I really enjoyed watching the Selected X programme that (normally) Digbeth based Vivid Projects chose as the first serial to stream on their new ‘Videotheque’ Vimeo channel. So I was immensely excited when their recent newsletter hit my inbox saying that the next screening in this “space” (16-30 July 2020) would be a double bill of Yugesh Walia’s African Oasis (Birmingham Film Workshop, 1982) and Mohammed Idrish Must Stay (Trade Union Resources Centre, 1983).
African Oasis was completely new to me, however, I was lucky to be able to see Mohammed Idrish Must Stay for the first time about 18 months ago when it was screened during the research process for Adam Lewis-Jacobs’ People Meeting in a Room (Animate Projects, 2019) his short film infused “with the spirit” of the Trade Union Resources Centre (TURC) archive that Vivid Projects are custodians of.
Taken together both films are brilliant examples of the process described by Kieran Connell in Black Handsworth: Race in 1980s Britain (Berkeley, 2019) as “having helped establish the diverse… elements of… [Britain’s postcolonial diaspora communities] as a forceful presence”, in Birmingham and the country as a whole. They are brilliant records of diaspora communities taking direct action to assert themselves in the UK through establishing new institutions which made claims upon the state, and through utilising their membership and position within established and powerful organisations like trade unions to campaign on issues which concerned them. In this way the story of the Probation Service funded, yet highly autonomous and community focused, Handsworth Cultural Centre told in African Oasis, and the NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers) backed campaign to save Mohammed Idrish from deportation, are vital foundational documents for the history of the Black and South Asian communities in the UK.
It is therefore brilliant that through the Birmingham Museums Trust, which purchased African Oasis in 2018 (they’re currently hosting a fundraiser to cover the Covid-19 shaped hole in their budget if you’re able to bung them a few quid) and the Media Archive for Central England which hosts TURC’s output, that these films are being saved for everyone who wants to access them.
In formal terms the two films are very different. African Oasis is quite filmic in its presentation, vividly illustrating its Birmingham Polytechnic trained director Yugesh Walia’s fascination and joy at encountering early 1980s Handsworth’s febrile and vibrant multiculture. Funded by the Arts Council, the film lingers between interviews with Handsworth Cultural Centre staff and service users, on performances by dancers and musicians based in Handsworth, as well as upon the creative fission that can be sensed in the streets themselves.
By contrast Mohammed Idrish Must Stay was shot and produced quickly on videotape. Much shorter than African Oasis coming in at just under 9 minutes, the film opens with a brief talking head short of Moahammed Idrish emotionally explaining the circumstances of his arrival in the UK, his estrangement from his British wife, and his looming deportation. It then cuts to a series of short interviews with NALGO members and officials, some of whom are seasoned anti-deportation campaigners, some of whom are supportive because Mohammed is a member of their union. These are interspersed with shots of the 2,500 strong march by NALGO members, other trade unionists, and supporters of Mohammed himself, through the streets of Birmingham.
At the time the short film would have been taken on cassette to be shown at trade union and other meetings building support for Mohammed personally and the anti-deportation campaign as a whole. This was vital-because not unlike today-it was difficult for trade unions and other left-wing organisations to communicate through more established channels, which did not want their voices and perspectives. In the video the trade unionists interviewed are conscious of the fact they’re participating in a new kind of trade unionism, one which embraces struggles outside the workplace, including those of a man who is in danger of losing his whole world because of a racist immigration law.
As well as the purely historical interest, and their status as aesthetic objects, it is the political charge carried by both films, and the lessons which can be learnt from the successes and the failures of the movements and moments they capture and convey, which provides their resonance today. Whether IRL or via Vimeo I look forward to seeing and being inspired by more from this strand of Vivid Projects programme soon.
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