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In celebration of African cinema

Nana Ocran, lead researcher on June Givanni’s Pan African Cinema Archive, reflects on the history and heritage of African cinema in the UK, around the African diaspora and on the African continent itself.

Over 32 years ago June Givanni, a remarkable curator of African and African diaspora cinema, started her career working on the Third Eye Film Festival in London and went on to set up the African/Caribbean unit at the British Film Institute.

Based in London but originally from the Caribbean, June has been a champion of Pan African cinema. After the BFI she programmed Planet Africa at the Toronto Film Festival and in recent years has programmed the Africa International Film Festival in Nigeria and currently the Colours of the Nile Film Festival in Ethiopia, as well as African cinema at festivals around the world.

As a programmer, curator and film enthusiast June has built up a wealth of material of and about pan African films from the ’70s until now, and not just films on video, but audio, photographic and other cinematic memorabilia, valuable documents and items offering a rich and varied window into pan African history, politics and political movements.

Today as we celebrate the brilliance of Steve McQueen it feels like the right moment to reflect on his journey, and on the journey of many of his contemporaries and celebrate all those who have made a valuable contribution to black British Cinema. 

And it is the June Givanni Pan African Film Archive, with support from Creativeworks London and in partnership with Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image, that gives us the opportunity to do just that, to reflect, and understand how representations and perceptions of black culture have changed over time.

Steve McQueen was one of a number of young filmmakers who visited the BFI’s African and Caribbean Film Unit back in the early ’90s when June and her colleague Gaylene Gould were running it.

At that time they had programmed the Black Film Bulletin Summer Screen Celebration in which Steve’s first film The Bear (1993) was showcased. This ran alongside trailers and extracts of films by other pan African filmmakers who were also in the early stages of their careers – Gurinder Chadha (first feature Bhaji on the Beach) produced by Nadine Marsh-Edwards; John Singleton (Poetic Justice); Ngozi Onwurah (Welcome to the Terrordome); and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).

Like many other black independent filmmakers of the time, McQueen visited the Unit, which also published the quarterly Black Film Bulletin magazine during the 1990s.

June’s archive includes documents and memorabilia on movements in black programming for film and TV, film stills and festival posters. Access to the archive will offer a fantastic resource for researchers, writers, filmmakers, lecturers, schools, film students, cultural activists and anyone interested in the history of Pan African film.

It tells a myriad of stories – a great source for history and heritage and will soon be made searchable so that connections can be made between the historical and modern aspects of ideas, movements and even global perceptions of Africa and its diaspora. It is also a great source for quotes from black intellectuals and thinkers including Stuart Hall, CLR James, Aime Cesaire and WEB Dubois.

The archive also includes African and Caribbean pioneering filmmakers including early 20th century African-American pioneer of silent films Oscar Micheaux, the ‘father of African film’ Ousmane Sembene, Haitian filmmaker and political activist Raoul Peck, Euzhan Palcy, who was the first black woman director produced by a major Hollywood studio who directed A Dry White Season in 1989 as well as significant Black British veteran filmmakers like Horace Ove and countless others.

As well as the work of Palcy, there are also many powerful women’s voices held in the archive, including Toni Cade Bambara, documentary filmmaker and social activist, and Pearl Bowser, archivist and director who won acclaim for her book Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, which re-introduced the world to Micheaux’s work.  In short it is the archive that holds some of the history and background to many black film professionals still working in the industry today.

June Givanni’s Pan African Film Archive is currently in development and with the help of the Creativeworks London Voucher Scheme, it will soon begin to make accessible and searchable a couple of thematic strands. There will be a series of screenings, discussions and an exhibition to launch the Archive this summer. Come and explore.

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