A Conversation with Richard Fung
A Conversation with Richard Fung
Richard Fung is a Canadian-Trinidadian filmmaker based in Toronto, whose body of experimental and community-based video work, beginning in the 1980s, has dealt with topics covering enormous range: Caribbean, colonial, and family history; Asian diaspora; racism; and gender and sexuality. These issues often intersect across time and space, as in the brilliant short film Sea in the Blood (2000), which weaves together with a poetic deftness the stories of his sister’s rare blood disease, his partner’s experience with AIDS, and Trinidadian independence. Richard’s work continues to cross boundaries, bridging also the worlds of cultural criticism, philosophy, art, and activism. He currently teaches at OCAD University in Toronto.
I had the pleasure of viewing Richard’s recent documentary Dal Puri Diaspora (2012) in two academic contexts, at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. Each screening brought together a multiethnic and multiracial audience, including Jamaican and Trinidadian youth who remarked on learning for the first time the roots of roti and the shared history of Asian indentured servitude and African slavery in the Caribbean. Richard and I have since conversed about this film; his predilection for food; his experiences of diaspora, family, and community; and his commitments to filmmaking and activism over the years.
Chi-ming Yang: Dal Puri Diaspora tells the journey of an Indian dish to the Caribbean. What archival work did you do for this film?
Richard Fung: For Dal Puri Diaspora I visited two archives. One was the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, where I found a nineteenth-century food ordinance designating supplies for Indian indentured workers, which is included in the film. But before that, I visited the National Archives at Kew outside London. It was eerie to look at original records from colonial Trinidad there in the motherland, but I didn’t find what I was looking for: documents related to the movement of white flour. Dal Puri also features photographs from various official and individual archives, but these searches were done through online communication.
CY: Perhaps food can even be a kind of living archive, or what the historian Judith Carney has called “cuisines of survival,” with respect to the subsistence gardens of African slaves.1
RF: There are many inheritances from African cuisines in what in Trinidad we call creole food, including at times the very foodstuffs. I’m drawn to identify the various cultural strands that make up any cuisine. For instance, I have been fascinated by the role of white flour in the colonial project—white flour because whole grain flour doesn’t travel. My film is about the hybrid flatbreads that arose in the context of Indian indentured labour, but there are the analogues from African slavery, the bake—oxymoronically either fried or roasted. I have had a joint cooking session with indigenous Canadian friends where I made sada roti and bake, and they made bannock/skawn, a Scottish quickbread that is now very much associated with Native North American cooking. The ingredients are similar—white flour, salt, baking powder, water, fat (although sada roti has no fat)—and the taste also.
CY: I appreciate a moment toward the end of the film where you seek out an academic [Radhika Mongia] to ask what she makes of your method of searching for the roots of dal puri. She cautions against the idea that the authentic version lies in India today, given how much the country has changed since the nineteenth century. How did you decide on the end to the film?
RF: The film ends on the story of Roopram’s, a Surinamese dal puri chain that opened in the center of New Delhi. They bring the Bhojpuri dish back to India from the diaspora in altered form. But of course it’s unfamiliar to Delhiites, and so they compromise on name and size to make it saleable. I came across Roopram’s by chance—a friend in Delhi, on hearing of my project, said, “I read about a Caribbean restaurant recently opening in Connaught Place.”
I had originally planned to end with the story of families from South Asia who, seeing the popularity of West Indian dal puri in Toronto, have opened “roti shops” serving large plain rotis wrapped, Caribbean-style, around north Indian fillings such as butter chicken and saag panir (spinach and cheese). The roti they use isn’t like any normal South Asian flatbread, more like the flour tortilla used for burritos. The whole thing is a new hybrid. Diasporic people are supposed to feel anxiety over authenticity when faced with people from the homeland, but here you have the people from the homeland reinventing their own cuisine to mimic the food of the diaspora.
CY: At US screenings of the film, the audience had a chance to come together to chat and to sample roti at the receptions afterward. Have you screened the film in Trinidad, and how have different audiences reacted?
