Writing: “Aliens Like Me”, DVD essay on Friendship’s Death

‘Aliens Like Me’

When I am killed

You will find in my pockets

Travel tickets

To peace

To the fields and rain

To people’s conscience

Don’t waste the tickets

Killer, my dear killer

I beg you to travel

— Samih al-Qasim, ‘Travel Tickets’

Friendship’s Death marks Friendship’s death, and the end of the main narrative, with a voice-over recitation in Arabic. ‘Travel Tickets’ is the best-known poem by Druze poet Samih al-Qasim, one of the group of Palestinian ‘resistance poets’ of whom Mahmoud Darwish is best known in the Anglosphere. The film exhorts the viewer to take up the ticket and travel: to Amman, Jordan during September 1970, alongside the Scottish journalist Sullivan, played by Bill Paterson, who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause but also waiting for his exit papers; and imaginatively into the consciousness of Friendship, whom he thinks he is rescuing from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and whom he thinks is a young woman. It is in and through the conversations between Sullivan and Friendship in a hotel in Amman that the film issues its tickets to an extraordinary journey.

In fact, Friendship, played by Tilda Swinton, is the codename of a robot made by sentient computers in Procyon, a binary star system that is one of Earth’s nearest stellar neighbours. She has been sent to earth to prevent humans’ self-destructive behaviour by the computers, who witnessed and survived similarly self-destructive behaviour by the dominant biological species on their own planet, which Friendship describes as a ‘kind of giant tree shrew’ complete with zoom lenses and heat sensors. Describes, because Friendship’s Death is a film about travelling through imagination, through the dual power of political solidarity and the riches of verbal and visual language. Shot at Twickenham Studios over two weeks before Christmas 1986, the film takes place in four almost-identical small rooms, like an absurdist play. Two are hotel rooms with windows onto the Amman street where unseen gun battles rage. One is a PLO outpost, where the newspaper Fateh is printed on a hand-cranked press, and where Friendship’s journey begins with her mistaken arrival in Amman rather than at MIT, and ends with her in fatigues joining the PLO; and the other is Sullivan’s living room back in London, some years later. In three of these, Sullivan and Friendship talk. In the last, he talks about Friendship – seemingly for the first time in a decade or more – to his friend Kubler and his teenage daughter Catherine, a computational ‘clever clogs’ who cracks the ‘gift’ that Friendship left behind. She understands that it is a storage unit that holds a record of the alien’s impressions of life on earth, from a foetus to a fractal, amid fragments of her encounters with Sullivan.

Like Friendship’s ‘sketchpad with a language facility’, the film is a gift, a capsule of a time and place: not only of geopolitics but of an often-obscured internationalist independent British cinema alive to them. The film’s genesis attests to a British counterculture of public intellectuals and political artists reimagining present and/as future. Peter Wollen initially published the short story ‘Friendship’s Death’ in Bananas, a late-1970s literary magazine edited by Emma Tennant, with J. G. Ballard as contributing editor and contributors including science fiction writer John Sladek, and Angela Carter, whose short story ‘The Company of Wolves’ was first published there before being adapted for the screen by Carter and Neil Jordan in 1984.

Wollen was writing a decade after the PLO’s Dawson’s Field hijacking of three civilian aircraft had imprinted the Palestinian struggle on the internationalist consciousness and conscience, and it’s with a reference to this event that the narrative begins. Or rather, exactly to images of the event, and their framing, as Sullivan arrives to report on the situation. In its way, Friendship’s Death could be grouped not only with the experimental British coeval cinema of Jordan, Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien and Ngozi Onwurah, but with the wave of post-Vietnam films about foreign correspondents superficially concerned about the ethics of bystanding, particularly The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). But Friendship’s Death enacts the ethics it examines: there are no spectacles, either glamorised or pathetic, of blood and death; no romance amid the gunfire; no liberal reaffirmations of democracy and freedom of expression.

Instead, there’s a lot of talking, interspersed with drinking (tea and Scotch), some grainy news footage of bombed-out Amman, and an eerie, heightened sense of awareness that is created by the absurdist longueurs of waiting in small rooms, and centred in Swinton’s performance, which carries carefully and knowingly the analogies between many kinds of Others: aliens, machines, women, and, in ways whose complexities the film itself grapples with, Palestinians. ‘You can’t become a Palestinian through an act of soliloquy’, Sullivan grumbles when Friendship claims that she has found her place because the PLO are ‘aliens like me’.

Crouching by the open window with her face framed by a creamy white hijab that stands out in the candlelit room, Friendship describes being ‘a very valuable piece of property’, something that links her status to that of those whom Sullivan describes as ‘victims of a map’. Friendship’s friendship extends to and through objects unloved and unseen by dominant Anglo-American capitalist culture: plastic detritus, toy figurines and lightbulbs that she finds in the market (and which came from Wollen’s own collections); traditional and contemporary local dresses and headgear, sourced by Cathy Cook to indicate Friendship’s increasing allegiance to the Palestinians; Sullivan’s battered portable typewriter and travel razor – even his stubble, ‘little filaments flourishing on [his] face’, objects that become subjects under her gaze and in her recorded memory.

