SOAS: MIXED ROOTS
Our Mixed Roots series with SOAS wraps up on Wednesday 7th June at 4pm with a screening of INDOCHINA: TRACES OF A MOTHER + Q&A with the film's director Idrissou Mora-Kpai. The film tells the story of what happened to the children of African soldiers and Vietnamese mothers at the end of the war in 1954. Find out more and book tickets: HERE.
To tell the devastating story of what happened to the children of African soldiers and Vietnamese mothers at the end of the war in 1954, you interview two generations of people across two different continents. How difficult was it to piece together everything you needed for this film?
Idrissou Mora-Kpai: I became aware of the African participation in the Indochina war, and more particularly of the children that were born out of this encounter through Christophe, who was an acquaintance of mine. For some time I had been quite curious about his mixed Vietnamese-Beninese heritage but he didn't like to talk about it. Actually, I learned more about his history from his son, which was when I decided I wanted to make a documentary about the broader history behind his life.
I was particularly fascinated by this history which brought together two colonized peoples who stood on different sides at this historical moment and Christophe’s story itself, is a result of this encounter. This is why I decided to try to complement the African side of the story by listening to eyewitnesses on the Vietnamese side. So, I ended up talking to children of mixed Vietnamese-Beninese descent, to the generation of their fathers who fought in Indochina, and to former Vietnamese soldiers who stood on the other side. Meeting Vietnamese mothers was more difficult, however, I was able to meet one in Benin, who was among the few who was able to join her African husband and return with him to Benin.
It is true, bringing these different narratives together was not easy. On the one hand, Christophe and his life story became that link between all the different parts. But equally important for me, was to use the aesthetic of the places as another link that could bring the two continents together. In terms of vegetation, landscape and the business of the cities, I felt many similarities between Cotonou and Hanoi – indeed even the old African soldiers talked about that. Something like a post-colonial modernity characterizes both cities and water and bridges are omnipresent in both places. Also the ocean itself became an important link, because the African soldiers travelled by boat to Indochina. So, I tried to play with the images of the ocean, the water, the bridges – often vestiges from colonial times to piece together all the different elements addressed in the film.
Find out more about the filmmaking process in our Q&A with director Idrissou Mora-Kpai following the screening!
MIXED ROOTS, our new three-part series in partnership with the Centre for Film Studies at SOAS University of London, explores people’s experiences of intimate, cross-cultural relationships in Africa and Asia. Ahead of the second screening in the series on Wednesday 31st May at 4pm, we put some questions to Lara Pérez Takagi, co-director of Hafu: the mixed-race experience in Japan. Find out more and book tickets: HERE.
Check back soon for updates featuring the directors of part 3 in the series: Indochina: Traces of a Mother by Idrissou Mora-Kpai (screening Wednesday 7th June)
You follow a number of different people of mixed heritage who have one Japanese parent in Hafu. They have very different experiences and different relationships to their own identities. How important was it for you to show positive experiences as well as the difficulties?
It was very important to us to show as much of the overall experience as possible. This includes positive and negative events. You simply cannot only focus on one of them as it would render incomplete. There needs to be a balance not only for storytelling sake, but also as a reflection of reality. We didn't want the audience to leave their seats thinking solely on one type of experience. In every human life there are joys and also difficult situations that we need to face in order to mold ourselves into the people we become today. Being able to access a wide number of interviews that were conducted through our advisors research since 2000, we were pinpointed into the direction of recurring and also unique events we have faced in many of our lives. The fact that "we" the creators of this film are "ha-fu" ourselves helped a great deal as well. We could walk the viewer through our own shoes.
What personal experiences allowed you to connect with the different people and the journeys they are on?
