Arthur Howes

Documentary film-maker in Sudan

For Arthur Howes, films were his life - and Howes's own work bristles with vitality, a bounding love for the people who are its subjects and for the medium itself. Howes's trilogy of films about the Sudanese civil war (1990-2002) is documentary film-making at its best - journalistically accurate, visually exciting and humanly engaging. There is nothing difficult or worthy about Howes's work, although there is sadness, its main subject being what Howes called "the betrayal of the African dream".

Arthur Joseph Christopher Howes, film-maker: born Gibraltar 15 July 1950; (one son with Amy Hardie); died London 29 November 2004.

For Arthur Howes, films were his life - and Howes's own work bristles with vitality, a bounding love for the people who are its subjects and for the medium itself. Howes's trilogy of films about the Sudanese civil war (1990-2002) is documentary film-making at its best - journalistically accurate, visually exciting and humanly engaging. There is nothing difficult or worthy about Howes's work, although there is sadness, its main subject being what Howes called "the betrayal of the African dream".

Arthur Howes was born in Gibraltar in 1950, and his Mediterranean childhood - half-English, half-Spanish, with Africa on the horizon - informed all his life and work. He emigrated to London as a young man, in search of art, cinema, rock'n'roll - a favourite teenage memory concerned a sighting at Gibraltar airport of Anita Pallenberg and Brian Jones. He trained first as a teacher, then as a film-maker at the Polytechnic of Central London. And he settled in Brixton, south London, where he would live, in a ramshackle house stuffed with records, books, paintings, a Steenbeck and a great many friends, for the rest of his life.

Howes first visited Sudan in 1980, when he travelled to the Nuba mountains in the south of the country to work as a teacher. He worked among the people made famous by Leni Riefenstahl's photographs of body-painting and ceremonial wrestling; Howes's own pictures were published in The Face in 1983. But the Nuba's way of life was about to be torn apart as Sudan's ruling National Islamic Front moved to impose Sharia law on the largely non-Muslim southerners, igniting civil war between the government and the local Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

In 1988 Howes returned to Sudan as a graduate of the National Film and Television School. The film he made there, Kafi's Story (with Amy Hardie, 1990), tells of a young Nuba man's adventures as he plans to buy a dress for his second (i.e. additional) wife; portents of the coming cataclysm are seen through Kafi's eyes and recounted in Kafi's own words. The film won major awards at film festivals and was broadcast by Channel 4.

At the end of Kafi's Story, Howes promises to return soon to show the film to its protagonists; but this never happened. Howes was repeatedly refused entry to Sudan until 1998, when he sneaked in under cover of filming government celebrations. He filmed young children forcibly converted to Islam and recruited to the government army. He filmed whole villages of starving women. He met with Nuba exiles living in hiding around Khartoum; but he never found Kafi. Thus the awful unfolding of Nuba Conversations (2000), Howes's second Sudan film.

The third was the beautiful and greatly acclaimed Benjamin and his Brother (2002). This film tells the story of two young Dinka brothers, stranded in a Kenyan refugee camp, after walking hundreds of miles from Sudan. William is offered a chance to resettle in America, Benjamin is not - but which is the bigger loser? The film shows William breaking boxes in a Texas supermarket for the minimum wage, with no prospect of anything better. "I really feel ashamed," Benjamin says from the refugee camp. "We don't work as slaves; it is something unlawful to the Dinka culture."

Between his major documentaries, Arthur Howes taught at a variety of institutions, including Essex University and the London College of Printing. He was an inspirational teacher who promulgated an aesthetically demanding canon: the cinéma vérité of Jean Rouch and Frederick Wiseman; Godard's sublime Le Mépris; D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back.

He also worked on films with Towering Inferno, the maximalist performance group, and promos for others, including the legendary German group Faust. He was not an institutions man and had no interest in greasy poles; as a result, he found it difficult to fund his work. Digital technology, with its compact, cheap equipment, offered a way around this problem: instead of scrabbling for pennies from a diminishing pot, Howes just got himself an iMac and a camera and filmed whatever he liked.

Superb cameraman, writer and editor though he was, Arthur Howes had an even greater talent - a genius for friendship. He was generous, funny, loyal and genuinely fascinated by other people. There was a wonderful simplicity in the way he looked at the world that made it easy for him to get along with all sorts, and for all sorts to warm to him back. He charmed his way on to planes and across checkpoints, out of prison and into grand hotels. People faxed and e-mailed and phoned and visited from every corner of the world. To walk with Howes down Electric Avenue was to promenade with the king of Brixton. Hands reached out in greeting from all directions. Bouncers stood back to let him enter free of charge.

Arthur Howes discovered he had cancer in January 2003, shortly after returning from a trip to Brazil. Being the sort of man he was, he underwent chemotherapy while experimenting with complementary medicines and concurrently planning a second Brazilian trip, this time to make a film. The result, Bacchanalias Bahianas 1-5, was unfinished at his death. It is a slow, dark meditation on human and natural beauty as the weakening film-maker - unable, sometimes, to support the weight of his camera - delights in the sun, sea, music and strong young bodies around him.

"A bystander's view from a fixed point - the world moving around [him]," Howes wrote in explication. "One is no longer moving with the world, but has become through contemplation and observation a fixed point round which the world continues."

Jenny Turner



Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence