Birmingham Critical Film Forum ‘Earthly Bodies’ Screens’ At Eastside Projects

Writer Beth Exley / Photographer Dinosaur Kilby – Eastside Projects

I feel a little awkward arriving at Eastside Projects for the ‘Earthly Bodies’ Birmingham Critical Film Forum screening. I’m pretty early and haven’t been to many film screenings before, so I’m not entirely sure what to expect. 

Birmingham Critical Film Forum is a relatively new endeavour which is being supported by the Stuart Croft Foundation Curatorial Award. The project aims to help disseminate and develop the work of artists using film and moving images in the West Midlands. 

April 14’s screening is the first of four film screenings planned, and according to the programme it aims to bring together feminist, multi-vocal, and ecological film-making practices. As a side note, the program has been printed by the Holodeck and is gorgeous – I’m definitely going to be holding onto this after the event finishes.

The gallery space is delightful at Eastside Projects.  It’s a warehouse that is currently filled by a straw, cardboard, and (I think) burlap construction that seems to evoke a prehistoric settlement. I later find out this is a project by Emii Alrai entitled The Courtship of Giants. I clock huge cheese plants growing out of industrial barrels and neon lights overhead – there’s lots to take in whilst I wait for the screening to start.

Taking my seat, more people start filing in, it seems like the typical arty Digbeth crowd, there’s lots of interesting coats and cool haircuts about. I exchange smiles with a few other solo attendees, and begin to feel at ease. 

Once most of the seats are filled, Jessica Piette, a Birmingham based curator responsible for tonight’s programme, provides an overview of the themes, artists, and films involved. The aforementioned neon lights are turned off, and Watershed, a 2020 piece by South African artist Linda Stupart is projected onto the wall.  

A figure wrapped in fabric scraps that obscures their head wades into Birmingham’s River Cole, whilst the artist’s voice instructs me to be aware of the spit in my mouth. I’m immediately confused and intrigued, a feeling that sticks with me throughout the 11-minute piece. Every time I think I know what’s going on, the piece changes tone, from an acapella cover of a Black Sabbath song, to an intense spoken word piece, to the ambient sounds of the river itself. 

The voice of the piece is hard to pin down, but ambiguity is clearly Stupart’s aim. The river becomes a body to be mapped and fiction is mixed with science and history to create a surreal and haunting film. 

As Watershed finishes, Unctuous Between Fingers (2019) begins to play. This 15-minute short by Bryony Gillard uses an archive of pressed seaweeds collected by 19th-century women and held by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery as its starting point. 

It has striking visuals – including one shot of pressed seaweed that reminds me of an anatomical heart – merged with short sections of spoken word and synth music. There are obvious parallels between the first two films; the water, and human interactions are a mutual central feature, but Unctuous feels far calmer and slightly more tangible. 

As Shireen Seno’s 2021 work To Pick a Flower starts, I am immediately grasped by its stripped back display of historic photographs accompanied by a simple narration. The piece explores the relationship between humans and nature in the Philippines during the late colonial period, particularly in the lumber industry. 

Maybe it’s just my inner history nerd speaking, but I am completely engrossed and feel like I’m learning a lot about the topic. I even write down a list of things I want to read more about after the film. 

With the start of the fourth and final film, Seeds (2016) by Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann, I start to get quite sad that the evening is coming to a close. 

As the shortest piece of the night, Seeds also manages to pack the biggest punch. A visual poem that explores the balance of life and death, good and bad, and the interconnectedness of this world, in a mere 4-minutes. Seeds is truly moving.

And, among a group of strong contenders in ‘Earthly Bodies’,  which all speak wonderfully to the theme of feminist ecological film making, it stands out as my favourite.

For more information about the artists and their work please see:

Jessica Piette: www.jessicapiette.com/Earthly-Bodies
Linda Stupart: www.remembertheliquidground.rca.ac.uk/artists/linda-stupart
Bryony Gillard: www.unctuousbetweenfingers.co.uk/
Shireen Seno: www.vimeo.com/629308301
Philippa Ndishi-Herrmann: www.philippandisiherrmann.com

You can also check out Birmingham Critical Film Forum, via @birminghamcriticalfilmforum on Instagram (only) to keep up to date with the project, and find out about their upcoming screenings. 

