The Kitchen is one of the most striking pieces of sci-fi to come out of the UK in years. We spoke to its co-director, Kibwe Tavares, about architecture, the power of the genre and working with Daniel Kaluuya.
Watch a couple of Kibwe Tavares’ short films – a series of award-winning sci-fi stories he’s been putting out since 2012 – and the road to his first feature closing the BFI London Film Festival last year feels less like a stratospheric rise, and more a steady, inevitable trajectory.
Blending heartfelt stories of human connection with the genre’s penchant for social allegory, The Kitchen is a bold and triumphant culmination of much of what Tavares has been building for the last decade.
We caught up with Tavares at his South London studio – and started by asking about his unusual entry into the filmmaking industry.
You came into filmmaking from an interesting angle, starting out at architectural college – how has that influenced your style?
It’s definitely informed it a lot in terms of process. One of the things we looked into at school was about how cities change, and often it’s about layers and layers of stuff.
London especially. You can be stood round the Gherkin, and then you’ll see an old church right next to it, both built decades apart. But you always have that contrast. And it’s more about sort of like these layers that get added as opposed to complete annihilation of what’s there.
So definitely a lot of that stuff came from school, and how I see the world in that sense. I’ve lived in London all my life, and so you see things change. I’ve got all these different memories, all different places. I’m just trying to articulate that in the film at some point.
So as well as being your first feature, The Kitchen is your first time co-directing (with Daniel Kaluuya) – how was that collaboration?
Well, we’d been working on this a while, so I think we just knew what we needed to do. We typically knew when we needed to lean into this, when to lean into that, how can I help you here, how can you help me there…
And co-directing for the first time… I guess it’s my first feature, so there’s a lot of firsts, but I think over the years [making shorts] you have close partners, right? That relationship you build with the team that you work with closely, it helps cover the holes that you might have, or the things you need support in.
Daniel’s worked with some of the best directors in the world: Steve McQueen, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler. And he brings all that experience, so when you have that, it would almost be foolish not to use it.
So there’s more things you can do, not less. Especially because it’s quite an anomaly for what’s made in the UK, this film. It’s quite ambitious, there’s lots of moving parts, whether it’s motorbikes or the big set builds with all the effects, there’s loads of complexity in there. So actually, that partnership really allows you to do more.
The relationship between Izi (Kane Robinson) and Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman) forms the heart of the film, and it’s a really delicate balance – how did you find that?
At first, Kane deliberately didn’t want to know him [Bannerman], so when he did come into his life, that relationship would develop very organically throughout the shoot. We didn’t do a lot of rehearsals beforehand.
I spent a bit more time with Jedaiah – we spent time with a coach to workshop the scenes and start to make sure he was ready, because it’s a lot going from not acting to then suddenly on set you’ve got 100 people staring at you. But we just wanted that relationship to come out on the screen.
And then, in the edit, it was just a case of finding that. But they were amazing, there’s so much subtlety and nuance that could shift it one way or another.
One thing that’s really clear, both in The Kitchen and your shorts, is that your films tend to have a really strong social conscience, often exploring themes of systemic oppression, immigration, gentrification… Is that something that’s particularly important to you when you start a project?
I think it’s definitely been important to me. For me, I’m always just trying to say, you know, you want to say something with your film. You’ve got this amazing canvas to tell a story and to make an impact. And maybe that’s what attracts me to certain stories with certain ideas, like, how can I use the things that influenced me and talk about specific things that feel present to me.
For me, the big experience growing up was we moved around a lot as kids. We lived in a lot of different places in South London. So the idea of not being rooted, not being grounded, not knowing what home means… It wasn’t like an external thing of, how do I talk about this message more, it’s more built on my own experience.
What is it that attracts you to sci-fi, then? Do you find that’s the best way to explore some of these experiences?
It’s different for different projects. I like the idea that sometimes you can be slightly more direct with abstraction, you can have the police as antagonists in The Kitchen, or use robots as an allegory for immigrants in Robots Of Brixton. You can sort of be more direct in a way because you don’t need to say it out loud – you can show it more.
But there’s also that I trained as an architect, but I was very much into animation and building stuff on the computer, so I wanted to use those techniques, and that naturally lends itself to sci-fi.
But I don’t go into the science of any of it really, it’s more a way to talk about culture and experience. It’s more like, how can I directly talk about immigration, gentrification, commercialisation, and how can I do that visually and using these techniques I’ve been developing.
The Kitchen is in UK cinemas now, and arrives on Netflix on 19th January.
An extended interview with Kibwe features in issue 48 of Film Stories Magazine – on sale soon!