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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Violence, Memory and Commemoration: Perspectives from Southern, East and Central Africa

This post was contributed by Sarah Emily Duff, who graduated with a PhD in History from Birkbeck, in March 2011. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. She writes about food, history, and culture at Tangerine and Cinnamon.

On Friday 9 December, Birkbeck hosted the latest workshop in the Societies of Southern Africa: History, Culture, and Society seminar series. The series is organised by Wayne Dooling at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Rebekah Lee from Goldsmiths, and Birkbeck’s Hilary Sapire, who chaired Friday’s session.

The seminars focus on new research, and are a space for rethinking familiar themes within the scholarship on southern Africa. I presented a paper at the first workshop held to launch the series at SOAS in December 2009. Titled ‘Identities and Imaginaries in South Africa’, the workshop considered the construction of national, regional, and raced identities in South Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since then, the series has dealt with cities, urbanisation, and the anti-apartheid struggle. Friday’s workshop, ‘Violence, Memory and Commemoration: Perspectives from Southern, East and Central Africa’, was the first to broaden its scope beyond southern Africa. Each of the four papers focused on the politics of commemoration in four African nations, and the similarities between the examples were often more striking than the differences.

The first speaker was Rachel Ibreck from the University of Limerick. Her paper, ‘The Time of Mourning: The Politics of Commemorating the Tutsi Genocide’, looked at the ways in which the official annual mourning period for the 1997 Rwandan genocide, 7 to 13 April, is used and contested by a variety of groups both within and without Rwanda. For the Rwandan state, it is an opportunity to assert his legitimacy as a stable, democratic, and orderly government. State ceremonies emphasise unity and reconciliation, even if they privilege one memory of the genocide over others. But at regional ceremonies, the week is used to instil order and discipline in the provinces. For many Hutus, particularly those who live abroad, this is a week where non-participation is an act of resistance: a refusal to buy in to official narratives of remembrance which elide the ruling party’s involvement in the genocide.

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