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



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