Skip to main content
Lux OnlineHomeThemesArtistsWorkEducationEducationToursHelpSearch
Luxonline
Artists Artist's home pageArtists essay index page
Chris DarkeClick here to Print this Page
Isaac Julien
Julien was one of the founding members, in 1983, of the black filmmaking collective Sankofa, with Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Martina Attile and Maureen Blackwood.

The group took their name from the mythical African bird signifying "the act of looking into the past to prepare for the future" and the past over which they cast their eye was that of British colonialism, the present-future its after-effects in the experiences of the black British diaspora. Sankofa was one of a number of workshops that emerged across the UK in the early 1980s. The inception of Channel 4 in 1982, as well as the involvement of the union ACTT (the Association of Cinematograph, Television and allied Technicians), meant that the necessary combination of funding and institutional will was available to produce and broadcast material that addressed 'minority' audiences. There was political support in the form of the Greater London Council and its short-lived radical Labour administration which responded to demands for black representation at both political and cultural levels. Behind this political will was the desire to deal with the problems of social exclusion, racist violence and police brutality that had erupted in the uprisings of inner-city black populations during the summer of 1981. The two major works that Sankofa produced in the early 1980s, Territories (1984) and The Passion of Remembrance (1986) were not only investigations into the material conditions of black British life but were equally intent on examining the very terms of its representation. The films were formally exploratory, placing image and sound in a contrapuntal relationship, analysing imagery drawn from mainstream media and archives, questioning documentary conventions by combining them with fictional dramatisation. They departed from the understanding that there was no 'given' visual language by which to deal with the issues at hand, no unitary notion of back identity available, no single account of the history of the British black experience conveniently to hand. "We're struggling to tell a story of black people" runs the repeated voice-over refrain in Territories, "A his-story, a her-story of cultural forms specific to black people". The 'struggle' is emphasised as being one that concerned the symbolic as much as the material conditions of being black and British.

Writing about the black British films of the 1980s, Paul Gilroy questioned whether there was "a base or context" for the workshop films and whether black British film culture was too dependent upon an agenda set by international film festival circuits. But as John Hill has observed: "One problem with this criticism … is that it ignores how the 'base and context' for all British film-making changed during this period and how, as a result, the film-festival circuit increased in importance for the whole of British film culture." [John Hill, 'British Cinema in the 1980s: Issues and Themes', Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999. P.238]

Still from The Passion of Remembrance by Isaac Julien, 1986
Go to top of                             page
HomeThemesArtistsWorkEducationEducationToursHelpSearch