Sabina England, filmmaker, playwright, and actress, is a fierce creative spirit, with a unique body of work, often hilarious, deeply touching, always profound.
Her dramatic short film “Wedding Night” caused a sensation at the New York Indian Film Festival, and was selected for the Oxford International Women’s Festival, the International Documentary and Short Film Festival, and other festivals.
Ebert recommended her comedic YouTube melodrama “Allah Save the Punk!” Diablo Cody’s website for female screenwriters interviewed her recently. She’s been interviewed by German, French, Bosnian, Indonesian, and many other blogs on film, theater, punk, fashion, feminism, and of course Islam.
Her comedy videos “The Punk and the Queen,” “The Punk and the Thief,” and “Allah Save the Punk!” were screened at Rebellion Festival 2011 in Blackpool UK as part of their first video/film showcase.
Her short story “Islamic Orgasm” was chosen by Robert James Russell for his book Sex Scene: An Anthology.
Her animated short “8-bit experiment video-game mock-up” was a response to racist reaction against the Ground Zero Mosque. In her game non-whites band together to kick out whites. She used music from “Burger Time” a 1980’s arcade game.
Her musical choices span many genres from the early punk of Sham 69 and Blanks 77 to traditional Hindi singers Lata Mangeshkar and Kalpana Kartik, from classical composers Bach and Mussorgsky, to ragtime great Scott Joplin, the experimental taqwacore punk of The Kominas, and the deconstructed electronica of her alien dance collaboration with yours truly.
Sabina’s parents are Muslim immigrants from India who moved to Leeds where she was born. There she lost most of her hearing at age two. To help her get the best possible education the family moved to Texas and then to the American Midwest.
Alienated and angry, a lonely outcast wherever she went, Sabina started writing short stories. She has said that in those days she wished Allah would make her white. Taking refuge in books and movies she started writing plays at age twelve.
Nine years later the Kali Theater read her one-act play “Chess for Asian Punks, Greek Losers, and Dorks” and her public career in theater began.
She studied at London Film Academy and graduated from University of Missouri-Columbia with a B.A in Theatre-Playwriting.
With minimal help from costuming and make up she uses her expressive eyes, her facial expressions, her body posture and movements to create characters as almost unbelievably different as the vampire in her funny and creepy Halloween video “A Vampire in India” and the Hindi hottie of “Two Lovers in India,” a romantic comedy with an ironic yet affectionate perspective on the war between the genders.
From her American Sign Language translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Israfel” to her plans for working with deaf children in Ethiopia, Sabina England is a multimedia artist whose explorations of the traditions and mutations of our international melting pot capture a universal resonance.
How are your preparations going for your trip to Ethiopia later this year? What do you hope to accomplish there?
Nothing has been confirmed yet, but I hope to go for a few weeks this summer to work with deaf children. I plan to go with a doctor and a sign language interpreter and some other people. The only thing that’s holding me back is money issues. My goal is to shoot some HD (High Def) videos in Ethiopia and film deaf kids. I would love to shoot an experimental sign language poetry video, both in American Sign Language and Ethiopian Sign Language. I would like to highlight the beauty of sign languages in general, and to show that sign language in Ethiopia is different from American Sign Language. Also, I would like for Deaf Ethiopian children to make themselves be seen and be heard, and since I have a large following online, I figure that I would share my platform with them. I read a research paper from Addis Ababa University that many deaf children in Ethiopia have very low self-esteem and many feel worthless. For me, when I was growing up, drama and storytelling and mime have always helped me express myself, it helped me feel more confident. I hope that maybe shooting a video and working with these students on the video, that it would help these children express themselves and feel more confident. But, I don’t even know if I’m going to Ethiopia yet. I hope I will.
In your comedy vignettes on YouTube the punks you play set off chains of events just by being themselves, and they are rescued or reconciled, bringing to mind perhaps your most popular punk story Allah Save the Punk! where a father learns the danger of intolerant speech when his own daughter is almost killed by his fanatic student. I notice comments have been turned off on the YouTube page, what sort of reactions did you get? Did anything change after Roger Ebert praised Allah Save the Punk! in his May 2010 newsletter?