            Likewise, the film – by virtue of its stringent budget of £180, 000 and its wartime subject matter – makes ‘of this little room, an everywhere’, as John Donne wrote, but neither through sexual desire nor the clichéd battle of the sexes. Nowhere is that clearer than in Friendship’s arresting monologue about travelling to the ruins at Jerash, carefully choreographed in close-up and silencing Sullivan entirely. After nearly 35 years, in which Swinton’s almost-supernatural ability to command our attention through the camera has shaped cinema, it’s hard to recall that this is only her second screen role, and her first lead. She was Wollen’s first choice for Friendship after he saw her in Caravaggio, and as producer Rebecca O’Brien recalls she committed unhesitatingly.

It was the same with future Academy Award-winning hair and make-up artist Morag Ross and production designer Gemma Jackson, whose sets were so convincing that a Jordanian filmmaker asked O’Brien some years later where in Amman they had filmed. They were joined by composer Barrington Pheloung, whose first film score, combining oud and electronica, could not be more uncannily different from the lush romantic work for Truly Madly Deeply (1990) that would make his name a few years later.

All of the small team had significant input into the staging of the film, including a week’s rehearsal before the shoot with the two leads and cinematographer Witold Stock, allowing them to develop blocking that means the intimate spaces never feel repetitive or claustrophobic. As one would expect from the author of Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, each space abounds in precise details and objects; O’Brien notes that though the objects Friendship collects came from Wollen’s own study, they were also intended as a whimsical goose chase for semioticians trying to read too closely. Instead, like a politicised version of Craig Raine’s well-known 1979 poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’, they signify Friendship’s tenderness for the varieties of life on Earth – even if she has more ‘fellow feeling’ with a typewriter than with the human who types on it.

The shifting positions and energies between the protagonists are captured by creative camera angles that expand and contract the hotel rooms, with lighting ranging from bright daylight and almost-complete darkness to create a chiaroscuro across the film that is mediated by candlelight and shadows. A distinctive sense arises of a multiple and mobile point of view that cuts against the potential narrowness of the two-hander. At the same time, the film does focus unrelentingly on the interaction of Sullivan and Friendship, portrayed by two white British actors. Yet it remains remarkable that a British film that presents the Palestinian cause sympathetically, albeit externally, exists at all, even though it makes barely any mention, of the British Empire’s key role in creating ‘victims of a map’ in Transjordan and Palestine. Similarly, it cannot – and does not try to – square the circle of how to support the Palestinians without armed action, in the same way as the film is interestingly ambivalent about a possible future in which humans have self-destructed and been superceded by a sentient computer-robot interdependency.

That’s partially a strength of the even-handed, often zingy writing for the protagonists, a reminder that Wollen was the co-writer of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). The later impassioned debates in which Sullivan tries to talk Friendship out of her chosen commitment are prefigured by seemingly throwaway lines such as his toast to hijacker ‘Leila Khaled, the glorious pirate of the air, beautiful heroine of the doomed and the desperate’, which captures the romanticism that underlies Sullivan’s world-weary devil’s advocacy and that leads him to be intrigued by Friendship almost against his will. Friendship replies that she ‘dream[s] of impossible objects’, in a reminder of the gulf between them.

She is, after all, a rather on-the-nose example of what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls the ‘body without organs’, albeit been manufactured and educated to pass as human, and specifically as a woman, which she claims is supposed to be reassuring. There is a queer frisson in Friendship’s relation to her own body and its (non-)functions, as well as the refusal to fulfil heteronormative desire; her descriptions of her manufacture on Procyon resonate with Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that women are ‘made, not born’, and also provide an early glimpse of what a transfeminist cinema might enunciate. ‘I can’t accept subhuman status’, she states, refusing to accord biology any primacy; but while the binary between born and made persists, she says in a resonant line, it’s ‘a world where I have to wear a human disguise to be accepted’.

The film thus resonates with a wider theoretical and activist zeitgeist: Sandy Stone’s foundational essay ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto’ was published in Social Text in 1987. And although Friendship is entirely a robot and non-biological, it’s hard not to read her – and the film – through the essay that influenced and companioned Stone’s, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ by Donna Haraway, first published in 1985 in Socialist Review. Haraway’s cyborg, like Friendship, is partial and ironic (Friendship notes, with reference to blushing, that she is incapable of being earnest), self-realised through inscription, and enacting solidarity with global feminist resistance. Sullivan’s daughter Catherine, who is doing an O-Level in Robotics, seems like another subtle trace of Haraway’s vision.

Haraway’s hugely influential essay, and her more recent work in Staying With the Trouble, have refused the exterminationist and accelerationist arguments of eco-fascists, arguing instead that the strength of the cyborg and of natureculture is their hybridity that teach (Eurowestern) humans to see their interdependency across differences. The cyborg makes a case for fellow feeling, that is; or, one might say, friendship. Coming in peace, Friendship may leave us in pieces, with only fragments of an enigmatic puzzle, glowing in the dark. It’s our task, as Wollen had long argued in his work on semiotics, to make meaning of them, and use them to make meaning of our lives. Not just our task but, as Friendship suggests when she describes the computers as ‘connoisseurs of Earth’, our pleasure: to take up the ticket to peace for which Friendship – as the dream of the 1960s and 70s counterculture – fought, and to travel.


With thanks to Rebecca O’Brien for her generosity in discussing the film in a phone interview, 10 April 2020.