Berlinale Talent Campus Event: Documentary
Senses and Sensibilities: Documentaries for the Big Screen panel included: John Akomfrah, Dominique Cabrera, Sandi DuBowski, Miroslav Janek.
Recently, documentaries are increasingly screened in movie theatres and festival slots which were traditionally, through an unwritten law, reserved for “features only”. The Panel will reflect on the limits and ethics in documentary filmmaking. Panel, among othersJohn Akomfrah came to prominence with HANDSWORTH SONGS, which explores the contours of race and civil disorder in 1980s Britain. In 1982, he helped found the Black Audio Film Collective, the seminal black filmmaking workshop, which produced a broad range of critically acclaimed work winning over 35 international awards. Sandi DuBowski: American director (TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, Teddy Award Berlinale 2001) and producer best known for his work on homosexuality and religion. He is the producer of Parvez Sharma’s documentary A JIHAD FOR LOVE, which will be part of the Panorama programme of the Berlinale 2008.
Here’s the interview I had with John Akomfrah afterwards:
Giving Shape and Coherence to Existence
11. Feb 2008 19:53 ~ back
By Suchandrika Chakrabarti
Reporting is sometimes a dangerous job. As I sat in the car with director John Akomfrah, fresh from his appearance on the “Senses and Sensibilities – Documentaries for the Big Screen” panel, it started to move off with the door open. I clung to the seat for dear life. My subject saved my life with a quick word to the driver, and we soon got back to the business of delving into his mind.
Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957, but grew up in west London. His multi-award-winning debut documentary, HANDSWORTH SONGS (1986) is about early 1980s race riots in Birmingham, central England. Themes of race, conflict and the disenfranchised run through his work.
Akomfrah says that “certain precepts of journalism are good diktats to work with” in documentaries. For instance, it’s important “to recognise the propriety of an event,” that is, to set it properly in its political or historical context, something that is essential to news journalism. “Sometimes,” as he says, “it’s just a riot – not a revolution.”
He teaches his students to worry about answering the great questions properly: the wheres, whys, hows and whens. How you answer those questions is your space for “analysis, poetry, creativity.” He confesses, “I am fascinated by the overlap between fact and fiction. I return to that again and again,” because it is always relevant to documentary.
Gaining the subject’s trust is essential for the documentary filmmaker. Akomfrah sees this as a process happening in three acts. The first is “characterised by subject hostility,” which thaws over the middle period. “By the time you get to editing the film, they love you!” he says with a chuckle. This is because the film can make people feel valued, that “oh, somebody believes us.” They are grateful when someone gives “shape and coherence to their existence. It says, ‘you’re not just cattle’.”
With that, our whirlwind journey from HAU 1 to the Hyatt hotel is over. We bid goodbye and I scurry off, vowing to stick to the Campus shuttle bus in future.
You can read more of Suchandrika’s impression in her blog on wordpress.