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Menelik Shabazz

Posted by keith1942 on April 26, 2013


The recent Bradford International Film Festival featured a Filmmaker’s Weekend organised together with the Northern Film School. Contributing to a master-class was the Black British filmmaker Menelik Shabazz. Menelik was one of the new independent voices, especially associated with the newly launched Channel Four, who were part of a sea change in British Film and Television in the 1980s. His best-known film is Burning an Illusion (1981) which follows the romance between a young Afro-Caribbean secretary with middle-class values and a young street-wise Afro-Caribbean man. Their relationship becomes fraught because of the active racism in that decade and the film develops a fine and convincing picture of developing consciousness. “I wanted to make a film that engaged with the experience of activism and change:” [Interview in Black World, Sight & Sound Supplement 2005]. Hints of this can also be seen in his most recent film The Story of Lovers Rock, an absorbing but also witty documentary record of a musical genre popular among Afro-Caribbean communities. Menelik has directed one other feature, Time and Judgement (1989), an avant-garde documentary that scandalised at least one Conservative MP. The film combines documentary coverage of the 1980s with a radical critique of the experience of the Afro-Caribbean communities, including Rastafari symbolism and thoughts. Menelik has also made several short films. Given the quality of his features it is clear that his career has suffered from the declining access for radical indpendent filmmakers in the UK. But he has made an important contribution off-set with the founding in 1998 of the Black Filmmaker magazine, which was also associated with a series of Black Film Festivals.

As he nears his sixtieth year Menelik remained articulate and surprisingly enthusiastic. The interview concentrated on the Industry, the theme of the Weekend. I have edited out some of the asides and repetitions, and some of the comments and amplification to questions by myself or Emily Philippou from the Museum Press Office. And I could not translate all of Menelik’s pithy comments and humour.

Interview with Menelik Shabazz at the NationalMediaMuseum on 20/04/13

 Interviewer: I was going to ask you what you had lined up, because the last one was The Story of Lover’s Rock, right? I’ll come back to the magazine, but in terms of films: do you want to tell me what you are planning?

MS: I’m planning to do a musical theatre piece called The Awaken One, so it’s the present. Which we are getting ready to do for next year. The scripts already been written. I’ve got a good director on board, Josette Bushell-Mingo, and quite a few important names and actors. But it is my kind of departure into theatre. It’s something I started out with back in my early days, mainly amateur. And this project seemed to suit that, … it was one of those ideas I had which was for a very small, simple theatre immediately, that I could do in two or three months. And then it ended up being a big story, an epic almost. So I have now had to give it more time, to get it all together with the theatres.

Because the theatre industry is very different from film and I am having to adjust to that. Just as clique, just as exclusive, just as everything the film industry is. The difference is that I’m coming in, nobody knows me, I haven’t got any track record. 

Int: So it quite like when you started in films.

MS: Yes, exactly. The only good thing I have is that Josette is on board. And Josette is, she done work for the National [Artistic Director at Tyst Teatr, National Swedish Theatre for the Deaf]. So she got a very strong profile. So that’s my ace card. But anyway we’ll see. I’m very excited about it.

Int: So what its theme.

MS: It’s a little bit Time and Judgement in its way. … its about a young man who is killed through gun crime and he goes into the world of the ancestors.  And he meets various people including Marcus Garvey, Malcom X, … so all that helps him to confront his life, heal and to become an immortal. So he goes from bad boy to become an immortal.

Int: So it really does tie in with Time and Judgement? .  [Menelik refers to people and themes important to the Rastafari Movement and this was a central focus in Time and Judgement].

MS: And music and dance and multi-media, those elements are all part of it. But there are a few projects that I want to do. Now that my passion’s returned. I definitely wanting to do stuff regular, I don’t want to have any more big gaps…

Int: Can I ask you what’s made your passion return?

MS: My passion returned going to Nigeria for eight months. Trying to do some work over there. I had a vision to do stuff over there, with some investors. It didn’t really work out. But the up side of it was that I was there, I had a rest, able to recuperate and figure out a way to make films. Because the problem I had was – how do you make films? That make money, that you get something from and that you can pay for from within your resources, without having to go to the big players, who always rejected you. So it is really self-empowerment for projects. How do you create a self-empowerment for projects, so that was what opened that door. And the digital age has made that happen. So in a digital age I am now empowered and it is now bringing things back more to the idea back to the auteur – the idea of a filmmaker being a voice – being empowered, as opposed to being subservient to the finance, subservient to other interests.

So I’m now in that space and I can look up projects, have projects, and make them.

Int: One of the things I wanted to ask you was to look back over your career. I gather there have been quite a few projects you could never get funded?  You have some short films, three features, a documentary, a sort of hybrid and a fictional feature?

