidou Centre due for 2005. These might become the same project, I’m not sure. Another one l am working on is based on Paul Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic
which opens in Berlin next year.
One final question before I forget: when I was looking at Paradise
Omeros I was constantly reminded of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners
(1956) — did that book have an impact on you when you read it?
I think the ‘The Lonely Londoners’ would be a fantastic book to be made into a film – which I would like to direct. It would be a brilliant project to direct. It is something that the Film Council should be funding.
This article first appeared in Untitled Magazine, Spring 2004, Number 31. There is current exhibition of Isaac Julian’s work at Tate Britain. For more details click here
Main image, Isaac Julien, Paradise Omeros (2002). In the article, Isaac Julien, Before Paradise – Paradise Omeros (2002); Cover Untitled Magazine, Spring 2004; Vagabondia, Isaac Julien (2000). Purchased with assistance from the American Patrons of Tate (Eileen-Harris Norton and the Peter Norton Family Foundation, Kathy and Richard S. Fuld Jr), Poju and Anita Zabludowicz 2004