Twilight City: The Black Audio Film Collective's New Release
By Dan Marks
Twilight City, the latest work from the British-based Black Audio Film Collective, is a profound meditation on London and on the city, on being black, on the savagery unleashed by the Thatcher government, on exile and on abandonment.
The film is a tapestry woven from interviews, glimpses of historical footage, stylized dream sequences, and images from the contemporary city. Holding it together is the fictional device of a daughter's (Olivia's) beautiful and poetic letter to her long absent mother (Eugenia), a letter whose text we hear as we watch her writing.
Eugenia left London for Dominica after thirty-five years of London life and now, ten years later, she writes to Olivia that she wants to return "home" to a London that once left her exhausted. Olivia, a journalist researching "The New London and the Creation of Wealth," travels through the city searching its streets and corners for clues about what home and the city is, what it ever was, what it did to her mother and what it may do to her. While this device encourages us to look carefully at the streets and city, it also moves us elegantly between interviews with people who are dealing with the same questions of belonging and exile. The letter anchors the film in a political context, suggesting a political dimension to memory and emotions, both usually difficult to animate. The overall effect is a film which is evocative and profound, as well as in sisten tly political and intellectual.
We watch Olivia as she begins to compose her response : "You wanted to leave before things fell apart between us, now the city is falling apart you want to come back. It may be too late."
Alone in her room with her thoughts and her memories, her image is a concrete representation of the film as a meditation, a form in which the collective specialize.
The Black Audio Film Collective (Handsworth Songs, Testament) work in an open-plan space whose centerpiece is a very large round table which emphasizes and makes concrete the collective nature of their work. Their cutting room overlooks an open air market with its colors of multi-racial London—and multi-racial London is something to which they are all acutely sensitized. The members of the collective come from Dominica, Ghana, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Britain, and as Reece Auguiste, the director of Twilight City says, "We see ourselves as diasporic subjects, so we have diverse histories in terms of the group... That kind of plurality and the emergence of a politics of difference, I feel does articulate the conditions and displacement and exile of diasporic subjects."
Auguiste himself is from Dominica and is a founder member of the collective, most of whose members met at college in southern England. Like his colleagues, he is a disarming person with an easy and frequent laugh. While he is clearly highly politicized (and his film is unambiguous about its partisan contempt for the Thatcher government and its policies), neither in the film nor in conversation does he subject one to the self righteousness sometimes encountered in left-wing intellectuals. Indeed, he explains that, "ultimately, diatribes are redundant. They are ineffective, they are not going to get us very far, they are not constructive, they do not illuminate me as a person."
Even if he were by nature a dogmatist, one gets the impression that his engagement in an experimental project attempting to combine political and aesthetic sensibilities would temper such inclinations. We talked in London about the concerns Twilight City addresses, about the collective and about London itself.
Twilight City was initially conceived as a somewhat different project from either conventional documentary, narrative or meditative form.
"The initial idea was that four members of the group would each direct fifteen minutes of a piece which would come together as one project. So I was going to do something on old age and the city, Eddie wanted to do something on black gay and lesbian sensibilities, Lina wanted to do something on fashion/youth. In the end we abandoned that to do this one thing, but what I've done is to include all those desires and ambitions into it," explains Auguiste.
In this sense, the plurality of voices which characterizes their work can be understood as the consequence of its each of its members being allowed the right to be heard. But the film's richness also comes from the diversity of the interviewees, who with distinct memories to relate, each address particular concerns, specific or broad. Thus David Yallop ( the investigative journalist and author of In God's Name) articulates his vision of Thatcherism: "You don't have to be a slave to have lost your roots. You can do it right here in this city. And under Thatcherism that loss of roots is accelerating."
Others speak to the effect of the "new" London on homosexuals, new immigrants, women, Asians. The breadth of concern is not indiscriminate, but emerges naturally as a result of the collective process of filmmaking which marks Black Audio's work.
For many filmmakers such collective work is difficult at best, and for most the kind of collaboration in which Black Audio are engaged is incomprehensible. Recriminations and bitterness seem to be the most common result of an attempt at collective decision making, but not in this case where many of the group have been friends and partners for over ten years.
