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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Arts Week 2017: Underground Films from the Barrelstout Archive (1968-2016)

Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers have been making underground films together performing as themselves and/or with their friends since the early 1990s.  Under the name Barrelstout Productions (formally known as Pitbull Productions), their super 8 films fashion what they like to call a ‘home-made aesthetic’. With two new films to show in the Arts Week film programme, their present count of 27 short films (or ‘quickies’, if you like) is no mean feat.  Bev (who is an Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at Birkbeck) and her partner and collaborator Sara came to the Birkbeck Cinema on the first Monday of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 to show a cornucopia of queer feminist experimental films from their extensive archive.

As is usual with Barrelstout screenings, on arrival we were given a brightly coloured (this time pink) hand out that carefully listed the evening’s running order of films with brief synopses, as well as information on Bev Zalcock/Pitbull Productions/Barrelstout’s complete filmography dating back to Zalcock’s suitably titled first film Untitled, from 1968.

In the programme notes, they write: “Our film influences are various, ranging from Early Cinema, Soviet Montage, The American Underground and the best elements of Exploitation Cinema. We like to think that our films try to pay tribute to key moments and movements in cinema’s history, as well as our own lives. They are, we hope, experimental, comical and maybe political”.

Bev & Sara whipped through nine films with pithy intros in just over 60 minutes, so instead of reviewing each film shown, here are a few personal highlights from the evening.

The programme started with Rose Tinted (2007) a tender homage to American artist Joseph Cornell’s experimental collage film Rose Hobart (1936). A delightful, theatrical, found footage piece that merges avant-garde and feminist film theory where Anita Ekberg is re-worked into the narrative to create a feminist consciousness and, arguably, a feminist aesthetic.

The Deep Purple Film (2012). Courtesy of Barrelstout

The Deep Purple Film (2012). Courtesy of Barrelstout

Following on was a film from Bev’s teenage years The Deep Purple Film (2012), described as ‘autobiographical moments in Bev’s adolescence’.  Set to Nino Tempo and April Stevens 1962 hit tune ‘The Deep Purple Song’, this poignant film that plays with abstraction explores feelings of isolation, family and identity through an archive of family photographs. “It is what academics would call the transience of memory”, Bev postscripts with a wink at the film’s introduction.

At a running time of 9 minutes, The Psycho-Delic Trilogy was the longest film of the evening, consisting of three wonderful shorts (two which were world premieres) that deftly focused on the experimental tropes of colour, light and rhythm. Southwark Spring (2016), a psychedelic landscape film shot in Bermondsey, burst pink and white blossom out of the frame. Shot on slide and transferred to super 8, this nature ‘quickie’ is a celebration and memento to the glorious primary colours only captured on analogue.  Sara Gets Carried Away (2017) is a remake of Sara Gets Carried Away (2007), a structural film of sorts, in which the film’s medium is explored. Real ITV footage of Sara being dragged away by the police at an NUJ demonstration is repeated on a loop with music from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), evoking a semi-meditative yet strange atmosphere. The final film in the trilogy Liz – Moments in Transfigured Time (2017) was a moving portrait of one of Bev’s oldest friends Liz. With a nod to Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), the film is a tender study of long-term female friendship. Lovingly captured through a simple shot of Liz sitting on a sofa drinking red wine, the film evokes early memories of their time spent together “when we were young, listening to Beefheart music”, Bev adds.

The evening’s screening was a delight. The cinema was full of Bev and Sara’s long-term friends and collaborators (Carol Morley, Cairo Cannon, Val Phoenix), as well as new audiences. The specialness of a Barrelstout screening is that due to copyright infringements none of their films are available on line. “We can’t show stuff online” Sara says, “as we would be dragged to the clink”, so they need to be watched collectively in a cinema. Regardless of the heated debates about the future of cinema coming out of Cannes right now regarding Netflix, to come together to experience Barrelstout’s particular aesthetic of queer feminist punk cinema feels radical, resistant and restorative, every time.

“We want our films to be enjoyed and we want to convey the enjoyment we experience in making them. To misquote Marilyn Tweedie “We require filmic pleasure!”

Some Barrelstout films are available through Cinenova, otherwise contact them directly.

Selina Robertson is a film PhD candidate in FMACS,  School of Arts at Birkbeck.

