“It was a guerrilla activity”: an oral history of the Black Film Bulletin
Founding editors June Givanni and Gaylene Gould and new editors Jan Asante and Melanie Hoyes talk James Bell through the history of a vital space for critical commentary around new Black cinema and pan-African cinema histories.
The influential Black Film Bulletin, which ran from 1993 to 2000, emerged in the wake of a significant renaissance for Black filmmaking culture globally in the 1980s and early 1990s
The Black Film Bulletin was first published by the BFI in 1993. Founded by editors June Givanni and Gaylene Gould, it was a vital space for critical commentary around developments in new Black cinema and pan-African cinema histories. Publication ceased around the turn of the millennium, but in recent years the BFB has taken gradual steps to being revived in a new form, this time guided by two members of a new generation – Jan Asante and Melanie Hoyes. All four BFB editors talk James Bell through the Bulletin’s history.
June Givanni:The 1970s and 80s were times of great cultural vibrancy and activism, and that included film. They were also a time when institutions like the GLC [Greater London Council] existed and supported such activity.
I became involved with film through the Third Eye Film Festival that started in the early 80s. Of course, all of this had the background of the uprisings in 1981 in Brixton, and in 1985 in Birmingham. A lot of the filmmakers who were developing the Black film workshops at the time were also part of this wider social movement. And people like [programmer and film studies scholar] Jim Pines, who was based at the BFI but also working at the Commonwealth Institute, were running film festivals that were quite broad in their brief; and Parminder Vir, who ran the Ethnic Minorities Unit’s Arts Office at the GLC and was the director of Third Eye Film Festival. Third Eye was a big 14-day festival in London and the Midlands, and brought together African, African-American, Black British, Latin American and Asian filmmakers. It wasn’t just about a British existence at that time; it had an international, diaspora dimension – that was very important.
I started working with the BFI around the Third Cinema Conference that Jim Pines and Paul Willemen organised in Edinburgh in 1986. Jim also commissioned me to do a listing of the Black film and video films in distribution in the UK. In 1989 I was contracted to work in the distribution and exhibition division [of the BFI] as a specialist programme adviser, where I remained for three years. Among the specific projects, we published a three-video compilation called Black by Popular Demand, and did a whole range of events in London and regional film theatres.
Such a lot of things were taking place that the BFI agreed with the proposition that a unit would be a useful pan-institute structure to have. That led to the setting up of the African-Caribbean Film Unit in 1992. I made the argument by late 1992 that we needed another person, and that was when Gaylene came on board with her dynamism and we were able to expand.
Gaylene Gould:The first thing to say is that I was fan-girling over June while I was a student at Leicester Polytechnic doing a degree in arts administration. I’d been interested in the period of cinema June was talking about – the 80s, the connections between politics and social practice and people like John Akomfrah, Isaac Julien, Sankofa [Film and Video Collective] and the rest. I did my dissertation on that. This was when June had started at the BFI, and I used to call her so she could give me quotes for my dissertation.
So when the job came up at the Unit in 1992, I was like, “This is the only job I can have.” It was an honour to work with June, someone who even back then had this great repository of knowledge and ideas.
We had this brilliant, expansive brief at the Unit, which was to go and discover things. Our international connections were right through what we did – June’s background was so much in pan-Africanism, which was incredibly strong at the time. So there were these conversations happening by phone between us, people in Africa, the States, the Caribbean… and information continually being exchanged. Processing and sharing information became a huge part of our workload, so it felt like a bulletin was needed.
JG:There wasn’t a magazine that was responsive to the energy that was coming through in Black independent cinema – not in the UK, anyway. One of my inspirations was the Black Film Review in the US [a quarterly that ran from 1984-95]. I had written in it; I had been interviewed by it and I was very inspired by it. They were the first ones that were writing about Black film internationally. The editors on it were really established writers, like Clyde Taylor, and – towards the end of the magazine’s life – the late, irrepressible Jacquie Jones.
The Black Film Review was our inspiration, but the BFB was actually set up as a way of responding to the demands on the Unit. The Unit was like a clearing house for everything that was happening around Black film. It got to a stage where there was so much going on that we needed a vehicle, a forum that would be able to share this information. That is why you will see the early Black Film Bulletins had a lot of information sections in addition to features and reviews.
