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neither /nor black audio film collective, 1980s-1990s essays & interviews by ashley clark


essays & interviews by ashley clark

neither/nor chimeric cinema, black audio film collective, 1980s — 1990s

This monograph is dedicated to Eddie “Popsicles” Clark ( June 4, 1928—Dec 16, 2017)—the greatest, bar none.


the academy of motion picture arts and sciences is proud to play a supporting role in the

NEITHER/NOR FILM SERIES

OSCARS.ORG


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

neither/nor

contents page 5: Foreword page 7: New Adventures in AV: Black Audio Film Collective in Context page 13: Handsworth Songs page 17: Interview: John Akomfrah page 25: Testament page 29: Interview: Reece Auguiste page 33: Twilight City page 37: Interview: Trevor Mathison page 41: Who Needs A Heart page 43: Interview: Gaylene Gould page 46: Reprint of Black Audio Film Collective Statement from ARTRAGE Inter-Cultural Arts Magazine

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about ashley clark

Ashley Clark is the senior programmer of cinema at BAM in Brooklyn, a position he has occupied since August 2017. He was the programmer of Black Star (BFI Southbank, October to December 2016; TIFF, November to December 2017), a major film season dedicated to exploring the range, versatility and power of black actors, and coprogrammer of Making Faces on Film: a Collaboration with BFI Black Star (Museum of Modern Art, April 2017), a complementary New York edition. As a journalist, Clark has written extensively on film and culture for The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Reverse Shot, Village Voice and Film Comment; and his first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (The Critical Press, 2015). Ashley is also a broadcast journalist, and moderator.

this program includes

Handsworth Songs (1986), Testament (1988), Twilight City (1989), Who Needs a Heart (1991)

black audio film collective is John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Reece Auguiste, Edward George, Avril Johnson, Trevor Mathison, Claire Joseph, David Lawson


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

neither/nor

foreword n e i t h e r / n o r is the True/False Film Fest’s ongoing survey of groundbreaking film movements that— through their imaginative approaches to sound, image and reality—altered the course of nonfiction cinema. For this fifth edition of Neither/Nor, the festival collaborates with film writer-programmer Ashley Clark on a celebration of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC), a group of multidisciplinary and multimedia artists whose art reckons with history and memory— particularly as it pertains to colonialist societies and the African diaspora—in ways that are intellectually rigorous, inventive and expressive. As Ashley elucidates in the first chapter of this monograph, there are unsettling similarities between the early 1980s, when the Collective formed, and today. The U.K. and the U.S. remain violent, racist states, and their oppression of black residents back in the mainstream media. Frazzled white cultural gatekeepers responded then—and now—by clumsily attempting to integrate representation (now inclusion) into their missions. Skepticism in their—our—direction is not only warranted but vital. The Collective emerged amid these representation debates, which, Akomfrah told Coco Fusco in her excellent 1988 monograph, were at the time guided by a simplistic positive-negative image discourse: “We wanted to go beyond purely descriptive categories and try to forge another kind of analytical strain, which could then open up that space in which we could begin

to articulate our own ideas about representation by problematizing representation itself.” The Collective’s innovation was met with condescending claims that their work was inaccessible, all because they had the audacity to create their own language. In this monograph’s fourth chapter, Akomfrah suggests that by the late 1990s, the film industry had deemed BAFC’s radical strategies old hat. To put it lightly, that sentiment perplexes. We’re hard-pressed to identify more than a handful of artists who invoke the intoxicating headspace their work creates, where contemporary turmoil is simultaneously haunted by specter and in confrontation with tomorrow—let alone name filmmakers who have explored the vast worlds they opened up. There’s another reason we’re presenting this series, and it’s a simple one: when Ashley Clark—a brilliant thinker, interlocutor, writer and programmer—approaches you with an idea, you should follow his lead. Much in the spirit of the work he’s addressing, Ashley opens up the movies rather than pinning them down. He approaches the Collective’s art with a wide array of techniques, ranging from a blistering collage of historical quotes to erudite historical overview to vivid description to insightful interview. We’re confident you will enjoy reading and rereading his work as much as we did. 

—chris boeckmann editor

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“[T]hrough a radical re-articulation of the historical archive with testimonial memory, the films of the Black Audio Film Collective disclose the intersecting constellations of the past and present, where memory is to be understood not as a dead past waiting to be excavated but as a product of the present.” — j e a n f i s h e r , The Ghosts of Songs: the Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

neither/nor

new adventures in av black audio film collective in context

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a r e p r e s s i v e , right-wing authoritarian government. Rising xenophobia and nativism. Economic recession. Seemingly hopeless social polarization. Resurgent Empire fetishism. A Royal Wedding, like a maraschino cherry gingerly placed atop a skip1 fire. Great Britain circa 2018, as it happens, looks a lot like Great Britain circa 1981. That fateful year saw widespread civil unrest (referred to widely as either “riots” or “uprisings,” depending on one’s political persuasion) break out across the country, firstly in the South London district Brixton in the month of April. While there had been outbreaks of violence in protest of racist policing and mass unemployment 1

British for “dumpster”

stretching back decades, these eruptions marked a national watershed in the sheer scale of disruption. Reports suggest that up to 5,000 people were involved, with over 350 injuries reported; over a hundred vehicles burned, and almost 150 buildings damaged, with 28 burned. Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher blithely dismissed the notion that unemployment and racism had informed the disturbances, stating that “Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened.” Her government did, however, commission an official investigation culminating in ‘The Scarman Report,’ which concluded that police had become too remote from their communities, that local citizens should have


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more input into police policymaking and that police tactics should be more compassionate. In the aftermath of the unrest, some ground began to shift, particularly in the cultural sector. As observed by the historian and writer Kobena Mercer, following Scarman, political expediency, or optics, was a key driver for the ‘benevolent’ gestures of many public institutions, who hastily apportioned funding to black-focused projects. The unrest resonated as an expression of protest against the deep-rooted marginalization of black voices within all aspects of society, and as such represented demand for a black presence within public institutions as a minimum requirement. Culturally, this demand generated a broad, cross-arts flowering of black creative practice2, a boom which fortuitously coincided with the birth of the independent terrestrial TV station Channel 43, a new platform—in 1982, Britain had only three TV channels—which would prove crucial for marginalized filmmakers4 and audiences alike. One key development of the era was the landmark ACTT Declaration of 1984. The Independent Filmmakers’ Association, founded in 1974 and composed of artists, students and filmmakers, had been pressuring the BFI (British Film Institute) and ACTT (Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied

chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

Technicians, the main broadcast union, which at the time had vast industry bargaining power) for years to make exceptions to union rules and provide financial security and thus breathing space for the independent sector. Channel 4’s presence as a guaranteed home for new independent content proved a crucial turning point in negotiations, and the ensuing legislation helped many groups working on politically and socially engaged filmmaking, including Ceddo, Sankofa Film and Video Collective (featuring Isaac Julien) and the allAsian group Retake, to both consolidate their activities and provide opportunities for others through funded outreach and training schemes. Another group who benefited from the declaration went by a stately, unambiguous and memorable moniker: Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC). There had been glimmers of independent black British film crafted in a largely realist mode in the 1960s and 70s by the pioneering likes of Horace Ove and Lloyd Reckord. But it is fair to say that British moving image culture had seen nothing quite like BAFC when it burst onto the scene in 1982. Having joined forces at Portsmouth Polytechnic5, before relocating to a studio space in Hackney, East London, this group of seven multimedia artists and thinkers ( John Akomfrah,

Including the Black British Arts Movement, founded around the time of the First National Black Art Convention organised by the Blk Art Group and held at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. Their work was both inspired and promoted by the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. 2

Per Mark Duguid, writing for BFI’s Screenonline, “Channel 4 … was in part a compromise between the demand for competitive expansion in broadcasting (with a new market for advertising), and the presumed virtues of the BBC’s public service ethos. Added to this was a desire—in keeping with the early Thatcher Government’s objective to deregulate markets and encourage entrepreneurship—to allow new space for independent producers previously stuck on the margins of British television.” 3

It is worth making the point, particularly in a chimera-forward context like True/False, that the boundaries between what constitutes film or television in Britain has always been blurred, given the central role of institutions like BBC and Channel 4 in the production, distribution and exhibition of moving image content. Moreover, exhibition opportunities for black filmmakers have been so limited historically that it seems churlish to impose stringent categorical restrictions here. 4


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

Lina Gopaul, Reece Auguiste, Edward George, Avril Johnson, Trevor Mathison, and Claire Joseph, who was replaced in 1985 by David Lawson) from backgrounds in psychology, fine art and sociology, organized programs of avant-garde and international fiction and nonfiction cinema, and created and exhibited their own work using video, film and slide-tape texts6, often in combination. Inspired by theoreticians such as the Jamaica-born, UK-based public intellectual Stuart Hall and the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci as much as by avant-garde filmmakers Dziga Vertov and Derek Jarman, BAFC’s work blended cascading montage and complex sonic experimentation with personal reflections on race, memory, post-colony and migration, with the rigorous yet non-didactic interrogation of official, statesanctioned national histories pertaining to such matters. The group’s official debut, the Chris Marker-influenced Expeditions 1: Signs of Empire (1983), used a Kodak dissolve unit to fashion a variety of images—some hopeful (happy family albums, flashes of multiracial Commonwealth harmony), some distressing (burning buildings, colonial-era violence)—into a haunting narrative that was augmented by amplified shards of political oration and found sounds in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a cross between pulverizing dub reggae and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s deeply creepy postpunk LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). From the very beginning, BAFC made a virtue of authorial polyvocality (versus singular “auteurship”), formal crossfertilisation, and the simultaneously disorienting and clarifying power of montage. What’s more, they clearly 5

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expected their audience to do some work. BAFC also possessed a unique style and hybrid identity, which is vividly described by Kodwo Eshun, the group’s associate and co-biographer: “In interviews, photographs and in person, the group projected a stance of high seriousness combined with a seductive stylishness. Their attitude was a statement of British Afrodiasporic internationalism, enacted through a specific sense of generational self-entitlement. Akomfrah’s family background was Ghanaian and Nigerian, Lawson’s was Ghanaian, Togolese and Trinidadian, Gopaul,

A Polytechnic is a British institution of higher education offering courses in many subjects, especially vocational or technical subjects.

