Command performance

Naqqash Khalid on modern masculinity, blank slates and 'anti-acting' in his debut In Camera

by Amber Wilkinson

Nabhaan Rizwan as Aden in In Camera. Naqqash Khalid:  'Starting this film, I knew that this was going to be a young Asian man but I was going to commit an act of violence in that I was going to deprive them of any backstory and make him completely blank and view him through this kind of like colourblind lens almost and that being quite a violent thing to do as a writer. '
Nabhaan Rizwan as Aden in In Camera. Naqqash Khalid: 'Starting this film, I knew that this was going to be a young Asian man but I was going to commit an act of violence in that I was going to deprive them of any backstory and make him completely blank and view him through this kind of like colourblind lens almost and that being quite a violent thing to do as a writer. ' Photo: Courtesy of Thessaloniki Film Festival
Naqqash Khalid's debut In Camera centres on actor Aden (Nabhaan Rizwan), who is a bit of a blank slate at work and in his home life in the flat he shares with exhausted doctor Bo (Rory Fleck Byrne) and the stylish and confident Conrad (Amir El-Masry). Khalid's film is a bold first film with an experimental and modernist edge. I caught up with him at Thessaloniki Film Festival, where In Camera won a FIPRESCI Awards, to talk about the way he explores modern ideas of masculinity and the performance of everyday life... and what to do when the blood you're about to use is the wrong colour.

For a debut, this is ambitious. It's quite jagged, not soft edged. I feel as though you would be quite happy if an audience cut themselves on this film.

NK: I thought, if I'm only ever going to get this opportunity to make a film, I'm going to make the film that I want to make. And I just held on to that. I'm very ambitious as a person, I've got so much I want to say, but I am not a careerist. I was very present for the process of making this film. I had the vision and the idea of what I wanted to do and I really held on to that. It's a puzzle. It's an emotional process, an intellectual puzzle, but it's very much the best articulation of all of these years of ideas coming together. I think the audiences are super-intelligent, and I just think about when I go see films, I like being challenged, and I like coming out of the film and thinking, I didn't know you could do that. So I'm always kind of chasing that feeling. And the film just wanted to be this way, although that might sound a bit strange.

The film deals a lot with blanks and being blank. Even though it starts in the kind of acting world, it’s not really about that world, it's about that sense of how blank we are in society, perhaps, or how we almost need to be blank, because society is manipulating us in certain ways. When you were thinking about the film did you come at it from the idea of the acting end of it, and performance in that way? Or did you come to it from the idea of the way that we are all in a way performing a role?

NK: So, full disclosure, writing this fim I had zero access to the film industry. I've never been to film school, I'm from Manchester. I'm very much an outsider to the film industry. And I'm not an actor. So I have no concept of the film industry. I was an academic. And it's so interesting to use the word “blank”, because when I was talking to Nabhaan Rizwan, we kept talking about his character being a blank canvas. And throughout the film, he's just accepting what's projected onto him.

That was the kind of central idea like, if, as a person navigating the world, you accept everything that's projected onto you, what would that do to you and to me? I just thought that would drive me mad. The role of an actor felt like the perfect metaphor. Because I think I'm endlessly fascinated with the performance of everyday life and the everyday self. It feels like this generation is the most performative generation - and I think that goes across all generations at this moment in time right now. But it's like, when you're growing up on the internet you become so aware of the different types of performances and different spaces. I think the role of an actor, it's almost like you're a sociological document. You can't divorce yourself from your race, your gender, your age, from what you look like, from everything that's associated with your image. Starting this film, I knew that this was going to be a young Asian man but I was going to commit an act of violence in that I was going to deprive them of any backstory and make him completely blank and view him through this kind of like colourblind lens almost and that being quite a violent thing to do as a writer.

That’s interesting because, through the course of the film, he learns in a way that he almost can't be blank, if he wants to achieve anything at home. Je's so used to being blank in the workplace, if you like, and he sort of realises that being blank in society is not going to work if he wants to achieve.