MS: Oh yes, I had few scripts in the Channel 4 era, but they never got the green light. And that was part of my frustration. It seemed that my ideas and what the TV and the commissioners wanted were at two different places.  They weren’t meeting: and they still don’t. So what do you then do. And Lovers Rock was my first entry into the digital age. Up until that point everything I shot was on film. So in that era I couldn’t figure out how to shoot on film, how to produce this with all the coasts involved. So all of that were factors. So now the digital age has released me. I felt like a prisoner whose been locked up and now I’ve got the key. The digital age is the sort of key, I’m out. I’m released. Unleashed.


Int: Take The Story of Lovers Rock, you directed it, produced it, marketed it, and distributed it. It is almost like a one-man business?

MS: Not quite. I was the focal point, but what happened is … I had a team of people working, certainly a team to shoot it; I had a team of people working on the distribution side, I bought in Verve. Although they weren’t the owners of the product, they acted as my kind of front house. … when I spoke to the cinemas, when they would say, ‘whose your distributor’; because that’s the way they try to get you, if you don’t know. So I had to take Verve and they can book the film through Verve. You know, Verve have all the infrastructure. And I can do a digital file, a DCP.

[Verve Pictures was set up in 2003 to distribute films and DVDs: one of its early releases was Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy, 2004].

And I had a team, so thanks to BDF [Business Disability Forum], who came in to help with the marketing. I took advantage of their ‘diversity  programme’. And that helped to pay for the marketing. So that the film could generate money and build an audience. And it has generated money. Not as much as … six or seven k, it could have done a lot more, it still could. There are still a lot of people who haven’t seen it.

So we are looking to  …  go into a sort of ‘second coming’ of it again. In the sense that I’m hoping to get more screenings and market the DVD more. I should say also that it was heavily pirated. When it came out on DVD it was pirated. And I lost a lot of revenue that way.

…. So that was the strength of it, and I knew that from the beginning, this audience. I could see the relationship between product and the audience. And we had lots of sell-out screenings. [Including at the NationalMediaMuseum].

And the thing is that we had mainstream cinemas booking it. It surprised me how far it went and how many runs it had. Initially I thought I would get a day here a day there, that kind of strategy. But as it transpired we got weeks. 

Int: My sense is that the screenings were especially in areas with strong Afro-Caribbean communities, like Leeds and Bradford. Have you been able to move outside that?

MS: Well that’s what I doing now, that’s the process I’m now in. This is the kind of phase of the operation, I’ve got a couple of interns at the moment whose job it is basically spread it out and build a wider audience for it. Because I think with some of my films they take a while to percolate outside of the core, Like Burning an Illusion, when it came out, a small audience. And after a time it starts to go out, a little bit further. And I think it’s the same with Lover’s Rock, as time goes on more people will come into it. So that’s what we are looking to do now.


Int: I think generally people define you with Burning an Illusion. Are you happy with that?

MS: I don’t really think about it. Because Burning an Illusion stills sells. The royalties come in, thirty years later. Audience come to it, I don’t have a problem with that.

Int: In one profile they comment is that something that fuelled your filmmaking is a strong sense of injustice [‘the struggle against racism and exploitation’, Paul Ward in the Dictionary of British and Irish Cinema, BFI 2006].

MS: Yes, up until Lovers Rock, yes it’s a theme, I would say that is theme, certainly.


Int: So another important thing was the Black Filmmaker magazine and the Black Film Festival.

MS: The magazine came out as a result of my frustration with the Industry. But also a need to transmit some of my knowledge and information to the next generation. Because the industry is till largely about access information. And I just wanted to break through that and build a platform for that. So the magazine came out of that. And it went for longer than …because I never really thought about the magazine for a length of time, I just thought this needs to be done, lets start something. Same with the festival. It’s just the passion I had for that time and then it ran on for about nine years, the magazine. It’s very difficult to run a magazine even then. Because the advertising is what you rely on: couldn’t get enough. The market we targeted was quite small, quite niche. Even though you had people in the industry who became interested. That was the other thing, I wanted to create something that the industry could actually look at. Because the comeback has always been, ‘well, we don’t know about these filmmakers’. So the magazine was also for the industry to say to the industry, there are these filmmakers, they are here. We have a voice, engage. It had its day. And it was surprising to me that we were the only one of that type of magazine, even in the US. We had distribution over there for a while. We were unique.

Up until this day there’s never been another black film magazine proper. So I’m proud of what we’ve done over those years. But it had its time. And the festival the same, I’m proud of that.

Proud of creating a platform for Black World Cinema. And influencing other people to have their own events. And that’s what people are doing now, small events, not as expensive but nevertheless people taken this over. Certainly in London, not so much elsewhere.

Int: You are still using the Internet for this?