A slide-tape text (often slide-tape presentation) is an audiovisual work consisting of a slide show, run by a filmstrip machine, paired with synchronised, accompanying audio, traditionally played on audio tape. 6


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chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

Johnson and Mathison’s was Jamaican, while Auguiste and George’s was Dominican. This biographical heterogeniety informed the Collective’s consciousness in complex ways.” Not, then, for BAFC, the reductive canard of racial essentialism; rather, a relentless quest to harness the African diaspora’s kaleidoscopic thoughtpower to combat white supremacy as a historical, economic and conceptual form of oppression7. And while BAFC shared its labor, it was the charismatic John Akomfrah, the group’s most frequent director, who emerged as its spokesperson. In BAFC’s first official statement, published in a 1983 edition of ARTRAGE Inter-Cultural Arts Magazine, Akomfrah presented the collective’s aims, which can be summarized thusly: 1. To attempt to look critically at how racist ideas and images of black people are structured and presented as self-evident truths in cinema

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2. To develop a ‘forum’ for disseminating available film techniques within the independent tradition and to assess their pertinence for black cinema 3. To encourage means of extending the boundaries of black film culture by attempting to demystify the process of film production, and collapsing the distinction between ‘audience’ and ‘producer’ These objectives illustrated the group’s yearning to embrace holistic praxis, delve into the radical liberatory possibilities of collective art in action, and both engage with, and build upon, the hitherto miserly and deleterious representation of black life in British moving image.

In addition to creating their moving image work, the group would publish regularly in journals and art publications, present at conferences, work alongside other organizations in developing diverse training and funding strategies, and fulfill a role as front-line artist-activists, constantly applying pressure on public institutions to reform and rethink their policies. “We need policies that take account of race—but only as a means of concretizing debate on media access and control,” stated co-founder Lina Gopaul in a speech delivered at the ‘Which Way Forward?’ conference at London’s National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) in 1985, “We recognize that on that subject of race and

The term “Black” as a racial signifier in Britain has had a contested history. In the 1970s and 80s, the term often signified an inclusive ‘political’ rather than ‘racial’ identity based on alliances between Asian, African and Caribbean peoples in a shared struggle against postwar racism. Today, this definition of the term is largely seen as outmoded, and runs the risk of eliding both the specificity of black as opposed to Asian culture, and specific anti-black racism. 7


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

cinema the majority of funding practices amount to nothing other than rhetoric.” The group’s breakthrough work was Handsworth Songs, which was made for the Channel 4 series Britain: The Lie of the Land in 1986, and first screened on television in July 1987. This arresting bricolage of sonic, thematic and visual dissonance blends multi-stranded narrations from a variety of sources with archival film, snippets of newsreels (mostly of postwar black and Asian immigrants to Britain going about their business) and found video of events surrounding the large-scale unrest which erupted in 1985 in the districts of Handsworth in Birmingham, and Brixton, London. This second bout of widespread unrest (following 1981’s events) was provoked by the police shooting of an Afro-Caribbean mother, Cherry Groce, in her home; Groce was left paralyzed. Thematically rich and formally ferocious, Handsworth Songs was one of the earliest films to be directly inspired by Stuart Hall’s analysis of the ideological biases in the representational strategies of mass, mainstream media materials, a process Hall termed “decoding.” Handsworth Songs struck a nerve. It was a hit on the festival circuit and was screened in limited theatrical release, but was also mocked by black British newspaper The Voice (“oh no, not another riot documentary”), and became the subject of public debate when the Booker Prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie heavily

neither/nor criticized it (“Unfortunately, it’s no good”) in an article for The Guardian newspaper entitled “Songs Doesn’t Know The Score.” This article was met by a fierce rebuttal from Stuart Hall (“What I don’t understand is how anyone watching the film could have missed the struggle which it represents, precisely, to find a new language”). Handsworth Songs went on to be one of three films (the others: Sankofa’s dreamy docudrama The Passion of Remembrance, Horace Ove’s gentle-yetpointed cricket comedy Playing Away) debated at a high-profile symposium in February 1988, “Black Film, British Cinema,” 8 organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts and featuring leading academics and cultural theorists from both sides of the Atlantic. BAFC, then, were central players in a moment in British moving image history when, per Kobena Mercer, “image-making [became] an important arena of cultural contestation—contestation over what it means to be British today; contestation over what Britishness itself means as a national or cultural identity; and contestation over the values that underpin the Britishness of British cinema as a national film culture.” Following Handsworth Songs, BAFC embarked on a prolific run of producing diverse and challenging material, including lambent essay films on migration and memory (Testament, Twilight City), unconventional portraits of key figures in black radical history (Seven

In a presentation at the ICA conference, curator/archivist June Givanni laid out the landscape of black British independent film production: “[W]hen we refer to ‘black independent film’, this cateogory subsumes a wide range of practitioners and areas of operation. On the one hand, there are the black film workshops—funded for revenue and production costs mainly by Channel 4 television, the British Film Institute, and local authorities … On the other hand, there are independent black film-makers and production companies who receive no revenue funding as such, but who are often commissioned by broadcasting companies like Channel 4 or the BBC, or who occasionally receive production finance for specific projects from BFI, the Arts Council, and regional Arts Organisations ... There are also black production companies who produce programmes or series for Channel 4 … And in addition, there are of course many individual black film and media professionals who work in partnership with white colleagues in a number of independent production companies.” 8

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Songs for Malcolm X, Who Needs a Heart), formally hybrid investigations into technological development and Afrofuturism (Digitopia, The Last Angel of History), and even comparatively straightforward narrative fiction (Speak Like A Child). Due to a combination of factors including less progressive commissioning at Channel 4 and general group burnout, BAFC officially disbanded in 19989 after sixteen years, a duration which made them unique. The majority of the other black and Asian collectives emboldened by the ACTT Declaration and Channel 4 dispersed after a few years and a few films, with many former members moving into industry posts, such as Nadine Marsh-Edwards (Sankofa), who became, and remains, a successful producer of film and TV, or Isaac Julien (also Sankofa), who, after making one feature film as a solo director—the queer punk period drama Young Soul Rebels (1991)—became a huge star in the art world. From the ashes of Black Audio Film Collective emerged Smoking Dogs Films, a production company set up by Akomfrah, Gopaul and David Lawson in 1998. Smoking Dogs continues to produce a wide range of work today, sometimes for the gallery space, sometimes for television, often award-winning, and frequently in collaboration with BAFC sound designer Trevor Mathison. In this writer’s opinion, Smoking Dogs’ film work has, to date, included two genuinely majestic achievements, both spiritual and thematic relatives to early BAFC work: the spellbinding postcolonial-archival collage The Nine Muses (2010) and The Stuart Hall Project (2013), a gorgeous, multilayered

chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

documentary tribute to the group’s intellectual hero. Smoking Dogs represent a satisfying continuum thread from a group whose political thrust and formal innovation seems to continually outrun history. It was impossible, for example, not to think of Handsworth Songs in August 2011, when, in a chilling case of history repeating itself, uprisings spread across Britain following the police killing of a young mixed-race man named Mark Duggan. This unrest was described by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, like Thatcher before him a hardline establishment Conservative, as “criminality, pure and simple.” The Duggan killing and its aftermath were examined in detail in George Amponsah and Dionne Walker’s documentary The Hard Stop (2015), which took cues from Handsworth Songs in its haunting sound design and intelligent, critical deployment of archival footage. Meanwhile, though there has sadly been nothing close to a replication of the thriving 1980s workshop scene in the intervening years, BAFC’s influence is nevertheless detectable in the work of some of Britain’s best and brightest young creative talents: experimental filmmakers such as Shola Amoo and Cecile Emeke, form-stretching artists such as Selina Thompson, and writer/curators such as Derica Shields. Simultaneously monolithic and multifaceted, cool and passionate, forward-thinking and deeply engaged with history’s ghosts, Black Audio Film Collective has left a legacy of challenging, formally daring, politically resonant and utterly singular work that deserves to be appreciated and debated by new generations of international audiences. 

Broadly speaking, the 1990s, despite BAFC’s continued work and flashes of black independent film production (for example, the radical feminist work of Ngozi Onwurah) represented a period of decline in black British film, encapsulated by the bleak and telling title of Karen Alexander’s 2000 essay “Black British cinema in the 90s: going going gone.” 9


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective

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1980s-1990s

signals and signs

fragments for handsworth songs (1986) In the kaleidoscopic, mix-and-match spirit of Black Audio Film Collective’s breakthrough film Handsworth Songs, here follows a selection of provocations from the annals of British cultural and political history. You are free to connect them as you wish.

