My other half had a birthday earlier this month which gave me an excuse to splurge on this gorgeously bound retrospective of the Black Audio Film Collective. Published by FACT and Liverpool University Press, and edited by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar of the Otolith Group, The Ghosts of Songs collects more than 20 essays, artist statements and manifestos, along with artist bios, a filmography and selected bibliography of writings produced by and about the BAFC. The presentation is both tactile – thick, matte pages and the title pressed into its heavy cloth spine – and visually striking, with its widescreen layout and richly illustrated text.

The BAFC’s founders (John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George and Claire Johnson – David Lawson joined later) were undergrads in Fine Arts and Sociology when the group was founded in 1982.  By the time they disbanded in 1998, they had profoundly impacted British documentary practice.  From the FACT exhibition guide:

In many ways, BAFC were a unique group. Based initially in east, and later north, London, they produced internationally acclaimed, award winning slide-tape texts, films and videos; far more than any other artist group of the time. These explorations of belonging and intimacy combined a montage aesthetic with personal reflection to invent a new genre of moving image that challenged traditions of British documentary and drama, and profoundly influenced contemporary avant-garde film-makers and theorists.

In the 1980s, the collective were known as exceptional curators, whose film courses, seminar series and screening programmes brought avant-garde cinema, from India, Brazil, Cuba, Senegal and the USA, to London audiences for the first time. The desire to build an independent cineculture remained constant through the group¹s numerous theoretical, critical, speculative and fictional writings. Unlike other moving image artists, the collective was not restricted to a single cultural context, but operated within and between the cultural spaces of the international film festival, the art gallery and broadcast television.

These films are not widely available in Canada and screenings are rare. I’ve only managed to find two of them by rooting through university holdings (2nd or 3rd generation VHS copies in both cases). Handsworth Songs (1986) focuses on the Birmingham riots of 1985. FACT says: “Running throughout Handsworth Songs is the idea that the riots were the outcome of British society’s suppression of black presence and black desire in Britain. The film portrays civil disorder as an opening onto a secret history of dissatisfaction, associated with industrial decline and the crisis of documentary as a mode of address.” Produced nine years later, The Last Angel of History remains perhaps the single most concise survey of Afrofuturist music and thought on both sides of the Black Atlantic. Playing again with the theme of a secret history, its starting point is the claim “that the line between fiction and social reality is an optical illusion,” a notion that interviewees including Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Juan Atkins, Goldie, Eshun and half a dozen others are happy to illustrate. The fact that it originally aired on Channel 4 says a lot about the differing priorities of Canadian and British public broadcasters.

You can buy The Ghosts of Songs here (UK), here (Canada) and here (USA). Hopefully, this book signals that a companion DVD collection on the horizon.

Comments are closed.