Andrea Zimmerman in conversation

Andrea Zimmerman in Conversation

Image from 'Estate' film project by Andrea Zimmerman
Image from 'Estate' film project by Andrea Zimmerman
Image from 'Estate' film project by Andrea Zimmerman

Dr. Andrea Luka Zimmerman is a filmmaker and cultural activist who works as a lecturer and tutor on our Performance Design and Practice course. She talks to us about some of her recent projects.

What’s the main thing you try to get across to your students?

To not trust when someone tells you you’re not good enough, to never listen to that. To learn to find their own voice. To maintain curiosity and an openness. To question narrative forms and ideologies.

I have a very complicated ethics. It’s about people learning to live a life that’s considers other human beings, rather than just wanting to represent or inject. People always want to make work about vulnerable people, because it’s very easy. It’s trying to say, why is that — is it just because you have access to them, because they live on the street?

I’m undoing a lot of what education has done to them, I guess. To not let them get away with superficiality.

Tell us about the Art Angel open commission you and Adrian Jackson have just received?

It’s going to be a rhyme on Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, which was made just after WW2. We’re looking at how we use it as a starting point to look at the London we’ve got today. We’re looking at the dream that London presents itself with, around issues of bicycles and vulnerability in the city.

Both Adrian and I have for many years worked with communities that are often narrativized as marginal, and this takes away some of their agency. We’re looking at the obstinacy, we’re looking at the resilience, we’re looking at the untold stories. In the mainstream media these stories don’t exist, and if they do they’re just another inscription of cliches. We try and really throw that up in the air.

It’s very early stages of this project, so we have to follow our noses. We are very fortunate because the award allows us to do that. There will be a London that we discover through the eyes of people that we don’t usually discover London through. Part of the process of this project is to really, truly have open eyes and follow some people to experience their world.

There are some really different communities we’re working with, not just one. There’ll also be bigger public events and live events that include the general public. We don’t want to make a distinction between one and the other. Margaret Mead said this really beautiful thing: that in our time we need to find that which is the commonality among us rather than the separation. Everything is always separated, but actually we have so much in common as human beings, if we allow it.

How do you think films can empower the people you’re working with, as well as opening the eyes of the people that watch?

My last project, Estate: a Reverie, was made over seven years, with the people in the place where I have lived for 18 years. It’s not a film about the community there, but it’s a film made from within the place. It became a very eclectic, crazy, feverish, beautiful exploration of what place means when you know it’s about to disappear.

I was dependent on people helping — and I don’t mean helping by making tea, because I’m the one that makes most of the tea —  but truly helping, bringing people together. I believe that people are very much aware of how they are represented and how their reality often differs from that. And if you allow that space for finding out about each other, things can happen.

In the film I included some of the workshops, which were very funny because I had 20 people in my old kitchen or 20 people just about fitting in the bathroom — going in the bathtub, in the sink, everywhere. We were talking about architecture and it came out that people thought that in the 1930s buildings the kitchens were small, the woman’s domain. But we had someone who lived there then and she said: “No, no, we all used to cook in the living room, in the range cooker.”

So there are all these kinds of slippages. On one hand, historically, we analyse something, but actually the reality is very different. It’s all about miscommunication, re-communication — people misunderstanding each other, but allowing the space for discussion.

Do you think it’s possible to make work that’s sensitive and connected to a community without having lived there yourself?

We would never know about concentration camps if only survivors had been able to write about it. So you have to be able to write about and work within areas you have no direct experience of. You have to find a way in, but it has to be done sensitively. Never assume that you know the answers — that you know who you’re speaking on behalf of, or to — because then you make a very reductive kind of work.

If you look at the art up until the mid-70s, often there were radical, feminist ideas and cultural critique practises. Then suddenly art has become this dirty world of selling, collecting, making it big really quickly. Almost like music — you’re a star, you’re an art star. That’s a different type of art to what I’m trying to teach here, which is considerate. It’s still radical, it’s still alive and it can be loud, but it has to not step over someone’s dead body.

