It somehow seems appropriate to meet Campbell X, director of the film Stud Life, on a sunny day in the heart of London’s bohemian community, Soho.
Her film, showcased from LA to Port of Spain, is now about to come out on DVD and make its way into the living rooms of the people she portrays.
Stud Life is not your average image of life in Britain. Forget Downton Abbey, however much backhanded rap cred it might have attracted. And cast aside the white English middle-class life often portrayed in mainstream films.
Stud Life is gritty and youthful, but also reflects a sunnier side of the human condition that often gets left out in Britain’s “gritty” life stories.
A black lesbian is attacked on the streets, but an older black couple take her into her barber shop and care for her in a way that every black Diaspora community can identify with.
Campbell X (she will not share any other name with me and I respect her gentle assertiveness) says she takes her inspiration from the people all around her in London.
“[They’re] people I see when I travel every day,” she told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“That’s why I take public transport – never a dull moment.”
Campbell speaks with passion about the “underbelly” of life in east London, which she describes as “colourful and light and human”.
This film portrays people that you might not describe as conventional.
There’s a gay scene, a drug scene, an alternative lifestyle – all lovingly portrayed as, well, just life. No attempt at gritty urban realism here; it all just feels real.
Campbell tells me that her different audiences have all identified with the characters at every showing of her film in very different parts of the world.
“No-one says, ‘I’m gay,’ they just behave like a human being,” she explains about some of her central characters.
“When that happens, people just get drawn into the story.”
Campbell says she has been pleased at each showing to hear men who identify with JJ, the woman who prefers suits and other women.
She says male viewers also say they have dated women like Elle, the love interest in JJ’s life.
“It goes beyond being gay,” she says.
So we get the elephant-in-the-interview-room question out of the way – how well does the film go down in Caribbean communities with alleged homophobic tendencies?
Stud Life opened in Los Angeles, but has also been shown at the Trinidad and Tobago Film festival, in Amsterdam and in other parts of the US.
“All cultures are homophobic, or else we [in the UK] wouldn’t be having that debate [over gay marriage] in Parliament now,” Campbell says.
She believes that it’s exaggerated in the Caribbean, because “we’re very religious people” and “stick to areas of the Bible that suit us”.
Campbell argues that despite the often libidinous imagery inherent in Caribbean dancing, carnival and music, people are, on the whole, sexually repressed.
“I don’t think we deal with heterosexuality really,” she tells Caribbean Intelligence©.
She argues that provocative dancing, videos (she’s directed music videos herself) and other forms of expression in the Caribbean do not “translate to sexual honesty”.
“We don’t know how to talk about sexuality in a healthy way,” she says.
We’re all diaspora
Campbell was born in Britain. Her mother is Jamaican and her father Trinidadian.
Of the long-term rivalry between the two islands and how it played out during her upbringing, she says: “It never ends.”
Campbell feels that the Jamaican influences in her film reflect the Jamaican influences in young Britain.
One of her characters, a white public schoolboy drug dealer, usually speaks patois when not talking with Downton Abbey vowels.
Campbell points out how many young British people are like that, even those who do not have her Caribbean roots.
“I feel British, but I can speak patois,” she says.
She remarks how frequently you can hear young white people in London speaking a mix of English and Jamaican patois.
“White people are diasporic too. We’ve spread our culture. Stud Life is about that culture.”
Jamaica v TT
Campbell is happy to be drawn into discussion of the dominance of Jamaican culture in the Diaspora and why reggae gets to the places soca has yet to reach.
“Where Jamaicans are, don’t mess with them,” she states.
But she points out how Trinidadians are more flexible, more likely to “fit in” when they live abroad.
The term she finally settles on for the Jamaican side of her heritage is “hard core”.
Campbell also outlines what it takes to make a professional film with funding.
She started with a course in 1991 and then worked her way through the industry as a camera assistant, clapper loader on films, documentaries and music videos.
She pitched an idea to Britain’s Arts Council and did not initially get funding, as she had “not made a film”.
She persisted by doing just that in her non-work hours, with the help of friends and their cameras.
Her determination put her on the road to her film Ragga Girl, followed by Stud Life, her first full-length feature, which recently won Screen Nation’s Independent Film Production Award.
Her advice to wannabe film makers is short and sharp: “Get proper training.”
She also suggests internships, getting on to film sets, going to festivals and practising on small films.
“It is not just enough to have a camera and shoot,” she adds.
Where next for Campbell? She’s planning an American road movie.
Caribbean Intelligence’s obvious follow-up question is – but surely this has been done before?
Her road movie film, she assures me, will be very different.
If you're in the Caribbean, you can obtain the DVD by calling Peccadillo Pictures on 0207 419 2710 or ordering from one of the above links.