Horace Ové: reflection on a thirty-year experience

In 1996, the Black Film Bulletin published a career-spanning interview with Horace Ové, taking in his experience making films and television in Britain, the US and the Caribbean.

Horace OvéBFI National Archive

While the world celebrates a centenary of cinema, a glance back at the Black British film experience reveals a range and diversity of achievements and failures that closely parallel the social and political development of Black people in Britain. Few Black filmmakers have a career that spans three decades of film and television. Horace Ove is undoubtedly a pioneer in Black British history and his work provides a perspective on the Black experience in Britain. His ideas, anecdotes and reflections on Black film within the framework of his own career provide a very particular – but nonetheless valid – prism through which to view a Black British film experience. June Givanni interviewed him in London in 1995.


June Givanni: Horace, you, Zak, (and maybe even your daughter Indra and younger son Kaz) are entering filmmaking at totally different times in history in terms of the development of Black people. What do you think are the differences for choosing cinema as a medium in which to work and make a living, in those sorts of contexts?

Horace Ové: I came from Trinidad where I was influenced by cinema and television so I was a real cinema bug. From the age of nine I wanted to be a filmmaker, something that I never told anybody in Trinidad about because at that time they would have laughed at me. I watched every type of film: from action movies to the very serious dramatic films of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Trinidad had a proliferation of cinemas when I was growing up because we had seven American Military bases on the island, so we were lucky enough to have many cinemas. I went to one little cinema in my area called Olympic Theatre, and that’s where my whole exposure to cinema started.

I had always wanted to be involved in films ever since then, but in the meantime I came to England to study painting, photography and interior design. After a while I left the school and got a job on the film Cleopatra, in Italy. It was during the early 60s that I was really exposed to cinema and got my first opportunity to become involved. I was working as an actor with a walk-on part, a sort of glorified extra, but I enjoyed it simply because I was exposed to cinema there and had the opportunity to see how films were made. I then came back to England to study at the London School of Film Technique, (l think it’s now called the London International Film School) around 1965, or ‘66, where I was the first Black face. The only other Black face was surprisingly enough, an African called Yemi Ajibade. Lloyd Reckord, the Jamaican filmmaker, must have been there after that time. He started off as a writer and a playwright with his brother Barry.

It was not easy for me being a West Indian wanting to direct films as there were none of us making films in Britain at that time. When I went for my first film appointment at the BBC, the commissioning editor there had a shock because he wasn’t expecting a West Indian and he didn’t know what to do or say. I always remember telling him not to worry, next summer he would have a tan, and we got along.

It was difficult at the time to get jobs and to convince people that a Caribbean person had the ability to make a film. Now let me jump ahead a bit here; there is quite a difference with my son’s generation. Zak had the opportunity to have a father that was making films, and being on the film set and travelling with him. I remember him at six years old saying “Cut” at inappropriate moments and embarrassing me on the set. So that was the kind of difference between Zak’s beginnings and mine.

By the time he grew up, there were several young Black filmmakers and role models and I was one of them. Myself and others who came up at the time started opening those doors for other Black filmmakers. Zak didn’t have the same struggle, because by the time he grew up and went to St Martin’s School of Art, to study art and film, there were several others already making films and there were several film schools. That is the difference between his time and my time. Of course there is still a struggle for Black filmmakers, but at least young Black kids have grown up with the cinema, grown up with television and have gone to film school and there are several who are making films and TV programmes.

Baldwin’s Nigger (1969)

Why television as an entry point? What do you feel is the difference between cinema and television? And why was TV perceived as a way in?

Because at that time the BBC was making films for television, and documentaries, and I thought that was a relatively easy way in, but it didn’t happen right away. I didn’t get the job. I had to find a way of trying to make films. One of my first opportunities came when I made a film on acupuncture. I met a gentleman at a party who was running the Acupuncture Association who wanted to make a film, I convinced him that I could make the film for him and he gave me the money to do it. It was called The Art of the Needle [1966].

Was that your first film?

