Harlesden or bust

If you're a black film-maker in Britain you can expect two things: next to no money and a lot of good will
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The Independent Culture
Using a non-professional black cast to make a feature film set in Harlesden, west London, isn't likely to have producers lining up at the door. Make it a musical based on the London street sounds of reggae, jungle, and ragamuffin, cast the central character as a black single parent, and the aspiring director probably wouldn't make it past the secretary.

Julian Henriques, a young-ish black director, has managed to get backing for just such a proposal from David Aukin, the Head of Drama at Channel 4 and responsible for commissioning Four Weddings and a Funeral. Aukin's budget of £15m a year is peanuts by Hollywood standards, but manna from heaven for new directors. And Henriques has also got government support, if by a rather unusual route: locating the story in the area and working with local people earned him £25,000 from Harlesden City Challenge.

His film, Babymother, follows Anita as she struggles to become a dance hall DJ in an overwhelmingly male and macho culture, while bringing up two children. She inhabits a world unknown to anyone over 30. The gigs she plays aren't advertised in Time Out or even the Voice; they filter through the airwaves on the pirate stations that broadcast from tower blocks.

The storyline doesn't have much in common with black films coming out of the States. No gangsters, guns or drugs. "They only give one side of the picture," says Henriques, "I wanted to come with something dffferent: the woman's side."

That's not the only difference. Henriques believes that by using non-professional actors, selected from open auditions, he will get performances that professionals could not attain. "I'm taking people who know the life, who know the scenes being portrayed in the film. I think that's going be more vivid and have more of an edge to it."

Henriques has followed a familiar route into films. First as a researcher on Weekend World, then spells as a producer/ director with Ebony, Black on Black and the BBC Music and Arts department. He made his first feature film We the Ragamuffin, in 1992, after working for 10 years in television.

"We're aiming to appeal to non-black audiences but on our own terms," says Henriques. "It's always difficult to manage the cross-over to white audiences. This has a better chance than many because of the music." Of course, Alan Parker's The Commitments was an enormous success, partly on the back of the music. But that was black music with a white cast. Black music with a black cast is an altogether bigger gamble.

Popular black British films are few and far between, but it's not for lack of talent or subjects, says Henriques. He says the lack of black British film-makers isn't hard to explain: "The whole film industry in this country is on the fringes; you're working in a marginal industry. In this country there are not many film-makers, period." Even so, the end result is to silence a whole community: "There are so many stories that need to be told: the world in this film is totally under-explored and under- valued."

It's a world that the Select Committee on the British film industry might care to explore. And if its members can find the time to fly to Hollywood, they can surely find the time to visit Harlesden.

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