The Black Audio Film Collective’s Fragmented Cities

Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, 1986)
Alison Wielgus explores how the Black Audio Film Collective re-worked the techniques and ethics of classical city symphonies to produce politically engaged experimental works about the varied experiences of London's communities of color.

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“For more information on the BAFC’s community engagement, see “Exhibition History,” Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, eds., The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective (Liverpool: Liverpool University Presss, 2007), 225-226. Its members ran workshops to teach filmmaking …”

[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Experimental Media and the City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

While filming their canonical European city symphonies, Walter Ruttman, Dziga Vertov, and Jean Vigo believed the best way to render the daily life of the city was to conceal their cameras. All three found ways to surreptitiously film passersby to capture “life unaware.”((Keith Beattie, Documentary Display: Re-Viewing Nonfiction Film (London: Wallflower Press, 2008), 43.)) What happens when filmmakers instead insist on the visibility of the camera and direct engagement with a city’s residents? In this post, I will consider two films from the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) in the shadow of the city symphony. John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986) and Reece Auguiste’s Twilight City (1989) both use the subjectivity and vococentrism of essay films as a starting point. Like many essay films, Handsworth Songs and Twilight City are indebted to documentary and experimental practices. But rather than engage in the self-reflection typical of the essay film, both films use marginalized voices to reframe the city and its history. The resulting portraits have a distinct, if dissonant, musicality of their own. How do the tropes of the city symphony adapt to this new time and context? Can the rhythms of city symphonies be reconfigured for contemporary urban space?

Formed in 1982 by Portsmouth Polytechnic classmates and disbanded in 1998, BAFC was made up of John Akomfrah, Reece Auguiste, Edward George, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Claire Joseph (replaced by David Lawson in 1985), and Trevor Mathison. They situated themselves as “part of the first wave of an intransigently indigenous, self-consciously heterogeneous, avowedly hybrid, black British cultural movement, whose emergence coincided with a radical repositioning of the black presence in British public life—a repositioning by the aftermath of the riots of 1981.”((John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, David Lawson, and Edward George, “Black Audio Film Collective Proposal for Documenta 11,” in Documenta11__ Platform5: Exhibition Catalogue (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 553.)) That radical repositioning took multiple forms, all with the goal of creating a new language for black filmmaking. Akomfrah, who helmed the most projects, wrote about weaponizing film theory in the service of black cinema. Gopaul critiqued the institutions that funded independent film. Auguiste spoke of the need to “supersede the dominant discourses of the European avant-garde and other cinema traditions.”((Reece Auguiste, “Black Cinema, Poetics, and New World Aesthetics,” in Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, eds., The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 154.)) The BAFC’s first collaboration, a tape slide project in two parts titled Expeditions One: Signs of Empire and Expeditions Two: Images of Nationality (1982-84), took a structuralist approach to the legacy of colonialism. Over time, the BAFC’s work lost some of its earlier experimental edge but not its political rigor, depicting Ghanian history in Testament (Akomfrah, 1988), the British Black Power movement in Who Needs a Heart (Akomfrah, 1991), Malcolm X in Seven Songs for Malcolm X (Akomfrah, 1993), and British police violence in Mysteries of July (Auguiste, 1991) with an array of stylistic approaches.((The BAFC’s other films are A Touch of the Tar Brush (Akomfrah, 1991), The Mothership Connection (1995), The Last Angel of History (Akomfrah, 1995), 3 Songs on Pain, Light and Time (George, 1995), Memory Room 451 (Akomfrah, 1997), Dr. Martin Luther King: Days of Hope (Akomfrah, 1997), and Gangsta Gangsta: The Tragedy of Tupac Shakur (George, 1998).))

Handsworth Songs, the most widely circulated of the BAFC’s work, meditates on the 1985 Handsworth riots. After an arrest of a man for a seemingly minor traffic offense, the diasporic Birmingham neighborhood erupted for two days. The riots culminated in two brothers being burned to death inside their own post office. To interrogate the underlying causes of the riots, the BAFC mixes archival footage from newsreels with contemporary interviews and news footage, undermining the presentation of a single historical narrative.

Rather than lead with a voiceover, the film opens with a soundscape. The whir of machinery intersects with Mathison’s synthesizer score. Bird calls segue into echoing speech fragments like “all parts of the . . . ,” “the local news . . . ,” and “on the street.” The first time we hear the unattributed and poetic voiceover, it describes the visit from the Home Secretary on September 11, 1985. Surrounding by a crowd, with cameras and boom poles held aloft, we get our first glimpse at the government’s inadequate response. These moments of news reporting are threaded through the film, the recording equipment visible to the audience. Elsewhere, we witness interviews with community members who lock eyes with the camera lens. While these elements are all hallmarks of documentary filmmaking, the order of their presentation bends toward experimentation. Without warning or explanation, the film cuts fluidly between present and past. The sound and image tracks are linked abstractly, leaving it up to the viewer to intuit connections. We see not a city in concert but a city in discord, with no clear way forward.

