- Patricia Francis
The Art of Oppression
Much has happened during the months that have passed since my last post. Coronavirus is very much a part of our everyday lives as discussions continue relating to our existential threat. We felt a momentary sense of freedom after the first lockdown was eased, and for those of us not tragically impacted by the virus, there was a sense of release and relief from being locked in and away from family and friends.
The weather was still pretty good to us in the UK as we were encouraged to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, so there was little surprise when, by late autumn, a four-tiered lock-down system was introduced; our movement once again restricted, before our wings being finally clipped by another full lock-down (although I had some difficulty hearing birdsong in this one...) The awful numbers of those dying within twenty-eight days of testing positive for Coronavirus had exceeded one-hundred thousand, and those deaths were now impacting many more of us.
December in the UK, saw a lockdown Christmas as well as the UK departing from Europe and in January, in the wake of Trump’s presidential defeat, headlines suggested that he had some responsibility for the insurgence at the Oval Office one claiming; ‘Trump summons supports to “wild” protest…’. Unlike Obama before him, Trump was not to enjoy a second term of Presidency, and the protest at the Oval office some might argue, was testament to an innate inability to handle defeat and a narcissistic trait that prevented him from being able to pass on the Office of Presidency in the respectful manner in which he had received it.
Back in the UK the Coronavirus vaccine roll-out seemed to be going smoothly as numbers receiving the vaccine soon rose into the hundreds of thousands and queues of excited people formed outside centres to receive their jabs. We have now lived with Covid, the tragic loss of lives and the lockdown for over a year. We have changed how we work, how we learn and how we socialise. Social distancing and isolation when necessary continues to be 'policed' and as we come to terms with social distancing rules, family gatherings become celebrations that occur over Zoom, Teams, some other form of conferencing, or not at all. Comfortable conversations that once occurred in close proximity are now replaced by buffered internet connections and awkward silences as we politely wait for the other to finish speaking.
During this lockdown many more of us it would seem have been able to continue working. I was fortunate to secure Arts Council funding for my film and project The Art Of Oppression and following very strict guidelines I was able to film during lockdown. The film features three women artists who use their work to address issues relating to trauma, identity, belonging and loss. Two of the artists are British, of Pakistani and African-Caribbean heritage. The third was born in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists after a brutal civil war in the 1990s, and her art speaks of the trauma of war and absence of homeland. I wanted to use the filmic platform to enable these artists to speak in their own words as I, as director, attempt to not objectify them, a point raised by academic and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha, not to speak for them, but rather ‘speak nearby’ them.
The Art of Oppression was conceived quite a while before lockdown. It’s a film about art that is made from an understanding of existing within a marginalised group, and I was keen to make a film about women artists who use their art as a means of conversation and possibly political challenge. It was also important that the artists were not seen as celebrities, but ordinary people who dare to speak out. The act of speaking out, is in itself, for women, an act of rebellion in a climate where online harassment against women is, as described by The Guardian, ‘flourishing’. But women are not trespassing when they go onto those online sites, they have an equal right to be there and to be heard.
The Art of Oppression is also about ‘voice’ where 'voice' is both the aural and physical representation of the women and their activism. It’s not just what they say, it is also the social and political space they claim with their art within a patriarchal and neo-liberal system. These are women who ‘dare’ to speak out knowing there is a very real potential of being harassed or abused. These women do not enjoy the protection that celebrity can bring yet are resolute in their need to ‘vocalise’ the injustices they encounter.
For me ‘voice’ is important in this film. I wanted to bring together voices that we seldom hear from. These are women from different cultures and although their experiences of marginalisation take different forms, the impact on their lived experience is very similar and just as injurious.
I’ve been asked about my role as a Black, female British filmmaker and where my own voice fits in at the intersection of social injustice, womanhood and art. I’ve asked myself the same question. Where does the voice of a Black, female director sit? Should her voice be heard, or should she mute herself in the same way that the industry has successfully succeeded in doing?
The Directors UK report revealed that ‘despite the fact that fourteen percent of the UK population consists of people from racialised backgrounds, just over two percent of our TV programmes are made by directors of colour'. Similarly, the 2019 Calling The Shots report found, across the four years they analysed data, ‘60 BAME women working in 120 credited roles. This means that out of all 8784 credits, BAME women make up only 1.4% of these roles. This suggests that around 90% of UK qualifying films have no BAME women’.
The absence of Black people and women is still a concern in the industry however, I believed inserting myself into the film would have distracted from the women and their truths, but to exclude myself would be to silence myself as a Black, female director.
The Art of Oppression is not a documentary in the conventional sense. I’m sure you’re familiar with the documentary form and what to expect when you watch them in terms of camera angles, positioning of interviewees, narrative structure and so on. In my effort to give the women’s voices agency and primacy, I attempted to disrupt those filmic conventions and in doing so enabled my voice to have a presence without detracting from those of the artists.
I also used the filmic space differently creating a different viewing experience to that we’re familiar with when watching television. This is in part because whilst the women share many similarities in their lived experiences, I wanted to also ensure that their voices and their
stories remained distinct, separate and equally valuable. Of course, their experiences overlap, and I attempt to use the space to show that too. I am mindful that this may feel like a disruption to the viewing experience, but I hope that it doesn’t distract from an engagement with the women and what they have to say.
As women we continue to be failed by a patriarchal and neo-colonial system that persists in undermining our right to live and to exist without fear of marginalisation, discrimination or potential harm. Voice has relevance and only when our collective voices chime in harmony, unified and resolute can this be a credible fight for us all.
Watch The Art of Oppression here - https://bit.ly/3eT9Xxd
 Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Jonathan Landay, (2020) “Trump summoned supporters to "wild" protest, and told them to fight. They did,” Reuters, 6 January 2021.
 Nancy N. Chen, “’Speaking Nearby’: A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-Ha,” Visual Anthropology Review vol. 8, no. 1, Spring 1992, 82-91.
 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/oct/05/online-violence-against-women-flourishing-and-most-common-on-facebook-survey-finds (October 2020)  Directors UK, 'Directors of Colour' available on https://www.directors.uk.com/campaigns/bame-directors#our-last-report website (viewed 26 March 2021).  Dr Shelley Cobb, Professor Linda Ruth Williams and Dr Natalie Wreyford, 'Calling the Shots: Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) Women working on UK-qualifying films 2003-2015', 2019, available on https://callingtheshots138740090.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/black-asian-and-ethnic-minority-bame-women-working-on-uk-qualifying-films-2003-2015.pdf , (viewed 26 March 2021).