original version - French subtitles
“There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories”. The phrase lingers over the film like a haunting refrain, reverberating across and between the ghostly traces of lived moments floating over the surface of the screen, somewhere between faded history and tainted memory, between the historical and the allegorical. Handsworth Songs was the first film John Akomfrah made with the Black Audio Film Collective, a group of artists, critics and filmmakers who set out to intervene in the cultural debate about black identity and representation that was raging all over Britain in the 1980’s. The spark that lit the fire was arguably the “civil disorder“ of 1981, when a wave of violent unrest swept through some of England’s inner cities. It was this event that painfully exposed the gap between the dominant discourses on ethnicity and “Britishness” and what was intimately felt and experienced by the “bastard children of 1968”, those who were profoundly shaped by what Derek Walcott called “the absence of ruins”. The challenge then, became one of generating counter-narratives, to look for aesthetical forms which would allow for a space to deconstruct the hegemonic voices and articulate states of belonging and displacement in dissensual ways. The question of form turned out to be one of dealing with absence: the lack of “ruins” made it necessary to look into the dark mirror of the past in search of images, words and sounds to attest to the intangible presence of diasporic histories. In Handsworth Songs, a response to the second Handsworth riots in 1985, Akomfrah discards the didactic panoptic impulse of the documentary film tradition in favor of a polytonic structure in which eye-witness accounts, mediated voice-overs and a mosaic of sounds intersperse with a poetic montage of archival footage. It is here, in unearthing the phantom narratives of the past to give them a new place in the present as a promise to the future, that can be found the essence of john Akomfrah’s work, up until this day.