“If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” —Conservative Party slogan in the West Midlands constituency of Smethwick, 1964 General Election

“For these dangerous and divisive elements the legislation proposed in the Race Relations Bill is the very pabulum they need to flourish. Here is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the illinformed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” —A section of e n o c h p o w e l l ’s so-called ‘Rivers

of Blood’ speech, delivered to a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on April 20, 1968 “Walking along just kicking stones Minding my own business I come face to face with my foe Disguised in violence from head to toe I holler and I bawl (the Ku Klux Klan) Them no let me go now (the Ku Klux Klan) To let me go was not dem intention (they say) One nigga the less The better the show Stand strong black skin and take your blow” —“Ku Klux Klan,” performed by British reggae band steel pulse, from the album Handsworth Revolution (1978)

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“Whatever the problems, nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened on Saturday and Sunday nights. It is totally and utterly wrong as all the ways of protest and demonstration and democratic methods we have that anyone should attempt to take it out on the police or the citizens of the area like turning over cars and looting properties, setting it alight, throwing bombs and missiles at the police—nothing justifies that. And I cannot condemn it too strongly.” —Conservative Prime Minister margaret thatcher, April 13, 1981

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“‘Institutional racism’ did not exist, he said, pointing instead to ‘racial disadvantage’ and ‘racial discrimination.’ His warning was stark: ‘Urgent action’ was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming an ‘endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society.’” —A 2004 BBC website article, revisiting the Scarman Report, which was published in November 1981

“Down at the Metro cinema, in Soho, there’s a new documentary starting a three-week run, Handsworth Songs, made by Black Audio Film Collective. The ‘buzz’ about the picture is good. New Socialist likes it. City Limits likes it, people are calling it multi-layered ‘original’ imaginative, its makers talk of speaking in metaphors, its director John Akomfrah is getting mentioned around town as a talent to watch … Unfortunately, it’s no good, and the trouble does seem to be one of language.” —s alm an ru sh die, The Guardian, January 12, 1987

chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

“What I don’t understand is how anyone watching the film could have missed the struggle which it represents, precisely, to find a new language … For what reason, apart from making us look in new ways, does Salman Rushdie want these ‘new languages’? He seems to assume that his songs are not only different but better, presumably because they don’t deal with all that dreary stuff about riots and the police, etc. He prefers colourful stories about experience, closer to the ‘richer language of their subjects.’” —s t u a r t h a l l , The Guardian, January 15, 1987

“Enoch Powell once said that the streets of Britain would be awash with rivers of blood. If you look at the Brixton riots, he had a point.” — delivered casually, mid-Latin lesson, by m r . s t e p h e n s m i t h , head of Alleyn’s Lower School, some time in late 1997 (I was in the class, and 12 years old.)

“...racism, institutional or otherwise, is not the prerogative of the Police Service. It is clear that other agencies including, for example, those dealing with housing and education also suffer from the disease. If racism is to be eradicated there must be specific and coordinated action both within the agencies themselves and by society at large, particularly through the education system, from primary school upwards and onwards.” —The Macpherson Report, published in response to the 1993 murder in South London of black teenager and aspiring architect Stephen Lawrence, and the manner it was handled by the police, 1999


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

“What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies … They say he is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.” —b o r i s j o h n s o n , writing in The Telegraph, January 10, 2002. On July 12, 2016, Johnson was appointed Foreign Secretary by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, a position he occupies today

“j e r e m y p a x m a n : Dizzee Rascal, Mr Rascal, do you feel yourself to be British? d i z z e e r a s c a l : Of course I’m British, man! You know me! ... what’s good. I think it don’t matter what colour you are, it matters what colour your heart is and your intentions. I think a black man, purple man, Martian man can run the country ... as long as he does right by the people.” —An exchange between host j e r e m y p a x m a n and Grime artist d i z z e e r a s c a l , broadcast on BBC Newsnight on November 4, the day Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America

“These are sickening scenes. Scenes of people looting, vandalising, thieving, robbing. Scenes of people attacking police officers and even attacking fire crews as

neither/nor they’re trying to put out fires. This is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated … I have this very clear message to those people who are responsible for this wrongdoing and criminality: you will feel the full force of the law and if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment. And to these people I would say this: you are not only wrecking the lives of others, you’re not only wrecking your own communities - you are potentially wrecking your own life too … Now, if you’ll excuse me, there is important work to be done. Thank you.” —Conservative Prime Minister d av i d c a m e r o n , August 9, 2011

“[Powell’s] prophesy was absolutely right in one sense. The Tiber did not foam with blood but flames lambent, wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham … The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion, and black and white boy and girl operate in this language together. This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.” —Historian d av i d s ta r k e y c b e speaking on Newsnight, August 12, 2011. Starkey continues to contribute to BBC radio and television today

“Why did the police pull the trigger twice on my son, why did they shoot him at all, why did they move the cab, how did the gun end up on the grass when no witness

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neither/nor saw Mark throw a gun there, and why were there so many police after my son - 31 of them?” —p a m e l a d u g g a n , mother of m a r k d u g g a n , speaking on January 8, 2014 about her son’s killing at the hands of the police on August 4, 2011

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“Today, I apologise unreservedly for our failings. I also apologise for the inexcusable fact that it has taken until now for the Met to make this public apology. Sadly, this means that the person who most deserved to hear the apology, those words ‘we are sorry,’ is no longer here. However, Cherry’s children, her friends and others are here, and they too deserve an apology. I am sorry for the years of suffering which our actions and omissions caused to your family.” —Metropolitan Police Chief s i r b e r n a r d h o g a n h o w e , apologizing for the 1985 shooting of c h e r r y g r o c e in her Brixton home, the incident which precipitated that year’s unrest, July 14, 2014

“I went to my local the other day only to find a black barman. So I said give me a drink nig nog. He said that’s a bit racist, come round here and see how like it. So we swapped places and he said give me a drink you mother fucking white honkey cunt. I said sorry mate we don’t serve niggers!” —Text message found on the phone of t e r r e n c e h u g h e s , one of three G4S security guards cleared of the manslaughter of father-of-five j i m m y m u b e n g a at Heathrow Airport in October 2010. Mubenga was being deported to Angola. The text [and others] was ruled inadmissible evidence in the 2014 trial

chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

“If other people think we are institutionally racist, then we are. It’s no good me saying we’re not.” —Metropolitan Police Commissioner s i r b e r n a r d h o g a n - h o w e , June 5, 2015

“Look, I’ve got a message for our old prime minister David Cameron

I mean you fucked us, resigned, then sneaked out the firing line I wanna know how you managed it

And are you bathing in the sun while them papers have a run At the woman that you left here to handle it?”

—“Question Time,” performed by rapper d av e , from the Game Over EP (2017)

“Occasionally, as you’re about to succumb to this melancholia — ‘Oh, everything’s terrible!’ — you’ll see someone that breaks down a film or an image in a way that you hadn’t quite thought about, and you think there is life after all, and it will be fine. Even to watch young nieces and nephews play games in a way that even if I try now, I couldn’t. I just don’t think that fast. These are good things. We will be fine. We will absolutely be fine.” —j o h n a k o m f r a h , in conversation with me, for an article published online at Filmmaker Magazine, July 18, 2016


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interview with john akomfrah

conducted by ashley clark, 1.15.18 You moved to London from Ghana at a very early age. Can you talk about some of your formative artistic experiences? J A: I grew up in West London, in fairly close proximity to places that would essentially define my life. There was an independent repertory cinema called the Paris Pullman on Fulham Road, and I started going there when I was 13, 14 years old. The other was the Tate [then Gallery, now Tate Britain], which was fifteenminutes walk from my house; I would wander there on Saturday mornings. As a young, black kid interested in culture in the 1970s, I never really thought that those defining features of my life would come together one day: the fact that I was black was a kind of accident that had to be overcome. If you had told me when I was a 12-year-old that I would end up working in a space defined by blackness [BAFC], I would have laughed at you because it didn’t seem important. And if it was important, it seemed like something that one had to

“overcome,” because it was clear that it was going to be an impediment in some way. When I went to the Tate, I didn’t see many artists of color; when I went to the Paris Pullman, I didn’t see many films made by people of color. So I assumed at the time that the thing to do was to not gravitate in those directions. It’s only later on that I thought, hang on, let’s turn this logic on its head—since I’m not really seeing anyone making stuff who looks like me, and I’m not seeing work in the Tate about subjects that I might be familiar with, maybe this might be something that I could do. But it took all kinds of other historical interventions by society at large to make that possible. In 1976, the disturbances in West London—the Notting Hill “riots,” as they were called—were a critical turning point for my generation because it suddenly became apparent that there were certain paths that you were not going to be able to avoid walking down. It was clear from the way in which

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Handsworth Songs

those disturbances at the Notting Hill Carnival were described, talked about in my area, that everyone who lived on my street, the majority of whom were white, and fairly well-to-do, just assumed, in their minds, that I was one of those kids throwing bricks at the police: you could see it in their face. At that point, I just thought, I’ve got to turn around and confront this. We have to do this. Can you talk more about these formative experiences of being black and British, and how it affected how you saw the world?

