“Memory is the only raw material we can turn to”: the Black Audio Film Collective on creating a Black cinema

In the September 1989 issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin, John Akomfrah and Lina Gopaul talked to Julian Petley about Handsworth Songs, the resilience of the past and their efforts to embed political and cultural address in an expanded cinematic language.

23 July 2020

By Julian Petley

A young John Akomfrah © BFI National Archive
Sight and Sound

There can be little doubt that some of the most innovative, challenging and invigorating work to have emerged from the film and video workshops (see M.F.B., nos. 648 and 655) over the past few years has come from the Black sector. In particular, Sankofa’s Territories (Isaac Julien, 1984), The Passion of Remembrance (Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien, 1986) and Looking for Langston (Isaac Julien, 1989), and Black Audio’s Handsworth Songs (1986) and Testament (1988; both John Akomfrah) have been formally inventive and exploratory without becoming hermetically inaccessible.

Questions of form and structure in the context of the Black workshops were raised by Isaac Julien in an important interview in Framework (No. 26/7, 1985), in what can now be regarded as something of a clarion call. Referring to previous Black filmmaking in Britain, he stated that “Up to now there have only been linear narrative films and realist documentaries… they are the modes that have been considered the natural and accepted types of films for Black filmmakers to make. We have to try and break away from that… because Black people are not all the same, there are many Black communities… I think now – maybe because of a generation of practitioners who have graduated from film schools and universities – a different perspective has emerged, a perspective that has been more critical because we’ve been allowed space to think…”

It is in this context that the emergence and development of the Black Audio Film Collective needs to be understood. As Lina Gopaul explains: “Initially we came together at Portsmouth Polytechnic where we were all doing different courses – mixed media, psychology, sociology, and so on. We were all involved in various Black political activities, and we also wanted to develop a Black mixed media practice. We were very aware of the lack of Black representation on television and in films, and we came together to look at ways of representing ourselves that were different from the stereotypes. However, we didn’t want to limit ourselves to the positive/negative images debate that was going on at the time in bodies like the Black Media Workers Association.”

By the time the members of the nascent group were back in London, the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit was involved in media politics as part of its ground-breaking remit. Furthermore, under the aegis of the ACTT, Channel 4, the BFI and the Regional Arts Associations, the Workshop Declaration had come into existence. Add to these the existence of the metropolitan authorities, who were at last beginning to realise the cultural and economic importance of the independent film and video sector, and it becomes clear that this was a moment of considerable potential and excitement.

Lina Gopaul: “We didn’t want to set up an independent production company because we specifically wanted to investigate the notion of collective practice, to explore the ways in which we could best work together and get the most out of our different abilities. The previous history of Black filmmaking in this country was one of single filmmakers on their own, like Horace Ové and Menelik Shabazz, very rarely getting money to make films. And anyway, we wanted to do more than make films.”

John Akomfrah: “We wanted to set up a group which included a number of people from different backgrounds who would be able to make contributions to a general black audio-visual scene in London which had an interest in mixed media work, installations, fine art, Super-8, video, and so on. We wanted to embrace a much wider field, and our interest in the collective ideal came not so much from any insight that we had into the history of collective work in this country but because we realised that many different talents would be necessary. It was only later that we began to realise that there was a tradition of collective work – the Berwick Street Collective, Cinema Action and the like – but we didn’t want simply to reproduce these either.”

Handsworth Songs
BFI National Archive

At this time there were significant differences of opinion among black people involved in the media about the most useful way forward. The Black Media Workers Association argued for involvement in mainstream film and television production, while others were more drawn to the independent sector, especially after the founding of the Workshop Declaration. However, the Association tended to regard the workshops as a ghetto-within-a-ghetto.

Lina Gopaul: “A very important aspect of the workshop declaration for us was that it allowed for mixed media practice. For us, developing Black cinema wasn’t just a matter of getting into media institutions; we feel that you need to create the conditions for a Black cinema, to create a Black cinema-going, media-conscious audience. At the start we had very little money for production anyway, so other aspects of ‘integrated practice’ like exhibition and education were at the forefront for us.”

