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“You Don’t Need to Wait for Permission to Create Art”: Celeste Bell and Paul Sng on Their Doc, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

A black-and-white photo of a Black woman in a white shirt and black wide-brimmed hatPoly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

in Directors, Interviews
on Feb 2, 2022

Celeste Bell and Paul Sng’s terrific and deeply moving documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché casts a hand-hewn spell; much like its subject, the artist and musician Poly Styrene (1957-2011), it conjures a collaged world that is alternately intentional and reflective, yet steeped in the search for a certain liberating transcendence from the impositions of identity, family and memory. 

Born Marian Elliot, in Bromley, Kent to a white British mother and Somali father, and raised in Brixton, Poly made art from an early age. She wrote, drew, made her own clothes, and formed the band X-Ray Spex at 19. The band was punk at its most inventive and anarchic, but it was also purely Poly. As a frontwoman, Poly eschewed the role of victim or vixen. She careened and caterwauled and outfitted to her own beat. Poly’s lyrics and poems – infused with a keen observational critique of consumerism and conformity, condemning racism, sexism and media image creation — are glorious outbursts, a manic teen spirit kicking against illusions and delusions. Her words and concepts were also incredibly prophetic, forecasting genetic engineering, a cadre of “germ-free adolescents,” and even the spectre of VR, “the triumph of the artificial.”

The heart of the film — which incorporates a treasure trove of Poly’s artwork, diaries, letters, photos, and all matter of personal ephemera melded with archival moving image material, live performance and photo sessions, interviews  and recorded musings from family, friends and fans (it’s refreshing to hear from other women of color, the musicians Rhoda Dakar, Pauline Black and Nenah Cherry, who cites Poly as a role model) — is the journey of Poly’s daughter Celeste, a writer and musician, as she revisits and interrogates, if not reconciles, her mother’s public image and private persona. Stated simply: “My mum wasn’t like other mums.”

The idea for the doc came out of Bell and Zoë Howe’s book  Day Glo! The Poly Styrene Story (Omnibus Press, 2019); an exhibition in Brixton co-curated with Mattie Loyce is set to travel in the near future to NY and LA. Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche opens today in the United States from Utopia.

Filmmaker: Celeste, the film operates on many levels: as portrait, a memory of a time and place, and more importantly, a memoir of your time with and without your mother. It really elevates the “seminal (or forgotten) music figure” doc genre. There’s always a tangled aspect of telling your own story in relation to a public figure who was also a complicated parent. You throw down the gauntlet at the beginning: “My mother was a punk rock icon. People often ask me if she was a good mum. It’s hard to know what to say. Sometimes I think of an answer she might have come up with: ‘A good mum? How banal. How mundane.’” And you reflect on how you weren’t ready to be the caretaker of her legacy and found solace ultimately in retracing her footsteps. So, how did you and Paul begin your dialogue, that process of retracing and incorporating the book you did with Zoë Howe in 2019?

Bell: That’s a really good question. In retracing the footsteps, of course it’s multi-layered and has many meanings because I was literally retracing the footsteps by visiting key locations that related to my mother. We shot in different locations — in New York, in India and various places in London and Hastings. And then there was the process of researching the wider stories. It’s not just my story or my mother’s story but the larger social context and the historical reality of the time. It was definitely a collaborative process — Paul and I, of course, and Zoë and our editors and producers. We were on this journey together.

Sng: Zoë introduced us just over five years ago. We met up in this cafe and spoke about ideas, And I remember saying to Celeste, “I really like the idea of choosing ten locations, ten iconic places in your mum’s life and revisiting them. And would you be willing to write letters in each of those places to your mum?” And Celeste said yes. I remember the first things that she ever wrote. I still get goosebumps if I think about it because Celeste’s a brilliant writer and the only person that can tell that story as well as Poly is Celeste because she was part of it. So we spoke about our ideas, and we decided that there wouldn’t be any talking heads.

