I’ve only just discovered this program of Black British Film and Video currently screening at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles named ‘The Workshop Years’. I’ve reposted the schedule and essay below. See more at the Hammer Museum
Independent black British filmmaking saw an increased urgency and viability in the aftermath of South London’s Brixton Rising in 1981. In many respects this event—part of a series of responses to police brutality, corruption, and racist policies aimed at undermining the rights of Britain’s black population—was the first of its kind to unfold within the context of the BBC’s nightly news.1 At an early moment in British television history, over the course of three days in April 1981, audiences were routinely exposed to images of dissenting blackness through the mediating lens of mainstream journalism; these images became inextricably linked to a series of representational codes that further underscored aspects of British society that had inherited and internalized systematic racial inequities. The depiction of black identity occasioned by the Brixton Rising was one of disorder, lawlessness, and rage—characterizations that continued in the months that followed with subsequent confrontations between protestors and police taking place in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and other cities.2
In November 1982, Channel 4 debuted on British television. Conceived, in part, in response to the narratives that had played out in mainstream news outlets, this new channel sought to provide innovative content and give voice to those marginalized in British society, with a greater emphasis on the needs of minority audiences.3 As part of this demand, Channel 4, along with the Greater London Council, dedicated production funds and helped to establish workshops to facilitate the making of film and video from and by these communities. Through new avenues of institutional support and the formation of “publisher-broadcaster” stations like Channel 4, filmmaking collectives and workshops such as Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video Collective, and Ceddo Film and Video Workshop were founded in the early part of the decade as alternatives to the dominant modes of representation in the UK. These groups, alongside others like Retake Film and Video that focused on Asian identity, addressed conditions of race and class that had otherwise been told from outsider perspectives.
Writing on the occasion of a program she organized at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in 1988, the artist and writer Coco Fusco argued, “The newly established workshops provided the infrastructure that, combined with racially sensitive cultural polices, created conditions […] to explore and question theoretical issues.”4 Films like John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (Black Audio Film Collective, 1986) and Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien’s The Passion of Remembrance (Sankofa Film and Video Collective, 1986) positioned themselves at “the center of polemical debates in the mainstream and Black popular press that often do little more than bespeak critical assumptions about which filmic strategies are ‘appropriate’ for Blacks.”5 At the heart of these experimental approaches to filmmaking was a negotiation of so-called dominant images and an attempt to reconcile these with a newfound birth of visibility.
Though united by experimental approaches to narrative, the films produced by Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video Collective, and Ceddo Film and Video Workshop in the 1980s and 1990s reflect diverse and divergent concerns, forms, and aesthetics. Kobena Mercer has appropriately referred to this generation of “cinematic activists” as being engaged with the cultural struggle that takes place within the “domain of image-making” through self conscious cinematic strategies.6 In each instance, the individual filmmakers and voices that make up the collectives, workshops, and groups that formed in this tumultuous period in Britain’s cultural history give shape to an image of race otherwise mediated by outside entities. The films produced at the time, as part of Channel 4 and the race-relations industry it came to represent, offer insight into the real conditions, imaginary futures, and contested pasts that come to define race as a lived experience.
1. Sarita Malik, Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television (London: Sage, 2001), 85.
2. Ibid., 86.
3. Laura Mayne, “The Channel 4 Films of the 1980s: ‘A Worrying New Category,’” British Universities Film and Video Council, November 9, 2010, http://bufvc.ac.uk/2010/11/09/
4. Coco Fusco, “A Black Avant-Garde? Notes on Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa,” in Young British and Black: A Monograph on the Work of Sankofa Film/Video Collective and Black Audio Film Collective (Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls, 1988), 9.
5. Ibid., 8.
6. Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994), 53.
January 3–7: Sankofa Film and Video Collective
Noon: Isaac Julien, Who Killed Colin Roach?, 1983. Super-8 video transfer, color, sound. 37 min. Courtesy of the artist.
12:45 p.m.: Martina Attille, Dreaming Rivers, 1988. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 33 min. Courtesy of the artist and Women Make Movies, New York.
1:30 p.m.: Isaac Julien, Territories, 1984. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 26 min. Courtesy of the artist.
2 p.m.: Maureen Blackwood, Perfect Image?, 1988. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 31 min. Courtesy of the artist and Women Make Movies, New York.
2:45 p.m.: Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien, The Passion of Remembrance, 1986. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound 78 min. Courtesy of the artists.