GG:We were down the corridor from Sight & Sound at the time, but we had no idea how to put a magazine together properly! June and I would sit down, and think about what to respond to, what were the hotspots. The bigger double issues we planned more in advance, but on the whole it was responsive.
That all happened in our tiny office, but the great thing about a Black network, or a network of quote-unquote ‘marginalised’ groups, is that there is a network – people are connected. You’d pick up the phone, say, “Hey, you were talking about that the other day, do you want to write a piece?” You were part of the scene.
The contents page of the Black Film Bulletin’s Summer 1993 issue
For the design, I must shout out to June’s son Gian Givanni, who would come in the evenings and we’d work through the night on it. It was a guerrilla activity. We had several hundred subscribers, which might not sound like a lot, but it was significant, because so many were international, from festivals in North America, Africa, the Caribbean…
JG:We really tried to respond to what was happening in the industry, and I think that’s part of what makes it a rich production to look back at now; you can see what was happening when – within the industry generally, what the agendas were, both social and institutional. The footprints of the time are there.
Alongside that, you’ve got in-depth pieces, so Gurinder [Chadha] talking about why and how she did Bhaji on the Beach , and Nadine Marsh-Edwards as the producer of that film is in another issue talking about her role as a producer alongside Trix Worrell and Munni Kabir. And John [Akomfrah]’s seminal article in the first two issues of the BFB [Wishful Filming, about the complexities of Black aesthetics and an emergent British Black cinema]; Haile Gerima in the African double issue and many of the others.
And it was definitely about the past as well – we did stuff with [the American archivist, scholar and filmmaker] Pearl Bowser on Oscar Micheaux, for instance. We did an Indispensable Information feature on archives as well.
The contents page of the Black Film Bulletin’s Spring 1994 issue
GG:June and I did sometimes have different tastes. I was 21, 22 when I was doing it. June had amazing connections to the established Black film community, and I was connected to lots of younger people.
Because we were writing about all these films, we felt we needed a place to show them, so we decided one year to do the Black Film Bulletin Summer Screens Celebration showcase. Because this was very much influenced by my young style, we held it in Camden, at a venue called WKD, which was a club that had a carpark space, which we dressed with an outdoor screen, and held live music and a barbecue alongside the screening.
This was around when we first met Steve McQueen. We must have been the first group who showed Steve’s films outside of his academic screenings. He walks into our office one day and says, “I hear you’re looking for films.” We put the VHS on, and it’s Bear, this incredible film which went on to help him win a Turner Prize.
That was the magic of the African and Caribbean Unit – we were in a place to discover exciting emerging talent. Part of the magic of June and I working together was to find ways to connect this exciting work to new audiences.
JG:It got bigger, and by the third one, we started doing at least one double feature a year. The first year was the US/UK double feature with Mable Haddock [founding director of the National Black Programming Consortium in the US, who had been instrumental in setting up the Black Film Review]. The second year was an African special double issue, and we did a double issue on Indian cinema as well. We had a widening scope of writers because people were getting more engaged with it.
The contents page of the Black Film Bulletin’s Summer 1994 issue
There was still this sense of backlash at what the 80s had ushered in in terms of institutional responses, the time of neoliberalism, of Thatcherites and Reaganomics. Things were changing, so our agenda was looking at some of the strategies that people were engaging to continue to make films and show films, how they were working with institutions and how institutions themselves were responding. The fact that the Arts Council and television were working together in terms of commissioning and what that meant – did it mean ghettoising for Black film, or was there also enough taking place through commissioning from major producers like the BFI and also from television, notably Channel 4 with its major international reputation in film?
When the BFI decided to close the African-Caribbean Film Unit [in 1996], both Gaylene and I wanted to take the Bulletin and continue it. It was something we could see had a lot of potential; it served a purpose which for us was still there.
One of my senior managers at the BFI announced, when I was discussing with him why the Unit was going to close, the idea that Black film was dead. Now, that was not quite as reactionary as it sounds. It wasn’t to say that there was no more Black film or there was no more use for Black film; his position was an argument that we no longer needed a special focus in the industry or a special unit because Black film could hold its own and was operating in the industry.
