Black Film Bulletin Series, Part 1: Interconnectivity

Posted on November 19, 2020

Categories: General

Founded by editors Dr. June Givanni and Gaylene Gould, the Black Film Bulletin was first published at the BFI in 1993. An essential space for critical commentary around developments in new Black cinema and Pan African Cinema histories, celebrating the dynamism and creativity unfolding in film across the African Diaspora, the BFB documented a significant renaissance moment in Black filmmaking culture and operated as an incredibly valuable national and international community hub. 

Publication ceased around the turn of the millennium, but now the Black Film Bulletin is coming back. ICO Director Catharine Des Forges spoke to its co-founder June Givanni, Curator and Director of June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive; Melanie Hoyes, Industry Inclusion Executive at BFI and Jan Asante, Curator at Think Cinematic for part one of an extended conversation about their individual histories with the BFB, the path to realising the new iteration and their hopes for it now.

The cover of the BFB’s summer 1996 issue © Black Film Bulletin

Catharine Des Forges: I loved the Sight & Sound article and I think it’s fantastic that the Black Film Bulletin (BFB) is coming back. Jan and Mel, when did you first encounter the BFB and what impact did it have on you? 

Melanie Hoyes: When I started at the BFI about four years ago, I was working on a research project on the representation of black actors on screen. I came to the role thinking ‘there’ll be loads of stuff, I’ll just fall into all of this knowledge,’ and I was a bit taken aback that actually, there wasn’t that much. But, when I went into the BFI Library, looking for the history and for starting points for my research, the BFB was right there, first up on the shelf. I started asking questions about what had happened to it and what had come in its place – where was that thought and those ideas and that knowledge about Black film in Britain now? There’s all this amazing stuff in the BFB, not only interviews with filmmakers and producers but also information about what’s coming out at the cinema, what’s in production and what’s on TV, so this revealing of what Black British content was out at that time and I just felt like that was really missing now.

Jan Asante: I first knew about the BFB in 2010 when I met June. We were part of a group project called the Underground Railroad started by Gaylene Gould, co-founder of the BFB. June had a really great installation that she produced as part of the project that featured the BFB and I was struck that I hadn’t heard of it before. In the mid-90s/early 2000s when I was coming of age, Black Filmmaker Magazine was the only print publication that I knew of that was similar in spirit (started by Menelik Shabazz, one of the founding fathers of the Ceddo Workshop in the Black Film Workshop era) so to find there was something that preceded it was great – but there was also a sadness in knowing that it was no longer in print and wasn’t available digitally. June and I have had a kind of rolling conversation for the past 10 years about how to bring it back, so it’s really great that – 10 years on! – it’s finally coming to some kind of re-manifestation.

“The really special thing about the bulletin was that it occupied multiple spaces and joined the dots of a really big diaspora. It wasn’t just a magazine publication, it really was a hub”

CDF: June, how does it feel for you to see it coming back now?

June Givanni: I think it’s great. Obviously everything has changed, technology has changed, methods of communication have changed and so its role will too. The BFB really was a bulletin that kept people up to date about what was happening around Black film – in both production and  consumption – before social media. Of course people would come to specific hubs, and the BFI’s African Caribbean unit was a hub of information for filmmakers and also for potential curators and audiences. The featured articles were really the most important element of the BFB, and those will still be key – but I think there’s still a need for information as well, because although social media now exists to give people brief updates on certain topics, you maybe don’t get enough detail or context. But a bulletin means something different in this time and digital age, and so we will be shaping it slightly differently.

JA: To me, the really special thing about the bulletin was that it occupied multiple spaces. It was scholarly in that it read a little like a literary review, but it was also a place where you had filmmakers and academics and cultural critics weighing in – alongside, at the back of the magazine, a production schedule of all the ongoing festivals. It was this space, created by Gaylene and June, that joined the dots of a really big diaspora. It was British-based, obviously really well placed at the BFI, and it was doing this amazing thing – it wasn’t just a magazine publication, it really was a hub.

CDF: How did discussions of the new BFB come about, and how will it be delivered? 

