How Should a Cinema Oriented Towards the Commons be Designed?
On 26 June 2022, we hosted a panel titled How Should a Cinema Oriented Towards the Commons be Designed When its Actors, Audiences, Themes and Images are Transnational? as part of the Cinema of Commoning Symposium. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Through transnationality, forms of multi-perspective knowledge emerge. This knowledge connects places geographically near and distant with pasts, presents and futures, and decentres Eurocentric views by bringing transnational and postcolonial positions to the forefront. This panel focused on questions of the simultaneous locality and globality that converges in the cinema space: How should a cinema oriented towards the commons be shaped when its actors, audiences, themes and images are transnational? How do counter-narratives – ones that negotiate marginalised knowledge and perspectives – find their way into broader social discourse? What strategies exist within transnational contexts that challenge the reliance on the nation-state in film festivals and film funding?
Imruh Bakari (University of Winchester)
Lyse Ishimwe Nsengiyumva (Recognition, Brussels)
Sarnt Utamachote (un.thai.tled, Berlin)
Moderation: Can Sungu (bi’bak / Sinema Transtopia, Berlin)
Can Sungu (bi’bak / Sinema Transtopia): All of you have had experiences of creating transnational spaces around film. Lyse, your project Recognition is linked directly to the transnational African community in Brussels. Imruh, you were involved in the Black British cinema which emerged in the 80s to foster counter narratives at the intersection of filmmaking and activism. Sarnt, you are involved in several projects here in Germany that aim to create new connections within the Southeast Asian communities which are based here.
I would like to start with a general question, but also a crucial one because we are dealing with this question on a daily basis. What is your primary motivation in giving space to these transnational post-migrant postcolonial narratives in cinema? To which extent do you think it is important that these counter narratives or marginalised perspectives find their way into broader social discourse? Are you primarily interested in creating spaces for the communities that you are approaching, stimulating new connections between them?
Lyse Ishimwe Nsengiyumva (Recognition): My motivation for what I do for the community comes out of survival. What drives me to keep doing what I am doing is this idea of coming together in this cinema space where we can see ourselves on screen and be transported elsewhere. I grew up in a home that was very much focused on cinema. My father used to own a cinema space back in Rwanda, so I saw what it means to run a space. It was open to the community, and at the time many African films were not readily accessible or distributed in Africa. So what he was showing were Hollywood films, but he was very smart at rewriting what these films really meant. He would rewrite the synopsis so that the local audience could relate to the film. When the film was playing, people could speak to the screen and speak with each other. It felt like you were home, watching a movie with your family. For me, being able to witness that at such a young age really informed me as to the power that cinema could have in bringing people together.
With Recognition, I am speaking with a generation that lives very much on social media. With social media you can connect with people but there is also a part of it that is very isolating. If I am able to contribute to something that is positive for the future, I am really happy to do that. For me, cinema is a means of survival and a way of staying present and reconnecting with each other.
Sarnt Utamachote (un.thai.tled): I can relate to what you say about cinema as a matter of struggle and survival. I think for many more privileged programmers and curators who live out there, they sometimes come from this idea of “oh, what should I do.” And I’m like “babes, I know exactly what I’m gonna do because I need to survive.”
Maybe the difference between my cinema, and Lyse’s experience with African cinema is that South East Asian cinema has been at times a kind of landmark in the arthouse market. We have big names that fit easily into the festival circuit, where they are fetishised. I have been to some screenings with these big names, who are often related to this aesthetic of Slow Cinema. And that is my biggest enemy, Slow Cinema. Apart from the aesthetic, the Q&A after a Slow Cinema film will always be: “oh you got inspired by Bela Tarr…” or people will ask, “is this the authentic way of living in the region?” And I think “No, when I lived there everywhere I walked was very vibrant, very colourful, very musical, nothing there is slow.”
These experiences made me think that I wanted to do my own screenings, to select films that we think are relevant but that do not necessarily fit within the aesthetic of the festival circuit. This is how I started. At one of my screenings, we showed a queer film from Thailand, and we had a panel on queerness outside of the western context, specifically in Buddhist contexts. We talked with a filmmaker who is a transfemale person (Anucha Boonyawattana) about what she thinks about this, and in the conversation what came out very clearly was that she had never thematized her identity; it was just something that came to her naturally, and it was not this LGBTQ+ rainbow flag thinking. She didn’t say Buddhism is transphobic, even though some would say it is; rather she sees “holes” in this religious institution and knows exactly how to negotiate that. That was one statement that came out at the first panel we organised, and it showed us that we were doing something different.
Imruh Bakari (University of Winchester): I want to start by recalling the historical perspective, the idea of claiming space to constitute a community. This has always been part of my own coming into cinema. I was never a Hollywood fan, and I grew up in a society where Hollywood films were the only films you could see. What intrigued me more than anything was the magic of the moving image, what it could do to your imagination, and how it could have an impact upon you. The idea of claiming space is part of a process of affirmation.