J A : I remember writing this thing about how we [BAFC] drifted toward the work of Stuart Hall, and some of it was to do with one of these moments. I think everyone my age, who came of age in the 1970s, had this adventure with what I call the “doppelgänger,” the double. There was this talk in society about the figure called “the black youth,” and this black youth was a criminal, mugging, fearful creature. You heard about this figure, but you didn’t think that it had anything to do with you, and then—and everyone I’ve spoken to experienced this—there’s a mirror moment when you suddenly realize: fuck, they’re talking


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about me! At that Fanonian moment, you think, OK, either run even further away to escape this doppelgänger moment, or do the opposite, which is to head towards it, to claim it, to fuse with it, or essentially to make friends with it. On the whole, most of the people in the Collective came together because we’d decided to make friends with it. It was like, oh well, since I am supposed to be this creature, I’d better get to know it, I’d better become it, and learn how to get it to speak in the way that I want to speak. Not this slightly weird mumbo-jumbo that The Sun newspaper [a widely-read right-wing British tabloid] gets it to say. We’d better get it to say something that makes a little more sense to us. Let’s talk about the group coming together at Portsmouth Polytechnic, where you would become Black Audio Film Collective—what drew you together? J A: In the 80s and 90s, we spoke a lot about the question of multiplicity, the fact that we came from these different class and professional backgrounds. But the single most important thing was this weird “Fact of Blackness” that forced us together. Modern neoliberal capitalism has tended to break people down into smaller and smaller molecules so that, if we were working today, we may not have ever come together. Yet this backdrop of race functioned almost as a kind of glue. I had gone through further education [in London] with Lina, Reece and Avril, and met the other members, Trevor, Edward, and Clare, in Portsmouth. I stress this backdrop of race because even though we were on different courses, the glue was this host of black student societies, discussion groups and informal college circuits that basically forced people of color into reflecting on their circumstances. Portsmouth is a fairly mainstream white city [on the South-East coast of England] with a slightly unpleasant right-wing edge, so if you found

yourself on your own, wandering the streets at night, it was quite likely that one would be attacked by a group of skinheads, or a member of one of those extreme right-wing groups at the time. It was, then, in your interests to band together and form associations and solidarities—most of us met through these informal networks because people were black in a hostile white space. We tended to not speak too much about it, and it gave the whole thing a kind of romantic air, I’m not going to deny it. We were not your average or typical black students at the time. For one, most of us were interested in cultural politics, and the cultural politics of the avant-garde, and that wasn’t typical. When did you come up with the name? J A : It would have been 1982, at Portsmouth, when we were doing a series of installations for a number of festivals that the Afro-Caribbean society was organizing. We knew that the show would have sound design elements, and projections. We needed a name that would describe the multifarious nature of what we were interested in, and it became clear that whatever we were going to become, it would be in large part brought about by this fusing of multiple interests. Black Audio Film Collective seemed to suggest that hybrid form. I can’t remember now who came up with it—I suspect that, like everything we did at the time, somebody would have suggested something, we would have discussed it, and then we would have kicked it to somebody else. We were like the quintessential collective: lots of discussions and not much doing! Lots of talk and not much action [Laughs]. The name would have been the result of very, very, very many conversations, believe me! In the group’s first official statement, which was published in ARTRAGE magazine, the aims go beyond simply making the work itself. Can you talk about those key goals?

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We knew that making stuff in itself wasn’t enough. It also needed to find a way of accessing our uniqueness and specificity as black British folk—it was easy for us to understand that, because there weren’t many people of color in Britain who wanted to make films, or artworks.

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J A: Well, by the time I got to meet most of these guys at Portsmouth, I’d had over a decade of looking at really serious works by both the political and the aesthetic avant-garde—the New German Cinema, the New Latin American cinema. Some of us had run a film club while at school in the 1970s, and at Portsmouth there were various film societies. The thing that we had picked up was that all of the successful artists emerged in spaces of crises, and these spaces were not just aesthetic but cultural and political. The Argentinean filmmakers, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, who made The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), were actively engaged in cultural and political circles, as were the German and French New Waves. We knew that making stuff in itself wasn’t enough. It also needed to find a way of accessing our uniqueness and specificity as black British folk—it was easy for us to understand that, because there weren’t many people of color in Britain who wanted to make films, or artworks. At the first Black Arts Conference in 1982, there was something like fifty of us in the room, out of the whole country! The work had to be nuanced if it was to stand any chance of success, but you couldn’t

just make films and hope people would see them. We were active in making spaces available so that people of our generation who hadn’t had the luxury of going to university or art college, or studying for degrees, could see that what we were doing had some relevance for them and their lives. We were trying to think about ways of creating a subculture in the broadest sense. It also meant making audiences, and trying to come up with new desires for how our generation worked. We knew this could work because we saw how it worked in music. From the ages of 16, 17, we saw the galvanizing function of music in black youth life. We went to concerts and clubs, and you could see when something had a cultural appeal, it just gripped people. You’d go to these blues dances, and it would be pitch black. You’d be in there for hours and hours journeying through basslines and rhythms. You knew that it wasn’t a question of black backwardness when it came to culture. It was about trying to find something that held out the promise of engagement for people of your generation. At the time, that was the uppermost thing in our mind, the key obsession: How do you make work which is challenging


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Handsworth Songs

and difficult and reflective and questioning but spoke to people just like you, from your background, your generation? The extent to which we managed that is a moot point, but desires and ambitions need not necessarily be met fully for them to be realized. Speaking specifically to the title of this festival, True/False, much BAFC work deliberately blurs that so-called line between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. Coming to the work, did you ever see fixed boundaries? J A: I’ve always loved the work of the Cubans and French filmmakers, especially Alain Resnais — “Night

and Fog” and Last Year at Marienbad were really important films for me and for some of the other [BAFC] members. We were always interested in the Borgesian idea of “the blur,” the merge of multiple worlds and spaces, in a way that made the distinction between fact and fiction seem irrelevant. When it came to the circulation of race in the political imaginary, the distinction between fact and fiction was completely spurious. What was circulating was precisely this fusion of fact and fiction; you needed to get your head around that. There was no point going up to people and saying,


neither/nor “I know you saw that black kid on the news mugging people but that’s not me — the majority of black kids do not do that.” This almost journalistic appeal to veracity and truth wasn’t useful because we seemed to have been doing that the whole distance, and it didn’t do us any good. We just had to look at our parents: they were upstanding members of the community, most of them worked like dogs, they didn’t do anything wrong. The thing that scared them more than anything was that we would get into trouble. They led these quietist lives of piety and devotion to work and their homes. That was the truth of their lives, but that was not the circulation of blackness in the culture. In the circulation of the news, in the culture, “these people”—meaning our parents—were scroungers, dirty… the discourse of race had nothing to do with truth.

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Following on from that, for a long time, pre-Channel 4, it was effectively down to one state broadcaster (BBC) to set the tone for news, to convey to the public the “real” version of what was happening. How important was Channel 4 culturally? J A: It was really important in a way that’s almost impossible to describe now. The transformations that it helped bring about have been so complete that it seems like not just another era, but another universe. I know there’s subtlety and nuance and complexity in the nonfiction work and documentaries that were being done before Channel 4 came about, because I use them all the time in my work. But there was something else that came with Channel 4, and that was the emergence of a unique and new paradigm that wasn’t licensed by the conventions of journalism, or the patrician class, or a tradition of radical Griersonian filmmaking which itself was a sort of patrician form. What Channel 4 did more than anything was to introduce a whole nation to the

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idea of the image as a thing of reflection rather than of statements, or enunciation, or social policy, or political dialogue. It said that images can be ambiguous. You can look at them in a variety of ways. Before Channel 4, the majority of images came tied to the voice, some sort of speech, a voiceover, monologues, reminiscences—they were virtually imprisoned by the voice. Then, for the first time, in 1982, you could sit and watch a program, say, So You Can Live (1982), about the border country of Wales, made by an avant-garde political collective in London [Cinema Action], and it had a quarter of the words that you would normally hear in an hour’s program. It was like “wow, what’s this?”, not because I didn’t know about that work, but because I’d only associated that way of things with working outside of television. We went to the cinema to escape the squareness and cultural illiteracy of TV; the cinema was where we’d get together and watch stuff like this with like-minded people. Suddenly it was on television, it was open to everyone, not just you and your mates—it’s now like a national address. Today, there’s a mixed economy of narrative and narratological approaches that you see all around you, but back then this was a genuine alternative to the entire audiovisual edifice that you’d known your whole life. It was a new space, on your street! I would go out occasionally and stand on a different street from the one we lived on, just to see which lights were up. Were they watching Channel 4? Because it was the only thing that was going late at night. Suddenly there were all these lights on streets. A new community of the night was emerging, most of whom were watching The Eleventh Hour [a weekly late-night specialist screening slot specializing in independent and experimental film and video], Latin American cinema, the films of Derek Jarman, Malcolm Le Grice, Chris Marker, people who just had not been visible on television for my whole life.


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I was in my 20s, and I’d never seen anything like this on television. It was seismic. It must have been a thrill, then, to have Handsworth Songs be broadcast on Channel 4? J A: Most of us who got to work for Channel 4 had to really fight for the right to do it; you couldn’t just walk in. We had to really earn the right, so we needed to first work between ourselves in the Independent Film Associations (IFA) to come up with a strategy for our way of working, and then we needed to persuade the ACTT about the desirability of having us, then we had to persuade the commissioning editors. There was no taking for granted the fact that Handsworth Songs would end up on Channel 4. There was no natural progression from where we were to it being on television. It had to be passionately fought and argued for. The difference was that Channel 4 seemed worth it, because it was trying to do something genuinely radical and subversive. When BAFC came to an end in 1998, was it external pressures telling, members wanting to do different things? Did it feel like the right time to go in a new direction? J A: It was a combination of factors. Half of us had met when we were 17, 18, 19, so by then we were in our 30s. It’s almost impossible to keep that many people growing in exactly the same way, as different interests emerge. The biographical seed in the machine was beginning to change. There were people who were, for instance, partners who weren’t partners anymore, in a romantic sense, and those things start to impact what you can do and how you do it. By 1998, Channel 4 had changed beyond recognition. The spaces that it had opened up were now being commandeered and reintegrated into the mainstream. In the early days of Channel 4, many of the commissioners were people

neither/nor from different walks of life. Rod Stoneman and Alan Fountain, who were heads of film and video, were not TV people. By 1998, 99.9% of people who ran Channel 4 were ex-BBC commissioners and editors, producers or directors. It just seemed as if it were a branch of BBC. Culturally, there was also a sense that many of the tropes and narrative strategies that we were trying to deploy, all of which were meant to hit something about the complexity of black subjectivity, had taken root. People were like: OK, we get it. We understand [laughs]. Many of these strategies that we used to render more nuanced pictures of black life had been absorbed, sponge-like, by the mainstream. Increasingly, it seemed we were kind of anachronistic. People would say, “We’re already doing this. What’s your problem? Why do you want to keep banging on for the need for what you’re doing?” Finally, most collectives have a built-in obsolescence. Collectives come about, in large part, because of the things they want to achieve. Many of those things are usually autobiographical in origin and cultural in outline. Invariably, once you start to feel those things have been achieved, it’s very difficult to keep on going. In many ways they shouldn’t keep going. I’m now of the opinion that there should be a sort of time limit with collectives [laughs]. When you start off as one set of people and you work for 17 years, it’s extremely likely that at the end of your 12th or 15th year many of the things you want to achieve you will have achieved personally, or it would be nowhere in sight. Both reasons, to me, seem to require some giving up. If you can’t achieve it’s likely you’ll need to rethink your strategies. To reformulate, that’s what we’ve tried to do. Myself, Trevor, David, and Lina all wanted to continue to work in time-based spaces, simply to find new allies and collaborators, and we just got on with it. 