Well, not the very first, because after I was refused by the BBC I started to make a dramatic film on my own for which I worked hard to raise the money with friends and colleagues. I tried to get it finished with help from the BFI and other funders. It’s a very surreal film, but unfortunately I never finished it. We shot half of it and nobody would give me the money to complete it. It was called Man Out, and it’s about a West Indian novelist living a very tough life without a job, but still trying to write, who has a mental breakdown. The film takes on his story and follows him through this experience, but it was very, very hard to convince anybody to give me money. Firstly, because I was a Black filmmaker, secondly, the subject was too obscure for the early 60s. Nowadays people like David Lynch and a lot of others make these kinds of movies. At that time I think I was influenced by people like Luis Buñuel. I’m still trying to finish it with the same actors who have aged nearly 30 years and I want to bring them back into it.

The film on acupuncture was my passport into the film business, at least I had a film under my arm. The second film that I made was when James Baldwin came here to give a lecture, with Dick Gregory at the West Indian Student Centre in London. I met him just before that told him that I admired his writings and wanted to make a film about him. He agreed. Again, I found the money myself and completed that film which was called Baldwin’s Nigger [1968], and which was shown in the cinemas here, and in America. I suppose I had become an independent filmmaker by necessity.

I then went on to make a film on reggae [Reggae, 1971]. The late 60s/early 70s was a time when reggae music was just coming alive in Britain and was being played in shebeens and West Indian parties, but was hardly played on the radio. I remember Tony Blackburn making a remark on the radio that really made up my mind to make this film; he said, “Here is a record and I think it’s reggae music, a ‘blue beat’ kind of record, recorded in a toilet somewhere in Jamaica.” That upset me. I found a partner, a Jamaican record producer, who was like myself in film – trying to produce reggae music here. His name was Junior Lincoln and he ran Bamboo Records. There was going to be the first reggae festival in London and we discussed making a film about this. He financed the film and we got help from other filmmakers, white filmmakers that I knew at the time, to put this film together. In those days, there were only Black people and skinheads listening to that music. So it was really an underground kind of activity.

That was my first major film and it was shown in the cinema, after which, surprisingly enough, it was bought by and shown on the BBC. That led to my carnival film [King Carnival, 1973], which I made for the BBC documentary series World About Us – because they saw Reggae and could not believe that anybody could make a documentary of great depth about the music and its people, and make it independently. They were shocked. So they gave me the opportunity to make a film on carnival, and that is how I got into television.

King Carnival (1973)

Okay, so most of the allies you have been mentioning so far in terms of getting your break and making your initial films were people outside of film and TV. When you began to get into TV, what sort of allies did you find in these institutions? What support or problems did you find there?

People were polite but not helpful, and I learnt about that kind of manner. Being polite, seeing you, chatting with you, but you can see the doubt in their faces. Then my next opportunity came, where I made Pressure [1976] – my first feature film, which was made with the BFI. It’s strange that you ask me all these questions now because today I had a meeting with a producer, Simon Relph who is the son of Michael Relph who was at the BFI at that time and who happened to be in his son’s office today. This accidental meeting today is the first after many many years, and he remembered the first time I came to see him. That opportunity was significant because Pressure became what is now known as the first Black British feature film. So today, here I was lunching with the father, Michael Relph, who gave me the break to do Pressure at the BFI, and the son who has now become a big time producer.

Drama, documentary and the trap

Your work after that swung between documentary and drama, even Pressure to an extent, because of the nature of the realism, appeared to be between drama and documentary. That seemed to be a cross-over period before you went further into drama. What about that development?

I went more into drama during a very important time during the Black Power days, with Black awareness and consciousness and that whole political movement of the time. If you were politically conscious, everything that you were thinking and doing was based on that struggle. That consciousness stretched over from documentary into docu-drama, and drama. I went on to make A Hole in Babylon [1979] which was about the Spaghetti House siege.

Why was drama important, and why do you think it still is important today?

Drama was important because a documentary, to me, could not say all I wanted to say. It couldn’t get into the hearts and the minds of the people I was dealing with, the struggles, the emotions. I knew that I had to dramatize this story to get what I wanted to portray. When the siege took place, it really shocked London in many ways simply because they never had a siege like that, and especially from four Black men, one of whom was an African. The newspapers, radio and television were very abusive; they called them “A bunch of hooligans and gangsters”. I wanted to make a film to say “No, this is not true. You have to look at this closer, you have to know the characters that were involved because one was a writer, one was studying medicine.” Things like that.

