Redefining Rebellion: In Conversation with Kaleem Aftab

After 6 months of closure and online access to celebrated pieces, the BFI are back and open to the public with their ‘Redefining Rebellion’ season. This programme highlights the 25th anniversary and the 4K restoration of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, accompanied by other selected pieces that too explore these themes of conflict and justice. Amongst these are pieces such as Persepolis, Beau Travail, Taxi Driver, and Lady Ly’s Les Misèrables, and I wholeheartedly believe that there is something for everyone.

I had the pleasure of talking to the season’s curator and esteemed film journalist Kaleem Aftab, to gain insight regarding the cultivation of the programme. Kaleem also had the opportunity to talk to Mathieu Kassovitz about La Haine 25 years on, which you can read in the latest copy of Sight & Sound magazine. 

Credit: BFI

Bella Kennedy: As the owner of a coffee shop, I have to ask – what is your go to coffee order?

Kaleem Aftab: Well, being a coffee snob, I can only drink black coffee because you can’t mess coffee up without milk. Depending on where I am, my order will always be filter pour over, or if push comes to shove I would get an americano or espresso. Always black, preferably from Ethiopia. My favorite thing to do when I go to film festivals, possibly even more so than watching films, is to go to local coffee shops and sample their delights.

BK: When did you decide to put together this season? It is something that has been in the works for a while?

KA: No, it hasn’t been in the works at all for a while! I was basically called up during lockdown. I’d written a story about Mathieu Kassovitz for Sight & Sound earlier this year, which was supposed to coincide with the 4K restoration release of La Haine in May. The film didn’t come out, obviously, as cinemas were shut and then the BFI was opening again in September, but no one really knew how cinemas would be or what would be available. So they decided to rip up whatever programmes they had planned and to suggest new ones, so they came to me. They said, given that the article (Sight & Sound) had had such good reception, would I want to curate a season around La Haine. The only caveat was that the films had to be available on digital, because of corona rules. 

I don’t think I would have changed much if this wasn’t the case, maybe I would’ve chosen a couple more obscure releases. I had a strong idea of what I wanted to say,  and also a strong idea that I didn’t want to just say “these are onscreen rebels” in a traditional sense, I wanted to say that what you’ve thought of as rebels are not really rebels. The real rebels can be found from La Haine onwards.

BK: Rebellion is a phenomenon that is often captured on screen. What about the films you’ve chosen feels different to you?

KA: I think the idea of rebellion has been confused, in cinema especially. We have been force fed that the Marlen Brandows and James Deans are rebels, when in fact they aren’t really rebels. In The Wild One, when asked “what are you rebelling against?”, he responds “what have you got?”. He’s got no philosophy, he’s got no idea. I would say that it was a very comfortable figure of rebel that the white male audience could feel comfortable with. It was an extension of the cowboy figure. Very libertarian, wanted freedom at all costs – it’s very American. Most people have probably never seen Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild One, but they know about the black leather jacket and the red leather jacket. So for me, it felt very romanticised, it was all about characters that we could imagine being, and we could all be for 20 minutes. But the word “rebellion”, in its original form, was about overthrowing the government, leadership and status quo.  And that has been completely lost – if we’re calling those guys rebels, what does it mean to be a real rebel?

I received the call for the programme two weeks after George Floyd died, and we’ve had all of these protesters in the streets. Movements like #BLM who on their website have real radical policies such as ‘defund the police’ and are out there fighting for systematic change. We’ve never really celebrated those rebels on screen. When I thought about that, La Haine was the standout film and I could work around that. 

BK: What does the title ‘Redefining Rebellion’ mean to you? 

KA: Redefining is taking the idea of rebels away from the while male cowboy and really looking at who the real rebels were. Not just immigrant kids, which is something I’ve highlighted in the program but it is also the rebellion that we have seen in ‘70s films such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and Sally Field as Norma Rae. That’s what I was really looking for. I wanted to redefine it and say that actually the rebels are not the icons that you’re looking at, they’re probably the people you don’t wanna be. 

BK: One film I’m particularly excited to see is Beau Travail as I’m intrigued by Claire Denis’ portrayal of masculine desire and the physical form. In what way do you think this piece compliments the others in terms of ‘rebellion’?

KA: Beau Travail is a really complicated film. It’s all told from the perspective of a white lieutenant from the French legion, and what he’s really talking about is his boss, a representative of France and a big colonialist. So, the start of the film is all about that guy’s desire to overthrow colonial rule and in the most quiet and beautiful way, Claire Denis shows how these legionnaires don’t really care about the Africans around them. They look at them, the women in particular as sexual objects, and the team looks at them, back, and that’s where there is homoeroticism, bringing that to forefront.  In a very unique way, it talks about huge things. In La Haine, we follow these 3 guys in Paris, without getting told about where they’re from, or why they’re there. With Beau Travail, I wanted to show that we have this big history of colonists going around the world and essentially doing whatever they wanted, which has led others to come to these places, and when they’re arrived, they’ve thrown them into these projects. This is why I see rebels as this new identity. 

I purposely chose three films following La Haine that are directed by white people (Girlhood, Prophet, Beau Travail), following immigrant characters, because I wanted to show how La Haine changed how people in France saw rebellion, and all of a sudden these filmmakers were looking to tell new stories. And it’s progressed to what we have today – fortunately, and finally we have a group of filmmakers coming through and telling their own stories. I also wanted to lose the notion that you can only tell your own story. It’s not about where you’re from or who you are, it’s about how you identify with characters. 

BK: We have seen a lot of rising tension this year, with the current climate surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter movement especially. How do you feel about the ever growing conversations surrounding responsibility of representation on screen?

KA: I think it’s great! I think it’s the first time that people feel that actual change may happen. It’s the first time that a lot of people are feeling comfortable or have given up caring what the reaction is, to keep their truth in a blunt and straightforward manner. I think society, not all but some, have woken up to the need that fundamental change needs to happen. I hope this conversation carries on and gets bigger and bigger, and I’m sure it will. 

BK: Which film from the programme are you most excited for the British public to see and why?

KA: I would say Norma Rae because it hasn’t been appreciated in the way that it should have. Funnily, the day before the official programme came out, The New Yorker released a piece about Norma Rae, which I thought was very zeitgeist-y. It’s not a film you can find on services, either. I couldn’t even find a DVD copy of it for myself. 

And there’s this film Amateurs, which is a small Swedish film but it;s absolutely brilliant. It’s one of those small discoveries I wanna push and then claim as my own. It’s about a small town that employs marketeers to make a film about their town, that shows how wonderful it is, and the film they make is the Sweden that we all see and imagine. But these two girls decide to make their own film telling the real story of the town. That’s when you see Sweden that’s much more like a borough in London. There’s a lot of story to it, it’s cooler, and you realise how important it is in terms of how the media show you what they want you to see. It’s great, and it’s really fun, and it’s a great film to take teenagers to. The best rebels are always teenage rebels. 

The ‘Redefining Rebellion’ season commenced on the 4th September and will be running until the end of the month. The BFI are also offering £3 tickets for customers aged 18-25 at any time, so they are worth booking if you can!

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