Sitting amongst your demons:
Unbelonging and unforgetting in His House
David Evans-Powell tackles displacement, trauma and ghosts in His House, the debut film from writer/director, Remi Weekes...
*This article contains spoilers*
Away from the sound and fury of the US election, negotiations over Brexit, and the ever-present Coronavirus threat, you might think that the migrant crisis – a seemingly perennial story a couple of years ago – was old news. However, recent harrowing reports of the death of four migrants – including two children – who drowned in the English Channel while attempting to reach Britain, coming so soon after the tragic news of the bodies of child migrants washing up on French and British beaches, tell us that this is a humanitarian crisis that has never gone away. It is a heart-breakingly immediate backdrop to the release of His House, written and directed by Remi Weekes in his feature film debut, following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year.
His House tells the story of two South Sudanese migrants, Bol and Rial (played by Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Bafta award winner Wunmi Mosaku respectively) who, with their daughter, make the long and dangerous journey from their war-torn homeland to the hope of a better life in the UK. Sadly en-route their daughter is drowned when their overcrowded boat capsizes in the Mediterranean. Reaching Britain, they are finally granted probational asylum three months later and allocated a decrepit house on a rundown urban estate by their housing officer Mark (Matt Smith). Some malign entity though appears to have followed them to their new house with the intent of preventing them from forgetting their past and beginning their new life in the UK.
The traumatic experiences of migrants attempting to settle in the UK are too often mediated through the reportage of the media, the angry exchanges of Twitter, and the accusations and retaliations thrown across the House of Commons. While we are aware that migrants are fleeing from war and famine, of the vast distances they have to cover, and the ordeals they suffer on their hazardous journeys by foot and by boat, few of us in Britain will fortunately ever have any real comprehension of what it means to experience these traumas first-hand. And given the numbers of migrants, and how geographically far they are from us, it is all too easy to homogenise them into one group, and through homogenising to dehumanise them. Films like His House are a critical way in which we can re-humanise migrants and attempt to move beyond awareness and towards empathy, seeing them as people and not as a de-personalised social problem. This is something that Mosaku has commented upon when interviewed about the film:
“We keep on thinking of displaced people in terms of numbers, rather than seeing them as individuals. We need to put faces and names to people. Reading the script for the first time, I was just really horrified, and I read the story from the safety of my own home” (BBC, 2020).
In fact, the film turns notions of depersonalisation and dehumanisation on their heads, presenting us with Bol and Rial, beautifully written and impeccably performed characters that allow the viewer to empathise with the experiences of refugees as people. The research that Weekes undertook into the migrant crisis and the way in which asylum seekers are handled and processed in the UK shines through in the writing and direction and performances. While the film itself is fictionalised, it is informed by real-life accounts of migrant journeys. This fidelity to telling the story of the experiences of asylum seekers comes through very strongly.
While Bol and Rial are rendered as fully fleshed-out and relatable individuals, Weekes chooses to show a depersonalised and dehumanised UK. A key inspiration for Weekes was researching how the UK asylum process works:
“One thing stood out, which was that during the asylum process, you’re forced into such draconian rule. As an asylum seeker, you’re given accommodation, but you’re not allowed to leave. You’re given a small amount of money, but you can’t work. You have people who have been running away who have to come to terms with their new home. It’s a gruelling welcome.” (BBC, 2020)
Britain is presented as a dystopian, monolithic state, and one that brought to my mind Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’, coined by her after watching the 1961 trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann. It describes how evil people are not necessarily the source of evil acts, but rather a form of unexceptional complacency that allows evil acts to be committed and go unchallenged. Evil maybe a touch too extreme to describe the actions of the British officials and characters we see in the film, but certainly there is a banality of callous apathy. Of the British individuals we see, only one – Smith’s housing officer Mark – is given a name and defined as a character. The nameless detention officers at the start of the film are utterly dispassionate in the face of Bol and Rial’s relief to be granted probationary asylum.
The doctor who sees Rial in her surgery is discomforted by the frankness with which the African woman describes her traumas and tribal markings and simply lapses into awkward silence, unable to communicate in any meaningful way with her. Their neighbour simply watches them silently and impassively from her window. Black teenager boys taunt Rial over her accent – a particularly cruel scene especially as it begins with a fleeting expression of hopeful familiarity across her face when she sees them – and tell her to go back to her own country. A security guard follows Bol with a heavily implied racially motivated suspicion as soon as he enters a clothes shop. The housing officers seethe resentful hostility when Bol complains about the house they have been allocated, muttering how it’s a larger house than any of them have.
