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Interview: Ephraim Asili on The Inheritance’s Insider View of Collectivism

Asili discusses why he strives for an equality of images and what his film means now in a new age of racial reckoning.

Ephraim Asili
Photo: Grasshopper Film

The phrase “multihyphenate” somehow feels inadequate for all of Ephraim Asili’s contributions to The Inheritance, his feature-length directorial debut. In addition to helming the film, Asili also receives credit as producer, writer, editor, cinematographer, camera operator, production designer, and casting director. (This is on top of his roles outside of filmmaking as educator, DJ, and more.) Such a high level of involvement in a film with roots in Asili’s own experience growing up in a black liberationist collective might suggest dictatorial control. Yet the process that created The Inheritance was marked by an egalitarian approach—and it very much shows in the finished product.

The Inheritance observes the process of a black socialist collective creating community from the ground up in a West Philadelphia rowhome. The zealous young members commit themselves to working for a more just society rooted in an understanding of history, in particular the tragic fate of local liberation group MOVE in the wake of police bombing their living quarters in 1985. This liminal space between past, present, and future formed a central thematic conceit of Asili’s “The Diaspora Suite,” a five-part short film series that explored the African diaspora at both its source and American outgrowth. He finds great success in exploring similar tensions across time through characters and narrative in The Inheritance, building on his previously established talent with expressionistic visuals and editing.

Though the journey between Asili’s shorts and longform work may appear seamless to viewers, making The Inheritance required him to adapt and learn an entirely different set of skills. I spoke with Asili prior to the film’s opening in virtual cinemas. In our conversation, Asili discussed how he established the film’s shifting tone at the writing stage, why he strives for an equality of images, and what his film means now in a new age of racial reckoning.

You’ve brought a lot of your cross-disciplinary interests into filmmaking and let them influence your work. Does filmmaking influence your other work in turn?

If I’m working with my sampler on something, yeah, there’s a certain cinematic element that I’m thinking about or trying to achieve. And when I’m making a film, there’s a certain sort of musicality that I’m going for. I feel as though, as an artist, my strongest medium is filmmaking, so that’s why I put the majority of my energy in it. Just being very sober about it, it’s where I’ve spent the most time and money. I’ve invested the most into that, so I’m trying to spend most of my time with that. But my love of different arts in many ways is equal. If it were up to me, I trade it all to be, like, a really amazing jazz musician. But I just wasn’t dealt those cards! At a certain point, one has to go, “Okay, what am I actually good at? Where am I talented? What can I spend 16, 18 hours in a day doing and not hate it?” For me, that was filmmaking. But it all bleeds into to everything. I get as much influence from, say, Sun Ra or Duke Ellington when I’m putting the film together as I would from reading film theory.

Did The Inheritance grow out of your experience making short films, or does a feature flow from some different stream of thought?

It definitely came out of the experience with the shorts. With each film in “The Diaspora Suite,” I was trying to teach myself a different technical aspect of film, thinking that if I eventually went into feature filmmaking that it would be cool if I could edit and shoot and do all of these things. So I’ve been working on that sensibility as an experimental short filmmaker. However, the ability to improvise that you have when you’re shooting those sorts of films is totally gone when you’re working on a set. In a technical sense, operating technology, for sure it was really helpful. Beyond that, I can’t say that it was super helpful. I’ve always been interested in narrative film and experimental film. I went to film school at Temple University, so I have a formal training that I just had to rely on and dust off a few old lessons. But there was very little that I brought from experimental film into the writing process. Mostly what ends up on screen for The Inheritance grew out of the process of writing the film, then bringing what I could from my experimental background in terms of photography and editing to the process of something that was already structured on the paper.

I could definitely see that evolution over the course of the shorts in “The Diaspora Suite.” You went from creating meaning through the collision of images in montage to telling a story within the composition of a single frame.

Something that I’ve always told myself as an artist is that I can’t be afraid to fail publicly, so to speak. Which is to say, I make stuff, I put it out there. If people like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. And I know that I’m putting out imperfect stuff because everyone does. People are going to do that, so the whole thing comes down to: “Am I learning? Is each film in some way doing something more than the other? Or something different? Am I learning something new with each experience?” I think the concerns, early on, were about what can I do with montage or camera movement. Then, as that arc went on, how can I use those things in service to something that feels like an arc or a story as opposed to those techniques being foregrounded with some content? Then that naturally leads into making a feature film where the story has to flow a certain way. There are times for me to use my experimental techniques, but I have to always use it in the service of the story or narrative arc.

I noticed when re-watching The Inheritance just how long you tend to linger on establishing shots—what is the philosophy behind that?

I’ve grown to like more and more long takes in my films. When you’re dealing with a narrative sequence where there’s dialogue or action, there’s only so much you can do in terms of a long take. The cutting, in some ways, is determined by what’s happening within the story. When you’re looking at a landscape, that’s not always the case. It’s kind of indeterminate how long you can look at that. But when you push the duration of a landscape, I think things start to happen to the mind. Which is, you second-guess why you think you’re looking at the image. It’s like, “Okay, I understand what this image is, right? Where’s the next one? Well…wait a minute, if we’re looking at it this long, maybe there’s something I should be looking for.” And then, by the time you get to a second or third thought, you’re on to the next image.

