The two long documentary films in this section were titled ‘songs’ by their makers in recognition of their poetic structure. They were made fifty years apart and in very different circumstances. Both reflect on race and culture and the consequences of Britain’s Imperial past. 

Films showing in this section: 

1.11: Basil Wright Song of Ceylon 1934
1.49: John Akomfrah and Black Audio Film Collective Handsworth Songs 1986

Basil Wright Song of Ceylon 1934

38 minutes. Collection: BFI National Film & Television Archive 

Song of Ceylon was commissioned by the Government-funded Empire Marketing Board to promote tea from a source within the Empire. Basil Wright understood that the Singhalese belief-system he was recording would soon be eroded, not least by the trade he was promoting. He underlines its fragility by using a traveller’s 1680 account of the island as the film’s sole commentary. He later described his experience of making the film as ‘a religious epiphany’. 


Basil Wright was born in 1907. He worked with John Grierson from 1929, but claimed he acquired his artist’s ‘eye’ from the American documentary maker Robert Flaherty. He worked on Night Mail 1936 and many of the most innovative documentaries of the pre-War period, and was director of the Crown Film Unit in its final years. He later taught at the University of California, and at the National Film School in London. His writings include The Use of Film 1948 and The Long View 1972. The film prize of the Royal Anthropological Institute is named after him. He died in 1987.

John Akomfrah and Black Audio Film Collective Handsworth Songs 1986

58 minutes. Collection: Smoking Dog Films 

Handsworth Songs, directed by John Akomfrah, was the first major film of the Black Audio Film Collective. It explores the origins of the uprisings by black communities in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1985. Its themes are race, memory, ideology and Britain’s colonial past. ‘The song,’ writes Michael O’Pray, ‘is a cultural form which can dig as deep as any analysis … The poetry of song … is a potent weapon, that for centuries has been used powerfully by the colonisers themselves.’ 1988 


John Akomfrah was born in 1957. He studied at Portsmouth Polytechnic. Akomfrah joined David Lawson, Lina Gaupaul and Reece Auguiste to found the Black Audio Film Collective in 1983, initially working in slide-tape, then 16mm film. Akomfrah has made many distinguished documentary films for television including A Touch of the Tar Brush 1991, Seven Songs for Malcolm X 1993, and Martin Luther King - Days of Hope 1997.