MS: I’m using the Internet – online, a kind of legacy of the magazine. Still it’s a struggle, and I don’t have the energy anymore for that and I haven’t got enough support. To take it forward, without money. People are more energised about money. So I do have people who are working on it. It’s there. I would like to do more and maybe in the future I will. At the moment I’m just keeping it going. And the irony is that every day – even when we are not updating it – people are signing up. Every day, its amazing, ten or twelve people want to sign up. So that continues, the legacy still continues.

Int: In the 1980s you were part of the new Channel 4 and the new independent cinema. You’ve seen lots of changes since then. So what do you make of the industry now?

MS: The industry now has demoted the indpendent voice. Let me say, at this time its all about programme making.  … in that era Chanel 4, and especially Allan Fountain, really was very significant in empowering new voices. The TV industry now has no intention, no interest in empowering voices; its just about making programmes that fit into a menu of mediocrity. It’s really dumbing down people. You don’t get world cinema, we don’t get spaces where other voices … John Pilger is probably the only voice, and he does it every couple of years. And that is because he is who he is. But any other voices are literally not there. [John Pilger’s most recent programme was The War You Don’t See broadcast by ITV on December 14th 2010].

I don‘t know why Burning an Illusion is not shown on TV. They won’t show it. Only once, on Channel 4.

TV has lost its place in the future …In the digital age TV is now, diminishing in terms of audience. It no longer is the centre; it’s losing its importance as a place for information, a place for ideas essentially. So the place for ideas is now becoming YouTube, Facebook, new platforms. So that’s what we are seeing now. So we are looking at he demise of television now. Because people can’t sit in front of the TV when TV says so. … you can set your I-Player so you have the opportunity to watch it when you want to watch it. Other platforms are doing that now, Sky are doing it. So people are now empowered in terms of where they want to go. There are now more options available to them. So TV has lost out because it is so narrow, because its chosen to go down this road of mediocrity. It chosen to eliminate voices. It’s no longer diverse. Diversity now is not even on the agenda. It is in terms of organisations, but in terms of what you see in the programming, nothing. There are no black directors that have come though that work in TV. There are no films from black filmmakers: no voice. Mainstream TV excludes the writing talent. We are in what I call a kind of colonial landscape. All the programmes, voices that deal with black cultures are white people: that’s what happened now. We no longer have control of ours stories. And if you want to put your story in, in your kind of perspective – they don’t want it. So yes, we are back in a colonial era; TV has kind of gone inwards rather than expanding outwards to embrace the diversity that would take us forward. And in fact it was that diversity that made Channel 4 what it was. It bought audiences in that weren’t part of television. But now Channel 4 itself has gone into that same mold. And that’s very sad, very sad for the legacy of Channel 4. The vision that Jeremy Isaac had, just got mashed up. Thatcher, her government was also instrumental in putting pressure on Channel Four to change. Because the programmes they were making were very radical  … I remember when Time and Judgement came out, an MP in Parliament got up, next day and made a comment about the film. I remember reading it in the Standard [Evening Standard]. I wish I had kept a copy because I don’t remember which MP it was now.

I also think that film helped the demise of the black film movement. I think it was far too radical for TV. And it came out of Channel 4. So I think all of those things didn’t help Channel 4 and certainly didn’t help the black film sector. Looking back now I realise what was happening.

[In fact there were a number of programme at this time that were considered ‘too radical’, especially in the late-night 11th Hour slot]

MS: So it was a number of factors. I’m thinking from the black film angle. Channel 4 was pressing a lot of buttons, the wrong buttons. And with that demise, that was the end of the TV revolution, really.

Int: In an interview you spoke of ‘asserting a black landscape, [Black World]. You think it is now dissipated?

MS: In those times we had Desmond’s, which was very successful. [Channel 4 sitcom 1989 to 1994]  … And there were slots, like the 11th Hour and World Cinema. There was definitely that focus of diversity. And that was the revolution. That was what excited audiences. And bought audiences to Channel 4 and how Channel 4 built its audience. I think that was lost because they shifted their whole strategy away from that. Channel 4 still has it moments, but it’s never been the same and the audiences are different. …

So that was a sad moment. The demise of the revolution and of diversity. Ever since it just been a talking shop. With no real, … and now its not even on the agenda. The characters that we see have to fit into …we have black characters but essentially …

There’s Luther, which has Idris in it, who has got a strong voice in it [Luther was a crime series with Idris Elba, broadcast in six episodes in 2010 and four episodes in 2011]. . Who was ignored when he was here and has gone to America and got big, so now he’s got a bit more. Essentially the Black characters you see on TV even Top Boy [a crime series on Channel Four in 2011, with Ashley Walters], that series was written by a white man [Ronan Bennett].  And they are doing another series. And so even the writing, which has been so successful has, there is no recognition now, of black writers. The BBC has done more. They did Small Island by Andrea Levy in 2009.