Why was that significant? What brought them together?

The politics of the time and their nationalities made it important. They wanted to open a Black school because they realized that Black kids were not being taught anything about Black history or about Black culture. There were Jewish schools, Chinese schools, but no Black schools, and they set out to try and get a grant/ sponsorship but everybody had refused. So then they decided to rob an Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge to get money to open a school, but the robbery went wrong and they got caught. So I made a film about their lives and how the siege took place.

How do you decide which projects you want to make as documentary and which projects you want to make as drama? How do you make that distinction when you have the idea or an interest in a subject?

For me it’s by natural instinct. There are certain subjects that I know are documentary. Visually, subject matter, potential for storytelling – I know it’s a documentary. It’s quite different to drama, which is usually about people, about characters – and I’m always interested in characters. I’m interested in people that are trapped, Black, white, whatever race: that is what attracts me to the dramatic film, the trap that we are all in and how we try to get out of it, how we survive and the effects of that trap.

Pressure (1975)

Give me some examples from your drama. What are the traps in these films?

OK, Pressure is based on two things. Pressure is about a family: it’s based on an older brother who comes to live here and it’s based on parents who come to set up their lives, leaving the Caribbean for the first time to live in England. It’s their struggle. It’s the struggle of how the brother who grew up in the Caribbean deals with life in England during the Black Power period. It’s the struggle of that first generation of Black kids that were born and grew up here with West Indian parents, who went to school here from a very early stage in their lives and how their lives are different to that of the older brother’s life in the film. The environment is the trap. How they deal with those situations is what is interesting.

A Hole in Babylon is nearly the same thing, the ‘hole’ in Babylon, the restaurant siege, is the trap, and frustration with their lives leading them there.

What about When Love Dies [1990] and Playing Away [1986]?

When Love Dies again is similar – another later time, but still making sense of West Indian life in Britain. Playing Away is about cricket. It’s about a little Brixton team where most of the characters struggle and work hard or steal, or ponce, or do whatever they do to survive, but who have never really left the area to go beyond Brixton. Then suddenly somebody in Suffolk in some upper class English village decides that for their Third World Week they will invite a cricket team from Brixton for a weekend game, and it’s how these two sets of people come together and how they cope with each other, the embarrassment, and the traps. They’re trapped in relationships, they’re trapped in their own kind of little environments, each of which is quite different; one is Black and working class, one is white and upper class, and it’s bringing those two sets of people together that interests me a lot with Playing Away – because they’re trapped and they have to get on somehow in this dilemma of a multicultural Britain.

You use cricket a lot as a metaphor. Would you like to explain that a bit more?

I use cricket as a metaphor because the game of cricket, which we all know and which the colonial master brought to the Caribbean, was picked up and mastered by the slaves. The slaves were around to pick up the ball when it went too far off the pitch and fix back the wickets for the white players, all the while they were studying the game; the ‘gentleman’s game’ – and they’ve learnt to play it and play it as well as the gentlemen. Ever since then, it’s been a battle. Cricket is not just a game for West Indian people, it’s a battle for respect; the understanding that I’m as good as you even at your best, so that is why we use it as a metaphor.

If traps are what interest you in drama, what interests you in documentary?

The hook in documentary for me is people and culture. Most of my documentaries are based on people in ‘Third World’ countries and their struggle either in a village somewhere in India or in Africa or in the Caribbean and how they cope with things, or what they do to keep body and soul together. 

The Indian experience

I’ve always noticed that running through your work and in terms of some of the projects you’ve chosen, for example the documentary Dabawallahs, or maybe The Garland, which was a drama about an Indian family in England, there is an interest with India or with an Indian situation. Has it got to do with your own political affiliation or a cultural one in relation to your Trinidadian background? Where does India fit in?

