Co-conspiracy and Intimacy

New films by Ja’Tovia Gary, Annabelle Aventurin and Ana Vaz

Xavier Alexandre Pillai

Le roi n’est pas mon cousin (The King is not my Cousin)

Director ANNABELLE AVENTURIN, Year 2022, Country FRANCE

A Árvore (The Tree)

Director ANA VAZ, Year 2022, Country BRAZIL, SPAIN

Quiet as it’s Kept
Director JA’TOVIA GARY, Year 2023, Country USA

In the afterword of The Bluest Eye (1970), Toni Morrison writes:

"My choices of language (speakerly, aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black-American culture into a language worthy of the culture.”

In Quiet as it’s Kept, artist Ja’Tovia Gary examines the appropriation of these codes and the altered nature of how self-hatred and the desirability of whiteness manifest, skewering our current moment. Extracts from a 1988 interview with Morrison on Mavis on Four, in which the American novelist speaks about the process of writing The Bluest Eye, are woven throughout the film and intercut with TikTok footage by white users who perform a mangled physical stereotype of imagined black personae. Through cawing "okurr", they vocalise digital blackface: a mimicking of black-coded speech, an attempt to recreate memeified online reactions of black people.

In exhibiting these performances, Gary speaks to the messy cultural cache of a specific black culture and the contemporary inversion of 20th-century North American desirability. The rejection of white, middle- and upper-class norms as the de rigueur form of aspirational behaviour is encapsulated by the husky self-referential utterance, “I’m really a ghetto ass white bitch.” The incorporation of extracts from viral clips within the black online world soothes us; @the_bobbie_holliday_experience playfully teases a group of female workers in a KFC in north Philadelphia; @korectiion's Black History Month TikToks reflect solidarity, self-love and community. These clips contrast against the messy navigations of body image in Lil Kim's One World Music Beat interview from 2000 and Thandiwe Newton's online outpouring against colourism through self-castigation.

In The Bluest Eye, an embedded code Morrison alludes to is a form of silence that takes root in the black family unit: "Nobody talked to him; that is, they treated him like the child he was, never engaging him in serious conversation." Filmmaker and archivist Annabelle Aventurin's The King is not my Cousin marks an attempt to break intergenerational silence. The saying that children should be seen and not heard in the Caribbean context has transmuted into practice through the islands, imposing a cloud of silence. The lives and experiences of elders remain uncommunicated due to this cultural norm. This silence goes hand in hand with the reality of postcolonial societies, where communities have been caught in the global churn of migratory patterns in search of education and opportunities stripped from their home nations. Aventurin's film reflects this experience through discussions of her family history, capturing a fragmentation that is an unexamined, but shared, experience of families across the Caribbean. Elzea, Aventurin’s grandmother, wrote Karukera Ensoleillée, Guadeloupe Échouée in 1980. It was published on Nouvelles Éditions Africaines (NEA), the pan-African publishing house founded in 1972 by the poet and first president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor. Elzea's words and intimate tales from her time in Dakar reanimate this experience.

Ana Vaz also interpolates an intimate conversation for her film The Tree. Like in Aventurin’s film, a private recorded conversation breaks a form of silence. Vaz’s father, Guilherme Vaz, was a well-known musical polymath and multimedia artist who was classically trained, composed music for films, and wrote about the relationship between music and language. After his passing, his reputation subsumes who he is; in a sense, his being is silenced by the work he leaves behind. The recorded conversation reconstitutes the artist’s relationship with her father. This film serves to preserve a connection to his identity and documents his love for Rondônia.

Curious about the interrelationships between culture and music, Guilherme Vaz lived in Rondônia for eight years with the Gavião people, learning to understand the relationship between time, rituals and indigenous musicality alongside local practitioners. Inspired by his time there, he created compositions integrating the time signatures of classical and indigenous music. Learning to understand Gavião customs, codes and cultural practices shaped his life so profoundly that in his final years, returning there was a core desire.

These three films interrelate, exploring cultural codes' effects on shaping our lives – how we are perceived, our interrelationships, and our most intimate moments and reflections.

Xavier Alexandre Pillai is television curator at the BFI, a freelance film programmer and a trustee at LUX Moving Image. He can be found online @xavi____a.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of Le roi n’est pas mon cousin (The King is not my Cousin), A Árvore (The Tree) and Quiet as it’s Kept at Close-Up Film Centre, 11 September 2023.