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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Is the French Left having its Jeremy Corbyn moment?

Benoit Hamon won the first round of the Socialist party's presidential primaries. 

Has the French Left taken a Corbynite turn? That's certainly the verdict of many after the first round of the French Socialist Party's primary.

In first place is Benoit Hamon, who quit Francois Hollande's government over its right turn in 2014, and counts the adoption of a universal basic income, the legalisation of cannabis and the right to die among his policy proposals, with 36 per cent of the vote.

In second place and facing an uphill battle to secure the nomination is Manuel Valls, the minister who more than any other symbolized the rightward lurch of Hollande's presidency, with 31 per cent. That of the five eliminated candidates - under the French system, if no candidate secures more than half of the vote, the top two go through to a run-off round - only one could even arguably be said to be closer to Valls than Hamon shows the struggle he will have to close the gap next weekend. And for a variety of reasons, even supporters of his close ally Sylvia Pinel may struggle to put a tick in his box. 

Still, Valls clearly believes that electability is his best card, and he's compared Hamon to Corbyn, who "chose to remain in opposition". Also making the Hamon-Corbyn comparison is most of the British press and several high-profile activists in the French Republican Party.

Is it merited? The differences are probably more important than the similarities: not least that Hamon served as a minister until 2014, and came up through the backrooms. In terms of the centre of gravity and the traditions of his party, he is much closer in analogue to Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham than he is to Jeremy Corbyn, though Corbynistas and Hamonites bear a closer resemblance to one another than their leaders to.

What will give heart to the leader's office is that Hamon surged in the polls after each debate, when his ideas were given a bigger platform. But what will alarm everyone in Labour is the French Socialists' poll ratings - they are expected to get just 6 per cent in the elections. (And before you scoff at the polls, it's worth noting that they have, so far, performed admirably in the French electoral cycle, picking up on the lightning rise of both Hamon and Francois Fillon.)

That attests to something it's easy to forget in Westminster, where we tend to obsess over the United States and ignore politics on the Continent, despite the greater commonalities: throughout Europe, social democratic parties are in a fight for their lives, no matter if they turn to the left or the right.

The Democrats, in contrast, won the presidential election by close to three million votes and lost due to the electoral college. They have good prospects in the midterm elections and their greatest threat is gerrymandering and electoral malfeasance. But absent foul play, you'd have to be very, very brave to bet on them going extinct.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.