When you’re the youngest of nine siblings, you get used to other voices intruding on your own. “I have this very volatile family,” says film-maker Rehana Zaman with a smile. “I’m 41 now and the eldest is in her early 50s, so we are all close in age.”
Maybe this is why her films often have multiple voices and viewpoints playing out alongside each other. In 2021’s Alternative Economies, interactions with a botanist and a financial regulator make unlikely bedfellows as Zaman tries to draw links between herbal medicine, cryptocurrency and our urge to break out of the oppressive systems that control our lives.
Everything Worthwhile Is Done With Other People (2018-2023), meanwhile, is a collaboration with women of colour who discuss their experience of incarceration through drama workshops, board games and even day trips to the beach.
These two works persuaded judges to crown Zaman the winner of this year’s Film London Jarman award 2023, which rewards contemporary artists’ film-making with a £10,000 prize. It’s not hard to see why Zaman’s work stood out: her approach to film-making upends the traditional approach to documenting marginalised communities, in which voices are corralled into telling the story the director wants people to hear. Instead she favours a more collaborative and exploratory method.
In Everything Worthwhile Is Done With Other People, we see women cooking together and laughing uproariously over a game of Scrabble (“It has to make sense!”, “There’s some words you don’t know!”, “Ask Google!”). It’s through these encounters that we get to hear their stories about detention and deportation in a unique and moving way. Rather than descend into what Zaman calls, with a wince, “pity porn” we get to hear the women’s righteous anger at the Kafkaesque system they’re trapped in as well as their jokes and advice to each other. The film is collectively authored, and part of the process of making it was the building of solidarity between the women in the group.
“If you don’t have citizenship and you’ve been in limbo for five years, or if you’ve experienced trafficking and have PTSD, this was just a very simple way of not just doing the telling, but creating a space where you have those moments of connection,” Zaman says.
Through workshops, the women – from Ghana, Jamaica, Iraq and beyond – act out situations such as a visit to the doctor to discuss the mental impact of living without any sense of security. “I might have done a lot of reading around racial capitalism or the hostile environment, but I’ve never been in detention,” Zaman says. “It’s important to have a sense of openness and responsiveness because otherwise a film just reproduces the same dynamics of this top-down kind of approach, which I’m not that interested in.”
Alternative Economies is similarly exploratory. Zaman says the inspiration for speaking to financial services regulator Rachel Bardiger came from one of her sisters, who had become deeply involved investing in cryptocurrency. Around the same time, Zaman had been taking herbalism courses and began to notice a shared language between the two areas: particularly, the idea of creating “autonomous systems that are liberating or can help challenge the kind of structures that we’re in that might not be serving us very well.”
In the film, Zaman meets Rasheeqa Ahmad to create a nervine tonic out of mushrooms and seaweed, footage that is occasionally interrupted by snippets of Scrooge McDuck experiencing financial panic. As they calmly squeeze the liquid from their reishi mushroom, Bardiger shares her deep unease at the way people have rushed into adopting crypto: yes it promises utopia, but how many people really have the capacity to understand what they’re rushing into?
“What emerged was this idea of regulation and deregulation,” says Zaman. “So with crypto, it’s very much deregulated, that’s one of its selling points. But then the point that Bardiger is making is this sense of the need to regulate because of how it becomes exploited by big tech companies who then turn it back into the system that it’s trying to be oppositional to.”
Meanwhile, the nerve tonic could serve as a way of regulating someone’s anxieties about money. “We were trying, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to make a medicine for Scrooge McDuck. How might a food herbal remedy make you feel better about your bank balance?”
She laughs. Hopefully this tonic is not something Zaman’s crypto-fan sister might need to take? “Well she’s definitely not a billionaire,” says Zaman. “But she doesn’t seem to have gone under entirely.”
Zaman grew up in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire. She was always interested in writing and creativity but didn’t start making films until after she had left Goldsmiths art school in London. Family has not only been a source of inspiration for her work, but also a source of content. Tell Me the Story of All These Things (2018) stars Zaman’s two sisters and involves cookery demonstrations, animation and screenshots from the government’s anti-terrorism e-Learning site Prevent. Your Ecstatic Self (2019) saw Zaman filming from the passenger seat of a car as her brother Sajid drove around discussing astrology, Islam and Tantra. “He asked me to make that film,” she says, laughing. “It’s important to tell you that because otherwise people think I’m just lining up family members!”
Even in these films, other voices and ideas flicker in and out, what Zaman calls an “ambient noise coming in and shaping things”. She is wary of anyone who chooses to portray just one perspective.
When we speak, it is a few days before the winner of the Jarman has been revealed. I ask how she would she feel if she won the £10,000 prize. “Awards aren’t always the best way to circulate funds within a system, because it gets centred upon a certain set of individuals,” she says. Indeed, when one of Zaman’s films sells or gets screened, she shares the funds with the people who contributed to it. “So in terms of winning, I would think about how it would impact other artists that I’m working with that I want to support and be in conversation with, who maybe aren’t yet visible, or don’t have access to funds or support.”
As with her work: for Zaman, collaboration is everything.
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