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“What is at issue ... is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category ‘black’; that is, the recognition that ‘black’ is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed trans-cultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature. What this brings into play is the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects.” —stuart hall


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testament (1988) directed by john akomfrah

27 b l a c k a u d i o f i l m c o l l e c t i v e ’s first work to contain narrative fiction elements, Testament, is an understated yet palpably heartfelt exploration of the myriad, often excruciatingly painful intersections between personal, national and cultural memory, as filtered through the lens of its central character. Abena (a watchful Tania Rogers) is an English-raised Ghanaian broadcast journalist who returns to her home country two decades after the 1966 deposition of Ghana’s first socialist revolutionary president, Kwame Nkrumah. Abena seeks out old friends, some of whom are less than pleased to see her, and revisits long-buried memories stemming from the event’s devastating fallout. Coming in at a shade under 80 minutes, Testament is not a long film, yet its fragmented narrative, somehow simultaneously dense and economical, contains entire

worlds. It locates beauty and emotional resonance in its sensitive exploration of what it means to be “home.” Much of the film’s beauty derives from its startling visual palette, a torrent of rich, 16mm images arranged around a schema of black, blue and red: the Ghanaian colors of mourning. As ever, in BAFC’s work, Testament’s sonic dimensions are vital in the building of tonal and thematic meaning. Trevor Mathison’s atmospheric synth-washes bleed imperceptibly into and augment stately, minimalist music from European composers like Arvo Pärt and Krzysztof Penderecki, and haunting funereal songs from the Jamestown Dirge Singers, a chorus of professional Ghanaian mourners who feature heavily in the film. Throughout an already multilayered film that cycles seamlessly between temporal states, Akomfrah weaves a canny metafictional thread in order to subtly foreground


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john akomfrah on testament

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his own active role in the critical dialogue about authorship and authenticity in cinematic portrayals of national histories. He plays (offscreen, but you can hear his voice) the director of the fictional documentary that Abena is researching about the making of Cobra Verde (1987), the real-life film about a debauched Brazilian slave trader (played by Klaus Kinski) that was being shot by Werner Herzog in Ghana while Testament was being conceptualized. We may surmise that Abena is functioning as a stand-in for Akomfrah when she looks upon Herzog’s hackneyed, ghoulish vision of Northern Ghana as a voodoo hellhole, and sighs: “We are the victim of a macabre joke, trapped within a fake testament,” wryly adding, “Well, at least Europeans know how to leave testaments.”

“I was at the African film festival, FESPACO, in Burkina Faso, a country just above Ghana, and it was the first time I’d been in Africa since I left as a four-yearold. I’d heard that Werner Herzog was going to do this film, Cobra Verde. I knew the Bruce Chatwin novel [The Viceroy of Ouidah] it was based on, and I thought, well, we should go and find it. I got back to London, spoke to Alan Fountain [head of independent filmmaking] at Channel 4 to say, ‘I don’t know whether this will become anything, but can we use some of the money that you’ve just given us for the sale of Handsworth Songs to go and research this thing, and then I’ll come back and tell you whether something’s possible?’ He agreed, so I went, I came back, and said ‘I’m still not sure, but we’re going to need the money, so would you give us a documentary budget, and we’ll go off and see whether we can do something?’ Again, he agreed, so I turned up in Ghana, and it transpired I was legally prohibited from doing anything directly about Nkrumah, to speak openly of him, the CPP [Convention People’s Party], and that whole Ghana revolution. Making the film was totally ad hoc and provisional, but what held it together was a series of affective states. I knew that I wanted to do something about that generation of people—and my mother in particular— with whom I’d grown up. In the 1960s, they’d all, in different parts of Africa, effectively lost a war of independence, one which had started with them as radicals, Marxists and socialists who wanted to take their countries in a certain direction. As the decade ground on, one by one those countries had been turned around, overthrown, or coups had been planned. Many of these people had left Britain or Europe to go back to Africa to


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plan these new anti-colonial moves, and, irony of ironies, had to run back to the countries they’d left. They were now back in the so-called mother countries begging for refuge. The irony is deepened by the fact that these countries were deeply implicated in the overthrows and coups. It was a desperately melancholic state for most of these people. If you were from one of those exile families, like me, that melancholy was the overwhelming feeling that your childhood seemed to be suffused by. I knew I wanted to do something around that feeling of exile as a sort of space of emotional stasis—that’s all I knew. Everything else about the film was worked on in pretty much the same way we’ve done everything else. There

was a sketch of an outline or an idea, and then everything was worked on in situ, partly because we couldn’t make anything too direct. Further irony: I am standing in this country that my parents fought to “liberate,” because of this figure [Nkrumah], they gave their lives to him, and by this point, they’d all gone. My Dad had died. My Mum was in exile in London, and Nkrumah had passed away in Guinea from cancer. The country that they’d helped to free was there, but that country had disowned and disavowed them, and you couldn’t talk about it. They are proscribed entities, so it’s a very, very strange space to be in. It was that strangeness that I wanted, in some ways, to build from, to narrativize.” 


Twilight City


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interview with reece auguiste

conducted by ashley clark, 1.17.18 You all came to the group from different theoretical and practical perspectives. Can you speak to the signif icance of that? RA: Specifically, John, Lina and I came out of sociology, Avril came out of psychology, Trevor, Eddie and Claire Joseph all came out of fine arts, and David, who joined later, came out of cultural studies. I think what made the Collective function, in terms of its approach to making work, was the commitment to documentary art practice that was very different to what had preceded it. In other words, due to the fact that we came in with an interdisciplinary approach to making work, we were able to draw from diverse fields of study. For us, the idea was to address the immediate concern, as artists, of the history of the black presence in Britain, particularly in the postwar period. The dominant mode of practice prior to our arrival was the more individual filmmakers doing their own thing, like Horace Ové or Menelik Shabazz.

With BAFC, we came together as a collective because we believed in collaborative practice and that there was strength in numbers, and in that bringing our different philosophical and theoretical perspectives to the table, we could create something that was vibrant and would resonate. The other point I need to make is that we were all united, not consciously so, in the idea that we wanted to challenge the dominant modes of representation of Britain’s black communities. Who were some of the biggest influences on the group? RA: Chris Marker was a huge influence on BAFC, as were the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky, who is one of my favorite filmmakers of alltime, alongside Sergei Paradjanov, another Soviet-era film director. In terms of the cinematic influences on Twilight City and other BAFC films, like Testament, you can see traces of Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Antonioni, even Pier Paolo Pasolini in terms of the editing strategies. As

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a group, we came from art cinema. John [Akomfrah] was the first person to mention the name of Paradjanov to me in, back in 1978, when we were at Southwark College together, and he saw The Color of Pomegranates. At Southwark, we had a film club, and we showed the works of Jarman, including his debut Sebastiane [a homoerotic telling of the life of Saint Sebastian]. From the very start we were influenced by European art cinema, and when BAFC came together, that component became central to how we thought about producing moving images.

I’m interested in hearing more about some of your key influences across the arts, not necessarily in film. You are, for example, a huge admirer of the late Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott. RA: I’ve been reading Derek Walcott’s poetry since the age of 15. I arrived in London at age 14 and went to a community bookstore called Centerprise, which was in Dalston in Hackney. It was a focal point for a lot of young blacks like myself. I came across a collection of poems and became aware of Walcott. The reason he was


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an integral part of my own cultural formation and of my consciousness is that, for the very first time, a poet was able to articulate the beautiful language of the part of the Caribbean that I had grown up in, that was part of my world, that I did not see in other English poems. I had a very colonial education. I was taught William Wordsworth, Milton, Lord Byron, Keats. I was aware of the English romantic poets. And I loved their poetry, but it didn’t speak to me in the same way as Walcott’s poetry because he was able to incorporate the Creole culture and mythology of the Caribbean subject into his poetry and universalise that as something unique and worthy of the highest forms of poetic discourse. In my own approach to filmmaking and literary endeavours, I have been able to incorporate some of the Walcottian notions of the Caribbean subject from the history of a space that was practically created out of slavery and colonization. I find that really refreshing, and I have continually gone back to Walcott because he has been able to capture the inner landscape of the Caribbean subject as well its external, physical landscape in a way very few poets have done. One of the important things about Walcott’s poetry is the aesthetics of the work. What I have tried to do is hold on to his aesthetic notions—I think BAFC has also done that in terms of how we construct images and think about color, texture and movement.

