"Here's to a new canon" - an interview with the T A P E Collective
The T A P E Collective, founded in 2015, is run by Isra Al Kassi, Angie Moneke and Nellie Alston, three film-fanatics who curate and programme events with a focus on representation, identity and heritage. T A P E champions forgotten filmmakers and under-represented narratives through community-based events, talks, music and zines.
I was delighted to be able to speak to members Angie and Nellie ahead of But Where Are You Really From?, their latest film season programmed for the BFI Southbank, which kicks off on the 1st of July for a full month. But Where Are You Really From? is about filmmakers who redefine, reject, and re-establish heritage labels. The programme spans titles from 1949 to 2020, and themes of love, loss, politics, migration and intergenerational trauma. (We love variety!)
“We wanted T A P E to be a collective that was focused on community outreach and platforming films outside of rigid, traditional cinema structures”
Although we sat over Zoom with lag problems and ‘unstable’ internet connection, I was still able to catch the energy of excitement and passion that makes up the collective and the plethora of work that they produce. Angie tells me that they all met through the Barbican Young Programmer’s Scheme, which was instrumental to their knowledge of how to curate and programme events. Isra and Angie met first, and Nellie joined the collective in 2017. “We clicked really easily. It was a vibe”, Nellie says, agreeing with Angie that although they came from similar places, “they brought their own backgrounds and experiences to that pot.”
“We wanted T A P E to be a collective that was focused on community outreach and platforming films outside of rigid, traditional cinema structures”, Angie explains. “Within some structures, we don’t know who is in control of what’s exhibited, what films are celebrated as part of the cinematic canon and what films are forgotten. These were the areas we were looking to target with T A P E.”
The collective was born out of the desire to hold space for different stories and experiences. As Nellie put it, “The story goes that Isra and Angie got talking about how their dream was to run a cinema one day. I’m very passionate about galvanising communities and reaching out to art spaces. I was keen to help out with their vision.”
This vision emanates through T A P E’s mission to build a stronger and more nuanced, but also universal, picture of the cinematic landscape. Governed by a collaborative process, I was keen to know how they put this practice into curating the BWAYRF? season for a huge company like the BFI.
"Hopefully, through this season and elements of our digital takeover, people are discovering new ways of seeing."
“We’re all from mixed heritage backgrounds. So we often talk about what films make us feel seen and represented, and how we can encourage conversations around this without feeling tokenised. We started programming monthly at the Ritzy Cinema. We would go up to bars and ask if we could do our stuff there. We didn’t have any money but we’d offer a box office split or something like that”, Nellie tells me. With their monthly events at the Ritzy, they produced a season exploring heritage and identity through film. “But it’s important to note that it wasn’t just about film - it was also themed around community-based conversation. Where we’re at now is just a progression within those conversations and themes. We’re very humbled that we have the opportunity to programme at the BFI”, Angie says.
Creating and maintaining a dialogue within their communities is an important aspect of their work. “We love a good rant,” Angie says with a laugh. “But it’s not always doom and trauma, we do like to celebrate the parts of our heritage that we love and that are meaningful to us. And I think these conversations happen very intuitively and naturally.”
Their collaborative practice is also a testament to the numerous art forms that they engage with. “As much as we love film, we always try to draw on different types of art forms” Nellie explains. “Our programme and digital takeover have ended up being a mix of feature films, short filmmakers, Q&A panels, events, video essays, a zine coming out. It’s important to have a multifaceted way of responding to a question like “but where are you really from?”
Impressed by the amount of work and collaborations that they facilitate, I wondered if this is what they do full time, but, as an independent creator, I also acknowledge that many passion projects are done alongside other jobs. This is confirmed as both Nellie and Angie shake their heads and laugh. “At the moment, it would be impossible for T A P E to be full-time” Nellie admits. “But we do it on love. There have been years when we’ve had less energy, less money. But as we get noticed by more people, it does feel busier and more ad-hoc than before. Being able to programme a monthly spec at the Ritzy felt like a more formalised hobby, but now it’s all-hands-on-deck. Having full-time jobs in film has helped us.”