Naqqash Khalid: 'I was very aware of being an outsider, and tackling things differently and I think you have to hold on to that'
Naqqash Khalid: 'I was very aware of being an outsider, and tackling things differently and I think you have to hold on to that' Photo: Courtesy of KVIFF
NK: Yeah, and as a director, I'm always thinking about two things. Sociologically, I'm always thinking about the performance of everyday self. I was very interested in the performance of masculinity and looking at different types, looking at young men navigating the world today. But also in filmmaking, the thing that most interests me is literally acting and performing. And everything I do, whether it's like the colour grade, or the music, is to facilitate and enhance and make the best performance possible.

There's something really interesting about male passivity that I was interested in within this film, and an acting style that is more, almost like anti-acting, it's almost like there is a resistance to the camera, there's a resistance to the camera, there’s a resistance to what we traditionally understand as acting or performance and I think there's something really truthful in that, and like a post-Edward Snowden era, post-reality show era, when we're watching images of “real” real life, you see so many layers of performativity. To have Nabhaan’s performance with almost this complete resistance to doing anything that looks like acting, you know, he's stumbling and mumbling, and he is awkwardly navigating the world. And I think there's something sort of truthful about that.

He actually feels more comfortable when people are asking him to specifically do a thing. To just sort of be in a space, he is not comfortable at all. Whereas, the other two guys in his life - you might call them different facets of masculinity. In fact, it occurred to me at some point, as I was watching the film, that in fact, it could be one completely fractured psyche that we are observing. One is in a bulimic situation and the other is fully stylised, everything about him is performance.

NK: I don't want to be definitive like ‘it is, it is’. But it’s really interesting you use the word “bulimic” because when writing this, I was creating a narrative structure that I consider to be bulimic, in that there are moments of narrative salvation, and then narrative excess. And this was kind of stripped out of the film in the edit because when you're making a film, for the first time, you don't really realise that you're making like seven films, like you have the ambition for seven films in one and In Camera is probably like three films now. But it's fully cohesive, you have to strip out ideas. And one of the ideas was how each of the men engages with food. They all have quite a complex relationship with consumption in some way.

But to go back to the blankness. There's so much tension and anxiety in Nabhaan’s character Aiden's body, whereas Amir El-Masry is walking around with such ease, and there's no conflict in his body. The binary opposite of that was so interesting to me that you have this kind of character who has like, zero trauma in their body, is very, very comfortable in their self, and that provokes such horror in Aden.

Then you've got your third character, who is just fractured. I feel like he's existing in a sort of liminal space between the two other guys, in a sense.

NK: Completely. I always knew that that was going to be a disruptive character. I wanted this character to constantly disrupt the firm. There's so many connections that bring the three of them together and I'm really hesitant togive like an authorial overall because I really think authorship is with the audience. But I knew that there needs to be something that connected them. And to me, there's a colonial horror. You know, it was really intentional that the character is Irish. It's really intentional that every single person in this film is from a background where they have a history of the British Empire. You know, 100 years ago, Rory could have been the lead of it and Aiden could have been Irish, and he wouldn't be necessarily perceived or read as white. I was really fascinated with the intersection of capitalism and race and how race and whiteness are things that constantly change over time. But also just in terms of narrative structure - I realised in the edit… Well, I'm kind of fascinated by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and how Septimus Smith consistently breaks Clarissa’s story, and to me like, in a kind of modernist way, Rory’s character breaks Aden’s story.

It’s interesting how you scrutinise modern masculinity. I think people often associate masculinity in film with being quite angry, quite physical in a way that’s quite different to the way the characters are physical in your movie - one of your characters is physically exhausted, for example. I feel like this film is more about that sort of anxiety of modern masculinity, almost a crisis of masculinity.

