Spotlight: Sankofa Film & Video Collective
We felt as Black artists that we needed to have space where we could create, because it’s only when you have that space, that you can start to unpick and unwrap what you are and who you are – that self-knowledge is revealed in the stories and films that we can tell about ourselves.
When the work apparently doesn’t exist, what do you do? When the networks that make filmmaking possible for people like you do not exist, what do you do? How do you create your own canon?
One way to challenge the dominant narrative, to find an outlet and an audience, is to collectivise. Several decades ago in London, a group of young people did just that. Sankofa Film and Video Collective was founded in 1983. Isaac Julien, Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Maureen Blackwood, Martina Attille and Robert Crusz were united by their difference. As students attending different colleges across London, they were struck by their outsider status as the only Black students in their respective classes. As Martina describes:
We set ourselves up as a Black group because there was very little space allowed in the institutions for us to become intimate with our own experience. We couldn’t deny our history, our knowledge.
The founders of Sankofa came from different backgrounds and specialisms. All were British born - apart from Martina, who had been born in St Lucia and raised in London - and came from a range of diasporic backgrounds spanning Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Isaac isan artist, who had studied painting and film at Central Saint Martins. Nadine, already picking up screen credits, had graduated from Goldsmiths alongside Martina and Robert, both of whom were driven by an interest in cultural theory. Maureen, who had attended London Polytechnic, had always seen herself as a writer first and came to filmmaking almost by accident when a curator at the BFI, introduced her to the other Sankofa founders. Working together, as such different personalities with different ambitions, could be challenging, but all were driven by a desire to push boundaries. They had stories to tell and histories to share, and they knew that there was an audience out there who very rarely, if at all, saw themselves reflected on screen. Sankofa was their attempt to fill that gap.
Sankofa formed against the backdrop of a turbulent political moment. In Thatcher’s Britain unemployment was high and increasing inequalities, like the new Stop and Search laws, were disproportionately affecting Black communities. In response protest movements were becoming more visible, as exemplified by the increasingly vocal Gay Liberation movement and by the female-led resistance at Greenham Common. From this fraught atmosphere rose a wave of collectives, as the young, creative and furious attempted to carve room for work exploring their experiences of queerness, race and gender. Workshops such as the London Women’s Film Group, Ceddo, and the Black Audio Film Collective were Sankofa’s contemporaries during this revolutionary moment.
Like many of their peers, Sankofa were engaged with social issues. But they were also interested in a theoretical and artistic engagement with aesthetics and cinematic language, the politics of image making. Sankofa were eager to make work that not only centred on Black stories but that were filtered through a Black gaze. “As a group of filmmakers we wanted to carve out space for ourselves to experiment,” Maureen remembered in 2019. After all “that’s what many White filmmakers had.”
Sankofa were driven by these parallel preoccupations – pragmatic politics vs. experimental art – and their debut feature was shaped by this tension. The Passion of Remembrance (1986), co-directed/written by Isaac and Maureen, is a blend of documentary, fiction and art film that interweaves two storylines. The struggle of Maggie (Antonia Thomas), a young British woman with West Indian parents, to reconcile her family life with political awakening, is intercut with an allegorical thread centring on a Woman (Anni Domingo) and Man (Joseph Charles) who roam a barren desert landscape while discussing gender, community and political consciousness. Archive footage depicting protests, riots, police brutality and racist violence, add a layer of reality.
Passion’s unusual form was inspired partly by Maureen’s experience of community organising:
When we were figuring out the kind of film we wanted to make, it was very important to be able to talk about Black women’s involvement in all the kinds of political struggles that people had been through in England, and were still going through… It was important to see Black men and Black women in dialogue discussing some of the ‘unfinished business’ between them.
This experimental approach had its detractors. Maureen recalls some audience members questioning the film’s potentially alienating approach at a time when identity politics increasingly felt like a life and death struggle. The writer Karen Alexander, an early advocate for Sankofa, wrote about the context to this reaction illuminatingly in a 1989 Sight & Sound piece (which incidentally also highlights work by Gurinder Chadha and Ngozi Onwurah).