We did put forward our arguments for the continuation of the Unit to the BFI and to readers, and on the letters pages towards the end there was some sort of resistance taking place, and people did miss the Unit – they really did. The managers at the BFI had their own perspective on how the institution’s work in this area would continue.
It was announced that they had been talking to Middlesex [University], they spoke to [Baroness] Lola Young [then professor of cultural studies at Middlesex] and they engaged a new editorial team of Andrea Pearce and [journalist, producer and former editor of The Voice newspaper] Onyekachi Wambu, with Carl Daniels producing the BFB. At Middlesex the BFB had more of a TV focus, and I’m not sure there was as much emphasis on the informational part of it.
A new dawn
The Black Film Bulletin in its Middlesex University iteration ceased publication in 2000, and was dormant through the 00s. However, the legacy of its work was preserved through June Givanni’s own Pan African Cinema Archive, and the turn of the next decade saw the first signs of a possible revival. Jan Asante and Melanie Hoyes pick up the story.
Jan Asante:I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing about the BFB in the years it was originally published because my cinematic coming of age was later in the 90s. June and I met in 2010 as part of a cultural leadership Arts Council project, about the time she was setting up the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive.
My interest in the BFB was prompted by this void that happened, especially in Britain, in terms of the post-90s Black British cinema – especially when I saw the renaissance of African-American cinema at the same time. In the period between ’91 and ’95, you have Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels, a beacon of promise, and then Ngozi Onwurah becomes the first Black British woman to have a theatrical release [with Welcome II the Terrordome in 1995], and then… it goes quiet. When I found the copies of the BFB in June’s archive, it was like discovering a treasure trove.
In 2011 the leadership project we were working on culminated in a group show, which Gaylene was involved in as co-ordinator at the Royal Society of Arts. We went our separate ways for a while but it was a running conversation. I did some work for Black Cultural Archives, which had established itself at a new home in Brixton, and I then initiated a Black Cultural Archives Film Festival, which I ran for a couple of years. Reviving the BFB was always in my consciousness, but the timing needed to be right.
Melanie Hoyes:When I started at the BFI in 2016 I was working on a project looking at the representation of Blackness and Black actors on screen. As part of my research, I looked at the BFB. I was amazed it was a BFI production. I’d never heard of it and it struck me as a necessary resource that just didn’t last long enough and we still don’t have a replication for.
And there is a space for it. I was meeting academics who were writing about Black film but having to publish in sociology journals or feminist film journals because there was no specific space.
For me, the BFB was a real moment in time, but it also shows you the cycles. I work in diversity and inclusion, and I think we are in a moment right now – how people get really excited and think, “Oh there is not enough representation, we should make a space for that,” and then at some point a space is made for something else. And it’s like, you can’t keep that space open, so you shift on to something else.
For me the BFB teaches us about the way the heat needs to be kept on those spaces for that work to continue to happen. There are people in this industry who have had to go elsewhere to be successful, but there are also a multitude of Black British people working in film and television that are not visible. So it is about making that part of the industry visible so we can celebrate that work, and help that work happen.
JA:The next iteration of BFB will have to speak to a different social context, and that is the digital space we all now occupy. Obviously there is this new body of writers who live on social media, and we have moved outside of the academy. So that will give us a wealth of new voices to add to the conversation.
The bulletin part of the BFB is so important – its absence inspired me to set up Think Cinematic as a Facebook message board, because it would be very easy to think that no [new work by Black British filmmakers] was being done. And there are other sites like Shadow and Act in the US, and on the UK side, the British Blacklist, which looks at industry. So there is a continuum, of which the BFB is a crucial part.
The Black Film Bulletin’s Spring 1995 issue
MH:We’re also thinking about events. Gaylene helped organise one at the BFI Southbank last summer. The BFBis this nebulous thing that we’re always trying to draw discussion around. I think the physical aspect of it will come when the money comes, but the BFB as an idea is something that we’re constantly trying to keep alive.
JG:We always believe that we have made lots of progress but then you look at certain things that happen within society and you find you haven’t gone as far as you thought. You might get the institutional responses in various sectors once, you know, a policeman kneels on a man’s neck and kills him in full view of the world. And everybody sees that this is not just about race, it is about humanity and will impact on us all.
