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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Land Rush

This post was contributed by Sonia Rothwell, an alumna of Birkbeck’s MSc International Security and Global Governance. This event was part of a series of film-screenings leading up to Surplus: A Sypmosium on Wealth, Waste and Excess, which takes place on 21 June.

There is sometimes a danger when discussing Africa and big business in the same sentence to see commerce as the hawkish outsider taking advantage of fragile or indeed non-existent governance. Hugo Berkley’s film, “Land Rush”, about agribusiness, produced for the Why Poverty? strand on BBC Four last year, has a more ambiguous, cautiously optimistic slant. Could big business bring big bucks to Mali and turn some of its smallholders into sugar cane growing specialists?

In the fascinating Q and A session after the film screening, with Birkbeck’s Isobel Tomlinson, Berkley admitted he had a whole raft more material and this already hot topic would certainly bear more airings. The thrust of the story is that land poor rich nations such as Saudi Arabia are leasing fertile tracts from countries such as Mali to feed their own populations.  The case studies Hugo Berkley has found represent the dilemma facing subsistence farmers whose own livelihoods and needs appear to be at odds with the ambitions and financial needs of their state. Some farmers appeared to back the project which was being developed by SOSUMAR (the Markala Sugar Company) while others complained of a land-grab. The balance of the film was fine: can development increase at the pace which Mali arguably needs without the involvement of the global private sector?

Tantalisingly, there was no conclusion to the story, the project which was to have brought sugar cane farming to Mali’s central region was delayed by bureaucracy and the outbreak of serious civil unrest: the investors moved elsewhere. And it is that same unrest which has exacerbated the food security situation recently with some NGOs estimating that one in five households in the North of the country is facing severe food shortages there. Could the food shortages trigger more long-term unrest, forcing families to migrate elsewhere, with all of the potentially unsettling consequences that suggests?

One has to question however, the decision to grow sugar cane. What is motivating nations like Ukraine to invest in these crops, is it to satisfy the appetites of domestic markets or is it to satisfy quotas on the production of bio-fuels (of which sugar cane is a source)? Another question which the film does not answer but which merits further discussion, is whether land in the world’s poorest countries ultimately is being used to help prop up global commodities corporations and if so, what can or should be done to regulate such trade?

The film is a curtain-raiser to Birkbeck’s upcoming event, Surplus: a Symposium on Wealth, Waste and Excess, a debate which promises to be as compelling as it is timely.

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