January 10–14: Ceddo Film and Video Workshop
Noon: Menelik Shabazz, Time and Judgement – A Diary of a 400 Year Exile, 1988. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 87 min. Courtesy of the artist.
1:30 p.m.: Milton Bryan, The People’s Account, 1986. Digital Betacam, color, sound. 52 min. Courtesy of the artist and Menelik Shabazz.
2:30 p.m.: Glenn Ujebe Masokoane, We Are the Elephant, 1987. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 52 min. Courtesy of the artist and Menelik Shabazz.
3:30 p.m.: D. Elmina Davis, Omega Rising: Woman of Rastafari, 1988. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 52 min. Courtesy of the artist and Menelik Shabazz.
January 17–25: Black Audio Film Collective
Noon: John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs, 1986. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 58:33 min. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
1 p.m.: Reece Auguiste, Mysteries of July, 1991. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 54 min. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
2 p.m.: John Akomfrah, The Last Angel of History, 1995. Digital Betacam, color, sound. 45:07 min. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
3 p.m.: Trevor Mathison and Edward George, Three Songs on Pain, Light and Time, 1995. Digital Betacam, color, sound. 22:11 min. Courtesy of the artists and Lisson Gallery.
3:30 p.m.: John Akomfrah, Seven Songs for Malcolm X, 1993. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 52:45 min. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
Identity in the British frame. It is a salute to the pioneering voices of Black British cinema; those independent storytellers, community griots, radical documentarians and counter-culture moving image activists who animate the unseen and amplify the seldom explored narratives.’
TERRITORIES (UK, 1984, 25 mins) Dir. Isaac Julien An experimental documentary about Black British culture; Territories critiques the ways in which traditional media represents Black people. Exploring the power dynamics that influence Black British identities, the film’s title evokes multiple agendas and experiences at work. These agendas – or ‘territories’ – involve race, class and sexuality. Notting Hill Carnival is the symbolic cultural battleground. The film locates the event within the struggle between White authority and Black youth; in this case over the contested spaces of the carnival. Territories invites the viewer to question everything and to protect and preserve spaces of self-identity.
HANDSWORTH SONGS (UK, 1986, 60 mins) Dir. John Akomfrah Originally commissioned by Channel 4 for their series ‘Britain: The Lie of the Land’; Handsworth Songs takes as its point of departure the civil disturbances of September and October 1985 in the Birmingham district of Handsworth. Running throughout the film is the idea that the riots were the outcome of a protracted suppression by British society of Black presence.
Freedom and possibility … a still from Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) from 2011
by Sukhdev Sandhu. The Guardian, Saturday 3 August 2013
For years the essay film has been a neglected form, but now its unorthodox approach to constructing reality is winning over a younger, tech-savvy crowd.
For a brief, almost unreal couple of hours last July, in amid the kittens and One Direction-mania trending on Twitter, there appeared a very surprising name – that of semi-reclusive French film-maker Chris Marker, whose innovative short feature La Jetée (1962) was remade in 1995 as Twelve Monkeys by Terry Gilliam. A few months earlier, art journal e-flux staged The Desperate Edge of Now, a retrospective of Adam Curtis‘s TV films, to large audiences on New York’s Lower East Side. The previous summer, Handsworth Songs (1986), an experimental feature by the Black Audio Film Collective Salman Rushdie had once attacked as obscurantist and politically irrelevant, attracted a huge crowd at Tate Modern when it was screened shortly after the London riots.
Marker, Curtis, Black Audio: all have made significant contributions to the development of an increasingly powerful and popular kind of moving-image production: the essay film. Currently being celebrated in a BFI Southbank season entitled The Art of the Essay Film – curated by Kieron Corless of Sight and Sound magazine – it’s an elusive form with an equally elusive and speculative history. Early examples proposed by scholars include DW Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Jean Vigo‘s A Propos de Nice(1930), but some of its animating principles were identified in a key text, “The Film Essay” (1940) by the German artist Hans Richter, which called for documentaries “to find a representation for intellectual content” rather than merely “beautiful vistas”.
Essay films, unlike conventional documentaries, are only partly defined by their subject matter. They tend not to follow linear structures, far less to buttonhole viewers in the style of a PowerPoint presentation or a bullet-pointed memo; rather, in the spirit of Montaigne or even Hazlitt, they are often digressive, associative, self-reflexive. Just as the word essay has its etymological roots in the French “essai” – to try – essay film-makers commonly foreground the process of thought and the labour of constructing a narrative rather than aiming for seamless artefacts that conceal the conceptual questions that went into their making. Incompletion, loose ends, directorial inadequacy: these are acknowledged rather than brushed over.
