The British Blacklist Speaks Exclusively to British Urban Film Festival Founder Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe
The British Urban Festival (BUFF) kicked off yesterday with a launch at Channel 4 headquarters, and today will preview it’s first run of screenings at the exclusive Odeon Leicester Square with the UK premier screening of ‘Calloused Hands’ starring Andre Royo, otherwise known as ‘Bubbles’ from The Wire and more…
We caught up with the founder of BUFF about what he describes as “A Mixed Marriage Made in Film Festival Heaven.”
“Yes, yes, yes I’m married to BUFF. Good luck to my partner she’s going to have to deal with that!” Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe laughs, as he makes clear where his loyalties lie.
As Founder and Chairman of the British Urban Film Festival, Emmanuel presents an intensely focused persona. Totally committed to film and its social and cultural power, he’s convicted about the myriad possibilities of film in Britain and the ways it could bring prosperity of creativity and economic viability.
“What excites me about film in this country and the media in general is the possibility that people don’t realise they have a stake in how they’re represented.” It’s as if he wants to shake people by the scruff of the neck – to wake them up; he continues,
“I actually believe people don’t care enough about how they’re represented, in that they allow the mainstream to take a paternalistic view on society, to dictate that whole discussion about the worldview. I do believe people have different realities and as long as they’re all out there on a level playing field then fine. There’ll always be injustices but I think I have to create that opportunity for people to feel they have something to say and that it’s worth it.”
Channelling Passion with Mainstream Partnership
The core values of BUFF sit well with Chanel 4’s remit. With its charge to represent cultural diversity and nurture talent since its inception, the relationship appears natural. “The Channel 4 opportunity was very organic. Last year, I got an email from Ravi Amaratunga (Channel 4 Media Project Manager, Creative Diversity; Editor, Random Acts). He’d heard about the Festival, specifically the short films, which traditionally always go down well at the Festival. We called a meeting after a couple of months.
Aml Ameen (Actor/Director) was in London at the time (Aml’s on the board). I’d known Aml for a long time through ‘Kidulthood’ (2006)…‘The Bill’ (ITV 1984-2010). He’s very much like me. He’s very angry, but he did something about it; he set up his own production company so he could tell his own stories. So, he was there pitching the Festival to Channel 4. I mentioned ‘SUS’ (2010) and I mentioned ‘David is Dying’ (2011) – which to date, is the film which really defined the festival. This is what we really want to say to people; that we can tell stories about black hedge fund managers engaged to people that run art galleries.”
It’s clear Emmanuel is very passionate about the Stephen Lloyd Jackson directed film as he continues, “There was so much about ‘David is Dying’ I just immediately said if I don’t get this film then BUFF has failed. I put myself under that pressure every day. Every decision I make about BUFF is guided by what happened with ‘David is Dying’. When I mentioned this to Channel 4 they were convinced that there should be a way we can work together.”
The BUFF-ness Runneth Over…
It’s clear that as the authority of BUFF rises, the quality of film submissions improves and diversifies, offering mixed interpretations of the Festival’s name. On the BUFF board are some impressive industry stalwarts who straddle various disciplines. Emmanuel tells us, “This year we had in excess of 80 submissions. We had to cut that down somehow to about twenty to twenty-five, so this year’s been very stressful.” Emmanuel begins to let in on what must have been some heated debates about what and what shouldn’t be screened. “I would always get my way in the end because I had to convince them (about films) to be shown at BUFF – if I see it elsewhere I just wouldn’t be doing myself justice.”
The BUFF business model is developing; thus far, the Festival has been free. Now it’s about that proverbial leap of faith; does BUFF really appeal to audiences and if so, at what price? He elaborates, “We’ve been trying to commit ourselves to a model that works and that appeals. Now we’re putting a price on it, so we’ll see this year, after eight years whether what we’re offering is worth paying for. So the criteria of films are, do people care enough about it?”
BUFF Mixes Films…In a Good Way
Much has been made of that contentious description ‘Urban’ and as indicated, this year’s BUFF is asking audiences to discuss what ‘Urban’ might mean with its assorted film roster. “We’ve been very fortunate with films this year. We’ve got films about Gypsies who get bad press. It’s been made by someone with a Gypsy background who happens to be British celebrity David Essex – ‘Traveller’ directed by Benjamin Johns is a world premier. Our opening film ‘Calloused Hands’ with Jesse Quinones as director/writer – it gets an international premier – for instance appeals to Jewish communities, it appeals to international audiences – and it’s all being shown at Leicester Square which doesn’t show these types of films, so again its another jarring experience for people. When you’ve got all of those elements, the curiosity alone is enough for people to make a decision.” The other films Emmanuel refers to include – ‘Bloody Lip’ directed by Adriel Leff which gets its UK premier and ‘Hoorah’ which is directed by Aml Ameen (currently starring in Lee Daniels: The Butler) which is also getting a UK premier.
British Television? No Laughing Matter
Emmanuel underlines further the necessity for diversity in British television and if need be through alternative means. For example the last black sitcom was…’The Crouches’ (BBC 2003)!
“Most of us pay the license fee but most of us don’t get a say in what’s put out, how does that work? You’re being told ‘Antiques Roadshow’ is coming on at 8pm on Sunday but when a black writer comes and says I’ve got something that I think will appeal to an audience at 8pm on Sunday, BBC says no, our audiences, or our market research shows that ‘Antiques Roadshow’ will get ex-number of viewers.
Channel 4 flew in the face of that and put out ‘Desmond’s’ at 8.30 at prime time; it’s like well it can be done. It’s a constant battle, then writers in the end feel that we’re not being given opportunity so (they’ll) go else where, go online; go to The States. This brings us back into the whole exodus of black actors who can’t find the work here. For me I always believe, whether naively, there’s so much opportunity in the UK and people just need to work hard, stick at it believe in their talent and their skills and just make enough people care about it.”