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It Follows – University of Pittsburgh annual lecture

This article was contributed by Kelli Weston, an MPhil Film and Screen Media student

university-of-pittsburgh-annual-lecture2016-9927-resizedIn October, BIMI hosted the University of Pittsburgh’s annual lecture with a special talk by Adam Lowenstein’s on David Robert Mitchell’s film It Follows (2014). Shot and set in Detroit, Michigan, the film’s environmental implications often take a backseat to the thrill of its monsters, killings, and gore. Lowenstein’s talk, entitled ‘A Detroit Landscape with Figures: The Subtractive Horror of It Follows’, places the film firmly within the contemporary political and social climate of Detroit, a city that has, in recent years, become synonymous with scarcity and desolation.

This scarcity is glaringly felt in It Follows, introduced by the event’s moderator Professor Roger Luckhurst as ‘the best horror film of the last ten years.’ The independent thriller concerns Jay (Maika Monroe) who learns early in the film that her new boyfriend has passed on a curse to her through sex. The curse can take any human form – in fact, ‘It’ often takes the shape of its victims’ relatives – and preys upon the haunted at a slow, deliberate pace. This slow pace allows victims a chance to run, but sooner or later with unwavering persistence ‘It’ always returns. The only way to transfer the curse is by having sex, but the reprieve is only temporary since when ‘It’ finally kills one victim it returns to haunt the previous.

Most critics have noted the parallels to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, but Lowenstein contends that the true symbolic and literal horror of the film is the widespread emptiness, particularly underscored by the depleted population in urban spaces, ‘the loss of community.’ He argues further that economic grief has trapped the denizens of this area historically, as evidenced in the scene where Jay and her friends attempt to electrocute the creature by dumping all their household appliances in the pool where they trap It. ‘Their inventory is more in line with the black and white television sets and the 1950s-era programming they watch than common consumer items of the present day,’ says Lowenstein, mentioning the old movie theater, the old cars, and lack of computers and use of the Internet.

Of particular note, Lowenstein acknowledged the glaring absence of diversity in a city where the population is overwhelmingly African-American. Lowenstein laments this as one of the film’s shortcomings and Luckhurst reads this as a classically Gothic illustration of where ‘white patriarchy goes wrong.’ Lowenstein agrees the all-white places that the characters inhabit is already a ‘sign of decline’.

Further information:

  • Listen to a recording of the event (including questions from the audience)
  • Adam Lowenstein is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Dreaming of Cinema: Spectatorship, Surrealism, and the Age of Digital Media (Columbia University Press, 2015), Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film (Columbia University Press, 2005), as well as numerous articles in journals and anthologies
  • Roger Luckhurst is a professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck. He is an internationally recognized expert in the Gothic and science fiction, as well as the author of The Invention of Telepathy 1870-1901 (Oxford University Press, 2002), The Trauma Question (Routledge, 2008), and The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy (Oxford University Press, 2012). He is also the editor of several popular classics such as Late Victorian Gothic Tales (2005), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde (2006), Dracula (2011) and H. P. Lovecraft’s Classic Horror Tales (May 2013)
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Avatar Activism: Limits and Possibilities

This post was contributed by Thomas Travers, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. He tweets at @TWLTravers

Avatar ActivismCrystal Bartolovich (University of Syracuse) opened her lecture last Wednesday (June 15th) at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities with a screening of the narratively condensed trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar. This abridged version of the film, in turn, formed the key reference point around which her presentation on the limits and possibilities of ‘Avatar Activism’ revolved.

Coined by American media theorist Henry Jenkins, ‘Avatar Activism’ describes a strategy whereby social justice movements appropriate images from popular culture and put them into service for struggles in the real world. Jenkins first proposed the term in response to a filmed re-enactment of Cameron’s blockbuster movie in the occupied village of Bil’in. Appearing in the likeness of the embattled Na’vi, Palestinian and Israeli activists stunningly rewrote Avatar as an allegory for the ongoing dispossession experienced by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Opposed to an august Frankfurt School style dismissal of Avatar as industrial spectacle, Jenkins detects within its globally distributed imagery of green anti-imperialism the raw material for a democratic ‘participatory culture’. Participation here refers to the dramatic re-contextualisation, or well-nigh hacking or glitching of the Hollywood cultural form, a tactic that enables oppressed people to re-narrate their struggles through the libidinal apparatus of the culture industry, shocking audiences into a heightened awareness of injustice. Affective and emotional investment in the symbolic realm inexorably leads, in Jenkin’s argument, to progress in the material world.