While the most frequently quoted line of the film is “there are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories,” the end of the film states its dedication to residents in Handsworth and elsewhere who live in difficult conditions: “[These thoughts are] for those who live among the abandoned aspirations which were the metropolis. Let them bear witness to the ideals, which in time will be born in hope. In time let them bear witness to the process by which the living will transform the dead into partners in struggle.” As we hear this disembodied voice, scenes of travel and arrival, immigrants dressed in their finest clothes, stream across the screen. The film’s ending is an invocation, calling for remembrance in a time of struggle. The final image is of a young woman walking into a house. The residents of Birmingham will dwell there long after we leave the film behind.

While Handsworth Songs ends with a message of tempered hope, Twilight City is melancholic. It combines three cinematic modes: the essay film via a voiceover from the fictional Olivia Levelle (Amanda Symonds); the expository documentary via talking head interviews with real historians, activists, and theorists; and found footage film via a mixture of images culled from educational, industrial, newsreel, and media archives. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the film defies easy categorization as it slips between poetic and concrete articulations of London’s past and present.

Twilight City’s fictional voiceover takes the form of a letter to the mother of the narrator, Olivia. Olivia’s mother wants to return to London after leaving for Dominica in 1979. Olivia tells her, “The London you left behind is disappearing, perhaps forever, and I don’t know if you will want to return to the new one.” The new London is built on past wounds and anonymous space. Nighttime shots of the financial district proliferate the film, forming a maze of nameless buildings. A synthesizer pulsing on the soundtrack creates an undertow of emotion. Olivia’s voiceover ruminates on the distance she feels from her mother, on the concentration of wealth in certain parts of the city, and on the memories of her past. We hear her striving to reach out to her mother and to articulate a sense of loss.

London at night in Twilight City (Reece Auguiste, 1989).

Nonfiction interviews with scholars and activists set off divergent explorations of personal histories and the larger structures of inequality that undergird London. Paul Gilroy narrates an early memory of encountering fascist graffiti. After pressing his father to explain its significance, Gilroy describes building a mental map of where he could and could not go in London. George Shire explains his imagined version of London as a young boy in Zimbabwe. The film builds a rhythm between Olivia’s fictional letter, individual spoken testimony, the circling of city streets, and archival footage of construction and labor. The film refuses clear categorization, Olivia’s fictional voiceover as embedded in reality as any of the words from its real interviewees. We understand Olivia’s disenchantment with a city that masks its inequity and Twilight City’s desire to unmask the financial and cultural forces at work London. As we return to images of the skyline and the financial district, tower cranes and rows of orange cones demarcating construction take on new significance.

Both Handsworth Songs and Twilight City sift through the past, looking at how it shapes the lives of people in the present day. In early city symphonies, the camera served to navigate space. In both BAFC films, the soundtrack is granted greater freedom. Rather than traverse space, the voice – whether in archival footage, interview, or voiceover – traverses time, pulling together memory and self-reflection. In Twilight City, Olivia’s final rumination warns of a “new silence beginning to rule the city.” The voices heard on its soundtrack and throughout Handsworth Songs thwart that silence. The BAFC give us diasporic points of view. Residents are asked direct questions in both films. Their answers remind us that simple visibility is not enough. Stories of pain, fear, and joy force us to perceive Birmingham and London in new ways.

But beyond their depictions of British cities, what strikes me as most important for our contemporary moment about the BAFC’s films is a different kind of visibility. While they did not eschew the more traditional experimental venues of galleries, museums, and independent cinemas, they also broadcast it for wider consumption on Channel 4 (who helped fund their projects). In the space of the museum, the formal complexities find continuity with surrounding film and video art. On television, the archival news footage incorporated into Handsworth Songs and Twilight City provides a point of connection, even as it finds new resonance in a dense collage. Wider exposure risks misunderstanding, as evidenced by the battle among Salman Rushdie, Stuart Hall, and Darcus Howe about the politics of Handsworth Songs that spilled into the pages of The Guardian. Auguiste even expressed frustration at having to answer questions about the “rather abstract, difficult and ultimately inaccessible” nature of their films.((Auguiste, “Black Cinema, Poetics, and New World Aesthetics,” 155.)) The BAFC forged distinct cinematic approaches to make black independent filmmaking visible. Its members also made their way into the community rather than only appear in the wake of tragedy, like the reporters depicted in Handsworth Songs. The BAFC documented labor benefits, live theater, and academic conferences.((For more information on the BAFC’s community engagement, see “Exhibition History,” Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, eds., The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective (Liverpool: Liverpool University Presss, 2007), 225-226.

Its members ran workshops to teach filmmaking to people in their communities. While the BAFC often depicted people who felt at sea in Britain in their daily lives, it saw art as a means to encourage direct engagement. Rather than hide in plain sight, its members insisted on making themselves and the conflicts of British life visible in art and in life.

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