The English Patient

Issue section: 

Menelik Shabazz welcomes the Black World festival.

Black World is here! A six month showcase of film work from the African Diaspora - at least that's the hype. This British Film Institute (BFI) initiative includes retrospectives, a TV season, DVD re-releases, and additional screenings across Britain. Any initiative that gives recognition to black cinema is always welcome simply because it is so rare.

Among the retrospectives of Black World is the work of Marxist director Ousmane Sembene, Suleyman Cisse and Horace Ove, the godfather of black British cinema. Ove's pioneering film Pressure will also be re-released on DVD. Other DVD re-releases include my own Burning An Illusion and Young Soul Rebels (Isaac Julien). These films, produced by the BFI in the 1980s and 1990s, defined the black cinematic landscape and empowered new voices.

On the contemporary front Black World is not as strong in content. Baadasssss!, directed by African American director Mario Van Peebles, is its main offering. What is most disappointing is the absence of contemporary work from the Diaspora as well as locally. Unfortunately BFI's Black World is a very selective and narrow world. Its diasporic span does not seem to include Europe or South America, and the Caribbean is only a passing gesture to the US.

What is also glaring is the absence of the work of black British filmmakers. In recent years a number of self-funded films like Emotional Backgammon, Love Is Not Enough, 500 Years Later and Cherps have brought a resurgence in black filmmaking in Britain. There is even more talent in the wings within the short film circuit. Filmmakers like Kara Miller, Adrian Browne, Julius Amedume, Wade Jacks are just a few from a long list. Our Black Film Makers (BFM) Festival has screened 72 of these films over the last six years.

But being ignored is the tale of the black filmmaker in Britain today. Since Young Soul Rebels was made 15 years ago only three movies by black directors have been industry commissioned - Speak Like A Child, One Love and A Way of Life. Race and class prejudice still permeates the film industry, despite its diversity initiatives. Minority ethnic led independent production companies face particular barriers to success.

The British Film industry is itself in decline, like an English patient self-destructing in its prejudiced, arrogant and impotent mindset, disconnected from the audiences it claims to satisfy. There is hardly any money to make films. In the early 1990s Film Four, PolyGram, Granada Films, BBC and Lottery funds were available. This money was eventually squandered on development and a trailer load of failed projects. PolyGram and Film Four were closed down; the Lottery fund went to the UK Film Council. Today the UK Film Council is the biggest show in town with £16 million for production and development.

In BFM magazine we argue that bodies like the UK Film Council should take greater responsibility in forging a cinema that reflects the class and cultural make-up of Britain. The UK film industry is dying because of its incestuous and extreme class bias, forcing it to be dependent on the least creative segment of the population. Admittedly the UK Film Council did part finance Bend It Like Beckham (after the BBC turned it down because they thought no one would want to see it). It went on to gross over £15 million and became one of the most successful films in British history.

Black cinema has yet to reach these heights. I believe it is only a matter of time. Many people are saying that the soon to be released gangster film Rollin With the Nines could be the one that will open the doors. It will happen sooner rather than later. Black culture permeates all areas of cultural life (music, fashion, language, etc). There are audiences ready for black-led stories. Black writers and directors are the new voices of British cinema and without them the English patient cannot be revived.

Digital technology is also giving more people the opportunity to make films on tiny budgets. Access to cameras and software has now made it possible for filmmakers to develop their own techniques and produce their own film. The proliferation of distribution channels (internet, cable TV, mobile phones, etc) make it possible to reach new audiences.

Film festivals are another access point to these films. Our annual BFM International (September) is the main festival in London that showcases black world cinema. It also screens the latest work from UK talent. Our Short Film Awards is the most popular event each year.

Unfortunately the festival is under threat of closure due to insufficient funding by our UK Film Council donors. They give us scraps compared to white-led festivals. We accuse the UK Film Council of apartheid funding to black-led organisations. The UK Film Council receives public money and it must strive to bring equality of opportunity rather than replicate the biased nature of the industry. But come what may our festival will go ahead by any means.

Events like Black World seem to come along every decade. The BFI now has to carry this agenda forward by building structures that will bring a consistent approach to black cinema.

Black World events will be screening at the NFT, London and throughout the country (See Menelik Shabazz is the editor of BFM magazine and the founder of the BFM International Film Festival.