M. Asli Dukan has been interested in film as an art form since she was a child. Her mother and aunt would take her all the time to see films, especially fantasy, horror and science fiction, or speculative fiction (SF) films.
Dukan enjoyed the imaginative worlds, though she felt bittersweet about how Black people were represented in them, even then. When around the age of 12 , Dukan began to create her own worlds.
For almost 10 years Dukan has been working on a documentary called “Invisible Universe” about the representation of Black people in speculative fiction. Geekadelphia was able to catch up with Dukan and to ask her about her project and inspiration to take on such an important project.
Geekadelphia: What was it that first inspired you to become a writer and director?
Dukan: When I was 12 or so, I began to create my own worlds. I spent hours writing about them and drawing pictures of how they would look. Later, when I was in high school my mother bought me a VHS video camera and I began to make short films with my family and friends. I also experimented with stop motion techniques with toys. It’s a very specific set of skills, pulling ideas and people and locations and equipment together to create art. It’s hard work, but I fell in love with it. And though I started college through a program that focused on academics and science, I decided early on that I was going to major in film studies and film production. I made several short films in undergrad and then I went on to study writing and directing in graduate school.
Geekadelphia: What was it about these professions that interested you?
Dukan: I have always had an active imagination and also the desire to share my voice and my creative visions with the world. When I got the college and began studying film in a more structured way, I learned a lot about the auteur theory in film, where one person, most often the director is given the credit for the ultimate shape of a film. It was very enticing to me as a young person, who spent so much time creating things on my own.
So I spent a lot of time as a young filmmaker trying to be this thing. But the reality, in my experience as an actual filmmaker, is that it is a collective art form if you really want to benefit from talent, skills and work that other people bring to it. So what interests me the most now about being a writer and director, is how well I can collaborate with all the other professionals and artists I choose to work with on a project, in addition to telling stories from perspectives that have historically been marginalized in this field.
Geekadelphia: Could you tell us about the documentary “Invisible Universe” and what inspired you to develop the project?
Dukan: Invisible Universe is about the history of the representations and the participation of Black people in the genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction, or speculative fiction literature. This project has been in production for a really long time, but along the way I have been able to interview most of the first Black people who made lasting impacts in the genres and the industry, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Steven Barnes, Nisi Shawl, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Brandon Massey, Sheree Renee Thomas, Nnedi Okorafor, and N.K. Jemisin.
After finishing grad school in media production, I happened to read about a conference that was honoring Black science fiction writers. I immediately thought it would be an important event to document, because if for any other reason, there were going to be five Black writers on stage (Butler, Barnes, Due, Hopkinson, Delany – who couldn’t make it) who wrote about different worlds and futures for Black people. At that time I had only heard of two – Butler and Delany. Then I thought about the subject, Black science fiction writers, and how it was an amazing concept and should be a documentary. It might seem normal to have an event like that now, but back then it was rare. And that’s really where I began the project.
Geekadelphia: How much work did it take to complete your research for the film? Contacting and setting up time to speak to interviewees?
Dukan: My research is never really done because it’s a living and breathing network. To answer your question a bit more succinctly though, my research up till this point where I am currently in post-production has entailed interviewing creators and documenting events for years all around the country. In addition, I have done research at places like the Schomburg Center in New York and the Huntington Library in California, I have had enlightening conversations in person and online with significant players in the history from around the world, and I have read quite a lotsince I began, not just fictional works but works of science fiction and African American history, biographies and more. But most important is when I decided to begin the project, I really just participated in as many events as was possible for me so I could get to know who made up thisnetwork. Now to a certain extent it feels like an extended family to me.
Geekadelphia: Who do you feel that your target audience is for “Invisible Universe” ?
Dukan: I feel that my target audience are primarily the fans of the Black creators that I profile in the project. It is quite amazing to see how much this audience has grown over the past few years. I also know there is an academic audience for the project, whether for African American or science fiction literature or history, instructors who would find uses for the documentary in their classes. And I would think that anyone who has even a passing interest in this subject matter, Black speculative fiction, or just the transformations that have happened and are happening in the genres in general would be interested.
Geekadelphia: Why do you feel that a documentary such as “Invisible Universe” is important in this day and Time?
Dukan:I think it is important because it is not just about speculative fiction, it is ultimately about Black speculation, basically the capacity of Black people to imagine different worlds and futures for ourselves. It’s not new for us. In the United States, Black folk have always lived in a kind of state of emergency, so we have always had to use our imaginations as the first step towards recovering our full humanity in a society that has never really valued it. So for me the documentary is important because it is a document of our resistance to what I call the “white fantastic imagination” or white supremacy that is inherent to the genres of speculative fiction, and consequently in the society we live in. It’s ultimately important because for Black creators,Black struggle and Black speculation, have often gone hand in hand.
Geekadelphia: What was the most challenging when working on the project?
Dukan: Financing. The reason it has taken so long to complete this project is because I have never had the appropriate amount of financing that it really deserved. So what I didn’t have in money, I’ve had to make up with time. It has taken me longer to get to certain people and to certain places.
It has taken me longer to do the research. It is taken me longer to get through post-production because it is by far the most expensive part of the making this project. And also the reality is, as an independent filmmaker and Black woman, my access to the resources that may have made this process move faster is limited, historically limited. This project has challenged my patience and endurance but I know I have put in the actual work that it needs to get done. I have also had amazing support from the community it is about along the way. It will be worth the wait.
Geekadelphia: What are some other projects, writing or otherwise, that you are involved in?
Dukan: I am always working on numerous projects, in some capacity, at the same time. It’s the life of an independent artist, not just as a reflection of my varied interests, but also in regards to having and/or in my case finding the financing to get film projects off the ground and completed. The project most folk may be familiar with me is my Black speculative fiction documentary,
Invisible Universe. In addition to this project, I am in pre-production on an anthology horror film called Skin Folk based on the book by the award winning SF writer, Nalo Hopkinson. And I have just begun on production on an SF web series set in a near future, West Philadelphia called Resistance. I am really excited about this new project because I have decided to intentionally draw from the surrounding community to produce it.
I am collaborating with Philadelphia based artists to work on it and planning on using the community in a way that centers them in the narrative. Also the story is essentially about how a community comes together to struggle against the police state they live in, so the concerns of the story are contemporary and vital to the struggles of the actual community.