Well, I’ve had a lot of great support from Muslims even before Roger Ebert mentioned my video. Most of the comments were quite lovely and supportive, there were a lot of comments from other Muslim and South Asian folks who said that they experienced the same issues that my character “Zeena” experienced. They could relate to the story in “Allah Save the Punk!” I have had mostly a positive reaction from the audience. But sometimes I got nasty comments from jerks. Someone even accused me of being a spy for the CIA. You know, I don’t give a shit what people think, and I’m not interested to hear their opinions. I am an artist, I live in my own little world, I don’t give a fuck what people think or say, I don’t let anyone’s opinions affect my works, and I’ll continue to shut everyone out. So, I’m not interested in hearing what people say about my works. I create it for myself. I’m not doing it for anyone else. You can either accept me or you can fuck off.
Your short film Wedding Night is about arranged marriages. A husband and wife meet for the first time on their wedding night and the husband is disappointed because his bride has a reputation. The film cost you less than two thousand dollars to make but it’s a beautiful and moving work. How has it been received at festivals?
It was screened twice in New York City due to high demand. I didn’t even know about it until I got to the venue and the festival director told me that everyone saw the trailer for my film and demanded to see the film right away because the tickets for the original screening were sold out. My film was being shown in conjunction with a feature film called “A Decent Arrangement” starring Shabana Azmi, written and directed by Sarovar Banka. So the film already premiered in New York City and I wasn’t even there! But I was really happy about it. It’s my first film, and I don’t think it’s a very good film, but it was a good learning experience for me. People have told me that it’s brilliant and different, something they didn’t expect. I have noticed that in the beginning of the film, people laugh a lot, which is NOT what I wanted, because my film isn’t supposed to be funny at all. But as the tension built up, people became quiet. There were a lot of gasps and murmurings in the audience. That’s what people have told me anyway since I’m deaf and I can’t hear people’s voices.
It was also shown at Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival, and a famous deaf artist, Chuck Baird was there in the audience. We shared a taxicab the next day and he complimented me on my film and said it was beautiful. He said it was like a painting coming alive onscreen. I was very honored to get a compliment from him.
Your first professional theatrical production was “How the Rapist was Born” (2009) produced in association with the Arts Council of England. An Indian Muslim woman is kidnapped by a notorious white rapist. He traps her in his home and rapes her daily until she kills him, but not before he makes her pregnant. The play begins fourteen years later. The woman lives in a mental hospital. Her daughter is proud of her criminal father. She hates her mother and insults her. It’s a chilling portrayal of self-hatred among women in a rape culture. You found that “How the Rapist was Born” received very different responses from audiences. On opening night in London the mostly American audience didn’t even clap during the curtain call. But the next night the mostly British audience loved it. Were you glad your play alienated the audience? And how did it feel to go from silence to ovation?
Yes, “How the Rapist was Born” is about the internalized misogyny that many girls and women have toward other women. As a woman, I hate to say this but I believe that women are our own worst enemies. Patriarchy has turned women against other women. We have a widespread rape culture, and today some of the worst chauvinists are women. We are constantly encouraged to tear down other females. We are told that we have to be beautiful and sexy, but we are not allowed to be sexual or to have needs and desires. We are told that we have to be polite and well spoken, but we’re not allowed to be outspoken or fierce or smart. We are told that we have to be seen but not heard. We have to shut up and sit down. We are told that we should be feminine, yet femininity is constantly mocked and insulted! It’s more acceptable for a woman to wear a manly suit, but it is laughable for a man to wear a dress. We constantly degrade and put down other people by using female words such as “pussy” and “sissy” and “cunt” and “bitch” and “whore” and “slut.” We are expected to act and dress and behave like females, yet female traits are considered inferior and looked down at! How fucked up is that? I’m sooo sick and tired of women slut-shaming other women and putting down other women. Some women always victim-blame other women, especially rape victims. We are brainwashed by patriarchy to hate and belittle other women and girls, and I’m fucking tired of it.
Yeah, the opening night was really bad. The audience was mostly American and they didn’t like it. They were offended. I am not glad that my play alienated them, but I hoped it made them think about the widespread rape culture in our society and how normal internalized misogyny is amongst both women and men. Even if they hated it, I hoped it left a lasting impression on them. It felt weird to see a standing ovation the next night, but I’m glad the British audience liked it.