They put on programmes at the Rio in Dalston and the New Cinema in Nottingham, and created the highly innovative tape-slide programme Expeditions, with which they travelled the country, gaining valuable insights and experience through their discussions with audiences. Some indication of its innovative formal nature can be gathered from the reproduced extracts in Screen (May-August, 1985) and from Collective member Reece Auguiste’s description of it as “a visual textural exploration of nation, the mythology and rhetoric of race, the uncertainties of empire, of paranoia and the psychic disintegration of colonial imaginations”.

Commitment to an exploration of form is clearly central to Black Audio’s project. John Akomfrah: “We were always very interested in the explosion of the Black Arts movement in the States in the 60s. In particular we were excited by the way in which it emphasised aesthetics and politics as a sort of mixed economy.

“In the early stages, we saw ourselves very much as part of such a movement, one with many different heads. A lot of the initial meetings to which we went were full of painters and sculptors and so on, and we were seen just as the audio-visual component. The grouping as a whole always emphasised formal experimentation, but also tried to anchor it in some kind of cultural and political address. We knew that you can’t just ‘tell it like it is’, that it wasn’t just an ethnographic issue of finding hidden stories and making them available. That’s what television had mainly done – to see race as the dark continent of our media culture, so that anything about Black people becomes like a voyage of anthropological discovery. From the word go, there was always this tension between the desire to make a progressive cultural and political statement about race, and the desire to delineate a mode of practice which wasn’t just a realist one anchored in conventional documentary or social-realist filmmaking.”

Handsworth Songs (1986)

Black Audio’s concern with these fundamental questions clearly informs Handsworth Songs. As Reece Auguiste puts it in Framework (No. 35, 1988): “Our task was a flight from talking heads and didactic forms in cinema. Black Audio Film Collective’s intention was always to stretch the imagination so that the poetics could be finely interlocked with a black political aesthetics.”

Auguiste also quotes Tarkovsky to the effect that “In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.” Tarkovsky’s remark is clearly echoed by the key phrase in the film, “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.”

John Akomfrah: “If nothing else, the film was a polemic against the usual representations of the riots. The central idea, which overrides all kinds of aesthetic considerations in Handsworth Songs, is to put across a multilayered text which at least hints at the possibility that there is no single origin to the disturbances; and that if there were, it is so bound up with a multiplicity of issues to do with housing, policing, etc., that it would have been incorrect to isolate one and say this is the cause of it.

“What you see here are endless reruns of the same thing, in the sense that the frustrations which came out on the streets then had already been written into other chapters in the protracted engagement between Black communities and British society over the last four decades. The very fabric of the buildings speaks of them. The events of 1985 had, written into them, meta-narratives, ghost stories, other events, and in a way these were the most significant things.”

Hardly surprisingly, the film’s unusual perspective and approach didn’t please everybody in the Black community, in particular Salman Rushdie – whose ill-considered remarks in the Guardian on 12 January 1987 provoked a remarkable debate with, among others, Stuart Hall and Darcus Howe – and the critic of the Caribbean Times who complained that the film’s “only flaw lies in that it does not highlight the causes and confrontations enough and it ends without coming to any concrete solutions as to the way forward”.

Handsworth Songs’ concern with memory is obviously shared by Testament, and also relates to a much wider field of cultural endeavour which takes in, for example, the New German Cinema (especially that part of it engaged in excavating the past, for example, Alexander Kluge’s Die Patriotin), the films of Chris Marker, the work of C.L.R. James (especially The Black Jacobins), E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and the whole Foucault/popular memory/history-from-below debate.

John Akomfrah: “We’re certainly attracted to traditions, cinematic or otherwise, which feel as if they have a trauma to live down, that are possessed by memory, as if the present is possessed by a larger past that one has to tread through tentatively. Black cultural movements always have to deal with this question of memory because it is the only raw material, the only stock, that they can turn to. Since you don’t have statues and memorials which speak about slavery and colonialism and so on, Black culture finds itself endlessly confronted with the question of what one does with a body of informal codes. So we find ourselves at a crossroads where Black culture is meditating on itself and its history, and is now meeting up with these other currents of thought. The question is, what is the value of this kind of mixed economy now, what can it say and do about Black culture in the late 80s.”

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