Nellie works in distribution at the National Theatre Live, programming for festivals such as the London Film Festival and Film Africa. Angie works as a Production Executive for Working Title Films, mentioning that Isra has a lot of experience in events management and marketing. “I think it’s great that we ended up being three people who, between us, cover the broad scope of the industry. It’s extremely helpful because when we do T A P E, which is focused on curation and production, we can also bring in other elements as well, like discovering film-makers, curating programmes, marketing.”
After talking about the process of curating the BWAYRF? season, we turn to personal stories and our relationship to the very question itself.
“It’s not always doom and trauma, we do like to celebrate the parts of our heritage that we love and that are meaningful to us. And I think these conversations happen very intuitively and naturally.” - Angie
“It’s literally been a question I’ve been asked my whole life, word for word,” Nellie says. “I’m half Jamaican and half Australian, but I’m quite light-skinned. So it’s been a thing of people saying ‘oh she doesn’t really look like she’s from here, but where is she from?' On dating apps, people assume I’m Latino or something, and I have to explain myself. Being half black but light-skinned - having an imposter syndrome is very real. It’s quite exhausting. People think you’re trying to be clever when you state the countries you’re from because it’s not the answer they’re looking for, and you kind of know that.”
Angie agrees as she mentions that “there are so many different elements that make up the absolute mind-fuckery of that question and the experiences that feed into it. But we have decided, for this season, to distil it into 3 main themes, with the understanding that it goes beyond that. The themes of names, the good immigrant trope and mother tongue” Angie carefully explains.
“I have an Igbo Nigerian surname, which no one can ever pronounce, then there’s also the mother tongue thing where I can understand parts of the language, but I’m by no means fluent. So there’s an element of loss there. Then there’s the whole identity dichotomy. Belonging or not belonging. When you feel like your identity is being othered, it’s very alienating. It makes the question “but where are you really from” even more complex. But the more we talked about it with each other, the more films we watched, the more articles we read and Tweets that we saw, we came to understand how universal these experiences are, and how many people can speak to them.”
"And that’s when I realised that programming was an actual job - growing up I thought that the films that were out there were the only ones - it didn’t occur to me that it was a process of someone deciding what you get to see" - Nellie
Nellie chimes in, saying “When I was young we moved from Brixton to the suburbs. It was a weird experience of feeling like I had to reject aspects of myself to fit in, as a teenager. I didn’t see a lot of films that spoke to my experiences. And that’s when I realised that programming was an actual job - growing up I thought that the films that were out there were the only ones - it didn’t occur to me that it was a process of someone deciding what you get to see. So being able to do it yourself in the way that we do it, is quite an empowering thing.”
So, what’s the dream? I ask.
“There are no major plans for world domination just yet.” Angie laughs. “We’ve always done it with intention, the way that we’ve wanted to. It’s survived this far just off of the back of our genuine passion and love for film. We have some different events coming up this year. We curated a programme at Brainchild Festival. Obviously, we still have the OG dream of owning a T A P E Space. Our own little cinema world.”
“Sustainable cinema domination,” Nellie laughs.
I end our conversation by asking them what their favourite film is and why.
Angie: “If you’ll permit me to borrow from our season, I’d have to say that one of my faves is Black Girl, directed by Ousmane Sembène. I’ve really enjoyed finding films from the African continent from the 50s and 60s. Rediscovering all of those gems. It’s dawned on me that the film canon is so particular and so set. So Black Girl is definitely a film I like to return to.
Nellie: We did a podcast the other day, and I wanted to shout out female filmmakers of the past and I instantly remembered a film on Youtube by Sara Gomez from the 70s. Unfortunately, she died when she was 31 so she only made this one feature, but it was a really cool mix of documentary and love story, exploring communism and love in Cuba. That moment of discovery is very exciting to me, that’s what I live for in film.
“Here’s to a new canon. We’re making a new canon. Not necessarily a separate one. Just a declarative: these people are amazing and everyone needs to remember them.”
T A P E Collective are taking over the BFI’s online channels for one week from 28 June, and their season ‘But Where Are You Really From?’ runs at BFI Southbank throughout July. Tickets on sale now! bfi.org.uk/whatson
written by Zoe Thompson