Celebrating the legacy of African diaspora cinema

Dr Emma Sandon reports on the 2017 Black Film, British Cinema Conference, and considers the importance of the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive and the crowdfunding campaign to support it.

The 2017 Black Film, British Cinema Conference was recently held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), where I joined June Givanni in a discussion on the legacy of the original seminal conference of the same name almost 30 years ago. The conference focused on black film production and drew together a wide range of filmmakers, television commissioning editors and producers, cultural workers, academics and theorists to discuss the impact and politics of black film in Britain in the 1980s.

Givanni is a Guyanese-born, London-based film curator, a member of the Africa Movie Academy Award jury, an honourary Fellow at Birkbeck, and the driving force behind the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive. She used materials from the Archive to visually recreate the historical moment of the first ICA conference for the 2017 audience, and to discuss its importance today.

The Archive has partnered with the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, and is currently crowdfunding to get its catalogue searchable online. It has recently secured two grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of these fundraising initiatives.

John Akomfrah, filmmaker and artist, commented on the crowdfunding appeal, saying: ‘we tend to think of the past as something gone – a moment gone – but actually the past segues into the present, the past ghosts the present and that’s why archives matter.’

The June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive offers a key example of the issues in archival practices that need to be addressed today. It holds over 10,000 film and film-related artefacts, collected by June in her role as programmer and curator over a period of 35 years. The collection has grown over several decades of anti-colonial struggle and the emergence of African diaspora cinema, and thus provides an invaluable historical resource, making a significant contribution to our understanding of modern black identities. It showcases the work of black filmmakers, acts as an educational tool for students of all ages, and inspires filmmakers, curators, artists and other cultural workers.

June’s sustained commitment is a political intervention in creating a transnational collection that would otherwise not have emerged out of institutional archives interested in national heritage. Research at the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town shows the preservation and use of archives is deeply entangled in the politics of race and colonial histories. Calls to decolonise the archive, education and the universities in South Africa, such as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, resonate here in the UK.

Increasingly, archives from personal and subjective collections are being recognised as important to our sense of memory, questioning the idea of objective and rational state-owned archives as repositories of a nation’s history. Many institutions around the world are struggling to sustain the collections they have acquired, and to ensure accessibility to special collections donated to them. As a member of the archive’s Advisory Group, I have been involved in discussions as to how to translate the personal curatorship of this collection into a working infrastructure to sustain the archive and to find it a secure base. Most crucial to this process is its identity as a Pan African cinema archive, which celebrates its political energy in the moment of liberation from colonial rule.

June’s decision to keep her archive independent is to enable its future.

Donate to the crowdfunding campaign to help secure the future, independence and accessibility of the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive. 

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Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image: Winter term 2016

Kelli Weston, MA Film, Television and Media Studies graduate, reports on the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image’s (BIMI) recent events. 

This season the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) has hosted a variety of collaborative events, from special screenings to horror film-inspired lectures. From its inception, BIMI has aimed to address a broad range of issues within an interdisciplinary context. Here are just a few highlights from the past year:

  • On October 14, BIMI hosted the annual University of Pittsburgh lecture with Adam Lowenstein, who spoke to guests about the urban spaces of Detroit, Michigan and all its implications in the recent horror film It Follows (2014). The discussion touched on the film’s framing of scarcity within an unconventional landscape and contemporary connotations. Listen to Lowenstein’s talk and the following conversation.

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  • BIMI partnered with Birkbeck’s Sci/Film on October 28 to present a special Halloween screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) followed by a talk from Professor Alex Kacelnick of Oxford University on the nature of birds, complete with recordings.
  • On November 4, in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research and Dogwoof Pictures, BIMI presented The End of the Line (2009), a documentary based on Charles Clover’s 2006 book of the same title about the widespread decline in fish stocks around the world. After the screening of the film, Clover was in conversation with the BISR Guilt Group’s James Brown. You can find more information about the Guilt Group on their website.
  • On November 7, with the London Korean Film Festival, BIMI presented ‘Detours through the History of Korean Cinema’ a focus on essay films – My Korean Cinema (2006) by Kim Hong-Jun and Cinema on the Road: A Personal Essay on Cinema in Korea (1995) by Jang Sun-woo –  which both explore and interrogate the history of Korean cinema.
  • On November 11, just in time for filmmaker John Berger’s 90th birthday, BIMI and the Derek Jarman Lab presented Seasons of Quincy: The Four Portraits of John Berger followed by a symposium the next day where a group of panellists discussed Berger’s legacy as a broadcaster, activist, artist and art critic while showing clips of his work over the years.

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  • On December 2, BIMI and Dogwoof Pictures presented The Age of Stupid (2009), Franny Armstrong’s drama-documentary-animation hybrid film starring Pete Postlethwaite about the last man on earth pondering the consequences of human apathy toward climate change.
  • On December 10, as part of the Children’s Film Club and the Irish Film Festival, BIMI screened Song of the Sea (2014) followed by a free shadow puppet theatre.
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Records of War: Film, History and the Art School

Conny Klocker, intern at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) and PhD candidate at the School of Law writes on a recent screening of 1930s propaganda film. 

