Brown Brit traces the life of an Indian mother through an assemblage of VHS tapes

Released through Channel 4’s Random Acts series, the film by Jay Stephen and Ralph Briscoe is inspired by an essay written about the former’s mother and her “metamorphosis”.

13 June 2024


In this day and age, it would seem as though the most trusty vehicle on the road to seeking out our histories is the photograph. You have the family album, containing photos that reveal style and youth of our elders, and oftentimes studio images (such as identification photos) which course over migration, heritage and societal conditions, that we handle ever so gently as to protect posterity. Those of us who are artists may want to scan them and mould them into something more – amplify them in collage, adorn them with icons and symbols that project the crux of heritage. But what happens when the filmmaker gets their hands on an old family VHS? An arresting purview of one’s history on the move, as seen in the new Channel 4 film, Brown Brit.

13 years ago when they were only students, Jay Stephen and Ralph Briscoe met in Newcastle at a basement bar. Jay was studying graphic design at the time, and Ralph advertising. The pair maintained a close friendship throughout their time in the city, steered by their shared passions and creativity, most notably film, “although pursuing careers in the industry felt unattainable without connections”, Ralph shares. After graduating Ralph moved from the North to London, and started training as a VFX artist, and Jay made her foray into the design industry. Finding themselves in the same city again, they began to build their synergetic repertoire for writing and directing. But last year came the definitive shift when the pair launched their duo platform, The Romantix, with its first commercial pitch being for Channel 4 Idents. “It’s been years in the making. The Romantix is a result of understanding who we are and what we want to say,” Ralph adds.

“Seven hours is a ridiculously short amount of time to know someone before you have to marry them.” This narration courses through the opening of Brown Brit, before we learn that the film is an exploration of Jay’s mother’s experience. “It’s based on My Mother’s Metamorphosis; a published piece written by my sister [Ashica Stephen],” Jay shares. “It is a personal and emotional story that very few people know. Since Ashica wrote it over a decade ago, we always wanted to adapt it into a film,” she adds. Although it has a personal and familial focus, using old VHS tapes with footage of their mother, its tone masterfully leans on history which positions the film as a poignant account that anyone with the experience of arranged marriage can attest to. Inspired greatly by the concept of “chaos theory”, Jay shares, “which states that the delicate flutter of a butterfly’s wings can set off a chain reaction across the world”, the film zones in on a mother’s strength and actions that have been dramatically influenced over a sum of years, having a profound effect on the entire family’s lives.


The Romantix: Brown Brit (Copyright © The Romantix, 2024)

For Ralph, encountering the VHS tapes was like “discovering a treasure trove”. When the duo decided they were going to use the material for the film, they were unsure of how linear it could be, and instead opted to construct a montage, before realising that the “sheer volume of footage” would enable them to create a fuller narrative. “Brown Brit is ultimately an editorial project,” Ralph shares, “the process was about cherry picking the parts that were the most visually interesting, unique, nostalgic and emotive”. Alongside the making of the film, they also worked with Ashica to edit the written piece in chronological order, before filming additional live action footage to fill in the gaps. These parts seamlessly weave into the narrative, as the team converted them back to analogue with the help of Time Based Arts (a visual effects company based in East London), transcoding the footage back to VHS, “capturing just the right amount of static and artefacts to make it feel authentic”, Ralph adds. “We always wanted the viewer to remain on a journey with the character, to go back in time and remain fully immersed in that world.”

“More often than not, shoots can be very stressful, but this one was an absolute pleasure from start to finish”, despite having only two crew members, Jay shares. From the location (which allowed the team to shoot for free) to the pink October sky on the day of the shoot and the synergy between themselves and the team of artists who believed in the project just as much, everything came together. “We were also lucky that my other sister Deepica is an actor and when wearing a wig looks remarkably like my mother, so we were able to transition between new and old footage in a seamless way.”

“We always say: ‘you learn something new on every film project’,” Ralph tells us. And this time, many of the learnings came during the editing process. “Although we’ve always edited our own work it was a totally new challenge editing from found footage and trying to create, emote and find meaning in it,” he adds, “crafting the edit and working collaboratively with our talented musicians, Tcts and Baz Kaye, back and forth was really enjoyable but also exhausting as it took months”.

All in all, Brown Brit is a cascade of a mother’s history; aptly surveyed by the ones inheriting it. Jay views it as something much greater, finding that the more she watches it the more she believes it to be a “feminist film”. The duo hope the 11-minute short will inspire others and act as a reminder of the strength and influence that we share together and individually. “You just have to look. It’s amazing what you can make with a box of old VHS tapes,” Ralph adds.

GalleryThe Romantix: Brown Brit (Copyright © The Romantix, 2024)

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The Romantix: Brown Brit (Copyright © The Romantix, 2024)

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About the Author

Yaya Azariah Clarke

Yaya (they/them) was previously a staff writer at It’s Nice That. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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