Levi Aluede is an award-winning writer and director whose debut short film Ingénue (2019) received high acclaim from critics and contemporary artists alike. I'm sure you've heard of him by now. His new series, a four-part near-future psychological drama, Visions of a Vivid Life is already making waves with only two episodes released. Part 3 comes out tomorrow.
Pictured: Levi Aluede, in 'That Picture of Me in the Jacket' a short message I received after asking him which picture to use.
We planned for this interview to be all about Visions, but that didn't work out. I called Levi just after 6PM, we'd had all day to get worked up over what was happening on social media. The tag, #BlackLivesMatter had been overrun with what the kids are calling a "blackout". Millions of people were posting black squares, filling an active, thriving section of Instagram with a deafening silence. Needless to say, we were furious, and we couldn't ignore it. As such, this interview consists of two parts.
Part 1: Black Lives Matter, Instagram idiocy, Encroaching Fascism, Rap Music.
MW: How are you?
LA: I’m just tired, man.
I’m trying to continue living semi-normally, whatever COVID-19 normal is, while trying to deal with all the other shit going on in the world right now.
I wasn’t that vocal at the start of all this because people were doing the right thing! They were sharing information, books, films, music, guides for protestors, then this morning, I wake up and my Instagram is just blank. It’s blank. And nobody is doing anything.
This clearly isn’t helping. There were so many people getting so much information within like 24 hours of being online, especially now, everyone’s home and online, it’s the perfect time for a movement like this! But no, everyone’s posting these black squares, celebrities who haven’t said shit about BLM are suddenly posting these as if that’s their contribution.
MW: Is it the black squares themselves doing the damage, or is it the distraction they’re creating?
LA: It’s the squares. They are a serious problem. A black square with nothing written on it isn’t just an empty gesture – it’s violent, its censoring one of the most important and effective online groups ever.
The idea started out okay, ‘Blackout Tuesday’ was only meant for music and TV. A lot of parts of the entertainment industry came together to say they would pause their streaming today, maybe just show “I can’t breathe” or something, in solidarity with BLM and George Floyd. That’s fine, great. Nothing to do with black squares.
I woke up this morning to see that social media basically co-opted #blackouttuesday. It’s now being used by people who are thinking “Yes! Everyone’s gonna do this and I can join, I’m gonna protest” – THIS IS NOT HOW YOU PROTEST! Being silent is not how you protest! It’s like posting a blank tweet and saying “that’s my protest” – it’s just less information.
People don’t realise that social media is a collective stream of consciousness. It is so important to constantly post videos of what’s going on, the videos stay there forever, the UN can see them, everyone can see police murdering people, it’s evidence. It is evidence. People need to be arrested.
For a few days we were going and going and going, and now everyone is making this big, useless void, a black hole. It’s literally a black hole, we’re losing so much information to this sea of nothing.
MW: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the suppression of anti-establishment rhetoric or even racial equality movements. These black squares seem, to me, like another example of erasure of Black history, happening right before our eyes. Do you think this started with the express intention to censor the Black Lives Matter Instagram and bury all this ‘evidence’?
LA: I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I think this was just the path of least resistance, it’s the easiest thing to do, so people are doing it. Like how it’s easy for people to say: “I’m not gonna comment” and act like they’re being supportive.
People aren’t realising that, for the US, this shit is at their door. It is not, in any sense, a ‘social media movement’. There’s 48 states protesting today. That means 48 states have, like, the national guard outside their homes. They have a curfew. You can get arrested for going outside right now. This is happening, it’s reality, and nobody seems to be grasping that. People are just saying “I don’t care therefore I care”, it’s a paradox and it’s pissing me off.
MW: There must be a productive middle-ground in between posting black squares and protesting in the streets. What can we do to help from our homes?
LA: Learn. Learn as much as you can about why we’re still not happy, learn why this country is still not equal. A lot of people have messaged me asking what to do, and I keep saying read books by Black authors, research Black history, listen to some music.
