Black Film Bulletin Series, Part 2: Spotlight on Black talent

Posted on December 10, 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 two of an extended conversation about the role of the BFB now and which filmmakers they would like to celebrate in the next iteration. 

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

Catharine Des Forges: I have a question about the role an online publication like the BFB can play in the wider film industry. Obviously things must change, but as you have said, we have had these conversations before. We know there is a lack of representation at all levels – behind and in front of the camera, in curatorship, in institutions and in senior leadership, and there is clearly wider, deeper, more systemic change needed too. I’m interested in what you think the role of the BFB could be here, or what you would like it to be?

Melanie Hoyes: For me, working in that space, that’s exactly what we’re trying to address, and I think the way the BFB can add to it is again around visibility. You hear conversations along the lines of, ‘Well, I just don’t know people who have the experience for these roles who are ethnically diverse,’ and in addition, the way that the industry hires is often so based on tight turnarounds, and inevitably people go back to who they’ve used before. There’s just this really strange concept of there being either no Black people working in the industry or Black people who don’t have the right experience for the job. So I think it’s around visibility and highlighting the talent that there is. There is no excuse for saying ‘I don’t know a Black producer’ if we have got pages and pages of Black producers being interviewed about the work that they’re doing, the work they have done and their many years of industry experience. You shouldn’t think that you’re taking a risk by employing someone different to you. It’s not a risk, in fact it will make your product and your creativity better; there is no doubt that if you have different perspectives involved in your project, it will strengthen it. So for me, the biggest thing BFB can do is around visibility and celebration, moving us out of this conversation of lack and questions of, ‘Where are the people, do they have the talent?’ Well, yes, and here they are, so let’s move on.

Jan Asante: I love that we’ve got Mel on board because she’s the data expert and in the same way the Geena Davis Institute was able to commission this mass, first-of-its-kind data study on the role of women in cinema and all the representation or lack thereof, I love that Mel worked on the BFI Black Star project and actually looked at the numbers. It’s great that in this digital time we can be really precise, because the cyclical, ignorant conversation that happens is so exhausting for those of us on one side of it, and there’s so much fallacy there that if it’s not challenged with statistical data then it’s really easy for it to keep recurring. So props to Mel for going in there with the data. And in praise of June Givanni and Gaylene Gould, in terms of people not knowing history, if you are fortunate enough to sit down with June and Gaylene in a room, they are this immense repository of all of this information. As June said, the African Caribbean Unit and the BFB were hubs! So they had on any given day, director Steve McQueen, you know, future Turner Prize-winning, Academy Award-winning director, coming into their office and saying ‘Hey look, I’m a student and I’m graduating and I have a film and do you want to show it…’

“For me, the biggest thing BFB can do is around visibility and celebration, moving us out of this conversation of lack and questions of, ‘Where are the people, do they have the talent?’ Well, yes, and here they are, so let’s move on.”

June Givanni: Also Joe Brewster, New York  filmmaker …, the award-winning Gurinder Chadha and Ngozi Onwurah, from right here….

JA: Yes. I mean there is just such a wealth of information that these two ladies in particular have, and it needs a platform, the platform it merits and deserves so it can feed into the next part of the conversation on both the history and the future.

JG: I’m glad you mentioned Gaylene. Another part of this whole approach is that when you have a 30 year perspective on the various ways that people have tried to convince institutions – in some cases have spent whole careers trying to convince institutions – you see now how a lot of younger people have simply begun to bypass them. I’ve watched this happen in African cinema as well, in Burkina Faso, with the big film festival where people would bring their 16/35mm films – while Nigeria was beginning to produce mainly films on video, and they weren’t phased by what the established festival was looking for, they decided to do it on their own terms and for their own, very large population and eventually Nollywood was born there with its own space in the industry, on its own terms – ask Netflix. I think that a lot of young people now won’t wait for recognition, they want to go their own route and to make the things they believe need to be made. The institutions who didn’t help them to begin with are then forced to play catch-up to find out, how did these people slip through, how is it they’re doing what they’re doing? And they will then turn round and say, ‘Well, actually we would like to support you now.’ Gaylene did No Direct Flight, which showed how young people are producing innovative work across continents, they’re harnessing new technologies and aren’t waiting for institutions to fund them. They’re saying no, we’re doing this, because we know how to do it, we have the talent, and there are audiences who want this stuff. And then the institutions learn the lesson that they have to be out there and support talent more broadly if they want to be current. Because we are the future, we’re not just the past, and unless institutions understand what the contemporary existence and terrain is, and what the future might be, they will always be playing catch-up and will always lose out.

