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Pan-African Cinema “Shouldn’t be Pigeonholed”

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There are some people whose work doesn’t neatly fall into traditional film awards categories. June Givanni, for example, is a film curator, writer and programmer of African and African diaspora cinema whose June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive (JGPACA) in London features more than 10,000 artifacts, amassed over 40 years, that document the development of African filmmaking, including in Britain. BAFTA will put her in the spotlight with a special award, the British Academy’s Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema honor, which she will receive Feb. 18 at the 77th BAFTA Film Awards in London, hosted by David Tennant.

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“June has been a pioneering force in the preservation, study and celebration of African and African diaspora cinema and Black British cultural heritage,” says BAFTA CEO Jane Millichip. 

Givanni, who was born in Guyana before moving to the U.K. in 1957, spoke to THR about her archive and other work, African film, and the state of inclusion and diversity in the entertainment industry.

How did you start collecting items for the JGPACA 40 years ago?

I didn’t start out with the intention of creating an archive. I was a curator and a programmer for many years, but this was in the pre-digital area. So you were using physical material like VHS tapes, celluloid film items, 16-, 35-millimeter and other formats. So it was a matter of collecting the materials that I needed. Maybe in the late ’90s, I could say that it was becoming an archive because it was something that served not only me, but also other people and institutions and festivals.

What other items do you have in your space in London and aren’t you running out of space at your location at the MayDay Rooms on Fleet Street?

There are flyers and leaflets, for example. There is a lot of material in there because you can never tell when it is going to be needed or serve a particular purpose. So I’ve kept a lot of stuff. In the digital age, when younger people expect to find all of the information in a digital format, they are the ones who are becoming so engaged and interested to see what’s in a physical archive. It’s true that there is a lot of stuff online, but not everything is.

Of course, being physical means it takes up a hell of a lot of room. We have never had proper funding, so it has been very difficult. We are just very glad to have had some support recently from the Freelands Foundation to help us develop the archive through their Space to Dream Fund.

Tell me more about how much funding that is and whether it helps you build a bigger team!

It’s around £100,000 ($126,000). I can’t remember how much but that has to cover us for two years.

We didn’t even have staff, it’s been volunteer-run, including myself. It’s been me and colleagues who I’ve worked with since the ’80s, who are my co-directors Imruh Bakari and Emma Sandon. And some of the filmmakers as well. [Director Raoul Peck, for example, is a patron of the archive.]

With the Freelands Foundation funding, we have started to hire staff. We hired an archive coordinator [Damilola Lemomu] after our biggest exhibition ever last year April to June at the Raven Row Gallery in London and an archive assistant role, which is shared by two people. But we do need space. We do need bigger plans for more space.

Who comes to your archive, and what do they typically look for?

It varies. If you’re a curator, you’re coming to look at other catalogs, you’re coming to look at films, you’re coming to look at publicity materials. If you’re an artist, you’re coming to be inspired by some of the artistic materials. We have also had residences from students and young people who want to make films. 

Any treasures you’re particularly proud of?

I would say among the most significant things we have are films like the documentary You Hide Me, made in 1970 by [Ghanaian filmmaker] Nii Kwate Owoo, about the British Museum [and the valuable African artifacts held there]. It’s a film about the restitution of African art. In 2020, it was the 50th anniversary of that film, and we were planning a big series of events. But of course, everyone knows what happened that year with the pandemic. So what we did was to present it with a few partners as a webinar series with participants in different parts of the world. When people hear and see things like that they get a sense of why archives are of value.

One of my favorite pieces in the archive is a poster that was given to me at the very first FESPACO Film Festival in Burkina Faso in 1985. It was given to me by a filmmaker, one of the people who used to run the Mogadishu Film Week. Somalia at that time was a very active and vibrant cultural sphere. Now we’re living in an age where younger people only know Somalia as this turbulent place that has pirates. This is one of my favorite items because it indicates what sort of value archives have.

Netflix and other streamers, including Amazon, have become more selective as of late, or hit pause on new African fare. How do you feel about the state of African film and global audiences’ appetite for it?

That opening up is very important. In terms of where African cinema is now, it’s a good thing that it’s able to operate and be appreciated on many different platforms. But I think it’s so important for it to also be valued and for those platforms to actually understand what it can offer to contemporary ideas around cinema. The appetite for filmmakers from the continent is enormous. For instance, I’m on the board of a cultural institution in Burkina Faso, called Imagine, run by [Burkinabè filmmaker] Gaston Kaboré. Young people from all over the continent make their way there, because they can do training there without having to pay. They have to pay to get there, but the institution actually supports them and provides them with cinematic skills. It shouldn’t be narrowed down to just streaming platforms, because I think you lose so much. If there are many other screening programs and platforms, that would help and let people see films in other ways. 

How important is it then for film festivals to showcase African cinema and how good a job do they do?
I’m biased because festivals have been my terrain for 40 years now. I think they do an excellent job for the most part, especially if they are expanding the vision of cinema and introduce people to new types of cinema that link it with ideas, because a lot of pan-African cinema is linked to ideas, linked to history and linked to arts.

There are events such as the African Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria, set up by our sister Peace Anyiam-Osigwe. A number of us who are part of that and encouraging that to happen can see what the potential is. Nigeria is quite an important one in terms of spreading the word about what’s happening on the continent.

How do you feel about the state of diversity and inclusion in film and TV?

It has come a long way in the U.K., but there’s still a long way to go. Pan-African cinema and people who are from different backgrounds and different countries shouldn’t be pigeonholed into this sense of “the other” or “the other cinema.” Institutions should regard it very much as being of value, not as fringe or something that belongs to an alternative sector, but something that can actually engage major audiences if they have the opportunity.

You were born in Guyana and moved to the U.K. What can you share about that experience and the cultural transition?

I came to England from Guyana in 1957 as a child. My experience at school was crazy because people weren’t expecting me to even be able to read or write. Things like that, when you arrive into this environment, are mind-blowing. You can’t believe that people know so little about you, and you know so much about them and their culture and their history. Their ignorance of who you are, what you have to contribute to the world, what you can do means that so much is wasted in the world because you’re not engaging with people who have so much to contribute. You’re underestimating them. You are pigeonholing them in such a way that you are the one that will be losing out. I think the younger generation is much more open, they’re much more excited. Their minds are much more stimulated by difference.

But when I came, it was a bit scary. People didn’t know who we are. But later you have a wider world experience. There were times when I was scared of them too. I came by ship. I remember I was in a cabin with a lady for most of my journey, and one day I was taken up to the restaurant and there was this bright pink food with white spots on it. People know it as salami now. But as a young child I remember being quite scared of the food on one particular occasion.

There’s a lot of scope for more to happen and for people to be appreciated. Festivals, events and awards are working in that direction, so I would encourage more of that because there are so many filmmakers and other people doing great work out there. Keith Shiri is a great curator of African background (Zimbabwean) but based here in London who does great work. Everyone needs to be recognized and have this opportunity to contribute, not just to cinema but to a cultural life.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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