" There’s so much people don’t know. "
Just today, Matt, who plays Kafka in Visions, messaged me saying he’d learned something new from a tweet I’d put out. It was about how, when I was nominated for best screenplay, they asked me to send a photo, and, when you’re Black, you get nominated and think “yes, great”, then you hear ‘photo’ and just think “fuck, they’re gonna see that I’m Black, I’m not gonna get it”. Matt never realised that’s something we go through. That is our reality.
Plenty of people have passed every oxford exam required, and then get to the stage where they have to send a photo, and immediately get denied.
MW: I have to admit I’d never thought about that, sending a photo being an obstacle. I only get worried about sending a photo if I haven’t shaved.
LA: Yeah, you can’t shave this.
George Floyd protests in Uptown Charlotte, 5/30/2020 (IG: @clay.banks)
MW: Have you seen the live stream for people who can’t afford to donate?
LA: I haven't. I probably would have, if my Instagram wasn't empty. What is it?
MW: It's a project started by Zoe Amira, a Youtube stream showcasing Black artists, writers, musicians. Ads run every few minutes, and the viewers all click on them to give the channel as much revenue as possible. That revenue is then donated to bailout funds for arrested protesters.
LA: See? I would’ve seen that by now. Nobody will see that today. Less money will get through, real problems are being created by people wanting to look good.
MW: It seems people keep putting their own image above the cause, the black squares have a smugness to them, they're captioned in ways that may as well say "look at me, I'm more tolerant than you".
LA: Superiority is always the problem.
" People act like it’s a gift to be tolerant. "
It happens with classism as well. The Tories say to the NHS “because we clap, you should be grateful”… fuck you! Give them money! These people can’t afford food while they risk their lives to save you guys. And all these problems seem to have stacked up, and the government is just clearly saying they don’t care about us, they’re indifferent. That’s the world we’re living in.
Nobody realises how racist the UK is, we’re a lot better at hiding it, but look at the New Cross fire, look at Grenfell. Just because we aren’t being shot, doesn’t mean we aren’t being killed. Grenfell is still sitting there, it’s a monument to the people who have died.
You want to know what privilege is? Privilege is losing your daughter and having a 10 year investigation into it, while hundreds of people’s homes burn, their families die, and they still don’t have anywhere to live. They get no help.
The reason the government can get away with having the highest death rate in Europe right now is because they are always passive about deaths. “They died, oh no” that’s all they say. They never say anything else, they never tell the truth, they never answer any questions. They break rules and then they flaunt it. They show off, right in front of us, that’s what Dominic Cummings did, and the government flaunted it.
They say “we’re not supposed to be your parents”, like, yes you are! We voted for you, we’re supposed to follow you, you’re supposed to lead the way! They care more about the economy than human lives. The reason they weren’t better at shutting down was because they do not mind that people are dying.
MW: I see a lot of people point to America and say that it's "more racist" as if that excuses the problems here. How do you feel about this kind of comparison?
LA: It's not about "more" or "less" racist. It manifests differently, and that's mostly down to the country's history. America is one of the youngest countries in the world, yet their entire history right up to this point is about violence, exploitation, and profit. A bunch of white guys arrived on this island, killed everyone who lived there, and installed their own brand new economy. Their country is a business, it always has been, and at the start, the business model was: "I’m gonna kill you so I can get your gold, and I’m gonna take it home and get a big farm and make all the Black people live on it and work". An entire nation based on who could exploit the most Black people.
" What sort of country needs a civil war over whether slavery should be allowed? How is that country gonna look after only a hundred years? Exactly how you'd expect: still murdering Black people every day, still not caring. "
They didn't even stop having slaves, America just changed its slavery to something else - prisons. A lot of people don’t realise that prison-owners get more money if they have more prisoners. Everything is driven by capitalism, it's always been a hierarchy, and if you used to be a slave and suddenly you're free, you are still at the bottom of the pyramid. That's where we are today.
MW: Some might argue that, today, it's worse than ever to be at the bottom of that pyramid. The top 1% in America own more wealth than the bottom 60, maybe 70% by now. It's less of a pyramid and more of a menacing spire, and wealth inequality is showing no signs of slowing down in the US or the UK.