“It’s great that in this digital time we can be really precise, because the cyclical, ignorant conversation that happens is so exhausting for those of us on one side of it, and there’s so much fallacy there that if it’s not challenged with statistical data then it’s really easy for it to keep recurring.”

MH: It’s like what Steve McQueen was saying about relevance – that institutions like the BFI, like BAFTA, will simply become irrelevant if they don’t start moving with this time. Because as June said, people will just go and do it themselves. The means of production have become so accessible and so financially viable, you can connect globally via the internet and social media, and people are making amazing content that is widely accessible and has an audience. If we’re trying to make the best content and trying to develop the best talent, which is really what we should be doing, to be on the back foot of that seems crazy, actually, and I think that it’s time, and that everything that’s happened in the last few years is really showing that we will just not be relevant to people, that they will turn away and start doing things on their own and won’t need us. So to sustain our relevance in this area, we have to move forward with it. 

The cover of the BFB’s autumn/winter 1993/94 issue © Black Film Bulletin
The cover of the BFB’s autumn/winter 1993/94 issue © Black Film Bulletin

CDF: One of the things that’s so important about the BFB is the way young programmers come to it and make discoveries about filmmakers. I wonder if there are people that you would like to focus on whose work you think hasn’t received the recognition it deserves? In the next iteration, who are the filmmakers you would like to celebrate and talk about?

JA: During this pandemic, the first thing I’ve been able to do around film was a really small socially distanced screening at Brixton Village. I titled it ‘As Seen by Black Women’. Because at this time we’re talking about representation, we know that women of course are underrepresented in this industry, and my particular area of interest has always been around what are Black women making and how they see the world. And I went to three filmmakers for this, really brilliant British filmmakers from across the diaspora: Ethosheia Hylton, who was one of the directors for Nadine Marsh-Edwards’s series Unsaid Stories, and made an adaptation of the work by Alex Wheatle, Brixton Rock, which I think is in development now to become a feature; Isis Thompson, another upcoming filmmaker who made a film called ‘This Is Meant To Be About Stokely Carmichael’ and is currently working on the Small Axe anthology series for the BBC; and Corine Dhondee, an assistant to Armando Iannucci on The Personal History of David Copperfield, and the film I screened of hers is called Bradford Young: Cinema is the Weapon, a portrait of the cinematographer Bradford Young, the first African American nominated for an Oscar for cinematography. He was in the UK filming Star Wars and Corine managed to get this great series of interviews with him. But her experience trying to show the film here has been difficult; it’s been embraced on the US festival circuit, but people here are less familiar with his work and may not know that he filmed Ava DuVernay’s Selma or When They See Us. He’s shot so many great films and has such a distinctive eye, and in Corine’s film, what’s really valuable is that he references his teachers, including Haile Gerima, who was his teacher at Howard University in the States and featured prominently in the BFB, and others who came from the same school as Arthur Jafa, another cinematographer who featured in the BFB. So it was such a connecting of dots, linking people that the BFB featured who are now occurring in contemporary works by British filmmakers. So, just to mention the names of those three women making films in the UK.

“We are the future, we’re not just the past, and unless institutions understand what the contemporary existence and terrain is, and what the future might be, they will always be playing catch-up and will always lose out.”

MH: There are so many good people working. I really think Nadine (Marsh-Edwards) is incredible, I’d really love to highlight the previous interview that June did with her and to celebrate her because I think she’s been left out of this history but has had an amazing career. Contemporary wise, people like Jenn Nkiru are doing amazing stuff. She has kept a London focus even though she’s worked with Beyoncé, and has done everything her own way which I love – she hasn’t had a traditional pathway, she’s just made the things she wants to make and has developed her own incredible eye and look. Then there’s someone like Shola Amoo, who again has done it his own way and made an amazing feature last year. And lots of people I don’t know – and I’m really excited about being able to give them a platform. Jan and June know so much more than me about this landscape and can join all the dots so that’s exciting to me to think about too, everything I will learn about what’s happening, because I don’t know enough. 

