On Thursday 2 June the Mockingbird Bar and Theatre, an exciting new arts and cultural venue located in the Custard Factory in Birmingham’s creative district in Digbeth, hosted the last in a series of AHRC-funded Francophone film screenings as part of a Cultural Engagement project.

The project funded Early Career Researchers like me to collaborate with local arts and cultural institutions in productive and exciting ways. This AHRC funding has allowed me to do some collaborative work in the cultural sector, forging vital new partnerships and gaining invaluable skills in the process. I have always been interested in public engagement, but this idea of cultural engagement seemed to be not just about academics articulating some of what their research is about beyond the confines of academia, but rather about forging working relationships that are genuinely mutually beneficial and dynamic. 

A still from Sissako’s 2002 film Heremakono: Waiting for Happiness. Abdallah’s window onto the world…

Still from 'Waiting for happiness'

Two earlier screenings took place at the MAC and The Drum. This third film event in the series was at the Mockingbird, part of Digbeth’s Custard Factory. It was a chance to screen a film by a really interesting Francophone director from Mali and Mauritania. Abderrahmane Sisskao’s 2002 film ‘Heremakono/Waiting for Happiness’ is set in a coastal transit town in Mauritania, and explores ideas about alienation and integration, migration and the movement of people, and cultural identities and national borders that are as urgent today as when the film was made.

The film was critically acclaimed at the time, but would have been easy to miss if you were not working in the field! Part of the impetus behind this cultural engagement work is about getting more people ‘out there’ in contact with these kinds of interesting films, as well as getting to work with vibrant new arts venues with a clear commitment to putting on these kind of cultural events. 

Although there is not much dialogue in the film, the dialogue that is there is compelling and revealing. This film reflects on language in fascinating and playful ways, and also explores other forms of communication. The landscape is central here too – long takes revel in both the ocean and the desert resulting in a pace that feels slow to many Anglophone audiences used to fast paced montage and cuts. The silences in the film are as important as words and song. The narrative is radically open and unfixed making it a particularly interesting film for discussion.

After the screening Dr Louise Hardwick and I held a Q&A session where I was able to say a little more about the director and pick out some key ideas in the film. The format of the Q&A was open and friendly – the idea was to encourage people to share their thoughts on this film that resists easy and clear-cut interpretation.

In this discussion, I talked about the idea of thinking of this film as a form of cinematic poetry. The film itself is more like a series of interlinked but fragmented scenes, like verses in a poem. We were able to talk about what it feels like to watch a film that is so different from what we are used to in mainstream cinema. It allowed us to say something about precisely why this Francophone African director is so interesting and important. 

The Mockingbird made the perfect venue for the event – after the Q&A the audience was able to continue excited conversations about film making in Africa, what the film meant, and images that had particularly resonated for them.

Dr Claire Peters and Dr Louise Hardwick, both Department of Modern Languages, discussing the film at the Mockingbird Bar and Theatre

Question and answer session

For me, this is exactly what cultural engagement is all about: connecting people with some of the exciting work that we are doing in arts and culture here at the university, and also allowing people to take part in the debates. Crucially, this would not have been possible without the energy and expertise of the team at the Mockingbird. 

Building on the success of these events we are working with the Mockingbird again on a free Francophone Postcolonial Film Workshop, taking place on Saturday 11 June 2016 from 10am-12pm, which will explore ways of engaging with these Francophone films. It is open to the Birmingham public – hope to see you there!

The Mockingbird’s theatre, based in Digbeth at Birmingham’s Custard Factory

Audience in the Mockingbird

For more information on the AHRC Cultural Engagement Showcase event to be held here at the University of Birmingham on Tuesday 5 July 2016, please contact Dr Claire Peters, c.i.macleodpeters@bham.ac.uk

Portrait of Claire Peters

Dr Claire Peters is an ARHC Cultural Engagement Fellow and a Research Assistant on a Francophone Caribbean film project. She has worked as a teaching fellow in the department of Modern Languages since completing her PhD 3 years ago and she continues to be interested in questions around cultural memory and identity, representations of urban space, and Francophone postcolonial cinema and literature in relation to questions of ethics.