June Givanni has been embedded in the world of Pan African cinema since the early 1980s. As a programmer, curator, writer and a cultural activist, she has built up a finely tuned, international knowledge base of African, Caribbean, African-American and Black British cinema with all their creative and political nuances.
A key presence at so many of the past and present international black or African film festivals, it stands to reason that Givanni would have accumulated a huge physical amount of material that reflects her professional trajectory. Accordingly, one of the latest developments of her career is a personal collection of materials that form the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive.
A private collection of films, audio recordings, posters, scripts, publications, documents and artefacts, the archive offers a cinematic lens through which to absorb the work of pioneers and thinkers. These are ultimately individuals or creative communities who are behind much of what the African continent and its diaspora have created for the small and large screen, well before the current era of mobile streaming and online TV. Important names included in the archive are Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer and producer of the hugely popular Nigerian sitcom, Basi and Company. He presented Givanni with a 1980s copy of the series magazine, which highlighted the show’s characters and many behind-the-scene details of the production. There’s also Gaston Kaboré, the award-winning Burkinabé film director, Aime Cesaire the Francophone poet, author and activist from Martinique, Adeyemi Josiah Afolayan (Ade Love) who worked in travelling theatre and film in Nigeria, writer and documentary filmmaker, Tony Cade Bambara, Ghanaian director Kwah Ansah, and significantly, Euzhan Palcy, the first black woman filmmaker produced by a major Hollywood studio to direct the 1989 film, A Dry White Season. This was the film that brought Marlon Brando out of a nine-year retirement. Countless other key figures who have made an impact on Pan African Cinema are also included through references to, or examples of their work, or through interviews – many of which June Givanni has carried out over the years.
Although most of the archival material was collected at a starting point of the early 1980s, much of the subject matter transcends this time frame, with stories and histories that go as far back as the nineteenth century. A big name referenced in some of the archives is Oscar Micheaux from the US. Considered to be the first major African-American filmmaker of the early twentieth century, Micheaux’s filmmaking pre-dates Nollywood’s do-it-yourself ethos of creating and distributing films by, for and about African-heritaged audiences, with his self-produced and self-distributed ‘race’ films in both ‘silent’ and ‘talkie’ formats, which date back to 1919.
The archive also captures a strong sense of women’s voices and political movements, as well as changes in graphic design and visual aesthetics demonstrated in various film and publicity materials from African film festivals in Martinique, Burkina Faso, Dakar, UK, Italy, France, the Netherlands, North America and elsewhere.
In acknowledging the vast amount of stories held in such a broad range of materials, Givanni is quick to point out that creating a Pan African film archive is something that perhaps many different people could do in their own way, adding that “it’s a Pan African archive, not the Pan African archive.”
A curator as much as an archivist, what Givanni has drawn together speaks volumes about her own journey into film. Having always loved the medium, her approach to it, right from the start of her career, was from the point of view of representation.
“Identity and representation were topics that I was always very impassioned about” she says. “I always believed that the way black people were seen and regarded in the world was so ill informed and so ignorant on so many levels.”
It’s a statement that seems to mirror much of the drive behind the work of many, if not all of the directors, producers, writers or activists whose names appear in the archive.
Givanni’s materials were initially held in her home until the size of the collection made external storage necessary. For the last couple of years, a great percentage of the collection has been held in a private area inside a community centre in Stockwell, south London. This is an important space in itself. An arts hub, the centre is key for younger generations to tap into the various performance and visual arts activities there, and to gain insights into Pan African cinema, the concept of archiving and diasporic filmmaking.
A current academic partnership between the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive and the University of London’s Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image (BIMI) is supported by Creative Works London, an arts development agency. Through this three-way fusion of expertise, the archive will demonstrate its value with a pilot event in the summer of 2014 with London screenings, discussions and an exhibition highlighting the strength of Pan African cinema.
It’s an exciting phase, not just for the collection, but also for African and African-influenced film itself. In an era where much of the globe has been focused on the mainstream Hollywood blockbusters of 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, The Helpand The Butler, this particular archive has the potential to be a crucial resource for digging into the work of some of the pioneering cinema giants of Africa and the African diaspora on whose shoulders many of the mainstream Hollywood filmmakers and producers of today may well be standing.