Whose Side Are you on?

By Gaylene Gould

moolaade-ousmane-sembene-3.jpgMoolaadé, 2004

A film programmer’s dilemma

Examining the difference in temperature between national cinemas is a little like observing the differences in national dress – much is revealed about culture, how life is lived, expressions, dreams, particularities in love and laughter. Sometimes this is too subtle for translation. How to build audiences successfully for work that requires such implicit knowledge when you do not have the luxury of working in the intended cultural climate is a perennial dilemma.

A film festival director once posed the question, “whose side are you on?” to a film programmer friend of mine. The question was given in response to a set of marketing and outreach ideas that would help develop black audiences which, in turn, would support a new programme of African Diaspora cinema.

As a film programmer committed to developing black audiences for the work of black filmmakers, the question “whose side are you on?” is a humbling one. Throughout my career, I have been forced to continually ask it of myself. The playground epithet is useful in clarifying the multiplicity of agendas and perspectives at play in the field of film programming.

pressure-horace-ove.jpgPressure, 1976

It is not purely profit-making that pushes a programmer’s buttons. True, escalating film budgets, the over-saturation of the DVD market and the ever expensive job of developing new technologies, has meant that box office receipts are becoming ever more precious. As a consequence, however, the position of the cultural film sector has grown progressively critical. Without it, work that cannot commercially compete with Shrek 2 or Return of the Sith would have nowhere else to go.


The repertory/arthouse circuit has long been the preserve of the educated elite. Those who nonchalantly drop Rosebud references and point out Godardian nuances have acquired their common language through text books and study, embodying the specifically Euro-American concept of higher learning. Like most learnt languages, it has an intimidating effect. The wheat is successfully weeded out from the chaff, the like-minded immediately identified and the uninitiated swiftly excluded.

Culture effectively reflects the basic existential search for home. We are each desperate to find our club, the doorman drawing the red rope aside, waving us in and then clicking the rope back in place behind us. Inside there are folks that look, think and dress like us. The arthouse/rep theatre has operated like this for years and so has the street. It is no different to the way the ‘mans dem’ identify their bredren ‘on road’ through dress and speech.

handsworth-songs-john-akomfrah.jpgHandsworth Songs, 1986

Taking the job as Project Manager of Black World, a six-month focus on black creative talent in film and television, for the BFI, I first asked myself, whose side am I on? I was aware that the BFI objective for launching Black World may not be directly aligned with the objectives of the black audience.

A wider recognition of cultural diversity has meant that institutions are paying greater attention to the various languages that exist in cinema, which is fantastic. It broadens the opportunities for viewing work that wouldn’t otherwise be available. However, to attract different cultural audiences (if that is indeed the desire), many of the givens that exist in the arthouse and repertory sector need to be examined.

Academic rationales for programming work may not particularly be the best starting point. A personal understanding of what drives this audience to seek out a cultural experience, the specific type of mirrored reflections that they hunger for, the unmediated space within which they can relax, and an understanding of modes of expression are important. Also crucial is an understanding of British black people’s need to build a strong sense of self and the importance of image making to that need.

looking-for-langston-isaac-julien.jpgLooking for Langston, 1989

I felt it important that the programming agenda shift slightly to incorporate some of these ideas. How could music, the most accessible form of black expression, be used to leverage interest? How can education programming move away from the purely academic to look at the importance of role models and media portrayal? How can spaces be created for a young and black audience to set their own programming agenda? With very little knowledge in the public domain about how black creative talent continues to revolutionise the medium, how can an alternative canon be built?

Small steps are being made: a five month focus on black music and its televisual representation at the National Film Theatre, complete with monthly DJ sessions by the award-winning outfit Blacktronica; the Rough Cuts masterclass season led by major black media professionals; a film micro-site managed by black youth and a potential publication that pulls together 50 of the most critical films by black directors. With no concerted study on audience development and film programming for black audiences, Black World is a work in progress. It’s heartening the bfi seem to be in this for the long haul.


I didn’t realise that there was such a gratuitous thing as film studies until long after I left school. I began to take some evening classes where it was explained why Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made and I marvelled at that opening sequence in A Touch of Evil. There was a reverence that made my secret hobby seem more important, more vital.

moolaade-ousmane-sembene.jpgMoolaadé, 2004

However I always found it more entertaining to watch films with my mum, who still feels inclined to shout at the screen, informing our hero where he is going wrong. She creates her own sound effects and tearfully surmises plot-lines during sad moments. I inherited this participatory viewing from her and it wasn’t until I travelled to Africa and the Caribbean and watched films in that environment that I realised it was a cultural thing. 

Participatory viewing is difficult for a European arthouse audience to take. They are used to treating cinema like their religions, quietly and respectfully.

Certain African and Caribbean filmmakers often give over space for such communal translating in their films, which often make them difficult to be appreciated by Euro-American audiences. Recent criticisms of veteran filmmaker and bfi Fellow Ousmane Sembene’s release Moolaade reflect this cultural gap. The film centres on the personal struggle of one woman against the abusive practice of female genital mutilation, and her ensuing alienation from the entire village. It was criticised for its simplicity, slow pacing and also, strangely, its negative portrayal of Africa.

In the Guardian Interview at the National Film Theatre as part of bfi Black World, Sembene clearly stated that he makes his films not for a European audience but for a West African one. In Moolaade and other films, Sembene leaves spaces in which an audience is expected to interrupt. He poses starkly ethical dilemmas, which the audience is forced to ponder, preferably out loud. He creates heady moments of hilarity or group exhilaration like the end sequence where the women gather together and sing ‘Wasaa Wasaa’ at the top of their lungs (I defy anyone not to want to join in.) His films present pertinent news-based arguments about important life-changing matters. They are intended to call the audience to action. In Europe, cinema does not perform such a directly social function and is regarded suspiciously if it does.

moolaade-ousmane-sembene-2.jpgMoolaadé, 2004

Examining the difference in temperature between national cinemas is a little like observing the differences in dress – much is revealed about culture, how life is lived, expressions, dreams, particularities in love and laughter. Sometimes this is too subtle for translation. How to build audiences successfully for work that requires such implicit knowledge when you do not have the luxury of working in the intended cultural climate is a perennial dilemma.

I have much respect for the Bollywood businessmen in this regard. They have managed to create an unmediated environment for the culture to thrive in the UK, which is not reliant on European interpretation. Without a multi-billion industry backing African cinema and its Diaspora offspring, I fear that I may only have my dreams. I dream of a time when a black canon can be created and selected by my tribe’s folk. I dream of theatrical spaces which are constructed to encourage open interaction with the screen. I dream of trips to the cinema being more carnivalesque and the appreciation of its form less academic and more emotive.

I often hear programmers / theatre managers / festival directors / magazine editors say that they select and programme work for ‘everybody’. This is an impossibility. It is an impossibility because we programmers don’t exist outside of our specific cultures. We are an expression of them. Therefore my idea of ‘everybody’ and their cultural specificities will probably differ from yours. And so it should. We are only human after all.

Gaylene Gould is Project Manager for Black World (www.bfi.org.uk/blackworld).