RF: The film had its world premiere at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. It had three screenings: in Chaguanas, a town in Central Trinidad where a lot of the film was shot, and at the University of the West Indies and at a Port of Spain multiplex. I was able to attend the last two. I was nervous, since Trinbagonians are protective about inaccurate or unflattering portrayals of the country. The film was warmly received, but there was no dal puri served—there, people can just go down the street or go home for their rotis.
CY: It is clear that food is both deeply personal and communal. How long had you wanted to make a film about food? What other food/foodie films inspired you?
RF: I have long read cookbooks before bed—I am fascinated by food history. But this is the first film of mine that has focused on food. I used to watch the food channels, but now that they’re really just about spectacles of extravagance or silly competitions, they hold no interest for me. The most important food film in my thinking about Dal Puri Diaspora was Cooking History (2009) by Peter Kerekes, a fascinating documentary on the history of military chefs and the centrality of food in war making. I never did achieve anything like it stylistically, but at the time I was also inspired by Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000). It is still one of my very favorite films.
CY: I am a fan of Varda as well. The presence of her voice adds such dimension to her films. I have noticed that in person you sound quite similar to what we hear in your films when you narrate. It’s a lovely, storyteller’s voice. This isn’t always the case with artists when they read their own work aloud. Have you ever felt self-conscious about it?
RF: Thanks. But funny you should say that, since I can be self-conscious about my voice and accent. There is a phenomenon in Trinidad called “fresh water Yankee.” It refers to people who have never left the island—that is, never crossed salt water—but speak with an American accent. We come from a colonial context and are aware that ours isn’t an accent of power and entitlement—like Oxbridge English, for instance. But there is also a tremendous joy in the orality of the culture and deploying words like bazodi or obzoki, which are so precise in meaning yet opaque to outsiders. Francophone Canadians also have ambivalence toward Canadian French, a mixture of embarrassment and pride in speaking a language that other francophones find difficult to grasp.
I’ve heard Trinidadians use the word flat to describe our accent, which is odd, since non-Caribbean people describe it as “sing-song.” The first thing my mother said on seeing [herself on screen in] My Mother’s Place (1990) is, “I sound so flat.”
And speaking of cadence, my friend Stephen Andrews always jokes that he and I each have one of the seven gay voices. Voice is a key element of gender performance, and in a homophobic and gender normative world, queer-sounding individuals are abused into conformity from a young age. But I have never consciously tried to change my voice or accent, and I think my accent drifts around quite a bit. In Trinidad I sometimes try to recapture something of the accent of my youth so I don’t stick out—it also naturally comes back when I am there—but I feel very self-conscious using local grammar now.
CY: I would love to hear those seven voices sometime! Regarding queerness and Caribbean history—how have they come together in your filmmaking?
RF: In the early 2000s I got a research-creation grant to do a film called National Sex, which was inspired by the work of Jacqui Alexander on nationalism and homophobia in the postindependence Caribbean. By that time I was already fatigued by the various films on gays in Cuba, gays in South Africa, gays in . . . . I became uninterested in the subject, but during my time in Trinidad I had many long conversations with the Trinidad contemporary artist Christopher Cozier, which I eventually turned into a documentary, Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher Cozier (2005). One of Chris’s signature works is a blackboard piece in which he foregrounds homophobia as an element in nation-building discourse. Out of the funding for National Sex I also made Islands (2002), which is inspired by my two uncles’ experience as extras in a John Huston war film, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957). My uncles played Japanese soldiers and the film was shot in Tobago, which passed as a Pacific island. It’s a queer, though not a gay, story.
CY: Those films about your uncles use old film footage in such surprising ways. With respect to experimenting with form, technology, and content, I find your work with dual-channel installation really exciting. Diaspora and double-consciousness is brilliantly expressed in Jehad in Motion (2007), in which you use two screens to project the daily life experiences of Jehad Aliweiwi, a Canadian Palestinian who splits his time between Toronto and his hometown of Hebron, in the West Bank. One screen shows him going about life and community activism in Toronto, the other in Hebron. Two screens, two lives, connected through his voice and his movement between worlds.
Do you plan to do more of this type of installation work?
