For K /XI, her love of horror began, not in front of a television or on the big screen, but in a much more unlikely place.
Calling herself a “sucker for death culture,” the London-based filmmaker recalls being utterly fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians and their process of mummification. That fascination carried over into their studies of Viking culture and their own unique death rituals.
Satiating that fascination for more was not always easy outside of the classroom, however. The multi-hyphenate creative grew up in a strict household where horror movies were kept well out of reach. Her parents, however, did not keep track of what books she was bringing home from the library.
“I read a lot of books,” the out and proud filmmaker told me as we settled in for an interview for Pride Month. “If there was a film I couldn’t see that was based on a novel, I would read it. It was quite nice because a lot of people haven’t read the original stories. I think a lot of people don’t realize Jaws was a book. I was that weird 10 year old kid reading The Exorcist when everyone else was reading Goosebumps.”
Translating that love of the macabre into actually directing, and even starring in, her own films was quite a journey, however, and one that she admits she did not consciously make for herself.
It began when she started her extended education at the University of Essex where she began her studies in Literature and Mythology. During her first year, she had to take a couple of extra modules to round out her coursework and she decided to take a film theory class.
Studying the history of filmmaking and the inventors and innovators who created the artform lit an unexpected fire in her, and she had soon switched her emphasis from Literature and Mythology to Literature and Film.
In a course focused on short stories that had been adapted to film, she and her classmates went to their teacher and asked if they could make their own short film as a class project. The University of Essex did not have a formal course plan for creating films, but the teacher thought it was an excellent idea and set them up with the campus’s media suite so they could borrow equipment.
“I got appointed to be director for some reason and I thought, okay, let’s do this,” she explained “We made two films as a class with different aesthetics then we had to present it at an academic conference on campus. We had a lot of international filmmakers come to Essex and I got to present this short film. I think that just changed the course of my life. A lot of these academics came up to me to encourage me and tell me that I should be doing this and they were giving me their cards. I decided I had to continue this work.”
In her third year, she again went to the faculty and requested to make a film as her independent study project. After some consideration, her teachers agreed. The film was called Obsidian, and if her path had not been set before, it was most definitely clarified during the experience.
“So I ended up doing what felt like a degree in horror cinema,” K /XI said, laughing. “When it came to my Masters, I continued. I made another short film there as well. I worked at Starbucks for seven years and when I was doing my Masters, I was studying full time and working full time so I could buy my own kit.”
She had become that weird kid running around in the woods with a camera making spooky movies and she was loving every minute of it.
By the time she was ready to make her first feature film, she was well-versed in horror films from all over the world, and she decided to pack up her kit and go to Pakistan, where her family is originally from, to make a film she had conceived called Maya which would be filmed entirely on location and in the country’s language.
“I grew up with stories of djinn and witches from my culture,” she said. “Unfortunately, with the kind of political climate at the time, a film about a girl who is possessed by djinn didn’t seem to do particularly well. I put it on the back bench, just let myself breathe, and then Black Lake happened. And that was just insane.”
Once again drawing upon the culture and folklore of her heritage, Black Lake tells the story of a young British Asian woman who finds herself haunted by a Churail–a malevolent South Asian witch–after she is gifted a beautiful red scarf.
It was K /XI’s most ambitious project to date taking place on different continents, which as it turns out had much to do with the strange, supernatural occurrences that took place on the set of her first film. Though they had requested she come back to make another film, when she arrived, she found that most did not want to work with her again.
“Everyone bailed on me because they were like, ‘Do you remember what happened last time?'” she explained. “I lost everyone. My crew, my cast. It was a nightmare. That film transformed itself and me. The heart of the story is set in Pakistan, but the main film is set in Scotland and we have some scenes set in London as well.”
Though it wasn’t her original intention, K /XI also stars in the film which ultimately became important to her for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were some of the trends we’ve seen in horror filmmaking where writers and directors often make English or American remakes of Asian films rather than simply bringing the originals over in wider distribution deals. Horror also has a history of traveling to Asian countries, appropriating the culture and folklore, but centering the storytelling on American characters.
“That’s something that I really struggle with,” she said. “It’s something I really dislike. It’s that kind of appropriation of something that is ingrained in the culture. I find it quite frustrating.”
However, she points out that there are positive trends with representation of different groups throughout horror, especially where leading actresses are concerned.
“I love the direction that horror cinema is going in with lead female characters,” she said. “We’ve gotten more diverse. Not just in race and sexuality but just kind of age, as well. I’m much more likely to watch a film with an older female actress in the lead, especially someone like Lin Shaye who is such an icon.”
In the meantime, Black Lake has begun making the rounds at film festival circuit including a stop at the Women in Horror Film Festival circuit earlier this year and she’s used her time in the Covid-19 quarantine to finish other projects and begin new ones.
As a journalist in the entertainment industry, one develops a bit of a sixth sense when it comes to filmmakers and creators, and as we finished up our interview together, I could not shake the feeling that I’d just spoken to someone who will be instrumental in reshaping and furthering the genre. Believe me when I say, K /XI is a filmmaker to watch.
Take a look at the trailer for Black Lake below.