With the long awaited theatrical release of his new documentary The Story of Lovers Rock and a special 30th Anniversary screening of his debut feature Burning An Illusion, it’s been a busy time for director and documentarian Menelik Shabazz. Permanent Plastic Helmet caught up with Menelik recently at London’s BFI Southbank to discuss the origins of his new film, his career to date and his views on the challenges posed to black filmmakers trying to make it in the British film industry.
PPH (in bold): The genre of Lovers Rock – culturally and musically – is a brilliant subject for a film. When did the idea to document the music of that period come to you?
Menelik Shabazz (in regular): It began with an ad I saw in the Voice newspaper promoting a Lovers Rock gala awards ceremony. There were about 24 artists on the list and it struck me as an historic moment. Lovers rock has been overlooked, and seeing these artists coming together – they are now middle aged – it’s a moment that may not be reproduced. First of all I thought of documenting it as an event so I spoke to promoters and we agreed to film it. I then began to think about how else it could develop, and that’s when I began to start interviewing people and it went on from there. It was an organic process, it wasn’t a film I set out to make from the beginning.
Was there a point when you decided it was of vital importance you got this to the big screen?
When I started it i always saw it as cinema. I never thought of it any other way. I couldn’t see it being on TV, DVD wasn’t sufficient. From the beginning, I saw that it needed to be presented and recognised at a level. That was what was important for me and has been all the way through. This needs to be respected at the highest point possible.
Were you a fan of the music or involved in the scene at the time?
Lovers rock was part of the music you danced to with women so yes, it was a part of your life. If you went out to the clubs, it would be there. I was into both lovers rock and roots reggae. In terms of my generation, I grew up with the John Holts, that era that was a little bit more Jamaican, romantic. Lovers rock came in in the late 70 and 80s and I’d slightly moved away from that scene by then. But yes, its part of us. It’s part of growing up. I didn’t realise how people really connected with it until the film. The diverse levels of people that were connected to lovers rock, not just black people. I’ve gone to places on the other side of the tracks and they know about lovers rock, they know about Carroll Thompson.
There’s a scene at a concert in Japan in the film?
Yes. The music developed into that global element, which I wasn’t aware of at the beginning of the journey.
Getting the film to commercial release stage [it’s being distributed by Verve Pictures] has been a lengthy process and clearly a labour of love. How did you go about getting funding and what challenges have you faced with that?
I knew from the get go this wasn’t going to be one that I was going to get funding for, although I did apply to various places including the UK Film Council. However, I didn’t feel that they understood lovers rock or the genre, and I always felt that funding would come from whatever resources I could pull together; personally with the people who’ve supported me, who’ve given interviews, and those who’ve assisted behind the camera. Also, I tried some inititaves with bringing the community into the project. I did some rough cuts in the community to plant the seed that it’s possible to finance films if there is a collective thinking behind it. This [crowd funding techniques] is something that has been tried by others.
I know that Spike Lee did that with a select group of millionaires on Malcolm X!
Yes, he did that early, but latterly, films such as The Age of Stupid have done it too. It has started to become a way that people can finance their films; pooling in, people contributing in various ways. In my case, I wanted to see if I could bring in the community because lovers rock was such a deep part of a generation. I thought there was always a possibility there, and people contributed. I have had to use that model. It has taken my own personal input and the love of the people working on the film to take the project as far as it’s gone. Latterly EDF Energy came on board as a sponsor, and they have really made a difference, because without them I wouldn’t have got this far in terms of getting into the cinema. The distribution end is pretty much like making a record – after shooting the next thing you have to think about is the distribution and in my case with the distributor, I wasn’t confident they would be able to handle this film. I wanted to do a lot of it myself, but figure out a way that I could work with a distributor that could handle the back-end of the situation; thankfully this was something I was able to do with Verve. Nevertheless I was the one exposed to having to pay for costs of making DCP hard drives, PR, marketing, certification, the trailer, post production – you’re into a lot of costs!
The film has gone through a few different iterations including a rough cut at the BFM Festival in 2009 – is it now 100% in the form you intended?
Yes. When we screened it in April (as part of the BFI’s African Odyssey’s strand) it was 95% ready. We’ve done a bit more work. I’ve made a few adjustments, mainly to the ending, but the beginning is slightly different also. Nothing fundamental but smaller things.
You’ve worked in Nigeria recently. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I was there for 8 or 9 months, having been invited to develop some film projects with some investors. Although it didn’t quite work out in terms of what I intended it to do, being there helped to inspire and re-energize me. The thing about Nigeria is that you’re seeing people make films who have very little resources. They’re at the coalface of making films. They are just going out and doing it, so coming back here it inspired me to make a film and do stuff with that energy. The Story of Lovers Rock is the outcome of that situation and my determination to do it through my own means.
You’re the founding father of the BFM media project. Can you tell me a bit more about the project, its aims and where its at currently?
