Diversity: A matter of Staying Power

Posted on August 31, 2015 by Jan Asante

Categories: General, Pop-up and Event Cinema

Ahead of our ‘D Word’ Screening Days, we wanted to highlight different approaches to diversity. At the heart of the day is considering different approaches and creating a strategy that works for where you are. Having spoken to a variety of voices (including an established venue and people from across the industry), we wanted to highlight the work of Jan Asante, who played a key role in organising our inspiration for the event nitroBEAT’s D Word Conference

Does diversity in moving image programming and production matter? The recent spike in media debate themed around diversity (or lack thereof) across various strands of the British arts scene would imply that an awareness of the importance of programming content that speaks toward the increasingly broad aesthetic interests of diverse audiences does indeed matter, particularly if cultural programming aims to reflect the ever-morphing zeitgeist.

Spring and summer of 2015 gave rise to a timely convergence of conversations invested in how best to generate and moreover, sustain diverse programming within the UK arts sector. Notable among them were NitroBEATs theatre-focused The D Word symposium; the Royal Television Society’s Diversity: Job Done? debate, and Bechdel Test Fest; placing under-representation of women on screen at its core. With the politics of race, gender, class, sexuality, disability and religious orientation providing the intersectional framework for many of these conversations, the manifestation of Staying Power: Black Britain On Screen Film Festival in early June presented a unique, interconnected opportunity to put an expansive, exploratory spotlight on the cinema of diverse Black cultural identities in the British frame.

Conceptualising Staying Power

In my role as external curator for the second consecutive year of Black Cultural Archives Film Festival partnership with Ritzy Picturehouse Cinema and Culture Kinetica; the sophomore run of the festival was fortuitously timed to compliment Black Cultural Archives critically acclaimed photographic exhibition Staying Power, which launched in early 2015. A partnership between Black Cultural Archives and Victoria and Albert Museum spanning both sites; the bold, beautiful and provocative imagery of Staying Power reflected a plethora of stories of Black British cultural experience and evolution, from post World War II through to the 1990’s. Its documentary photography, portraiture and staged allegorical images captured a visual journey of nearly half a century; celebrating and challenging understandings of Black British identities with connections to a broader African-descent Diaspora beyond the shores of Great Britain.

From the eclectic trajectory of Staying Powers photographs came the defining premise for a similarly-inspired film festival that would pay homage to Black Britain On Screen, in six definitive chapters: A Question of Belonging;  LOVE?; Black Genius; Revolt & Revolution; Soul Cinema: Mirroring The Black Atlantic; and Black In The Digital Age.

The festival tagline: A salute to the pioneering voices of Black British cinema; those independent storytellers, community griot’s, radical documentarian’s and counter-culture moving image activists who animate the unseen and amplify the seldom explored narratives.

Many of the screenings in BCA’s Film Festival were of films that had been seldom screened before; while this creates issues, it also draws attention to the archival material and what they have to say about the current situation

Staying Power: Process, Programme & Partnerships

Working collaboratively with the internal programming and marketing departments at Black Cultural Archives and Picturehouse Acquisitions, the collective objective in bringing the Staying Power photographic experience to the big screen was to re-envision how the exhibitions most powerful images could speak through the iconic cinema of their time, as an exploration of Black cultures evolving space in Britain’s landscape and beyond from the 1950’s through to 2015.  Also among the principle considerations in building the concepts and partnerships for Black Britain On Screen was the significance of the archive as a keeper of the record of Black history. The launch of Black Cultural Archives Film Festival the previous year had paid homage to the work and legacy of cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Specifically, his ideas around cultural identity, race and ethnicity as an Unfinished Conversation most poignantly expressed in filmmaker John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, which opened #BCAFilmFest 2014 season at Ritzy Cinema.

The work of 2014 festival collaborator, film archivist June Givanni [founder of June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive, Black Film Bulletin magazine at the BFI and former head of the British Film Institutes now defunct African Caribbean Unit] was yet another point of inspiration in conceiving the screening selections and recorded BCA-based Salons that would provide an interactive discussion space for audience engagement with the key themes of 2015’s festival. Black Britain On Screen would bring on board partners for these BCA Salons: Black UK arts and entertainment IMDb-styled database The British Blacklist, together with digital media design and culture blog The:NuBlk. The Salons themselves, each running at two hours and themed around the six aforementioned chapters of the festival, aimed to provide a more in-depth platform than the singular post-screening Q&A format had offered in 2014. BCA Salons (inspired by the Sundance channel ‘Iconoclast‘ series) would foster trans-generational dialogues and bring together an eclectic array of high-profile cultural commentators to lend context to ‘Black Britain On Screen’ content, whilst cross-fertilising its historically pointed moments with contemporary sociopolitical themes.

