The PPH interview | David Somerset of BFI African Odysseys

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.

African Odysseys continues at the BFI Southbank with The Spook Who Sat By The Door on Saturday 26 May. Book tickets here, and view the forthcoming programme here

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