MH: This year, we did the piece in the Sight & Sound edition that was seeking to highlight voices in this space and that started off an internal conversation about it. Sight & Sound have been massively supportive and are really keen to give us the space. So we’re looking at doing a quarterly section in S&S over the next year that will start to bring it to light and help us see how we can revive it properly. There’s also been a huge amount of external interest since we started looking at this three years ago, especially from academics and people who write about this landscape but have very few places to put it.

JG: Just to add, in addition to the new BFB, the back copies have been digitised too, so we’ll be making those available on the site so people can access them. We’ll be doing that on a monthly basis over the next couple of years, so as the new BFB develops, people will be able to reference the older ones as well, which is very important.

The contents spread from the summer 1994 issue © Black Film Bulletin

CDF: That’s brilliant news. Jan and Mel, can I ask you what elements of the original BFBs would you like to keep in the next iteration? Given that it was a different time and we’re in a much more digital age now, what are the things you’d like to continue? 

MH: As Jan said, I think the idea of it being a hub, bringing together all those different points of view, and celebrating the work that’s happening now, is very important. Even on social media, following the things I do and working where I work, you still miss things because information is so spread out, and the joy of the BFB was that it linked everything and was somewhere you could go if you were interested. I think we spend a lot of time talking about how little representation there is, and what I’m interested in is bringing to light what there is and celebrating that. For me, that’s one of the most important things it can do, is bring together all those elements and highlighting positive stories instead of constantly talking about lack, which we do a lot of in this space.

“The people you highlight make their own way into the future. It’s really important to be able to look back and see the connections between the past and what’s happening now”

JA: I’m really interested in the conversations that BFB can play host to in relation to Black British film in history and people’s knowledge gaps. There used to be a TV series called Iconoclasts, where you got someone from a particular time in history and paired them with someone contemporary, and I would love for BFB to be a space in which that happens – so for filmmakers from the Black Film Workshop era to have conversations with their newer counterparts about the current landscape.

I think it’s especially valuable during this time of the pandemic in which ‘traditional’ cinema has had to find an alternative space to live, and in which everything is now very digital. To learn from the filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, how they survived, especially at a very inhospitable time – now, representation is on the table, but when it wasn’t, how did they navigate those spaces and how are they still working today? A lot of the filmmakers from the ‘80s Black Film Workshops are still working, but they had to find alternative spaces, so they’re gallerists or doing installations or other things, because the promise of making features for cinema or TV never delivered. And it would be really great for the younger generation to get some context about the shoulders they stand on, and pedagogy, and to really get a broader sense of their space and their context within the diaspora.

“I think we spend a lot of time talking about how little representation there is, and what I’m interested in is bringing to light what there is and celebrating that. For me, that’s one of the most important things it can do, is bring together all those elements and highlight positive stories instead of constantly talking about lack, which we do a lot of in this space”

MH: Absolutely. During the Black Star season at the BFI there was a panel, Isaac Julien was there and somebody got up and said, there’s no representation, there’s no Black filmmakers, what are you lot doing, you’ve done nothing! And absolutely we need to address that knowledge gap; understanding what’s come before and how people are working now is massively important. As an industry we talk about features and box office as the main measures of success, but actually just making moving image in this landscape is really difficult – sometimes it amazes me that people ever make anything! – and talking about the different ways in which people find ways to make work and how they innovate across forms and spaces is so important for this publication.

The cover of the BFB’s Winter 1997 issue © Black Film Bulletin

JG: For me, one of the important things in the older BFB was the ‘Indispensable Information Feature’ (IIF). We did one on producers 30 years ago that featured Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Trix Worrell and Munni Kabir, who in the last month have all been highlighted in the media in various ways. Nadine’s company she runs with Amanda Jenks, Greenacre Films, has recently won a major ITV commission for the six-part drama series Riches (with writer Abby Ajayi, How to Get Away with Murder, Four Weddings and a Funeral); Nadine also did a series of BBC shorts during lockdown, Unsaid Stories. The producer and writer Trix Worrell, known for the film For Queen and Country and of course for Desmond’s, featured on a recent TV programme exploring Black comedy; and Munni Kabir, prolific producer and expert on Indian cinema for Channel 4 in the ’80s and ’90s, gave a featured interview in one of a recent series of webinars on Indian cinema.

