Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. interviews Owen 'Alik Shahadah, director of the ground-breaking documentary 500 Years Later, an examination of the effects which five centuries of slavery and colonialism has had on the African psyche.
500 Years Later is quite a unique documentary. What were your motivations for making it?
What motivated me to make 500 Years Later was the critical need for our voice and our story to be documented. Media is probably the most powerful tool available today and yet, as an African collective, we have been very poor in fully utilizing the visual medium as a form of cultural expression.
Filmed in over twenty countries, how difficult was it to finance a film of this magnitude? And what were your experiences when you approached funders?
Finance was generated from internal sources. The problem sometimes with funding is that the politics of the funders often ends up on the screen. For some productions, getting funding might not be a big issue but 500 Years Later was not only meant to be a film; it was also meant to be a statement: for us, about us and by us. In all honesty, the greatest challenge was dealing with a people who deeply suffer from post-traumatic slavery/colonialism syndrome. Working on the film showed up people for who and what they are in terms of their true dedication to progress and to the struggle. The blatant so-called “Uncle Toms” are not the issue. I have no problem with them because you can see them a mile off. The greatest threat is the thing that looks and talks like you, while serving as the principle reason for the destruction of the very thing they claim to represent. It is these types of people and not the 20 countries that posed the hill that almost broke the production.
You have contributions from individuals such as Paul Robeson, Jr., Maulana Karenga, Amiri Baraka and Dr. Francis Cres Welsing; was it difficult to convince them to participate?
We entered this project with a reputation of producing products like African Holocaust, which was a ground-breaking audio narrative. With this creditability it really was not hard getting the critical people. But there were people, who will remain unnamed, who were approached and did not hear the calling. But I believe God allowed for the real people to see the vision.
It has won several awards including best documentary at the Pan-African Film Awards. Why has this documentary received such little attention from the mainstream?
If we understand the media and who is in control of it, it is clear that anything which challenges their authority will be obscured. But I will stop and ask what exactly is mainstream and who controls it? Is it us? Does it speak to our reality? And moreover, what is the legacy of mainstream media as it relates to us as a people? When you ask these questions you realize the first place I start is to redefine the goal posts. Can African people and other sincere individuals access 500 Years Later? If yes, then that is mainstream. Our mental dependence and subsequent belief in “their” mainstream has us hooked. The concept of a mainstream is living proof of our conformity to someone else’s culture. Because truly self-determined people have their own “mainstream.” I never cared much for satisfying or being accepted in this world and hence, I feel artistically free to follow the path which leads to the creation of the work I do. Too often, our brothers and sisters are wrapped in satisfying criteria that not only devalue our artistic ability but are exclusively there to satisfy the European palette. Clearly, the mainstream power structure profits from our belief in its system and the minute we seek our own mainstream then it severely undermines the spell they have over us.
Do you believe mainstream broadcasters are overly concerned about viewing figures, or do you believe there is something more sinister at play?
If they were really that concerned with viewing figures, they would show 500 Years Later, trust me. Put it on Channel 4 prime time and it would generate so much controversy that they would make a killing. The African community in the UK represents a significant dollar value and yet they are constantly ignored. Their dilemma is one of control, so it is critical that when they show products for our communities they are the ones making it, and naturally they end up looking like rubbish. The Ritzy cinema, in the heart of an African community, has evaded screening the film despite its box office success at every venue it has shown in. Why? They love money but I think the assumption is we should remain consumers of products they produce for us. The minute we retain the means of production for self, then their power base, politically and economically, becomes challenged. For example, Channel 4 nor the BBC have any economic ties to this film, so it is completely owned by us. We are now the power brokers of a documentary costing millions. Imagine if we collected as a community and took it to the next level and had our own cinemas and a complete distribution network? More importantly, imagine if more of us start using this medium to tell our story and lift our people out of intellectual and cultural obscurity.
If you had been commissioned by the mainstream, would this story have been told the way it was?
Impossible! I have noticed the cardboard boardroom approach to film is tasteless. The do’s and don’ts, the fixed style genre documentaries. If it is not the dry, put you to sleep, slow PBS style, then it is some joker walking through the film with a camera bouncing all over the place, leaving me with a headache! Putting that aside, Europeans are not culturally shallow, at least not the ones in the critical places. They know full-well what challenges them and what does not: sometimes better than us. When we start saying without reaction, “Ancient Egypt was African,” or we prefer to be called “African” and not “black,” they actually understand the implications of this more than we know. Thus, when presenting a story to their boards, it will be surprising what will be taken out and what will be left in. They - the ones who ravaged Africa - did a documentary called Top Ten Reasons Why Africa Is So Poor, and the number one reason in their, ex-slave-masters, new-slave-managers conclusion was the Tsetse fly! Forget slavery, no, the number one reason was a little fly! They would have me do 500 Years Later and skip the whole slavery part if they could get away with it! I would be left talking about drugs and crime completely disconnected from the legacy of enslavement. These people hire Israelis to tell the story of Palestine and slave masters to tell the story of the enslaved and see nothing wrong with this. Worst than that, we see nothing wrong.