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From today’s vantage point, how do you look back on the impact that BAFC made?

traditional mode of documentary, which, by the way, was also European, so it’s not really about ethnicity, it’s more about the form. I think the problems they had came down to responding to our use of film form. Salman Rushdie thought that the role of the artist was to speak on behalf of the community, or to advocate for the community. He didn’t understand that we were doing that, but not in the traditional, conventional way; that we were critiquing conventional forms of documentary practice. If we had taken that route, it wouldn’t have allowed us to do all the experimental things we did in Handsworth Songs, or the experimental narrative of Twilight City or Testament. The only way we could address that was to step outside and think outside the box. At the time, we were under attack from a lot of different constituencies for a lot of different reasons, and I don’t think any of us thought that the work would have the impact that we know it has had now. I am very happy that the work still resonates, and that people find it refreshing, and that hopefully younger black filmmakers and artists can draw from what we accomplished. It still surprises me that there are people who want to do retrospectives of BAFC’s work, or do special screenings at festivals, and that the work has become pretty much integral to a number of film and cultural studies courses internationally. In retrospect I think we’ve had a tremendous impact. That goes for any work—if the work is strong enough, it’s going to stand up regardless.

RA: When you’re busy making the work, you’re not really thinking about the impact. When BAFC came on the scene we received fierce criticism by a black journalist in the Voice newspaper, who basically said Handsworth Songs is not needed here. I think they equated the work we did with European culture and art cinema, while they were rooted in a traditional mode of address, the

RA: It is important for young black artists to not only find their voice, but to advocate for that voice, and to plant their flag and stand next to it—to not be dissuaded by what the mainstream is saying is the right path. There is no right path. Every generation and every artist has to find its own voice and pathway. That’s what BAFC did. 

Is there a key lesson to be learned from the BAFC experiment?

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1980s-1990s

twilight cit y (1989) directed by reece auguiste

t h e g r a c e f u l , c o m p l e x and moving essay film Twilight City is one of Black Audio Film Collective’s sharpest and most sensual evocations of contemporary Afro-Caribbean life, blending a dreamlike personal reflectiveness with a hard-edged critical reading of London life under Margaret Thatcher. The film’s (fictional) central figure is a young black British researcher, Octavia (Amanda Symonds), who one day receives a letter from her mother, Eugenia, who is based in Dominica. After 10 years back in her home country, the disaffected Eugenia yearns to return to London so she may once again live with her daughter. While Octavia composes her response, the old resentments, pain and anger that Octavia has repressed begin to resurface. She wonders why, for example, her mother sought refuge in the Church and joined the right-wing Conservative Party, while Octavia and her activist friends demonstrated for gay rights.

Octavia’s story is intercut with real-life interviewed testimony from a group of renowned scholars of empire, feminist intellectuals, and political activists, among them Paul Gilroy, Homi Bhabha, Gail Lewis, and David Yallop. All expound with great erudition on their complex relationship with a London undergoing vast physical and demographic upheaval under the aegis of a free-market right-wing administration. “You don’t have to be a slave to have lost your roots,” says journalist Yallop, “You can do it right here in this city. And under Thatcherism that loss of roots is accelerating.” The film’s various threads are underpinned by Trevor Mathison’s mostly electronic score, which vacillates between warm and icy throbs, and skilfully threaded together by a collagistic assemblage of evocative imagery: shards of archive historical footage, stylized dream sequences, and stark shots of an increasingly shiny and metallic city.

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neither/nor Twilight City was one of only two Black Audio Film Collective films directed by Reece Auguiste.The second was Mysteries of July (1991), a powerful documentary addressing a number of deaths that occurred under police custody in Britain, and the pain which afflicts grieving families when the factual causes of said demise are routinely repressed as state secrets. Since BAFC disbanded in 1998, Auguiste has continued to make films (including Civil Rights documentary Duty of the Hour, 2015), and he currently teaches in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder.

reece auguiste on twilight city 36

“As well as Derek Walcott, one of the writers that was seminal in the initial conceptualization of Twilight City was Italo Calvino, especially his text Invisible Cities (1972), which is essentially a text of Marco Polo recording the cities he’s been to—all of which function as metafictional allegories for Venice. When I first came across Calvino’s work, and that novella, I was completely blown away. It constructed a gateway through which I could begin to think about London as a historical city, as a metropolitan city, and a city that has meant a lot to the Caribbean subject. I grew up being used to classic English literary texts, both in terms of poetry and novels—Lord Byron, Keats, Milton, John Donne, William Shakespeare, who was one of the foundations of that in terms of drama. So, based on these, I had constructed an imaginary landscape of what London was like. When I arrived in London in 1973 aged 14, I had all these colonial images of the city in my head: the English countryside, daffodils, pastoral landscapes, that sort of thing.

chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

Soon, I discovered that those kinds of narratives of other metropolitan spaces did not really connect with my existential experience of this city, did not correspond with my embodiment of this urban landscape. At the same time, I realized that the reason why I was there was simply because my parents went there, and the reason why they were brought there by the British government was because it wanted cheap labor to reconstruct the postwar economy. There is an economic equation involved in the immigration of Caribbean people to the UK. Most of them thought they would go to the UK or London for a maximum of five years, make a pot of gold, go back to the Caribbean, build a house, and live large. That kind of utopian expectation that they had of themselves turned into a very dystopic experience, where many of them never went back, and, in turn, those who did go back did not want to stay, and wanted to come back to London. But they just stayed there. Through Twilight City, there were a number of things I wanted to address in a poetic form: the experiences of our parents, the experiences of emerging young blacks in London and how they were navigating through the city. In terms of a genre, it’s basically an essay film, which, if you want to think in terms of references to other cinematic practices, the closest would be Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. Calvino, meanwhile, was a gateway into the city through an allegorical form. Through that allegory, BAFC wanted to inscribe the historical experiences of Caribbean people in relation to the city. The voice of the narrative in Twilight City is constructed in such a way whereby the letter read by the daughter serves multiple functions. It is both a love letter to the mother in which the daughter is documenting, in poetic form, her experiences of the city, yet she is also impressing that this city her


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mother knew is no longer the same city that she once lived, because it’s been altered so dramatically due to gentrification. She is suggesting that if her mother were to come back, she would need to come back for reasons other than simply wanting a change of scene. Twilight City is a critique of the gentrification of London, and the fact that the inner-city areas that were once occupied by large groups of Caribbean, African

and Asian communities, who were basically pushed out into the outskirts of London, have been repopulated with young white people. You go to Hackney today, for example, and it is no longer the Hackney I knew when I was aged 14, 15. Back in the 1970s, Hackney was a no-go area. Nobody wanted to go to Hackney, nobody wanted to walk through Shoreditch after 9 o’ clock— now it’s party city!” 


Handsworth Songs


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective

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1980s-1990s

interview with trevor mathison

conducted by ashley clark, 1.16.18

When I listen to your work there’s a vast range of influences, so I’m wondering if you could talk about your musical background. Did you come from a musical family? T M : We had music in the house. Jim Reeves, the classics, or K-Tel collections. That was what my parents would listen to, and religious kind of stuff. My older brother had more Hendrix-y, rock-style music, and my next brother had soul and funk. Then we opened up into listening to reggae: Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and it went on from there. When I went to Portsmouth Polytechnic, my older brother bought me a Hi-Fi system—an amp, speakers and some vinyl—and that

was my stable, early-morning ritual: listening to Burning Spear in my bedsit to start the day. It would fortify me to deal with Portsmouth life. Even before Portsmouth, when I was at college in East London, I’d go into record shops to buy unusual tunes, stuff that had an edge to it. You speak of being fortified by the music, so even at an early stage, you’re getting a sense of the political, culturally transformative possibilities of music. T M: Definitely. The classic tunes from Bob Marley, “Marcus Garvey” by Burning Spear. This music was asking questions that set you in a certain frame of mind, so that when I went to college, I knew what I had to do.

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neither/nor You knew that you were ‘other’ in that space. When I met up with John, Lina, Reece, Avril, and later Eddie in the student union, you knew that you were part of another group of people, another set of ideas and another body of musics that you could draw upon. That made it even more of a family, more like home. Was music a big connective tissue between the group? T M : Yes, music was always a big thing. Whether it was at house parties with people running tunes, or seeing bands in the student union, music was a glue that kept us together. When you started working together as a collective, how quickly did it become apparent that you would be the person in charge of sound and music?

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T M : It was slow. It was more experimentation to begin with. Making our own drums. We bought these galvanized lampshades from some antique place. We put sellotape over the bridge on the lampshade, and at the back we put the microphone. As you flicked the sellotape it made a deep bass signal, so we miked it, fed it into a cassette, and looped it, then we started to play those as elements to build our own soundtracks. It was a DIY kit: distortion, feedback, anything to create an atmosphere and rhythm that you could put a recording through, or a spoken word track. Can you describe some of your early performances? T M : One of the first we did in the student union was a cut-up poetry performance. We built sound pieces, and some rock engineers gave us these big sub-basses and mid-range speakers to play stuff through it—it lifted the roof off the place! I think it was a Langston Hughes poem that we cut up. We played very deep, heavy, looped bass frequencies which resonated in the space, and we had Eddie, Claire and John’s voices passing the words of the

chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

poem round each other, which created an atmosphere. Then we had muslin material suspended and images of black people projected on the material. We were hidden behind, and in front of these gossamer-like images of faces against this rumbling sound with profound words being ruptured between three voices. It was great—we put the sub-bass speakers underneath the seats people were sitting on. It automatically drew people into the experience. Having that space to experiment was great. There were no boundaries beyond the boundary of imagination. The sound design in another of your early works, Signs of Empire, has been described as having a “powerful sense of dread.” T M: We were listening to Wagner and wanted that epic, deep, vibrating sound like at the beginning of The Ring. We wondered how we could make something of that, so there was lots of low frequencies, rumbling, and the epic sound of classic black and white movies, like The Ten Commandments. We played around with electronics, repetition on voices. These weren’t short pieces, they were long poems that went through different changes and mutations—it was a journey. Can you talk about working with archive material and a vast range of sonics on Handsworth Songs, and making that all cohere? T M: We realized early that we couldn’t afford some of the musics that we wanted, so we made a lot of the sounds ourselves, which was liberating. I got a sense of freedom and confidence when John said to me, “yes, you can do this thing for this film. You’re the one who’s going to bring the tools and elements.” It was about looking at, and responding to, the footage. In one scene I remember strongly, there is a guy running down the street, and the


