How the Black Audio Film Collective Remixed Fact and Fiction

Active between 1982 and 1998, the collective made over a dozen films about the personal and political experiences of people of color living in Britain.

From Handsworth Songs (image courtesy True/False Film Festival)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Many think of nonfiction movies solely in terms of their journalistic value or the information they impart, but the True/False Film Festival is primarily dedicated to their artistic side. Running each March in Columbia, Missouri, the festival showcases documentaries that use nontraditional and even abstract techniques. Since 2012, the festival has presented the Neither/Nor program in conjunction with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Each year, a guest programmer curates the films, which, as the name suggests, don’t comfortably fit into easy categorization as either fiction or nonfiction cinema. This year, Ashley Clark, senior film programmer at BAM, showcased four works from the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC).

Active between 1982 and 1998, the BAFC, composed of seven British and diaspora artists, produced or co-produced over a dozen films about the personal and political experiences of people of color living in Britain under the Thatcher regime and then in its aftermath. They worked in reaction to reactionaries, cataloging the fallout from the deregulation of capital, the winnowing of social welfare programs, and state endorsement of racism and homophobia. Clark has said that they “seized on this climate of unease to create a questioning aesthetic which was left-leaning yet refused self-righteous didacticism.” Their oeuvre is characterized by a refusal to sit in any stylistic box, freely mixing news footage both historical and contemporary, interviews, photo montage, performance art, and traditional narrative scenes. The documentary elements provide context for the fictional ones, while the fictional elements lend emotional gravitas to the nonfictional ones. In this and other ways, the seemingly disparate aspects of the movies instead inform and bolster one another.

The collective’s first feature was Handsworth Songs (1986), directed by key member John Akomfrah, who would go on to become a well-known, decorated artist. Made for the Channel 4 news series Britain: The Lie of the Land, the film was shot in the aftermath of the 1985 Handsworth uprising, when a police raid spurred heated protests. The film includes almost no visuals of the actual events, instead capturing images of people picking up the pieces. It is not really about the “riots,” but the reactions to them — how participants reflected on them and politicians used them for ammunition. The mosaic of voices anticipates today’s media environment, in which news comes at us from a thousand directions at once, a chorus of conflicting and confusing viewpoints. As an essay film, it was the most conventional of the four Neither/Nor picks.

From Testament (image courtesy True/False Film Festival)

The BAFC’s next work, Testament (1988), also directed by Akomfrah, introduces fictional sequences to its exploration of a real story: The socialist experiment of Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and the Western-backed coup which overthrew him in 1966. The film follows an English-educated journalist who returns to Ghana 20 years after the coup. Torn between her British and Ghanaian selves and unable to find a sense of home, her story embodies larger issues facing the African diaspora in general and more specifically Akomfrah, who is himself of Ghanaian descent. Old footage around Nkrumah’s ouster are woven inextricably with flashback scenes, reinforcing the feeling that these fictional characters are truly a part of this history.

Twilight City (1989), directed by Reece Auguiste, is another essay film, this one concerning the rapid changes to London brought on by Thatcherist real estate expansion. Interviews with various artists, activists, and academics who have lived through this evolution are framed via a fictional correspondence between a young black woman living in the city and her mother in Dominica. The movie’s eye roves restlessly through the streets, casting a harsh gaze on crumbling public estates and growing corporate monstrosities. The interviewees become the voice of the city itself, crying out in indignation as its character and color are purged for the sake of an unstable market.

From Twilight City (image courtesy True/False Film Festival)

Who Needs a Heart (1991), directed by Akomfrah, turns the critique inward. Set in the 1960s and ’70s, the fictional narrative goes within the social circles of the British black power movement. Their political actions are never seen; the film instead scrutinizes their romantic entanglements, especially with white women. They are followers of Michael X, who is present only via archival footage, with his absence from the constructed scenes underlining the characters’ lack of driving force. Without him, these would-be revolutionaries party aimlessly and eventually fall apart from one another.

Today, the work of the Black Audio Film Collective is extremely difficult to find (Handsworth Songs is available on UbuWeb). Their appearance at True/False hopefully presages a major rediscovery of them in the near future. With the United Kingdom (among other places) again under a capriciously conservative government, the collective’s blending of past and present, fact and fiction demonstrates a unique model of artistic agitation and resistance.

From Who Needs a Heart (image courtesy True/False Film Festival)

The True/False Festival took place in Columbia, Missouri March 1–4.

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