Yet is it precisely the efficacy of this seamless transition from symbolic gratification to social intervention that Bartolovich wanted to complicate in her bracing account of contemporary climate politics. Situating Avatar within debates surrounding the Anthropocene, Bartolovich highlighted a damaging rift between a symbolic recognition of the imperative to drastically cut carbon emissions and the minimal purchase this recognition has had in actuality. In order to arrest the unsustainable levels of energy consumption in the gated communities of the global North, Bartolovich forecasted the necessary implementation of unpopular, top down, draconian measures. And it is on questions of cost, of consent, of sacrifice that she finds ‘Avatar Activism’ desperately inadequate.

Dialectic of Utopia and Ideology

Where others might have chastised Jenkin’s work as the ‘intellectualisation of amusement’, Bartolovich provided an immanent critique of his thesis and a salutary reminder as to how easily the utopian qualities of cultural texts can reverse into ideological reconciliation with the present. Avatar’s ecological consciousness is typically considered to reside in the successful opposition of the Na’vi to the technological degradation and exploitation of Nature. This antagonism, however, may not be as stark as it at first seems. Nature on Pandora is, in a sense, always already technology: for each weapon or communicational network the colonisers have, the Na’vi have an analogous one. The message, as Bartolovich points out, is clear; not only do the Na’vi want nothing, but that their harmonious relationship with an intensified nature amounts to a purer, superior form of life. As T.J. Clark has recently argued in a series of lectures presented at Birkbeck, the land of Cockaigne is the fantasy of a world already cooked, where the need for sweat, labour, and toil has been thoroughly abolished. What should alarm us about the inscription of such codes in Avatar is that they perpetuate a delusion that the North can shrink its carbon footprint without any serious alteration to its current levels of consumption. Utopian resistance cartwheels into ideological containment as the necessary sacrifices of any viable climate politics are massaged into something more palatable entirely. Avatar offers, in other words, a reassuring image of an improved nature that is already dormant in the present, repressing the inevitable deprivations and constraints that would accompany a concerted effort to avert the worst permutations of the Anthropocene.      

Disavowing Defeat 

Another challenge to the endorsement of Avatar develops out of the observation that the military hardware of the sky people is surprisingly outdated. Where one might expect the fully automated arsenal of drone, chemical, and biological weapons, Cameron mobilises tanks, infantry, and helicopters. Coupled with the astounding ability of the Na’vis’ arrows to penetrate armoured vehicles, Avatar recodes the indigenous encounter with empire—a history of decimation, massacre, and genocide—with triumphant resistance. This aesthetic sleight of hand simultaneously disavows the asymmetry of such conflicts and, in doing so, implies that the vanquished were defeated on account of their own failings. The Bil’in video concludes with the Na’vi protesters doubled up, choking on tear gas; a potent reminder of the lethal economy that the armed state apparatus deals in. Bartolovich pointedly adds that the pristine Eden of Pandora is itself a phantasmagoric revision of the slums and toxic landscapes that the precarious communities of late capitalism are likely to inhabit. There is, then, a significant discontinuity between the types of imaginary identification entertained by the symbolic text of Avatar and the impoverished and defeated reality of the global surplus population.

Possibilities?

Bartolovich convincingly demonstrated the inadequacy of Jenkin’s proposed ‘Avatar Activism’, highlighting its inability to overcome the gap between symbolic attitude and material action. Cameron’s movie offers a green politics shorn of sacrifice, the fantasy of a world already made that the consumer can occupy without detriment to their present lifestyle. Confronted with the dilemmas of climate catastrophe, Avatar conjures away the negative, presenting an altogether agreeable impression of a greener, less alienated form of consumption. What of the possibilities? Against the ‘naïve’ interpretation of the plight of the Bil’in protesters as commensurable with the Na’vi, Bartolovich contends that the video détourns Hollywood spectacle. Wrenched out of its universalising context, the activists expose the particularity of Cameron’s movie, render visible the human damage, loss, and defeat the film silences, making perceptible the material costs the film seeks to vanish. The Bil’in video captures the uncooked raw material of a world in which radical social change can only be achieved through the sacrifices of collective action.

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