In a way, this is what brought me into cinema and shaped my contribution to the British cinema of the 1980s. I started an independent film company with two colleagues who only recently passed away, Menelik Shabazz and Henry Martin. We were three Black filmmakers who formed a company in 1981, and nobody wanted to deal with us. We were three out of possibly ten professional Black filmmakers in London at the time. We could talk about the politics of that in relation to the liberal institution of Channel Four, for example. We initiated Ceddo Film and Video, which was one of several workshops that served as incubators for much of the work that would later become known as Black British cinema. The whole idea was to establish and capture space and give Black communities access to that space. In practice, that meant offering equipment, because before the 1980s you made films on 16mm. There was no digital video, there was no DIY, because you just could not afford a 16mm camera. At one time my ambition was to own an Arta, a camera which cost £1000! Nowadays, technology has become more democratised (I am using that word, guardedly) and more accessible in order to make your own images.
Let me go back even before that. Cinema in 1995 was 100 years old. I know that because we had a conference in Britain called Africa 95. However, the issues that we brought into that conference were against a background of what is termed “African cinema” and its emergence 50 years after the invention of cinema – if we date it back to Vieyra and Sembene in the 1950s. How did that happen ,when Africans had been prevalent in cinema since day one? Cinema had arrived in Africa within months of the cinématographe of the Lumière brothers. The fact is, Africans were probably the only people who were faced with legislation against making films. These were colonial legislations imposed by the French and British, designed to regulate the ability of Africans to make films for themselves.
You begin to see that the coming into being of African Cinema is very important for us. This is why FESPACO is such an important event to us, regardless of its inefficiencies and frustrations. We all have that right, it has to exist, and Nollywood is equally important because of what it has achieved in the new era. People like me, we are not preoccupied with past controversies. We are seeing how we can bring the best of both worlds together to make African cinema more accessible. We are very much concerned with the creation of space. We now have the internet and TikTok, which is where the idea of content comes in. Young African filmmakers cannot go to a proper film school in Africa, but everybody is saying “we want more African content”. The idea of what we do or what I have become involved in through filmmaking, academia, archiving, curating festivals, is part of bringing that African experience of cinema into a meaningful discourse.
Can: I would really like to open the discussion to the audience, as we are talking about community. Do you have any urgent questions that you would like to ask?
Audience Question (Abhishek Nilamber): I just wanted to know, what is that one thing that you would be wishing for that would enable a sustainable practice for you? I am pointing towards suggestions other than funding, because funding is an easy answer.
Imruh: If you want one simple answer, it is a shift of mindset. We have this idea that African filmmakers make certain kinds of films. There is also the notion that African cinema cannot be diverse, it has to be one contained thing. However, Africa is not a nation; it confounds the notion of nationhood. We still speak about “an African Cinema” and we challenge notions of national cinema in doing so, the notion that we can have a Somali Cinema, an Egyptian Cinema, a South African Cinema, a Moroccan Cinema, a Nigerian Cinema, and that these constitute African or Pan-African cinema.
There is also the issue of how African governments view cinema in a very opportunistic and ahistorical way. They see it as a private commercial venture. If you say that you are a filmmaker, that means to them that you must be making a lot of money, or you must have a lot of money, or you must have ambition to make money. They do not see it necessarily as an institutional, cultural, medium that can be part of the development process.
There is also a misunderstanding of how Hollywood came into being, because Hollywood is the most subsidised cinema in the world. All these war films which you have seen could not have been made without the connivance of the military. If you read the economic history of Hollywood, it is linked to the banking system and to reviving the American economy.
Somehow African filmmakers are supposed to exist without government support any real institutional framework. This is what I mean by saying that we need a shift of mindset, which is what my work is about and what I try to contribute to the wider debate in the field.
Lyse: This shift of mindset is an important element indeed. Another response to the initial question is the ability as Black people living in Europe to own our own spaces and to have the resources to do what we do without needing to go to institutions all the time.
Since starting Recognition, my frustration has always been finding a space. I know that the films are important and will have an audience, but my biggest struggle has always been to find a cinema space to host the screenings. I was not even asking for two or three days, I was asking for one day, for two hours even. The funniest thing is that even in cases when the screening was a success, there has never been any follow up. I do my programme every month, and this requires a lot of work –not to find the films, notify the audience etc, but to just find the space. My dream for the future is to own my own cinema space, and to have it be a place for a collective, run by and for the community. Just being able to have our own physical space and not having to ask around in order to find a temporary space would be a great step towards that.. Of course it will be challenging as well, as, in order for a space like this to work, it requires that many people come together to be able to do this.