“How the Rapist was Born” is non linear, and there’s a chorus of schoolgirls whose chants torment and drive the protagonist. You say this approach was inspired by ancient Greek plays. Which is your favorite ancient Greek play or playwright and why?
Yes, it was inspired by the element of Greek chorus often used in ancient Greek plays. I don’t have a favorite ancient Greek play, but I’m most familiar with “Antigone.” We actually performed that in my high school and the girl who played Antigone was a deaf senior girl who couldn’t speak, we were really good friends, I looked up to her and I admired her. Working in the play together helped foster my interest in theatre and performing arts. Since we’re on the topics of plays, I have to say my favorite tragedy play is “Hamlet” by Shakespeare. Why? Because I like that scholars and actors and playwrights today still argue whether or not Hamlet is insane. When he sees the ghost of his dead father, did he actually see the ghost? Or did he imagine it? Did he carry out acts of revenge as a sane man full of anger and sorrow, or was he being dangerous, insane and irrational? That’s what I love about the play, it allows you to draw different conclusions and you can interpret the character of Hamlet in so many different ways.
As a rebellious teen you were a punk rocker but then you had a religious awakening and began wearing the hijab, the head covering traditionally worn by Muslim women. What pulled you out of punk rock into the hijab?
Yeah, I went through a lot of shit in my teenaged years. It was a very confusing time; I was trying to discover myself. I was interested in social justice and politics, I wanted something that was more meaningful than punk rock, because at the time, it seemed all punks cared about was getting drunk and doing stupid shit. I wanted more out of life. So I was drawn to becoming a devout Muslim and it gave me a sense for living. I was pretty religious for a few years, I used to pray five times a day, I wore the hijab, and I read the Qur’an a lot. Not anymore, but I consider myself deeply spiritual and I still pray to Allah.
Doesn’t the hijab suppress individuality?
I don’t believe that the hijab suppresses individuality. I support every woman’s right to wear the hijab or to reject it. Women CAN maintain individuality no matter what they wear. Many girls in my family wear hijab, and I have many hijabi friends. They all wear it out of choice; they wear it because they WANT to. What I DON’T like is if the state tries to force women to cover up and tell us how to dress, then I think that’s bad.
One time, another Muslim woman, a non-hijabi, actually made an observation to me that by wearing hijab, a woman was re-enforcing the idea that we ARE indeed sex objects and that we have to cover up ourselves to protect ourselves from guys. That’s an interesting thought, but I don’t agree with it.
I love your American Sign Language visual poems where you turn poetry into dance. Your video of your translation into ASL of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Israfel” is quite beautiful. Are you planning other works in ASL?
Thank you! It was very hard, but it was a good challenge. Yes, I have more works in ASL planned. I am going to perform in San Francisco for Yoni Ki Baat 2012. I wrote a monologue called Ugly Beautiful/Brown White/Sweet Submissive/Orientalized Objectified, I will perform it in American Sign Language and also show a multimedia video, which has some segments performed in ASL. Later on, I would like to mix performance art with ASL. I’m thinking of doing a piece about my grandfather, who was a Quit India freedom fighter.
Your comedy shorts remind me not only of the earliest Bollywood and Hollywood silent films, but also of the German expressionists. Your pieces, and your wonderful acting, also remind me of Artaud and Theater of Cruelty. Who are your principle theatrical influences?
Thank you! My favorite professor from college, Dr. David A. Crespy, always said that my playwriting style falls into Theatre of Cruelty, but that was never my intention. I don’t follow a particular theatrical style. Rather, I have many different favorite playwrights whose works have influenced me. I adore Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sam Shepard, Eugene Ionesco, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, John Guare, just to name a few.
Your blog The American Dream is Dead was banned in United Arab Emirates. On your website you suggest residents download and install Tor and Hotspot Shield to get around the blockade. How have the more conservative Muslims responded to your work? Do you get censored often? Threatened? Do you find support from liberal Muslims? How about non-Muslims, are they similar, or do they try to fetishize you in different ways?
