BY So Mayer in Opinion | 08 MAR 23
Featured in
Issue 233

The Political Radicalism of British Film Collectives

So Mayer tracks the histories of collective filmmaking practices, often responding to the turbulence of British politics

BY So Mayer in Opinion | 08 MAR 23

In May 2021, when Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) were nominated for the Turner Prize – as part of the first-ever shortlist comprised entirely of artist collectives – they issued a statement via Instagram. ‘Arts institutions’, they wrote, ‘whilst enamoured by collective and social practices, are not properly equipped or resourced to deal with the realities that shape our lives and work. We see this in the lack of adequate financial remuneration for collectives in commissioning budgets and artist fees, and in the industry’s in-built reverence for individual inspiration over the diffusion, complexity and opacity of collaborative endeavour.’ In their response, the QTIPOC artist group – known for such researched and layered work as their polyphonic film Collective Hum (2019) documenting Black British sound – called attention to the often-overlooked history of collective visual arts practice in the UK, the political radicalism of which continues to raise questions around who gets to make art and how.

While the 2021 Turner Prize shortlist underscored a renewed urgency around alternative methods of cooperative art-making, scholarship in recent years has begun to unearth a more detailed roadmap of Britain’s history of cultural collectives. In 2007, for instance, the Otolith Group curated ‘The Ghost of Songs’, an exhibition and accompanying catalogue dedicated to Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC), at Arnolfini in Bristol and FACT Liverpool. More recently, Sue Clayton and Laura Mulvey’s edited collection Other Cinemas: Politics, Culture and Experimental Film in the 1970s (2017) explored connections between the London Film-Makers’ Co-op (LFMC), the Newcastle-based Amber Collective, the Independent Film Makers Association, and the Black filmmaking workshops that collectively changed the velocity, intensity and language of British audiovisual culture. These books build on Lester B. Friedman’s edited collection Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (1993), in particular the contributions by Manthia Diawara on Black film collectives and Antonia Lant on the feminist Leeds Animation Workshop.

Leeds Animation Workshop, Who Needs Nurseries? - We Do!, 1978. Courtesy: the artist 

What Other Cinemas demonstrates is that this cultural practice emerged from (and participated in) social change predicated on collective action – wherein art might play a significant part, but one that challenged Eurowestern culture’s ‘in-built reverence for individual inspiration over […] collaborative endeavour’. Yet, the utilization of alternative infrastructures and non-traditional venues for the distribution, exhibition and viewing of artists’ cinema – including the Arts Lab and The Black-Art Gallery, as well as more ephemeral fora such as squats and demonstrations – has sadly contributed to its erasure.

Films by collectives were screened in provisional and more economically accessible spaces because such venues reflected the groups’ leftist, internationalist, feminist, anti-colonial and anti-racist politics. The best-known works – BAFC’s Handsworth Songs (1986), for instance, or Nightcleaners (1975) by Berwick Street Collective – are increasingly precious and necessary documents of these solidarities, the long-lost and under-documented spaces they occupied, and the complexities of the groups’ practices and theories. Made with the urgent passion to engage viewers in the struggle and to democratize knowledge in the moment, such works stand out today as rare and precise evocations of almost-erased forms of collective action, both political and creative.

Berwick Street Collective, Nightcleaners, 1975, film still. Courtesy: LUX

Like Berwick Street Collective, Cinema Action was a foundational film collective that left its mark on British film history and practice. Informed by the Marxist, cross-class solidarities of 1968 – including the central role of the Cinémathèque Française and of young filmmakers in the struggle on the streets – Cinema Action began by screening documentaries from the Paris protests to factory workers in the UK, before making their own 16mm documentaries, such as Fighting the Bill (1970). Long before former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decimated the miners’ unions in the mid-1980s, Cinema Action identified Conservative Party assaults on union power as a fundamental issue, prompted by the Industrial Relations Act 1971, proposed in the party’s 1970 manifesto, which sought to limit and even outlaw strikes, and to confine labour negotiation to court cases brought by the formal leadership of registered trade unions. In their documentary, shop stewards and union members nationwide speak out against the Act, the unpopularity of which helped bring down Prime Minister Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1975. Tellingly, Cinema Action’s last film was the hour-long documentary Miners 7484 (1984), which connected the dots of a decade of action by miners’ unions. Screened on Channel 4 six months into the miners’ strike against pit closures, it drew on the collective’s nearly two decades of union connections and solidarity.