LA: One thing we have in common is that we're getting towards fascism, though America is a lot closer. They're basically there. I mean, they literally named anti-fascism a terrorist group, that’s how fascist they are. I watched Trump holding up that bible, and I could hear all the conflict happening like 5 minutes away from him, and I’m just thinking “this is fascism, I just watched fascism rise in a week. They switched to a military state just like that”.
MW: Well, at least it’s only military. America would be much more fascist if they were targeting journalists and constantly trying to call independent news sources ‘fake’.
LA: Yes, thank God they aren’t doing that. Lucky they aren’t killing them either, or beating them and arresting them. Lucky there’s no minority groups being specifically targeted by a highly militarised, corrupt police force.
(these last comments, if it isn’t clear, are to be read with big large sarcastic air-quotes)
I didn’t even watch the whole video of George Floyd, because I didn’t need to. I’ve seen that shit. So many times.
The Black Panthers speak at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC 6/6/2020 (IG @clay.banks)
MW: Do you think there's a specific reason the Floyd video got so much traction?
LA: Usually, when a video like this comes out, there's a gun or a weapon involved. This struck me because the murder weapon was just this guy’s body, his weight. He’s got his knee on his neck, and he's looking around with his hands in his pockets, he looks like a serial killer! It’s crazy! And the idea of the knee on the neck isn’t even unfamiliar, it’s in movies, shows, it’s in music. It’s things people say, “I can’t breathe”, we’ve heard that before.
I just keep thinking: We are in a pandemic, people are already dying because of a broken healthcare system, things are so bad right now, and yet.. this is still happening.
" The end of the world couldn’t stop people being racist. "
If there was a zombie apocalypse, people would still be racist.
I’ve been listening to people like Kendrick Lamar or Mos def, and I’m hearing words from 1991, ’99, the same words that I heard last week. That’s how ingrained it is into our lives. People can’t fathom that, they can’t and they listen to the same shit as us! they listen but they don’t hear it, they don’t realise we’re asking for help.
MW: What would you say people are missing when they're listening to these artists?
LA: I don't think everyone realises their position in Black communities. Rappers are heroes to us, they're Gods. People who didn’t go to school, mostly, or were denied education. People who used language to work the system, get loads of money, and win the game. And they’re talking about things that happen in their culture. They’re the reason we hear about Black people dying on the streets, otherwise, how else are we hearing it?
They make that knowledge accessible, and they speak for people living in those situations, they’re the ones who first gave us hope that we could make it on our own. You can be Dr Dre, you can start your own company from skills you taught yourself.
MW: Do you have the same relationship with athletes?
LA: Athletes, we don't get us much hope from because a white person still has to pick them. Before they can even play that sport at a high level, they have to be selected. White people don’t understand that, for Black people, because we don’t get taught things, sometimes all we have is sport. But professional athleticism is a lot like slavery, its pushing our body to exhaustion so that this other person can make a profit.
They’re not playing for teams owned by Black people either. They’re all White, all the management, almost all the coaches. English football leagues have like two Black coaches in the whole leagues, and how many Black players? How many of those Black players struggled in school? How many will still have a career after like, 30?
A lucky few get higher education scholarships if they're good enough at a sport, but if only 1 in 1000 people get those scholarships, where do the other 999 go?
MW: Work. Seems like almost everyone is trapped in this system.
LA: It's entrenched, y'know. We're so far into this. I've noticed so many people in London living like slaves, they earn just enough to eat and sleep, but every day is work all day and they can't save money or leave. I'm lucky to be able to make films, but I've never made money off them. I've always been working somewhere alongside film-making. So many people live like this and they don’t even think about it because.. everything seems to work? So we’re just keeping it working, this system. We’re all scared. We're scared that it will be worse if everything falls apart.
But, I've talked to so many people in quarantine, and we all absolutely agree: we do not want to go back to what was normal.
" What was normal was not good for us. "
I don’t want to go back to living in a world where I can’t go to Italy because I’m genuinely too scared to be in Italy.
MW: Is this something you want to explore in your films?
