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A guide to Black British filmmaking

Black British film and TV is having a moment, but historically has been underrepresented in the mainstream. We spoke to two young Black Brits working in the industry, to get some expert advice on how to break through.

Black British filmmaker directing a film

Black British film and television is something of a rarity. And Black British cinema is very little known about in mainstream circles – at least compared with African American cinema, which has been well-established for some time.

If you look at the artistic genres – music, writing, art, design, photography, film and so on – it is notable that Black British representation is historically lacking in mainstream filmmaking. That said, opportunities for Black filmmakers, actors and scriptwriters are increasing – perhaps in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that continues to push for change, justice and equality for Black people worldwide.

If you have aspirations to see your work on screen, FutureLearn has courses that will teach you how to make films, write scripts, manage a production company, and even take a full bachelor of arts degree with a specialisation in film and media. 

For this blog, we spoke to two young, up-and-coming Black Brits involved in film. 

Cassie Quarless is a film director who specialises in documentary, including political films like 2016’s Generation Revolution, as well as culture docs like his most recent project for BBC3, Virgil Abloh: How to be Both

Matthew Barrington is a film curator at the Barbican who creates programmes for film festivals, runs a film collective putting on niche and topical film screenings, and is studying for a PhD on Slow Cinema at Birkbeck University.

We asked them about their careers and got some top tips for people wanting to get involved.

Q&A with Cassie Quarless

What made you want to start making films?

“I’d always enjoyed making things. When I was a kid I used to produce music beats. I got into film because I felt I wanted to do something more and I felt that in the film and TV space there was a massive dearth of Black films when I started out back in 2014,” says Quarless.

“You had Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl and you had some things on YouTube but in terms of TV and cinemas there wasn’t a huge amount of black content. In context, this was pre ‘Oscars So White’ and the massive emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. So I wanted to create new images, tell new stories and centre our voices and experiences”

And how did you go about launching your career – what was your academic background?

“I did a degree in international business management. I was aware that both film and music are high-risk, competitive industries, so what would be a useful degree as a backup, to cover what I wanted to do? Ultimately everything is a business and it’s good to understand the fundamentals.”

“I’ve always been self-driven and interested in being my own boss and creating something new, so I wanted to learn how a business works, the business environment, how to run a business, how to brand, how to market, how to deal with people, how to manage organisations. But I knew that while the course was interesting and very useful, I had a creative itch that wasn’t being scratched.”

Quarless started making documentaries, joined the TV society at his university (universities also have film societies you can join) and started producing and broadcasting amateur television shows. He says he gradually started taking it more seriously, getting to know the great filmmakers, engaging with the film canon, and started writing his own material from the age of 21.

“My first job was at the talent representation agency United Agents which represents directors, actors, and writers, which was also useful but I had an itch to start producing short films – which I did for a colleague.’

Quarless then studied a masters in digital anthropology where he collaborated on a project about people’s social media behaviours – the project has since been made into a FutureLearn course called Why We Post.

“I’d always been interested in society and how humans related to each other. Anthropology is a really colonial field of study – it was white European people going to far-flung places and creating taxonomies of people they saw as different to them, foreign and strange. But the methodology of ethnography is different to other methods of investigating things as it entails going into society, interviewing and observing people and participant observation – taking part in the rituals of a society.”

That grounding in the immersive study of human’s digital behaviour was important when Quarless went on to make his first feature-length documentary film Generation Revolution – about the activists at the centre of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement in the UK. He also sat in on some film classes and got some experience using the editing suites.

So, what does the day-to-day work of making films and TV programmes involve?

“It’s varied depending on what type of TV and film you’re working, but generally with something like a documentary film first you have to have an idea and develop it. So you’re seeking access to people who have perspective on the story – whether it’s the main character or people who knew them. If you’re making a film about grime you’d want to try and speak to Dizzee Rascal or Skepta, for example, and you’re building your idea of what you want the story to be and you write that into something called a treatment.”

Quarless says you will also do your own research at this stage, not just relying on your subjects’ accounts, and building a story that might entice an audience.

