African Odysseys is an ongoing monthly programme of films and events which takes place at London’s BFI Southbank, and focuses on cinema by and about the people of Africa and the African diaspora. Permanent Plastic Helmet recently caught up with African Odysseys programmer David Somerset to find out more about this successful strand.
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PPH (in bold): Let’s start with the here and now. The next event in the African Odysseys strand is Ivan Dixon’s controversial 1973 film The Spook Who Sat By The Door (on Saturday May 26 – tickets here). Can you tell me a bit more about that?
David Somerset (in regular): Yeah, basically it’s a real cult item. It was the first film of Ivan Dixon, who was a rising star in the black American film world, and it’s been limited to bootleggers or the occasional short run DVD release. To the best of my knowledge it’s never been screened theatrically in the UK, so we’re massively excited to have it here. It’s about a black American ex-CIA operative who returns to Chicago and uses his skills to prepare his brothers for revolution. It was hugely controversial at the time – this is early 1970s America we’re talking about – so the FBI deemed it cause for concern and all but one of the existing prints were seized and destroyed. It’s a great film, really exciting.
Going back a bit, when did African Odysseys start at the BFI?
African Odysseys started in 2007 at the BFI as a programme of educational screenings that reach out to wider audiences. I had just taken up the post and was a huge film fan. I knew of a Cuban classic film from Tomas Guiterrez-Alea, called The Last Supper about a plantation in 18th century Cuba. We showed this title to a sell out audience during the last RISE anti-racist festival in London. Speaking to collaborators such as Tony Warner from Black History Walks I said, “Why dont we get a bunch of cultural groups and individuals together and devise a programme?”. That’s the simplest explaination of what happened.
What was your inspiration/drive for the programme, and why do you consider it to be important?
I believe in genuinely collaborative programming and not programming that is simply driven by economic imperatives – that’s why I like working in a cultural institution. I believe cultural institutions should not only think about wider audiences but also work in conjunction with them. These are both things that such institutions rarely do in a meaningful way but at the BFI I have been able to pursue this on an educational level. I also love to do this because I am constantly educated about new films, films that I have never heard about, films such as The Spook Who Sat By The Door that have been deliberately written out of history as a result of both political represssion and ignorance; an ‘educated’ elite who simply cannot look beyond the limited horizons of their education, who have never learned to think for themselves, ‘outside the tent’.
What other groups/organizations are involved in African Odysseys?
A whole range of cultural and community organisations and individuals. Lobby groups, archives, film festivals directors, cultural activists – I couldnt begin to name them for fear of leaving some out. I dont hear from some contributors for a while and then they get in touch and say that they have a film and will we take a look at it. But there is also a core of people who attend all meetings. Some are politically driven and committed to the need to promote exposure in the face of a media and wider society that refuses to deal with representation unless its on a banal and inert level.
Where did your own interest in African diasporic cinema stem from?
Well, I have always loved cinema per se. Diversity and creativity are inseperable and I am into genuinely creative cinema. Diaspora cinema is a difficult concept. Do we mean national cinema? Or cinema that deals with diaspora experience? Or just cinema that includes diverse, disapora casting? Its a broad category. Working with wider audiences I always look for resonant work that raises pertinent issues within a particular community, for which there is a wider discussion to be had. I am also attentive to the universal experience and if we are concerned about human rights, for example, it should be a concern for everyone and not just a particular region or background. So the ideal is to mix up audiences, share experience, recognise common ground as well as specific experience and there’s no better medium to do this than cinema.
Do you think that African cinema currently gets the respect and exposure it deserves? If not, why not?
I think we have to begin from a standpoint that recognises the limitations to any cinema exhibition. Unless we are fortunate enough to travel to film festivals, the public get to see a minute drop in the ocean of the work that is produced on an international level. There are festivals in London and the UK and if one goes to these niche platforms, its possible to get an insight into what is being produced in Africa. And what is being produced is not getting sufficient exposure, certainly not at multiplex cinemas but also at the smaller rep chains that have become increasingly streamlined in their programming. But I hold broadcasters to account, too. In the 80s, I’m sure that an appetite for African cinema sprang from a rich output on BBC2 and Channel 4 where you could discover not only drama that represented a diversity of UK experience but also scheduled great African cinema from people such as Regina Nacro, Sembene, Cisse, Mambety – great film makers. Nigeria is doing some exciting stuff now and moving away from the admittedly popular (but local and low-budget) to the international, and doing it despite wider ignorance and with an attitude of “if you dont know about us, too bad ’cause we’re coming anyway”.
How much of the programme deals specifically with Africa?
In January we screened a doco by a new director about witchcraft in Northern Ghana. Last year’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun season at the BFI was tremendous, especially A Screaming Man which overwhelmed audiences. We also welcomed Gaston Kabore and Wend Kuuni which was a joy. I’d always like to see more. In July as part of African Odysseys we are screening a film about Algeria, Outside the Law. In August we have a doc about African religion in a double bill with a newly discovered record of the late, great Fela Kuti and his trip to NY in 1986. In November we are hoping to put together some new Nigerian films. At heart I believe people will take a chance if given the opportunity! Sometimes the industry is ignorant to its own economic criteria and miss commercial films that would actually make a good profit for them.
Have there been any particularly controversial screenings so far?