Aldous Huxley once claimed an essay was “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”. Essay films exploit this freedom and possibility, exulting in the opportunity to avoid the hermetic specialisation that characterises much academic scholarship, and to draw on ethnography, autobiography, philosophy and art history. A case in point is Otolith I (2003) by the Turner prize-nominated Otolith Group, whose co-founder Kodwo Eshun will deliver a keynote speech at BFI Southbank: it uses the mass demonstrations against the second Iraq conflict in London as an occasion to think about political collectivity, and deploys an elusive, eerily compelling compound of science fiction, travelogue, epistolary writing and leftist history to do so.
This roaming or tentacular approach to structure can be seen as a kind of territorial raid. Or perhaps essay film-makers are aesthetic refugees fleeing the austerities and repressions of dominant forms of cinema. It’s certainly striking how many essay films grapple with landscape and cartography: Patrick Keiller‘s London (1994) uses a fixed camera, a droll fictional narrator named Robinson and near-forensic socio-economic analysis to explore the “problem” of England’s capital; Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is an extraordinary montage film by Thom Andersen in which, sampling almost exclusively (unlicensed) clips from 20th-century cinema and with drily damning commentary, he critiques representations of his home city.
Essay films sometimes exhibit a quality of vagrancy and drift, as if they are not wholly sure of what they want to say or of the language they need to say it, which may stem from their desire to let subject matter determine – or strongly influence – filmic form. Here, as in the frequent willingness to blur the distinction between documentation and fabulation, the essay film has much in common with “creative non-fiction”. The literary equivalents of Hartmut Bitomsky, director of a mysterious investigation of dust, and Patricio Guzmán whose Nostalgia for the Light (2010) draws on astronomy to chart the poisonous legacies of Pinochet‘s coup d’etat in Chile, are writers such as Sven Lindqvist, Eduardo Galeano and Geoff Dyer. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the most celebrated modern creative non-fiction authors was the subject of an equally ruminative, resonant essay film – Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2011).
Essay film-makers – among them the Dziga Vertov Group (whose members included Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin) or the brilliant Santiago Álvarez – are often motivated by political concerns, but their work is never couched in the language of social realism or the journalistic dispatch. It is never purely utilitarian and is more likely to offer invitations to thought than clarion calls for action: Godard and Gorin’s Letter to Jane (1972) decodes at length a single still photograph of Jane Fonda on a trip to Vietnam; Black Audio Film Collective’sHandsworth Songs proposes that behind the blaring headlines of riot footage in the British media there lie the “ghosts of other stories”; Harun Farocki‘s Images of the World and Inscription of War (1988) explores the interplay of technology, war and surveillance. Essay films can be playful, but even when they are serious – as these three are – their approaches, at once rigorous and open-ended, are thrilling rather than pedagogic.
Just as literary critics used to lament that critical theory was taken more seriously in France than in the UK, the renown of essayists such as Marker, Godard and Agnès Varda (whose The Gleaners and I, a witty and moving meditation on personal, technological and socio-political obsolescence is a masterpiece) has served to obscure the range and history of British contributions to the genre: the sonically exploratory, surrealism-tinged likes of Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934) and Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain (1942); Mike Dibb and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), which bears the imprint of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin; BS Johnson’s self-deconstructing Fat Man on a Beach (1973); Derek Jarman‘s exquisitely crepuscular Blue (1992), in which the director talks about and through his fading eyesight; and Marc Karlin’s resonant disquisition about cultural amnesia in For Memory (1986).
Some of these films started life on television, but these days it is the gallery sector that is more likely to commission or screen essay films, which are attracting ever more sizable audiences, especially younger people who have been weaned on cheap editing software, platforms such as Tumblr and the archival riches at YouTube and UbuWeb. Visually literate and semiotically savvy, they have tools – conceptual as well as technological – not only to critique and curate (moving) images, but to capture and assemble them. Having grown up in the era of LiveJournal and Facebook, they are also used to experimenting with personal identity in public; RSS feeds and news filters have brought them to a point where the essay film’s fascination with investigating social mediation and the construction of reality is second nature. It could well be that the essay film – for so long a bastard form, an unclassifiable and barely studied hybrid, opaque even to cinephiles – is ready to come into its own.