“Once you’ve done that, if you run your own production company you will take that to commissioners [people who will decide whether or not they want to go ahead with your project] – so BBC, Channel 4, Sky, Netflix – and you say you’ve got this idea, you’ve got people willing to appear in it, what do you think? And then you’ll have some back and forth.”

Setting up a production company is easy, says Quarless who runs two of his own, but running it is difficult. You need money, contacts, the ability to navigate the industry and understand the competition. But in the TV world, a production company is not always necessary – you can work with existing production companies out there on the basis that you make the film, they pay you, but they retain the rights. Whereas, with your own company you can control the rights yourself. 

“So once it’s commissioned, you research the project more fully and write a script – if you’re the director. You’ll write a ‘dream synchronisation’ – which is things you hope the people you interview might say. If you’re the producer you put your team together, draw up your schedule, flesh out the style, and work out, concretely, how you’re going to make the film.”

Next comes a ‘shot list’ of the scenes you need to shoot, then the logistics of where and when you’re shooting. Then for the actual shoot, depending on the budget and size of your team, you’ll take a director of photography (in charge of the images and lighting), a sound person, a producer or an assistant producer. 

“Shooting can take a few weeks or months. The next step is the edit – where the finished film takes shape – by putting all the footage together to make a coherent story.”

If you’re a director and producer you basically have a hand in everything – from the logistics to the overall concept and the making of the film. As Quarless puts it – the director is the one conducting the whole orchestra – the buck stops with you.

Why do you think there are so few black British films out there in mainstream British culture?

“Film and TV are really resource-intensive art forms, they take a lot of money, time and people and it’s hard to get all those things together to get a film or TV show made. The history of Black British film only goes back to 1976. Horace Ove’s Pressure is literally the first Black British film ever made – which is really not that long ago. 

“The Black British cinema canon is pretty patchy. There are periods when there’s been activity, there are periods of less activity. Traditionally we’ve been at the whims and mercy of different power players in TV and film industries and they haven’t always been kind or receptive to black talent. We see there are waves of interest when we’re seen as bankable and periods when we’re not – and that’s had a massive impact.”

“I would argue that now is probably the best time to be a Black British filmmaker that we’ve ever had, but at the same time we’re in the midst of this streaming revolution which has led to saturation and lots of interesting Black work getting lost – for example, Barry Jenkins’ ground-breaking telling of slavery, The Underground Railroad, it came and went so quickly – so many people have never even heard of that series. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe – in another time, it would have been a huge show-stopping thing, but it felt like it came and went. So, this time in which we’re getting opportunities is coinciding with a time when we are drowning in so much media.”

We asked Cassie to list some of his favourite Black British films and TV shows

  • Young Soul Rebels by Isaac Julien –  “For me, it was the first time seeing a properly formed narrative in a Black British film as opposed to the really dope experimental stuff that came before.”
  • The Last Angel of History by John Akomfrah – “Real engagement with Black cultural proclivities in the post-modern age.”
  • I May Destroy You by Michaela Coel – “Encapsulated parts of the Black British experience, really well written, dealing with tough subject matter in a funny, sensitive, dramatic way with great storytelling.”
  • Ackee & Saltfish by Cecile Emeke – “Revolutionary in terms of Black British artists, showing you can make something yourself without any money but a good script and characters can connect with.”
  • The Kitchen by Daniel Kaluuya – “His feature film screenwriting debut out next year starring Kano” 

What advice would you give to a young aspiring filmmaker? 

“Make sure that you are learning. Look at the people who made films before, watch their films, think about how they’re making things. How are they framing shots? How is this story being told? How do I tell stories?”

“A really important thing is: just do it! You can feel hamstrung by feeling ‘I’m not ready, I’m not good enough, I don’t know this, I don’t know that.’ Part of honing your craft is by making it – you learn so much from making films. Sure, your first things will probably be rubbish, but that doesn’t matter – everyone’s first things were rubbish – that shouldn’t stop you from making the thing.”

“And the final thing is, find your allies and potential collaborators and cultivate those relationships. You always need other people on your journey, for them to help you and you to help them.”