Have there been any that aren’t? I am amazed at the discussions that come out of screenings and the different views that come from speakers and audience. The remarkable Raoul Peck’s film Moloch Tropical took aim at a sacred cow and outraged a good section of the audience. But a strongly divided audience makes for tremendous discussion. This was certainly the case with the shock documentaries Addio Zio Tom and Africa Addio. The discussions were second to none. When we all think the same way there’s no debate.
Welcome to a new, bright and breezy monthly feature in which Permanent Plastic Helmet picks out some of the film-related treats it’s most looking forward to in the next month.
May is Cannes Film Festival month. Still the most prestigious international film festival going (May 16-27), this year’s ‘In Competition’ line-up features a pretty dazzling (though, sadly, almost exclusively male) array of talent. New films from the likes of David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis - pictured), Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), Michael Haneke (Amour) and Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly) will duke it out for the top prize: the Palme d’Or. You can take a look at the official selection (including Un Certain Regard) here, and full line-ups for the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week here.
There was no place in the programme for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master (purportedly about Scientology – but who knows?), which makes us wonder if the 56th BFI London Film Festival in October might end up with a pretty mighty premiere on its hands. We can but dream. Sadly, PPH won’t have a presence at Cannes this year, but looks forward nonetheless to hearing all the news and reactions from the Croisette. At least one of our blogging pals will be there, so expect to be pointed in the direction of that site for feedback during the festival.
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In terms of May’s new cinema releases, we’re hugely excited about Gareth Evans’ The Raid (May 18) – a hyper-violent, Indonesian-set thriller that’s said to draw upon the likes of John Woo’s Hard Boiled for influence. Julie Delpy’s 2 Days In New York (May 18) – the sequel to her earlier 2 Days In Paris – is one that we’d really been anticipating, though are sad to report that it fails to catch fire in the way we’d hoped. That said, it’s definitely worth seeing for Chris Rock’s straight-man performance as Mingus, Delpy’s jazz-and-Obama obsessed boyfriend.
Professional provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen also returns this month with The Dictator (May 16) which, in truth, could go either way.The press campaign leading up to its release has been a touch on the heavy handed side (official statements from his new character, Middle Eatern dictator General Aladeen, no less!), but when Baron Cohen is at his excoriating best, he’s really, really good. So fingers remain crossed. Oh, there is a new Wes Anderson film coming out too (Moonrise Kingdom, May 25), but the oh-so-mannered, almost self-parodic poster alone provoked a near-vomitous reaction in this writer, who will try his darndest to keep an open mind when it hits screens.
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Amongst an ever-eclectic BFI Southbank programme, this month’s African Odysseys screening (May 26) of Ivan Dixon’s super-rare cult film The Spook Who Sat By The Door really stands out. In The Spook…, a black CIA operative returns to Chicago and prepares his brothers for revolution, a conceit which operates both as biting satire and razor-edged provocation in response to the urgency of its socio-politically unstable times. Boasting a highly charged score from Herbie Hancock, it looks pretty much unmissable. The screening will be accompanied by a 2011 documentary, Infiltrating Hollywood – The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which investigates the film’s troubled, fascinating history.
Other BFI highlights this month include a career overview of one of the renowned stars of French cinema, Jean Gabin: Working Class Hero to Godfather, an extended run of Powell and Pressburger’s much-lauded satire of the English character The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp restored to its full Technicolor glory, part two of the complete Vincente Minnelli retrospective, and the 11th London Sci-Fi Film Festival.
Following its launch with Brief Encounter at the Troxy in February, The Other Cinema returns with a screening of Mathieu Kassovitz’ bracing, brutal and timeless 1995 French film La Haine. The screening (May 4) will feature a live score by the Asian Dub Foundation, and include appearances by local artists. As part of The Other Cinema networks, screenings will also take place at Broadwater Farm Community Centre in Tottenham (May 2) and launch in Paris (May 5). All of the profits from the Troxy screening will pour into the production of the free premiere screening at Broadwater Farm.
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Onto home entertainment, news has broken of the first ever DVD release of a groundbreaking 1986 hip-hop documentary entitled Big Fun In The Big Town(May 21).Directed by the fantastically monikered Dutch filmmaker, journalist and rap fanatic Bram Van Splunteren*, the doc is said to show hip-hop from pretty much every angle, and approach its subjects with a genuine journalistic respect. Highlights include rare live performances, and interviews with a number of key players from the scene’s early days including Russell Simmons, Run-DMC, LL Cool J (interviewed at his grandmother’s house in Queens!), Grandmaster Flash and Biz Markie.
Continuing on a DVD theme, the ever-covetable Criterion collection continues to put out some astonishing stuff, highlights of which include extras-packed, digitally optimized releases of the aforementioned La Haine(May 8), and the welcome return of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich(May 15). Best to have a quiet word with your bank account now to let it know that you’ll be treating it with reckless abandon in the coming weeks.
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Finally, kicking off toward the end of the month is the sixth annual Happy Soul Festival (May 25-June 10), a multi-borough, London-set event which aims to entertain, inform and to engage with black and minority ethnic groups and the wider community to help de-stigmatise mental health issues and promote awareness of wellbeing. Though the festival is multidisciplinary in nature, the programme will feature film strongly, and looks like a really interesting, worthwhile event. To find out more, visit the Happy Soul Festival’s website.
*his name reminded me of this near-forgotten rap-rock gem (yes, they exist!) from 1996.
If there’s an event you’d like to see featured here in next month’s round-up, feel free to drop us a line at email@example.com