If I look at our struggles and at what my colleagues and what they are going through in Brussels, I notice that there are so many ideas, but they are getting lost on the way because you cannot find a funding body to help you realise your goals.
I will give you an example. There is this art institution in Brussels called Bozar. I had this idea of screening Black Panther there. I went to Disney’s office in Brussels and I said, “well, there is this big film that is coming out called Black Panther. I would like to screen it at Bozar.” They seemed rather confused and they said that they did not know anything about this film. Two months later, they called me back because the film had been on pre-sale in the US and it was completely sold out. They got in touch with me because they saw the success of the film, and said that they would like to go ahead with the screening. I went to Bozar and they gave us their biggest screening room, which has 1500 seats. The day comes and we have this incredible screening with 1500 people; people from various backgrounds and ages who would never set foot in the museum but they were there for the film. At Bozar, they just could not understand what was going on, why all these people would come there for a Marvel film.
After the success, I remember that one of the people who worked at Bozar sent me an email saying, “Wow, it was so great to have all these people attending the event. It would be really great if you could help us for an event that is happening next weekend.” This really made me wonder, how is it possible that they cannot think ahead beyond this one single occasion? Why do they not offer me a job, if I can fill one of their biggest rooms with an audience? Why could they not think further and realise that maybe they need more African people working there? However, they do not think this way, you are there for now, working on a specific project never doing anything long term. When I talk about the creation of spaces, I am referring to long-term plans and being able to dream further than individual projects.
Can: The creation of spaces in the long run is something that we as bi’bak have been dealing with for a long time. Sinema Transtopia has been our temporary space for the last two years. The Cinema of Commoning project is our last big event here, as we are forced to move out directly after. We have found another space, and we have been lucky with that, but having a physical space for our cinema has been an ongoing struggle. How do you see the role of cinema in the future? Do you think that we will be able to keep these physical spaces alive despite the increasing digitalization of spectatorship? In which ways can cinemas remain attractive for the audiences as a space for collective experiences and encounters?
Imruh: We are already experiencing what you describe. With the Cinema of Commoning, we have been working through such hybrid forms of collaboration – creating a film programme collectively that is on view in different venues at the same time, bringing people together from various contexts for the occasion of this Symposium. The last two-three years have transformed our viewing experiences out of necessity. Before that, ironically, they were saying that cinema was declining, and cinemas were being shut down. Yet, in Nigeria cinemas were being built, even up to the COVID moment. Someone must have seen a business possibility there. There are cinema spaces within new kinds of environments, new types of meaningful experiences to offer.
Lyse mentioned this whole idea about how Africans respond to films. I would like to read the history of Lyse’s father, as Lyse talks about him working on a film synopsis that people can follow, but also shaping the ways in which they experienced the film in the cinema –especially in cases when they might not be able to identify with the realities they saw on screen. In the Caribbean or in countries from the African continent, people tend to talk to the screen, they invent their own narrative with the characters at the very moment of watching the film. This was once seen as primitive, as it was not the “right” way you were supposed to watch films. They would say “the audience is laughing in the wrong place.”How can you be laughing in the wrong place?
Yesterday we spoke about new kinds of interaction, and this is already happening in African communities. We were told this was not the way to watch films. Look at a film, like The Harder They Come, a Jamaican film made in 1973. For my seminars, I present it as a postmodern film, and students are often confused. How can you be talking about a postmodern film in a country that does not have a film industry? I have to explain to them that I relate it to what was happening in New Hollywood. In that film, there is a scene where this guy comes from a village, goes to the city, and his first experience of the city is in the cinema. The guy who takes him as a mentor is telling him how to look and engage with the film, determining how he should respond and help the people on the screen to solve their own problems. It is a really hilarious scene but it is very much about that experience. We need to claim our space, our sovereignty of thinking because many of the things we have been taught as not acceptable are suddenly being reformulated as acceptable, which is a paradox in itself.
Sarnt: I can relate so much to what you just said. I have a perfect short anecdote for the occasion. There is this bar in Berlin called Ficken 3000, a cruising bar for cis gay men. Of course it can be a bit of a transphobic space. However once I was there and there was this very cheesy indigenous porn film playing. We began talking about exploitation in cinema, and it became like a panel discussion without formality. In this little space, where some people are fucking, we are talking about Lars von Trier and about the exploitative cinema system. I find that these interactions are already also happening in the society, even outside the African or Asian continent, even in Europe, but they are happening in a space where there is a sense of safety, calmness and accessibility. Cinema becomes this tool of starting conversation in a space where the hierarchy of speech is flat, where you can speak to the screen, both in the Global South and the Global North.
