‘Body Politics’ – Interview with film director Sonali Fernando
by Jonathan Abbott
Among the assortment of lesbian films screened by Channel 4 at the end of last year under the unattractive-sounding ‘Dyke TV’ umbrella was a real gem: ‘Body of a Poet’ written and directed with style, insight and wit by Sonali Fernando, a young Sri Lankan author, as a tribute to the late Audre Lorde, the black poet laureate of New York State.
This is pretty accomplished for a second film – what was your first?
“It was called Shakti and it was made for the BFI new directors scheme in 1992 – it was quite a baptism by fire, I had read English at Oxford, after studying nine hours a day for my degree I wanted to do something really non-verbal”.
So film beckoned?
“Not at Oxford. Either I went round with a bad attitude for three years or Oxford wasn’t for me – I was very bored by it, I didn’t find the dazzling wits and brilliant minds I thought I’d find. As far as the extra-curricular stuff was concerned I’d had a fairly lucky time at school, I’d edited a newspaper and so on: I arrived with short hair and I’d just fallen in love with a woman a week before. I really wasn’t interested, so I’d stay up all night and sleep during the day and not go to tutorials. Within three weeks they actually put me on probation, they kept on threatening to throw me out but I got very good marks in my essays, so, on the other hand, they wanted to keep me. I was a bit of a misfit really but I had one wonderful tutor, Dr Clare Brand, now at London University, and she was an inspiration, in fact, some of the ideas that I discussed with her in relation to biography and form and structure, how you negotiate history in writing and feminist theories of biography, how you write yourself into the biography, and how you acknowledge the process of fabrication and desire at work, a lot of those ideas came out of discussions with her on anything from 18th-century epistolary novels to Gertrude Stein”.
What was the story of the first film?
“Shakti means power in Sanskrit, specifically female creative power, the active power associated with both ordinary women and goddesses because in India there is a male ideal of passivity and a female one of activity. My idea was to use the concept of Shakti to inform a quite prosaic narrative set in Britain about an Indian woman who lived in a tower block in London and recycled everything inside; she’d rummage through the rubbish and find bits of junk, coke cans, newspapers and whatever else. In this flat, which was very unassuming outside but a kind of Tardis inside, a fabulous place of her own creation, she rips up newspapers and petals off the flowers and mulched the whole thing and makes hand made paper in a big kahari on the floor, and on the paper, she paints pictures of her fantastical perception of her own reality, her purpose. One day there’s a kind of confrontation where a guy who lives in the tower block sees her as a mute, foreign woman who’s littering the place and deals with it with invective and abuse. He sets out to attack her with a coke can and she turns the can, which she has in tier hand, into a metal bird. He grabs the bird and cuts her hand with it and there’s a mythical sequence where she’s making the paper but the blood from her hand is turning everything red, at that point, the spirit of Shakti, the goddesses spirit, enters her and the next time she sees this guy she transforms him in exactly the same way as she transforms the rubbish: she gets his face, crumples it up into a ball of paper and transforms it into a handful of Hibiscus flowers.
Finally, there’s a sequence with a pair of really boring men’s shoes which she’s picked out of the rubbish, she claps her hands and they turn into these amazing carnivalesque shoes with curly toes and gold which drive down the street away from the tower block – it’s a fable…”
Is this a tale that has always been dear to you?
“There were two things that were happening at the time. First, I was involved in a recycling group called Reactive Art, a group of about 140 artists who all worked with recycled materials for everything from fashion shows to exhibitions, the other I was just going to India, and having been in a very white environment at Oxford and at a white school I was beginning to ask questions about why it was I didn’t have many black friends; what were the things I wanted to find out and what were the things I had internalized through a Eurocentric upbringing”.
Is your first film something you are proud of now?
“It actually won the Prix Canal Plus at the 1993 Chambord film festival but it took me a long time until I could look at it. Partly because I made it under the thumb of a pretty oppressive institution. I’d had a big idea and they liked the script. There I was, a total novice, directing a professional crew who were much more experienced than I was. There were people on the crew who were lovely to work with. And there were also people who’d applied for the New Directors scheme and didn’t get it”.
What does your first name mean?
“‘Golden Cloud’. I was named after a Bengali woman of letters and dancer who eloped with Roberto Rossellini in the fifties when he went to India to make a film. It was a national scandal; not only did she leave her husband, she left her son. My father was about 15, living in Sri Lanka, and followed this religiously every day in the papers. Being a rebel himself he thought ‘if I ever have a daughter, I’ll name her after Sonali Das Gupta'”.
“Portuguese – the ‘o’ ending is the Sri Lankan version of Fernandez”.
Did you discover the work of Audre Lorde when you were at Oxford?
“Very soon after. My tutor mentioned the name, but there was no real space to study her. There was a module at the end where you could do 20th-century women writers but they didn’t really want you to do anybody past 1960. That was really radical; Virginia Woolf was considered marginal”.
Audre Lorde died in 1992 – when did she start writing?
“As a child, she wrote obsessively. When she left home at 17 she was living in boarding houses, she used to write on every surface, the cracks in walls, in the bathroom, on the plaster. She would have been 20 in 1954, but she was writing in the ’40s too. One of the anthologies, ‘Undersong’, has some poems she wrote when she was about 16”.
How old was she when she died?
So the reason we don’t know a lot about her over here is geographical – she was an American poet?
