Filmmaker and spoken word poet Lissi Simpson on her new film Mėxed

As part of her Masters at Salford University, filmmaker and spoken word poet Lissi Simpson created Mėxed. The short film combines poetry and dance to explore mixed-race people’s relationships with the word ‘frizzy’ and draws on her own experience as a bi-racial British-Jamaican woman.

I caught up with Simpson ahead of the film’s screening at REPRESENT ME, a series of events exploring LGBT+ and Mixed and Black narratives at YES, which is taking place this August.

Photograph of filming taking place for Mexed
Photo: Lissi Simpson
Where did you grow up? How long have you been in Manchester?

I’m from Lewisham, south London, and I am patriotic for Lewisham. I love being from there. The area is so diverse and literally anything could happen. There are so many characters – it gives you a wealth of things you can talk about or use in scripts and writing.

I moved to Manchester six months before lockdown and then everything shut down. I lived in Salford and then moved to south Manchester. I finished my Masters in media production, TV and drama at the University of Salford in February.

Tell us about your previous work?

I was in a class at Salford and my tutor Simon told us to write for 20 minutes on something we could see in the room that we’d never noticed before. I ended up writing about a ceiling tile with fingerprints on it. I wrote a massive existential piece on how someone’s hand had left those fingerprints. It was very meta, I ended up speaking about my grandad and things I hadn’t talked about for years were coming up. I think my tutor cried.

Photo of Lissi Simpson
Photo: Lissi Simpson

I’d come out of nowhere and asked what is life? I hadn’t done that before, and I felt that I had tapped into a part of my brain I hadn’t used before. After that, my friend Zack did a series called ‘The Black Tapes’ and he asked me to do one. I ended up writing a spoken word piece called No, my dad’s an engineer.

It’s about the racism that happened to me as a mixed-race person. Although I’ve been on the receiving end of it it, it hasn’t often felt like it’s something which I personally could be angry about and challenge, because I’m mixed. I felt I couldn’t fight back against it. Throughout my childhood, people would look at me funny if I was with my dad or try and challenge things about me, or comment about me and my mum.

Why now? Why was it important to create Mėxed this year?

It’s been a big year for me and my hair.

I was thinking a lot last year about how, as a teenager, I used to straighten my hair. Then I could pass as white. It comes back to you and you think, “why did I do that for so long?” Now I feel like I want to reclaim it more and showcase it in a positive way. I wanted to do something that was more like, “let’s love ourselves.”

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Mixed-race feels like such an unrepresented group. A lot of the mixed-race experience is in whispers. For me, frizzy hair was always a bad look. There’s a self-loathing thing that people have towards the word frizzy.

But when I joined this mixed girl sisterhood, they said that people can’t hurt you if you’ve learnt to love what they’ve tried to make you hate. Mėxed was a lot about trying to have that breakthrough.

Why did you choose the title Mėxed?

It’s the word ‘me’ and ‘mixed’. It was the working title I called it for ages because I’m mixed and me. It started as a joke and then it became the name.

How did Mėxed develop into this spoken word performance piece?

After I wrote Mėxed, I was approached by Jodie, the composer. She’s white and has curly hair [and] she’s been through a lot of the straightening / hair issues that I had. We talked about how the music had to reflect the topics and things being said.

She went off and recorded the sound of her cutting her hair and burning it. She’d shake cans of hairspray and really subtly lace it into the track.

In the credits, you can hear these sounds.

I found Chantal, the dancer, after. She came up with the choreography herself. She’s mixed-race and I said to her, “respond to the words or the music – it’s up to you.” I wanted it to be a collaborative process. The message of Mėxed is supposed to be you have all of these thoughts and feelings, but it turns out so do dozens of others. We’re not alone and this is a collective issue. I want people to interpret this and do their own thing with it.

Photograph of Chantal and Lissi Simpson
Photo: Lissi Simpson
In the film, Chantal’s hair becomes frizzier as the film goes on. Was that intentional?

The three-act structure is based around washing your hair, but it is reversed. The first – maintenance/hate – you have really great hair. You’ve put all your products in. Cleansed/between is your washing hair process and untangled/love is the frizzy bit, just before you wash your hair.

Chantal’s hair does this in the film and my hair mirrored Chantal’s off-camera in solidarity.

Mėxed is such a beautifully filmed short, where was it shot?

It was all filmed in the Peak District. The Roaches is a cliff edge and as you go up to it and along, there is a big lake. We see the countryside as being this very natural part of life, but it is actually very man-made and controlled.

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The water is to do with cleansing and being reborn, the forest area is to do with actual nature – the wildness, the growth, and the abandonment of man’s input.

Film posted for Mexed
Photo: Lissi Simpson
I’m the Salt Book Club host, so I couldn’t end the interview without asking: what are you reading now?

Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, about why feminism doesn’t work for black women. It made me realise a lot of things. A big part of me making Mėxed was me realising what had held me back and also what benefitted me.

Photo of Lissi Simpson and Chantal
Photo: Lissi Simpson
What’s next for Lissi Simpson?

There is a group called Above The Line that have a residency at YES’s The Pink Room in central Manchester. Me, Rebecca and Zac are putting together two events called REPRESENT ME in August.

We are showing Moonlight and Paris is Burning. At these events, we are also doing five short films and a Q&A. Mėxed is one of them. We are on the hunt for the other four films which are going to be local filmmakers in the northwest area. REPRESENT ME is a way to showcase their work.

We are really looking for people who can relate to the two big topics of Moonlight and Paris is Burning: LGBT+ and Mixed and Black experiences.

Mėxed has been selected by the Global Film Festival Awards in the Best First Time Director and Best Student Short Film categories.

REPRESENT ME events are taking place on the 19 and 22 August. To find out more, follow Lissi Simpson on Instagram and Youtube. You can also follow Above the Line who she is organising the event with.

If you have a film navigating LGBT+ and Black and Mixed narratives, you can direct message Simpson and Above the Line to be considered for the showcase.