The concept behind the Migration Museum is such a good one and is needed more than ever in our divided Brexit broken country. This exhibition in temporary accommodation in Lambeth shows how seven major migration moments changed Britain. The title of the exhibition is ‘No Turning Back’.
It is useful to be reminded about the history that has forged Britain especially when the version of history portrayed by many in the EU referendum is one rewritten to suit the Little Englanders currently in the ascendant. Here we see that Britain has been connected to the world over the centuries with migrations in and out. Seven critical moments are represented here through artefacts and artistic responses.
I was struck by how the events that formed my own political education have become ‘history’. The Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970s was represented with magazine covers and posters that fought back against the racist comments from some musicians (ones I admired!) in an age when people thought it was okay to make such comments. Also here, though, is the formation of the East India Company and the start of a strong connection between Britain and India as well as the expulsion of the Huguenots from Europe. Migrations of which Britain should be proud include the refuge granted to Spanish children during their civil war of the 30s and the German Jewish children who were brought to safety to escape the Nazi regime in Germany.
The section which I liked the best was the celebration of mixed race Britain. The 2011 census showed this to be a growing area of self-identity. It is the obvious next development of a multi-racial and multi- cultural society.
Photographs, art works, personal recollections and quotes all add up to an amazing exhibition in which to get lost on a wet afternoon. I loved it. As I finished, I was struck by a huge poster with a statement below it of a young man, who might be mixed race but who was not white, who voted for Brexit. I wanted/needed to know more. Why did he? What statement does it make that he is concerned about immigration in a society where he and others like him have been beneficiaries? It troubles me still but maybe I need to be challenged in my assumptions. In any case, there was no more from him on offer.
I have been exploring the excellent BFI archive recently and came across two documentaries about race relations in Britain. The first, from the 60s, was part of the ITV current affairs series ‘This Week’ and the second from the ITV current affairs series, ‘World in Action’. I may well have seen the second of these programmes, called ‘Black to Front’ since I was a keen watcher of ‘World in Action’ in the 70s as well as an awakening political activist.
‘Black to Front’ covered the by-election in Lambeth Central in 1978 when the threat of the racist National Front was all too real. The far right party had gone through a period of rising support, especially in parliamentary by-elections, often defeating the, then, third-party the Liberals into fourth place. This particular by-election was important as Brixton, with its increasing black population, was part of the constituency.
In Leeds in 1965, the late great Desmond Wilcox interviewed families for a documentary called ‘The Negro Next Door’. The attitudes of the white residents seem somewhat shocking today but Wilcox was a brilliant journalist and his questions kept gently probing the preconceptions.
Despite being a decade apart, both documentaries took one street to act as a microcosm of the whole nation. In both programmes, neighbours were brought together to discuss the issues. This was more awkward and revealing in the 1965 documentary since the attitudes had yet to soften or get hidden behind a veneer of politeness.
The BFI archive is fascinating with many programmes available free of charge. It acts as a fascinating resource for seeing how the country has changed (or not) and how social attitudes build national character. I like going through programmes from my younger years even if I missed them at the time. Watching the world as it once was, from traffic to fashion, is a way of revisiting my childhood and teenage years.
These documentaries from the BFI archive are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This manga by Japanese artist and writer Gengoroh Tagame provides an interesting insight into a society where being gay is rarely celebrated. The story involves a visit from a foreigner whose presence in the lives of a father and his daughter makes the father reflect on his views and prejudices.
Single parent Yaichi brings up his daughter Kana, earning a living by renting out property in the local area. This gives him time to look after his daughter, something he does with great love and care. Kana’s mother lives elsewhere but is still part of her life; she visits and stays in the family home but obviously has a high powered job elsewhere.
Into their lives comes Mike, a Canadian visiting Tokyo to see the childhood places his husband talked about before he died. Mike’s husband, Ryoji, was Yaichi’s brother.
Kana adores Mike from first meeting and insists he stay at their house. Yaichi feels obliged to agree and the manga tells the story of Mike’s time with the father and daughter. Yaichi confronts his own prejudices and sees Mike through his daughter’s eyes, coming to terms as he does so with his feelings about his brother and how he handled his coming out.
It is a brilliant tale of accepting people for who they are and seeing beyond labels. The homophobia in society is raised through reactions of local people to Mike’s arrival but, in what was for me the most poignant scene, the arrival of a teenage boy to their door shows that gay people do exist in Japan and the need for validation is of high importance.
‘My Brother’s Husband’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film about film is an interesting exploration of gender in Chinese cinema by director Stanley Kwan Kam-pang. The sub-title, ‘Gender in Chinese Cinema’ sets us up for a documentary of interviews and film clips around gender fluidity in films by Chinese directors.
Many of the films are ones I am familiar with such as ‘Farewell My Concubine’ and ‘Vive L’amour’ but there were others that have now been added to the list of films to hunt down. Interestingly, many of the directors and actors deny any connection between their work and the idea of being gay, and even deny the work having gay themes. Leslie Cheung answers questions about so frequently being cast in effeminate roles as recognising in himself a certain degree of vulnerability.
