Eyes on Black Britain (1988)

WINTER 1987.88 n48, 25-28.

Eyes on Black Britain: an interview with ISAAC JULIEN
Sankofa Film and Video Collective
16 mm, Colour, 1986

by Richard Fung

Whenever oppressed groups—women, people of colour, gays and lesbians—manage to get across to media, a priority has always been to correct stereotypes that have been perpetuated about us. We want to reach out with "our" positive images in replacement of "their" negatives ones. But in rectifying stereotypes, we have often found ourselves trapped in the terms of dominant discourse. We have implicitly accepted "their" terms for constructing "our" positive images.

As a result of this thinking, many gay films meant for the mainstream market downplay the representations of problematic issues like drag or outdoor sex. Because the dominant media portrays Black peoples as criminal and savage, we must bend over backward to promote our wholesomeness. Witness the recent editorials in Toronto's Contrast which characterize AIDS and homosexuality as white afflictions.

In many oppositional films, the protagonists are constructed as victim-heroes. Among the oppressed there may exist personal tensions but never political contradictions. The Passion of Remembrance, produced by Britain's Sankofa Film and Video Collective, and co-directed by Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien, is a rare bird in independent Black cinema. Its subjects are precisely those thorny issues so often overlooked by a narrow vision of the anti-racism struggle.

The Passion of Remembrance is constructed in three separate layers. First, narrative segments revolve around the Baptistes, a Black working-class family in contemporary England. Maggie, the daughter, goes to gay clubs and has gay friends. This brings her into conflict with some members of her Black study group, and also with her father. Maggie works in video; at points in the narrative she plays her tapes, which then become the footage we, the audience, are watching. It is made up of solarized images of demonstrations and celebrations: the riots in Brixton mixed with gay rights marches. This documentary footage of resistance forms the second layer of the film. It is also used as a kind of parenthesis for the various events in the story. It underlines how personal conflicts are informed by larger social struggles.

Providing a third layer of meaning, a Black female speaker in a spatial-temporal vacuum re-evaluates the Black movements of the Sixties and Seventies from a feminist point of view. She remembers how women were relegated to a secondary role and confronts a Black male speaker with the accusation, that they were fighting' 'for their rights to be men." Through the juxtaposition and interaction of these three layers, The Passion of Remembrance manages to raise a range of issues which the mainstream of the Black movements has been very reluctant to address: gender, sexuality, and generational conflicts between Black British youth and their immigrant parents, The Passion of Remembrance is the first Black feature film from Britain since Burning an Illusion* in 1983. It represents along with films such as Handsworth Songs** a new wave in Black British filmmaking. Heavily informed by film theory, these works deal with complexities as well as struggling to find a language in cinema that can represent a Black British experience.

Co-director Isaac Julien was in Toronto for the Grierson Documentary Seminar, where Passion was screened, and for a special benefit for Sistervision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press, and Grassroots: International Conference for Lesbians and Gays of Colour (upcoming in Toronto '88). This interview was conducted in Los Angeles in the Spring of 1987 at the L.A. International Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival.

Richard Fung: How did Sankofa come together, how did you actually meet each other?

Isaac Julien: We met each other really through one woman called Nadine Marsh-Edwards—she was at college with Martina Attille and Robert Crusz. I was at St. Martin's School of Art and Maureen Blackwood was at Polytechnic of Central London. From there, we decided to form a Black film workshop, and to make an application for a franchise to the television union, the A.C.T.T., and for financial support to Channel 4 and the Greater London Council (which has now been abolished).

'Round about the advent of Channel 4 in 1981, there was the Independent Film Association and a number of Independent filmmakers and film workshop collectives, working on either political fronts or agitprop or avant-garde films, who made institutional demands to 'Channel 4. (Channel 4's basic mandate was to cater to alternative media. unrepresented voices, etc.—to do what other channels weren't doing.) And within that, there was a workshop agreement drawn up between the A.C.T.T. and independent filmmakers and workshops to enable collectives of filmmakers to form workshops which would involve an integrated practice. They would do distribution, exhibition and production and the people that worked in those workshops would be the producers and would be the owners of the materials produced. But although Channel 4 funds several workshops up and down the country, Black workshops weren't really involved in that kind of negotiated decision and institutional demand-making. However, after the '81 riots, the institutional response was that there should be Black workshops. So, in a sense, we were encouraged to apply.

Richard Fung: Other than yourselves, I know of the Black Audio/Film Collective. Are you the only two Black workshops?

Isaac Julien: No, there's Retake Film/Video Collective, there's the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, Star Productions. and Asian Film Workshops based in Lon-don. And then there are other workshops in the regions such as The Black Film/Video Workshop in Wales; Macro which is based in Handsworth, Birmingham; and Liverpool Black Media Workshop.