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police are chasing him. They corner him with dustbin lids, and then there are some kids sitting on a wall, when the police push him up against that wall. It looked like hyenas taking down an antelope; it had a wildlife quality. Here, we played the sound of a whale song, which gave the scene a hunted, caged feeling. It was powerful for me to find a sound that spoke to the moment, and also, personally, to how I felt hunted by those guys [police]. It wasn’t difficult to feel something, to be drawn into that state of mind, as soon as you put the sound to that image, and it flowed. We bought together lots of different pieces, tones, rhythms, the idea of nature, wildlife... everything was possible and open to being incorporated as long as it moved the conversation along, or gave you space to think, or pause and move on. That’s what I think the skill of that piece was. Practically, as a collective, how did the recording and design process operate? T M : In our Ridley Road [Hackney] location, we had the office space, the cutting room, and the sound spaces next door. We cut a window so I could look back into the edit room and see what was going on. I was building pieces, and as soon as I got it to a level I was happy with, I download it onto the Nagra reel-to-reel recorder and say “this is what I’ve done for today, what do you think of this piece?” We’d play it against the film, and it might be too fast or too rhythmic, so there was always a back-and-forth. All of the sketches were in themselves self-made, or featured elements that went into making another piece. We didn’t want to rush into making a big statement— that was the main thing. In the juxtaposition between the image and the sound, that’s where you get the statement. It’s not in the sound itself, it’s when it’s put in service of the frame or the text, it becomes human. That

neither/nor is what I’ve learned: not to try to make the statement in the piece. It only makes sense when you offer it up against a color, a texture, or the frame. That seems to exemplify the work of the Collective all over— that in the best possible way, the viewer has to do some work. To interpret these spaces, to color in these gaps, and to connect the sometimes seemingly disparate things that are presented in close proximity. Regarding Testament specifically, the intricacy of the layering is extraordinary. Can you talk about coming to that film from a sound design perspective? T M: The point is not to compete with the recorded music, it’s to complement it. So when I know there are particular tracks that are going to be used, why try to be like Penderecki? Instead I try to find something in it that I can complement or balance, or find the right juxtaposition. In truth, I can’t do what guys like John do. I only can do what I feel comfortable with. Sometimes I think I wish I could do it! But I find a way of offering up a space so we can sit at the table together and have a sonic conversation. As in Testament, when you use a piece of Arvo Pärt or Penderecki and it slips into a tonal piece that I’ve built that’s in the background, and for a moment they glisten and glide with each other and dance, then there’s a voiceover that takes you into the piece again, or you have a choral, gossamerlike voice drifting across, you think, “Yeah man, that’s it! That’s how it should be.” Not like titanic ships, but gliding dragonflies floating on the breeze, and they come close, and drift, come close, and drift, but they exist in that plane for a while. That is when I think it’s interesting. The narrative is driving you along, and you’re encountering the abstract space where the voice is speaking. The sound is the sound of the air, the environment that these words are coming out of. That’s what I’m setting up: the atmosphere, the mood, the poetry of what’s being said and what’s not being said, because the sound is giving you a frame to rest on.

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1980s-1990s

That’s appropriate also for Who Needs A Heart, where there’s very little dialogue, and a remarkable use of free jazz.

But how do you reflect on BAFC and its legacy from today’s vantage point?

T M : The aim of my work is to create a glue that keeps it all together. It would be stupid to try and take them boys [Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler] on! [laughs] They do their thing, I do my little thing. Again, you’re working through layers. John’s got a narrative in his head, and I’m just there to support his vision. I want to offer up the right bit of kit for him to make the film work.

T M: It was a good time. It was the best of times! It was the best part of my college experience. I would have been lost at sea without those guys as my rock to support me, to hold onto, to give me a reason to continue—the space to be me. We joked, we argued, but it gave me a rationale to put my practice in the service of a bigger thing. That was my lesson from all the people that were part of the collective. They supported my noodlings, my ideas, and gave me the space to do what I do. 

You continue to work with John today, and you work on various other sound installation and live performance pieces.

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chimeric cinema, black audio film collective


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective

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who needs a heart (1991) directed by john akomfrah

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p e r h a p s b a f c ’s b l e a k e s t and most challenging effort, Who Needs a Heart is ostensibly based on the real-life figure of Michael X (aka Michael DeFreitas), the Trinidad and Tobago-born, London-based selfstyled revolutionary and civil-rights activist of the 1960s and 70s who, in 1975, four years after fleeing back to Trinidad from London, was hanged after being found guilty in a murder trial. Yet this elusive and controversial character effectively functions as the film’s structuring absence, visible only in sparingly deployed archive footage and photography. Instead, the film offers a chronologically oblique, fictional portrait of a multiracial, London-based group of his acolytes who serially fight, fuck, and drink in lieu of expressing or acting on coherent political opinions.

Who Needs a Heart is beautifully shot (by Nancy Schiesari) in saturated colors, and filled with stately, graceful camera moves. Yet it is a bleak, slurred hangover of a film: overcast like the inclement British weather, and riven with ambiguity. Akomfrah’s script is deeply wary of the intentions and activities of the British Black Power movement, and also makes some sour gibes at the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K—intriguingly, a year later, BAFC would go on to make their first film about an American subject, the documentary-cum-essay film Seven Songs for Malcolm X. Trevor Mathison’s sound design is once again to the fore, with music largely standing in for dialogue. His interweaving of blistering free jazz into the narrative is particularly effective, and seems to pose the question:


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why imagine words when the squawking, feral horns of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy evoke the pain, paranoia, and unresolved tension of the characters and the era well enough?

gaylene gould on who needs a heart “When Who Needs a Heart came out, it really did shake people up. It’s an extraordinary, amazing film. It’s one of my favorite Black Audio films, and I think they captured something truthful and critical about so-called black liberation movements. They had a screening in Birmingham at a film festival where I was working at the time, and apparently it was quite a difficult Q&A, because people were saying ‘We don’t understand it!’ Some members of BAFC bumped into me outside the screening and they asked me what I thought of the film. I told them I loved it, and I think they thought I was taking the piss. But my colleague [and BAFC associate] Pervaiz Khan convinced them that I meant it. They said: if you like the film so much, why don’t you come and

chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

help us to promote it? It had some screenings coming up, including at the London Film Festival, and they needed some assistance with press and PR. I was honored to help set up cast and crew screenings. It was very much an administrative support role, working with producer Lina Gopaul. Up until Who Needs a Heart, lots of the work by BAFC, and workshops like Sankofa and Ceddo, was about questioning racism and a certain kind of cultural imperialism — that’s a very clear story. But Who Needs a Heart looked at a much murkier area, about complicity, and what happens when a critical space becomes also a space of desire. I’ve got vague scenes in my head, because I haven’t seen the film for a while, but I remember country house party scenes, with these right-on brothers walking around with their gorgeous white women, and yeah, they are kind of fighting the struggle, but really there’s a space of desire on both sides. There’s desire for them as objects of radicalism, but also a desire on the liberationist side of wanting to be part of a culture that they’re also fighting against. I think there’s something very true in that, in the space of liberation struggles, where it can be about wanting to become part of something, and the reason you’re really angry is because you’re not part of something. You don’t really want an alternative, you just want to be let in the door. There’s something honest and true about that, and I’m not seeing many films that have tackled that problem, from that perspective.”  Gaylene Gould is a broadcaster, and Head of Cinemas and Events at London’s British Film Institute


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective

neither/nor

1980s-1990s

interview with gaylene gould

conducted by ashley clark, 2.4.18

Can you talk about your initial experience of coming to know Black Audio Film Collective? GG: I grew up in Leicester, in the East Midlands of England. I did an arts administration degree from 1988-1991, and a lot of the work we did on the course was with the local Phoenix Arts Centre. I was already passionate about film, so I became very involved with the Centre’s film program, projecting films. That’s where I first encountered their work, which was a massive epiphany. I grew up with a love of film, through basically watching television, Sunday matinees, Hollywood cinema. It’s a world that’s far removed from your own, when you’re Caribbean, British, and growing up in the 1970s on a council estate1—it’s a far cry from Grace Kelly in High Society, which was the sort of stuff I 1

Social and public housing built and maintained by local authorities.

loved! I saw Handsworth Songs at the Phoenix Arts Centre around that time, and I had no idea film could do that, that it could not only formally look like that, but could tell a story that was essentially my own. That began my journey into researching the group, although God knows how I did it then, pre-internet. There were a couple of key texts and conferences—like Black Film, British Cinema at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1988—which were critical. June Givanni [a long-time curator and archivist of global black cinema, then staff at the British Film Institute] was getting phonecalls from me, harassing her for information. Little by little I began to find out about the workshop scene: these were political filmmakers who were changing the form of cinema. I just fell in love with Black Audio then.

