Issue One: Diasporic Film Production in Great Britain

‘Diasporic film production is always criss-crossed by multiplicities of gender, class and ethnicity and how, in turn, this provides both a critique of the normative dominant cultural form and the black essentialized subject’(Hall, in Kalra, Kaur, and Hutnyk, 2005:40).

The presence of the immigrant populations and communities, after the post-war economic expansion in Great Britain, prompted a re-examination of both British national and cultural identity in relation to race and class systems. It presented conflicting notions of what British identity essentially is. The ‘black’ body became ‘the bearers and signifiers of crisis in British society of the 1970s…Not a crisis of race…but race becomes a lens through which the crisis is viewed and resolved – “send it/them away”’ (Hall, in Mercer, 1994:8). The construct of ‘black’ British cinema is thus a contested ground and is fraught with issues and problems. The ‘black’ political term referred to not only African and Afro-Caribbean populations in Britain, but also Asian minorities. This hence created an essentialized ‘black’ subject, which represented a displaced and postmodern identity. The grouping of these diasporic populations within the politics of blackness becomes a hegemonic and unified movement, which represents marginal populations in Britain, highlighting what Spivak coins as strategic essentialism.

The period of the 1980s foregrounded the tropes of cultural difference, ethnicity and identity, and witnessed the development of Black film workshops in Britain, with the creation of Channel 4 and the support of the Greater London Council (1981-1986) functioning as an outlet for ethnic minorities. This gave rise to the emergence of low-budget independent productions in addition to filmmaking collectives and workshops, such as the Black Audio film collective and the Sankofa Film Workshop, which ‘recognised nationality’s problematic relationship to the diasporic phenomenon’ (Fusco, 1995:307-308). These collectives therefore acknowledged the requirement for a black diasporic aesthetic and functioned as a response to the silenced neocolonial ‘black’ culture in Britain. The films hence addressed issues pertaining to racism, identity and cultural hybridity, by utilizing an experimental aesthetic or highly politicized themes.

In terms of the ‘black’experience in Britain, it is necessary for the essentialised black subject to engage with the politics of difference within the diasporic groups and move beyond a black essentialism and acknowledge ‘the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category ‘black’ (Hall, 1996: 443). For example, in the case of Gurinder Chadha, this necessitates a dialogue with her Asian heritage and hybrid cultural identity as a member of the South Asian diasporic community in Great Britain. The reclaiming of the ‘Asian’ identification aligned with the British prefix ‘speaks for the complex histories of the South Asian diaspora and the settlement of those in Britain with origins in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India’ (Westwood, in Ciecko, 1999:68).

The concept of ethnicity invokes questions concerning identity, alterity and cultural difference, which necessitate a dialogue with the postcolonial condition within the British context. Stuart Hall positions the concept of ethnicity as ‘“constructed historically, culturally, politically”, maintaining that this notion enables “a new cultural politics which engages rather than suppresses difference” (Hall, in Parry, 1994:19). The trope of postmodernism is utilized within the ‘black’ cinematic aesthetic in order to create a relationship between the margins and the centre, and forces an interrogation of the British national identity, thereby creating a split identity. The diasporic communities are presented as not ‘black’ or British, but ‘black’ and British, which postulates the possibility of a hybrid culture and identity.

Cultural identity, outlined by Stuart Hall, postulates identity as a process of production and negotiation. Identity is thus ‘a matter of becoming as well as of being’ (Hall, 1990:225). It is not a fixed essence, remaining unchanged outside of culture and history, but is rather articulated from a particular space and time. Within the British context, the politics of blackness have constructed a collective identity and a sense of oneness amongst the diasporic British communities. However, there are two points of reference; the collective of the ‘black’ experience and difference due to the diversity of the sites of emigration. The diasporic identity in Britain is thus fragmented, which is expressed within the postmodern ‘black’ aesthetic.

The diasporic filmmaker Gurinder Chadha maintains an inclusiveness in her approach to the concept of ethnicity in the film I’m British but…(Chadha, 1989), distancing it from the more radical ‘black’ films. Chadha’s film addresses the pluralism in Britain and explores the notion of British national identity by means of interviews and music, thereby adhering to the ‘black’ aesthetic, presented in films such as Handsworth Songs, and containing parallels to the ‘black’ film workshops. 