LA: Of course. The film I’ve been trying to make for some time, or slowly making and researching, is a feature film – a documentary about this civil rights leader from the UK who is fighting for Black rights and was part of literally every organisation, including the Panthers. He met and spoke with all these significant people, like Steven Lawrence’s parents, he knew them. He's been at the heart of all this for so long, his daughter actually came to me with the story, and I agreed to work with her and make it into something.
The film chronicles his life from the 40’s to now, at the same time paralleling everything going on in the world during his life, and the life of his daughter. We see the struggles she still goes through today. I actually think I’ll have to add a whole new section to the film for 2020, so, don't expect it too soon.
MW: Does it have a title?
LA: It’s called A Father’s Daughter and the Floating World.
MW: You do like your alliteration in titles.
(Levi laughs at this)
LA: Fuck yeah I do.
MW: Speaking of alliterative titles,
Part 2: Visions of a Vivid Life - the Details
This short series follows Kafka Fulham, played by Matt Blin, who becomes involved with vague yet menacing memory donation programme. Kafka interviews for the role of ‘assistant’ to the elusive Mako Springer (Nicole Miners), a ‘donor’ whose services are repeatedly sought after and payed for by Charley (Lily Walbeoffe), a ‘client’, according to Mako. We meet Charley in part 1, she is clearly addicted. We aren’t told much about how this process works or who Mako is. We aren't told if the memories she provides are all her own, (although the words "curate" and "batch" are thrown around, suggetsand we aren't told anything about this strange fellow with a surname for a first name. In fact, we aren’t told much at all. Who is Kafka anyway, and why does he look so scared? In this revealing conversation, Levi Aluede makes one firm promise: all we be explained... eventually.
MW: I love the series so far. My favourite aspect is how it blurs the line between simulation-based entertainment and drug-use. Clients are hooked up to a machine to experience the reveries, it looks like there's a needle in their arm, and the one client we meet is in a similar state to a heroine addict. Yet this isn't far off from VR, or even TV.
Pictured: Charley Le Soux, played by Lily Walbeoffe, Visions of a Vivid Life, Part 1.
MW: An early shot of Part 1 shows Lily Walbeoffe staring into the lens with tired, weary eyes and a medical face-mask covering her nose and mouth. She is in her own home, answering the door. I know this series is set in the near future, and I know it was written and shot before COVID-19 hit. Are you psychic?
LA: No. Obviously.
When I’m writing scripts, I like to try and write them 10 minutes from now. I don’t want it to be the focus, or to firmly say “this is 2025, the world is now like this”, I just try to imagine what the world will be like in 5 or 10 years. And I do that because, I know I probably wont make what I’m writing until fuck knows, and I want it to be relevant !
So I had the mask idea for a year or so, living in London, the pollution is already so bad, I just thought, in 5 or 10 years, we will all need to wear them in cities. It’s not even a question.
I can’t even believe it’s coming out, I’m still working on it.
MW: You need more footage?
LA: No, but you can edit footage forever and not be fully satisfied. We shot the whole series in three days. All in one go, back when we were able to be in the same room.
MW: I’m interested in the word ‘vivid’ in the title. Are the visions more vivid than real life?
LA: … Maybe.
I think, most of the time, things are just different.
I find memories really interesting in this sense. The fact that you only have an idea of something that happened. And the only thing telling you that event was real is you. For someone else, the exact same event might not even register or could be completely different.
I wanted to explore the idea that, if you chase something, a vivid life that isn’t yours, it’s completely different from experiencing your own memories. It’s exploitative. I wanted to show that we should put more love and more care into living in the present, and thinking about how we want to construct the future. That’s what people should be doing, only using the past to inform what they want later. But here we have all these characters who just want to live in the past, who are always trying to turn back. They want nothing to change, and that problem is where the series is heading.
Pictured: Kafka (Matt Blin) looking at Mako suspiciously. This picture also resembles me, looking at Levi. Suspiciously.
MW: GOD I WANT TO KNOW NOW!
Part 1 and 2 seem, to me, to be a slow burn. It seems as though, at the end of part 2, everything is about to go awry. Is that the case?
