Handsworth Songs


UK / 1986 / English

Directed by John Akomfrah

Still from 'Handsworth Songs'“We can elevate ourselves learning from the dead,” muses the West Indian bus driver. By a strange twist of fate, the voice of this anonymous character reemerges from the archive, its resonance infecting the future and making some sense of the present. But how do we access a history that hasn’t been recorded, that has been marginalized, its wisdom buried by social doctrine? Director John Akomfrah has built many artistic statements in a variety of media around the things “that, traditionally, are discarded.” The importance of these access points to reality lie in the very fact that they are latent in dominant discourse, but passed over in favor of the story and the explanation. Clipped from the colonial imaginary, they are nonetheless its backdrop, its milleu. They are history’s history.

Riots have been wreaking unbelievable destruction on Handsworth, Birmingham, mainly carried out by Afro-Caribbean youth, those with the fewest opportunities, who bear the most police harassment and prejudice. The state ideological apparatuses struggle for answers, but they themselves are the answers. Handsworth Songs, a sort of rallying cry for the “new left” in 1980s Britain and an intricately-realized document of the ambivalence of the time, articulates the questions in the air. It is a film about the outlook of immigrants from the colonies, and how the once-colonized mind carries irreconcilable self-images, imposed and superimposed, up to a certain tipping point.

Among the roar of the street fires, we see a seemingly chaotic scene in a working class, mixed-ethnic district of Birmingham. In 1985, a familiar battleground between riot police and young men makes us wonder, as always, how it escalates to such a day. But, rewind: there are concrete realities that lead up to this, a much longer and more damaging event than it seems on the surface. Everything we see of this street scene is leveled in a deliberate way, words are parsed to conduct social doctrine or turn it up to an oppressive pitch. Voices go heard, unheard, recorded or edited out entirely.

The “senselessness” of the riots begins to pale in comparison to the that of the newspapers. Scenes of ruined buildings and scattered debris are animated over one another, the headlines become slogans, the monolithic presence of the state suffusing every bloody word. Interview subjects on the street portray the Indian shopkeepers as unfortunate bystanders in the conflict. Both the disorganized riots and the organized marches are culminations, and the people of the neighborhood can recognize the tree by its roots.

Still from 'Handsworth Songs'Rather than try to represent the seemingly anarchic mood of that place and time by watching the events unfold, the filmmakers, writers, and technicians – comprising BAFC (Black Audio Film Collective) – who realized Handsworth Songs instead recreate it by bringing into focus disparate snapshots of information, both incidental (their own documentary footage) and formulated (snatched from the mainstream media). They chart a narrative territory in which individual paths can emerge. We hear the melee of voices, the labor MPs who struggle not to pick a side, the prime minister who is all too eager to do so, and the men and women on the street who speak plainly about how the violence of ghetto life is being turned back on those responsible for it. The identification of the problem, “the melodrama of consent” as the filmmakers call it, takes place across many platforms and borders.

The filmmakers find subalterity in the corners of found footage, creating conduits for suppressed narrative in the subtext of government films and in the moments of a television forum before the start of the broadcast. In asides it brings in illustrations, still-lives, poetry, and countless fragments of lives passing through its finely-tuned scope. A sense of uneasy surveillance pervades the film. They’re not interviewing the rioters, to find out their motivation – Salman Rushdie once admonished them for not teasing out the stories of the individuals – but are more interested in the climate, the ways in which it shifts, erupts, or persists. Very few characters emerge, since the discourse itself is primary, and it encompasses all of them. It is the most malleable and often-manipulated element, and we see the many forms it takes, from group discussion to brute force to major outcry.

Handsworth Songs, for all its knowing cynicism toward doctrine, is largely not trying to expose people’s ignorance or self-deceit. Many of the people who speak for the interviews have class consciousness, the awareness of a community, the desire to transcend their struggle. The South Asian shopkeepers who lost property (at least most of the ones in the film) are amazingly not angry at the young black men who did the damage. They see the cause-and-effect, the dismal prospects that culminated there on the streets in 1981 and 1985. “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.” We hear this phrase twice, once in the disembodied narration, and again in a woman’s channeling of history through her oppressed experience.

The image shifts, from found educational films to daily life to news broadcasts to interviews in the cramped sitting rooms of Handsworth. And all the while we feel as though we are moving through a single, albeit highly ambiguous, landscape. Bracing footage of riot police being pelted with stones is alternated with an ominous, red-nosed, avuncular doll waving from a shop window. Clearly, things have broken away from the status quo, but what a scary and disorienting status quo it was.

