interview: partho sen-gupta on slam

While interviewing Partho on his third feature film, he expresses his appreciation for selecting his most recent film Slam (2018). Why? We wonder. We are the ones who should be grateful he made this film and we are very happy to be able to add it to our special program Activism Now!
But somehow Slam (2018) is not being selected in European festivals. And that’s strange, because it was one of the rare films that was both selected for Cinemart – IFFR’s co-production market – and after, also for Berlin’s co-production market. Producers and its financing was found easily and the story didn’t change since, but both festivals didn’t select the end-result. How is that possible?[Partho] I think that there is a serious problem of inherent Islamophobia that exists in people’s minds. I mean, one can see the way things are going with the European elections. And I think that’s a serious problem. I can’t give it any other explanation. Slam was a French co-production but the film has no distributor in France. When I spoke with the distributor who did Sunrise (2014) – a Muslim Tunisian woman – she said she liked the film but the rest of the office was against the film. That’s an almost violent reaction. They didn’t say: “We don’t like the film”, but “We hate the film. We are against it.”

[RMA] But it’s also a really strong emotion you evoke with your film. Don’t get me wrong, but I think Slam makes a more impression on a younger audience. That’s why it’s a perfect fit with our festival. I believe our audience will be blown away by the film and moreover learn from it.

[Partho] That’s exactly on my mind; I think that it’s an age thing. The older generation is ruling the festivals in the world; I’m very excited to see how young people react to this.

[RMA] Maybe young people can emphasize more easily with the character whereas the (white) older generation, might be offended by the way you, for example, depict white men.

[Partho] That’s right; I think that’s the problem. In Europe we always want to relate racism to Nazis or skinheads, the extreme. But what I wanted to show was that there is an inherent racism in our society and that this everyday racism happens all the time and that that guy is not always a Nazi. I wanted to make a film about violence, not just about racism.

[RMA] Sometimes watching something is more confronting than when you read on paper.

[Partho] I think in retrospect that in their minds, they still thought that it was a film about radicalization. I don’t think they realized what I was trying to say. They didn’t see that whiteness was being accused of something.
Most liberals believe that they’re on our sides. And if you accuse them then they get really angry: “Oh, how dare you tell me”. But I’m not accusing anyone; I’m just saying this is how it exists. This is how it gets constructed. It’s about the everyday little things that happen, that make this work. There is violence, there are assholes everywhere, and there are extremists everywhere. You can’t just blame a whole community for that. You can’t blame every young woman who’s walking on the road in the hijab as being part of some kind of Islamic Republic. As I can’t blame every white person I meet on the street to be some kind of Nazi. It doesn’t work like that.

[RMA] Compared to Sunrise where you had very little dialogue to explain what’s happening, Slam is an audience-friendly and dialogue-driven film.

[Partho] I was asked to make it more accessible, by the French and Australian producers. But it was not only that. Slam gives a voice to a group of people that has never been depicted in cinema before. Look at what just happened in Cannes! The Dardenne Brothers were selected with a film [Le Jeune Ahmed (2019)] about a small kid that radicalizes. I haven’t seen the film yet, but what I read from the reviews is that there is no explanation on why the child gets radicalized.
This film got the Prix de la mise en scéne – the Best Director Award! Though they got terrible reviews, and everyone says: there is no explanation on why is this little boy suddenly gets radicalized. There is NO explanation given by the brothers. It’s the hatred: you’re born like that and there’s no way out.

[RMA] Did you base Slam on some actual events or the several stories that you hear all the time?

[Partho] Yes and no. I did not base it on anything that happened, but unfortunately things are happening which are based on the film.
When I just arrived in Australia I went to a poetry slam in Western Sydney where I shot the film. Western Sydney, Bankstown is a suburb, which has the largest Muslim population. There is an art center, where they hold a poetry slam. 80 percent of the poets are Muslim poets, mainly Muslim women poets.
I watched a section and there was a woman in a hijab who came and started saying these crazy, strong words and I was really impressed. The image that the media gives you about hijabi women is that they’re weak and it’s all about the men and they have no voice and I was like: wow, this is really a contrast. Visually and cinematographically it was inspiring and I realized: I have to do something – I don’t know what – but I have to do something. And I said: what happens if she disappears tonight? That experience was the beginning of the story and how I started writing years ago.

Interview by: Charlotte Van Zanten