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The Godfather of Black British Film

The Godfather of Black British Film

Menelik Shabazz is not only the director of one of the most important feature films ever produced in Britain, he is also the founder of the BFM International Film Festival and BFM Magazine. Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. talks to him about his passion for film-making and his opinions about the industry.

As a person of colour, I believe your film Burning An Illusion was one of the most important feature films ever made in Britain. What motivated you to write that script?

I was motivated by the need to address our identity through a tale of love.  When the lead character Pat burns her illusions, she rejects notions of idyllic love but most importantly she burns a false identity of self. This self was trapped in embracing ideas and culture that was not her own. When the gap between her reality and her Mills and Boon book/world becomes apparent, her love life in tatters, her boyfriend in prison - she is forced to confront herself. She finds a new way of seeing, embraces her African roots, symbolic of her transition and sense of self. This was important for me to express at a time when I felt our young were losing their sense of who they were. Of course this issue of identity is still a live issue today.

How much did the film cost to make? Where did you get the funding from and why have you not made a follow-up since?

The film cost £80,000 in 1981. It was financed by the British Film Institute who at that time had a production fund that supported new voices. Why I wasn't able to produce another film has to do with lack of belief in our stories by the Commissioners and the inability to value these stories outside of the Eurocentric world view. I wanted to tell stories outside of the stereotypes where the characters were strong, whole, had dreams and aspirations. Such stories were far ahead of the game and put me further outside the loop. Fundamentally there has never been any attempt to support black cinema in the UK beyond tokenistic gestures. Hence, since Horace Ove's Pressure in 1975, only a handful of features have been commissioned within the UK Film or Broadcast industry.  Most of the features produced by black film-makers have been produced independently. Since Burning, I submitted a number of projects in development but they never got the green light.

The last time I met you, we were at a photographic exhibition, honouring the works of black photographers Charlie Phillips, Ahmet Francis and Neil Kenlock. You told me, you were pleased to see them honouring photographers and film-makers 30 years later, but what was also needed was the support and encouragement of young film-makers. Why has it taken so long to acknowledge black artists?

The legacy of black artists and the influence they have had is not generally recognised. This is because of perceptions that black art has no value unless it falls within a Eurocentric mindset; even then it is never fully accepted. Black artists are largely invisible; they continually struggle to be recognized.  For the most talented ones, it often comes at the latter end of their career at a point where potency has seen better days. Charlie Philips isan example of an outstanding photographer working in the 60sand 70s, who had to trade in his talent for the life a Chef. A few years ago he finally got his recognition: similarly with Horace Ove getting his CBE recently. Black artist are the most potent creators in the UK and their work has always been influential; it's like the wind with no face but you feel the breeze.

Very often the prefix ‘black’ is attached to the vocation of people of colour: black photographer, black film-maker, black footballer, etc.  Do you feel the prefix devalues your work? Are you a film-maker or a black film-maker, and what are the subtle differences that define the two?

In the absence of another unifying term, i.e. Nubian, African, I used the term ‘black’ because in the context of film it defines my take. ‘Black’ is a term with contradictions because it does not fully define who you are; however, it has a history and is a reflection of where we have evolved here in the UK. I was born in Barbados; there I would not use the term ‘black’ in that context because there is another dominant sense of identity. In the UK, the term ‘black’ evolved in response to being referred to as ‘coloured’; it was a term of liberation echoedin the Black Power movement of the 60s. Before this shift in consciousness, fights would break out if you called a ‘coloured man’ a ‘black man.’ So the term was used as an assertion and a political unifying point at a time when the black man was trying to find himself and his place in the world. In the USA, the black man further defined himself as African American; here in the UK, we have not evolved in the same way. Today, as before, it carries contradictions; then it was a term used to denigrate.  This was turned into a positive. Today it is used in the media in one way and some of us define ourselves using this term. Until we move beyond these terms and further define ourselves on a national scale, it is a term that we all understand for now. Some artists define themselves by their craft, others by their colour; this is choice we make and a reflection of where we are. It is useful term but it's not a perfect black.

You are the founder of a black film festival and the producer of BFM magazine. Why did you start the festival and the magazine?

I turned a negative into a positive.  That is, I was a very frustrated film-maker who, despite winning awards, could not develop my craft like my contemporaries. I reached a point where I saw no point in continuing a cycle where your life is in the hands of a commissioner, waiting 3-6 months for an answer which your life depended on. Everyone goes through that, but, for me, when your chances are slim, it was making no sense. So I stepped out of the matrix and turned my anger into products that could be of benefit to other black film-makers. The magazine set out to raise the profile of black film-makers at a time when these film-makers were invisible to the industry and broadcasters. The Festival extended this agenda to showcase the talents both nationally and internationally because there was a low awareness of black cinema and independent work. Through the Short Film Awards, we were able to reward talent that no one recognised.  We helped film-makers to get distribution deals, brought new audiences to films.  The Festival celebrates it's 10th Anniversary next year, which I never thought we would reach. In it's own way, the Festival and magazine has helped to make a little difference to the sector which is what pleases me the most.

You are also about to launch an online channel. How will this work and what are your ambitions for the channel?

I am really excited about this, my latest venture. The BFM Movie Channel is about creating a global platform for black cinema and films on the internet. Film-makers will have a chance to reach atruly global audience and will have the opportunity to get a share of profits for downloads and DVD sales.  Importantly, for me using the internet breaks the virtual blockade that the distribution systems have on black film products by providing direct access to markets that before were simply out of reach.  It also takes advantage of the increase demand for black films in the UK and globally. Readers can take a sneak preview by going online right now; visit www.bfmmoviechannel.com

What can the British film industry do to better support British film-makers?

If we are talking about black film-makers, the industry needs to identify funds that support new voices from ethnic minority groups. Without this, the industry continues to write the same script and we will continue to be the extras.
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