A retrospective season begun screening at the BFI Southbank in October and runs through this month with a screening of his ‘A Hole in Babylon’ on Sunday (November 12), while we also look briefly at the Representing the Unseen programme, created to spotlight work by one-time BBC producer Tara Prem…
KNIGHTED last year, and passing away just before the season of his films are to be screened at the British Film Institute (BFI) Southbank, Sir Horace Ové’s one-time producer and former wife, Annabelle Alcazar said he would be thrilled and delighted by the recognition.
Sir Horace died on September 16 this year and suffered from Alzheimer’s in his later years. He was 86 on his passing.
He is one of the pioneering voices of British Black cinema – if not the pioneer with what is widely seen now as the first British Black feature film – ‘Pressure‘ in 1975. (See our review link below)
Fully restored in 4K and screened at the BFI on Monday (October 24) and before that at the London Film Festival (LFF), Alcazar was part of a panel that was assembled by the BFI to consider his life and work.
Several clips of his work were screened and a panel made up of Alcazar, BBC producers Peter Ansorge and Tara Prem, assessed his life and work with broadcaster and moderator Samira Ahmed.
In the very final clip closing that night’s discussion, there was an excerpt of an interview Sir Horace had done with the BFI in 1991.
Sir Horace said: “I want us as black people and creative black people to take films and do what we’ve done with music.
“You know black music (has) reached a point where it’s so incredible, and beautiful and perfect and it works, it takes you everywhere.
“I want film to do the same thing – just like the family and music (and) that is in sport (universally recognised) but take it further.”
Born in Trinidad and of mixed heritage – his mother was “pure Indian”, Alcazar confirmed to the BFI audience – Ove was also a photographer, visual artist and writer.
Alcazar painted a portrait of a young man, who was hungry for art, culture and life and spent a part of his formative years in Trinidad watching films – the Americans had army bases there during the war and films from all over the world were introduced to locals, she said.
Arriving in the UK in 1960 to study painting, photography and interior design, Sir Horace’s life took something of an expected turn.
Working as an extra on films, he was signed up to play one of the slaves in the Elizabeth Taylor blockbuster, ‘Cleopatra‘ (1963) and went to Rome – after the shooting schedule changed – and found himself thoroughly at home.
“He loved the different cultures,” Alcazar explained.
He stayed on in Rome after shooting and the whole experience seems to have inspired him and boosted his desire to both chronicle, comment and reflect on the black experience in the UK. He described his time on the set of ‘Cleopatra‘ as “inspiring” and he also met Taylor briefly on the set.
Sir Horace didn’t just make fiction features – his documentaries too were different and unique.
He made a film on the Bhopal disaster – ‘Who Shall We Tell?‘* – travelling to India not long after the terrible gas leak there had claimed the lives more than 2,000 people in a single night/morning in 1984 and had severely impacted a further estimated half a million residents.
Sir Horace found families who had lived through the night and early morning and captured their experiences in a way that much of the western media had not done.
Sir Horace gained access with the help of Mala Sen, a writer and researcher, who would go on to write a book about Phoolan Devi, a woman whose life story was turned into ‘Bandit Queen‘ – which Sir Horace, at one point, was set to direct initially. (See our knighthood story).
The second panel on the same evening (October 24) convened following the later screening of ‘Pressure‘ – and consisted Alcazar, Herbert Norville, the actor who plays the lead of ‘Tony’ in the film; and author Caryl Phillips who knew Sir Horace well.
Phillips said that Ové was at heart a multi-faceted artist and film was the main media through which he chose to communicate.
He told a packed BFI NFT1 audience that Sir Horace’s European influences are undeniable.
“He was a surrealist and the pig scene (in Pressure) is inspired by Bunel.”
In other words, Sir Horace should be seen in the wider context of filmmaking – it is easy and perhaps just a little lazy to see him solely as a “black filmmaker” – he was and so much more and some – but society at the time in Britain had blinkers and prejudices which probably prevented him from doing what he really wanted – that seemed to be the insinuation. He was our Spike Lee before Spike…
His understanding of ideas and culture brought a different dimension to ‘A Hole in Babylon‘, which was based around the real Spaghetti House siege in 1975, when three black men took control of a restaurant and held its diners as hostages in Knightsbridge and later demanded some prisoners they knew to be released in exchange for the safety of the restaurant staff and clientele. The hostage situation petered out with two of the men giving up and the third shot himself in the stomach. All three were handed lengthy prison sentences.
For the police, it was nothing but a robbery that had gone wrong and the men were portrayed as gangsters in the mainstream media – the truth was far more complex.
The men had experienced brutal racism – as Sir Horace had, and had recounted to his local newspaper more recently when talking about his early life in Britain – and the men were politically conscious. The film screened in the BBC Play for Today strand in 1979, and illustrates how much they were influenced at the time by ideas around black liberation and consciousness – and were intelligent students who had been denied opportunities by society at the time.
Sunday screening of A Hole In Babylon – BFI – https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=holeinbabylonthegarland
Sir Horace Ové – where to begin (BFI) – https://www.bfi.org.uk/features/where-begin-with-horace-ove
Tara Prem – visionary producer
*Tara Prem’s ‘A Touch of Eastern Promise’ and ‘Black Christmas’ was also among the work screened as part of a short season of films devoted to the pioneering producer in the BFI Southbank’s Tara Prem: Representing the Unseen.
Her drama, ‘Resurrected’ (1989) which was director’s Paul Greengrass’ (‘Jason Bourne’) fiction debut screens this evening (November 11 at 6pm). Based on a true story, it is about a British Falklands war hero who was presumed dead but then turned up back at home – and is accused of cowardice by much of the press.
Prem who is of Indian origin, and had Bollywood family connections and was a one-time actor when she was young, settled into a producing role for the BBC in Birmingham in the late 1960s and appeared in both a panel after a ‘Touch of Eastern Promise’ discussing her career and after ‘Black Christmas’. After the BBC, she moved into production in the private sector.
She described how she was given a degree of autonomy at the BBC and there was a lot of learning about TV back then in the early days and how there were less layers and bureaucracy then and she made it a point to champion new writers and new voices.
‘A touch of Eastern Promise’ is touching, charming, very watchable 30-minute TV piece set in the Midlands featuring a local young shopkeeper’s son (Dev Sagoo) who is desperate to meet Bollywood star (Jamila Massey) who is coming to the area to promote a film of hers screening at local theatre. The screenplay was written by Prem and the drama directed by Michael Linday-Hogg, who used non-professional actors, who were actually Punjabi speaking shop owners. Well worth watching if you can – a lovely glimpse of life for Asian life at the time.
See all the films screened as part of Tara Prem (reference): Representing the Unseen