Yearning For A Different Time
As if I needed to add any more underdocumented, underdistributed, theoretically ambitious collectives of political minded independent filmmakers to my list of things overstuffing my brain, I recently came across the work of the Black Audio Film Collective. I had heard of their film Seven Songs of Malcolm X before, but knew nothing of its connection to the agenda of a larger group. As part of one of my independent studies this semester I pursued as many roads into Afro-futurism (see Timeless post) as possible and came across the film Last Angel of History, directed by John Akomfrah (note his oh so sexy accent).
The film won my heart over easily with an intentionally strange coloration embracing the unnaturalistic potential of video and a narration told through a character called the Data Thief from the far future. Last Angel counted among its interviewees as diverse figures as George Clinton, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Kodwo Eshun, and Samuel Delaney (among others). Oh yes and it involved time travel and the idea that by poring through the tradition of black music within this country a code for understanding the universe is discoverable.
When I started to look more into John Akomfrah I discovered that this work, along with many of his others were created out of the combined efforts of the BAFC. As I tried to find out more about the group, I found their work hard to get my hands on and that not a lot of literature has been produced on them, but I was able to find a book co-edited by Kodwo Eshun produced as the documentation of a retrospective created of their work in 2007 the Ghost of Songs. The book includes several critical essays, a complete bibliography along with screenings, and a compilation of the collected critical writings of the group. As I learned more, I realized the BAFC constitutes a link for most of my current scholarly and personal interests. They were a group of British intellectuals and filmmakers of color concerned with exploring the limitations of Britishness, especially in the face of blackness and the immigrant experience and exploring the potential for expanding and questioning the construction of blackness within art as well as society. Their films include Paul Gilroy, Tricia Rose, and Robin DG Kelley who I am currently in the process of trying to institute as intellectual ancestors for myself. Arthur Jafa, who was one of a group of talented filmmakers of African Descent who began collaborating at UCLA film school that includes Charles Burnett and Julie Dash, served as cinematographer for some BAFC films.
Ghost of Songs served well as a transition from my time as archivist to TA for the youth filmmaking classes because the BAFC consistently returned to the archive as a major site of intervention for their works, but they also consciously positioned themselves as activist and outside of art-world/academic spaces. Their first work Signs of the Empire involved layering gels upon still images pulled from archives of British colonial history and narration that denaturalized and recontextualized the visual representations of the empire as well as the colonized. Their first film Handsworth Songs dealt with the 1986 riots in Handsworth, Birmingham using archived footage taken of immigrants as they arrived in Britain from newsreels and institutional sources. Here they share a relationship to this footage similar to the historiographical concerns articulated with Mining the Home Movie.
As drawn as I am to their films, at least the few I can get my hands on, the model of the BAFC itself intrigued me to an almost equal degree. They emerged in a period of collectives and workshops from filmmakers of African Descent supported by the Greater London Council that also included Sankofa Films (which Isaac Julien was a part of) and Retake films among others. At some later post I think I want to explore more the legacy of state funding of the arts, particularly film, in Britain and why it is so much better than ours (one name is an initially good response: John Grierson). It also brings to mind the issues at stake in the arts funding or “Creativity Stimulus” tip Jeff Chang has recently been on.
The BAFC not only produced works, but they held workshops that included a mix of technical training and conceptual discussion. These workshops particularly targeted working class people of color to address the great deficits of access for these communities. Handsworth Songs was produced to, among other things, be shown on public television. The picture above shows their works, though they very much engage in the rich visual experimentation that usually considered only the domain of the avant-garde, were not relegated to smaller, isolated, elite spaces. BAFC understood the disservice that radicals and independent filmmakers are paid when not only knowledge, but the means of knowledge production are not shared out across as many audiences as possible- particularly working class audiences.
And now I finally get back to the supposed subject of this post, how this relates to my experience as an intern. What impressed me most about the EPFC when I first encountered it and listened to Paolo Davanzo explain how it came about was how incredibly politically subversive the center is. Paolo contextualizes the center as his way of continuing the Leftist political work of his parents, but beyond that the EPFC safely passes under the radar of most of the attacks that radical work usually attracts. Nothing is more empowering in this overmediated age than democratizing the means of production and image-making. It consistently blows my mind to talk to the students who study at the center because they ask smarter visual questions of the work they see than the majority of media studies students graduating with me this year. Not only do they approach visual media as creators, not passive consumers, but they also understand representation as political. I won’t easily forget the first day I met some of the student of the class I am assistant teaching and they were working on a sock puppet project from another class. The sock puppets wandered through the forced labor of chinese railroad workers and the film ended with an indigenous character refusing to help the main character because he is sick of native american representations being limited to noble savage and wise sage.
In this sense, my title might be misleading. Though I would love to be part of some of the energy that British funders supported, I also recognize this work lives on in spaces like the one I am currently fortunate enough to work within.