Even Mark, the only character who shows Bol and Rial any sort of care and consideration, is another example of this complacent and callous apathy and perhaps one with which we are uncomfortably familiar (even if we prefer not to acknowledge it). While he may want to be kind, too often what he says and does betray his hope that they simply don’t cause him any trouble, rather than any genuine desire to help them. His apparent kindness is polite selfishness dressed up in the tone and expression of compassion. His repeated requests for Bol to be ‘one of the good ones’, not to make a fuss and to try and assimilate as far as possible, and his crass attempt to suggest that he and Bol are in similar situations, identifies him as part of this monolithic indifference.
The landscape of Britain feels similarly alienating and thoroughly unwelcoming. Tom Nicholson, in his interview with Weekes, comments that “the film’s UK is a very grey, concrete place, one with no shared spaces and alleyways that go nowhere” (Esquire.com, 2020). While filmed on a council estate in Tilbury, Essex, the location is never named in the film. This adds to the sense of dislocation that Bol and Rial feel and suggests that the estate stands as an everyman representative of urban Britain. The colour palette of the locations – as Nicholson points out, full of dull, matt greys – mirrors the homogeneity and colourless indifference of the British characters. The landscape alienates too through repetition: the council houses that all look the same, the alleyways in which Rial becomes lost while attempting to get to the local doctor’s surgery. There is horror in repetition, as things that once appeared familiar to us become strange and sinister when seen are experience over and over, and the sequence in which Rial attempts to reach the surgery through the paths of the estate is inspired by similar sequences of eerie repetitions in the hotel hallways and the hedge maze in The Shining (1980) (Esquire.com, 2020). These repetitions, coupled with the ambiguity of the location and the depersonalisation of the background British characters, creates a sense of alienating spatial dislocation and timelessness.
This alienation is emphasised by Bol and Rial’s precarious state. While they have been granted asylum, it is only temporary and subject to their behaviour and ability to integrate. At any moment they may be deported. The place where they have been given a home is marked by spatial dislocation. Everything about their situation is impermanent and unstable, a liminal position in which they no longer belong to South Sudan but neither do they belong in Britain. They may have finished their physical journey, but they are still some distance from a destination. And as Weekes has pointed out, while they may have been granted temporary refuge, by accepting it their freedoms are severely curtailed: they can only live in the house assigned to them, and they must live there according to the given restrictions; they must not work and must only subsist on the allowance given; they must be two of the good ones and assimilate, seemingly regardless of the hostility or indifference shown to them. Like prisoners they are on probation, their movements and behaviours controlled. Based upon his research into the UK asylum process, Weekes has commented that when subject to rules as draconian as these, Bol and Rial are “forced to sit amongst the house, and then of course sit amongst your demons” (JoBlo.com, 2020).
While ostensibly provided as a refuge, the house is really a prison. Despite its size (it’s a modest council house but Rial marvels that they have all that space for just the two of them), it is in a shabby and dilapidated state, with holes in the walls, dodgy electrics and a broken front door. Under their restrictions, and faced with an alienating and dislocating outside world, the house becomes the focus of Bol and Rial’s lives as well as the locus of their haunting. Divorced from family and without friends, isolated within an alien culture and surrounded by a hostile or indifferent community, their allocated house assumes a magnified importance. It is this domestic focus, within a home that is barely habitable, that provides the emotional and horrific heart of the film. As Weekes comments – and something in which we the viewer, following months of lockdown and restricted movement ourselves, can perhaps see a small glimmer of recognition – when confined to our homes and far from outside lifelines we become prey to our demons.
The demon of the film – an apeth, or ‘night-witch’, so we’re told – is brought to unearthly and unsettling life by Javier Botet, a familiar face (usually under layers of latex) in horror cinema. However, Botet isn’t the real demon. The demons that assail Bol and Rial are far more mundane and far more profound – guilt, loss, grief, dislocation and unbelonging. For Weekes, the film comments upon how “the suppression of our traumas and our past can only make the pain more powerful” (Esquire.com, 2020). Given their experiences – fleeing from their war-torn homeland, losing their daughter, the dangers and ordeals of their journey, the indifference that confronts them on their arrival, their unfamiliarity with and isolation in their new homeland – it is unsurprising Bol and Rial should feel haunted. Weekes has cited some of his favourite horror films as being those with a more emotional and psychological bent – including The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), and The Others (2001) – and the influence of these films is felt in the treatment of the apeth as much the manifestation of their inner demons as well as a supernatural entity (JoBlo.com, 2020). The traumas of Bol and Rial’s past and the still-recent memory of their daughter’s death combine with the pressures and anxieties of their situation in the UK, and condemn them to a state in which the couple can neither move forward nor back, neither forget their past or be accepted into their future, belong in neither South Sudan nor Great Britain.