BCA Salon speakers and hosts included Mykaell S. Riley (Head of Music Production at University of Westminster/ founder of the Black Music Research Unit), Akala (musician, activist and founder of The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company), Professor Paul Goodwin (urban theorist and Chair of Black Art and Design at University of the Arts London), Dionne Walker (curator and filmmaker), Zoe Whitley (art historian and curator at Tate Modern/ Tate Britain), Nadia Denton (film writer, producer and former director of Black Filmmaker Magazine International Film Festival at BFI), Shola Amoo (filmmaker), Gabrielle Smith (founder of The Nu:Blk) and Akua Gyamfi (founder of The British Blacklist).

Ritzy Brixton
The Ritzy in Brixton proves a worthwhile partnership: it is in close proximity to the archive as well as being embedded in a multiethnic community that has played a major role in Black British history

Further festival collaborators included Film4 Online (co-presenter of Second Coming Q&A with Nadine Marshall), The New Black Film Collective (co-presenter of Dear White People), filmmaker and Q&A guest Andy Mundy-Castle (The Fade), DJ Cyndi (co-founder of Reclaim: Brixton) and Mercury-award nominated artist TY.

In all, 16 films were selected for the Staying Power screening programme at Ritzy Picturehouse. Among the films and documentaries featured (spanning 1959 to 2015) were early seminal works (and predominantly archival films) by directors who had emerged from the pioneering Black film collective workshops founded in early 1980’s Britain: John Akomfrah (Handsworth Songs/Last Angel Of History), Isaac Julien (Territories), Reece Auguiste (Twilight City) and Menelik Shabazz (Burning An Illusion/ Blood Ah Go Run/ Looking For Love) among them. The seldom seen perspectives of Britain’s Black female filmmakers were explored in selections by director Ngozi Onwurah (Shoot The Messenger) and playwright-turned-director, debbie tucker green (Second Coming).

Migration and the reconciliation of ‘othering’ were recurring motifs encompassed within Staying Powers screen timeline. Explored through varied narratives were themes ranging from political resistance movements (Mario Van PeeblesPanther) to gentrification (Barry JenkinsMedicine For Melancholy) through to interracial and LGBTQ identities (Justin Simien’s Dear White People), themes that traversed continents, reflecting the complex interconnections of a ‘Black Atlantic’.

A further 9 short films screened as part of BCAS ‘Black In The Digital Age’ presentation, showcasing new work by emerging artists, animators and web series creators (Cecile Emeke‘s ‘Strolling‘ series and Sorry You Feel Uncomfortable collective among the selections), all shown in collaboration with Ritzy Cinema, Electric Pedals and Lambeth Sustainable Travel.

Marketing. Audience. Outcome. Continuum.

The defining image selected to advertise Staying Power: Black Britain On Screen was that of photographer Colin Jones. Titled ‘The Black House, taken circa 1973/76, and used with permission of specialist Black image photo archive Autograph ABP, the image was chosen specifically for its striking evocation of a time in England’s recent history  when racially motivated assaults on Black communities were commonplace; assaults from English nationalist groups targeting new migrants were on the rise, and SUS laws of the era were about to entwine with racially-fuelled uprisings that would spill across the country’s urban centre’s in the early 1980’s.

Ritzy Cinema lent support to BCA marketing of the festival and given the time and budget constraints in producing the festival within such a capped period, the bulk of promotion was done online; principally coordinated by programme partner Culture Kinetica, utilising BCA’s Facebook and Twitter platforms to create ads targeting both Ritzy Picturehouse patrons and Black Cultural Archives’ festival partner networks. Audience feedback forms were generated for all events to survey attendee interest, demographics and as a means of informing future film programming content.

In all, Staying Power:Black Britain On Screen was exceptionally well-attended, with BCA Salons selling out in advance and with several of the feature films shown at Ritzy being upgraded to larger screens, given the scale of demand. Though there were challenges; principally in acquiring some of the more obscure film titles within such a limited time frame, the overall outcome and audience insights were favourable, with many of the attendees who had travelled from outside London calling for the festival to consider touring other parts of the country in future. With future planning in mind, a platform like Black Cultural Archives Film Festival would definitely have scope for growth and even international expansion, but would definitely require the support of sponsors and collaborative media partners to realise its full potential as both an archival resource and advocacy platform, highlighting the significance of Black artistic contributions to British film culture.

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