Geek-dom Serves The Festival…
Emmanuel is a self-confessed nerd. His geeky senses are finely tuned to minute details, which helped him enhance BUFF’s branding. This, and his love of film came early in his life. “The woman that does the voiceover for our festival, Trish Bertram, for the last 20 years was the voice of ITV. It’s like a dream come true. People will not realise how much it means to me, but as a child when I was watching LWT and ITV in the ‘80s and ‘90s I was watching high quality drama; ‘Tales Of The Unexpected’ (Anglia TV 1979-1988), ‘Dempsey and Makepeace’ (LWT 1985-1986) and ‘The Gentle Touch’ (LWT 1980-1984), I was absolutely a big nerd. A lot of emphasis in those days was about branding. So when I was thinking about the festival this year and how we were going to reach people, I was literally a nerd thinking who was that voice what’s her name? I found out she was the voice at the Olympics (2012)…so I’m thinking if I get her that will just set things off for the Festival.”
Cutting Teeth in Aladdin’s Cave…
Emmanuel has worked with some formidably talented professionals in the black British film industry. “I was working for Menelik Shabazz (Film Director) at Black Film Maker Magazine (BFM), which is kinda where I cut my teeth initially in film festival direction. Now, Menelik is the Godfather – but don’t quote me ‘cos he’s quite modest! Menelik taught me a lot about industry, about story telling and responsibility.
Prior to this I’d been going to the BFM festival as a fan but when I was at university I said to myself I had to work for BFM. I applied, they took me and the first day in the office I won’t forget it because literally there was no one there. The door was open, there was maybe one intern and the security guard, and there I was in the office with all these films, these pieces of paper with all these contact details. I sat there for three, four hours, got a piece of paper and started scribbling! I thought I could maybe take over from Menelik afterwards with all this information, or I’ve got all this info, set up my own thing and make my own way! From the first day I knew that one way or another I was going to make my mark in the industry simply ‘cos I had all these contacts.
Menelik introduced me to Charles Thompson (MBE) who was kind of his wingman, he was the Festival Director, Menelik was the Editor of BFM. He was very particular about that because Menelik is an out-and-out filmmaker, he would have a say, but he would leave it to Charles – he would be Menelik’s foil.
Working there was an eye opening experience and there’re a lot of people who’re working with me at BUFF who were there at the time and they will tell you the same stories – that it was a very exciting yet tense atmosphere to work in. They were having issues about BFM ‘cos a lot of people didn’t realise that this was on their doorstep. We (BUFF) have the same kind of issues, but it was far worse at BFM. Menelik was able to access money through Embassies, through the Mayor of London, so they were getting the money but people were not finding BFM, they weren’t accessing the film programme and this was before Twitter and Facebook – and they had a magazine, they had a platform!
Severing Painful Apron Strings…
Menelik Shabazz founded BFM (1998-2008), one of the first of its kind in Britain, to comment upon the industry from a black perspective. BFM attempted to transcend its print base and diverge into much needed award and festival ceremonies for black British talent. Emmanuel describes his experience. “I was working on the first one of which (actor) Eriq La Salle of ER (1994-2009) fame was the main guest. He was the buff black doctor before Mekhi Phifer! After that Charles and Menelik went their separate ways and Charles created Screen Nation (Film & Television Awards), which launched in 2003. I was still at BFM and I was given full reigns to programme the film festival and that marked 5 years with BFM.
For me I had something to say to people; this is the reason why you should come to BFM, this year more than any other year. What we did with minimal money was put on the biggest ever BFM film festival. It ran for 2 days with 5 different venues and ex-number of films showing. But it was a scarring experience…so scarring because a lot of ideas I was putting to Menelik he wasn’t having. But I remained convinced – I had to convince someone that I was working under that…this is the way to go (he says forcefully hitting the table). But knowing Menelik, as I still do, his heart was in film. So I kind of realised I wasn’t going to take over from Menelik which was a shame because I know if I was still at BFM it would still exist.” Smiling he continues, “After I left he passed the reigns to his daughter Nadia Denton who, now full circle, sits on the BUFF board! Obviously she knows the whole story as well and she now sees what I’m doing with BUFF and she’s smiling inside because she knows what I’m going through.”
Exciting Film Times Ahead…
One could be forgiven for believing that with new technology hotfooting away with new ways to create, screen and distribute, the film industry in the traditional sense is dying. Historically, we’ve seen such impacts before with the advent of ‘talkies’, then decades later with television, then VHS. What did film do? It adapted. Emmanuel is equally optimistic, “I think it’s a very exciting time to be in the industry because a lot of people are asking themselves what kind of film industry are we in; who is it appealing to; is there room for people like me; where are the sign posts? I don’t know where the industry’s going to be in a year’s time, but what I do know is that people feel empowered enough to do something about it rather than sit back and take what is given to them. Obviously there’s still a lot of that going on, but I think what BUFF is trying to do is make sure that people are aware there’s an alternative which would then allow a new generation and new audiences to feel there’s a stake for them.”
He Laughs In The Face of Challenges, But Not Sleep…
What are some of Emmanuel’s challenges: “Err…sleep. I think ‘cos they say healthy body healthy mind. A lot of decisions I’m making are guided by what’s going on in society, what’s going on in history, and as a person. What I’m actually going through as someone born here to Nigerian parents, educated in the state system, having to learn from early on that the money is not there; you’re going to have to find your own way. A lot of my decisions are guided by that. The challenges are still there but I remain unperturbed because to me they’re just that, challenges which I think as long as I’m still breathing I can overcome anything. If I stop breathing then there’s not much that I can do.”