Richard Fung: How would you characterize Sankofa in a way that would differentiate it from the other groups?

Isaac Julien: All the Black workshops are different. For example, Retake is a Black workshop drawing on the Asian experience. Ceddo produces documentaries in a more traditionalist mode. Black Audio/Film I suppose is concerned with a similar preoccupation as Sankofa in terms of dealing with form and finding a film language that would express the Black experience. I suppose really what does make us different from the other workshops is our make-up around gender and sexuality. Sankofa consists of three Black women and myself, a Black gay man. Although there are workshops that have women and gay members, these issues have been a central political starting point for us.

Richard Fung: Were you all born in Britain?

Isaac Julien: Martina Attille is the only member that wasn't.

Richard Fung: Is that something that holds you together as a group?

Isaac Julien: Well, yes, because we all definitely see ourselves as part of British society and we want to challenge notions of Britishness and Englishness in terms of its definition around white ethnicity. We want to disrupt those notions of Englishness that have been traditionally propagated by films such as Chariots of Fire, etc.

Richard Fung: One of the things that I find most exciting about your work, is that you deal with all the pressing questions of political content and take up issues of form and film language. The codes of traditional cinema have been used to interpret and regulate our lives but when oppressed people take up the camera, we often reproduce this language. It's almost as if it's seen as inappropriate for us to experiment.

Isaac Julien: Negotiating one's identity around being a filmmaker is something that is not really meant for Black people to do. One realizes that the technologies of cinema are usually in terms of racism, in terms of sexism, in terms of who is in control of that technology. So, to negotiate your identity as a Black filmmaker around making experimental films is doubly problematic in terms of formulating strategies, in terms of speaking to your own communities and other communities of interest. One struggles on several fronts around notions of what sort of films Black filmmakers should be making and what kinds of films audiences desire, and what the filmmaker desires to make him—or herself. And so there are several things that have to be fought and weighed and played with.

I think the exciting thing for us is that we can take any form of film we like and use it to our advantage. If somebody wanted to make a documentary film that drew from an experimental style or wanted to use techniques that drew from avant-garde films around the '70s and the '80s or even wanted to look at mainstream cinema and use those kinds of narratives, I think that all those options are open because if one looks at how the Black subject is placed within cinema, one can see there has never really been a film language that has ever involved us in any progressive mode. So for me there aren't really rules that hold as such and I find that an exciting thing.

Richard Fung: But do you ever feel a responsibility to communicate more broadly? Is there a tension between formal experimentation and political effectiveness?

Isaac Julien: Well, I think that the discussions that we've had have been with Black communities of interest and other practitioners working within the same area that we're working in. We've now been able to come to a notion that people are really dissatisfied with films that show Black people in a very one-dimensional way, i.e., in riots, comedies, or you know, the stereotypical ways that Black people have been constructed in the cinema. So, we were concerned with not duplicating the approaches that have been made by other Black filmmakers and we took our context by looking at other films such as Blacks Britannica, Burning an Illusion, and Pressure. We also looked at independent film work in America, and the Black Diaspora.

We came to the conclusion that if we were to start negotiating our identities within the cinema that we'd have to somehow start to negotiate a film language that would actually try not to reproduce dominant ideology but would reproduce our desires and our politics. We also wanted there to be politics of representation within the work that we produced. Now I think it is a very delicate position when you do that without having dialogues with communities of interest. I think in Sankofa we've always tried to state that we speak from rather than for the Black communities and we try to express that work either in terms of autobiography or in terms of narrative oral traditions.

Richard Fung: The other thing is that when people talk about a film relating or not relating to the Black—or, in my work, to the Asian- community, there's a problem in how it posits one community with only one level of relating. You don't always have to be going for the same level, you can choose parts of that community to relate to, and to speak to, at a time.

Isaac Julien: Well, I think that when we talk about communities and speaking from the communities, we stress the "ies" and the several communities within one community, that it's not a monolithic community. I think that one of the problems that Black filmmakers inherit is the desert of representation around the Black experience. I think that our audiences, Black audiences, also feel that scarcity of Black representation, and the emotional desire to see those images is very strong. And to see them in a way that can be pleasing for every-body—that is really quite an impossible task for any filmmaker. There probably will always be people that will be disappointed with what you do, because there are only one or two films that relate to us at anyone time. Also there's a kind of history of discontinuity in Black filmmaking, so the burden of representation is very much a kind of baggage that is inherited within a Black filmmaking tradition. There are also advantages to that. We have to be aware of what we make and who we're making it for, but I think we have to be very honest as well, that we actually make things for ourselves.