If you want to make work about people then you can’t just assume, because then you’re just reinscribing those cliches. You have to put in the time. There’s no way around it, no shortcut. Think about Drama Centre London, which we’re a part of. They train small groups of people for three years to act — just to act. Why would we think we can make a work in ten minutes? Art has to have the same rigour.

Your recent film Taskafa: Stories of the Street was filmed in Turkey. How do you deal with the language barrier when you’re trying to embed yourself in a community?

Ideally you would learn the language. I didn’t have enough time to learn Turkish — because it’s a rather difficult language — to the kind of level that I had hoped, so I had to rely on the producer I was working with there. We went out and roamed the streets together.

The film was made mainly for people there, and then secondarily for people here. So there’s a subtlety that Turkish people understand that we wouldn’t understand here — who’s Armenian, who’s Kurdish, who’s Turkish. It’s not indicated in the subtitles, but in Turkey people would know from the name of someone, their way of speaking.

That was on purpose, because we can’t give everything. It’s interesting to have to think about who the different audiences are — what is the most important point to make to who, and how do you open a door for them to find out more? You can only stimulate thought or initiate a dialogue.

Why is video the medium you choose to work through?

If I could’ve when I was younger, and I had not been so shy, I would’ve become a singer songwriter. The next way that I could express myself — question the reality, and have a feeling attached to this kind of thinking — was filmmaking.

I’m interested in what it does. We have the visible evidence of something that no longer ‘is’, and I’m interested in all those spaces of memory that are articulated through it. For example, in Taskafa, it’s the kind of world I would like to have, even though there are some sad things in it. It’s describing the world that I see, but I could have done it exactly the other way round too. And that’s the beauty of proposing something.

You often mix fiction and documentary. How do you choose what level of reality to use in your work?

For me, the fictional is more of a kind of attempt to get to the real. Because it allows us, by imagining something, to see something about the everyday.

It’s the fictions that are put upon us and dressed as reality that influence the way we see other people. For example, ‘benefit fraudsters’. Poorer people are seen in a particular way. A lot of the ‘reality’ that we experience is also fiction. So fictions that open it up — or try to retrace and understand how it works — help us see how these mechanisms can come about.

John Akomfrah, who I did a symposium with, gave an amazing example. He said: “When you experience a disjuncture between what is supposed to be real and what’s actually happening to you —  just because of how you look, or because of who you are in the world — you can never make work that is not complex.” Because you have understood the lie —  the unstable signifier — fully, viscerally, with your body. And I think everyone has these experiences, it’s just we’re reducing it down to this simple Benefits Street rubbish.

Do you have any new projects coming up, other than the Artangel one?

I’m going to America to finish off a film that is about a special forces guy. I’m really interested in this relationship between public memory and private memory.

It is the tenth year I’m filming with this man, who Rambo II was based on. He has a lot of incredible archive footage about secret training of Afghan mujahideen in the 80s in America, and other kinds of crazy stuff all over the world. He was a propaganda maker. His speciality was how to do disinformation and then it came crashing down on him.

He’s now a fighter for something else, but he’s discredited in the larger picture. When we’ve made the wrong choices or we’ve made choices that were very murderous, how do we live with that then? Rather than just saying he’s evil, I’m interested in how can we learn from those kind of things.

You believe it’s important to take time when working with people. How do you manage projects over such long time periods?

That’s why I have very little work out. I have a lot of work in my back room.

Something always happens when I’m almost done, and I think I might as well go deeper rather than just stay there. And since I have nothing to lose — or to prove I don’t think, because I already feel so privileged to be able to do what I want to — I think I might as well spend the time that I need on it.

That’s why I took this job — because I have to work and this is the most pleasurable work I can imagine, teaching students. It’s actually amazing to be able to do that. It keeps me awake and alive.

I can afford the time and I’m not ambitious to be recognised as a collectable artist or a massive figure in the world. For me it’s much more about the quality of the work and enquiry as a human being — making work that hopefully will touch other human beings too.