Rep Diary: Black Audio Film Collective
The trailblazing Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) formed at Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982 before graduating and moving to a converted warehouse space in East London’s Hackney. Comprised of seven multimedia artists and thinkers from backgrounds in sociology, fine art, and psychology (John Akomfrah, Reece Auguiste, Edward George, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Claire Joseph and Trevor Mathison), they curated programs of avant-garde world cinema and created their own work using slide-tape texts, videos and films.
The group emerged amidst a peculiarly contradictory time for British society. On the one hand, the British Film Institute’s production board and the launch of independent terrestrial station Channel 4 provided fecund ground for artistic creativity, while the signing of the ACCT Workshop Declaration guaranteed funding and audience development for diverse filmmaking collectives like BAFC and the all-Asian group ReTake. On the other, Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing administration was busy developing its commitment to free-market ideology, and racially-motivated riots had been tearing through a number of the country’s urban areas, threatening a full-on culture war.
Inspired by theoreticians like Stuart Hall and Antonio Gramsci as much as avant-garde filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Derek Jarman, BAFC seized on this climate of unease to create a questioning aesthetic which was left-leaning yet refused self-righteous didacticism. They would blend cascading montage and complex sonic experimentation with personal reflections on memory, immigration, and post-colonialism to forge a sub-genre of mostly nonfiction filmmaking that remains distinctive to this day. BAFC operated in various, often competing cultural spaces, including art galleries, television, and the film festival circuit, with the occasional theatrical release mixed in. At no point were they a mainstream concern. “The UK film world seemed largely unable to handle a manifestation of black cinema which didn’t cleave to the well-trodden path of anti-racist social realism,” wrote Gill Henderson, the former creative director of Liverpool’s Foundation for Creative Technology (FACT), in a foreword to the 2007 book The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective.
Handsworth Songs, which premiered on Channel 4 in 1986, was directed by Akomfrah (who would maintain this role in all BAFC output), and focused on the civil unrest that had occurred in the British Midlands district in 1981 and 1985. It is a ferocious work, and one of the first films to be clearly inspired by Stuart Hall’s efforts to analyze the ideological threads in representational approach of mass media materials, which he referred to as decoding. The film mixes archival film and newsreels (mostly of postwar immigrants going about their business) with found video of events surrounding the riots, and footage of the media’s reaction to them. It’s a bracing bricolage of sonic, thematic and visual dissonance that invites the viewer to consider how mainstream news reduces deep-rooted social unrest to simplified imagery and concepts. Handsworth Songs seemed especially prescient when Britain once more erupted into riots in the summer of 2011. As in 1985, the riots were triggered by police violence, and, again, the 1985 denunciations of the riots as senseless, motiveless criminal acts were repeated, almost verbatim, by a number of politicians including Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
Who Needs a Heart
Handsworth’s refusal to lecture the audience is a tenet that recurs in Who Needs a Heart (91), which dabbles in fiction narrative but may better be described as a refracted docudrama. It’s ostensibly about Michael X (aka Michael DeFreitas), the self-styled revolutionary and civil-rights activist of the Sixties, but he operates as the film’s structuring absence, visible only in sparingly used archival footage and photography. Instead the film offers a chronologically oblique study of a multiracial, London-based group of his acolytes in the Sixties and early Seventies, who serially drink, fight, and fuck in lieu of having coherently expressed political opinions.
Though beautifully shot in saturated colors and filled with stately, graceful camera moves, it is a bleak, slurred hangover of a film: overcast like the inclement British weather, and riven with ambiguity. It’s leery of the British Black Power movement, and makes some sour gibes at the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. Trevor Mathison’s sound design is to the fore, with music largely standing in for dialogue. His interweaving of jazz into the narrative is particularly effective, and seems to pose the question: why imagine words when the squawking, feral horns of Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, or Ornette Coleman evoke the pain, paranoia, and unresolved tension of the characters and the era well enough?
Seven Songs for Malcolm X
The BAFC’s next film, Seven Songs for Malcolm X (92) is a documentary-essay film that’s conventional only when matched against the rest of the group’s esoteric output. Framed around Malcolm X, which was released the year before, Seven Songs somewhat cheekily positions itself as a critique of Lee’s very mainstream representation of the famed orator, but not necessarily a hostile one—Lee appears as a talking head. In keeping with BAFC’s commitment to multivalency, Akomfrah gives us a variety of Malcolms: footage of his impassioned speeches, excerpts from his autobiography read by actor Giancarlo Esposito, contemporary reflections from friends, fans and associates, and, most daringly, an imagined version (lookalike Darrick Harris), who appears in a series of Jarman-esque, expressionistically lit tableaus. Unlike Lee’s film, it doesn’t attempt to cast the man as a heroic, definable figure; instead, it allows him to be many things to many people, and foregrounds his internationally minded approach. Akomfrah places particular importance on Malcolm’s trips to Africa between 1959 and 1965, which motivated his change in political philosophy from black national separatism to international co-operation.
The most recent work in BAM’s program, essay film The Stuart Hall Project (13), is a production by Smoking Dogs Films, the collective that sprang from the embers of the BAFC after it disbanded in 1998. It echoes Who Needs a Heart and Seven Songs as an unorthodox, quasi-biographical portrait of a fascinating 20th century black figure, but is elegiac and wistful in tone. It is characterized by the deep personal respect felt by Akomfrah toward the subject, who is a rare example of a black British public intellectual. “For many of my generation in the 1970s, [Hall] was one of the few people of color we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing, or running. His very iconic presence . . . suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities,’” Akomfrah wrote in the press notes accompanying the film’s U.K. release. The editing is seductively elliptical, and the film draws on hundreds of hours of archival footage and audio, all of which features Hall.
The Stuart Hall Project
The Stuart Hall Project functions simultaneously as a study of Hall’s mixed experiences with notions of “Britishness” as a postwar immigrant from Jamaica, and an exploration of the development of his theoretical ideas in line with some of the major geopolitical events of the 20th-century. Already rich with melancholy thanks to the minor-key music of Miles Davis, the film has assumed an additional poignancy in light of the recent passing of its subject at the age of 82. When, discussing the cyclical nature of national politics, Hall states that “each new configuration contains masses of the old,” it’s as much an example of his searching intelligence as a comment on the ceaselessly thought-provoking films of Akomfrah and company: their oeuvre exhibits a rich continuum of thought, form and theme.