It may be that the group's unity is maintained by this kind of filmmaking which resists the temptation to progress towards any reductive resolution. There is an inclination in both contemporary political discourse and contemporary documentary filmmaking to construe polyphony as discord or anarchy, and to insist upon its resolution into a single voice. In the members of Black Audio, it is simply absent. Indeed, Auguiste does not "believe that films can provide resol u tions. The purpose of films is to throw some light on to a dark area."
In part the film deals explicitly with political issues, as Augustine says, "with the displacement of the black subject in Britain," and the related theme of the nature of Thatcher's Britain. The state is depicted as a cannibalistic place in which communities are destroyed in the name of development of one sort or another. Auguiste uses historical footage of the city and its communities, and contemporary interviews in which people "articulate what they think is happening to London on a political level," and talk about their childhood experiences of the city.
One focus of the film is an examination of the development area known as Docklands. When there was once an active Port of London ( no longer the case), Docklands was the area in which its docks, warehouses and wharfs were located and where the dock workers lived. During the I960's and 1970's when the Port of London ceased most of its activities, it became a huge area of rotting and abandoned commercial property, and a declining working class community. Now it is one of the most desirable places for the new rich of Thatcher's Britain to live, and perhaps the most visible object of the hordes of predatory property developers and speculators now encouraged in Britain.
The Twilight City version of Docklands history exposes the poetic irony that these same docklands which "in the '80's have become the place to be because of the impact of Thatcherism," were once the place where Lascar seamen, "brought to work on the ships for the East India Company, got to London where they were abandoned on the streets, like any other colonial subject who was dispensed with."
And now it is the white working class inhabitants who are being forced to make way for the developers. Using rema rka ble historical footage, Auguiste revives images of the long forgotten Chinatown that stood in the area before it was bombed out of existence, and of the community of Lascars who lived there before the Chinese, and before they themselves were frozen to death during winters which also froze all memory of them. Like their predecessors, the present dock.landers are being forced to vacate their space in the city. In this fact Auguiste recognizes that "one can no longer talk about a homogenous, monolithic class formation in terms of the working class. What we have now is a very fragmented class... But it's class displacement which is taking place now. "
Nevertheless, he works with the Black Audio Film Collective and for him, as for W.E.B. Du Bois whom he quotes, "The fundamental problem of the twentieth century is the color line and it still is for us. Diasporic subjects we are, but it's a diaspora that's been marked by race and by racial traditions and politics and culture. And it is still important that one should talk about the dilemma of that existential state, the dilemma of that ontological being."
Through the use of historical footage Twilight City traces a history of communal displacements, and in the interviews we hear a number of witnesses to both class and personal displacements. But it is in Olivia's letter that the film concentrates its treatment of personal displacement and its consequences.
We learn from Olivia that her mother and father were brought together by the Blitz. The Blitz during which survivors in the streets stared at her father as if he were an alien from outer space—more focussed on his presence than on their own predicament. This was the Britain in which she grew up during a peace when her mother 's most treasured possession was a framed and signed picture of Harold Macmillan (the former Tory Prime Minister), whom she supported on the issue of decolonization. Ironically it was also Macmillan's government which organized the importation of cheap black labor from the West Indies, and in whose Britain those immigrants were met with naked racism. The letter paints the Eugenia of those days as a tragic figure. And now she wants to come "home" to Thatcher's Britain, a Britain in which her daughter now dredges up the desperate childhood memory of writing "Love Me and Don't Forget Me" on a wall at the same time that her mother was voting for Macmillan. A Britain in which, as Auguiste points out, "We have black counselors who are conservative... and there are black youth on the streets who don't give a shit about whether Labour or the Tories are in. There is an extreme cynicism... that if Labour come into power they will only manage capital, so why vote for them?" The desire to return to such a country would be laughable were it not so sad.