Bhangra music in I’m British but… is a means of cultural expression, and functions as a metaphor representing the synthesis of cultures within Great Britain. Bhangra is a cultural melting pot and a fusion of a myriad of different cultural influences from Punjabi folk music to Western pop music and contains a North African influence. Chadha asserts the importance of Bhangra music to the contemporary young British Asian generation, since she claims that ‘Bhangra music gave us back something for ourselves; it had nothing to do with English people or white society (Chadha, in Duguid, n.d). Bhangra is thus serving to bring the British Asians closer to their culture in a more accessible manner, and acknowledge their cultural eclecticism and their South Asian roots. The Bhangra music that is used within the film elicits a serious message regarding South Asian identity, but is conveyed in a humouristic manner. For example, the recurring images of the Bhangra music group performing on a rooftop in Southall high street, functions as a clear parody to the performance of the Beatles at Abbey Road. The lyrics contain a serious message regarding the abandonment of their Punjabi roots in order to embrace a new means of life in the former colonial oppressor, Britain.

The syncretism of the British Asian culture is further reinforced by means of the series of interviews, during which the interviewees discuss and express their national and cultural identities. The introduction to the film, which depicts the diasporic filmmaker Chadha as she is walking through the streets of Southall with a bulldog, an eponymous symbol of British-ness, initially suggests that this film is a personal essay upon the cultural identity of British Asians; of which she is representative. The interviewee represent the myriad of different nationalities that construct the South Asian diaspora, in addition to the twice migration of populations during the period of British colonialism. These interviewees represent the second generation of the South Asia diaspora in Britain, and consider their nationality as a fluid concept. Their identity is regarded either in terms of an unhyphenated British identity, in relation to the Welsh and Northern Irish British Asians, or as a hyphenated construct in terms of the Asian English and Scottish-Punjabi interview subjects.

The concept of identity is therefore in crisis for the interviewees, since they navigate the in-between space, in-between cultures. Their identity is in a process of negotiation between their heritage and roots in South Asia and their sense of belonging to British society, whether it be by means of birth or social integration within communities. The interviewees embrace the concept of bilingualism, or the Muslim faith in the case of the Welsh subject, in order to retain their Asia roots and heritage.

The crisis of identity is further exacerbated as the second-generation interviewees acknowledge that they belong in Britain, since the country of their roots remains the home of their parents and previous generations. The imaginary homeland that is constructed within their psyche by the first generation is unfamiliar to them, since they have absorbed British and Western sensibilities. The British spaces and cities have become increasingly welcoming to the diasporic communities, as they have developed into multicultural metropolises. The concept of the increasing prevalence of multiculturalism and cultural heterogeneity in Britain therefore pertains to a more positive inflection of ethnicity, which is outlined within Stuart Hall’s definition of the ‘new phase’ (Hall, 1996:442). The diasporic subjects are granted the ability and the power to take control of their own identities. Their affinity predominantly with the British identity and sensibility suggests that the second-generation interviewees are granted the power, and are attempting to carve out their own existence in what they perceive to be their homeland.

The conclusion of the film acknowledges the historical process embodied within the concept of ethnicity, by means of interrogating the negative connotations of the British-ness, which are considered ‘white’ discourses. It is necessary to explain the historical relationship between India and Britain to the wider audience. This negative notion of British-ness is charged with the imperialist and colonialist systems that were imposed upon their roots, which is gleaned from the interviewees describing the historic events of Amritsar and the Raj. The engagement with the past and history pertains to the post-colonial legacy of the British Empire,“we are here because you were there”, and the issue of displacement from the homeland.

Within this negative perception of British-ness, the issue of racism in British society and politics emerges. The racism reflects a troubled relationship to the monolithic conception of a White British society. The immigrant is regarded as the generic disturber of the white homogenous environment. The use of racist language is discussed in relation to Thatcherism, which reflected the Conservative fear of influx of immigrants to the country in 1979; Thatcher utilized emotive language such as‘alienated’ and ‘swamped’ in reference to immigration and thus achieved the burgeoning of a more nationalistic British sentiment. Racism is hence addressed in this film in order to symbolize a resistance to different cultures and to a formation of a post-colonial Britain within the decade of the 1980s.

Diasporic film production traditionally tends to be considered in terms of marginality, expressing the lives of ethnic minorities. This adheres to Naficy’s (2001) conception of an accented cinema as a marker of difference in relation to the dominant and mainstream film production. The cinema is governed by auteurist pretensions, rather than adhering to a popular genre cinema. The diasporic filmmaker, Gurinder Chadha, challenges these parochial assumptions of a diasporic cinema, restricted to the margins of cinema, by articulating popular and mainstream ambitions.  

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