Magazine Poland

“Citizens of Nowhere”: an autobiographical response to the Brexit referendum

Polish artist Zula Rabikowska is one of the independant filmmakers from Central Europe who are currently being showcased at the Calvert Journal Film Festival, which takes place online until October 31. Her short experimental film “Citizens of Nowhere”, available on the festival platform, delves into her experience with citizenship, nationality, and identity.

Hi Zula, thanks for taking the time to chat. Born in Poland, you grew up in the UK, and your film explores the themes of citizenship, nationality and identity. Zula, where do you feel you belong today?

Zula Rabikowska: I think this is a question that has been on my mind since the year I left Poland with my mum and sister in 2001. I grew up between two countries, two languages and two cultures and the feeling that I don’t quite belong anywhere is something I had to face in school, university and later in employment. This year I turned 31, and in my life so far I’ve had over 40 different addresses. I’ve come to a realisation that it’s perhaps this feeling of “unbelonging” that has fueled my constant moving and journeying.

In the recent years I feel that the world has become more global and cosmopolitan, but when I was in school in early 2000s in small English towns when people heard I was from, “Poland” they would instantly ask me if I was from the North Pole. My sister and I never got tired of the jokes other kids made at school when asking us if we ride Polar Bears or wolves “back at home.”

“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.” The title of your film comes from these words spoken by then-British PM Theresa May in 2016. But what does citizenship mean to you?

ZR: To me the idea of “citizenship” is a purely theoretical formality people need to exist in the current day and age. I don’t see myself as “Polish” or now that I have been naturalised as “British”. Country borders are something that are drawn up by politicians, often because of war or conflict. Fluctuating borders are a global phenomenon, but it’s enough to look at the last 50 years of European history to see how poignantly true this is.

Still from “Citizens of Nowhere”

So do you consider yourself a “citizen of the world”?

ZR: In light of this yes, I see myself more as a “resident” rather than a “citizen” of the world.  “Citizenship” often carries an underlying sense of allegiance to a government in exchange for its protection or a sense of belonging, whereas the idea of a “resident” to me seems less permanent and freer.

The film is arguably your personal response to the Brexit referendum and the increased xenophobia that followed. What changed for you and your family after June 23, 2016?

ZR: From my personal experience and from what was being reported in the news at the time, it seemed that the Brexit referendum gave a lot of people permission to be more vocal about their suspicion, fear or hatred of immigrants. When we moved to the UK in 2001, most people I knew then couldn’t put Poland on a map. Together with my mum and sister, we were exoticised, or often pitied for being from “this far away country.” As a child, I remember my mum’s colleagues trying to help us and generally welcoming us. I think my sister and I felt the pressure to be more British in order to fit it, this meant stopping using our Polish names, and only talking about Poland or our Polish identity in a comical way.

In 2004, when Poland alongside other Central and Eastern European countries joined the EU, there was an influx of people coming to the UK looking for better employment opportunities. In 2009, when I started university, it was common for people to ask me if my dad was a plumber, or if I felt bad for using the National Health Service for free. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, xenophobia skyrocketed.

In the film, we hear your testimony, but also those of your sister and of your mother. What are the differences, if any, between your three perspectives?

ZR: I think there are a lot of similarities between my sister’s and my experiences. We were of primary school age when we left Poland. Our understanding of Poland, its history, culture or society was largely informed by stories from our mum and our grandparents. When were kids we would go and spend every summer in Poland and our grandma would tape Polish TV for us and send us video tapes in the post, which kept that connection with Poland alive.

My mum feels more strongly Polish, than me or my sister, and this became evident to me in the interview when I asked my mum if she felt Polish or British, she said very sternly “I am Polish”, whereas I think this question is more convoluted for me and my sister.

Still from “Citizens of Nowhere”

You say the film is based on the test you had to take to obtain your British Citizenship. Can you take us through the creative process that motivated you to put your family’s story into film?