 Something recent, the Jazz series [Dancing on the Edge by Stephen Poliakoff, broadcast on BBC2/HD in February and March this year]. It was really all it could be. It was about class more than it was about the jazz club. The main character gave it a black impact [played by Chiwetel Ejiofor]. …., but that is as good as it gets.

After the success of programmes in the eighties. The black British talent is basically being ignored on TV and in cinema. Except every so often.

[Menelik mentions Burning an Illusion, Young Soul Rebels (Isaac Julien, 1991), Kidulthood and Adulthood (Noel Clarke, 2006 and 2008) and Babymother (Julian Henriques, 1998).

There is so much contribution these talents can make to the landscape of film, TV and cinema.

So what I am doing at this moment is to see if I can get a label together. Where I can bring a lot of the talent together to make low-budget stuff. Given the way the technology is that is something that interests me at the moment. I worked with Ceddo back in the days of the workshop movement, so it is a kind of derivative of that. So I am very interested in that because I think the lack of opportunity can also present an opportunity. That’s how I look at it.

Int: You talking to a workshop about the industry. What have you told the young potential filmmakers.

MS: I told them they should get a health check. That’s the first thing. Filmmaking can be harmful to your health. I’ve been telling them it’s a business. They should think of it as a business. You’ve got to have an idea. You also have to connect that idea to an audience. And you’ve got to – using my life as an example, you’ve got to be brave. In how you – especially to be a director. Not to be afraid to make a movie instead of a short film. Because I never made a short film I just made a movie.  And you can only fail. But if you succeed, that’s how it is. It’s kind of figuring out how to do things. A lot of filmmaker shave made films that …like Ten, the Iranian film that’s shot in a car the whole film [directed by Abbas Kiarostami, 2002). Like Spike Lee, did his films in three locations [Spike Lee’s early films, like She’s Gotta Have It, 1996, were shot in the neighbourhood where he lived]. So there are examples of how to do that. So I’m saying to people, if you’ve got a good idea, extend it. Without too much extension, and also knowing that – when you start out making a film, work with people who will give you heart and soul: your film school pals. But you’ve only got them once, so don’t waste them on a short film. Because once you’ve used up all their …because making a short film and movie requires a lot of give. And if you do a short film and you’re trying to make it good as you can, you’re asking a lot of people. So if you’re going to do all, that why don’t you just try a movie then at least you know, then you know – that’s it. As opposed to making a short film, you want to make a movie. You haven’t got any money, so you’re going to try and call in favours. So get it once, play your cards right, make it count. A short film will take you nowhere virtually, there are so many short films made.

If you just want to practice your craft and make something experimental. If you really mean it and you went to make this film, it’s something you really want to do. Then I say, just go for broke. |That’s what I’m telling them.

MS: Sixty next year. The reason I am [full of get up and go] is that I had a four-year break.

It was a break in terms of my passion. I meet a lot of people who have been doing it all the years I wasn’t doing it. And they’ve kind of exhauster. But I am passionate, full of go. I’m raring to go. I have had my second breath. I went through a point when I couldn’t see a way. But now, I’m full of ideas I want to do. [arable land and fallow land].

There’s the play I’m looking forward to. I see myself as having a decade. And I understand things more, I think with my films in the past, I thought this is what I want to say and I said it.

But now with Lovers Rock, doing it a little different. I’m excited about the times ahead.

The other thing I talk about [to students] is the psychology of filmmaking. Which is something that is not always addressed. Especially get a little bit of further down the line. At the beginning it is all exciting. But once you get further down the line, when you get rejections, when you are looking to move on, that’s when the psychology kicks in more. When you are trying to kick onto the next phase of your career, that’s when you get a more challenges. To your talent, whether you can do it, whether you have the right ideas. Whether you can get the finance, the family situation, pressures like that. When you are young single, you haven’t got family. But as you progress in life those things start to come in to play. Coping, with rejection. It affected me [in the past] because I couldn’t deal with it. When I got these rejection letters, suddenly – you’re not expecting it. I thought after Burning an Illusion, for example, I would go on. I couldn’t get a commission. I couldn’t believe it. ……………..

Because you were led to believe that you got your first movie off the ground, that was the hard bit. So that was a crushing blow. It affected me and made me very angry. It really got into your psyche, and then you start to doubt yourself. 

But now, I’ve got the energy to go forward.

Note, Burning an Illusion and The Story of Lovers’ Rock are both available on DVD: the latter film is still indistribution on DCP. If you have an enlightened local exhibitor maybe s/he will screen it.

One Response to “Menelik Shabazz”

  1. […] workshops at the Bradford International Film Festival. And I was able to record an extensive interview with […]

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