Paul: The connection between myself and Celeste and Poly [for Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché] was similar to the one I have with Ella in that I was brought up by a working class woman who was a single parent. And in a working class community where I was also bi-racial. When I was very young, I didn’t want to be half Chinese. I also didn’t want to be working class because the kids who were bullying me were also working class kids. My mum was always great with me - trying to make me feel special - but it was difficult for me to reconcile my identity. I wanted to be a white middle class kid until I was about twelve. Then I started to accept my identity and began valuing being an outsider. So my connection with these women has been through the connection of a single mother and her child - very us against the world.
I did think about what it meant to make another film about a working class artist - it’s not some kind of kink. These are just the artists I’m drawn to. I guess I have to make a third one now so it looks deliberate!
I guess I'm drawn to this because my relationship with my mom growing up was very special. When it’s you against the world you have a bond - and I saw that bond between Ella and Tish. I also looked at what it meant by me making this film as a man - because it is a film about women. Even though I make it a point to have at least half of the crew from underrepresented backgrounds, it was doubly important to ensure that the teams we put together were predominantly women led. If you’re making films with and about women, you need to surround yourself with people who understand that experience far better than you can. And I know Ella was more comfortable surrounded by women, like a woman director of photography. She’d often joke that “Paul's our token man on this project” and things like that.
Leah: So here’s a question about the lens as a way of observing and coping with the trauma you’re living through, something I see very present in Tish’s work. From what I hear from Ella, it was a way for her mother to endure the Thatcher years - which has parallels with our current time and government, but was probably a lot worse. It’s like we’re going through a redux but, this time, the violence is coming from our fellow brown people. Are the stories that you work on a way to process trauma?
Paul: Why you make films and your reasons for making them are intensely personal, as you know. In anything that you make, you have to find something that’s yours and yours only. I’m definitely learning something about my identity in these films. Like when Tish was struggling in terms of feeling valued or not valued and the questions that she had about how her work should be represented and her fierceness about wanting to protect her work because she wanted to protect the people in it. When you make documentaries, you have a duty to the people that you work with, you know how they're represented. Because, often in my case, they do become friends.
You mention the times we’re going through and it’s not dissimilar to Thatcherism when you look at what the government is inflicting on people as members of the diaspora when it comes to immigration. It’s disturbing. I think what concerns me more is the levels of poverty and how unnecessary it is. The difference is that Thatcher had an ideology. And although I don't think she was a decent person, I think she believed in what she was doing. I don’t think she was corrupt. I think she was morally bankrupt. I think the people that are in charge now are grifters purely in it for coin and to enrich themselves and promote their friends' business interests. I think part of making this film is to shine a lens on the past, and then reflect it back on the present. Tish said there's a certain kind of terror in knowing how fucked up the world is and she was a bit of a Cassandra - she predicted what would happen. Not specifics like Brexit, but she certainly predicted what would happen if a community of people were disenfranchised and marginalised and not listened to. She said there would be grave repercussions. Brexit in some ways, was a big up yours to the system, to neoliberalism and late stage capitalism.
There's also something in coming from the communities you're documenting. I think it's deeply unfair that photographers like Martin Parr are held up as the voice of the masses. No disrespect to Martin, but he's a middle class white guy. That's not to say you can't have empathy but having shared roots with the people in your images elevates them to another level.