The Black Film Bulletin’s Spring 1996 issue
I just look at it and think, “Will that understanding last?” You have to grab the moment so quickly before the swing-back comes and it disappears. This we knew in the 90s – with the BFB we knew it would have a lasting impact. And so coming to where the BFB is now, we have to think carefully about those same considerations.
New generations look back at many things in that era driven by collectivism and activism and say, “Why don’t we have this now? Why can’t we do this now?” At the time you don’t know what the future is going to hold, but we knew that it would continue to be important because we don’t do things like those just for an institutional response and then move on.
That is the integrity that it carries into the future. Only history will say whether that was right or of value. I now run the archive because I do believe all of that stuff that we did was important and significant – because look where Black film is now. Look where society is now. It has gone full circle.
The Black Film Bulletin editors select their favourite articles from the archives
John Akomfrah’s Wishful Thinking feature in the inaugural Black Film Bulletin
There are three articles that stand out to me. A piece by John Akomfrah called Wishful Filming across the first two issues of the BFB.
One by Haile Gerima about the concept of decolonising film – how we deconstruct the gaze of Western mainstream image-making and make a space for artists from all kinds of cultural backgrounds.
And also a piece by producer Nadine Marsh-Edwards, who was part of Sankofa, about producers and the role of cinemas and the lack of exhibition, and the significance that that had in terms of stifling the development of Black British cinema.
A June Givanni editorial in the Black Film Bulletin
I love looking through the section that was around what was being released and what was going to be on TV. Like, Lenny Henry’s new show on TV, what’s in production, what was in development that didn’t end up coming out… As so often, it was largely about luck.
The old BFBs are still so relevant in that way. You read them now and they can still teach us a lot about the conversations we’re having with some filmmakers today – many of whom have struggled but are still here, even if they might not be so visible. The information in the BFBs is still so contemporary.
Gaylene Gould’s 1993 interview with Alrich Riley in the Black Film Bulletin
There’s an interview I did with director Alrick Riley, called Into the Reel World, in issue number two, summer 1993. Alrick Riley is unsung, but he shouldn’t be. He’s made big, conceptual TV series The Cops [1998-2000], Hustle [2005-12]; shows where you need a very visual director.
He was making a graduation film called The Concrete Garden, and I went up to the National Film School to be on set. It was my first article. It was the kind of piece nobody but the BFB would publish, and that’s something the BFB was great for – there’s lots of talent that we discovered at that nascent stage.
We were very aware that, even if someone ‘only’ made three short films, that was no small thing for a Black filmmaker at that time. We were championing excellence at all levels.
June Givanni’s 1995 interview with Horace Ové in the Black Film Bulletin
It’s so hard to single one out. I particularly liked the interview I did with the great Horace Ové, because he was pivotal in early Black British cinema and it covered so much ground. I liked the possibility as well of being able to focus on things that were happening elsewhere and that provided the theme.
For instance, the fact that David A. Bailey did this big Frantz Fanon project at the ICA [Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference & Desire, in 1995] and it became our cover feature, and it had a whole range of elements within it. It was an idea, and a series of events. And it was around somebody who Black filmmakers/artists/cultural theorists quote all the time.
I also like the ones that are about individuals. I was so glad we were able to do [a piece entitled] Return to a Beloved Country when Lionel Ngakane [South African director of one of Britain’s early black films, Jemima + Johnny, 1966] was going back to South Africa after 40-odd years in exile in the UK after coming here as a featured actor in [Zoltan Korda’s 1951 film] Cry the Beloved Country.
And also some of the great people that we lost, like D. Elmina Davis from Ceddo [Film and Video Workshop]. A wonderful, wonderful sister. She was one of those people that worked with other independent filmmakers around that time, and there has never been enough said about what she achieved.
Or David Lawson [producer, and founder, with John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul and Trevor Mathison, of Smoking Dog Films] on his experience in a New York prison when he went to try to retrieve royalties that were owed back to them from a distributor. The way that is written, it expands the spectrum of what being a filmmaker in the Black independent sector might mean.