Kwan presents the film in ‘chapters’ starting with his own experiences as a child, being taken to the male bath houses by his father and ending with his interview with his mother when he asks her if it concerns her that she has a gay son. Between, we see images of male bonding from martial arts films and others and images of masculinity in both men and women. The Chinese Opera is a rich resource for crossing gender norms and this is explored, yet it seems, in the late 90s at least, that Hong Kong and Taiwan were more open to expressions of homosexuality than mainland China. It may have changed!
It comes across as something of a period piece itself, now, but the documentary, narrated by Tony Rayns, is worth watching for the signs that things are shifting in cinema.
Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir was a brilliant evocation of his childhood as well as an exploration of what it is like to have a past truth revealed. In this case, the discovery of his father’s mental illness and the impact this must have had on his mother. Dealing with the past as an adult threw up for him his feelings about what he might have known but did not confront. It was a terrific exploration of how families cope and how they create their own histories. It was a wonderful book so no surprise that BBC television made a film version.
Sacha Darwan plays the adult Sathnam Sanghera as he heads back home from his high powered job on a national newspaper in London. His family in Wolverhampton have a life that seems alien to him now, especially as he has a girlfriend in London who is neither Punjabi nor Sikh. He has yet to reveal this truth since it would break with family tradition. On the other hand, his parents have a secret from him, one that is revealed when he helps them with packing. The medication for his father is to control his schizophrenia. The shock for the adult Sathnam is that he never knew this central aspect of his family’s story. He was equally unaware that his sister seems to exhibit the same symptoms as his father.
This is a story of uncovering the past and coming to terms with it. The film shows the younger Sathnam as a shadow figure looking on as his adult self walks the old streets of his childhood city. Coming to terms with the past also involves coming to terms with the present: there is a partner, who as white British, may not be accepted in his family; the time has come to find out.
The book was excellent and the film lives up to the calibre of the written word even if the story has to be pared down for the benefit of the screen. In telling the central story much of his school life is jettisoned here. Yet it is a film with heart and one that does justice to Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir.
Central to this film version of Andreas Steinhofel’s amazing novel is the theme of identity. Phil has a gap in his knowledge of himself since his mother, called Glass by everyone, refuses to reveal the name of his father. Phil and his twin Diane grow up in an unconventional way with a mother who is something of a free spirit in a large house that is remarkable because of its bohemian look. The rest of the town may look down on them because of their unorthodox lifestyle but they don’t care because they have each other.
I declare the following: I thought the book was amazing. I loved it when I first read it which was when it first appeared in English, translated from German. I also love the work of Andreas Steinhofel. I did not love this film but I liked it!
Phil is gay so when he meets Nicholas and is smitten he is thrilled to have his feelings returned. The relationship becomes a sexual one and Phil finds himself accepted by somebody outside his family which is just as well as this is the moment when conflict between Diane and Glass threatens their unit. Things are made worse by the fact that neither sister nor mother will tell him why they are in dispute.
Phil retreats into his relationship and appears to have found love. There is even room for Phil’s best and long term friend Kat and the three become friends. Glass may reject lovers after just a short while but Phil is different. So when the betrayal comes, of friend Kat and boyfriend Nicholas, the pain is acute. When the truth of the rift between Diane and Glass is revealed Phil questions his place in the family.
The film has reduced aspects of the book, how could it do otherwise and stay within a reasonable theatrical showing duration? Yet, for me, although the relationship between the two boys is well portrayed and the pain shown by Phil when he realises Kat has betrayed him is poignant, many of the other characters lose their fullness and come across as self- centred or immature, as in the case of Kat and Glass, or are not well developed at all, as in the case of Diane.
Louis Hofmann is brilliant as Phil. ‘Centre of My World’ enters my hinterland but mostly so it can sit alongside the book which remains a true artistic expression of young love.
Frisch verliebt: Phil (Louis Hofmann, li.) und Nicholas (Jannik Schümann, re.)
Cross cultural relationships are a common theme in films and television but what makes this 2012 film from director Katarzyna Klimkiewicz different is the fact that we are never sure if the Algerian student has an ulterior motive for starting a relationship with the older engineer who just happens to be working on a highly sensitive aerospace contract for the military.
Helen McCrory plays the ambitious engineer at the top of her game who meets Kahil at a lecture she gives at the local university. He is impressed by her lecture and says so when he passes her in the car park. Another incidental meeting sparks her interest and they meet up and start a relationship. McCrory’s Frankie is following in the footsteps of her father who worked on Concorde. Like him, she places work first and his worries about her developing relationship are heightened by the fact that he is ‘foreign’. His worries start to transfer themselves to Frankie who, having met Kalil’s friends at his house, wonders if she is being used.
The film is an excellent exploration of people’s motives and our prejudices; we often keep these hidden but they lie just below the surface.
Najib Oudghiri plays Kahil as a straightforward young man yet the doubts remain and the tension is maintained throughout the film. Security officers, team members and Kahil’s friends all have views about the relationship and the ending, when it comes, acts as a mirror to our current concerns. The film’s title is well-earned!
‘Flying Blind’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?