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Handsworth Songs (1986)

Courtesy of Smoking Dogs Films

Main image of Handsworth Songs (1986)
DirectorJohn Akomfrah
Production CompanyBlack Audio Film Collective
Producer/Production ManagerLina Gopaul
ScreenplayBlack Audio Film Collective
CinematographySebastian Shah
MusicTrevor Mathison

Pervais Khan (voice-over); Meera Syal (voice-over); Yvonne Weekes (voice-over); Sachkhand Nanak Dham; Mr. McClean

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An experimental film essay on race and disorder in Britain, filmed in Handsworth and London during the riots of 1985 and incorporating newsreel and archival material.

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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.

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. Riot of Death (3:22)
2. Racial unrest (2:59)
3. Anger and disillusionment (5:00)
Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)
Akomfrah, John (1957-)
Black Audio Film Collective (1982-98)
Syal, Meera (1962-)
Channel 4 Films/Film on Four/FilmFour
Black Pioneers