Empower Poetry Eliminates Elitism With Soul-Revealing Spoken Word And Free Cupcakes

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Enhance Creatives

Empower Poetry delivered a truly unique experience last Wednesday at Zumhof Biergarten, on Lower Trinity Street. One which provided a safe space for all attendees, and samosa for just a pound.

The upstairs of Zumhof is a bit of an enigma and I’m curious about how Empower Poetry is going to create intimacy in such a spacious venue. Curated, is the first word that comes to mind. Everything about the events set up is purposeful, the crew’s matching hoodies, the spotlights, the Instagram-inspired flower wall. The seats are cosy boasting several sofas and there’s chicken and dumplings with greens as well as free cupcakes.

Before the night kicks off, Empower’s Kohinoor states that the night’s purpose is to eliminate elitism and give power back to spoken word poetry. She’s piqued my interest already.

Keilah Rebekah, gives a brief trigger warning (a frequent occurrence throughout the night) before starting the evening off on a soulful note. Her dynamic vocals sing us through her childhood trauma. It’s great to have some creative variety from the offset, though I experience a sinking feeling and tears start streaming down my face as I helplessly reflect back Keilah’s vulnerability.

God, I wish she had a band behind her.

Next up is Destiny, who starts his first poem with ‘Dear future wife’ and all the fems in the room swoon. Destiny’s poetry is passionate and lustful, it’s humble and hilarious, and then it’s over because we swiftly move onto…

Ameena, who I adore instantly because she’s a loud-mouth brown girl, who talks about politics. ‘Why are we cancelling celebrities but not politicians?’ Ameena to-the-point flow questions. I’m clicking vigorously, while several ‘mhmms’ emanate from the crowd. Her clever rhymes and confidence definitely make Ameena one to watch.

Ade, must also get a mention. His use of an instrumental backing track matched to his spoken word is atmospheric, making him stand out from the other poets. Ade’s performance speaks on his blackness and spirituality, as he thanks his parents for their grace in raising him. It’s refreshing considering the parental focus so far has been, justifiably, negative.

Stephanie follows, and I indulge in a small sigh of relief as she appears on stage with a notebook in hand. Maybe it’s because I’m about to hit my quarter-life crisis, but there’s something about phones on stage that challenges my focus on the poetic ambiance.

Stephanie sultrily speaks of womanhood with its joys and fears. Her flow is relaxed and cool, but purposeful. Stephanie’s imagery is expressive, demanding more and sarcastically unpacking the notorious orgasm-gap. She pauses, letting the seriousness of her words land amongst the audience, as our giggles settle.

Stephanie knows that what she’s saying is the truth, her truth, our collective truth. So, she doesn’t need pace to prove a point.

There’s a 10 minute comfort break. So, I grab myself some water because the halal friendly vibes mean no one’s going to question why I’m not drinking, and take my seat again.

Straight on is Birmingham Review’s very own, Hassan, who passionately speaks about the confines of religion. Then, Irram, who speaks about curry for breakfast on Sunday mornings and the challenges she experiences as a hijabi who wears her culture and religion proudly on her face.

Next, we’re blessed by separate performances from organisers Ryan and Kohinoor, who are both clearly experienced poets. Then, introduced to Haroon and jodY from BYOB or Bring Your Own Bars, a London poetry collective who Ryan stresses have been hugely influential in his personal spoken-word journey.

jodY’s (BYOB) performance moves me in a different way, even though he’s the only poet on the night to ask for a restart.

jodY becomes his childhood self on stage as he performs his poetry without an aide, physically embodying all of the sadness and rage that his words express. Labelled a naughty child at school, jodY’s dyslexia suffocates him as he recounts choking up whilst being made to read at school. His flow and mannerisms perfectly synced, they are a scarily accurate representation of a child falling into crippling anxiety.

Too many children are made to feel stupid when they just need a different kind of support. I take the time to thank Jody for his performance before I head out. Wait, there’s one more spoken word artist left.

Jada, is a Birmingham based poet who is “Interested in the conversations we are not having and using poetry as a medium to provoke thinking about equality, empowerment and economics”.

In her spoken-word set, Jada’s flow is well-timed and cleverly critical, talking directly to the audience about Kim Kardashian beauty standards and how they impact modern day sex and intimacy. In her final poem Jada’s voice fortifies, calling out the horrific behaviour of our government throughout the pandemic, and sharing her personal loss at being unable to attend her uncle’s funeral.

