Aug 22 2011: The Road To Mazetlan: An Interview With Isaac Julien (Big Issue in the North, 2000)

I met with Isaac Julien on a cool and slightly overcast mid-morning at a cafe just off the Tottenham Court Road, where we sat outside and chatted fairly informally about Julien’s life, ideas, installations and films: the exact date and location I can’t remember, but I have a strong memory of the interview itself, as spots of rain would start then stop again throughout the conversation, though I’ve no idea why this detail sticks in the mind when far more important things are long forgotten. The piece was commissioned to coincide with an exhibition at The Cornerhouse, Manchester (August 19 – September 17, 2000) in which Julien’s The Road to Mazetlan and Vagabondia were screening. Quite separately, a little later that same summer, I also interviewed Julien’s collaborator on The Road To Mazetlan, Javier de Frutos, in relation to a dance work of his own that he was touring at the time, Montana’s Winter, another piece grounded in inspiration from Tennessee Williams. 

A lone figure approaches, his shuffling walk both casual and confident, as though auditioning for John Ford, except the scenery behind him is very much London’s grey pavements and brick terraces rather than California’s deserts and Mexico’s oceans. It might almost be an out-take from Isaac Julien’s The Road To Mazetlan, a kind of deconstructed Western made in collaboration with Venezuelan choreographer Javier de Frutos, but in fact it’s Julien himself, approaching the cafe­bar we’ve agreed to meet at and apologising for being late because the jet-lag he’s suffering meant he’d slept through his alarm.

Born in 1960, Isaac Julien first made his name as one of the founders of Sankofa, a pioneering black film and video collective, and during the 1980s directed a series of documentaries, short films and videos that culminated in what is still widely regarded as his best work to date, Looking for Langston, a complex, poetic documentary drama exploring the life, work and sexuality of the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

The poetic documentaries are only one aspect of Julien’s rather varied filmography, though. If Looking for Langston is widely considered his masterpiece, he’s probably best known to a wider public for his only commercial feature to date, Young Soul Rebels, a film that won awards in Cannes for its energetic mix of punk, soul and a murder mystery set during the Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1977. Young Soul Rebels used its accessible story and nostalgic frame to present Julien’s racial and sexual themes in a mainstream format, a bit like a black Quadrophenia or Pump Up the Volume.

Music videos for Peter Gabriel’s Shaking the Tree (with Youssou N’Dour) and Des’ree’s Feel So High also won wide distribution and a fair bit of acclaim, and these were followed by further documentary and arthouse excursions. If that suggests Julien rejected the commercial film world in favour of a more personal trajectory, however, it turns out to be more complicated. The reasons for not following the possibilities that had seemed open after the success of Young Soul Rebels, as Julien himself makes clear, were as much to do with the lack of funding for a second feature as his own choices.

“There should have been other sorts of feature film to follow Young Soul  Rebels,” he points out, “and I’d certainly have been interested in making more films of that kind, but although I had various projects in development, and we had lots of meetings, in the end none of those were green-lighted. I’ve never felt I needed to choose a commercial or experimental path, as I think it’s possible to do both, but there is a problem in Britain with someone like myself who doesn’t want to tell a particular kind of mainstream story and that’s a structural and institutional problem within the film industry here.”

“The thing is, if you look at the track­ record in the UK, there’s maybe one high-profile feature film by a non-white director every 10 years, and that makes it very difficult for someone like myself to develop a body of work. There has to be institutional and political will for that kind of development to take place, and whatever is said, none of the films made in Britain are ever made on a purely commercial basis. Even the ones that do end up making money are initially green-lighted for lots of other complex reasons, because their commercial performance is never predictable.”

Besides which, Julien insists that the gallery space has distinct advantages for a film-maker interested – as he undoubtedly is – in crossing the boundaries usually drawn between poetic, documentary and more traditional narrative-driven forms of storytelling.

“There’s an assumption that things have to be ‘either/or’,” he says, “but there’s no reason why the approach of something like Looking for Langston or The Road to Mazetlan couldn’t be fused with something more mainstream or commercial, if someone was of a mind to approach things in that way. One of the advantages of showing film in a gallery context rather than a cinema is that you can start to question some of the rather limiting ideas we have about what cinema is.”

