In Conversation | Suryatapa Mukherjee and Glitter Cymru

In Conversation | Suryatapa Mukherjee and Glitter Cymru

‘Glitter – We Exist’ is a short film written and directed by Suryatapa Mukherjee of Glitter Cymru in collaboration with the Iris Outreach/Iris Prize Festival. The 3-part film portrays some of the experiences and challenges faced by BAME LGBT+ people today and features members of the group itself. It has been shortlisted for the Best Community Film at the Iris Education and Community Film Awards 2018 due to take place on Friday 26th January in Llandudno. The high attendance premiere of ‘Glitter – We Exist’ took place recently at Cardiff University and was a success for both Glitter Cymru and the Iris Prize. It was shortly after this that I had the chance to chat with Vish, the founder of Glitter Cymru, and Suryatapa, the filmmaker and writer, about the film, representation, visibility, and more.

So tell us more about Glitter Cymru.

Vish: Glitter Cymru started in July 2016. We’re an open monthly meet up group for BAME LGBT+ people. We meet, we socialise, get to know each other. It’s all just about providing a safe space for marginalised group of people to be seen and to be heard. Just a space for them to express themselves. We only had four people turn up the first month. But the last month we had 20.

Do you have a specific location where you meet every month?

Vish: Yes, we’ve found a solid location now. So initially we used to meet in another location, however, that changed for various reasons, and now kindly, Cardiff University has donated a room to us. So we just turn up every month. We’re not part of any organisation or charity. We’re just a grassroots group and we run it ourselves, so we do rely on other people’s kindness and organisations to help us out.

So, how did the collaboration with the Iris Prize Festival come about?

Vish: I went to one of their events. The Iris Outreach event in North Wales about a year ago. And I got to see many community films that they were involved with, as that’s their role, to go out to various LGBT+ groups in Wales, or universities or organisations that want to make LGBT+ themed short films. So after seeing those we approached them and asked if we can make a film. So Mark got in touch with us and we had our first meeting.

Suryatapa: That’s when I first got to know about the project; at the very first meeting we had with Mark where we explored ideas and stuff. So after that we just had weekly meetings for anyone who wanted to be involved in the film on top of our monthly meetings.

How did you narrow down those ideas, because it was mentioned yesterday at the screening that there were so many different ideas to explore, different identities to represent. So why those 3 specifically?

Suryatapa: I think it sort of depended on the people who were writing them. So for me, I wanted to explore being pansexual so I wrote about that. After I wrote that, we thought about the other identities that we should represent. So we have a trans character – which represents gender identity. Meanwhile, the pansexual represents sexual orientation. And then we wanted to represent the experiences of an asylum seeker. But the stories kept changing according to who we were casting.

But writing as a queer woman, this aspect of being fetishised is really common for our sexuality. But for a bisexual or pansexual man it’d be a different experience. But the main thing we were concerned about is representing those 3 experiences and making sure that different ethnicities were represented also.

Vish: It was important as a reflection of our group. Because there is so much diversity within the BAME community itself and so much of it also in the LGBT+ community.

And you could visually see that on the screen too, which I think is really important. 

Suryatapa: There are so many voices in our group and we don’t usually get an opportunity like this. But it could only be 5 minutes being a short film, but we stretched it to 7 for that reason.

And even that felt really quick. Too quick almost, because I felt like I wanted to know more and learn more about the characters. They were little vignettes in such a short span of time.

Suryatapa: Yes. So someone in the group suggested that if we’re representing asylum seekers then they should be bisexual as that is one of the reasons why people get their asylum rejected. I don’t think the wider general public is aware of what asylum seekers in such situations have to go through to prove their sexuality. The discourse is often around – you’ve made it to the UK and you’re safe and your life will be great compared to your country where you’re persecuted – but there is so much persecution at the border just to prove your belonging or to be safe.

I liked what someone said yesterday that you tried to focus on the positive stories as opposed to negative.

Suryatapa: Yes, definitely, I think it’s nice to have that kind of arc. Of course there are struggles. I think it’s part of being an LGBT+ person whether you’re BAME or not. So how the non-binary story started is that we wanted to focus on the dress – so we show that through parents telling you what you need to wear for whatever reason and trying to say that, no I don’t feel comfortable in it.

The other thing we also wanted to show through the film is the feeling of being invisible in different contexts – so the first is in terms of the legal system, second in terms of family and third in terms of university and social life.

People not seeing you for who you really are, basically.

Suryatapa: Yes, and with the non-binary there’s still a lot of debate around whether that’s even a real thing so it was important to show that.

And with the family it was a parent who doesn’t get it but isn’t your stereotypical mother of colour who doesn’t just push you down and not listen and forces you. And I based it on my partner’s family and my own family – our mums actually – because they are a mix of these. These are strong women who are progressive but we still have our differences.