JG: One person who slipped through the net for us at BFB was Martina Attille (now known as Judah), who obviously made Dreaming Rivers, a wonderful film that was so pertinent when it was made and still is today, whether you’re viewing it as a personal document or in the context of issues like Windrush. It’s such an important film and she’s somebody that should be interviewed now to review what her dreams and aspirations were then, and what she believes is happening or should happen now. She’s one. The other person is Elmina, Denis Elmina Davis, who we used to know as Sister D. She is somebody who had dreams, she had passion, she made Omega Rising Women of Rastafari, and not only is she in the archive in terms of that film, but she also worked on Amani Naphtali’s Le Bohemian Noir et La Renaissance de L’Afrique, and as camera woman on several other workshop productions.  ‘Sister D’ was a member of the Ceddo Film Workshop and was behind the camera at a time when very few women were doing that role, especially Black women. And this links to something else I wanted to say about the international dimension of the BFB. All of these people, definitely Nadine (Marsh-Edwards), Elmina (Davis), John (Akomfrah), Menelik (Shabazz), (and unfortunately Isaac Julien is another of the major Black British filmmakers who also slipped through our features net)  a lot of them were part of the international film festival scene.  Like the others Elmina went to the FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso and eventually decided to go to neighbouring Ghana, inspired by the film production unit Stevie Wonder was setting up there. So the international scene offered new scope and possibilities for her. I am hoping that the new iteration of the BFB will not lose that international dimension because there are a number of really good African filmmakers from the past that many people here don’t know about. I’ve been using the work of Abderrahmane Sissako – many will know Timbuktu and Bamako, but I’ve often used some of the early films he did after he trained in Russia, like October or Rostov-Luanda, in university workshops I’ve delivered, and students are blown away by them. There is still so much international work that hasn’t been widely seen, and I hope we can maintain that focus in the new BFB because there is still such a lot to come out of it and this Pan African connection is important to the history and the future Black British cinema.

CDF: That’s brilliant. With Second Sight, we toured Dreaming Rivers and Omega Rising Women of Rastafari, and together with LUX commissioned four artists to make new work which responded to the films of the UK’s Black Film Workshop movement of the early 80’s.  The project launched at the Barbican and Judah came and spoke with those younger artists , which I think she really enjoyed.  It was a privilege to have her there and that dialogue as you say is so important.

JG: I think something that the archive can offer, which will be useful for young curators and new curators, we still have a lot of the distribution catalogues – eg. from Circles, from Cinema of Women (two of the women’s film distributors of the 1980s and 1990s), before Cinenova existed – and when you look at those you discover a whole range of people and films to look at, some of which are in the archive, but there are actually a lot of the documents there that speak to that time as well, so it’ll be a very rich resource for the new BFB.

“There is still so much international work that hasn’t been widely seen, and I hope we can maintain that focus in the new BFB because there is still such a lot to come out of it.”

The cover of the BFB’s summer/autumn 1995 issue © Black Film Bulletin
The cover of the BFB’s summer/autumn 1995 issue © Black Film Bulletin

JA: Can I add, following on from that idea about filmmakers speaking across generations, and what June said about bypassing institutions, just a kind of kudos to a young filmmaker named Adeyemi Michael who got Netflix UK to curate their Black Lives Matter collection – obviously off the back of the pandemic, and George Floyd, and what’s happened in the States – and for the fact that, for the first time, films like Babylon and Pressure are now available to watch in the UK. Some of us have been waiting for years for these films to become accessible; they’re now up on Netflix, BFI Player, Sky Movies etc. and I’m so enthused to finally see them there, because as a programmer it’s really tiring to have to always explain what these things are and for people to think that nothing existed previously. What would be great, because we know these things are seasonal, is that after the BLM collection and after corporates aren’t putting up black squares on their social media any more, we look at what happens then. And it would be really great to accompany the older work by getting some of those living filmmakers to speak to the work of some of the younger filmmakers who have followed them.

JG: I agree. One of the things I’m doing currently is a series of webinars based on a short film  in our archive, from 1970 by Ghanaian filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo, You Hide Me, which he managed to shoot in the basement of the British Museum. We decided we would do something for its 50th anniversary to celebrate it. Of course, COVID hit, and then the restitution debate came on the agenda too. We took on some partners and received some money from the Art Fund for three webinars, and the amount of interest they have generated is incredible. The interest is coming from academia, filmmakers, the museum sector and the general public, and its interest  is coming internationally because people can access webinars from all over. People are clearly wondering, where have these films been? We can’t keep up with it. We have a VHS copy and one of our big questions was, where is the celluloid film – it turns out it’s actually at the BFI, and we invited Robin Baker Head Curator, BFI National Archive to come on to the panel for a wider discussion about resources. The thing is, there is a wealth of information out there about these films and filmmakers which people don’t know enough about. People now want to know what other films Nii Kwate Owoo has done, and of course we have his other works in the archive. The interest we’ve had from across generations and borders really shows that these things have their own impetus and their own contribution to make for the future.

“What would be great, because we know these things are seasonal, is that after the BLM collection and after corporates aren’t putting up black squares on their social media any more, we look at what happens then. And it would be really great to accompany the older work by getting some of those living filmmakers to speak to the work of some of the younger filmmakers who have followed them.”

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 issues are now up. 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 two 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. You can read part one in the series here

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.

Subscribe to our mailing list

What would you like to receive emails about?
* indicates required