Cinema produced within the independent Black sector… has until recently kept closely to a realist aesthetic. These ‘advocacy’ or social issue films, aimed at redressing misrepresentations of Black history or Black politics, affirm ‘the Black experience’.
The problem with this first stage of Black cultural expression is that its reliance on a politics of unity renders invisible divisions of class, gender and sexual orientation within Black communities. The next stage must be the phase identified by Stuart Hall, in which “we actually begin to recognise the extraordinary complexity of ethnic and cultural differences”.
Despite criticism, Sankofa stood firm in their approach. The controversy Passion invoked only bolstered their argument: That there needed to be space for many kinds of stories on screen.
Passion of Remembrance sounds like a fascinating piece of work, but our description comes second-hand. We can’t tell you our own opinion, because we haven’t seen it. Passion is not, as far as we can tell, readily available digitally or as a DVD in the UK. In order to watch it, your only options are a physical trip to the film archive, a prohibitively expensive import from the US rights holder or holding out for an in-person screening of a 16mm print. Given all the recent noise about the importance of Black voices in UK film, this seems nuts. The first feature, from an important Black collective, inaccessible to most audiences? It’s a missed opportunity.
Passion set the tone for Sankofa as a collective, who could not be easily pigeonholed, and subsequent films continued to trouble the boundaries between art, documentary and narrative cinema. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the founding members shared intersectional experiences as women and gay men, much of Sankofa’s work draws out layers of identity, challenging stereotypes. Looking for Langston (Isaac Julian, 1989) for instance, is a rare example of a film dealing with Black gay desire in rich sensual detail, which anticipates Moonlight by more than two decades.
The women of Sankofa actively sought to capture a Black female gaze in their work. Maureen’s Perfect Image? (1988), a short centring on two women who playfully switch personas back and forth, explicitly plays with this idea, as well exploring “feminine” aesthetics and the beauty standard. A two-sided female relationship is also central to a later fiction short directed by Maureen. Home Away from Home (1993) wrestles with the melancholy push-pull of the migrant experience, and focuses on Miriam, a middle-aged woman struggling to communicate with her teenage daughter. In an attempt to connect her British-Nigerian children with their roots, she builds a hut in the back garden of their suburban London home, but is greeted by hostility from her White neighbours. Simply told and dialogue free, Home Away from Home captures the silent melancholy of many who find themselves living away from their birth countries, a sense of loss, a splintering of selfhood.
Martina Attile similarly explores the bittersweet nature of migrant life, although she approaches those same themes with a very different aesthetic and mood. Dreaming Rivers (1988) is one of the collective’s most beguiling works, an intoxicating meditation on grief and regret. The half hour short centres on Miss T, a Caribbean-born matriarch, as she is visited by her British-raised children on her deathbed. Built around impressionistic memories of the dying central character, Dreaming Rivers is a beautifully rendered reflection on post-colonial legacies and the generational reverberations of migration. It is also an examination of Black female selfhood – as Miss. T looks back, she realises she has given up her own desires to accommodate her husband and children, a revelation that filters through to the viewer as a dreamlike unfurling, a peeling off of gauzy layers. Distinctive and atmospheric, Dreaming Rivers lingers, leaving you wishing Martina had been given the resources to continue to explore those themes and that beguiling aesthetic at feature length.
A Family Called Abrew (1992, Maureen Blackwood), is a rich documentary that offers a rare insight into Pre-Windrush Black British lives. A British family with Afro-Caribbean roots, the Abrew’s connections to boxing, touring revues and film across the 20th century are teased out through archive and interviews. The family history spans Scotland, Ireland, Liverpool and the Black night clubs of Soho.It expands outwards into Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and intersects with some of the 20th century’s most celebrated entertainers – Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, the Nicholas Brothers. The characters that emerge through this oral history - Lottie the dazzling dancer, Manuel the burley boxer – are warm, complicated and charming. While more straightforward than some of Maureen’s other work, Abrew touches upon many of the same themes - memory, hidden histories, the untold story of Black Britain.