Empower Poetry’s event leaves me simultaneously fulfilled and exhausted. There is a lot to process. It’s been real, looking forward to the next.

For more, including updates on their next event follow from Empower_Poetry and links to social media, click here.

Coming to England “world premiere” at Birmingham Rep

Writer Ed King / Photographer Geraint Lewis

“My smile is my armour…”

Outside is rain soaked and grey, but inside the Birmingham Rep are colourful balloons, calypso music, and the lure of rum cocktails on a Monday. It’s a stark contrast, one I could get used to, and an appropriate metaphor for the journey we are about to witness, albeit in reverse.

Tonight is the “world premiere” of Floella Benjamin’s autobiography turned musical, Coming to England – adapted for the stage by David Wood, the longstanding and celebrated children’s playwright (and gun toting anti-establishment public schoolboy in If..)

Originally published by Pavilion Books in 1996, then again by Pan Macmillan as a children’s picture book, the personal account tells of the hopes and racism that surrounded Floella Benjamin and her family when they moved from Trinidad as part of the now called Windrush generation.

Overcoming the bigotry she suffered both at school and in the London suburbs, Coming to England tells how the 10 year old Floella battled through these cruelties and challenges to become one of the most well known and loved faces of children’s television – serving as one of the longest standing presenters of the phenomenally popular Play School, amongst an impressive portfolio on big and small screen.

Although often remembered for her presenting work, Benjamin’s rising prominence in Britain was far from childish. She received her first OBE for her services to broadcasting in 2001, was appointed Baroness of Beckenham by the Liberal Democrats in 2010, then made a Dame in 2020 by the royal family she unashamedly venerates.

But the purported land of hope and glory was not as welcoming as many had believed it would be, with even the fiercely patriotic still being judged by the colour of their skin. As the young and confused Floella is quick to tell us on stage, “…but we were British through and through.”

Coming to England, begins with a happy and literally clappy opening number. The tone is set by the energetic ensemble, swapping costumes and roles as they dance, play, and smile across every square of the stage; this one’s for the children.

Following a brief reference to the royal honours, we are transported to Floella’s early family home in Trinidad, “a wooden house on stilts,” with the rose tinted memories of childhood in warmer climates. Butterflies and orchids parade around the stage, as the carnival of youth invites us in with open arms.

But even from the exuberant opening, as if Play School had drunk a bottle of Angostura Gold and exploded on stage, there is the cruel edge of racism present in the narrative.

Bold colours and sounds wash over the audience, those young or free enough clap along, but onstage the lyrics are cut with snarled faces in trench coats demanding, “…your kind should go home.”

Floella’s family grows, with comical ‘deliveries’ from the stork, and we watch her siblings enjoying a loving home. Yet, the children fear corporal punishment at school, highlighted in a scene that scares some in the audience but generates a ripple of bittersweet nostalgia (and laughter) from others.

The narrative’s duality is soft and continuous, with the first half building to what we know will be a more uncomfortable second. Marmie and Dardie Benjamin burst the children’s bubble by heeding the colonial call to “make Britain great again” and Dardie expresses desires to “make money and music” in the burgeoning London jazz scene.

Dardie leaves for the UK first, with Marmie and the two youngest following a year later, as the remaining four children have a brutal 15 months with foster parents – touched upon by the quickly referenced actions of their faux aunties and uncles, but not overly dramatised. Again, this one’s for the children.

After a nearly 4,500 mile sea journey for the young Benjamins (and an interval break for the Rep audience) we watch the large Trinidadian family suffer the cold, cramped surroundings, and bigotry of their new white dominated world – moving from a one room London apartment to their first UK family home in Beckenham.

Jumping quickly across the years, arguably too quick for a life so varied and full of achievement, David Wood’s adaptation relies heavily on music and song – directed and superbly choreographed by Omar F Okai. The songs are thoroughly infectious, as you would hope from a musical, but ‘She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain’ is perhaps the most memorable and I won’t be singing that on the way home.

The story is short, simple, and full of inspirational messages for the younger audience, whilst thoroughly entertaining all ages in the room – from the children it is clearly aimed at, to the “Play School babies” who are secretly hoping for a cameo from Big Ted and Little Ted.

British hypocrisy and colonialism are somewhat side stepped in Coming to England; it is not my story to tell, but this felt like a missed opportunity to fill in the blanks left by a selected approach to classroom history. But the production is unflinching in the face of racism – presented both a confident and child-friendly manner.