Eugenia 's letter may not end in her physical return, but its arrival certainly brings her to Olivia and to our consciousness. And with that letter, she also brings to our consciousness the image of the signed and framed portrait of Macmillan who returns with her to Thatcher's Britain. The social and political values of Macmillan 's paternalistic Tory government once set the British political agenda for thirteen years, and it was in those years that the seeds of Olivia's bitterness were sown. Now Macmillan is returning ( tucked under Eugenia's arm ) to a Britain in which the radical view of Mrs. Thatcher's quite different Tories have become dominant.
It is a confusing picture of many exiles and many painful returns, and it reminds me Marx's famous restatement of Hegel that "all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
But while many filmmakers start with a radical vision and critique of society, few manage to convey such complexity as do Black Audio. The nature of the displace ments that the film describes, and the processes which provoke them, are given a depth and shading which is rare in any film and the more so in political films, which are so often given to strident overstatement. The film's sophistication is a consequence of the profoundly cinematic project in which Auguiste and the Collective are engaged.
"I go for the primacy of the cinematographic. I find it very difficult to force a political project. You have to allow your priority to be pro-filmic, and your political sentiments, your cultural ideas, should naturally find their way into the film or project. It should not be forced into it like in "agitprop " documentaries", explains Auguiste.
Thus, in Twilight City the seminal image of Olivia sitting alone and writing at her desk with her back to the world places us firmly in the realm of the meditative, a state in which Auguiste notes that, "solitude, reflection, personal sentiments, are of prime importance... one's own existential state in the social world without necessarily having any bearing whatsoever on politics."
In establishing the film as a meditation Auguiste sets a context in which its suggestive juxtapositions of imagery are made easier to read, and in which the filmmaker may incorporate the full range of cinematic techniques. Auguiste remarks that "Bergman says that when cinema is not dream it is document. Tarkovsky says the same... But I think now that the dichotomy is increasingly becoming a problematic in that it is possible to have dream in the document."
Twilight City manages to entwine document and dream in its mixture of film forms.
Part of the film's beauty derives from the consistency with which its imagery complements the ideas to which Olivia alludes and some of the other interviewees address. For example, early on we look out at a market square in the City of London ( the financial center ) from behind the columns of one of its buildings. From this position the square disappears and reappears as we pass each column. The effect is of a child peeping unnoticed at the grown-up world. The point is economically and beautifully made that this is a world to which the filmmakers do not and can not belong. When juxtaposed with an interview about the role of the financial institu tions in the development of Docklands, the scene indicates not only that the filmmakers (and many of us) are not part of it, but also why that is not the case.
Similarly, the beautiful views of the Thames or of the city as it bums after being bombed during the Second World War are almost always ones on which we look down, a privilege normally the fly's. The result maintains our sense of distance and estrangement from the objects of our attention, a sensation heightened by the film's use of music.
The soundtrack of Twilight City is made up of low tones, ominous drones and fragments of city noises. Their combined musical effect is not so much to complement the images, as to question them. Disconnected from their original sound context we look at them with fresh eyes. The periodic glimpses of 1950's and '60's West Indian and black immigrants to Britain are accompanied by low, constant tones. We see pictures of West Indian children eating sugar candy at the fair, West Indian adults sitting impassively on a bus, gazing at nothing in particular, with expressions difficult to interpret. I find myself questioning the origin of the images and the motivation for their production, rather than attempting to decipher the expres sions. The faces are disturbing partly because they become pictures transparently "taken," and I find myself wondering who "took" them, and why. As in Handsworth Songs, Twilight City's style directs attention underneath its superficial form, insisting that we attend to the hard questions, mesmerizing us in the process.
Twilight City. 1989. 16mm. 52 minutes. Color.
Director: Reece Auguiste.
Production Company: Black Audio Film Collective.
Black Audio Film Collective, 89 Ridley Rd, Hackney, London.
Twilight City was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival and will be seen at the Montreal and Toronto film festivals. It was awarded the Grand Prize at the Melbourne Film Festival.
Daniel Marks is an English Filmmaker and anthropologist who works at the Center For Visual Anthropology of the University of Southern California.