Notions of assimilation and belonging are core to the film, something that Weekes has made clear:
“It goes back to the days of assimilation. Growing up in London as a person of color, a conversation we had in our community was of assimilation, and how much of yourself do you give up or let go to give in. That’s the crux of the story.” (nofilmschool.com, 2020)
Through Bol and Rial we see the frictions, tensions and complexities between integration and maintaining cultural identity. Bol is determined, and as the film progresses increasingly desperate, to assimilate and to prove to Mark, his neighbourhood, himself and his demons that he is ‘one of the good ones’. It is a means for him to distance himself from his past and from the trauma of his daughter’s death, and to challenge the threat of the night witch. In some bittersweet vignettes, he sees a clothing poster at a bus stop and bases his new ‘Western’ look on it, and he joins in with the locals’ football chant in the pub. For Bol, assimilation provides an opportunity for self-validation and a repudiation of his past. The house itself, artfully rendered by production designer Jacqueline Abrahams, represents Bol’s attempts to turn away from his past by filling the gaping holes in the walls and painting over the peeling, damp wallpaper. By literally trying to make (or at least make-over) a home.
For Rial, assimilation is harder and ultimately something she turns her back on. Despite her husband’s repeated attempts to get her to leave the house, she spends most of her time there. She attempts to cook a traditional meal for them but can’t taste the food over the unfamiliar, metallic flavour left by the tins in which the vegetables were canned (‘you’ll get used to it’ Bol reassures her). Later Bol, with some frustration, must force her to use Western cutlery to eat dinner, something Rial does with great reluctance. As they both come to realise they are haunted by an apeth, where Bol attempts to deny it through efforts to assimilate, Rial instead accepts its presence as a link to their past and the daughter they have lost. When Bol burns the final items they kept with them from their journey, including the surviving keepsakes of their daughter, in an effort to rid themselves of the apeth, he has to physically rip a necklace from Rial’s neck when she pleads with him to keep it (as it’s made with beads taken from their daughter’s doll). For Rial, assimilation and belonging are a change too far and will mean letting go of their daughter and the pasts that have shaped their identities.
Bol’s desire to belong and to assimilate is also used to explore masculinity and trauma. Bol becomes fixated on their home as their refuge and place to belong – somewhere physical, immovable and permanent. At points, the house and the apeth become the same space, with the demon crawling about within the walls. Bol takes the invasion of his home and the demon’s subsequent haunting as a direct attack upon himself as a person, the house perhaps giving him the confidence and self-possession to assimilate and build a new life as the film’s title might suggest. He also adopts some stereotypically masculine behaviours: he is the one who leaves the house most often, and on one of those occasions heads to the pub to watch the football. However, Bol’s resistance to, and Rial’s acceptance of, trauma and grief is a challenge to notions of masculinity and an interesting inversion of the tradition of emotional and psychological horror films that His House sits within. In films like The Haunting, The Innocents, and The Others, the protagonist is a woman in the Gothic heroine mould and beset by hauntings and visions that are manifestations of aspects of themselves they choose to suppress. While Rial experiences The Haunting phenomena she is rarely affected by it in the way the Bol is (at one point she comments wryly that an apeth can never be as frightening as the traumas they have experienced in their past). Bol’s suppression of his trauma and grief makes him vulnerable to the demon, where Rial’s resigned acceptance of their past means that she can make her peace with it.
The film does ultimately find a balance for Bol and Rial, although it is a balance that does not hint at any sentimentalised or simplistic answers to the societal challenges of assimilation or the asylum process. So, while the film does provide a resolution, it does not provide a solution. As Weekes has commented with regards to the refugee experience in the film:
“There’s part of you that really wants to assimilate and fit in, and to not draw attention to yourself, but there’s another part of you that feels very suspicious that the place doesn’t particularly feel welcoming to you, so you find yourself pulling away again, wanting to rebel from that and to stick to your roots and stick out proudly. You’re often torn in these two directions and battle within yourself, especially when you’re trying to find your place in a new country. You find yourself always struggling to find a balance.” (Esquire.com, 2020)
What it does do though is demonstrate how belonging in many ways starts with acceptance and forgiveness, as Bol says at the end of the film: “Your ghosts follow you. They never leave. They live with you. It’s when I let them in, I could start to face myself.”
– Emma Jones, How His House turns refugee lives into horror film, 01.11.20, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-54749782
– Tom Nicholson, Remi Weekes on Why ‘His House’ Is a Very British Horror Movie, 30.10.20, https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/film/a34519644/remi-weekes-interview-his-house-netflix/
– Daron James, ‘His House’ Director Remi Weekes Discusses Creating Horror Through Trauma, 30.10.20, https://nofilmschool.com/his-house-director-remi-weekes
– JoBlo.com, His House – interview with Director Remi Weekes, 29.10.20, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSxw_ZqCDdM