ZR: I often use photography or other creative means to work through difficult or traumatic personal experiences or family stories. Having a camera, or a microphone, somehow gives you an excuse and a reason to ask difficult questions that you might not have asked otherwise. In the case of “Citizens of Nowhere”, it was the narrative itself and my inner need to process my unresolved feelings of conflicted identities which encouraged me to work on this project.

What inspired your choice to use stop-motion animation and analogue portraits to tell your story?

ZR: In all of my work, I let the topic and the story dictate the narrative and methodology that I use. In this project, I wanted to imprint the journey of migration into the physicality of the image and soaked my film rolls in English Channel salt water to mark the geographical identity of the British Isles. This results in different degrees of distortion, which visually mimics the required process of “naturalisation” and the degree of erosion of immigrant identity.

Physical journeying and displacement underpin any migration journey and to incorporate further movement in my work I printed out the analogue portraits and created a stop-motion animation. As a result, the portraits of myself and my family are in constant flux, forever changing and adapting, like our immigrant identity in the UK.

You’ve also previously looked at the Vietnamese diaspora in Poland. How does their story fit into your narrative on citizenship, nationality and identity?

ZR: It was the project about my family’s experience in the UK, which encouraged me to return to Poland and better understand the complexity of the country where I was born. I wanted to demonstrate the Poland isn’t this mono-ethnic homogenous Catholic mass, but a rapidly changing society with its own history of migration. In 2019, I spent the summer in Warsaw working with the Vietnamese community there, and created a series of my own photographs which I combine with archival imagery.

In contrast with the Vietnamese diaspora in the US, who are often of refugee origin, the Vietnamese communities in Poland began due to student exchanges between at the time communist governments of Poland and Vietnam. The Vietnamese diaspora in Poland started to form in the 1950s with a current estimated population of 50-80,000.  Poland’s Communist past is central in the project and for this reason I incorporate archival imagery into the photographs that I had taken. As a result, the “preserved” state history is intertwined with personal stories. The juxtaposition of the colour portraits with black and white images subverts the one-dimensional narrative, and hints at a larger, more complex understanding of the Vietnamese community.

Still from “Citizens of Nowhere”

Through your work, you also delve into the question of gender identity. What parallels could you draw between gender and citizenship and their relationship to identity and belonging? What differences?

ZR: This is a very complex and interesting question I have been considering for a few years now, and is actually the topic of my next project and a book that I am working on. I encourage any readers interested to join my mailing list if they would like to keep up to date with this.

In May 2020, you co-founded the Red Zenith Collective, “a platform for womxn and non-binary creatives from Central and Eastern Europe”, can you tell us a bit more about it?

ZR: I founded Red Zenith whilst living in London with a fellow Polish friend and colleague of mine, Marta Grabowska, who works as a curator and has recently moved back to Poland. We initially met in 2019 and bonded over our similar experiences of living as Polish creatives in London and decided to create a space to empower and support women, female-identifying and non-binary creatives from Eastern and Central Europe, with events to encourage collaborative learning.

Our aim is to diversify the arts scene in the UK and provide underrepresented people access and an alternative platform to engage with the industry. We have a special focus for ethnic minorities, LGBTQ and artists with disabilities, due to higher discrimination against those communities in “home” countries. Our motivation is to improve access to creative opportunities for other people from similar backgrounds. We invite different artists and activists to our Red Zenith Live programme and have also hosted our first call out on the theme of Equality and self-published our first zine with selected artists, which you can view for free here.

What’s next for you?

ZR: I have just finished shooting my most recent project about gender identity in post-communist countries. I was funded by the Mead Fellowship, Getty Images and KPLA awards this year and spent 100 days this summer travelling across Central and Eastern Europe photographing women, non-binary, genderfluid and transgender people. My aim for the next few months is to review the material and prepare to launch and publish the project in 2022.

Find out more about Zula Rabikowska and her many projects online and on Instagram!