Richard Fung: Whether it be from a feminist, gay or anti-racist position, many activist films tend to fall into a kind of victim-hero representation. Passion focuses on the problematical, the neglected spaces, yet it ironically constructs a more total picture by doing that.

Isaac Julien: I think there's heterosexism in the Black communities and there is racism in the gay communities, depending on where you place yourself. As a strategy I thought it was very important to bring things back home, to be able to talk to the communities that I was part of. And in a sense, for the Black communities, and other communities of interest, to address issues and political agendas that to me were very important in order for those communities to move forward. If those communities were going to survive, they'd have to be able to start negotiating different identities, negotiating the multiplicity and plurality of identities that existed within them: that's what I feel we're doing in The Passion of Remembrance. There had been a lot of silences, lots of absences. The woman in Passion is calling Black male leaders into question, absolutely.

Richard Fung: Did you get flack from the Black press for doing that in a way that goes beyond the Black community—for "hanging dirty linen in public"?

Isaac Julien: Not as much, no, in fact people probably honed in a lot more on the homosexuality.

Richard Fung: How did that manifest itself, how did people react to that?

Isaac Julien: Well, some people reacted in a fairly positive way and others in not so positive a way. But the fact that it was being discussed was what was important. We were saying we weren't invisible members of that community, that we were there and we had always existed in that community, and that we were finding a voice and putting ourselves in a political agenda.

Richard Fung: The film does transgress many political orthodoxies. For instance, the family in Passion is treated with a lot of warmth. There's been a very anti-family sentiment within both the white gay/lesbian and the white women's movements.

Isaac Julien: I think that the critique around patriarchy has always been very Eurocentric and that Black families, when they're being policed and coerced by the state, when Black men are being bumped off in prisons, in police stations and when on the other, the social, side of the state, where women come more into contact with this kind of coercion around family care, around medical and health issues—there have been several fronts where the Black family is more or less oppressed.

Richard Fung: It's interesting that whereas they fight, and there are tensions within the family, there's still a basic understanding that they are "a family." The mother is also quite a strong character—she's the one that confronts the father on his homophobia,

Isaac Julien: Also, we wanted to produce and construct a family that was not—not that it was not a problematized space, 'cause I think that things are problematized within that space - but not a pathological Black family which has been a stereotypical representation both in Black films and in white films that include the Black family, both documentary and fiction. That was also very important.

Richard Fung: The scene where Maggie and her friend put on make-up is also strikingly unusual in a political film.

Isaac Julien: Well, feminism and politics and lipstick are compatible, and I think that for a long time those things haven't been seen as compatible. I also think that for young Black women to find pleasure in their own bodies, by dressing up, by stylizing themselves and going out and dancing, is very important and has been a political discourse of resistance for Black people as well, I suppose it's making all those statements. At the same time it's making statements about the generation thing, you know, women getting dressed upstairs, getting ready to go out and the men downstairs— the kind of clash that happens between the different kinds of attitudes.

Richard Fung: On the other hand, there's a real stridency to the Black female speaker in Passion. She might almost be read as arrogant. She says, "I don't have the answers and if I did you wou1dn't understand them." How do you react to such a reading!

Isaac Julien: I think there are several kinds of readings of the film. I do think, also, that the male speaker is guilty of not ever having listened to what Black women have to say. There's only a certain "position" that they have occupied within the movement.

Basically he's asking the woman for political direction, but before he can ask that of her there has to be a kind of exchange where she is able to make him accountable, and I think that's very important—that she makes him accountable. I also think that people are not really very used to seeing women, especially Black women, in roles that are very strong, that actually have the upper hand, We see men in films—be they avant-garde films, experimental or art films—talking and nagging all the time, we're far more used and conditioned to seeing men talk all the time.

Richard Fung: At the end of the film, after all this struggle, the man walks away leaving the woman alone. What does this signify for you?

Isaac Julien: For me, after the woman talks about negotiating between complexity and confusion and they toss a coin and it comes up "heads"—which means that things are complex—he then says that he has wasted enough time playing and he will find his own way home; he turns around, looks at her once, and once is enough, and then walks away. So, it's an ambiguous ending for me. He walks away and she's left in a sense, but in the last image you don't see him totally disappear as the screen fades to black. You have to be honest about where you see your political position at this particular moment in time, He had to think about what she had said, and though he was trying to find his own way
home, he won't really find it unless they—unless we—find it together..

Richard Fung is a Toronto video producer who works in film and video distribution.

*Burning an Illusion was a 1981 UK production directed by Menelik Shabazz (colour. 107 min.).
**Handsworth Songs was produced in 1986, UK. by :he Black/Audio Film Collective, directed by John Akomfrah, producer Lina Gopaul.