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: Science as Spectacle

A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter's Basilica, 1897  An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York

A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter’s Basilica, 1897
An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York

Ushered into the dark cinema of Birkbeck, the curious spectators witnessed Science as Spectacle. Over an hour and a half on the evening of Tuesday 19th May 2017, Jeremy Brooker, Chairman of the Magic Lantern Society, demonstrated the workings of the magic lantern.

He began by setting the scene with a brief history of the import of the magic lantern on society. He told the story of Faraday’s presentation in January 1846 to the Royal Institute and was not shy when it came to making it clear that, actually, technologically, what Faraday was displaying was nothing particularly impressive given the popular magic lantern shows taking place at the time.

And this was the crux of the presentation: the lantern’s dual purpose for both entertainment and research. The population were now able to see “actual experiments happening in real time before their eyes.” This capability of the magic lantern was displayed in an archive film of thawing ice. Now, through the magnification properties of the magic lantern, one could peer over the shoulder of an experimenter and see what was being done. Jeremy revealed that people of the time were particularly disturbed upon finding out what was living in their drinking water.

But at the same time, the magic lantern was also being used to show things that were not there. The more familiar history of the magic lantern is for its use in phantasmagoria shows, creating ghostly effects that titillated and terrified the audience. Jeremy and partner Caroline displayed the abilities of the magic lantern as entertainment and Birkbeck cinema witnessed popular magic lantern displays of distant lands, changing seasons and, yes, a vanishing ghost and skeleton or two.

What was remarkable about the display was how science and entertainment were so interlinked. The projectionists at the time realised the capabilities of their tool to both entertain and educate and so, for a time, the two went hand-in-hand. After we were shown the layers of matter that make up the human body, we were rewarded with a skeleton jumping a skipping rope. Similarly, whilst we admired the beautiful vistas of icy landscapes under the rippling Aurora Borealis we also learned something about the geography of distant lands. As the precursor to film and demonstration, the magic lantern projectionists knew that both entertainment and education were of equal importance, making the learning engaging and the enjoyment worthwhile, a lesson that is all too often forgotten on both sides today.

This is not to mention the technical ability of the projectionists themselves. Layering slides via three projectors, working the mechanics of the individual slides and managing the transitions required an artistry and practice that was as entertaining and impressive as anything appearing on the screen.

Ultimately, on Tuesday night we were shown not how the machine worked technically but what the magic lantern did for Victorian society. By not dwelling on the technicalities it remains a medium that is exciting, mysterious and indeed a little magical.

Jonathan Parr is studying jointly at Birkbeck and RADA on the Text and Performance MA

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Arts Week 2017: The contemporary: an exhibition

This post was contributed by Hafsa AlKhudairi, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Contemporary Literature and Culture

the-contemporaryThe exhibition featured multiple pieces that could be defined as both art pieces and theses.

My contemporary: student videos

During the autumn of 2016, the students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture were asked to create a short video that expresses their experience of the contemporary. Magdalena Sałata’s response, called “Reading (The Contemporary)”, literally shows the books that created her contemporary reading experience. My response, called “Fandom in The Contemporary” shows all the different ways people express their love to shows, books, movies, and comics. Annapurna Barry’s submission is the experience of an audience watching Rachel Maclean’s ‘Wot U 🙂 About’, expressing an enjoyment and an interaction with subversive and modern art. Nourhan Souk’s “Week 11” explores Peter Boxall’s statement in Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical introduction (2013): “When we look backwards out of a speeding car, the place we are occupying at any given time is a simple, lateral blur, which resolves itself into a picture only when we have left it behind, as it fades into the distance” (1-2). Finally, Samatha Bifolco’s contribution is both an observation about how the hairdressing industry has become creative and innovative using the stylings of the common street factions and turning it into a trend for the masses, commenting on humanity’s affinity to remix trends.

Remote action and reaction

Using a virtual reality headset and an iPhone, war becomes an entertainment and a game, yet this technology is used to train military personnel before they are shipped. For the bystander, it is just an interesting experience into a new type of gaming or a new way of exploring life. However, the exhibit highlights this new technology use in the military, bringing forth criticism towards remote warfare that desensitizes military personnel from the tragedy of war and the loss of human life, but at the same time helps save those who train in a safe environment before being thrust into war.

