In conversation with Hetain Patel on how his new film connects marginalised identities to the mainstream

Hetain Patel is interested in connecting marginalised identities in the West with the mainstream to question assumptions about identities. The British-born, multi-disciplinary artist’s new project, the film Don’t Look at The Finger, uses the fictional story of a young African couple’s wedding ceremony as the backdrop for an exhilarating blend of global and cultural references from Hollywood to East Asian martial arts. Made in collaboration with writer Louise Stern, choreographer Chirag Lukha, costume designer Holly Waddington, composer Amy May, photographer Carlos Catalan and actors Freddie Opoku-Addaie and Victoria Shulungu, the film navigates themes of freedom, power struggles in relationships, non-verbal communication and equality. Here we talk to the artist ahead of the film’s premiere in QUAD in Derby and Manchester Art Gallery this week.

What was your impetus for this project?
It came from many different angles. I have been interested in physical, non-verbal communication for a long time. Likewise I have been a kung fu fan since I was a child. In my work, I am interested in taking something that might be considered culturally marginalised, or exotic, in the West, and to connect it with something popular or familiar. In this case, presenting Afro-Kung-Fu-Sign-Language elements within the skin of Hollywood, such as integrating action sequences, striking costumes, and an epic soundtrack, all made especially for this film.

How did you develop the choreography and narrative?
This started with extensive conversations between myself and Chirag including my sending him lots of clips from movies to show the kind of material I was looking for stylistically (Matrix, Grandmaster). During studio rehearsals with the principal cast, Chirag worked sensitively and cleverly to make the movements for Vicky and Freddie based on how they each moved naturally. The narrative is something that I developed as we went along. The wedding was in there from quite early on – as something ritualistic it gives us permission to do physical things without it looking like a dance. The subtleties of the story in part came from my collaboration with Louise, who is deaf herself, and created the physical signing language for us.

Does your own Indian heritage inform the film?
The story is a fictional one – I was interested in lots of visual signifiers that an audience might make assumptions from – the pattern and shape of the clothing, the ethnicity of the cast, the church building, and so on. But into this I was interested in elements coming from different places – the arranged marriage, which is or has been very common in Indian culture, and the final scene in the film involving family comes from Hindu wedding rituals.

Describe the costumes?
Holly did an incredible job and I think the costumes are certainly another lead character in this film. They really transport us, not just culturally around the world, but also firmly into the realm of high production value Hollywood films. Holly and I had an extensive dialogue for over a year, working towards these final costumes.

What messages do you hope viewers will gain from the film?
I don’t want to tell viewers what to think, I hope they will all take away something different and that this potentially heady mix of multiple global and cultural references moves them. I’m pretty confident that Amy’s epic soundtrack alone will do this!

Don’t Look at the Finger is commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) with Manchester Art Gallery and QUAD. The film shows in two simultaneous exhibitions: QUAD, Derby 29 September – 19 November 2017; Manchester Art Gallery 30 September 2017 – 4 February 2018

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Published on 25/09/2017