“We know about Robert Lowell. The fact that she was black and lesbian had a lot to do with it. Maybe her writing was overshadowed by other black voices of the ’70s. She seems to have felt quite aggrieved by the suppression of women’s voices”.
Your film is not biographical in terms of telling her life story – the focus of the film is her dying?
“We didn’t really portray any living person in the film. The main pivots of her life are there, some of the things that her life experience made her think about. For instance her relationship with a white woman – she did actually live with a white woman for about 20 years, which is quite interesting in terms of the Afrocentric way she’s been appropriated”.
Was her life hard in the way that most jazz musicians’ life is hard?
“Towards the end of her life, she was a professor of poetry at Hunter College in New York. In one of her essays she does talk about the fact that, relative to a lot of black women, she’s doing all right. Earlier it was very difficult. Both her parents were from the Caribbean. They came to New York, they were middle-class in they aspirations and couldn’t identify with American blacks – they felt themselves to be outsiders already, and these differences of blackness are expressed in many of Audre Lorde’s articulations. Her first job was working in a factory dealing with radioactive crystals; they were monitored on how quickly they could move these things, so some people used to shovel them into their pockets to speed up the process. They had no protection and this may have contributed to her cancer”.
Did you ever meet her?
“No – as I came to her through her work my knowledge of her is at one remove. I don’t want to present a factually accurate portrait of her – what I aim for is emotional accuracy”.
As a piece of film ‘Body of A Poet’ is very ambitious, after your “baptism of fire”: not just a TV programme but real movie values, with some very good set-piece dramatic scenes like the feminist discussion and the ‘there’s someone I’d like you to meet’ scene in the bar.
“We really worked at that slightly leering atmosphere, you do find that sleazy thing in subcultural sexuality but you accept it because you know the conditions in which people are functioning. Everyone at that time had to divide into butch or fern: Audre refused to be either; she had a bit of both”.
Not only did you write these scenes, and the dialogue for them: you seem to have written all the poetic voice-over running through the film as a link between the various scenes.
“What I think I’ve done is take knowledge of Andre Lorde from the public domain, that she was lesbian, black, had a mother, was a poet and a professor, and what I get from her poetry, and fuse them together as the basis of the script”.
What about the music, “Motherless Child” and the rap at the end?
“The singing is by the person who did the voiceover; Sandi Russell, a jazz singer who was born in Harlem. When we got back I was editing and finalising the voice-over: I needed an African-American woman with a New York twang, all I could find was soft, cosy southern granny voices. Then I asked an actor friend who had heard her on ‘Woman’s Hour’. She was impossible to trace but I had a bee in my bonnet about her. Her voice has exactly that range – the power, the defiance, the grit, the slight rasp – and the knowledge. We tracked her down to Durham”.
And the rap tracks?
“They were my lyrics, I was one of the beat-box backing vocalists and we recorded it in someone’s garage in an hour”.
How did you cast the parts?
“We had ten days in L.A. before we started filming and I auditioned about eighty people. We put advertisements in various papers, we talked to a lot of black women, and we went scouting in lesbian clubs. It’s a mixture of actors and non-actors. Most of the extras aren’t actors, most main parts are. People came to us because they knew about her and felt passionate about her. Or because there was a film being made about an African-American woman”.
Was it an all-girl crew?
“Our LA-based camerawoman Carolyn had a joke ‘the only straight white male you’ve got in the crew is a freak – he’s 7ft 4!’. Everyone else was black and/or female and/or gay”.
Do you find it easier to work like that?
“Not necessarily – it’s not down to gender or race per se, but attitude and commitment and talent. Our budget was tiny, about half what a normal half-hour documentary on videotape would cost. And yet we made it on super 16 with all those people. And everyone got paid something”.
Sounds like jazz – you get a similar investment, no matter what people’s orientation is.
‘Body of a Poet’ is a stunning piece of controlled filmmaking – in today’s fast track film industry it should entitle Sonali Fernando to a shot at a full-length subject. Ironically, it was screened on Channel 4 immediately after ‘Basic Instinct’ in which Sharon Stone, however homicidal, having demonstrated that she enjoys screwing men more than a lot, is kissed on the lips by a girlfriend in a plainly sexual way. The point about this is that however titillating this (and other bits of the film) have been designed to be by Messrs Ezsterhas and Verhoeven, the duo present their leading lady’s bisexual appetite matter-of-factly as a not unhealthy part of modern living.
In contrast, we are told that Sonali Fernando’s third project is to be another short about an Indian woman coming to grips with life on the island of Lewis. Shades of Robert Flaherty. But is it time for her perception and talent as a writer and skill as a director to find focus away from documenting the margins of everyday life? And how effectively, in the long run, can she confine herself to operating within what she herself describes as a subgroup? About Andrew Sullivan, the gay Briton who successfully edits the US New Republic, a lesbian lawyer in Washington has observed ‘He’s the only person saying that you don’t have to secede from society if you’re gay’ Or as they say in Eastenders, ‘Get Real!’
Further information added 2020:
BFI Link: http://collections-search.bfi.org.uk/web/Details/ChoiceFilmWorks/150437980
Women Make Movies: https://www.wmm.com/filmmaker/Sonali+Fernando/
‘The Selected Works of Audre Lorde’ will be published by WW Norton and available September 2020 from PAGE45 and all good independent book stores.