India fits in both. Also I’m part Indian. In fact I’m part [of] a lot of things coming from Trinidad. I came to England a very long time ago as a West Indian. I have watched people emigrating here from different parts of the ‘Third World’ and have seen the Indians come here, and seen their struggle to maintain their culture and people not quite understanding them, [for example] how muslims marry, their diet, their religion and how they do things. The cultures were disrespected and that again inspired me to do films about those experiences. At the time when Indian men came over to work, bringing their wives and children to join them, they would get a hard time from the host community. It was the way these communities were being treated in their daily lives and in the media, the superficial and dishonest portrayals, that angered me. The media at that time never really looked seriously at the people or at the whole family and how disruptive the immigration laws were to families, so I made The Garland.

What about Dabawallahs and Who Shall We Tell, the documentaries made in India?

I went to India to research the Bhopal gas disaster which resulted in the film Who Shall We Tell, and while doing that I was in Bombay and I saw these men and women dressed in white on bicycles with huge trays on top of their heads packed with different containers running about the city. I found it very strange and wanted to know about it. I discovered that these people were delivering food to the different religious groups. I got very interested in their lives and the whole system they had worked out. Again, they were involved in a struggle because the Dabawallahs were essentially farmers and during the dry season when things are not growing and things are hard for the family, they go into the city and work as a Dabawallah to survive until the monsoons when they can go back to the land. So again – another struggle, another way of people in a trap trying to get out of it, and how they survive this and move on.

Pressure (1975)

I understand there was another event that spiked your interest while you were there and gave you the idea for a feature.

I had an idea for a feature based on the bandits and the folk heroine Phoolan Devi, which I researched for three years. I lived with bandits, disguised myself as an Indian, was smuggled into a prison, met with Phoolan Devi and all the rest of her group. The police inspector when I suggested it laughed and said “Well, if you’re brave enough to do it then I will turn a blind eye. Don’t tell me about it, just do it.” So I did it. I met and spoke to her and the other bandits. We then went off to other parts of the region nearly 600 miles outside of Bombay to where the bandits live.

What happened to the project?

Well the project was, after nearly three years’ research, then dropped because Channel 4 had made a change over from Jeremy Issacs, to the gentleman who now runs it and wears the red socks – Michael Grade. New accountants came in and decided that too much time and money had been spent researching it. Unfortunately for me, at the time we were about to shoot, Rajiv Gandhi had reshuffled his government and the Minister in charge of the area, with whom we had been negotiating permission to make this film, was kicked out and our whole project was then shelved by Channel 4. What was upsetting at the time was the accountants and the lawyers at Channel 4 talked as if we were researching a film in New York or London, not taking into account that you had to travel, meet and earn the trust of these people before they would tell you anything. That took time and travel to India. Anyway that was the end of that. I was warned that it’s best that I go on to do The Orchid House, which I did, and then to my surprise, Farrukh Dhondy, Multicultural Commissioning Editor for programmes, started the project over but without me for some reason that I still don’t know, although I’m happy that it was made. I haven’t seen the film [Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen] as yet.

Creative achievement, creative decline

Ok, tell me three things, one thing representing each decade from the 1960s, when you first started, up to now, that stick out in your memory about any significant Black intervention in film or television.

I think something has happened, since my days, with the whole new generation of filmmakers that came up in the 70s and the 80s, people like Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah and many others, what they were trying to do, and the way they struggled to make their films. Menelik Shabazz kicked it off and the others joined. I thought that was a beautiful development in the 80s, and I was happy to see a new kind of creative injection into the film world from Black people.

Later Spike Lee and all the other American young Black filmmakers that have come up and have now started to find a style and a way of doing things, that is important to me and I’m really happy to see this happening. Some great films have come out of those developments.

My only criticism, the thing that Black filmmakers have to watch, especially in England, is that there’s another generation, a new generation that is losing style and losing an imaginative approach to filmmaking, they’re becoming very formalised; as if somebody slapped their wrists and said you can’t do this or you can’t do that. Their films have become very flat and very straight and very boring. They have lost a kind of creative style in the late 80s and 90s.

What do you mean they’re losing style? Explain that a bit more.

