Gilbey on Film: Gregg Araki and the geeks

Why was Kaboom pulled from FrightFest?

Curious goings-on this past week at FrightFest, the UK's splendid annual fantasy and horror film festival, which runs each August over the bank holiday weekend.

Last Friday, the film journalist Alan Jones, one of FrightFest's organisers, wrote on his blog about the decision of the director Gregg Araki to pull his latest picture, Kaboom, from its slot at the upcoming festival. Kaboom, which screened at Cannes earlier this year, reportedly blends Araki's usual milieu (sex, drugs and general debauchery among elegantly wasted teens fired from Abercrombie & Fitch for being offensively pretty) with horror-movie overtones, and has been widely compared to Donnie Darko. It has also been described as "a messy clusterfuck of excessive surrealism, low production values and characters speaking in that mannered way that only exists in the movies".

Jones has been an enthusiastic champion of the film, and FrightFest doesn't want for prestige, having introduced to the UK films such as Old Boy, Shaun of the Dead and Hostel. So it was a surprise to read his take on why Araki had put the kibosh on Kaboom:

[We] were told that Araki wanted Kaboom pulled from our line-up because he didn't want it being seen by a "bunch of geeks", his alleged words. The first thought that crossed our minds was, how come he's taken this long to tell us when we've been publicising the programme for a month now and every major website has carried the news? The second thought was what sort of film does he think he's actually made? The third was: so much for the pleas of tolerance and acceptance he advocates in his movies. The fourth was: Wow, has he got the FrightFest audience wrong. The fifth was . . . we don't need his movie if that's his blinkered attitude.

It certainly seemed a rum state of affairs, not unlike discovering that Steven Spielberg has it in for UFO nuts. Who would be left to stick up for the geeks if not Araki? His work stretches from his flawed but well-intentioned 1992 debut, The Living End -- a key text of the new queer cinema -- to his beautifully controlled film of Scott Heim's novel Mysterious Skin. Conventional he is not. Even allowing for the inclusivity of terms like "nerd" and "geek", which are affectionate rather than discriminatory, it would be dangerous for any film-maker to dictate in advance a desired audience.

Now Araki claims, in a message posted today on Jones's blog, that he never made any such statement. In fact, he seems to have been kept out of the loop entirely, professing that he only recently discovered his film was off to FrightFest:

As anyone who's seen my movies would know, I'm a cinema geek and genre fan myself . . . As an indie director, I never take any fan of mine for granted and am grateful for each and every one. The only part of this sordid saga that's true is that Kaboom was unfortunately removed from the FrightFest line-up. That decision was made after careful consideration by myself, the other producers [and] the financiers and upon the advice of friends who work in distribution. The sad fact of the matter is it's becoming harder and harder to make and distribute truly independent films in the current marketplace. Getting your film out there to audiences is more difficult than ever and requires careful planning and strategy.

Fan buzz-generating screenings like FrightFest are of course amazing and great fun to do but they're normally slotted closer to a film's theatrical release date as part of an orchestrated marketing effort. Our foremost concern right now is what's best for Kaboom overall and how to parlay the movie's amazing debut in Cannes into the widest distribution possible. As to why the film was pulled so late, I wasn't even told of its inclusion in the festival till a little over a week ago (sorry, but I don't google myself or my films on a regular basis and have no staff or assistants to keep me updated on stuff like that).

That would appear to be the end of the story, at least until Kaboom shows up in this October's BFI London Film Festival line-up, as Jones predicts it might (he says the LFF is "obviously the place Araki thinks would be best for Kaboom even though it hasn't yet been accepted by that flagship festival"). Still, FrightFest gets some well-deserved publicity out of all this, while Kaboom is now a title that people will recognise. So can we kiss and make up?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.