The formation and remit of the British free-to-air public broadcaster Channel 4 is often centred in histories of collective film and videomaking in the UK. Years of negotiation between the British Film Institute and the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) pushed Channel 4 to provide continued funding, including regular commissions and full-time employment, for selected film and video workshops across the country, as part of the channel’s remit to platform previously marginalized voices and stories. This was crucial, since only salaried film crew could be ACTT members, and meant workshop members were now able to work on union productions. The first workshop to be fully franchised under the terms of the ACTT Workshop Declaration of 1982 was Retake Film and Video, the UK’s first all-Asian collective, started by brothers Mahmood and Ahmed Alauddin Jamal. Their first feature, Majdhar (1984) – featuring Rita Wolf in the titular role as a Pakistani woman who makes an independent life for herself in London after her husband leaves her – was a landmark moment in diasporic screen representation in the UK. Wolf went on to appear in Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and it would be such films, with their traditional solo directors, that would come to define the continuing success of Channel 4’s film programming.

A leaflet calling for screenings of the Cinema Action film Arise Ye Workers (the dockers' fight), 1974/5. Courtesy: Chris Reeves

Predating all of these developments in collaborative filmmaking, however, was the founding, in 1966, of the LFMC, which took its cue from the New York Filmmakers Co-operative (NYFC). Established four years earlier to provide an alternative distribution model for the city’s avant-garde, the NYFC was greatly influenced by the screening circuit and exhibition practices devised over the previous decades by US filmmaker Maya Deren, and served as the model for other US co-ops, such as San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema. The principles of collective experimental filmmaking, distribution and criticism in the UK can, however, be traced back even further to the radical film magazine Close Up (1927–33) and to the extraordinary film Borderline (1930), starring Paul Robeson, both of which were created by the POOL Group, aka the queer ménage of Bryher, H.D. and Kenneth Macpherson.

Although filmmakers such as Gill Eatherley and Annabel Nicolson were involved in the LFMC in the early 1970s, the organization and its values remained dominated by white cis men in terms of both film production and exhibition. In 1979, LFMC curator Lis Rhodes co-founded Circles, a distributor focused on feminist film, including works by Deren, such as Meshes of the Afternoon (1942). Along with the subsequent collective Cinema of Women (COW), it was internationalist feminist in outlook and outreach. As its witty, pointed acronym suggests, COW – founded by Melanie Chail, Mandy Rose, Fern Presant, Maggie Sellers,  Caroline Spry and Audrey Summerhill – took aim at the misogyny of the film distribution landscape in the UK, most notably with their 1983 release of Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris’s De stilte rond Christine M. (A Question of Silence, 1982), a film about feminist solidarity and fighting back, which was marked by outrage from the white cis male critical establishment.

Informed by access to global feminist cinema, the 1970s were a ferment of feminist film activity in the UK, connected via the curation of Mulvey and Lynda Myles at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. In 1972, they invited the newly formed London Women’s Film Group to document the women’s film week and exhibit their work as part of BBC2’s film night at the festival, showing off what was possibly the first all-female crew in British film and television history. Their feature, The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1974), would screen at the festival in 1975, alongside Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Feminist collectives spanned the country, with Leeds Animation Workshop, Sheffield Film Co-op and Cardiff’s Video Vera collective becoming part of the Workshop Declaration.

Film workshop participants at Four Corners, c. 1980s. Courtesy: © Four Corners

Feminist filmmakers Joanna Davis and Mary Pat Leece were, along with Wilf Thust and Ron Peck, the driving forces behind the formation, in 1975, of the longest-surviving film workshop, Four Corners. Bridging the gap between newsreel collectives and avant-garde co-ops, Four Corners sought to integrate film production, film exhibition and film education, grounded in local community. In a statement written in 1978, the group described their ambition to make ‘films which aim at challenging people’s preconceptions of what films are in order to encourage an active participation in what the film is about’.

Davis would go on to collaborate with Rhodes on a short film series for Channel 4 called Hang on a Minute (1984). United by their anti-government, anti-military and anti-nuclear themes, these 13 highly political and aesthetically inventive one-minute animated films were commissioned in 1983, with the intention of screening them in 1984 as unannounced interventions between programmes to disrupt expectations about both artists’ film and advertising. As a letter in the Four Corners archive details, Channel 4 later reneged on their agreement to screen the shorts, saying that ‘the experiment has not worked’ – a phrase that epitomizes the often-obscured outcomes of the Workshop Declaration.