The UK film industry was (and still is) built by an exclusionary establishment, with little infrastructure to support the production, exhibition and distribution of Black film. Sankofa’s response was to build their own networks. They challenged existing definitions by creating work that straddled gallery and cinema spaces. They began filmmaking workshops in communities, with the aim of training a new generation of Black voices. They sought to cultivate more diverse critical voices, starting salons that sought to encourage critical discussions, including analysis of problematic canonical texts such as Gone With the Wind and Imitation of Life. Their model was built on an openness to debate and an acceptance of multiple viewpoints and perspectives. As Isaac later stated: “Sankofa was a conversation, not a consensus.”
Sankofa remained active until the late 1990s, expanding to include new collaborators (including, significantly, British-Chinese filmmakers), before drifting to a natural close. The founder members each built significant careers outside of Sankofa. Isaac is a Turner-prize nominated artist, and also directed one of the few British features to centre on a Black gay love story in Young Soul Rebels (1991). That landmark title was produced by Nadine, who has become an influential figure through her post-Sankofa work on films such as Bhaji on the Beach (Gurinder Chadha, 1993) and Been So Long (Tinge Krishnan, 2018). After 21 years in Britain, Robert moved to Sri Lanka where he continues to write, edit and make films as the founder of the Tulana Media Unit. Martina built a career in film education, focusing much of her research on Black female representation in contemporary art and film. Maureen continued to work in film for a period, but has largely turned her attention to writing, and is now based in the US.
Sankofa sought to make space in an industry that had routinely locked out Black voices and perspectives. Yet it seems that 35 years on, that same industry has pushed their contribution aside. Ironically, given Sankofa’s aim to create an industry that was accessible both to makers and audiences, a large proportion of their back catalogue remains inaccessible. While some films are accessible digitally, a significant proportion remain difficult to watch. This revelation tells us much about how far we still have to go when it comes to properly appreciating and understanding our shared history. For all the recent chat about Black British voices on screen, huge and valuable chunks of our screen heritage remain inaccessible to most viewers.
As we live through a seismic moment, spearheaded by the increasing strength of the Black Lives Matter Protest, we are facing a remarkable reckoning that is being felt keenly in the arts. Cultural institutions are grappling with exclusionary legacies and making loud promises about creating greater space for voices of colour. Groundbreaking work such as Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series for the BBC, suggest we might, at last, be turning a corner. A commitment to new and current voices is positive, but these steps need to be accompanied by a simultaneous acknowledgement of our past. If we don’t acknowledge the work of Black filmmakers across the decades, then the “new” diverse industry will lack foundations. The work is there, the weight of history is in our favour – once these rich archives are made accessible to all, then, truly, we can move forward.
The name Sankofa comes from a Ghanaian symbol, a mythical bird that carries an egg on its back. This image, which became the collective’s logo, represents looking forward and backwards, taking from the past and bringing it into the future. When we look at the archival shortcomings surrounding Sankofa’s output, this symbolism seems deeply ironic. Given that our current reckoning deals explicitly with both past and present, now seems the time to fully acknowledge the contribution of filmmakers of colour to British film. As we stand on the brink of change, making it easier to watch Sankofa’s remarkable films, is the least we can do.
Watch Maureen Blackwood’s films over at Women Make Movies.
Ann Ogidi. Sankofa. BFI Screen Online.
Richard Fung. Eyes on Black Britain. Richard Fung.ca.
Karen Alexander. Interview with Maureen Blackwood. Sight & Sound.
Karen Alexander. Screening Notes: Passion of Remembrance. Tate
Karen Alexander. Mothers, Lovers and Others. Sight & Sound.
“Dreaming Rivers.” Women Make Movies.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. Women Film Directors: An International Bio Critical Dictionary. “Martina Attile [sic]”
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. Women Film Directors: An International Bio Critical Dictionary. “Maureen Blackwood”