Rhea Dillon celebrates the rituals of looking after afro hair in her latest film, commissioned by Nowness

Rhea Dillon delves into the series of actions involved in the washing and styling of afro hair in her new film Process. The London-based filmmaker and photographer drew on her own personal experiences to identify the need to celebrate natural hair, her own having at times made her feel like an outsider growing up. “I wanted to – in an artistic way – teach my younger self not to take any stage of hair washing for granted. Because it’s all beautiful. I’m trying to teach people how to feel better about themselves,” she says. “With Process, it’s for that girl or boy who is always othered by their experience. I don’t want them to go through the same things I did.”

Process is a richly shot film full of slow, sensual scenes, textured shots and audio clips and styled with aplomb by Theo White. We see a series of females and males with resplendent afros and braids. Friends stand united, their gaze steadily and confidently focused on the camera, or they dance in the kitchen with towels on their heads. In one intimate scene, a mother braids her child’s hair while in another, a woman is in the bath massaging shampoo suds into her afro, metaphorically washing all negative connotations of ‘bushy’, ‘nappy’ and ‘kinky’ hair away.

Dillon tells us that her own mood has often been deeply but subtly connected to her hair, and to the weekly dread of having to go through the slow ceremonies of grooming. “Every time I was down, I realised it was in connection to my hair. My lowest days were to do with me not feeling like I look good or thinking my hair doesn’t look nice. But doing my hair is a three-hour situation,” she explains. For the average “wash-and-go” Caucasian, the lengthy wet-shampoo-condition-detangle-rinse-dry-oil-moisturise-style process might come as a surprise, especially as there are very few examples of this process on screen. “If you type ‘good hair’ into Google it never comes up with black hair. But if you type in ‘bad hair’, then there are all these pictures of dreadlocks or badly managed afros,” she says of her research, which uncovered precious few existing films of black hair washing. One she found was an old Afro-Sheen commercial and another was Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart.

“I refer to the hair as a crown because it is beautiful, but so heavy with politics”

Dillon attempts to change this, and much more, with Process. As well as unpacking the process of hair care, the film has a strong political element and references the murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin who was shot in 2012 for looking “suspicious” in a hoodie. We hear his father’s voice talking about the moments of his death, “his last cries for help”, as a young man in the film attempts to drown out the rhetoric over hoodie culture. Dillon addressed Martin’s death in more depth in her previous film Black Angel, too. “I refer to the hair as a crown because it is beautiful, but so heavy with politics,” she says.

The film was commissioned by Nowness and Dazed Beauty for their Define Beauty series, which deals with the politics and provocations around the concepts of beauty. “I already had the idea as it’s one of the topics I’ve wanted to talk about. I think I am very responsive to how society treats people and my work reflects that,” she says.

Still in her final year at Central Saint Martins, Dillon hopes to continue to tackle societal issues around blackness, womanhood and the queer experience in her work. She is also a member of the London collective BBZ, which promotes and exhibits the work of queer, trans and non-binary people of colour. With Process, as with her growing practice, art is as much self care as it is activism. “Art has always been my place of respite. It can transport you to a whole other world. It’s really important to surrender yourself to storytelling in this day and age.”

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Published on 17/11/2018