This week is the anniversary of the 2nd and 3rd Handsworth Riots which broke out in the inner-city area of Birmingham in 1985 and 1991. Sita Balani, a Black activist reflects on the work of filmmakers who have transmuted the ‘story’ of the riots into poetic explorations of oppression and resistance.
Two years on from the 2011 uprisings which began in London and spread to other British cities, the young filmmaker Fahim Alam is embarking on a screening tour of his phenomenal documentary Riots Reframed made on a miniscule budget of less than £1500. This film is a perfect example of the ways that digital technologies are democratising filmmaking. In particular, people of colour are telling our stories on film and taking on the racist corporate media in the process. After seeing Riots Reframed, I was prompted to revisit John Akomfrah’s 1985 film Handsworth Songs. The two pieces reflect and refract the different times they were made in, and yet many threads tie them together, giving a sense of the changes and continuities that have characterised the last quarter of a century.
Handsworth Songs is a poetic, experimental polemic that captures the 1985 riots in Handsworth and Tottenham whose anniversary falls this week. The voiceover informs us that ‘there are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories’. This phrase acts as a refrain and stands as a kind of manifesto for the film. Akomfrah seeks to uncover these ghosts, vividly bringing them to life through footage, interviews, poetry and music. The film makes a compelling case for why riots cannot be seen as random or mindless, but as the almost inevitable consequence of a racist, repressive state. Alam sets himself a similar challenge, attempting to expose and displace the media’s ‘frame’ with one grounded in the views of the rioters and their peers.
Both filmmakers zoom in on racist police violence as a reason for the riots. They reveal the acts of police violence perpetrated against women (Cynthia Jarrett in 1985 and an unnamed female teenager in 2011) to be the final straw in both cases. This insight may well be known to historians and campaigners, but is rarely given its rightful place in popular media commentary. Next to the high tech riot gear-clad officers in Alam’s piece, the police in Akomfrah’s footage look almost quaint, though the scenes of police brutality are frighteningly similar across the decades.
Both filmmakers use poetry to ground their polemics and to evoke the dreamscape of rioting, its imaginative potentials and the echo it leaves in the minds of participants and witnesses. The filmmakers unashamedly capture the thrill and camaraderie of the riots, with a playful energy likely to make po-faced liberals squirm at the potential for joy in what they consider to be ‘senseless violence’. Interviewees generations apart are quick to refute commonplace assertions of the riots as inter-ethnic conflicts or ‘gang’ disputes, instead suggesting that the riots tapped into a solidarity among the ‘have nots’ that put other internal conflicts to rest, however briefly.
Where Handsworth Songs charts the sorrows of industrial decline, Riots Reframed picks up the rise of mass advertising and consumerism. With no hope of status for working class people through employment, materialism has arrived to plug the gap. Riots Reframed charts this critically, but with its judgment firmly aimed at the corporations and advertising industry, rather than at the young people who looted the latest Nikes. In making this analysis without reducing the latter to mindless dupes, Alam displays a phenomenal technical agility and subtlety in his filmmaking. Many of the journalists who churned out endless commentary after the riots could learn a thing or two from his approach.
For Akomfrah, one of the most compelling ghosts to inform the riots is the British Empire, whose decline brought British subjects from former colonies to this island’s shores. For the children of migrants, such as myself, footage of moments such as the Windrush arriving is always poignant, and Akomfrah uses this to evoke the chilling disparity between the dream of a new life and the stark reality of racist Britain.
Alam makes a similar comparison between Britain’s rhetoric around democracy and its illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. British hiphop artist Akala astutely observes that British war mongering sets a disturbing example: if you want something, take it. Might is right. To my knowledge, this analysis has never been made in mainstream media, who prefer to see British urban working class youth as apathetic, war as the business of politicians, and the two as having little to do with each other.
Watching these two films back to back, I was reminded of black lesbian writer and activist Audre Lorde’s assertion that ‘poetry is not a luxury’. These poetic explorations of race, class and resistance are urgent critical interventions. They are propaganda in the best and most inspiring sense of the term. For seasoned activists, it is easy to reach lazily for the same old analysis, the same old tools, and for our campaigns to become tired and lacking in the energy that brought us to the struggle. These films, like the riots themselves, tear into the everyday, bring the nation’s ghosts to light, and make the streets strange, troubling and exciting once again.