The harsh reality and ultimate betray of the British Nationality Act 1948 are comically referenced towards the end of the second act, by a Goon Show/Mr Chumley Warner-esque World Service announcer (depending on your age and cultural reference points) who delivers stiff upper lip advice to the Caribbean community establishing themselves in Britain.

There are some clever touches that bring home the two lives lived by our central protagonist. The young Floella, played magnificently by Paula Kay, talks in a Caribbean accent, whilst the older/narrator Floella breaks the fourth wall in a straight British drawl.

The use of versatile sets and energetic dance routines fill the large stage well, with lighting and mobiles framing the scenes beautifully – although so much so, when it comes to the official carnival scene there is nowhere to go but straight ahead. And whilst the whole cast commit and excel with aplomb, with no weak links, Bree Smith’s performance of Marmie (and the evil ‘auntie’) also stands out.

A joyous and educational hour and a half, Coming to England does exactly what it sets out to do and does it wonderfully well – telling the story of a young, loving, patriotic family leaving their home in the British colony of Trinidad to live, work, and help rebuild the “mother country”, only to be met by racism and bigotry.

Floella Benjamin’s approach to the home soil hatred is to be lauded and listened to, told through a rich and accessible story that inspires you with both its innate kindness and the fantastic achievements of its narrator.

If you’re wanting a tough polemic on the failures of Atlee’s post war Britain to embrace integration from countries the Empire took by military force or financial mercenary… Coming to England is not for you.

But if you want nearly 90 minutes of carnival flavoured songs, dance, positive storytelling, and a narrative littered with encouragement and inspiration – one that will open the discussion on racism in a child appropriate tone – then I’d book a place at The Rep for you and yours immediately.

And whilst Coming to England is certainly aimed at a younger audience (the rum cocktails are optional) every age can learn something from Floella Benjamin’s life story – told with a litany of life affirming lines from start to finish.

“…and winners smile.”

Coming to England is presented as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, a six-month celebration of creativity in the West Midlands surrounding the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Coming to England plays at The Rep until Sat 16 Apr. For tickets visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk  or call 0121 236 4455.

A Life Lived Through Photographs: Getting to Know Home with Maryam Wahid

Writer Noah Underwood / Photographer Tegen Kimbley

Walking into award-winning photographer Maryam Wahid’s first major photographic exhibition at the Midlands Arts Centre, Zaibunnisa, I am struck by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.

Homegrown in Birmingham and a Moseley resident, Wahid, 26, grew up hearing stories of her mother’s pre-married life in her native Lahore, Pakistan. These stories were accompanied by a family photo album, providing Wahid with snapshots of a life lived in Lahore.

In this exhibition, Wahid documents her first visit to Pakistan, accompanied by her mother, who hadn’t returned in over 20 years, where they retraced her life there together. In doing so, Wahid captured a side to her mother that she’d only glimpsed in that album: “Mum was called Zaibunnisa, so in these pictures she is Zaibunnisa.”

In this collection, Wahid masterfully recreates that childhood experience of poring over that family photo album, not only with her use of film, but particularly by scaling down certain mounted photographs. I find myself peering closer, trying to soak up as many of the vivid details as possible, much as I imagine a little Wahid might have done, laying sprawled across her living room carpet.

Here in this large bright room, fresh yet somehow familiar scenes hang alongside the original photos that she’s spent her whole life looking at. Curated in clusters, they allow the visitor to dwell on certain places, faces and feelings as they walk around the exhibition.

Wahid’s photographs are best distinguished by her reverence for light – as she explores its narrow streets, Wahid chooses to linger in the midst of the shadows and sunlight that the city of Lahore affords her. This characterful play of light across the simultaneously natural and built up landscape of Lahore is punctuated by pops of vivid colours, testament to the people who live there.

I ask Wahid about how the work reflects her relationship and journey with her own sense of identity as a British South Asian woman from Birmingham. Smiling brightly, she says,

“I feel that I’ve defined my own identity now. I feel complete.”

We talk a little about her deeply spiritual experience getting to know her grandparents by visiting their old house, their graves, and speaking to those that remember them. She points out a photograph of her own maternal grandfather to me, before drawing my attention to another of a grandfather that she’d seen lingering in his doorway in Lahore, smoking.

