Black Film Bulletin: Imruh Bakari, you and director Henry Martin [Big George Is Dead, 1987] set up Kuumba Productions [1982-87] and Ceddo Workshop with Menelik Shabazz. What were your ambitions, biggest challenges and most significant achievements for Kuumba?

Imruh Bakari: As a group of filmmakers emerging from the 1970s and determined to make films against the odds, setting up Kuumba Productions seemed to be a way of pooling our strengths and establishing our presence. However, truthfully, the new opportunity that Channel 4 seemed to offer proved elusive, as the ‘gatekeeper’ designated to deal with ‘Black’ filmmakers found our presence threatening, and we were not willing to play a subservient role in the fulfilment of the approach to commissioning that was presented to us. The company lasted for five years.

BFB: How would you summarise Shabazz’s legacy in British and pan-African cinema?

IB: Menelik was able to produce a number of films, of various genres and across a spectrum of creativity, that could point future generations of filmmakers to potential possibilities.

Lazell Daley: It could be said that our lives work in circles – where we begin is where we end. Personally, Menelik’s legacy starts with Burning an Illusion [1981] and ends with Looking for Love [2015] – two films focusing on the emotions of personal relationships. Yet his films between these two productions brought into perspective the politics of race and identity surrounding the Black diaspora experience of living in post-colonial Britain.

Burning an Illusion (1981)
© BFI

Glenn Ujebe Masokoane: It is not easy to simply paraphrase Menelik’s contribution to Black British cinema and pan-African cinematic cultural expression in a single straight line, without understanding the complexities of these tendencies. He was at the centre of these movements as a practitioner, but also as a thought leader with a pioneering spirit and desire for higher articulation of the aesthetics of Black representation.

Dada Imarogbe: In the late 1970s Menelik reignited a flame and began creating a body of work and activism rooted in the African experience. He was a visionary collaborator – drama, documentary, exhibiting films and the printed word – who documented British African life and related it to the pan-African world for more than 40 years. He related the past to the present and the future – in an early form of African futurism, as exemplified in his film Time and Judgement [1988] and in his unfinished work The Spirits Return.

The Story of Lover’s Rock (2011)

June Reid: Menelik’s legacy is unique and outstanding. No British Black filmmaker has produced work with the same level of authenticity and perspective, addressing themes of Black love and relationships, in Burning an Illusion; the collective memories of young Black people in the 70s, in The Story of Lover’s Rock [2011]; or the futurist Time and Judgement, described as a production that “combines biblical prophecy with events across the African diaspora”.

BFB: How would you say two of the original members who are no longer with us – Menelik and Sister D. Elmina Davis – will be remembered for their most distinctive contributions to Ceddo’s ambitions?

IB: Inspired by the Black struggles in Britain for social justice, particularly in film and television media, the principal motivation for setting up Ceddo was to claim an independent space within the film industry. Unlike most other workshops, Ceddo Film and Video Workshop was set up as a cooperative by six founding members in 1982. The office of Kuumba Productions was used as its first base, before expanding the cooperative membership and moving to a location in Tottenham in 1983. Here, Ceddo’s work was developed principally around community access, training and documentation, and production. Much of this work involved the AfricanCaribbean community in Tottenham. This work was, to a great degree, defined and enabled by D. Elmina Davis, a youth worker who became a filmmaker. This work, as The People’s Account proved, challenged the media establishment in unprecedented ways.

GUM: The common bond of our African heritage was not a mere statement and a superficial ideological positioning without substance. Ceddo was an enclave and a voice for the narratives of ‘Afrikan’ peoples – no matter where they came from. We knew we were Afrikan and the ties that bound us were far greater than what we could imagine. Thus it was symbolic that Sister Dennis Elmina Davis passed away in Ghana – she was named Elmina after the slave castle and port in Ghana; her soul stayed in ancestral terrains. Together, Sister Elmina and Menelik Shabazz were my close comrades and fellow combatants for Afrikan cultural and visual liberation. Little wonder that their spirits now reside in Ghana and Zimbabwe.

DI: We have a “passionate desire to see ourselves as we are”… “Our common bond is our African heritage”. These sentiments anchor Sister Dennis Elmina Davis’s footage of the night of uprisings in Tottenham, which seeded The People’s Account, produced by Menelik. Sister Dennis would go on to direct Omega Rising [1988], illuminating the thoughts of Rastafari women. Menelik was the common link between all 11 Ceddo members from 1989 – each of whom evolved through recording for archives, curating screenings, providing production skills training and making broadcast-quality programmes.