So, after getting the lowdown on what’s involved in becoming a filmmaker, we wanted to look at other roots into the film industry for young Black Brits. Matthew Barrington studied film at undergrad and masters level before interning with a university cinema club and going on to work for various festivals, and London’s Barbican cultural arts centre, as a film curator.

Q&A with Matthew Barrington

What made you want to start curating films?

“I was at university studying film and the university had a cinema space where I did an internship. It was a free space with 70 seats, and it was an interesting experience to go into it not knowing much and just putting on films I hadn’t seen. Because it was a free space, there was less pressure to connect to audiences in a commercial way.”  

“It became an interesting mixture of research – looking at film archives and films that are not shown regularly, or at all. As I became more of a specialist, jobs started coming up. Cinema curating is about sharing stuff with people – seeing films in a room with people, even if you know them well, it gives you a different perspective – because cinema can be a solitary experience, particularly academic reading in libraries.” 

“It was also a chance to set up interesting discussions and bring in people who aren’t interested in film but are interested in the topics and themes that the film is about – for example, the law school at Birkbeck were attracted to films about the Vietnam war.”

Did you start off studying films wanting to become a filmmaker or curator?

“I went in thinking about making films but was open to different things and did an internship for the Essay Film Festival at Birkbeck, the first edition of it, and that was the spark. Because it was a small team you were doing everything. You were on the selection committee, booking films, dealing with filmmakers, getting in touch with distributors. You were part of the process of how you want to present this film: where should we show the film? Do we want a talk connected with it?”

“Nowadays it’s different – there are courses, but at the time there weren’t film curating courses. There are work placements and internships on the courses – that try to teach you how to install yourself as a freelance figure, get work, and build relationships with institutions. The better courses teach you how you can do it without being linked to an institution. I’m currently teaching on one at the National Film and Television School.”

What does the day-to-day work of curating films involve? 

Barrington says there are a few distinct phases of curating an event or festival – often overlapping. We’ll break them down below.

  • Research – Coming up with an idea or wider topic e.g. a season or series of events. This can involve going to festivals – like BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia – looking at what new films are coming out, visiting archives or film restoration festivals. Certain European countries have archives of Black and Asian films. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC has a huge archive. In the UK the national film archive is at the British Film Institute. 
  • Practical ‘hands-on’ phase – Once you have a strong sense of what you want to do you then have to start booking films and guest speakers. For new films you may be competing with other film festivals, if they’re old you may have to convince archives to let you borrow them and why you want to show them.
  • Getting an audience – Once events are consolidated you need to build an audience. Whether you are at a big or small institution it can be difficult getting people to come to watch niche film events. You need to get the word out there in the form of marketing, press, corresponding with contacts, social media, posters, and trailers. Small festivals often have a budget for a press or marketing person who might work freelance in seasonal work. The work cycle of a film festival is around 6-7 months – quite a good timespan for freelancing
  • Putting on the event itself – Hopefully, all your preparation will have put you in a good place so that when the festival itself happens you are essentially dealing with event management, making sure people know what their jobs are, making things run on time, dealing with any last minute issues, and so forth.
  • Wrapping up – this often involves paying all the bills you have incurred, returning films, and the hardest bit is the post-event reflection: what went well, what didn’t go well, and meetings. This often gets overlooked and lost as you have to move onto the next project – but reflection is really important so try to make time to do it.

What’s your favourite black British film?

“The obvious one I saw when I was a teenager was Horace Ove’s Pressure. One of the interesting things for me was that the film captures things that would have happened to my dad and his parents and that they would never have expressly told me as a child – now I can see the context of what happened in that period and ask about them directly, but growing up in the Black working class you don’t talk about those things directly.”

“There’s a scene in which a young Black guy’s house gets raided, he hadn’t done anything wrong, his parents take the side of the police, and he ends up leaving home. That happened to my dad, he was arrested, and his parents couldn’t see the racism of the police at the time. So those things spoke directly to me and were interesting to see as a young person. And it’s gone on to be seen as a masterpiece. And Horace Ove was knighted last year.”

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