Samuel Douek is a trained architect turned filmmaker and visual artist. His work confronts issues surrounding LGBTQ+ underground culture and the built environment across short documentary, music video and commercial film for platforms such as INTO Magazine, i-D and Absolut. He is also co-founder of Apple Tree with Mark-Ashley Dupé, co-founder of BUM.P with Nicco Torelli, and founder of CAMPerVAN, a travelling queer performance and community event space.
Here, he explains how studying for an architecture degree inadvertently led to him filmmaking.
I first developed an interest in filmmaking while studying for a Masters in Architecture at the RCA. There were a number of gay nightlife spots closing down in London at the time – pubs like the Joiners’ Arms in Hackney and the Black Cap in Camden – and I made some DIY documentaries expressing concern that these places I’d grown up in, and that had exposed me to the question of queer identity, were disappearing at a faster rate than at any time in living memory. Researching these documentaries led me to ask myself: What makes a space queer? And how might you create one that is immune from the threat of gentrification?
I asked myself: What makes a space queer? And how might you create one that is immune from the threat of gentrification?
This is how I ended up buying a 27-year-old caravan, cutting a massive hole in the side of it and equipping it with a fold-out stage, a move kind of inspired by the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the general idea of transformative spaces. The vehicle came to be known as the CAMPerVAN: a transportable queer performance and community event space that can be deployed anywhere in the world. I run the space alongside my two great friends Fiontán Moran and Zoë Marden; we call ourselves the CAMPerVAN Collective. They were a big part of my final degree show at the RCA as well, which was kind of funny – dancing on top of a caravan wearing not much more than a chiffon scarf in front of loads of architectural professors.
Since leaving the RCA three years ago, things have snowballed, and the CAMPerVAN has become a lot more than an architectural degree project. We’ve done stints at galleries and festivals, including Tate Lates at the Tate Modern, but the most ambitious undertaking so far was when myself, Fiontán and Zoë – who are both curators and artists in their own right – went on a tour across Europe.
I shot footage throughout the tour with the idea of doing a film – a kind of docufantasy - whereby we’d pair authentic interviews and footage with highly stylised and choreographed performances.
Zoë met a guy running the first ever festival for queer youth in Switzerland and they asked if we’d take the van over to Zurich to do a three-day show. We agreed and decided to stop off in five other cities along the way: Brussels, Rotterdam, Berlin, Milan and Paris. Through that, we got to meet really incredible queer communities across the continent – but although each of them are thriving in their own way, we got the impression they had nothing quite like the CAMPerVAN. Even in the major cities, there’s very limited access to experimental performance spaces. That was the first time I realised that the van wasn’t really about us at all, but more about allowing other communities to take over the space and get something meaningful from the experience.
I shot footage throughout the tour with the idea of doing a film – a kind of docufantasy inspired by Michael Clark’s Hail the New Puritan, whereby we’d pair authentic interviews and footage with highly stylised and choreographed performances. It didn’t quite turn out like that – the stress and madness of the two-week trip, on which I was the only driver across 4,000 miles of road, as well as directing, performing and acting as AP for the film – meant there was no time for me to realise that initial vision, especially in the two weeks I had to turn a fortnight’s worth of footage into a 15-minute piece for a documentary festival. But much of that footage is amazing, and when the time is right I’ll turn it into the film it deserves to be.
That trip was a huge learning curve for me and a ambitious development from my previous filmmaking experience. Before the CAMPerVAN tour I’d been living in LA, making films for various fashion companies as well as INTO, the new online platform from GRINDR, who actually helped fund the European sojourn with the idea of turning it into a six-part series. I've developed several series spotlighting queer nightlife around the world and also worked a lot on narrative film and music videos. Those are where I’ve tended to butt up against other people’s demands the most – the likes of managers and record labels who want to work more closely with you on planning and executing ideas. That said, I feel like I’ve been very fortunate in my career trajectory so far, in that most people have given me the agency to do what I want.
I never got taught film and to this day I often feel as though I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m just following my gut
Next year, we’re taking the CAMPerVAN out to visit deprived areas of the UK. I’m hugely excited to do that with our kind of performance art. As soon as the CAMPerVAN is renovated and ready to return to the road, we want to write a manifesto and really pin down what we’re trying to achieve. You don’t always need an agenda but I think marking out where we want to go will mean a lot in the context of engaging with people in communities that will often have voted to leave the EU, that have basically wanted to isolate themselves. Opening up a dialogue between those people and the queer, left-leaning communities we have in London should be really interesting. We’ve always wanted to break down the barriers between what is often very exclusive and “hidden” queer performance art and the real world, by placing queerness and performance in a public sphere.
I never got taught film and to this day I often feel as though I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m just following my gut. But it’s through all of these experiences that you start to understand what it is you’re fighting for.
Please check out Samuel’s upcoming event “CAMPerVAN Love Island: The Queer Periphery” on Saturday 6th October