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Handsworth, 1985: Re-writing the riots

The Black Audio Film Collective's film still resonates.

Handsworth
A resident of Handsworth in Birmingham (Photograph: Getty Images)

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).