We kick off Film Focus week on women directors and film-makers with Cecile Emeke, the director of Ackee & Saltfish, screening at our film festival this year. Ackee & Saltfish is a witty, lighthearted short on the intersection of gentrification, class & race. A very complex topic no doubt, and we were keen to understand a little bit more about the subject matter.
In this interview, Cecile talks about how gentrification affects people’s lives, the chemistry between the two lead characters, and diversity in the independent film scene and film festival circuit – specifically, the visibility and representation of black and minority ethnic people in film.
A quick introduction of yourself and your film ‘Ackee and Saltfish’.
My name is Cecile Emeke, I’m a filmmaker, writer and artist from London and Ackee & Saltfish is the first short film I’ve ever created.
Tackling the subject of gentrification, with issues on race is not an easy task. We like how you’ve used “food” as a vehicle to talk about these issues in a light-hearted way. Care to elaborate on how this came about?
The subject of gentrification, explored through the vehicle of food came about from a real life experience that myself and the assistant director, Abraham Popoola, had outside of London. We wanted to go get some Carribean food and I had heard of a new place, but had never been there so we went to check it out. I was really craving Ackee & Saltfish. We got there, it was located with all the other huge restaurants in town, the place was filled to the rim with people and it was huge. There was fake sand, pictures of Bob Marley everywhere, Jamaica flags everywhere and the bar was made out of fake wood to look like a hut or something. There was a 45 minute wait so we sat by the bar and both of us naturally were observing our surroundings. You could see into the kitchen and all the chefs were white, and then the more I looked around I realised all the waiters were white, and all the bar staff were white. In fact everyone in the restaurant was white. I looked at the menu and all the food and drinks had weird culturally appropriated names like “Bob Marley this” and “Rastafarian that”. Further more they had no Ackee & Saltfish. And to top it off all of this unauthentic, appropriated food was more expensive than the real thing. Abraham was not impressed either, so we left.
I knew of an actual Caribbean restaurant run by Caribbean people but I hadn’t been there before either so I looked it up and we went. It was on an empty back street in the middle of no where. We walked in to the empty restaurant and the woman behind the counter said “we only have some ribs and coleslaw left”. I looked down on the counter and there was barely any food. We left and were so upset and frustrated. We ended up getting chinese.
It reminded me of why I hate gentrification; not out of abstract political correctness, but because it was personal and it hurts. We talk about gentrification in such disconnected ways: numbers, statistics and so on. But it is so much more intimate than that. People are pushed out of their “homes” and by homes I mean any space that belongs to them; even spaces as intimate as traditional food.
After we made the film the exact same thing happened again. I went to go get some food from a local childhood favorite of mine, Pimento Grove, and when I got there it had been shut down. That was just reaffirmation for making the film for me.
The two main characters carried through with some interesting, funny and powerful dialogue between them – have they had a connection with each other prior to the film?
The two actors were familiar with each other before the film but not at all to the level that they did by the end of it. The chemistry between them is purely down to great acting, not prior knowledge of each other – they did an amazing job!
What is your opinion on diversity in the independent film-making scene / film festival circuit – specifically, the visibility and representation of black and minority ethnic people?
Generally speaking I think we live in a world that enjoys black culture and dislikes black people.
Film reflects the world we live in and thus we see the same thing happening in film. You only have to google “whitewashed hollywood films” to get lists of hundred of films where black cultures has been appropriated, but the actual black people have been erased. Similar things happen within other non-white cultures too. The latest outrage probably being Exodus that casted Black, African Egyptians with an all white cast.
The thing about independent film-making is that you don’t have to give in to those pressures which is great, but you know that if you do your film will probably do better. I know that if I made Rachel & Olivia two white women, or two white men, the film would be more “universal” and therefore more festivals would be likely to want to program it.
You know that if your film has an all black cast that it will be seen as a “black” or “niche” film as opposed to just a film. But that being said, with independent film there is more open mindedness and there are festivals (such as No Gloss,) that aren’t “black film festivals” that are able to see a film where the characters just happen to have brown skin and enjoy it without the labeling and stigmatizing that happens in Hollywood and some of the bigger festivals.
I think there is still a long way to go with the independent film/film-festival scene, but things are getting there.
Ackee & Saltfish (UK)