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46

Handsworth Songs

And then you had the opportunity to work with BAFC. GG: Straight after university, I had the luck to go and work with at their offices in Dalston, as a graduateintern, on Who Needs a Heart. They were ahead of the curve in so many ways—they worked in an abandoned warehouse above Ridley Road market which is all very cool and trendy today, but they were doing it back then. There was this constant space for debate and conversation. I felt so privileged being amongst these really critical conversations that were happening around race, belonging and Britishness, and all of the themes that run through

their work. These ideas were heavily debated, with big groups of people; fantastic thinkers, both people within and outside the group. It felt like a rich, fertile critical time. One thing I remember now was that Mysteries of July, directed by Reece Auguiste, had just been broadcast on Channel 4 in early 1991. It would seem crazy, the idea that a documentary like that would be commissioned and broadcast on terrestrial TV today. It was about the Stoke Newington police station, and all the black boys that were going there and coming out in coffins, and I remember something fascinating: after it was broadcast, Channel


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

4 sent BAFC all of the criticisms of the film from the public—you might call it ‘trolling’ today. This was a time when we were trying to change the tone of British broadcasting, and create new voices. But the people who were writing in were really articulate about that stuff. They were saying that it was a biased show, it’s media bias, one-sided! I was fascinated that the mainstream white audience were very aware of things like media bias, but oddly not when they were watching regular TV. It must have been such a formative time for you. GG: There were lots of awakening moments for me at the time, I was probably 20, 21 years old. They [BAFC] were brave. They were saying things that people didn’t want them to say, and they were saying it in this really poetic, oblique way. There was a time when there was a backlash from black British audiences, when people like Spike Lee were making films like She’s Gotta Have It, and other mainstream black products were coming over, and people would say “Why are you making all this experimental stuff ? We want you to make more accessible films!” And I remember John and the company standing really firm in the face of all of that criticism, from both sides. Their attitude was: what we’re doing is bigger than now; you cannot criticize a culture without changing the form. That’s a line they’ve always stayed true to. Can you reflect on the gap that Black Audio Film Collective, and perhaps the workshop scene in general, left behind? GG: The workshop movement really was a movement. Isaac [ Julien] and Sankofa, Black Audio, Ceddo, all of those guys—and they were often guys—there was a constant dialogue between them. They were making very different work, but they were completely united in their approach to keeping the work completely independent, and also supporting each other. I don’t think that

neither/nor happens any more. I do think there are a couple of independent voices, people like Shola Amoo (A Moving Image), coming through, but I don’t think there is a sense of making work to create spaces of liberation. I don’t see that as much in the same way, and I don’t see it in Britain. I was having a conversation with a British friend who has turned to programming and writing about Nigerian cinema, Nollywood, because the black British scene has dried up. Years ago, when she was programming in London, there were loads of black British films being made, and now there are hardly any. She puts it down to the lack of funding. These companies [like BAFC] were revenue funded for years to make work, they were having their wages paid. I don’t know anyone who is getting that kind of institutional support now. I genuinely think there is a crisis, and I think that’s why lots of people are moving into visual arts, because there’s money there. You can be supported as an artist to make art in film. There’s a huge gap. And also the quality of the work that these guys were making was phenomenal. They really did change things. It would be interesting, today, to look at the quality of film education paired with other forms of arts education. I’m just not sure that you’re getting that same level of critical rigor [with film] that you get when you go to visual art school. They [BAFC] knew how to construct the image. Everything was about the image. I am a bit of a fangirl of a black British filmmaker called Jenn Nkiru at the moment, but I think it’s interesting that she studied at Howard University [an HBCU in Washington, DC], and you see a particular visual sensibility that’s coming through her work. I think that the space that Black Audio and their peers inhabited is being filled by African-Americans, people like Bradford Young, Kahlil Joseph. I think those guys are doing exactly the same kind of work, but it’s not happening in Britain unfortunately. 

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chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

reprint of black audio film collective statement from artrage inter-cultural arts magazine (john akomfrah, 1983) 48

t h e a r e a o f b l a c k independent film-making will soon see the growth of a number of workshops established with the specific aim of catering for black film needs. We will also see a growth in the number of films made by members of these workshops. As in any other field of cultural activity and practice such a development calls for collective debate and discussion. Some of the important issues to be raised will be around the relationship between the workshop organisers and participants in the course. The others should obviously be about the nature and structure of the courses themselves. Prior to this debate, however, is the task of accounting for the specificity of black independent film-making. What, after all, does ‘black independent film-making’ mean when present film culture is a largely white affair? And does this posture of independence presuppose a radical difference of film orientation? If this is the case how does one work within this difference? The Black Audio Film Collective has chosen to take

up these issues in a particular way and this is around the question of the ‘figuration of ethnicity’ in cinema. Our point of entry is around the issue of black representation. The Collective was launched with three principal aims. Firstly, to attempt to look critically at how racist ideas and images of black people are structured and presented as self-evident truths in cinema. What we are interested in here is how these ‘self-evident truths’ become the conventional pattern through which the black presence in cinema is secured. Secondly, to develop a ‘forum’ for disseminating available film techniques within the independent tradition and to assess their pertinence for black cinema. In this respect our interests did not only lie in devising how best to make ‘political’ films, but also in taking the politics of representation seriously. Such a strategy could take up a number of issues which include emphasising both the form and content of films, using recent theoretical insights in the practice of film-making.


chimeric cinema, black audio film collective 1980s-1990s

Thirdly, the strategy was to encourage means of extending the boundaries of black film culture. This would mean attempting to de-mystify in our film practice the process of film production; it would also involve collapsing the distinction between ‘audience’ and ‘producer.’ In this ethereal world film-maker equals active agent and audience usually equals passive consumers of a predetermined product. We have decided to reject such a view on our practice. Underlying these aims are a number of assumptions about what we consider the present priorities of independent film-making should be. These assumptions are based on our recognition of certain significant achievements in the analysis of race and the media. It is now widely accepted that the media play a crucial role in the production and reproduction of ‘common-sense assumptions’ and we know that race and racist ideologies figure prominently in these assumptions. The point now is to realise the implications of these insights in creating a genuinely collective black film culture. Such a programme is also connected with our awareness of the need to go beyond certain present assumptions about the task of black film-making. We recognise that the history of blacks in films reads as a legacy of stereotypes and we take the view that such stereotypes, both in mainstream and independent cinema, should be critically evaluated. This can be connected to a number of things that we want to do. We not only want to examine how black culture is mis-represented in film, but also how its apparent transparency is given a ‘realism’ in film. It is an attempt to isolate and render intelligible the images and statements which converge to represent black culture in cinema. The search is not for ‘the authentic image’ but for an understanding of the diverse codes and strategies of representation. It could be argued that all this is stale water under

neither/nor a decaying bridge and that we know all this stuff already and that black film-makers already accept their responsibility and are aware of these problems. There is a lot of truth in this. Others may say that as long as we are making films and gaining exposure of our work we are keeping black film culture alive. To place our discussion in a relevant and meaningful context the Black Audio/Film Collective in conjunction with Four Corners cinema will be organising a number of screenings to run with the Colin Roach photography exhibition at Camerawork Gallery. The series of films and discussion will run under the title of Cinema and Black Representation and will deal specifically with the complexity of black portrayal in films. The main aim here is to see how film can contain ‘information’ on race, nationality and ‘ethnicity’ with (Presence) or without (Absence) black people in films. With this in mind we hope to cover a number of films and themes ranging from prison movies like Scum to Hollywood social criticism films like Imitation of Life. What we will be attempting will not to be to push all films into one category of racist films but rather attempting to examine what specific responses these films make to the question of race and ethnicity. In the end we realise that questions of black representation are not simply those of film criticism but inevitably of film-making. These issues need to be taken up on both fronts. With this in mind we are also making preparations with the GLC Ethnic Minorities’ Committee to organise a number of courses on some of the themes outlined in this article. Neither the dates for the screenings nor film courses have been finalised both will be advertised when they are. ‘I am indebted to ‘The Core’ - Eddie George, Lina Gopaul, Claire Joseph, Trevor Mathison for discussion which led to this transcription 

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references ‘Recoding Narratives of Race and Nation’ by Kobena Mercer, ‘New Ethnicities’ by Stuart Hall and ‘In Circulation: Black Films in Britain’ by June Givanni, all published in Black Film British Cinema, ICA documents 7, ed. Kobena Mercer, published 1988 The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective 1982-1998, Liverpool University Press, ed. Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, published 2007 screenonline.org.uk

the author would like to thank 50

John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, David Lawson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Ashitey Akomfrah, Avril Johnson, Edward George, Claire Joseph, Gaylene Gould, Gary Stewart, Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer, Stuart Hall (RIP), Horace Ové, Isaac Julien, Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Robert Crusz, Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Imruh Bakari, Menelik Shabazz, Milton Bryan, Ngozi Onwurah, Debbie Tucker Green, Amma Asante, Cecile Emeke, Shola Amoo Chris Boeckmann (a patient man), David Wilson, Paul Sturtz, Abby Sun, Tabitha Jackson, Kristin Feeley, Michael Koresky, Eric Hynes, Violet Lucca, Brandon Harris, Gina Duncan, Jesse Trussell, Dessane Cassell, Rajendra Roy, Cameron P. Bailey, Jan Asante, Miriam Bale, Nadia Latif, Danny Leigh, Ryan Gilbey, Kaleem Aftab, Stuart Brown, David Somerset, Tony Warner, Noel Goodwin, Rhidian Davis, Gail Cohen, Rachel Cook Cathy Landicho Clark, Helen Clark, Charles Nelson, Simon Camara, Fred Carnegy, Frankie Kubicki, Vicky Carnegy, Hugh Carnegy

essays, interviews: Ashley Clark editor: Chris Boeckmann design: Theresa Berens ragtag film society executive director: Tracy Lane true/false film fest executive director: Jeremy Brown true/false film fest co-conspirators: Paul Sturtz & David Wilson


neither/nor is presented by the academy of motion picture arts and sciences.

Profile for True/False Film Fest

Neither/Nor 2018 Monograph  

Neither/Nor 2018 Monograph  

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