“After all, what most people think of as cinema is just one of many possibilities, what a friend of mine calls ‘Movies with a capital M’. Yet this one approach is questionable, and far from the only option, even though it’s been the ruling cinematic experience for a long time now. I don’t want to moralise, because people can make their own choices about what they want to see, and I’ve no problem with that, but it can be healthy sometimes to question some of the codes we too often take for granted.”

Julien’s latest project, The Road to Mazetlan, is a collaboration with choreo­grapher Javier de Frutos that explores the myths of American popular culture over three split screens packed with references to everything from the iconic camp of Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys to David Hockney’s paintings and polaroids of LA swimming pools, from Martin Scorsese’s dystopian Taxi Driver to the iconography of the American desert. With transvestites, motel rooms, guns and rattlesnakes all thrown in for good measure, one thing it certainly isn’t is dryly intellectual.

“It’s a boy-meets-boy-then-loses-boy story,” explains Julien, “so despite what I’ve just said, there’s a simple narrative there that I hope hooks people into the more complex layers – the multiple screens, the references and those other aspects that often get overlooked. Mazetlan is a real place, a Mexican coastal town, and the title comes from Tenessee Williams, who used to say he was ‘going down the road to Mazetlan‘ when he meant was going off by himself to live a kind of hedonistic life for a while. One of the things The Road to Mazetlan is about is the fashion and styling of gay subcultures within mainstream cinema.”

Paired at the upcoming Cornerhouse show with the world premiere of Vagabondia, a film which features actress Cleo Sylvestre playing the role of a curator within the classically shaped cabinet of curiosities of London’s Sir John Soane Museum – a strange temple of antiquities built by and named after the architect of the Bank of England to house a very eccentric collection in the 18th century – it might be tempting to describe both films as ‘installations’ rather than ‘movies’ in the more prevalent Hollywood mould.

Vagabondia’s beginnings in a show of site-specific work by fine artists at the Sir John Soane Museum last year, responding to a space that Julien himself describes as “very kinky”, might be a factor that reinforces that impression, as might be the fact that The Road To Mazetlan is a collaboration with the dancer and choreographer Javier de Frutos – a man noted for dancing naked, and dealing with very raw emotions – rather than a more conventional kind of actor. But for Julien, the difficulty of labelling his work is all part of the bigger point he wants to raise for audiences.

“The gallery offers a way of looking that isn’t necessarily available in a more traditional cinema space,” he explains. “How do we know that what we watch in a standard cinema context is actually cinema at all? Perhaps these less obvious forms are closer to realising the potential of the medium? Those are the sort of questions I want to pose, if only so viewers might be given the space to ‘unlearn’, if they want to, some of the codes that are too-often taken for granted. In that process, maybe a few possibilities about what the cinematic experience might be can be opened up.”

Equally, while issues of race and sexuality have always been at the heart of Julien’s work to date, he remains reluctant to allow easy inter­pretations, resisting the label of ‘black film­maker’ by gently correcting the phrasing:  “I’m a film-maker who sometimes makes work on black themes, not a ‘black film-maker’ – except maybe in a very literal descriptive sense,” he says. “That’s just one of the ways that people have of framing what you do and putting limits around it, placing it into a little ghetto of its own, where it doesn’t really need to be seen or thought about too much.”

“It can become far too easy for people to say, ‘you look like this, so you have to represent that’, you know?  ‘You’re a black male director, so your films can all be interpreted in the light of that one very partial fact about you’. It makes it far too easy to become labelled ‘ethnic’, ‘black’, ‘gay’ or whatever, and those labels can limit what you’re allowed to do. If a white film-maker makes a movie on a black theme, he’ll get gold medals and get praised to the skies, of course, but while I think once I’d have been perfectly happy to reply to questions in those terms – and I do understand why they’re used – it’s now far too easy to just accept those labels, and they’re very problematic. ”

“The work is what it is,” he adds finally, thinking over my final question about what motivates him to make the films he does, and what he hopes audiences will find in them. “I certainly hope that a sense of energy and fun communicates itself to audiences through these films. The issues we’ve talked about are there, and they’re obviously very important to me, but I do this job because I love film, and I love the possibilities the medium presents to those prepared to push beyond the usual formats and limitations. I play around with narrative for all sorts of reasons, some of them based in ideas and issues – but one of the most important reasons is simply because it’s fun.”

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