> Rhys Hollis Chats About Black Queer Excellence in Glasgow Short Film Festival 2023 Opener, Omos - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Rhys Hollis Chats About Black Queer Excellence in Glasgow Short Film Festival 2023 Opener, Omos

Rhys Hollis, part of the queer cabaret company Pollyanna that has lit up the Edinburgh Festival in previous years, has now branched out into film-making. They directed the short OMOS, which opens this year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival, and is a dazzling achievement. SNACK caught up with them to discuss the film.

How was the idea of OMOS formed, and how did it all come together?

OMOS is a moving image project that pays homage to the history of Black people in performances in the Scottish royal court, and celebrates Black and Black LGBTQ excellence and performance today. The film was very much a response to the locations, which were the inspiration starting point. 

The name Puck’s Glen is of course inspired by the fairy character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Stirling Castle also has links to the play. It is thought that a joke in the play about a lion being too scary to feature in a performance for the royals is based on an incident at Stirling Castle in 1594. Yet, a lesser known history is that the lion who was supposed to feature in this 1594 performance pulling a chariot was replaced by an unnamed Black man. He was one of numerous Black people who featured in performances in the royal courts in Scotland and the UK. 

These are the stories that we wanted to shine a light on, and collaborators were brought on board: mezzo-soprano opera singer Andrea Baker, pole dancer Kheanna Walker and dancer Divine Tasinda to allow the film to celebrate Black performance today. The project is produced by Pollyanna queer cabaret and arts company, and I am a cabaret performer so the film was always going to be inspired by cabaret with each artist bringing their own performance and story. Throughout the moving image artwork we each perform our own work in Puck’s Glen and Stirling Castle, and in doing so we reclaim the story. 

In OMOS, the artists occupy space as they both draw on the past and look to the future. The name OMOS was originally an acronym for the phrase ‘O monstrous! O strange!’, a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As the project developed, this phrase has been morphed to stand for ‘Our Movement, Our Stories’. The film has an ambiguous title of solely OMOS.

Credit: Pollyanna & Washington Gwande

The short tackles a lot of different subjects in a natural and powerful way. Was it always your intention to do this?

We always knew that it would be a piece that lifts the voices and artistry of Black people, whilst paying homage to the history of Black people in Scotland. Importantly, the film borrows from the form of cabaret and brings this structure and medium to the screen, in a filmic way. In the cabaret world, especially in the artistic scene that I am from, it is so much about tackling issues around identity. In my own cabaret performance work I create political and thought–provoking works about sexuality, identity and race. 

The same sense of self is found in the work of the other performers in the film: Kheanna talks often about the importance of different representations of pole dance, Andrea creates shows about the African American female voice and Black history via song, and Divine is a powerful speaker on her experience. So the film comes from our own personal experience as our own attachment to our creative craft. It’s sort of a chicken and egg situation, the subjects we explore are both a conscious decision for the film as well as always going to be an intrinsic part of what we do.

Credit: Pollyanna & Washington Gwande

OMOS is filmed in Puck’s Glen and Stirling Castle. How was this experience?

The locations are where we found the history and the starting point for the whole concept, both in the intellectual sense of what we were making the film about and also in the artistic sense of how the film would look and sound and be. The connection to the history of Black people featuring in performances in the royal court is obviously what we are paying homage to with this film. Having such an evocative story really gave a lot of inspiration, a fruitful beginning and a powerful starting point for the film. 

A lot of the stylistic decisions that I made came from Pucks Glen, my love of nature, my love of fantasy. My feeling of fantasy and otherworldliness, all bleed into and come together into a soft magical element that I am bringing into this visual piece. With these fantasy sources like Lord of the Rings, the Fable games, and Elderscrolls. All this high fantasy media that I was brought up on is inspired by medieval Britain but does not include people of colour, much like the history books were taught in schools. It’s nice to take that exclusionary medium that I was brought up on and insert Blackness into it.

Credit: Pollyanna & Washington Gwande

How personal is the vision of OMOS to you and your fellow collaborators?

It is extremely personal. Like every work of art, cabaret or performance art it comes from your own self and whatever evokes you and inspires you to create and put something out into the world. Be it the individual performances in the piece, or the film as a whole with the music, editing and atmosphere, it is all born of my own feelings, emotions and responses and the artists’ input. The experience of making the film was actually very emotional. The first film I ever made was in Scotland and was a completely different experience. Between that I have visited Scotland many times, including for performing at Pollyanna. This time I was making a film in amazing locations with Black artists and a crew that included old and new friends. It was a very organic experience, which made it all the more special.

The film has been very well received and will open the Glasgow Short Film Festival. Did you expect it to have such an impact?

Of course firstly I wanted to ensure that we made a piece of art that we are all proud of, and a lot of energy, thought and time was put into that. On top of that, a key idea of success for me was about the conversations and interactions that the film could create. We have toured the film in exhibitions at Dunoon Burgh Hall, Stirling Castle, Royal Scottish Academy and soon KINDL Centre for Contemporary Art in Berlin. It has been really important that we have run Q&A sessions, free public workshops and live shows. What is so crucial about this is it lifts Black voices and opens discussions on the history and Black experience today. 

Credit: Pollyanna & Washington Gwande

We often are showing the work in predominantly white spaces and it’s so wonderful to see five amazing Black artists, including our videographer Ambroise Leclerc, up on stage in spaces such as Royal Scottish Academy. This is something that does not happen so often and it’s very powerful. We have also gone into schools and worked with LGBT Youth Scotland. As a queer person, it was really moving to talk to them about filmmaking, queerness, cabaret and then to see them doing things that they have not done before including performing and engaging in conversations around race.

There will be a live performance at the screening, what can we expect from that?

You will be able to see Andrea Baker who features in the film and is an amazing world-class mezzo-soprano opera singer who has been an absolute powerhouse to work with. I am also going to be bringing my gender-bending extravagance. Essentially, you can expect Black queer excellence baby!

See Omos open Glasgow Short Film Festival 22nd March