The personal is always political, according to Trinidad-born independent filmmaker and head of the production company BlackmanVision, Campbell X. And when it comes to film, Campbell is constantly making political statements.
In fact, Campbell’s entry into film was somewhat politically motivated. After leaving T&T to attend university in the UK in the early 1990s, Campbell started out as a trainee camera-person at the London Film and Television School. She eventually started making her own films to fill a void she had observed.
“I wanted to tell stories that I don’t think were being told about people who were LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and also who were people of colour. There wasn’t a lot of that being told in terms of moving image and there still isn’t,” she said during an interview at her family’s Petit Valley home last week.
Campbell’s early work included made-for-TV documentary shorts like the 1993 Ragga Gyal D’bout, which delved into the so-called “outrageous” female fans of dancehall (ragga) music. Another was BD Women, which examined black lesbian lives from the 1960s to 90s. BD Women included interviews and dramatisations of black lesbian stories from 1920s Harlem, New York.
Politics extend to Campbell’s themes—feminist, queer, and Caribbean storytelling and aesthetics—and even her name. The “X” in Campbell’s name was adopted after civil-rights activist Malcolm X and represents her rejection of the effect slavery had on black identity.
Campbell also looked closely at the impact of slavery on intimate relationships in her 2006 short Legacy, which was shot in T&T.
“Legacy was initially based on something personal, but it has universal appeal. The themes I was exploring were big themes on the legacy of slavery in the African diaspora but I had to bring it down to the personal so that people could actually relate to it. So that it wasn’t this abstract concept. I can’t talk about slavery and behave like my ancestors weren’t slaves and like that had no impact on me,” she said.
Legacy won Campbell the 2007 Outstanding Documentary Short Grand Jury Award at Outfest and Best Experimental Awards at the 2007 San Diego Women’s Film Festival.
This was not Campbell’s only well-received work, however. Her films have screened internationally at the Tate Britain, Berlin Film Festival, Frameline Film Festival, Arnofili Gallery, Fusion, and the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival among many. Her most recent work, Stud Life, also screened at the T&T Film Festival last year.
Stud Life is the story of best friends JJ, a black lesbian, and Seb, a white gay man. Their friendship is tested by personal relationships. It’s a “bromance”, a buddy movie, said Campbell.
“When you see LGBT films they tend to be white and when you see urban films they tend to be straight, and I wanted to show that there’s an urban experience in LGBT in which young white British people chat patois and are influenced by dancehall, rap and hip-hop music culture and style.”
The film is also political. “A lot of my work deals with female masculinity. In terms of mainstream LGBT, the masculine female is often in the shadows. I wanted to bring her out of the shadows into the light.”
Her work is often referred to as experimental and Campbell says she purposely makes films that remove viewers from their comfort zone.
“It’s supposed to be provocative. I deal with a lot of challenging and difficult topics. I deal with very niche areas and I always like to give people visual pleasure and make them laugh, make them feel something, make them see the humanity in people who’s experiences may not be initially viewed as universal.”
After hearing Campbell’s description of her artistic philosophy, it may be easy to label her an activist. This is a term she’s not beholden to, however.
“I don’t put myself up as a role model. My stories are problematic and my film shows that we are all complex, flawed people, no matter who we are. But there is beauty and humanity in being flawed.”