LA: Yes. Part 3 continues straight after 2, it’s a lot faster, a lot of action.
Seth Rogen said something great about story versus plot, he said you use the plot to invite them in to watch the story. A lot of part 1 is, here’s the plot, here’s what’s going on, this is a piece of technology, etc. Then the story starts to happen in part 2, and then part 3 is like, this is the actual story. These are the characters, this is what happened to them, this is why they’re here, I want Part 3 to make you go "holy shit, what the fuck is going on?"
MW: And Part 4?
LA: More of that.
MW: Sounds like a smart move, setting everything up at the start so you can launch into all the action.
LA: It was a risk, definitely. But it was worth it. That’s why I knew I had to direct the first two, because it’s so important that they’re good, even if they move at a slow pace. They have to be good enough to be released first and have people watch and say “yes, this is great, I’m gonna watch the rest”.
MW: Every action in these episodes seems to have a greater significance than we first understand. I'm constantly asking questions when I watch them. Are you directing it with the viewer’s questions in mind? Are you looking for them to engage with the work, to interrogate it?
LA: Oh yeah, that’s all I think about when I direct: the audience is inherently going to question everything. So every line in the first part is set up to give you information you may not even realise you’re getting, or to allude to information you’re gonna get later.
Once you see the whole series, you suddenly realise “oh that’s why this scene in part 1 was like that, this is what was going on”, it feels natural, rather than having to explain what’s going on all the time, you just allow it to unfold, let the audience understand it more as they watch.
MW: That makes sense. The first line of the series is “the sky could fall straight down like one flat surface”. I have no idea what that means. It sounds like a line of poetry, is it?
(Levi appears pleased that I have mistaken his original work for plagiarism)
LA: The sky falling down line, that’s to do with Kafka being this doomed character right from the start. The fact that he says it shows how he creates his own... prophecy. That feeling, like the sky is falling, when it feels like everything is crashing and you have no idea what's going on, we see that feeling right at the end of part 2.
MW: So many of the lines stick out to me, they scream significance. I'm sure there's more to Mako's meaning when she asks Kafka, "Do you like dancing?"
LA: Aha! Do you like dancing, I love that one. See it serves two purposes: she says it, and we immediately cut to her dancing, but you don't know how much time has passed, and yeah, it’s also a hint to something that happens later on. To be honest,
" Every line is a hint for something that is to come. "
Mako, played by Nicole Miners, Visions, Part 2.
MW: Is Kafka's name an allusion?
LA: Yes, absolutely, he is very related to Franz Kafka, and Kafka on the Shore, the Murakami book. There’s that Kafkaesque atmosphere where, because his character doesn’t know what’s going on, it feels like he’s trapped living in a world that makes sense to everyone except him. At least -
(Here, Levi gives a coy smile and heightens his diction.)
- it seems like that.
(I press him but he wont say any more.)
MW: It’s becoming clear, talking to you, that every little detail of the show is here for a reason.
LA: I definitely want to, like, show that.
It was good editing the last parts because, every episode has something different which makes it unique. The last episode is so, so character-driven, and I can’t wait for people to see it, it’s the one where everything, everything comes full circle.
Of the people who’ve seen it, they see part three and say “woah, what the hell, I never expected that!”
But then they see part 4 and they’re like “oh, now I get it, damn.”
I hope that, everything left in there in the first parts suddenly all makes perfect sense, the connections are visible. Like I said, full circle.
MW: I’m so curious about the character of Mako. I can’t figure her out. She is very slow moving and particular, but that doesn’t seem like professionalism. More sinister. Is she purposefully ambiguous?
LA: Oh yeah completely. One of the scariest things to do as a director is to have a character like that, you never know if it’s gonna translate properly in the edit. Luckily she does.
But yes, there’s a lot about Mako in the script, I told Nicole who this character is, and just trusted her to do it, and she was perfect. Nicole is quite similar to Mako, not that she’s hard to pin down or weird, she’s able to be reserved yet confident.
Doing the dance scene in part 2, I did not tell her what to do, I had just sent her some notes on the character and immediately she had it. On set I was thinking “wow, you are a powerhouse”.