We wanted people to be immersed in the past and use archive in the service of the story. And to work with a great editor (Xanna Ward Dixon), someone who could craft a film that told the story visually. The themes about identity, about motherhood, about place and memory were all meshed together. And I think it was also inspired for us by Julien Temple and his film The Filth and the Fury (2000) — the way he used archive and voiceover, a chorus of supporting people that tell the story and [how he] included himself in the film. In The Filth and the Fury he filmed the remaining Pistols in silhouette, because, as I heard him say in a Q and A, no one wants to look at them in middle age. If you’re looking at John Lydon now you’re not seeing Johnny Rotten, you’re seeing John Lydon, somebody who, whether you agree with his take on the world or not, is not the same person seen in the archive. So I think it was important for us that in hearing these stories it would be in voiceover — looking at the past through the lens of the present, not only visually in terms of being in those places, but also through what we are hearing and sensing because the human voice doesn’t change that much over time.

Filmmaker: I was really struck by the film’s consistency of vision. No doubt it was a torturous journey and ultimately perhaps an epiphanic one in tracing the high and low points of your mother’s private and public persona. It’s something that seems very embedded in the notion of punk at that time, an outsider finding solace and refuge in an insular scene, but also being very disappointed by the contradictions of the scene itself – the misogyny, the racism, the industry and societal co-optation, the greed…

Two of the most profound sections in the film deal with situations that served as turning points for Poly. One is in New York during a “residency” at CBGB’s with X Ray Spex in 1977 and another was after what proved to be the band’s last gig, in a UK hotel room, where she had a type of spiritual awakening that commanded her to give up the “plastic life” for a simpler existence. In the New York sequence, you use a variety of footage, her voice, diary excerpts, accounts from those who were present at the time (including superfan Thurston Moore who recalls Poly handing him her mic from the stage to join her in the chorus of Oh Bondage Up Yours). I’d love to hear how you crafted those sequences.

Bell: We knew that from the start that New York was going to be a kind of turning point in the film. It’s a bit of a climactic moment as well. It was one of the first places that we put on the list — we knew we must go there. When we first started the edit of the film, New York was our first section, and we could have made a whole film just about that time because so many of these different strands of my mom’s story really converged there. It was exhilarating and exciting, but at the same time it was the beginning of the end because it was just too much of all of those things. I guess my mother had reached the level of perception in terms of her songwriting as well, and everything was just getting that much more philosophical. New York was really a portal into a new world, literally.

Filmmaker: Poly’s state of mind is illustrated in visually sensorial, fragmented imagery, set against some very dark accounts. The sublime and the horrific…

Sng: That was one of the things we wanted to play around with because Poly was a contrary person. She wasn’t obvious; she was unexpected. What you see is often in contradiction to what you’re hearing. Poly’s lyrics were playful. So, it was very much a case of not always having to see and hear the same thing for there to be contradiction. There’s a beautiful dissolve where we’re talking about Poly’s state of mind and we’re seeing stars and things, and there’s a coffee cup and it swells…just pure craftswomanship from our editor. 

Filmmaker: It means a lot to hear you sing the praises of your team.

Sng: I’ve never subscribed to the auteur theory. Film is a very collaborative and alchemical endeavor. We are all equal parts in this film. And Celeste and I as the directors, we get to do these interviews, we get to stand up and do the Q and A’s, but, you know, it’s about the collaboration. I don’t think enough people say this as directors, that we have far too much power and not enough sense of the responsibility to our fellow creatives. 

Filmmaker: The film is going to expose Poly’s life and lyrics, her artistry and place in music history, to a new audience. What do you hope it brings to viewers who are being introduced for the first time to Poly’s work in terms of that representation?

Bell: My mother broke down many barriers. She was the first biracial woman to front a punk rock band. And one of the first people in that world to have a publicly documented sort of meltdown. I hope [this film] actually brings a lot of attention to mental health in the music industry. Thankfully, we’re starting to have this conversation now, especially in light of the recent documentaries about Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, as well. My mother was going through all that at a time when there was no real sensitivity or understanding. The way the press dealt with it was horrible. Hopefully we can see some real lasting positive changes in an industry which is predatory and often leaves young women severely damaged from the experience.