BFM was the outcome of my frustrations in the film industry. I wanted to channel that anger into something positive which initially started as a magazine (Black Filmmaker) and the intention to pass on information to the next generation about the film industry. One thing that was happening at the time was a lack of young people entering into the industry on a consistent level. The magazine was an interface between industry and filmmakers and out of the initiative developed the Black Filmmaker International Film Festival. I was fortunate as a filmmaker to travel to a lot of countries after making Burning An Illusion and in doing so was able to meet a lot of filmmakers and to see their work, most, if not all of which was unavailable in UK. I was inspired by a French lady who suggested I should do a festival in London, as these festivals existed in other parts of Europe. Producing the festival was easy for me because I knew the films and filmmakers and it wasnt until later on I realised how unique that was. With a lot of festivals now, the producers don’t know the filmmakers, it’s a distant relationship. That was what made the BFM Festival different. We could bring people over and have workshops. We had a short film award. We were about bringing the filmmaking aspect into the mainstream as well as bringing mainstream audiences in to watch these films. That’s what it was about. The festival went on for 11 years and ended in 2009 due to lack of resources. It was never properly resourced so it had to stop. The magazine also stopped slightly before. The tagline was always “bringing the unseen into light”.
Do you plan to to bring the festival back at any point if you get the opportunity?
Others have suggested it but I’m not planning to. It is still part of me, but at this moment I’m not thinking about it. The legacy of it is that people who were involved are doing screenings events and so on, so that aspect has been taken on by other people.
Around 30 years ago you made the documentary Blood Ah Go Run about the New Cross Fire, the Black People’s Day of action and the Brixton riots. Can you tell me about the process of filming that footage and the challenges you faced in getting the film out there?
Blood Ah Go Run was a bit like the film I’m doing now in that I didn’t think of it as a project, rather I felt compelled to act. There was the incident of the fire, the response of the police and the anger that we felt in the community. I had just finished making Burning An Illusion and I just felt I had to do something. In those days it wasn’t tape they were shooting on, it was all film. I remember going to cinematographers and asking them if they had any cans in their fridge – they used to keep film cans in their fridges – so I went around and got a few cans and a crew. We actually had two crews on the day which enabled us to go out and shoot lots on the day. We had an editor who worked at the BBC. So we edited it at the BBC after hours! (laughs)
Did they know about it?
No, they most certainly did not! Subversion and revolution was happening in the belly of the monster! It was a film which I made as a newsreel for the community. It was not intended to be balanced. It was my views, told in a particular way. (You can watch Menelik Shabazz discuss the film here at a BFI documentary masterclass)
30 years on, we’ve seen riots again, as well as the rather predictable recent decision on the Smiley Culture case. Do you draw parallels between now and then?
Yes, its the same old story, the same old song. The root of the problem at the time was to do with police brutality and disrespect of black people, and that’s a song that still keeps playing. In this instance, a man [Mark Duggan] was shot in Tottenham, and in the case of Smiley Culture, no-one can explain that situation either. It’s just a disrespect of black men which continues, and becomes a tipping point for all the other grievances that go on. It’s a 30 year cycle, and a reminder that we havent moved on in the way we think we’ve moved on. The lovers rock film in some ways helps to give a point of reflection as to where we are and how far we’ve come and allows us to find a balance in our way of thinking.
Your first feature was Burning An Illusion (1981). It stands up with Horace Ove’s Pressure as a real landmark in Black British cinema. It’s also unusual in that you told the story from a female point of view. What are your memories of making the film and getting into the feature film process?
It started as a small story. I had a moment with a woman talking into a mirror, so I turned that into a short story and got some money from the BFI to turn it into half an hour. I kept writing and writing until I ended up with a movie script. Again, it wasn’t like I set out in the beginning to write a feature length script. It was a process in which one thing led to another, and I ended up with a feature length script that the BFI backed. It was a very organic process.
I’ve always been interested in the slightly amorphous nature of the term “Black British Cinema” – whether it relates to issues covered in the film, authorship, finance, or the actors that are in it. do you ever feel that that terminology could paint you into a corner, and you’d rather just be seen as a ‘filmmaker’?
I don’t think it paints me into a corner at all. In the same way you have Italian filmmakers, it’s a way of identifying who you are, interfacing with your experience, your culture and the very thing that makes you who you are. Your culture defines you, and that’s what makes people interested in you. If you have no culture, why would somebody engage with what you had to say? Where does it come from? I would prefer to use African terminology rather than “black” terminology, though. I’ve heard people in the past make this argument and say “I’m a filmmaker”, but my question to them is “Who are you? Where do you come from?” and, “Is it a denial of where you come from?” Are you saying, “Where I come from is unimportant and insignificant”? That for me is problematic, because the film that you make won’t last, it won’t have any substance or resonance because it doesn’t come from anywhere. If you look at films that stand up, they are the ones with a deep cultural resonance. It shouldnt be seen as a blockage. Is black music – the fact that it is black music – a limitation? No it’s not. It’s a music that drives the world, and they have to figure out how to rebrand it! In any culture – Jewish culture, for example – people draw on their culture as a means to express themselves. Especially as we have a mixed heritage from slavery, we are very diverse as creative people as we draw on a much wider range of exprience than most people. We can draw on the wealthy, the poor, we can play any tune. Thats been one of our key abilities. Unfortunately, we are not given that space.
