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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Have voters turned against globalisation? It depends how you describe it

Brits are more positive about diversity than Sweden. 

New research shows that citizens across Europe are pessimistic about the future, distrustful of government and other political institutions, ambivalent at best about multiculturalism, and increasingly sceptical about the role of the European Union.

We wanted to understand the extent to which Europe’s citizens favour a "closed" rather than an "open" outlook and perspective on politics, economics and society. Making globalisation work for ordinary people in the developed world is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. Globalisation’s popularity and political viability is both a pre-condition and a consequence of making it work, but mainstream politicians seem to be failing to persuade us to embrace it, to the detriment of democratic institutions and norms, as well as their own careers.

The decision of the British people to leave the European Union has been perceived as yet another step back from globalisation and a rejection of an "open" outlook that favours international co-operation in favour of a more closed, inward-looking national debate.

There’s certainly a strong element of truth in this explanation. The referendum campaign was deeply divisive, with the Leave campaign playing heavily on concerns over immigration, refugees and EU enlargement. As a consequence, the "liberal" Leavers – those who wanted to leave but favoured a continuing a close economic relationship with the EU along with free movement of labour – appear to have been side-lined within the Conservative party.

Our results are by no means uplifting, but it’s not all doom and gloom. While there’s no doubt that opposition to certain features and consequences of globalisation played an important role in driving the Leave vote, Brits as a whole are just as open, outward-looking and liberal-minded, if not more so, than many of our European neighbours.

First, we asked respondents in all six countries the following:

“Over recent decades the world has become more interconnected. There is greater free trade between countries and easier communication across the globe. Money, people, cultures, jobs and industries all move more easily between countries

“Generally speaking, do you think this has had a positive or negative effect?”

Respondents were asked to consider the effects at four levels: Europe as a whole, their country, their local area, and their own life.

Overall, British voters are overwhelmingly positive about globalisation when described in this way - 58 per cent think it has benefited Europe and 59 per cent think it has benefited Britain. More than half (52 per cent) think it has benefited their local area, and 55 per cent think it has benefited their own life.

One might respond that this question skates over questions of immigration and multiculturalism somewhat, which are the most controversial features of globalisation in the UK. Therefore, we asked whether respondents thought that society becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse had changed it for the better or for the worse.

Overall, 41 per cent said that ethnic and religious diversity had changed British society for the better, while 32 per cent said it had changed for the worse. That’s a net response of +9, compared to -25 in France, -13 in Germany, and -17 in Poland. Brits are even more positive about ethnic and religious diversity than Sweden (+7) – only Spanish respondents were more positive (+27).

There’s a long way to go before ordinary people across the developed world embrace globalisation and international cooperation. Despite the apparent setback of Brexit, the UK is well-placed politically to take full advantage of the opportunities our increasingly inter-connected world will present us with. It would be a mistake to assume, in the wake of the referendum, that the British public want to turn inwards, to close themselves off from the rest of the world. We’re an open, tolerant and outward-looking society, and we should make the most of it.

Charlie Cadywould is a Researcher in the Citizenship Programme at the cross-party think tank Demos. His writing has been published in peer-reviewed journals as well as the national media.