In a Free State?

By Gaylene Gould

handsworth-songs-john-akomfrah.jpgHandsworth Songs, 1987

Diasporas and diversity come under the lens at an important conference

To mark the close of decibel, the Arts Council project to promote cultural diversity in the visual arts, the organisers held a two-day conference at the British Museum in April, entitled A Free State. It set out to enable blue sky thinking for Black, Asian and Chinese visual artists, and sought to build conceptual frameworks around creative freedom, self definition, international collaboration and cultural autonomy.

Film-maker Minh-Ha’s metaphor poeticises the experience of living as a marginal being due to gender or ethnicity. It also reflects upon cinema’s enduring ability to take single moments and to project them into epic realities. As an illustration of how the whole sea itself (the industry) can be reflected in the single drop of water, I will focus here upon black diaspora filmmaking.

When I conceptualised the Free State Conference, I hoped that it would inspire a meditation on the roots of creative freedom for culturally diverse artists. In conclusion, I feel that such freedom is represented by who is allowed to draw upon the intimate in order to commune with the universal. The power of cinema and the moving-image cannot be understood without grasping the role of myth-making to human societal existence. Turning on the TV during the recent D-Day celebrations is a simple testimony to this.

For black filmmakers and artists in the diaspora, the challenge to ‘make epic’ our reality is a very pressing one. Black British filmmakers are now regarded as a rarefied breed and that seems to be reflected across the diaspora. The black boom that was promised in the US seems to have hushed, African filmmakers produce too sporadically and Caribbean cinema is still faltering since The Harder They Come bolted out of the gates. In Britain, the rise and fall of the Channel 4 Workshop movement has left a bitter taste in many a mouth.

Despite a range of development programmes and one-off commercial successes, African diaspora cinema suffers from an enduring problem. It is homeless or, to personify, a motherless child. With no evident parent, it is forever reliant on state patronage. This lack of economic and cultural independence stultifies the radical, independent, selfish spirit that creative freedom requires. Francophone African filmmakers are forced to beg investment from France, resulting in a legacy of African films produced for European viewership. Black British filmmakers continue to prostrate themselves at the door of beleaguered British film institutions and in the US there is only so much Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Master P can do.

Living in Europe, it is too easy to turn our heads westward and ignore our brethren and cultural home in the South but this is perhaps where the root of the problem lies. While we have witnessed the global rise of Indian, Iranian, South East Asian and Latin American cinema, African cinema still remains largely ignored. One of the reasons for this is the lack of infrastructure and un-evidenced domestic theatrical audiences. This reverberates throughout the diaspora, because in a globalised reality the local has a very particular place (just as a drop of water relates to the sea).

Domestic theatrical markets create many legacies. Most importantly, an audience will be witnessed. This justifies a cinema’s existence. In turn, a production, sales and distribution infrastructure will be inspired. Such local developments, of course, struggle to take place against the hegemony that is Hollywood, but once established, the business of cinema (which is primarily the business of myth and speculation) can begin. [1] Once box office information is gathered, sales agents, the pivotal market traders at the centre of the global industry, can package and transform this into arguments for investment. In simplified form, it is such a relationship that has helped sustain and catapult film industries such as the Indian, Korean, Hong Kong and the Brazilian into the international marketplace.

"Each drop of water is the whole sea itself. One can see the drop in the sea and one can see the sea in the drop." – Trinh T Minh-Ha, A Free State, decibel, Arts Council England, March 2004

It is always uneasy to talk of cinema in such industrialised terms, but this is the game we are in. In an increasingly globalised industry, it is very important for black filmmakers to have an alternative business reality for black theatrical cinema outside of the Euro-American model. The African continent could potentially provide some great representative cases. The existence of successful domestic markets in Africa would not only help to provide the necessary evidence to fuel an industry (i.e. there are audiences for black films) but it would also offer black diaspora producers another route into the global industry.

Given the fact that the economics of cinema have to be grudgingly acknowledged, it is not an industry with profit alone in mind. If it were, filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard would no longer be funded. It is an industry that is also heavily impressed and motivated by legacy and myth. Unfortunately, little has been done to celebrate and cement the experiences of African diaspora cinematic talent. Worryingly, within this fragmented sector, the opposite seems to take place and frustrations are taken out on certain creative individuals or aesthetics. When regarding the grander narrative, it is clear that ‘demonising our own’ does little to create an argument for continued existence. Criticising the Workshops for producing experimental films in the 1980s, for example, does little to reflect on Channel 4’s wider paternalistic remit of that moment, nor does it celebrate the role the Workshops had in training and developing a next generation.

The epic reality of the African diaspora industry merely mirrors the social and political reality of the contemporary world, revealing where economic power concentrates, and its ripple effect. If creative freedom is represented by the ability to mythologise our existences, African diaspora filmmakers are not infra-structurally supported. And yet, the one stable resource that independent filmmakers have in unwavering amounts is tenacity.

Melvin Van Peebles’ attendance at the Free State conference helped remind us that, despite having a percentage of the opportunity that we have today, he managed to produce features and independently build his own audience in 1971. A tribute feature, entitled Baadasssss! written and directed by his son Mario, successfully historicizes an important diaspora cinematic moment. 81 year-old Ousmane Sembene’s new film Moolaadé picked up the Un Certain Regard award in Cannes this year and British filmmakers Leon Herbert and Kolton Lee circumvented the traditional funding streams and took the rocky road to produce low-budget black features.

A free state is achievable as long as diaspora filmmakers continue to inspire the industry with their tenacity and remember that their fragmented experiences are only a part of a much larger epic picture.


[1] This type of industry development has of course taken place in the healthy domestic video markets of Nigeria and Kenya but, despite the growth of ancillary markets, it is the theatrical market that still has the potential to offer international regeneration possibilities.

Gaylene Gould is a creative project manager, and director of The Free State Conference for decibel Project, Arts Council England, March 2004. She also programmes for the Toronto International Film Festival and has written and directed various short films.