There are no creative ideas going into them. I don’t know if it’s the film schools or what, but there’s a lack of the understanding of film language. I think what has happened to a whole generation of Black filmmakers coming out of film schools and universities is they’ve learnt how to articulate films, they’ve learnt to write about different films, but they haven’t really learnt how to make different films and I think something is getting lost there. That is my criticism. Nevertheless I’m still happy to see that there are some that are very good, but too many others have this terrible inadequacy.

A Hole in Babylon (1979)

Why do you think that is? You’ve mentioned the fact that you think that they’ve had more theory than practice. Is there anything about the context of filmmaking or the finance today that is part of that?

I think that finance is part of that, who they have to go to, the kind of subject matter that they are allowed to make, because everybody out there would like to make certain types of films, but commissioning editors and various other funders want a certain type of film from Black filmmakers and nothing else. So the scope becomes limited and then they seem to be forced into a formulaic kind of film.

But do you think that has changed from the 70s and the 80s to now?

I must say I haven’t seen any films very recently, say in the last year (1994), but I know by the 90s (and I saw a few films and read a lot of scripts at that time) I found something had disappeared, the kind of freestyle, of going off with an idea, thinking of a new approach to a film, not just approaching it in a chronological order. That lack is what worries me. I like to see creativity. I like to see people experimenting. I want to see people taking things further and understanding the cinema.

Could it have anything to do with people chasing what they feel is a newly changed economic context for trying to make films? Is it because maybe people are chasing a commercial imperative and that’s what they think they should do to achieve it?

I don’t think it’s a commercial imperative, I think it’s a safe one. I think it’s a consideration of ‘this is what you are given, this is what you are allowed and this is what they are going to buy off you, so let’s do it this way.’ So filmmakers are forced into it and I’m saying that it’s partly their fault because you have to fight to change things.

I’m not interested in just becoming a jobbing filmmaker, just making films to earn a salary. I believe that film is an art and I’m interested in experimenting and taking it further, but I know that’s a problem because we live in a society where they don’t associate that sort of creativity with Black people. It seems as though white filmmakers are allowed to do this. Black filmmakers are not allowed to do these projects and are rejected when they go that way, and this is something that we have to watch and try to change.

Well what do you think is the solution there? I mean there aren’t any real investment bases for British cinema generally, let alone Black cinema. I mean how do people manage in that situation?

That’s a very tough question that I really don’t know how to answer. Finance is limited in this country, so maybe we have to then start looking for finance in many different directions. In America, a film maker has a lot more access to different finance set-ups to get their films made. Here, we seem only to have television and a few film finance boards and that’s it; they make the judgments and they decide what should be done and not done, and how it should be done. I’ve had that experience myself whenever I try anything experimental to break away from the norm. It is rejected and they try to force you back into the ghetto, asking why don’t you make a film about the Black struggle? It’s ridiculous and it really stops you as an artist from developing and I always believe that Black filmmakers should be free enough to make films about anything they want to.

Playing Away (1987)

Non-Aligned Productions initiative [is] described as ‘guerrilla filmmaking’ – its declared aim to make films by any means necessary was the approach for making the film Welcome II the Terrordome, where money was raised by Black community donations. But they had serious problems because the money came in dribs and drabs. They had to make all sorts of compromises, and the film suffers as a result of it.

That is the problem. The film will suffer if you don’t have enough money to make the film the way you want to make it. You’re forced to do a kind of mediocre job on the film. This is sad. I just hope that more Black financial investment from here and America and elsewhere can be encouraged to participate. This is something that has been worrying me for a long time and has affected my own career.

Other shores

Has this anything to do with your reason to decide to leave Britain and live back in the Caribbean? I know wherever you live is important as a base for you, although you still work in various countries. Do you want to talk a bit about that?

The answer is twofold. It’s partly that and it’s partly that I am originally from the Caribbean and I’ve been back in the Caribbean and made films there, such as Orchid House. I find the Caribbean a very interesting place, and since I’ve spent most of my life making films in England, I thought it was time to try and develop some ideas and work in the Caribbean. When you think of the great Caribbean novelists, most of their subject matter is written in the Caribbean, about the Caribbean, which is very rich, and this is what attracts me most to the region. In Britain, you’re forced into a position where you can only make a certain type of film or nothing else and creativity starts to die.