Ceddo, one of three Black film and video collectives funded by the Workshop Declaration, alongside BAFC and Sankofa, saw their first film for Channel 4, The Peoples Account (1985), pulled from schedules after the Independent Broadcasting Authority demanded that Ceddo remove references to the police as ‘terrorists’ and the Broadwater Farm uprising of 1985 as ‘legitimate self-defence’. After the television news cameras had moved on from documenting the uprising – which saw local people demand justice for Cynthia Jarrett, a Black woman who had died of a heart attack after police searched her home on the false assumption her son was handling stolen goods – Ceddo remained in the community, documenting the long-smouldering tensions against racist policing that had led to the protests and resistance. Ceddo refused to reclassify this uprising as a ‘riot’, underlining the inherent conflict in the creation of the Workshop Agreement between the collectives’ radical leftist politics and the binding judgement of national gatekeepers, commissioners and broadcasters.

Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, The People’s Account, 1985, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Channel 4

Recently revived as part of the Independent Cinema Office’s Second Sight tour celebrating the UK’s Black film workshop movement, The Peoples Account remains uncompromisingly incendiary, relevant and resonant. Ceddo, which took its name from Ousmane Sembène’s eponymous 1977 feminist anti-colonial film, included filmmaker Menelik Shabazz, who had been involved in the founding of The Black-Art Gallery and had already made Burning an Illusion (1981), the first British fiction feature with a Black female lead. The array of filmmakers in Sankofa – Judah (Martina) Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Robert Crusz, Isaac Julien and Nadine Marsh-Edwards – would also, collectively and individually, go on to shape British aesthetics and politics; or, rather, assert that aesthetics is always political.

Today, it is within the gallery-based development of what is now known as artists’ film and video that most of the Black filmmakers who emerged from the collectives – notably Julien and John Akomfrah – continue to produce and exhibit their works. Rewatching Handsworth Songs at Documenta 11 in 2002, Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar of The Otolith Group noted in their introduction to the catalogue for The Ghost of Songs that ‘a curatorial proposition slowly began to emerge: could one invite audiences into spatial scenarios that allowed for distinctive kinds of encounter?’ Both the Otolith Group and The Ghost of Songs were formed to explore the spatial scenario of the gallery: the different pace of viewing and expectations around attention and engagement that can create a heightened awareness of the viewing body and exhibition architecture. Their work has brought collective film practice full circle, back into the non-cinematic spaces in which it was first screened.

Black Audio Film Collective, Handsworth Songs, 1986, film still. Courtesy: LUX

Several Black workshop films were installed as part of The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary and South London Gallery in 2017, including Dreaming Rivers (1988), written and directed by Attille of Sankofa, about the dreams and memories of Caribbean-born Miss T, played by Corinne Skinner-Carter. In their 2020 essay written to accompany the film’s tour as part of the ICO’s Second Sight, filmmaker Rabz Lansiquot – a member of the collective Sorry You Feel Uncomfortable – observes how Dreaming Rivers ‘explores Miss T and her children’s interior anguish as it is affected by the conditions of British post-colonial migration and its psychological fallout […] Miss T’s loss and mourning result directly from the broken promises of the 1948 British Nationality Act, the same act that has failed today’s deportees as its Hostile Environment policy tears through their communities.’ Lansiquot positions the film as a prescient pivot point between the postwar act that rendered all those in Britain’s colonies British citizens and its present ‘broken promise’ exemplified by the deportation of British citizens who arrived as part of the Windrush Generation, undertaken by a Conservative government defined by its opposition to immigration. The need for unconventional screening locations is, like the need for collaborative working, urgent for alternative cinema because of the political hostility to the communities that make it.

The history of British film collectives is shaped and given meaning by collective action in which filmmaking and protest inform each other as acts of critical liberation and social justice. The Workshop Declaration supported and formalized a groundswell of alternative practices that were already operating far beyond the boundaries of establishment filmmaking; that were, in fact, world-making. The films produced by these collectives not only record significant strategies of political action, they offer a holistic account of what it means to effect change.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘Collective Bargaining’

Main image: Film Youth Club on Wessex Street, Bethnal Green, 1979. Courtesy: © Four Corners

So Mayer is a writer and activist. Their most recent book is A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (2020) and their essays are included in Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (2018) and At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (2019). They live in London, UK.