Can the lack of interest then be put down to the subject matter?
We never at any stage approached, or thought of approaching, any broadcaster to commission 500 Years Later, so my experience in this department is zero. I personally could never sit down in front of Europeans and try to sell them an idea where I am asking permission to research and explore my culture and history. You mean I am there seeking to convince him or her of the value of my people? I don’t require a permission slip to do this. As an African man, I need to look in the mirror and remember my African manhood. I get up and tell my story without reference, request or regret.
It has been said that at no stage of production was anyone of non-African descent involved. Is this true and if so, why was this so important to you?
The reason why it was critical to use an exclusive African cast was that the story was an African story and required an African aesthetic. We have, for the last 500 years, been a footnote in the narrative of someone else’s story. Even the history of Africa starts with the arrival of the Europeans. Regardless of what we do, from the most vulgar hip hop to the supposed “Black” movies at the highest level, it is always controlled by a non-African. The development of our unique style of telling our story is undermined. If we do not have spaces where we can naturally bring the full essence of what we are as Africans to the foreground, how can we develop? Our growth has been severely hindered because the minute our story needs to be told we need to go to them for funding and naturally as any healthy human would do, the European looks for his or her position within our story. Hence, Cry Freedom, for example, featured a European journalist over Steve Biko. Their interface to our world is the first point which is always satisfied and hence, it is our story through their eyes. From finance to filming, from script to score, 500 Years Later was all African. And in that is the statement of self-belief which is something that has been ripped out of our spirit. We have become so dependant that we actually need to be told again and again by physical examples that we can as a self-determined people determine exclusively, our own destiny.
How do you counter possible accusations of racism?
Actually, no one has attempted to accuse us of that. I think it is more seen as “our story” and an authentic story told with honesty and balance. If we were casting a film featuring the African warrior Askia Muhammad, we would not be racist for seeking an African Malian to play the role. The same is true here. If the voice of the story is to tell that which has been obscured by racism, how can we then employ the very people actively responsible for perpetuating these distortions? The myth of Africa was fostered from a European mind, then projected on to us. How ridiculous is it to search for ourselves by letting them be the director of photography, or be the writers or the editors? Consciously or unconsciously, Europeans are European first, which actually is a normal reality. How can we expect them to not love themselves? The problem is that their love for themselves is often expressed in the destruction or dismissal of everyone else: bar none. So the European editor edits out the Mosque in Timbuktu and drops in the one child he can find with some flies on his face. They film Egypt and edit out all the Africans, hence you think only Arabs live and have ever lived there. Visit the crew and cast of Lord of the Rings; the lack of Africans in their mythology alarms none of us, so why when we tell our story should they be involved in it?
In a world dominated by Eurocentric standards and perceptions, how is it possible to avoid the Eurocentric influence upon your perceived African cultural aesthetic?
Cultures have always borrowed from each other. We cannot cut off the European influence nor can they, though they deny it, cut off ours. The critical thing is to make sure that the core of one’s work is in the spirit of one’s culture. With music, I would say jazz is the best example of how a dominant African aesthetic was achieved in a Eurocentric world using instruments which were dominated and controlled by Europeans. But jazz is uniquely not European. I know of no greater example and we must do the same with film. We must first know who we are, and search for this voice within the art. When we listen to that inner voice, we will start to realign with our Africanness. This is why we must learn our African languages because I have noticed the thought process and perception is influenced by language in the most fundamental ways. And film-making is a language and the African language of film-making has to be desired by us and explored. Just like reggae and jazz, we must find a need within our soul to find our own style.
What about yourself, the contributors, and many of those who worked on this production? By virtue of contact with the West, has this not contaminated your pursuit of defining an authentic African cultural aesthetic?
The fact that we are talking in English for me is proof of the greatest contamination. But in all fairness, I have noticed how we have used English in the most colorful way to rearticulate an African sensibility. And we must remember, Africa is not a reference to a geographical location. Being born in Africa doesn’t make you an African. Africa, in most of our minds, is something locked in the past. Cultures do not exist in isolation and my goal is not to, for the sake of nostalgia, revisit an impossible ancient Africa. My goal is to retain the spirit and the fundamentals of Africanness as they would exist in the world we live in today. There is this notion that when you say Africa, people picture living in trees and walking around naked. That is not what Africanness means. Having a television and a geostationary satellite is neither western nor African; it is just technology which has an application. Our culture then interacts with this technology so that we either use it to promote the Rugby match or Tabaski (West African festival). We must define that culture by first identifying what makes us African, because dark skin and kinky hair are empty in themselves. And thus, the search for the African aesthetic within film cannot be measured on degrees of purity but, moreover, alignment to a unique culture.