But there aren’t that many bases for financing in the Caribbean, are there?

No, there aren’t that many bases in the Caribbean, so you have to look for your money everywhere as a filmmaker. Maybe as an older filmmaker, I have also realised that ‘by any means necessary’ has to be an approach. I try to find money anywhere to make my film, talk to anybody that is interested and go anywhere to get this film financed, and that has been my life for the past few years.

So where has that search taken you to?

That search has taken me to America, the Caribbean and South America. There are various ways that you can set up a very good film that doesn’t cost much, in places such as Venezuela and Cuba. So while travelling, I’m checking out all of this to try and see how I can put together the type of film that I want to make. But I’m also talking to people here in Britain because there are still good producers here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning the whole place. I keep talking to a few of them hoping that something can happen.

But when you left you went initially to Jamaica. Why did you choose Jamaica? And why now Trinidad?

I went to Jamaica for two reasons – because Jamaica was really serious about setting up a film department and encouraging films to be made there. They also set up a kind of film service, which encouraged a lot of Hollywood films to be made there and the Jamaicans were talking more about filmmaking, maybe except for Cuba, than any of the other Caribbean islands. That was one of my chief reasons. My other reason was that I was also to make a film on the life of Bob Marley, which fell apart and did not happen. I have now moved from Jamaica to Trinidad, which is my home, and which is something that I have always wanted to do. I am now writing a few things based in Trinidad and some based in Jamaica, which I’m hoping to get off the ground.

Playing Away (1987)

So mainly the move was really to do with going towards your source of inspiration; and obviously you’ve worked, as you say, in different places for this. How does your experience of working in the USA for instance compare to your experiences in London? Tell us what you did in New York.

In New York I was working on a film about the life of Richard Wright called Blackboy; it’s a documentary with a lot of dramatised sequences about his life and his book and I was hired to do the dramatised bits. That was a very good experience because I wanted to work with Americans, in America, to see how they operate and how they do things.

Firstly, they have a little more money and that helps, as you well know. Secondly, I must admit, there are faults with American filmmakers, but at the same time they are a bit more willing in a creative sense to experiment, to try out various things. Again, they had more sources to find money to do this; if you wanted to extend an idea, they’ll move readily, find the finance and do it. There is a different rhythm and style to the people; I like the rhythm and style.

I like a lot about America but there is a lot I don’t like about it too. There is a very commercial, fast-moving side to it that sometimes lacks depth and that worries me. But generally I was happy working there; I was treated with a certain respect and I was allowed to do a lot of interesting things. Also, I was exposed to all the things which interested me about America, working in New York, working in Harlem, going to the deep south, working in Mississippi, things that you read about working with those people and talking to them was something that I was happy to be exposed to.

Creative potential

What do you think is particularly good, or specific, or particularly valuable about a Black intervention in filmmaking from Britain, compared to what might be happening elsewhere?

That is a big question. I think there is potential for something to happen here. I think given the opportunity, Black filmmakers could inject something into British cinema. Let me make a comparison; it’s like what has happened when they allowed Black footballers to be part of British football teams; when Black sportsmen got into sport here, what happened to sport?; when Black cricketers got into cricket here, what happened? We have enriched it, brought talent, and if that is an example, then the same thing should happen with cinema.

But cinema is slightly different because cinema is to do with, as you said earlier, cultural definition and forming ideas and these sorts of things. That is the difference and that’s why I think it’s harder to get into film and TV.

No, I think you’re missing the point. Cinema is harder here and television is harder here because they are very powerful media and that, politically and socially, is the problem. I’m only using those examples in the context of creativity, and freedom to allow the person to get out there and participate: they developed their own cricket, they developed their own style of football. In the beginning, people were throwing banana skins at them, but now they’re cheering them because they are good. It’s the same thing for filmmakers; give them space, don’t be scared and if you give people space to operate in, and to be creative, something is going to happen and I think that was what was good about the 80s in Britain.

I don’t think anybody should be scared of Black kids here any more: they’re British born, grew up here, and educated here. This is their home. So I would say to producers and commissioning editors, don’t be scared of what they have to say and how they have to say it. The future holds much promise.

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