I like to keep the audience in that level of consciousness. In another level, I also just like to give time to peruse the image so you don’t have to feel like you can’t look around, so to speak, and move on. That’s the motivation for that. Also, I try not to think of any shot in the film being more important than another shot. I want to give as much attention to the landscape and the situation that the film is taking place in as I am to the actors and the people in it. Which is not a conventional way of making a movie, right? But that’s something for me. I want an equality between all of my images, regardless of what they are pictures of.

Can you unpack that African-American ritual mode diagram that opens the film? The leader-centric model seems like a contrast to the kind of egalitarian ecosystem you’re setting up within the film.

That was something I came upon in my research. I would say that the way I interpreted it in the general sense is not necessarily in terms of it being a contradiction or something that seems rigid in relation to the ideas that people are putting forward. Perhaps it’s a model for how nature works. It’s maybe no more oppressive than having to breathe, that your heart has to beat, or that we have to sleep. I don’t know that I would totally agree with it as a diagram, but the proposition is that these are inherent things in a culture and a people, so to speak. They’re like the natural elements. It’s just what has been and will happen in some ways, and these are manifestations of it. I was thinking a lot around how something transforms from the sort of spiritual plane to the material plane, and then maybe back again.

You shot the film in four days. How were you modeling or structuring that rehearsal process to ensure you got what you need?

Well, there was no way to model to make sure that I got what I needed! [laughs] I wish I knew, I really do. Something that really helped was the somewhat unintentionally long period where I spent a lot of time writing. I had an opportunity to workshop with the actors for a couple of weeks with bits of my script. After that, I was able to go away and finish the script. Then, when we got to the set, we had several days of rehearsal. In actuality, they didn’t have the finished script until a few days before, but the script was so catered to that cast that I knew that they would be pretty comfortable in those roles. I was writing in a way that I could change things around without taking them too far out of their game. I was actually doing quite a bit of rewriting even on set while we’re working, but I felt as though I really knew the actors. After a certain point, they really knew what I wanted, and that was from our personal relationship.

It was kind of intense, and there was always the possibility that it would go terribly wrong. In baseball, if you can hit the thing four out of 10 times, you’re the greatest hitter that ever lived. Hopefully, your ratio is better than that with a film. It’s a precision thing, but you don’t have to nail it 100% of the time because you’re not putting 100% of the footage there. But it was hard, and I worked insane hours. I would definitely not want to shoot a feature film under that set of circumstances again. When I think back about it, in a serious sense, there were some mental and physical health issues going on toward the end.

Did those conditions also produce any spontaneous discoveries that you might not have found if you had the luxury of taking longer to get a scene right?

Absolutely, in some ways that would happen. I was even getting ahead of my schedule toward the end, because we got into a really good rhythm. Once we had a really nice rhythm going, there were a few scenes that based on the way that day was going, I was like, “You know what? Stop, so and so, can we just try that in the corner?” Sometimes based on the energy of a given day, I could tell that we would get something. That happened somewhat frequently. There was absolutely something about the pacing that opened up things in terms of spontaneity. But more often than not, it was the opposite. It required me to start each day very clear about what I wanted, then just doing exactly that and not overthinking it. It’s like: I woke up today, I did the blocking, I ate breakfast, I’m not going to come back after breakfast and change the shots, that’s what we’re shooting. Just going with that, and then you live and learn. I’d never set foot on a film set. I’d never directed anything like the whole “lights, camera, action, quiet on the set” business. I’d never done any of that. I was learning how to do that as I was doing it, and it took a few days. But after a few days, I felt pretty comfortable in that place. And so it was about finding those moments where I could say, “Okay, we got to do all this, let’s try this thing.”

How did you navigate the dichotomy between showing and telling, trickery and sincerity, or subtlety and didacticism? Or maybe those are false choices.

Those are all things that are a part of writing a film. You can’t make that stuff up [on set] unless you have a gigantic budget. Because none of that stuff matters if it doesn’t find its place in a narrative arc. When are you dialing up? When are you discussing certain things? When are you not didactic, withholding information, or talking about a subject in a very angular way without going right at it? You can’t have that happening randomly. You have to know when to reveal, when to withhold, when to disclose things. If that’s not in your script, it’s going to be really hard to find the emotional pulse when you’re shooting scenes out of order. Because the actors don’t necessarily have that grand idea of what’s going on. You really have to, as a director, know that you need someone to be cagey in this moment because, 45 minutes from now in the movie, they’re going to do something that’s going to reveal why they were that way. The actor tends to be caught up in what they need to do in a scene. They’re not thinking about the arc of what they need to do, and that would probably not be a good idea if they were.

That’s the writing process. I loved asking myself those questions and trying to find ways of talking about things that I care so deeply about, and a process of making a narrative where it’s like, “How can we talk about the expense of college without just being like, let’s sit down and talk about the expense of college? What would a conversation that just kind of finds itself going that way sound like?” and just taking liberties to do that. Having already known that people were playing these parts, it was like, “What would so and so think? What would this character think?” I was writing the dialogue that’s somewhere in the middle.