Yeah, it was apparently banned for pornographic content. Someone must have reported it to the authorities. I don’t see how my blog has pornographic content, there’s nothing like that anywhere on my blog. I don’t get much hate emails or threats from people anymore since I stopped talking to people online. I don’t know if I get much support, but I guess I do. There are a lot of Muslims and South Asians and Indonesian punks on my Facebook fan-page, which is nice. But, I don’t talk to any of them. Like I said before, I’m in my own world. I don’t talk to people online, so I don’t know how people out there feel about me. I don’t give a fuck anymore. I just do my own thing.
In “The Punk and the Thief” and “An American Tourist in Paris” you present damning yet comical critiques of two kinds of Americans. The Thief is a malicious hostile moron willing to ruin The Punk’s life because she wouldn’t let him take her picture. The Tourist is a classic hapless comedic character whose misadventures are a comeuppance for his self-absorbed assumption that everybody should conform to his expectations. So how do you really feel about America and Americans : )
Well, I live in America, I’m Desi (South Asian), I’m British-born, so my leading characters in my comedy videos would always be American or British or Indian or Pakistani. I like living in USA, I think comparing to other countries, we deaf folks have it better. I like the accessibility we have. I don’t have any negative or positive feelings about Americans or any other group on Earth. We’re all people, that’s all there is to it.
Can you tell us anything about your new film project Khoon Rani (Blood Queen)?
There’s nothing planned for Khoon Rani, but I definitely want to make it happen. I don’t have money to make another film. If I go to Ethiopia, I would just rather focus on shooting HD video there.
What plans do you have for your new production company?
I got a new digital camcorder, I’m getting a new laptop for editing, so I’m gonna churn out more videos. I want to shoot an ASL Bollywood music video, but I need to find the right people to work with me on that.
You call yourself a Muslim anarchist, please explain, since what you mean by that is far from the definitions dreamed up by paranoid Americans.
Yeah, I define “Muslim Anarchist” in how I define being Muslim and practicing my faith in my own way. I don’t mean anarchist in terms of politics, because I hate politics. I mean “anarchist” in a social, personal sense.
Many of your videos, like “Indian Women Who Love Aliens” and “The Punk and the Queen” end sweetly with surprising reconciliations. Are you being ironic or do you ultimately believe in the goodness of people?
No, I wasn’t trying to be ironic. I believe that most people can be good. We can’t let a few rotten apples ruin humanity.
In “I Love You, Hayden Christensen,” to me one of your funniest videos, you lampoon celebrity worship, but you also give a respectful nod to Héloïse d’Argenteuil. What inspires you about her
I’m not familiar with her, but the nod in the video was a joke! However, I had read about her a few times and I was always impressed because she was an intelligent woman who read a lot and loved passionately. That was in a time when girls and women were denied the right to education or the right to love anybody they wanted.
The same five names tend to come up when you discuss your influences: Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Jim Jarmusch, Wong Kar Wai, and Lucille Ball. Could you share your favorite work by each and why you love it or them?
Well, regardless of how you feel about Woody Allen as a person, you can’t deny that he’s a brilliant screenwriter and director. I love the dialogue in all of his films, but especially in his early films, from 1969 to the 1980s. That was his best period; he often talked a lot about love, death, sex, the meaning of life, and shitty relationships. His characters in his films always made me feel like it’s OK to be this way. Maybe I will never be happy or find a loving relationship. Maybe I will be alone for the rest of my life. That’s just how it is for some people. Jim Jarmusch is great because of the visual aesthetics in his early films, which had a profound influence on me. Same for Ingmar Bergman and Wong Kar Wai. Lucille Ball is one of my favorites because she was the first woman to own and head a production studio in Hollywood. She and her husband, Desi Arnaz, had to fight back when TV executives said that nobody wanted to see a white woman with a Latino husband on TV. She and Desi proved them wrong by going on a yearlong road trip performing their characters onstage, which proved to be a huge hit. She fought tooth and nail to have her show aired on TV. She was one of the biggest influences on television and for women in comedy. She was a fucking genius. If you ever want to read a biography of a Hollywood icon, you should read about her. She was an amazing woman. I read about her when I was 12 or 13, and I watched I Love Lucy almost everyday. I still watch it actually.
Article written by Tamra Spivey
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.