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)
Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.