As part of the UCL Festival of Culture, the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) was showing two propaganda films about the Italian invasion in Abyssinia in 1935/36 according to a programme first presented at the London Film Society in 1937. One film depicted a Soviet account of the events from the Abyssinians’ perspective, the other from the invaders, the fascist Italian perspective.

The screening itself presented a difficult task for the two projectionists, who were doing a live montage of the films. Having to perform quick changes of 35mm film rolls, to work with two projectors at once, to rewind film rolls to the exact starting point and to turn projectors on ahead of their use to get their motor warmed up over and over again certainly includes complex manoeuvres which they performed brilliantly. In that sense, the Record of War screening could be rather seen as a performance by the two projectionists, not just as a screening.

In 1937, Thorold Dickinson, the director of the programme shown at the London Film Society, saw an opportunity to confront his ‘fashionable Sunday audience’ with a challenging screening programme. The films were shown in dialogue to each other, with one depiction of, for instance the preparations for the war from the Italian side, followed by the war preparations undertaken by the Abyssinians. The chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Italian side followed by their impact on Abyssinian civilians. This direct interaction illustrated the contradicting narratives of the same event. And the audience in 1937 was seemingly not prepared for it. As one of the organisers of this year’s event, Henry K. Miller, pointed out, 1937 was ‘a time when seeing was often equated with believing’. Film material on recent affairs was shown to the public only occasionally, for instance in cinemas before the start of the film screening.

Taking up on this aspect, the reconstruction of the programme in 2017 (the third time that the programme has been shown in this form at all) appears timely. Although seeing does not equate with believing in today’s reality, it is rather a form of seeing but not believing. The sheer amount of film material on current affairs on offer on news portals or sometimes rather flooding one’s social media accounts might well lead to a certain degree of scepticism. Of mistrust or suspicion towards “the media”.

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However, the challenge presented to the audience in 1937 and the audience today has remained the same. It is a question of making up one’s own mind. Of consciously deciding to take a stand. And that of course, means to defend it if challenged. Today it appears that more and more people do not want to engage with their environment in that sense and most discussions on political issues come to a quick halt after everyone has repeated the most recent one-liners. Anything going further than that is rather considered an annoyance, something people do not want to engage with in their spare time.

The resurgence of such sentiments requires to be challenged. And events such as the Record of War screening can contribute to that aim. Seeing the themes coming up during the invasion of Abyssinia and the way in which they were communicated by fascist as well as Soviet propaganda, one is invited to reflect on the presentation and narration of current affairs. Of the glorious restoration of peace in Abyssinia by the Italians or the struggle for independence of the Abyssinians, trying to fight against foreign occupation and colonisation. Similarly, there are quite a few issues today which are framed in such contradicting, opposing ways by various interest groups. The question here is then, if one decides to take those narratives as presented and to repeat them unfiltered, or, if one decides to question those narratives and to take a stance.

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Arts Week 2017: Dematerialising Theatre with Andy Smith

This post was contributed by Elinor Perry-Smith

glass-of-waterSeeing this remarkable event and hearing Andy Smith talk about his experience and practice gave this particular playwright much to consider. Don’t get me wrong: I love props and spectacle in theatre. There’s something quite magical and transporting about well-thought props and costumes. Also the way in which actors embody the characters we create and say the word we have written for them to speak. But even so, where does the ‘theatre’ actually take place?

Andy Smith averred to an enthusiastic audience at Birkbeck’s Arts Week that it takes place in the audience. That the action, the drama, is not just unfolding in front of the audience, it is taking place inside them as well. To that end, the audience therefore (as I understand it) becomes part of the performance. This privileges audience experience and involvement of course, and makes the performance an exciting phenomenon, evolving before our very eyes, ears, minds and hearts, changing with each performance because the audience changes each time and therefore brings a different set of reactions, sensibilities, and willingness (or not) to participate.

Andy Smith himself is open, warm and funny yet I felt that dematerialised theatre has the potential for psychodynamic effect in all its participants and therefore may not be for everyone. Of course, I could be wrong about this. Andy used a cooking analogy: dematerialised theatre is like a sauce reducing and reducing. The result may not be to everyone’s taste. One phrase certainly stuck with me. It’s not about ‘less is more’ but about doing ‘more with less’. Props and people become representational of objects. Is it any less authentic a ‘performance’ than Robert De Niro wearing underpants made by Al Capone’s underwear maker?

Conversely, how does all this change the experience of the playwright, producers and actors of such a piece? Andy spoke of how plays might be performed by non-actors with scripts in hand and no prop above the size of a show; without the distractions of elaborate props, the attention is sharply focused on the action of the play and the feelings it engenders in the audience. I suppose a cinematic equivalent would be the ‘Dogme’ films where only natural light and sound is allowed. Or even the stage-like markings of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, where the audience is compelled to imagine the sets.

Andy demonstrated dematerialised theatre to the audience, who willingly participated in the impromptu ‘performance’ that started with the transformation of a glass of water into a tree and ended with an audience member transforming into Miss Julie. It seemed to this participant that it spoke to a very primal understanding of story. One that developed in our earliest days as hunter-gatherers when stories and drama were orally enacted and so our imaginations broadened exponentially as a result. It was utterly fascinating to witness and certainly gave me the urge to research the whole process further.

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