RF: I started my university undergraduate work as a geography major, and then I realized in the last couple of years that space is at the core of all my work: geopolitical space but also physical space—the land, the built environment—interest me. When I first saw the West Bank, I was struck by how the Palestinian villages, orchards, and olive groves spoke of a deep relationship to that land; you get a similar feel in old hamlets in Greece or Spain. It’s different from the fortress-like architecture of the Jewish settlements that cap many hilltops. I was struck that Jehad’s family’s relationship to that land is ancient, yet his ability to move through it is hindered; even getting to Hebron is not easy for him. Here in Toronto, by contrast, he is free to move about, but his relationship to that land is newer. Here, he is a settler in relation to the indigenous people.
Jehad in Motion is one of two installations I have made on Palestine, which has become a major focus of activism for me. I’m compelled to act because Canada has become one of Israel’s major protectors, underwriting the occupation, the ongoing colonization of territory, and the systemic separation of people based on religion and race—an apartheid system, really. My first political commitment was in the youth wing of the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern African Colonies, and there is a relationship between these three countries: the apartheid rulers of South Africa were inspired by the reservation system deployed against indigenous Canadians, and Israel was one of the staunchest backers of apartheid South Africa, even as many South African Jews opposed apartheid to the point of being banned and worse.
At the time I made Jehad I worked primarily in installation. I am intrigued by what it means to place the moving image in space, but I’m flummoxed by the gallery system. They work with such long timelines and the system is still somewhat mysterious to me. So my current projects are mostly single-channel, noninstallation work.
CY: I wonder if or how your relationship to activism has changed over time. The great, ninety-nine-year-old, Detroit-based, lifelong activist Grace Lee Boggs has talked about the importance for revolutions to evolve, stressing the evolution in revolution, in part in response to her shift from following the tenets of Malcolm X to those of Martin Luther King Jr.
RF: Grace Lee Boggs’s story is particularly resonant for me because she was active as a Chinese American woman in African American politics. I came to political awareness in high school in Trinidad when the Black Power movement was at its height there, in the late sixties and early seventies. This being my formative moment meant that for me, being Chinese was always complicated politically. In Immigrant Acts, [the scholar and cultural critic] Lisa Lowe describes how Asian Americans are seen as economic insiders, cultural outsiders. The situation in Trinidad was similar for the Chinese but compounded by the fact that white supremacy reigned in a society in which white people were not the numerical majority but a tiny minority. It strikes me now that the racism I experienced against me as Chinese by black people—taunts and teasing, mostly—was grounded in orientalist frameworks tied to the European colonial enterprise in Asia. And the racism the Chinese displayed against African Trinidadians was based on white supremacist stereotypes of black laziness, etcetera, that derived from plantation interests during and after slavery. So everyone was looking at each other from a standpoint of white supremacy and interests, no matter their own position in the racial hierarchy.
Now, of course, there were countercurrents. My maternal uncle married a black woman, for instance, and another uncle an Indian woman. And my earliest artistic inspiration was my auntie Sybil Atteck (1911–75), who was my mother’s first cousin. She was one of the first modern artists in Trinidad and Tobago and the first working female artist. She studied in Britain and later with Max Beckmann after he came to the US. She was very much a Trinidad nationalist at a time when colonial and colonized elites saw the place as having no culture; culture was what Europeans had. She was not the only one, either; the late Carlisle Chang designed the coat of arms for Trinidad and Tobago and codesigned the national flag. He was also a major Carnival designer. They are among the Chinese Trinidadians who have been honored for serving the nation.
But I am also interested in the way nationalism, including ethnic and religious nationalisms, can be repressive and regressive too. Anti-imperialism can enable reactionary politics, and we can see this in the way homophobia has been adopted as markers of resistance par excellence by many postcolonial third world politicians—ironic, given that the sodomy laws derive from nineteenth-century British colonial laws. At the same time, we see a homonationalism develop in countries like Canada, which wields gay rights against countries they deem uncivilized and dispensable. It is important to remain critical and to constantly reassess conditions to understand who benefits and who loses. I would say my current framework is really that of social and environmental justice. I’m still a socialist.
Chi-ming Yang is a professor of British literature, cultural studies, and the history of race and colonialism. She specializes in the flows of culture and capital between China, Europe, and the Americas during the period 1500–1800. She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
1 Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 177–78. Carney borrows the term from James McWilliams; see James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).