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In Conversation: June Givanni, recipient of the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award

9 February 2024
Event: Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema photoshootDate: Monday 15 January 2024Venue: BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, London, U.K.BAFTA/Charlie Clift

June Givanni has been doing the work of preserving, studying and celebrating Black filmmaking for over 40 years. A curator, writer, film programmer, and founder of the June Givanni PanAfrican Cinema Archive, she is recipient of this year’s BAFTA’s Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award. For an exclusive members' Spotlight interview, June talks to BAFTA member and writer Simran Hans about what people get wrong about archivists, meeting a young Steve McQueen, and the shape of her remarkable career. 

Simran: Your story begins in 1983, when you coordinated the Third Eye World Cinema Film Festival in London, curated by Parminder Vir. What was happening at that time in the film industry, in the UK?

June: There was a lot happening in the world of television for Black people. Of course, there were some Black filmmakers making progress – Menelik Shabazz's film Burning an Illusion came out in '81, there were people like Horace Ové, and Lionel Ngakane. 

Channel Four has been introduced, and had brought a new energy to the independent film scene with independent workshops like Trade Films and the Amber Film Collective, up in the north of the country. But in London, where there were lots of young Black independent filmmakers, there wasn't so much happening. At the Greater London Council’s Ethnic Minority Unit [where Givanni worked at the time], there was a sense that we need to make an intervention around film. 

The work needed to be more widely available, so people knew more about it. But also, there needed to be a sense that these people were seen as real filmmakers, not just cultural activists. There was a movement from recounting the Black presence and promoting anti-racism on TV, into demonstrating skill and knowledge and ambition around cinema. A lot of people with that ambition were beginning to make their voices heard. That was a really important time. 

In 1989, you headed up the African Caribbean Film Unit at the BFI, where you created a resource for film programmers called the Black Film and Video List. In that role, you also put on public screenings. Tell me the story of encountering a young Steve McQueen's student film, The Bear. 

Once you call it the African Caribbean Unit, all these independent filmmakers start showing up. They found it interesting that we existed. People came from the States! That was why we set up the Black Film Bulletin magazine, because we wanted to actually share information about what was happening in film around Black filmmakers, in the UK and internationally. 

The British actor and director Alrick Riley was a regular there. Everyone was drawn to it. We wanted to do an event outside of the BFI to showcase what was happening. Gaylene [Gould] and I had this crazy idea to do an outdoor screening. We chose the WKD Cafe in Camden Town, which had this big garage next to it. I must say, not everybody took to it. They thought, “Oh, this is not treating film seriously,” because of the space. 

But yes, Steve McQueen had come into the unit and told us about his film The Bear, and so we included that in the programme. He was quite quiet, but also quite serious. He had come through the art 

college Goldsmiths. But you could see that he had great ambition, and that he was taking film very seriously. He was somebody who we were encouraged by, and who we encouraged. 

What do you think cinema can do that other art forms can't? 

I think cinema can engage with people emotionally, and at a serious level. We made a conscious decision to centre cinema because people were putting any Black and independent work in the 'issue' box, and saying it's to do with cultural activism, it's not real cinema. My co-director Imruh Bakari says, “it doesn't have to be fiction to be cinema.” 

Some people are only now discovering Horace Ove’s documentary work, which is so cinematic. And of course, Horace was a designer, he was a photographer, and all of these important artistic skills were part of what he gave and the legacy that he's left. We put on screenings at Birkbeck a few years ago and people were amazed that they hadn't seen King Carnival, or Reggae. People were looking at those films for their subjects. But they are such beautifully structured films. They are cinema. 

In the 1980s, much of the work that came out of the Black Film Workshop Movement challenged the idea that films by Black directors were activism instead of art. Do you think today’s filmmakers have to push against the same narrative? 

I don't think they need to push against it as they did then, because there's been a lot of demonstration of artistic skill by Black filmmakers. They have been part of the most dynamic and inspirational developments within cinema. 

You've programmed festivals all over the world. How have Black British filmmakers been received across the diaspora? 

I think the legacy in the diaspora is a good one, people have always been very impressed. I think part of that is to do with a lot of the independent filmmakers who were engaged to go out there. I did play a role, because I was working with all these different festivals, like Images Caraibes [in Martinique], and I spoke French as well as English. So it was easier for me, via those networks, to link with what was happening in the States, and also Latin America. I had been going to the Havana film festival since '83. You're moving in connection with people that are taking cinema seriously, and had not totally been aware that there were Black people making films in Britain. They might have heard of a few names, but they didn’t know much about the beginnings of the Black Workshop Movement. 

We were beginning to network, and they were getting to know more about us and about what was happening here. And those connections would lead me into other areas. That's when I started programming more in North America, as well. 

Who do you think is making really exciting work right now? 

A lot of artist filmmakers, like Ayo Akingbade and Onyeka Igwe. Onyeka works beautifully with colonial archives. Savanah Leaf, whose film Earth Mama came out this year. 

In terms of other people who are preserving the work of Black filmmakers, who's carrying on your legacy? 

Well, I'm still here. [Laughs] 

Claire Diao is doing fantastic work on the African continent and the African diaspora. She's based between Burkina Faso and Paris. One of the key people from my era is Mahen Bonetti from the New York African Film Festival. They have an archive as well, and they program the New York African Film Festival at the Lincoln Center. 

In the UK, there are a lot of small independent initiatives. People like Keith Shiri, and Abiba Coulibaly, who runs Brixton Community Cinema. 

What kinds of things are you thinking about when it comes to how to keep preserving cinema? 

This has been a long journey. And it's been mainly voluntary. Now we're a charity, but in the past it has meant sometimes working without pay, sometimes working with very little. It is a labour of love in a lot of ways. But I think it should be supported, and all of the other archives that are doing similar work should be supported too. 

By the government, by the industry? 

We've put in applications to Heritage Lottery – nuh uh, computer said no. Arts Council, nuh uh, computer said no. Hopefully, they will look at things differently after this award from BAFTA. 

What do you think people get wrong about archives, and archivists? 

People think that because they can find so much and engage with so much online, that that is the panacea. And when they come into an archive like this, or to the PerAnkh gallery show where the archive was on display, they are blown away and amazed about what they don't know, what they hadn't seen. 

They think we're very anal. But we're not! We're interested in what's new. When you're a certain age, you become like an archive. [Laughs] You are an archive, because you know where all the bodies are buried, you know where all the links are between things, both geographical and historical. And it’s the links that make things significant. 

They don't realise we're not in and among dusty film cans all the time, although the dusty film cans are sometimes the places of the most inspiration. As a curator, you're not just there to take, or to see things, you're also taking it somewhere else. And it's this network of knowledge that a curator can take to various places that I think people are really appreciative of. 

June Givanni receives the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award at the EE BAFTA Film Awards on Sunday 18 February 2024, which is broadcast at 19.00 GMT on BBC One and iPlayer and on BritBox in North America. Click here to discover where you can watch the ceremony, wherever you are. 

Words by Simran Hans.

Image by Charlie Clift.


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