He raised an eyebrow. I offered up the dvd. It had a photo of me handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit on its cover. I immediately regretted. Second eyebrow goes. Do you know anyone who wants to do harm to the United States? I shook my head and made hugh Grant noises, venturing a gosh!
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When the interrogation came, it was kiss more of a car crash than my Slumdog Millionaire audition. What kinda movie were you making there? The question shot through me with a shudder. It reminded me of the questions I faced at Luton airport, but also of the question i ask myself all the time. Was plan i adding to the catalogue of stage one, two, or three? Was it a film my 18-year-old self wanted? Would it make the necklace looser or tighter? I thought about the right way to answer him. The road to guantánamo was a documentary-drama, but maybe saying I was in a documentary about guantánamo bay wouldnt be wise. I said: Erm, its an award-winning drama called The road to guantánamo. There was a long silence.
By the time i was called up to audition for him, my spiel to explain the passport stamps was ready. Id show a letter from the films assignment producer, Id say award-winning film, and Id flash a shiny new dvd. But the kid questioning me seemed more nervous than I was. He had clearly been to the same beware Bloodthirsty Actors seminar as the intelligence officers at Luton. Step back from the counter! I was bounced up the chain for a proper interrogation by a dangerously fat man and his moustache. I sat and waited, rehearsing my lines.
Apart from a chinese family and a south American pilot battling the indignity with his spotless uniform, the holding pen was filled with 20 slight variations of my own face, all staring at me kind of like a bollywood remake of being John Malkovich. It was a reminder: you are a type, whose face says things before your mouth opens; you are a signifier before you are a person; you are back at stage one. The holding pen also had that familiar audition room fear. Everyone is nervous, but the prospect of solidarity is undercut by competition. In this situation, youre all fighting to diary graduate out of a reductive purgatory and into some recognition of your unique personhood. In one way or another you are all saying: Im not like the rest of them. When the airport interrogation came, it was more of a car crash than my Slumdog Millionaire audition. The fresh-faced desk officer was no older than.
The post 9/11 Necklace tightens around your neck. I had so far managed to avoid this in the audition room, but now I faced the same threat at us airports. It didnt help that The road to guantánamo had left my passport stamped with an Axis of evil world tour shooting in pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran within six months. I spent the flight sweating in defiance of air-conditioning, wondering what would await. When I landed, the officer assessing me shared my skin colour. I wondered whether this was a good sign or if he was one of the legendarily patriotic Cuban border officers I had heard about, determined to assess how star-spangled I was with a thumb up the anus. He looked at my passport, then at me, frowned and drew a big p over my immigration card. I immediately thought it stood for paki. I was led down a long corridor, without explanation, before turning into a side room that felt instantly familiar.
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It turned out that there was no hdi clear pathway for an actor of colour in the uk to go to stage three to play just a bloke. Producers all said they wanted to work with me, but they had nothing I could feasibly act. The stories that needed to be told in the multicultural mid-2000s were about the all-white mid-1700s, it seemed. I heard rumours that the Promised Land was not in Britain at all, but in Hollywood. The reason for this is simple. America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the.
The reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies. Conversely, american society is pretty segregated, but the myth it exports is of a racial melting-pot, everyone solving crimes and fighting aliens side by side. So america was where i headed. But it would not be an easy journey. You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels never as just a bloke called dave.
The question is disturbing not only because it endangers artistic expression, but because it suggests our security services dont quite grasp the nature of the terror threat we all face. A training presentation outlining Al-qaidas penchant for theatrical attacks may have been taken a little literally. It turned out that what those special branch officers did was illegal. I was asked by activist lawyers if I wanted to sue, but instead I wrote an account of the incident and sent it to a few journalists. A story about the illegal detention of the actors from a film about illegal detention turned out to be too good to ignore.
I was glad to shed some light on this depressing state of affairs. I went on to write a song inspired by the incident, titled Post 9/11 Blues. It was full of sage advice, such as: Were all suspects so watch your back / I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack. The song got the attention of Chris Morris, who cast me in four lions. In the end, having my arm nearly torn off by people whose salary i pay led to me exploring loads of stage two work loosening the necklace. It felt good, but what about stage three, the Promised Land?
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Security services officer, my first film was shredder in this mode, michael Winterbottoms. The road to guantánamo. It told the story of a group of friends from Birmingham who lined were illegally imprisoned and tortured in the us detainment camp. When it won a prestigious award at the berlin film festival, we were euphoric. For those who saw it, the inmates went from orange jumpsuits to human beings. But airport security did not get the memo. Returning to the glamour of Luton Airport after our festival win, ironically named British intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked. An officer screamed, twisting my arm to the point of snapping.
It loosens the necklace. And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, i am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be dave. In this place, there is no necklace. I started acting professionally during the post-9/11 boom for stage-one stereotypes, but i avoided them at the behest of my 18-year-old self. Luckily, there was also a tiny speck of stage two stuff taking essay shape, subverting those same stereotypes, and I managed to get in on the act. What kinda film you making? Did you become an actor to further the muslim struggle?
struggles is forever on loan, like the koh-i-noor diamond in the crown jewels. You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative. Part of the reason I became an actor was the promise that I might be able to help stretch these necklaces, and that the teenage version of myself might breathe a little easier as a result. If the films I re-enacted as a kid could humanise mutants and aliens, maybe there was hope for. But portrayals of ethnic minorities worked in stages, i realised, so Id have to strap in for a long ride. Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the necklace. Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on ethnic terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes.
To begin with, auditions taught me to get through airports. In the end, it was the other way around. Since i was a teenager I summary have had to play different characters, negotiating the cultural expectations of a pakistani family, brit-Asian rudeboy culture, and a scholarship to private school. The fluidity of my own personal identity on any given day was further compounded by the changing labels assigned to Asians in general. As children in the 1980s, when my brother and I were stopped near our home by a skinhead who decided to put a knife to my brothers throat, we were black. A decade later, the knife to my throat was held by another paki, a label we wore with swagger in the Brit-Asian youth and gang culture of the 1990s. The next time i found myself as helplessly cornered, it was in a windowless room at Luton airport. My arm was in a painful wrist-lock and my collar pinned to the wall by British intelligence officers. It was post 9/11, and I was now labelled a muslim.
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