NK: Completely, and the performance of that kind of masculinity being exhausting. But you've put it so eloquently. I completely agree with that. When I was writing, I was looking at a lot of British New Wave films, and I thought it was really interesting how a lot of the same performances by men like Richard Harris, Alan Bates were tapped into a certain type of angry young man. And I was thinking a lot about how they individually and collectively express something about masculinity in a specific time in British culture and history. I guess this is what I meant before about like, actors being like sociological documents, so it's almost as if they represent themselves but they also represent their time. I was thinking a lot about today. And I thought,that angry young man today has kind of dissolved into that anxious young man. And I think it's really interesting seeing what performances are doing right now in this moment. There seems to be lots of male passivity, male anxiety that other directors of my generation and other generations seem to be tapped into and exploring right now.

Turning to the shooting of the film itself, there’s a key scene that involves a torrent of blood. How hard was that to shoot, because I was thinking given this is your debut, you probably only had one shot at that.

NK: You don't want to know! The blood was orange! Firstly, we had only had one take, we couldn't do it again because we couldn't resist. And it was Rory’s first day, his first take. I was just like, ‘Hey, I'm so excited to work with you. So we're gonig to have 90 gallons of blood. Are youcomfortable with that?” He's the best. And then we did a test and we realised that the blood was orange and translucent, and it wasn't red. So we had to scramble, it was such a stressful day. The best thing about having a problem and a film set is that you are doing this kind of cross-collaborative problem solving. So we have the makeup department, production, design, and production, all coming together to fix this. But it was a pretty wild day one. There was a warehouse nearby that had a few gallons of prop blood, so we mixed the red with the VFX blood and it became more red. It was a super ambitious scene. But like Rory’s incredible.

Even the clean up must be something else after a scene like that.

NK: We had a little paddling pool that was catching all the blood. But Rory has such a naturalism to him that he can immediately ground anything. But it was a surreal, mad day.

Talking about the performances in genera, the central performance is a lot to ask somebody. Basically, you want him to be a mirror, to hang out and soak up everything.

NK: I feel emotional talking about it. But Nabhaan is amazing. Amir, Rory, they're all so amazing. There's so much of this film that’s on Nabhaan’s shoulders.We were really like, we were really in it together and we had six months of prep. Our instincts were kind of synchronised and some of my favourite stuff in the film is when we were shooting and I'm giving him a brand new dialogue, or he's following an instinct, and we don't exactly know where we're going but we arrive at this thing together that is the exact thing that we're both trying to communicate.Those moments in the film are priceless.

Directing a film is quite strange, because you have this thing that you're trying to communicate and you’re communicating with all these multiple people. And it's kind of like an intangible, inarticulate process but you instinctively feel who your people are, and who want to like, communicate the same thing. And it's, it's really beautiful when it comes together and you're able to do that.

Your role is interesting in the sense that being a director is the ultimate performance.

NK: Yes, because like, on the day with the blood, I had to walk around saying, “Everything's fine”. You have to really perform, you can't be like, “The blood is orange! What’s going on?!” This is a disaster, the film is ruined.” You have to just be very calm and composed.

As a director, in a way you’re performing everything. You're sort of with the actors, because you words, as a writer/director are being channelled by them but also you’re with everything else that’s happening.

NK: It’s the ultimate performance. But it's so much fun. I can't wait to do it again.

So what’s next for you?

NK: I'm writing and I'm very excited about writing. I can confirm the cliche that you don't know how to make a feature film until you've made a feature film, and then you're like, ‘Oh, okay, I know, now I know how to break it properly’.

Are there things that you'll do differently next time, then as a result?

NK: You are constantly informed, both as a person and as an artist, by your experiences. I was very aware of being an outsider, and tackling things differently and I think you have to hold on to that. I think when you're entering a medium, you have to challenge every single tool you inherit and ask yourself, “Is this for me?” You know, like the three-act structure was not for me. But I've learned so much. And I'm so excited to put that into practice. I think it's just important to always follow your instincts and I think as long as you hold on to that, everything will be fine.

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