Meeting the creators of "Hafu Japanese" (photography and interview project that started in London in 2000) and being involved in many of their events at art galleries, or universities, etc. in Japan was what allowed me to connect with all of these individuals. My own curiosity had me take a deeper look into my own identity being part Japanese, and meet all of the people who participated one way or another in the creation of this film, who were mostly ha-fu themselves. Each of our participants have gone through an experience that I can relate to. Following their lives made me look back and reflect on my own, at the same time the feeling of familiarity and connection, knowing that we are not alone in the world, that there are others like us who experience the same things, joys and dilemmas. It's a beautiful thing to discover really. By meeting others like ourselves you find yourself in your own little support group of long lost brothers and sisters who you can talk to for hours on end about your own cultural upbringing and what it's like when you go outside in the world.
MIXED ROOTS, our new three-part series in partnership with the Centre for Film Studies at SOAS University of London, explores people’s experiences of intimate, cross-cultural relationships in Africa and Asia. Ahead of the first screening next Wednesday 24th May at 4pm, we put some questions to Sarah Ping Nie Jones, the director of UMBILICAL CORDS. Find out more and book tickets: HERE.
Check back soon for updates featuring the directors of parts 2 and 3 in the series:
Hafu by Megumi Nishikura & Lara Pérez Takagi (screening Wednesday 31st May)
Indochina: Traces of a Mother by Idrissou Mora-Kpai (screening Wednesday 7th June)
In Umbilical Cords you set out to explore the mother-daughter relationship, featuring a number of stories including your own. What did you discover that you didn’t expect?
I was inspired by the relationships between me and my flatmates and our mothers – the different languages and cultures flowing through the house. When I started filming, I thought I’d make some soundbites for some online platform - musings on transnational motherhood. I had no idea of what was going to unfold within my own relationship with my mother, the scale of the conflict to come [over the ‘race’ of my partner], and the five-year journey with all the women in the film. It became such an important part of our lives – without it, I don’t know how I would have been able to process everything that happened between my mother and I, and I know that it also transformed the other mother-daughter relationships in the film.
I think the most unexpected thing for me was the experience of interviewing and filming my own mother. When we did the first interview, it was after we had not spoken for a year, and it was the first time we spoke about the very painful conflict between us. Having the camera between us acted as a mediator – tempering the rage and pain, allowing us to take the time to find words without becoming immediately defensive, forcing us to listen to the other. My mother opened up to the ‘camera’, with me behind it, in ways she has never been able to speak to me directly. Watching my mother speak about me as opposed to at me, was a powerful experience and shifted how I saw her. I can’t say what it shifted for her though – but I imagine just to chance to talk to ‘someone’ about it (my mother is deeply private, despite having agreed to the film), was a relief - even though it was me!
It’s a deeply personal film. What were the main challenges you faced being both the film’s director and one of its protagonists?
I think the biggest challenge, again assisted by the camera, was holding back my own outrage at what was happening – but occupying the position of enquirer, and being able to push and ask and challenge, was immensely joyful. The camera liberated me from my position as ‘daughter’ and allowed me to become enquirer and actually my own protagonist in relation to my mother. The camera helped me to step back from the situation, even in/during the situation, and find some perspective outside of my own experience. Editing the film was the toughest part, trying to tell the many ‘stories’ and not only ‘my story’ even though they were all interwoven - separating out the strands and knowing which was which, and trying to find my mother’s perspective within that. It was gruelling emotionally, to sit with all this material that was heaving with the weight of the mother-daughter bond, when I was in such turmoil around it, and to try and find a way through.
Your work often focuses on identity and freedom. What do you like about film as a medium to explore these complex themes?
The power of film, particularly in an actual cinema, is that in that moment of stepping into a darkened room, instead of having your own stream of consciousness projecting in your brain, you are able to experience someone else’s, intensified. As you sit in that seat, in the cavern of your consciousness, you are taken through the images, the emotions, of someone else’s life – you get to experience their subjectivity, for however brief a moment, but at some moment in the film you will forget you’re you and think you’re them (well, that’s certainly what happens to me!). It’s like stepping into someone else’s skin. You are liberated from you at the same time as exploring someone else. A great release and expansion. Erotic, non?
UMBILICAL CORDS is screening on Wednesday 24th May at 4pm, preceded by a short film Hackney Lullabies, directed by Kyoko Miyake. Find out more about book your tickets: HERE.