Still from 'Handsworth Songs'Akomfrah and longtime collaborator Lina Gopaul put as much, if not more, emphasis on the news agencies’ response to the events, as to the events themselves. More than strict reportage of the events, it is about the tabloids, about the atmosphere. Rather than filming the people and what they are doing in the streets, the film collective turns their cameras to the very camera crews that are broadcasting Handsworth to the rest of the nation. At the memorial for a London woman who died during a home invasion by police, instead of people gathered, we see mainly news and security cameras – tools being used for oppression.

They draw our attention to the unmediated fringes of the well-rehearsed show. The policeman practice bodily restraint on one another near the front yards of their quarry. In the periphery we find unheard stories, but ones that are important to the patchwork. One man calls out, from behind the home minister, an adage about the monkey who climbs too high. In a moment the state official is brought down by a bit of Caribbean wisdom.

Producer Gopaul talked about how they hid away their exposed film so that the police couldn’t use it as evidence against people. That the police would do that was a forgone conclusion, and they did indeed raid the film collective’s possessions more than once. The news agencies and commentators, the tabloids and the local forums, are all in place to de-emphasize the degree to which a shadowy police state and a surveillance state were running the show. They pass along a visual context for events, so that the public is not inspired to seek another version of truth.

Akomfrah has said that “the structures that are overdetermining the events are largely unseen.” History, in other words, is made behind the scenes, so to speak, and so claiming to be documenting history through images is most often a false claim to begin with. The cameras, analysis, text, and resulting documentary are most preoccupied with getting at those unseen structures, and with causing them to show themselves.

Still from 'Handsworth Songs'The text itself, within its limitations, has familiar qualities; in the backdrop of the distopian crumbling, Mark Stewart’s voice yelps angry protest lyrics; the low electronic score has the somnolent quality of an Industrial Chris Marker. Meanwhile the dispassionate narration laying out personal, impassioned views is reminiscent of that cypher of the Left Bank, as is the use of archival material, echoing how Marker would treat his own footage as archival. But the similarities end there, and Handsworth Songs‘ constructivist tendency, its exploratory clutching of footage, rotating back on it (and at times literally rendering photos as three-dimensional sets), sets it apart as a distinct environment. Marker juxtaposes, but he doesn’t tamper with vision to this extent.

Strange and idealized images of the racial history of the midlands shuffle spectrally by, dissipating into the bold fascism of Thatcher’s era. Calypso artist Lord Kitchener sings “London is the Place For Me” into a newsreel microphone. Is his love of the ‘old country’ just that? Does it cover up the struggle of droves of workers – Trinidad to England, sand to steel – that eventually soured into outright aggression against the state? The faces turn up in industrial portraits, proletarian portraits, and are seemingly inserted into genteel portraits. The people are there, but where is their narrative?  The eyes of uniformed black children in a British schoolyard look back, knowingly, filled with stories yet to come.

Akomfrah returns to an uncredited West Indian man who played a bus driver in a number of government-produced films, who was meant as an avatar of integration, reassurance to the trade-unionists, educators, and the police. For the interests of the new paternalism of the mid-20th Century, which brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Britain, the man represents progressive hopefulness with backward-looking ideals. He walks through a factory, among the spinning piston-wheels of industrial Birmingham, beneath the bust of James Watt, and in the shadow of “great and noble men.” He stops in his tour, and muses to the camera about the long-dead inventors of such great machinery. “…it makes me think, and makes me feel that they must have had an open mind.”

Still from 'Handsworth Songs'He marvels at Birmingham’s history, but what of his own? To Akomfrah the mystery there is one of the most compelling qualities of this “working class sage”. He reminds us of the two African models for 16th Century drawings by Dürer, whose fate is explored in Akomfrah’s film Peripeteia (2012), appearing briefly, immortally in a vision of the first world, and then disappearing totally. The man is reborn in Handsworth Songs, appropriated by the filmmakers as a new sort of icon, one whose words contain a deep sadness and wisdom, and who embodies a post-colonial syndrome. This is less a film about despair but about the hope felt by the immigrants. Their notions of England, of the journey, and of themselves – all subject to distoritions both external and internal – evolve continually.

Members of a Sikh temple hope for order again, and sing bhajans for peace. This is one song of many, muffled by rubble, drowned by the crowd’s din and the flame-crackle. Meanwhile the roar of the factories and the abrasive winds of history howl behind the calypso artist’s eager song, carrying away nearly everything else. Kitch seems happy to have arrived in London, but the odysseys of so many continue… thirty years on, sixty years on, where have those winds taken them? Handsworth Songs presents a scrapbook of evidence, of multiple scenarios and possible answers to that, and leaves the storytelling to the ghosts.

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