All three producers were highlighted in that information feature. When we started discussing the new BFB, Nadine came up to the archive to visit, and I said I should interview you again because Been So Long, the Netflix feature she produced, was coming out. The people you highlight make their own way into the future and it’s really important to be able to look back and see the connections between the past and what’s happening now. I think those interviews are one of the best ways to do that and the ‘Indispensable Information Feature’ is one that’s worth thinking about for the new iteration.

“It would be really great for the younger generation to get some context about the shoulders they stand on, a broader sense of their space and their context within the diaspora”

JA: That feature June is talking about is from 1993, and in her interview, Nadine discussed how Black creatives were forced to leave Britain in order to find financing elsewhere. Again, I think that the future BFB can be a space wherein veteran filmmakers can talk to young filmmakers, because that was an issue then but it’s still an ongoing question now. In the space of 30 years, we’ve had this mass exodus of Black British talent abroad because the UK industry hasn’t produced enough work for them to survive here, and it would be great to really unpack that. Nadine made the decision to stay in Britain and start her own production company, and it would be great to know how she’s manoeuvred and managed to sustain herself all this time.

MH: Also, I think the fact that there has been so little in between – you know, we had the BFB, but then that stopped – kind of accounts for that gap. There hasn’t been a continuing conversation. We have so often had these moments, every five to 10 years, where everyone looks around and says “Isn’t our diversity terrible, we don’t have any representation, now we’re going to change it”, and everyone who’s been around for a while says, “Well we were having this exact conversation 10 years ago, what’s changed?” The fact there haven’t been ongoing spaces like the BFB has meant there has been a lack of accountability. Having a space to look back allows us to see how things have changed and not changed, to make those connections and ensure we don’t let the conversation drop again. We can also show what has happened, what has been achieved in spite of the industry not coming with us, and I think that’s a really important thing.

JA: Again just about context, there is this kind of reciprocal ‘there isn’t this, there isn’t that’ story that often comes up and gets picked up by the broadsheets, but never fully explored in the context of what has happened and the success stories we have had. I think the BFB represents a space of intra-communal knowledge and also ownership of things, because we’ve had first-hand testimonials from the practitioners who do work, and they’ve got this experience base.

A couple of years ago when actors like Daniel Kaluuya and David Oyelowo were doing well in the States, there was some pushback from the African American diaspora along the lines of, ‘why don’t you go back to Britain because there’s not enough work to accommodate you here’. But there is never any space in the press to give the proper context to issues like that or to really explain the experiences Black actors have had working in the UK, and it would be great to revisit BFB so that it can shed light on what otherwise are cyclical points of misinformation.

“The fact there haven’t been ongoing spaces like the BFB has meant there has been a lack of accountability. Having a space to look back allows us to see how things have changed and not changed and ensure we don’t let the conversation drop again”

CDF: If people are interested in writing for you, should they get in touch?

JA: Yes. If anyone has a pitch, or wants more information, please email us at blackfilmbulletin@gmail.com. The website is blackfilmbulletin.com and the first back issue will be up, digitised, soon. We’re also on Instagram and Facebook. BFB will manifest into events too, we’re looking at how that will work post-pandemic. Also, in the midst of the pandemic, Birkbeck and the Peltz Gallery commissioned June and myself to make a video essay about the BFB, an abridged history of how it came about that highlights some key contributors, and that’s available on YouTube now.

This blog post is part one in an extended series in conversation with June Givanni, Curator and Director of June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive; Melanie Hoyes, Industry Inclusion Executive at BFI and Jan Asante, Curator at Think Cinematic. Click here to sign up to receive updates on new blog posts by email. 

We’d love to hear your favourite memories or articles from the original BFB – share them on social media and tag @BlackFilmBulletin and @IndependentCinemaOffice on Instagram and Facebook or @ICOtweets on Twitter.

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