Do you intend to make all your films in this way, or was this merely a point or a statement you were making?
Each film is different. Halaqah Media has always been multicultural in its outlook. We have worked on projects from Palestine to China. The next film might involve us working with Europeans. But one thing I think will remain is the independent and authentic voice when it comes to our own productions. Naturally, if I was commissioned to do something, depending on the terms, I would do it as a solo film-maker, but I seriously believe certain stories can only be told exclusively by us.
It must be frustrating to get your project this far and then have to consider compromising your principles in order to have it screened in theatres or even possibly broadcast. How do you rationalise this obvious compromise?
My principles have never been compromised. We have made a product and now we will trade that product. If we return to our history when we were self-determined, we sat down in Africa and manufactured our items, used them for ourselves and then traded them with the Arabs and Chinese. We do not live in a vacuum and any broadcaster who wants to show the film can show it. The compromise only comes if they control the content or the product. The film from start to finish makes its statement it does not matter if you show it to the Nation of Islam or the KKK; the film still makes its point.
All of the screenings have been sold out. What has been the public’s response to your work?
I think people breathe a deep breath with their soul after seeing it. Sometimes we see the youth so un-orderly, and they might not have the full skills to articulate their condition, but deep down in their souls, there is a cultural conflict whether they know it or not, and an unhappy soul manifests some ill actions; the lack of marriage, education, self-belief etc., but when African people in general see the film, I think it brings a connection to something they know is missing in the world. It just harmonises and brings a peace to a voice that has never really been heard.
With such responses and winning so many awards, what has been the response of the mainstream media?
I honestly do not look for that response. Too often, we validate or measure success or failure by someone else’s standard. Denzel was my boy; him winning an Oscar does not validate him in my eyes, he was validated before. To look for their response means you care; to care means you already are sold a reality that is not ours. The belief in them is no profit to us. The response I am looking for is from my people.
So you believe black filmmakers are trying too hard to conform?
I think the world is a far richer place if I can go to Rome and taste something Roman. I don’t want pizza in Addis Ababa; I want injgera and shirro. We share and exchange, but I do not want to live in someone else’s monoculture. African independent film-makers who sing European songs will naturally be favoured, but the irony of it is, the more you sing their songs then, why do they need you because the best person to do European singing will always be a European. We can only be second best in their game. But honestly, selling out or not selling out, African film-makers have it hard. And there is the issue of talent that honestly needs to be looked at. Unlike music, we have not seriously developed a market in the visual realm. The general quality is very community standard because our film-making skills are so neglected. Every African school child wants to be a footballer, actor or singer; they don’t want to be producers or studio owners, and Europeans promote these one-dimensional dependant career choices to our youth. I think it is better for us to develop uniquely so we can bring something to the film genre as opposed to being copycats and dark-skinned Europeans.
Media is a very cut-throat industry with often hundreds of highly qualified individuals vying for the limited crumbs on the table. Is it particularly harder for blacks in media?
The African has an inherent disadvantage in all areas of activities, especially if you are male. Women can sneak in because they are perceived as less of a threat. But European film-makers doing the real work have it very hard as well. So imagine where we fit in? Just being an African man is one door in your face and add to that doing the real work is another door in your face.
What do you have planned next and will you retain your “whites need not apply” policy to achieve your goal of authentic cultural aesthetics?
I will continue to produce and direct documentaries and films which reflect the global condition of the world. Depending on the project, it will determine who is best suited for the job. If I plan to do a documentary on the migration habits of seagulls, then race would be irrelevant. If I am doing a documentary on Islamic culture, then religion might be the critical factor. But I am what I am. I am an African and everything I touch will automatically communicate that reality. What we need to come away with is that, in a balanced world, the Jew would make their films, the African would make their films, the Irish would do their thing, a few joint projects and we would add to the film genre because we all would develop a strong cultural voice within our work as opposed to the monocultural Hollywood product which we accept as standard. To find the African aesthetic is a goal which is personal and has no destination; it is a journey. For me, I am discovering everyday my African identity, my African language, written and spoken, my art, my style, my sound, and all of these aspects will be poured onto the film and the next generation will come and borrow and learn and take it to a new level. One thing that I believe is African is the inherent responsibility and functionality of the film. Contrary to western perception, Africans do not sing and dance all day; if they do sing it is for purpose (Nia); hence, the social functionality of my work is something I never plan to depart from. I am only trying to continue a tradition which was started 160,000 years ago in Africa by my ancestors.
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