She mimics the man, clutching an imaginary cigarette: “That was something I had known about my grandfather – I knew that he was a smoker. [That man] held my gaze and it was like he was my grandfather.”

Zaibunnisa is an extremely intimate experience, as much an ode to her mother as a snapshot of Wahid’s evolving relationship with her family and homeland. A Brummie at heart, she wishes to “create work that speaks to all kinds of people.” Here, she does just that – capturing the feeling that so many of us share, of longing to understand not only where we came from and who that makes us, but what that means for where we are going.

You can (and should) catch Zaibunnisa at the MAC until the 18 April. Entry is free, for more visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk/exhibition/zaibunnisa

Find out more about Maryam Wahid and her work visit www.maryamwahid.com

Still not satisfied? Check out this 2020 Autograph interview with Wahid, click here

Snapshots of Mumbai – by Ed King, featuring pictures from Paul Ward

Pics by Paul Ward – all photography in this article has taken from Snapshots of Mumbai

On Saturday 15th August, Birmingham born writer Ed King releases Snapshots of Mumbai – marking 75 years of India’s independence from British colonial rule.

Supporting the text are a series of original images from photographer Paul Ward, who recently won the ‘Fashion Photographer’ category at the British Photography Awards 2020.

Exploring the might and majesty of India, whilst following the roots of British imperialism, Snapshots of Mumbai is ‘a love letter’ to the modern day megacity – published by Review Publishing, owners of Birmingham Review.

The 204 page coffee table book is an anthology of essays and interviews from Mumbai – starting with ‘South City’, a walking tour through the history of this sprawling modern metropolis.

‘Places Behind’ goes deeper under the surface of prominent areas in Mumbai, such as Dhobi Ghats – the world’s largest outdoor laundromat, and Dharavi – Asia’s biggest slum where the film Slumdog Millionaire was set.

‘Modern Gods’ explores three major driving forces behind Mumbai, told through more extensive essays on religion, entertainment, and trade.

Whilst ‘Interviews’ sees Ed King talk directly to of people about their first-hand experiences of living and working in Mumbai.

Featured in the chapter are Saami – a street hawker who works and lives on the streets of Colaba, and Ashwin Merchant – Deputy Director of the Swiss Business Hub, who had to help Mumbai police identify bodies after the 2008 terror attacks, and Naresh Fernandes – a prominent Mumbai based journalist and writer, who was editor of Time Out Mumbai when interviewed.

‘The Gallery’, the final chapter in Snapshots of Mumbai, showcases a special series of twelve photographs from the project by Paul Ward – which have already been on display as standalone exhibitions at both Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Bilston Art Gallery.

Written for audiences who may or may not know the city, Snapshots of Mumbai is also ‘a reminder’ of Britain’s colonial legacy in South Asia – introducing today’s readers to the ‘forgotten history’ of the British Raj.

The first of five books that will follow Britain’s involvement with India – from the trade of the East India Company to the military occupation enforced by the British Crown – the Snapshots of… series will further cover Kochi, Chennai, Kolkata, and Kashmir.

Ed King was born in Birmingham, but has a longstanding relationship with India – having covered music events across the country for a number of UK titles.

Although it was his own ignorance of the history between the two countries that spurred him to write Snapshots of Mumbai.

“The term ‘Empire’ was never taught in my history lessons,” tells Ed King, “it was a left to fade behind tales of the League of Nations and other heroic feathers in caps.

“But the legacy of British India has shaped both countries, tied them together – and it’s becoming part of the world’s conveniently forgotten history.

“I wrote Snapshots of Mumbai because I wanted to learn about the relationship between Britain and India myself. Something I hoped to pass on in an engaging narrative surrounded by beautiful pictures – thank you Paul Ward. This book is not an accusation of ignorance; I want the book to be enjoyed. It is, quite simply, a love letter to the city – an exploration of Mumbai.

“But we should hold on to history and know how the world was formed by our grandparents, our great grandparent’s, and those that came before. It is a frightening and absurd chapter to forget. There’s still an audience for truth.”

Ed King interviewed about Snapshots of Mumbai – filmed at Oikos Café, Erdington

Snapshots of Mumbai is available in both hardback and paperback editions from Saturday, 15 August, release by Review Publishing. 

For more on Snapshots of Mumbai, including links to online sales, visit www.reviewpublishing.net/snapshots-of-mumbai

For more on Paul Ward, visit www.paulward.net