Handsworth Songs was made for the Channel 4 series Britain: The Lie of the Land. The film went on win seven international awards including the BFI John Grierson Award for Best Documentary. The techniques for which Black Audio Film Collective became recognised are already apparent: a multi-stranded narrative, visual experimentation, a mosaic of sound, interspersed with newsreel, and still photographs of black people’s lives.
It’s interesting and informative to listen to the direct accounts of people caught up in the riots, whether bystanders or active participants. But the implicit aim of Handsworth Songs, as with other BAFC productions, for example Who Needs A Heart (1991), is not truth, exactly, but personal reflection and reaction to events.
In place of an authorial voice-over, telling us how to interpret events or who and what is important, we are left to find our own way through the ‘evidence’ – to weigh poetry with newsreel, to linger on stylistic details, to find subconscious links between rows of babies sleeping on the ground and the funeral of Mrs Cynthia Jarrett. The style of filmmaking is a deliberate response to the fractured narrative of the riots.
Handsworth Songs is often described as a ‘filmed essay’, perhaps because the overall impression is of a discursive, literary journey. There are moments of poetic beauty, such as the sequence of photographs documenting key moments in the lives of a family. The photographs mounted like a series of boards in an art gallery, slowly rotate as the camera drifts through them. Portraits are from the fifties, faces full of optimism and laughter. When the documentary moves on to interviewing the older generation, one searches the faces for familiar signs.
The second part of the documentary begins inside a television studio. The audience waits patiently for the programme to begin watching the cameramen adjust their cameras. They listen to the bustle of studio managers and take note as the director explains the running order to the panel of distinguished guests. This extremely effective sequence demonstrates how the stories of the riots were ‘arranged’ and the people become spectators. The soundtrack is one of the astonishing successes of Handsworth Songs. —BFI
Born in Accra, Ghana on 4 May 1957, John Akomfrah is one of five children of Ghanaian political activists. He was educated at local schools in West London and at Portsmouth Polytechnic, where he graduated in Sociology in 1982.
Akomfrah is best known for his work with the London-based media workshop Black Audio Film Collective, which he co-founded in 1982 with the objectives of addressing issues of Black British identity and developing media forms appropriate to this subject matter.
Akomfrah’s work takes a deliberately questioning approach to documentary film. His debut as a director, the controversial and influential Handsworth Songs (1986), reworks documentary conventions to explore the history of the contemporary British black experience: the film won seven international prizes, including the prestigious John Grierson Award. Testament (1988) is a portrait of an African politician forced into exile after a coup d’etat. The emergence of Black Power in Britain is the inspiration… read more