Can: I would like to shift the conversation a bit towards the notion of archives. Why do you think that it is necessary to work with archives in a non-institutional context? Within the transnational societies that we are part of such as London, Brussels and Berlin, how can we challenge the idea of national film heritage by digging out films that are not seen as part of this particular national canon? Can we preserve an alternative cultural memory which is not part of the national discourse?
Imruh: I am amazed by what has happened in terms of archives and film archiving since 2000. I do not know when or how it happened, the whole idea of archives and archiving has developed into a movement, a whole new academic field. The reason for this may have to do partially with the new media environment. It may also have to do with a crisis within national institutions whereby a significant amount of their holdings were never seen.
For example, if we look at colonial film archives, only recently a project came out of the BFI just a few years ago, where a few people got a big research grant to construct these colonial archives, digitise, catalogue and make them accessible online. I have been involved in a number of initiatives rediscovering those archives, because now they are coming into the public domain as parents, grandparents die, and children are handing over their films to these collections. Suddenly it has become gold dust. We are discovering what people were filming privately in Kenya in the 1920s, for example. There is this notion of film as evidence, no matter how tangible or intangible that evidence might be. Somebody said that film is accessing the past. What access does film give us to this past?
I did this project with June Giovanni Pan African Cinema Archive, Big City Stories: London Film Heritage. We found a guy in Brixton, South London, who had been filming stuff on Super Eight in the 1950s and 60s. He was an ordinary Caribbean migrant, working as a carpenter. He was part of a church community, but he was filming stuff on Super Eight. Middle class people did that with their children. Anybody who has tried to use Super Eight knows how difficult it is to edit such stuff, and keep it going. He was doing this on his own and nobody had seen this stuff. He had all these cans, and he wanted to know what he could do with it. Nowadays, people similar to him use digital cameras, that is the irony of it.
We began to find this type of material. When I was doing my films in the 80s, people had photographs, family photographs, family albums. We wanted to know who we are, to know our heritage, our family lineage –because our parents may have come to Britain and left a lot of stuff behind. Then family albums become important. This interest in archives is then connected not just to an academic work for scholars only, it also began to challenge the official stories we knew about ourselves.
I have been working not only with June’s project, to which I am now committed as a director, but I have also been working with Somali communities in Britain, another significant diasporic community here. They are trying to develop a museum in London, but why London? Somalis are all over England, Canada and East Africa. So they cannot build a Somali Museum in East London and just talk about London, because their cousin might be in Sweden, Nairobi, Toronto, or even Cardiff down the road. That kind of new awareness of connections and connectedness has become important as we retell our stories.
Lyse: With the technology that is now available to us, as young people using social media and YouTube, we live in a hyper-virtual world. I wonder what that means in terms of tracing our history and our contemporary lives, thinking as well that all this data is owned by someone else. In the past you could have your archive at home that was discovered by your grandchild. Now our digital archive is already owned by somebody else. There is a big question regarding ownership right now.
Imruh: A very big question indeed. I have told some young Somalis that I am working with “you are going to be in the archive, in a decade or so, you are now making your own archive, everything you do is the archive of the future.” Archiving becomes not a rarefied activity, but a living activity of the present.
Imruh Bakari is a filmmaker/writer. He is a director of the June Givanni PanAfrican Cinema Archive. Bakari has worked in the UK and a number of African countries in the areas of film production and film studies, culture and the creative industries, and currently teaches Film Studies at the University of Winchester.
Lyse Ishimwe Nsengiyumva is a film curator and photographer. Lyse is currently based in Belgium where she founded Recognition in 2016. Recognition is a Brussels-based initiative with the aim of increasing the visibility of African and African diaspora art, literature and culture via community-based film screenings. In her work for this project, Lyse curates a film program that takes place at art and cultural spaces in various cities across Europe. Lyse currently works at IFFR as a programmer for the Sub Saharan African region. Previously, she was a film consultant for the Berlinale Forum.
Sarnt Utamachote is a Southeast Asian nonbinary filmmaker and curator based in Berlin. They are a co-founder of un.thai.tled, an artist collective from the German-Thai diaspora, and curated many film events and exhibitions regarding postcolonial histories, Southeast Asian diaspora and activism. This includes the recent research-based exhibition Where is my karaoke? Still, we sing (2022) in Leipzig, and the annual Celestial Festival in Berlin. Their short films such as I Am Not Your Mother (2020) or Soy Sauce (2020) have been screened internationally. Currently they work as a programmer/selection committee for Xposed Queer Film Festival Berlin and Short Film Festival Hamburg.
Can Sungu is a freelance artist, curator and researcher. He studied film, interdisciplinary art and visual communication design in Istanbul and Berlin. He taught film and video production, curated various film programs and event series on film and migration and participated in numerous exhibitions. He has worked as a juror and consultant for Berlinale Forum, International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and DAAD, among others. He is co-founder and artistic director of bi’bak and Sinema Transtopia in Berlin.