Handsworth, 1985: Re-writing the riots

The Black Audio Film Collective's film still resonates.

In this ethereal world filmmaker equals active agent and audience usually equal passive consumers of a pre-determined product. We have decided to reject such a view in our practice.

Black Audio Film Collective

The vicissitudes of memory and history have always represented for the Black Audio Film Collective a strategic battleground of aesthetic inquiry, so in a way every screening of their films is a renewed opportunity for further investigation rather than passive celebration. This week (25 September, 7.30pm) BAFC's Handsworth Songs (1986) will be shown at Bethnal Green Workingmen’s Club, a bus ride away from their historic "hideout" in Dalston where, in the early 1980s, a group of art students turned semiotic militants launched an audio-visual offensive against the (post-)colonial imaginary.  Handsworth Songs is their most accomplished work.

Opposing the dominant narrative about the urban unrest that shook Birmingham in the  autumn of 1985, these young black British artists chased the ghosts of history wafting in the fumes of the riots to voice the censored stances of their terrestrial counterparts. Mixing newsreels, archive footage and fictional elements, Handsworth Songs articulates a cross-cultural view of the “disturbances” while simultaneously dismantling obsolete conceptions of “the violent nonsensicality of race”, as the filmmakers put it. What the media presented as an act of senseless violence is, in the film, re-read as the outcome of a complex historical itinerary that is then deconstructed. Despite its overtly confrontational stand, the film never surrenders to facile dichotomies; on the contrary, its purpose is to disclose complex causality of racial conflict. The film's principal achievement is to have unpicked the rhetoric of civil disorder.

BAFC member Reece Auguiste has said that the group's aim was “to bring alive those nervous reflexes, to capture and reconstitute the sensibilities of those who were for over 30 years voiceless, those who were given a voice when the BBC or other television companies said: you may now speak, but don’t forget our narrator holds in his left hand a sword and in the right hand the winning card."

The film undermines the semantic closure to which (televisual) realism often tends; instead of frontally contradicting the simplistic verdicts of the mainstream media, Handsworth Songs demonstrates their inadequacy by forging a multivocal narrative. Handsworth Songs is neither straightforward documentary nor fiction, but a sort of multi-subjective visual poem. Far removed from the distortions of black supremacy, BAFC celebrated the inherently radical character of hybridism.

We hear the scattered soundscape of the dub (in)version of Jerusalem by Mark Stewart as a slideshow of newspaper headlines, presenting Handsworth as “the bleeding heart of England”, appear on screen. Here the song ceases to merely sound-track the images to become a signifying frontrunner blanking out the demarcation line between content and form, poetics and aesthetics. This sequence is representative of the film and of BAFC practice more generally. With its deconstructed melody and rhythmic structure, Stewart’s version of Jerusalem simultaneously ratifies and reclaims the failure of British society – having promised a new Jerusalem of hope and glory, it is now afraid of being "swamped" – to accept post-imperial realities. On the one side is the liberal dream of a "tolerant" England willing to accept a "small minority" and on the other, is the insurgence of racially mixed experiences forging a linguistic crossbreed.

BAFC sought to create a socio-cultural infrastructure (journals, seminars, film familiarisation courses, workshops, debates and so on) not so much serving an existing community as calling a new one into being. Their work is not over.

"Handsworth Songs" is showing at Bethnal Green Workingmen's Club, 42-44 Pollard Row, London E2 on 25 September (7.30pm).

A resident of Handsworth in Birmingham (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.