The expansion of narrative in the digital age by Hope Dinsey

Hope Dinsey breaks down their topic into print media’s reaction to digital, digital media and new fiction formats, fandom and changes to the narrative environment. This exhibit relates the changes in narration to the existence of the internet, for it created a more varied approach. The exhibit demonstrates how print media responded by becoming more creative and innovative in their physical books. Moreover, there was a rise of digital literature after the internet such as interactive fiction and hypertext fiction, presented with an original story by Dinsey. Lastly, the global existence of fan culture became accessible and was perpetuated by the reorientation of the canon in a creative and mostly inclusive manner.

Ghosts of the future: ruination and (re)creation by Daniel Pateman

Daniel Pateman created a multimedia exhibit that shows a video that shows the ruins of a past life and re-created scenes that could have happened in these sites of ruination. It shows the contemporary’s obsession with scenes of the past as a means of exploration of the futility of life and the speed in which things can change from prosperity to devastation. It’s also a reflection of not just physical dissolution, but a mental one too because of the desolate political landscape. However, the exhibit didn’t focus solely on the video; it was accompanied with images and poetry that explores the idea of ruination as well as display different stages of ruination, bring the theme to life.

It’s a Fairy Tale! by Aefifa Razzaq

The current political climate is filled with stories about the American government and children are listening to these stories. As a teacher, Aefifa Razzaq, felt compelled to confront the topic and explain how despite the overarching belief that we have become completely progressive and united, Donald Trump was still elected president with his racist, bigoted, and misogynistic opinions. What was created out of that was a bunch of students expressing their opinions on how influential he is in terms of his aptitude in swaying people’s opinion towards his view. The outcome was a book filled with quotes from past presidents stylized by one of Razzaq’s students.

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Arts Week 2017: Speaking in Brogues

This post was contributed by Hafsa Al-Khudairi, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Contemporary Literature and Culture

broguesMarina Warner opens the event with the definition of a brogue. It is a type of shoe that her father gave her mother, which is popular in England and a symbol of the start of their life in the country. The other meaning is a rustic accent that accompanies rural areas. Though Warner specifically emphasized that it should not be a pejorative word, but an expression of beauty and strength. Brogues at university level is the language people interact with and use to create an environment of integration.

Social Constructions and Burdens in Language:

Maria Aristodemou, who is interested in law, psychoanalysis and society, starts by exploring how alienating language can be for both foreigners and for the native speaker. Humans animals are limited by their use of language to express their desires for not all their wants can be expressed in this manner and they have no other means to do so. This makes all humans immigrants in the house language as even the native speaker has to learn from childhood how to use the language, so they are “doomed” by their restrictions. However, language is also built through a socially-constructed idea of identity that holds the historical and societal desires and expectations.

Language is about Sharing:

Mattia Gallotti, who is working on a project called The Human Mind, where he explores the differences between people of different disciplines, explores the idea that language is about sharing. Specifically sharing minds because it is what philosophers think discussions produce. Sharing minds is most effective when it is produced from sharing stories. There is a power in sharing because it produces difference and power. The more people exchange stories through language, the more they can change the world they live in and empower themselves and others. For him, this helps people create their own sense of self, including identity and culture, wherever they go, producing the feeling of a collective ‘we’.

Photography is a Bridge between Two Languages:

Rut Blees Luxemburg, who is a photographer, used her creative photographs to explore the idea of bridging the gap between the English and the German language. She explored themes of connecting marginality with water, the divine, culture, and poetic meanings. Water is related to how she remembers rivers that can connect places and transfer languages beyond the confines of the arbitrary lines that separate countries. Hence, Brogues is a reference to the ground and the soil, which is an attachment to a nation, but it is a sense of home through language, beyond the actual boundaries of the actual home.

The event ended with a Q&A about identity, the term ‘we’, personality, and strangers in a strange land, and their intersection with language. Identity was clarified as an unappeasable fantasy, but identification is real. Then, how many people associate ‘we’ with negative connotations, however, it does have positive communitive connotations as well. The conversation turned towards personalities and strangers. It was concluded that knowing multiple languages helps create patterns of personalities based on a person’s association with the language. Also, the romance of being a stranger is a privilege for the difference in language capabilities and accents helps categorize people into other beings and it can be detrimental to the sense of belonging. Still knowing different languages can help people communicate and sense a feeling of comradery when people find someone who understands them beyond grammar and syntax.

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