With that in mind, what do you see as the main challenges facing black filmmakers in this country today?
It’s the same as before. For me, black British filmmakers are the most vibrant talents in this country, but unfortunately they are not getting that space to express themselves. Every now and then you get these little windows, you know – Adulthood, Kidulthood – but these moments are not enough, so filmmakers have to find out new ways to make films. It’s not just black filmmakers that find it hard. It’s a hard industry to work in. But particularly for us. We pay taxes and we don’t see that reflected in the way that our talent is developed. For me that’s the thing that needs to happen. There needs to be more recognition of the inequality that exists within the film industry.
And how do we go about that?
Firstly by making it known. Nobody’s speaking out about it. The film industry still self-regulates itself, the film industry talks about diversity and audience initiatives that mean nothing. Over the last decade that’s been the song of the industry. All these training initiatives go on and on but they don’t lead to anything. That’s a major issue. The film industry, unlike the music industry to some extent, doesn’t punch its weight, it doesnt allow for diversity. It’s 90% white, male, middle-class; the least creative sector of the community, but they are the ones that make the films. It makes no sense, yet that’s the way the British film industry has been functioning and continues to function. It does not allow and open up for the best talents, which is why people up and go off to other places. I think the film industry is way behind, so filmmakers at this moment in time are on their own.
Are there any particular directors or artists operating currently whose work you admire and particularly look out for?
I don’t look at it like that so much. There are films that I like by filmmakers I look at, but there’s not necessarily any that I follow. I recently saw A Screaming Man (by Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun) which I thought was very, very good. The problem that we have, talking about us from our perspective, is that most of the filmmakers’ works never see the light of day over here. This is why the [BFM] festival was so important. We showed films that you’d never normally see. You had a chance to engage with them. Most of the films that are made now tend to gravitate toward being mainstream, and especially in the case of UK talent you can see why. US filmmakers are trying to make films as a meal ticket to Hollywood. So you’re not getting the Spike Lees, the Charles Burnetts, Haile Gerimas. You’re not getting that level, that depth of thinking. There are a few, and there are some short films that are very interesting – but we’re in a landscape where not much stands out.
It’s interesting you mention Spike Lee, because some commentators, including the likes of Stanley Crouch, criticized him by saying that he wasn’t trying to develop a specific language for African-American cinema, rather he was playing into the Hollywood system with the techniques he was learning and deploying. Do you have a view on that?
You have to look at Spike in phases. He’s in a different phase now to where he was. In his early films, I think he did try to push things. He worked with Ernest Dickerson who had a strong cinematic vision, style and creativity. I think in his early films you saw more of that. Latterly he’s had to survive, and the films he makes… well, it seems he lost his audience after a while. It’s not a criticism, it sometimes just happens. I think that he developed his style, and that’s all you can do as a filmmaker. You can’t go beyond that. That’s for other people to have a view on. Charles Burnett’s work, for me, has a much deeper resonance.
If you look, for example, at Terrence Malick’s critical standing against Charles Burnett, there’s only ever one being spoken of…
I have seen Charles’ work, he’s done various types of film. Killer of Sheep was his first film out of film school, and he had a freedom, as we all did, as in fact I did with Burning An Illusion, and I think that his work has not been seen as much as it should have. My favourite film of his was To Sleep With Anger. I would say that he hasn’t had the run of films that he deserves.
And just to wrap things up, what’s next for you? A return to narrative filmmaking perhaps?
I have a lot in my head. I’ve written a script. At this moment I’m not forcing things. I tend to let things evolve more. I spent a lot of time thinking, “I want do this project and I want to do that project” but now, in the stage of life that I’m in, I don’t need to be chasing on the projects so I’m just allowing things to develop. I have a theatre piece I’m interested in doing. What I’ll do next, I don’t know yet because the likelihood is I’ll say it to you now and it’ll come round and be something else. Let’s wait and see!
The Story of Lovers Lock is screening in the following cinemas on the following days: September 30. Cinema City Norwich 29/09/11, Ritzy Brixton 30/09/11, Rio Dalston 30/09/11, Shortwave Bermondsey 30/09/11 (3 days), Vue Shepherds Bush 30/09/11 (7 days), Vue Birmingham Star City 30/09/11 (7 days), Peckhamplex Peckham 30/09/11 (7 days), Pictureville Bradford 04/10/11 (4 days), Riverside Hammersmith 18/10/11, MAC Birmingham 18/10/11 (3 days), Rich Mix Bethnal Green 20/10/11, Duke of Yorks Brighton 22/10/11.
Burning An Illusion is screening at the BFI as part of the African Odysseys strand on Saturday October 1. Visit the BFI website for information on how to buy tickets.