Yeah that really showed in the film. Simple things like the mother trying to understand or making the effort to search up what these definitions mean.

Suryatapa: Yeah so the character has already come out and they’ve already had a talk about it, there’s just a lack of understanding yet she has made an effort at the same time. Like going online and looking it up. So we wanted to show that like most mums, it’s this idea that, from the mum’s point of view, she’s not irrational and she loves her child, but she also doesn’t quite believe what the child is saying. And in return the child is trying to be vulnerable and reaching out, but there’s just a communication barrier. They have to agree to disagree in that situation.

Talk us through the third one, because I particularly liked how it represents invisibility in an organisation. We were talking about how it shows organisations or student body societies take for granted that there would be BAME LGBT+ people to do events with.

Suryatapa: The third I feel is more subtle – maybe too subtle – so I’m glad you asked that. It was based on my real experience. So not only is it an issue that the group leader doesn’t recognise that there are only two people who are BAME LGBT+ but also that there is a reluctance to do anything about it. And I feel like that’s a problem everywhere. People recognise that diversity is an issue so they get one or two people in but there’s no thought about why there aren’t more people coming in. Especially in terms of universities who are very international, there’s a question to be asked as to why LGBT+ societies are predominantly white. And a lot of people don’t know how to engage with that as it can be uncomfortable so they just leave it alone but really, you need to do something about it if you’re in charge. You need to collaborate; you need to find out some way of making a change.

And through the second half of that part I wanted to explore the stereotypes you have to deal with while being Indian and queer and dating.

Would you say it’s almost like a micro aggression sometimes the conversations you have on online dating apps?

Suryatapa: Definitely. And queer women are not seen outside sexualisation and fetishisation. And it’s just very frustrating so I wanted to counter that.

And again with the end of the film, I wanted it to end on a positive note where everyone from the three parts comes together at a Glitter Cymru meeting. Because it’s sad when you’re not seen for who you are but coming together in that safe space is awesome because you are seen for who you are therefore making you visible.

Vish: And we used a lot of glitter in the movie as a symbol for that visibility. And as a symbol for us. And they’re (the characters) trying to get rid of it in all 3 scenes or brush it off but it’s celebrated in the last scene and is on everyone.

I liked the way it was scattered through the 3 scenes too as a good visual imagery. Like a running themes that ties them together. How can we get more stories out there? We discussed how you only had 5 minutes to tell the story and that there are still more stories that need to be told. What can different platforms do to support?

Suryatapa: Well, I think tokenism is a bad thing but at the same time, firstly you need to start there sometimes. Because unless you do that, sometimes nothing happens at all. So start from there but don’t stop there at all.

Vish: I’m all for positive discrimination. It gets the ball rolling.

Suryatapa: I’m all for positive discrimination because there’s negative discrimination. So that’s why it’s needed. And once you’ve done that, then collaborations are important and listening to people and their needs and really taking initiative and involving yourself.

Vish: Yes, I’d agree with that. Especially if as an organisation you don’t have a BAME demographic then you should be reaching out to other BAME organisations or grassroots groups to collaborate. See how that goes, involve them, fund them, mobilise them, amplify them, and give them the opportunity to lead on whatever project you want to do with a BAME/LGBT+ focus.

Yes, and to normalise that. What have been some milestones for Glitter?

Vish: Well we had a stall at the Pride Cymru weekend in August. It was provided completely free and we had full control of it so we got to have great conversations and make connections with the attendees and other organisations. We were also part of the march, which was amazing and it was quite empowering really.

Suryatapa: We also gave a talk at the Iris Prize Festival. We did a couple of stalls at Cardiff University’s mental health awareness week and other great things. But the best part is when we do these kind of events like the screening and new people come to us.

And what’s next?

Vish: There is the trip to North Wales for the Awards Ceremony. Even if we don’t snatch a trophy, it will be great visibility for us and we are currently raising funds to help us to go to it. North Wales already has a low demographic of BAME people so I think it is important for us to actually be present.

I think we want to continue to invite allies to the group – maybe have three or four events a year open to allies, especially around things like LGBT+ History Month in February or Black History Month in October. Just to open dialogue and tackle misconceptions. The groups is about amplifying voices and each other but we also want to amplify them in the wider community, wider society. Are we just going to be an echo chamber for us or are we going to try and change perceptions and hearts and minds?

We also want to do a Glitter Talk, like a Ted Talk but more for BAME LGBT+ people where as many people as possible get a platform to talk and express themselves and their stories through creativity and words.


‘Glitter – We Exist’ will be available to view online shortly after the awards ceremony on the Iris Prize’s YouTube page.