Rasel Ahmed Interview

This April, the DEI Committee sat down with Rasel Ahmed, who just completed his first year as an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Media Arts.

Rasel is a community-based filmmaker who uses traditional cinematic tropes and techniques to combine documentary with fantasy. His experimental videos are a means to explore his dialogical relationship with displacement, citizenship, border, and loneliness. He uses a combination of participatory documentation, archival research, and collaborative re-enactment to finalize the performance and movement choices in the film.

Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Many of your films interrogate the topics of authenticity and identity. For example, Who Killed Taniya (2021) invokes categories like citizen/refugee, masculine/feminine and legal/illegal. What does authenticity mean when it comes to identity? How might this meaning differ for immigrants and refugees, in particular?

My hybrid filmmaking reflects my hybrid state of identities. I was forced to leave Bangladesh because I was publishing a queer magazine. As a stateless person, I don’t have the comfort of identifying myself categorically as ‘I am from here’ or ‘I am from there.’ But I will also say that my films allow me to process this identity confusion and what it means to me. Making Who Killed Taniya helped me question the different parts of my identity and to reckon with the ways that my identity is fragmented and in flux. And I think it also helped me understand how the absence of a fixed identity—or “authentic” category of identity—can be a form of power.

This makes Who Killed Taniya a very autobiographical film, which can be a challenge. I had to think about what I wanted to make public and what I wanted to withhold and keep private. The whole time, I was working from my memory and my personal archive, which can be scary because of the intimacy, but it was also very rewarding.

You noted that the film is hybrid—partially autobiographical and thus a kind of documentary, but equally fictional and thus a form of fantasy. What does this hybrid combination of documentary and fantasy offer that each genre cannot offer on its own?

Hybrid film is a way of addressing and questioning representations of reality. People tend to think of ‘documentary’ as being objective and real, but since representation is always political it is actually fraught with questions of truth and authenticity. To highlight these questions and undercut expectations about objective truth telling, I lean into fiction and fantasy.

For example, I was collaborating with an activist friend in Washington, DC, when the January 6 riots at the US Capitol unfolded. After the National Guard was deployed, the militarism made the city feel hyper masculine, so we went to one of the checkpoints and filmed a gender-queer performance. That performance may appear fictional, as it messes with our perceptions of truth. We might ask, ‘when does the gender-queer performance begin and end?’ or ‘how is the military performing masculinity?’ In this way, the film ends up restructuring audiences’ perceptions of reality. I find the resulting confusion to be very satisfying because it shows us that there are many kinds of realities: filmic reality, phenomenological reality, social reality . . . and they are all hybrid with elements of fiction and fantasy in them.

What is the role of political and community organizing work in your films?

I think that filmmaking acts as a methodology for unpacking social relationships.

At the same time, I’ve been rethinking the terms ‘political’ and ‘community organizing.’ I’m starting to think of my filmmaking as being ‘kinship oriented’ because so much of my work involves collaborating with people who are close to me. My relationship with my community really matters. Many of my films involve my family, my friends, and other people from various created communities that I inhabit.

Right now, I’m starting a project with my mother, which might be a bit of a roller-coaster ride. She still lives in Bangladesh and for the last seven years our interactions have been mediated by video chat. It’s a weird way of experiencing your mother, especially because of the low resolution and because she is not always the best with camera angles. The weirdness really hit me when, during a recent call, I noticed that she has a gray hair. It drew my attention to how much distance separates us and how much we have both missed during the last seven years.

How are you planning to collaborate with her on a film when there is that distance?

It will be a challenge because of the physical, spatial, technical, and temporal gaps between us. I’m thinking about using photogrammetry to produce a 3D digital rendering and creating a virtual reality space. Then we will see each other and have a kind of ‘presence’ that will be interesting. In a way, I think it will trivialize our connection and our distance, so it should be productive for thinking through our usage of technology and what our tech-dependence means for our identities.

How do questions about personal identity translate to your other current work?

There’s another body of work that I am forming about taste memory and culinary citizenship. Your food consumption is very much related to your identity, right—like, ‘we are what we eat.’ So, I recently learned how to cook Biryani, which Bangladeshi delicacy that takes a lot of time to prepare. My mother cooked it when I lived in Bangladesh, so learning how to make it was a way for me to reproduce that memory and to protect my taste buds. It was a way of feeding my body the same idea of identity that I had. And there’s a little bit of fiction and fantasy there, too, because the ingredients that I used are all different from the ones my mom used, and my cooking skills are not the same, yet it still tasted and felt real, as if remembering how food tastes and what that sensation means involves a different kind of memory or feeling than we might expect. And the same can be said about the fictional construction of identity, too.

You also mentioned a visiting scholar residency at the University of California-Santa Barbara for a filmmaking masterclass titled “Dreaming and Reframing Abolition.” Can you share more about that?

Yes, it just started, but the in-person component isn’t until the end of May. Basically, it is a mixed media and hybrid filmmaking workshop that uses research and creative methods to interrogate the concept of abolition. Participating students will be introduced to about 10 different queer people from different types of queer archives. All of them have been subject to some kind of violence. The assignment is to reimagine their condition and their lives by taking away the oppression that they endured. Then the students will create a short stop motion film that brings their new vision to life. It’s really a way of employing fantasy and fiction in the service of social justice.

Click here to view Rasel’s faculty page for the Department of Theatre, Film, and Media Arts.