Handsworth Songs (1986)

JR: Sister D. will be remembered as the fearless Rasta woman with the video camera as the tool of her trade. The footage she captured of the 1985 uprisings on Broadwater for The People’s Account was also used by Black Audio Film Collective in Handsworth Songs [1986]. Omega Rising: Women of Rastafari was one of the first films profiling Rastafari women articulating their own livity [lives]. Its power has stood the test of time. Menelik was a driving force within Ceddo; a visionary. He saw the potential in people and instinctively knew how gifts and skills could advance them and Ceddo simultaneously. I am a case in point. With a business studies degree, I was appointed as the Workshop’s coordinator to develop administrative and financial structures within the workshop whilst learning about film- and video-making, the workshop sector and the wider industry.

BFB: What advice would you give to the young filmmakers of today seeking inspiration about collective working practices from the era of the Black Film Workshops?

IB: Not advice, but a note: that history, its context and its diversity needs to be studied.

LD: To produce film in a time when there was no social media accessible via your phone, filmmakers had to belong to a union. The collective working practices of the Black Film Workshops revealed that it was possible to break down the control of British cinema production, targeting an audience hungry for images that reflected their lives. Working collectively by sharing skills and ideas meant that feature-length projects could and were produced.

GUM: The business and independent cultural practice model of the Black Film Workshops of the 1980s forever remains an ideal, even in this current ecology driven by digital economics and scale. Collective common ownership and intellectual property control provides a sustainable viable model for production outside of the hegemonic dominant mainstream of the global Eurocentric corporations.

DI: Making films is always an intra and inter-collaboration behind and in front of the camera, which requires calmness and demonstrable listening skills. It’s a continuous learning process – how a scene is shot and performed will depend on location, set design, set dressing. Never be afraid to say, “That’s a good idea, we will use it.” But remember that spontaneous decisions have major implications for schedule and budget. Production should not become a debate and creativity is the saviour with very limited budgets.

JR: My advice is that collective working requires suspension of ego, transparency, integrity and honesty with oneself and others. Collective goals and common benefit need to be put above individual pursuits and intentions, so in that way what is invested on an individual basis will be reaped by all.

Blood Ah Go Run (1982)

BFB: What was your collaborative role with Menelik over the many years you worked together?

IB: During the 1970s and 80s, my collaboration with Menelik involved work on Step Forward Youth [1977], Burning an Illusion [1981] and Blood Ah Goh Run [1982]. Along with Henry Martin, we set up Kuumba Productions. Together we shared a motivation to claim an independent space within the film industry, without apology.

LD: It’s said that still waters run deep, and in Menelik Shabazz that’s exactly what you got. We first worked together on I Am Not Two Islands [1984] for Kuumba Productions. Our collective collaboration continued with further works produced through Ceddo: We Are the Elephant [1987], Omega Rising and Time and Judgement. The time spent on I Am Not Two Islands, with weeks travelling through Jamaica with Menelik’s quiet yet powerful persona, was memorable.

GUM: Ceddo had an active documentation programme to interview important individuals in Black communities, so we were able to trace elders from the 1919 race riots, in Cardiff and Liverpool for example – via the story of Papa Johnson in Birmingham – living heritage of the time, intended for Time and Judgement. We produced We Are the Elephant – a film on the liberation struggle of Azania; and made the most complex and compelling Menelik Shabazz film Time and Judgement: A Diary of a 400 Year Exile, consisting of myriad global newsreels, significant world events, Black revolutions and prophecies.

DI: Menelik and I met in the Black Liberation Front, a revolutionary pan-African organisation. In that environment Menelik made his first four films, beginning with Step Forward Youth. In the mid-1980s Menelik persuaded me to join Ceddo to develop its film and video production training ambitions on various projects, including opportunities at major events such as Fespaco [in Burkina Faso]. A significant moment was the first time Ceddo’s studio was used with a set built in. Menelik’s face beamed when he saw the set lit by trainees with the performers on their mark and trainees setting up to begin recording.

JR: As the Workshop’s coordinator, I played a pivotal role in ensuring that its funding was sustained. Ceddo Workshop took its actual name from the classic 1977 film Ceddo [aka The Outsiders], directed by the Senegalese doyen of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène. Ceddo’s work was explicitly concerned with reflecting stories and images of Afrikan Caribbean peoples; drawing on our history, culture and politics, thus countering dominant, negative stereotypes and giving voice to our people.