Sng: I would hope that people can also take from it that you don’t need to wait for permission to create art. Poly was a do-it-yourself person and off she went and did it. And when we were making the film, we started making it with our crowdfunders. The bigger funders didn’t come in until the very end, but we never gave up. And, you know, it’s possible to make art and to not wait for permission by funders.

Filmmaker: What were the reservations from potential funders?

Sng: I think it’s because we are new and emerging filmmakers. I’d made two films before, but they were self-funded. This was the first time that I worked on a film that received arts funding. And with it being Celeste’s first film, they weren’t willing to take a risk on us. I think we proved them wrong. They came in at the end, don’t get me wrong, but coming in earlier could have saved us (laughs) a lot of —

Filmmaker: Stress!

Sng: Yeah. [Industry financiers] came in at the end, which is good. And now we’ve made a film and the next time we go for funding, hopefully they’ll be a bit more reactive, but it’s a very risk-adverse industry. If you haven’t got the bank of mom and dad, if you’re not someone that’s in that position already, then you’ve gotta be a hustler. And we hustle.

Filmmaker: Celeste, your presence in the film is multivalent. The camera follows you in various locations, walking towards these interior and exterior places that contain memories and present-day realities. I was especially struck by the sequences of you sitting in a white-walled studio looking through the book you did with Zoë and reading from it. It’s a literalization of the storytelling. It’s very affecting. It gives the feeling of this kind of spectral presence. You are dialoguing with the spirit of your mom. I dug it a lot.

Bell: Using the studio space was kind of a risky decision. We knew that we wanted to film in a different space. There were certain moments, the more intimate moments in terms of reflecting on the diary entries, where it just felt necessary that I was in another space to reflect a different head space. The white background was originally supposed to contrast with a black background. But the lighter space worked much better really. It’s very much a “God’s Waiting Room” feeling, and it exists a little bit outside of time as well. The decision to bring the book into the space was wanting to pay homage to the role that it really played in the development of the film.

Sng: We had this idea quite early on that we wanted to structure the film in a style of a fairy tale. The way that Celeste tells the story, it’s like “Once Upon A Time…” And Celeste had the idea to incorporate the actual physical book.

Filmmaker: That meta aspect is fascinating. And the printed word on the white page, Celeste sitting in a white space reading from the book,  like reading and reliving a fairytale — for me, that’s the essence of the film. A lot of what you’re recapturing and going through within this complicated personal archive is the joy, pain, trauma, inherited experience —  all those ups and downs of life. If Poly’s life was written as a classic fairytale, what do you think it might be?

Bell: I think perhaps Alice — it’s not really a classic fairy tale, but it’s not Hans Christian Andersen. In regards to my mom’s experience, it was very much Alice in Wonderland, a quite surreal experience that she went through. I think [that’s] my own experience to a large extent as well. 

Sng: I always liked Angela Carter’s reinterpretation of fairy tales, particularly Little Red Riding Hood, because when they were written, they were designed to be cautionary tales. Over time they got a bit watered down, but they’re meant to terrify and horrify.

Filmmaker: Ruth Negga gives voice in a beautiful way to Poly through the reading of her private diaries. Using actors to voice the written word of others can be a very dicey thing. How did her involvement come about?

Sng: We had a meeting with Ruth, and she’d obviously prepared really well. We had her for two days, but she actually did it all in one day and even offered to come back. She just had it down. There were moments in the edit room when I was not sure if we were hearing Poly or Ruth’s voice. Ruth was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. She could relate to being a woman of color, a working-class woman raised in the UK who has experienced racism. 

Filmmaker: It’s also a courageous tale to explicate, as you say. Legacies are very complex. 

Bell: We were looking at legacy from a slightly different perspective because of the way my mother probably saw her own legacy. I think that when spirituality also comes into the equation, is it legacy or is it immortality? Why do we create art in the first place? I do think there is an element of wanting some part of you to exist beyond this temporary lifetime that we have. When you create something, you are creating it to exist for a long time. I would say most artists have that in their subconscious, whether they admit it or not. It’s a little stab at immortality with every creation. 

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