It’s my understanding that a lot of the older footage in the film didn’t arrive in your lap until later. How did you determe when to rely on your material or an archival source and when to have a character recite or relay information from important texts?

That part was much more organic and just happened on its own. To give you a serendipitous example, I had shot the beginning of the film where there’s the scene with Gwen reading, and the camera pans down and she’s wearing a Shirley Chisholm sweatshirt. Then it cuts to an image of Shirley Chisholm. I had made that panning shot where it cuts with the intention of cutting on that image. I was on an artist residency a few months after I’d finished shooting the film, and I had the photograph of Shirley Chisholm that appears in the background of that shot in my studio on the residency. And it just so happens that a film archivist who worked at this space said, “Wow, we just got a box of footage of Shirley Chisholm appearing in Rochester donated to us from a local reporter. It’s ours, would you want to look at it?” I was like, “Of course, you know, I’m making this film where there’s a scene [with Chisholm].”

Then, when I was cutting the MOVE scene together, there are a couple of images that I wanted just for the sake of clarifying certain elements of what they’re saying and have something to cut away to so that we’re not spending too much time in one place. Just going into the archive to pick up the handful of images that I wanted, I ended up sitting down and going through a mountain of materials. Then it became, “Okay, how can I restructure certain elements of the film so that I can maximize some of that other stuff?” It wasn’t necessarily written into the script that way, but the script was written so that there would be gaps. There are parts in the script that say “then we cut to the outside world” or something. I knew where the narrative would start and stop, but what filled in those spaces happened organically.

You’ve mentioned that The Inheritance is both a critique of and homage to La Chinoise. I see plenty of people talking about the homage but not as much about the critique. Is that just a matter of calling out the privilege and the whiteness of the protagonists in Godard’s film? Or is it something bigger?

Well, it’s not a critique of Godard’s filmmaking. I actually think his film, for what I get out of it, is totally genius. I think it’s a misinterpreted film. For whatever reason, even in interviews he does this sometimes, if someone has some sort of interpretation that doesn’t seem altogether accurate, he doesn’t necessarily tell them they’re wrong. He might even play the fool sometimes. I think that that film is very much about the naïveté of the people who are participating in it. Oftentimes, when I read about the film, it’s like, no, that’s actually 100% what he seemed to be believing at the time. But I just have a hard time accepting that he was that naïve about The Little Red Book or anything in that movie. I think he likes to infuriate people by telling them that. Where there’s a critique [in La Chinoise], it’s in the characters themselves and the very loose, careless way that they’re going about performing this activism. I think the way they’re doing it in his film says something about those people.

However, when I made my film, I wanted them to not be characters that we look at as goofy and not quite understanding the world around them. [They’re] maybe a little bit naïve, but from a place where they’re very sincere, earnest, and embedded in a place that’s a passing fancy. To me, it’s a critique of whiteness, that’s how I read that film. Sort of like, “Yeah, the summer I was a Maoist,” and that’s kind of what it is. I wanted to come at it from a different point of view as someone who lived that way. You watch the film, and clearly Godard wasn’t living that life of a young activist when he was that age. He’s looking at young people from a different point of view. My challenge was how to come at it from the insider point of view.

I’m glad to hear you say that because I feel like a lot of the criticism of La Chinoise takes it far too much at face value. He’s very much standing apart from the characters.

Exactly. I think it’s something with the politics. At that time, everything was at face value, especially in radical gestures. The idea that he was joking around a little bit was way ahead of its time for that kind of political content. I think it’s only now that I think it’s getting the fair critical attention. I always felt that the film is something to revere, and it’s often written off as one of his unimportant works. But I think it’s arguably one of his most important works.

You’ve talked about the unfortunate centrality of money to the filmmaking process. If your ambition continues to grow after The Inheritance, how are you triangulating the need to please both financiers and your own artistic/political ambitions?

I want to be that filmmaker that everyone’s famous for losing money on! Somebody gets to be that person, why not me?

You made the film in a very different world than the one in which it will be seen. Do you think The Inheritance changes now that there’s been a more mainstream canonization for figures like Angela Davis and Audre Lorde?

I mean, that was kind of the impulse to make the film. You bring up two interesting people: Audre Lorde having left us, and Angela Davis being with us. That’s this question of inheritance. As these legacies become solidified, what do we do with them? When I think deeply about this, I think the most important thing that can be done is that as many people tell their version of these stories as possible so that we’re not left with some sort of monolithic idea around who any of these people were. I think it’s important that we figure out ways of celebrating a lot of these people without it turning into some cliché, or like a “Martin Luther King Day of Service” kind of vibe to it. By people working with these icons in ways that are authentic, and not foregrounding it as a commercial venture, these stories are being told in ways that make people interested in these lives. I’m pretty sure that Julie Dash is working on an Angela Davis biopic. I hope the executives get out of her way!

It’s an interesting time we live in because these people are pretty up there in terms of age, and I don’t know that there’s something coming behind them that we’re all on the same page about. I’m curious to see how things are gonna shake down in the next few years.

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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