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Burning an Illusion is available on BFI Player. Time and Judgement is available to rent on Vimeo.

I've been watching films since I was very young.

In Barbados, where I was born, we had mobile cinemas in the country, which we used to call cowboy cinemas, because it was all westerns. They were very clear and straightforward. Good was good and bad was… you know. I could identify with that straightaway.

But my influences have had more to do with my journey through life and learning and accumulating information, which comes in many different ways: watching people and life, and trying to let that life speak, reggae music, Bob Marley.

Time and Judgement is really an experimental piece. It was only possible in a workshop setup, whereas Burning an Illusion was a drama told in a conventional way. Time and Judgement incorporates a number of different elements: drama, documentary footage, poetry, paintings. It basically tries to cross certain boundaries. It has a much wider brief than Burning an Illusion, in terms of looking at the situation of Black people over a period of time, and linking that to the exile… the four-hundred-year exile. It tries to create a mix of ideas, which encourages, hopefully, others to innovate, and to do things slightly differently.

From the outset, I wanted to create a film that would have the artist expressing himself either through works which he’d already done or through commissioned work. It was important to add that dimension, which so often becomes separated.

Film unifies most of the art forms. In fact, all the art forms can fit into film. The paintings serve as a summing up. I think that helps, especially in places where people don’t speak English… the image helps to encapsulate what has gone before.

I’m very impressed when I go to a place like Burkina Faso, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they have a major film festival. I’ve never seen queues so long. African cinema has a lot to offer, but it’s suffering from problems of finance and lack of continuity. Souleymane Cisse has shown that African cinema is continually evolving and reaching new heights.

I believe that Hollywood and Europe have come to a point where there’s not much more that can be said. Which has to do with the fact that people don’t share the same values. And so the ideas are no longer as strong, and to me are getting more and more remote in a lot of ways, so that technique becomes more of a priority than content.

Cassie Macfarlane as Pat Williams in Burning an Illusion (1981)

Practising a craft

Time and Judgement is not saying that I don’t want to do narrative films. On the contrary, I would really like to. The situation for Black filmmakers is very depressing. Burning an Illusion was made in 1981, and was produced by the BFI, who hadn’t made a film of this type since Pressure in 1974. And then there’s Playing Away, which was produced by Channel 4 in 1986-7. Those are the three major feature films that have been produced by Black filmmakers.

The fact that I’m in a workshop also illustrates the problem that filmmakers are having to produce their work in order actually to practise their craft. This is the first film I’ve been involved with as a director for seven years. You continually try to push ideas through, but the overall situation for independent filmmakers is not very good.

Black filmmakers don't want to be funnelled into one kind of ghetto slot. The idea is to produce films in all areas and across all genres.

Even today, on television, we’re not seeing what was proclaimed by Channel 4 in 1982, that independent Black filmmakers, minorities, would have much more access to TV. The bulk of Channel 4 programmes that relate to Black issues are still made, in the main, by white production companies. It’s accepted that a white filmmaker can make films about Black people, but the reverse is considered ridiculous.

We don’t want to be funnelled into one kind of ghetto slot. The idea is to produce films in all areas and across all genres. So far, that is not happening. When you look at it in the overall context, of the time Black people have been in this country or have been involved in making films, how much has really changed?

Time and Judgement (1988)

Reviving a tradition

Time and Judgement really comes out of the prophetic tradition. Queen Judgement came out of the prophecy of Christ, where he says that the Queen of the South shall rise in judgement. The Queen is symbolic of that prophecy, of Africa and Ethiopia, but she’s also symbolic of love and righteousness.

I didn’t really want her to be seen as simply an African queen. She is more a spirit that manifests itself in everyone. When she’s looking at the heart and money, that’s in everyone. Hence her sending the Time Keeper out to deliver a final warning to the rulers of Earth. Events on Earth are determined by us, but not solely, because we’re still dependent on others and other situations around us. We’re dependent on the sun shining and the rain falling, all of which are taken for granted.

The Queen is really symbolic of my belief that the world has not paid heed to itself or to the natural forces. And so natural forces will play a part in the future. Queen Judgement represents divine power, influencing and coming to the aid of man.

It’s the vision of the Rastaman. Rastafari comes out of a prophetic tradition, and so the film itself is a continuation of that tradition. Rastafari is a tradition which upholds righteousness in that it upholds the spirit and the strength of the oppressed. It looks to Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie as the cornerstone of that strength. Which is what I tried to bring out in the film in relation to David and Goliath: the fact that, as Black people, we’re always fighting against odds.

Ethiopia was the point at which the Rastaman was able to take himself out of the slave ship. By that I mean that even today we are conditioned by the history of slavery, in that our reference point, and most people’s reference point to Black people, is still the slaves.

The Rastaman went beyond that, he went to the heart, he went to Ethiopia, which in history is the most ancient country. And that connected him to a whole other way, it freed him from the slave ship.

The Italian war was very important for Black people around the world, because you had a whole continent that was colonised, except for this one place. You had a whole world that was colonised, and Ethiopia alone could speak out for China, India and all those people. It was very much imprinted in the hearts of Black people and other people in the world who were seeking freedom. The war gave encouragement to people like Mao and Gandhi.

Victor Romero Evans as Del Bennett and Cassie Macfarlane as Pat Williams in Burning an Illusion (1981)

Guaranteeing a future

Burning an Illusion happened at a particular time and said what it had to say about that time. I think Time and Judgement represents a more spiritual awareness and view. It represents my inner concerns.

As a filmmaker, I see myself more within the tradition of the heart, those who speak out at what they see, like Bob Marley did in his music.

Over the last seven years, I’ve been keeping a diary. With a lot of the footage of England, I was there on the marches, filming it or having some involvement. I wanted to say something about what I was seeing. And also to draw parallels between history and the present.

As a filmmaker, I see myself more within the tradition of the heart, those who speak out at what they see. Which Marley did in his music. There were consciously those elements in the film: the spirituality, which comes from the prophetic aspect, and the Diarist. If people are more politically oriented, then they get more out of the Diarist’s view than they do out of the other aspects. So it very much depends on what you bring to the film.

The whole question of judgement is more an end of things as we’ve known them, a change, a transformation. Some people might think judgement means the end, but there’s no end as such, there’s just birth and rebirth. For every action, however, there’s a reaction, every cause has an effect, and the effect of wrong must, at some point, come home. The Diarist is one who has been watching, and who is a warner, who rings a bell. He’s warning Europe.

South Africa is a situation which everybody knows is wrong, yet no one does anything about it. There’s a sense that people believe that we can’t do anything about it. We can feel sympathy in our heart, and so on, but we can’t really do anything about it. Yet how can you have a situation where South Africa has all the military might, and all the support of Europe, but yet it still lives in a situation of fear? How can you have all these weapons and yet still fear children? Once your heart is strong, then no matter how much power they have, they’re still vulnerable.

It’s along those lines that the film is trying to speak to people, to get them to look at the situation and not to feel that, because they’re miles away, they’re out of it. The future of all life is bound up in the heart, and the strengthening of the heart is actually the guarantee of a future.

  • Menelik Shabazz was speaking to James Leahy.

Further reading

Scenes from a hostile environment: a history of Black British protest film and television

Black British filmmakers have for decades depicted and chronicled protest against racism and injustice. Ashley Clark explores this ghost canon of British film and television, and uncovers a lineage of urgent work that has for too long been overlooked or actively suppressed.

By Ashley Clark

Scenes from a hostile environment: a history of Black British protest film and television

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy