Burning an Illusion was only the second British feature to have been made by a black director following Horace Ové’s Pressure. That particular work was released in 1976, a full five years earlier. In the meantime there had been Anthony Simmons’ Black Joy and Franco Rosso’s Babylon, undoubtedly important works, but perhaps lacking the immediacy which made Pressure so forceful. Indeed, Burning an Illusion shares this quality, most likely because the factors of its production were identical. Financed by the BFI and shot on 16mm film stock, it is ungoverned by studio hands and has the uncanny ability to capture an atmosphere or milieu, seemingly without any effort. Certainly, Menelik Shabazz has created a sense of the ordinary, and this is his film’s very strength. It may be political filmmaking, and by extension feminist filmmaking, but it’s the human drama at its heart which allows it to makes its mark.
At the centre of this drama is Pat, played by Cassie McFarlane, an independent young black woman. We meet her just as she is beginning a romance with Dev (Victor Romero), one which is captured though the tiny personal moments. Indeed, Shabazz’s approach is very much one of social realism – his footage blends in seamlessly with the more overtly documentary-like shots of the Notting Hall carnival used later on, whilst he’s not afraid to have his characters appear awkward or even unattractive. Oftentimes there is a sense of eavesdropping on this couple (enhanced, of course, by the restrictive filming conditions) as their relationship develops and hits various hurdles. And it’s important for Burning an Illusion as a whole that we do get to see them close up, for it provides an initial warmth which only makes the ensuing harshness all the more palpable.
Furthermore, Dev is never treated as some kind of boogeyman figure. For all his threats of violence and anger, Dev is also allows a great charm and eloquence. It could be argued that he is more intelligent than Pat - indeed it is he who drives her increasing consciousness and therefore the narrative. Not that Burning an Illusion is especially plot driven, however. For the most part it’s a decidedly remote, domestic affair: much of the first hour remains solely with the couple, whilst it takes a surprising amount of time before we see the first significant white face.
And yet Shabazz is undoubtedly making a political film and, having established this firm base of realism, highlights this factor during the second half. Indeed, it is here where Burning an Illusion begins to reveal its age for whilst much of its discussion is still relevant, there is also plenty which is of its time. As such certain factors reveal themselves which, when removed from the then current considerations, can now appear rather contrived. Pat’s voice-over, for example, is deployed more fully as she grows increasingly conscious of her world, yet the sense is that Shabazz is using it more to get from one to the other as he couldn’t quite succeed in narrative terms. Certainly, McFarlane convinces throughout, but such transitions can appear awkward. Moreover, the increasing number of narrative “events” likewise feels more dictated by a need to discuss certain issues than they do by these characters’ lives. Thus the minor tensions of our couple spill over into grander concerns: racism, sexism, violence, police brutality, prison conditions, gun crime. Importantly, however, Shabazz approaches them in the correct manner. Of course, there’s an anger at work here, but he always leaves room for the audience to make up their own minds.
Burning an Illusion comes to DVD in what would appear to be the best possible condition. As shot on 16mm the image is understandably soft and in possession of grain, but then this should be expected. Importantly, we are able to watch the film with the bare minimum of damage and its correct aspect ratio. Moreover, the soundtrack is equally clean and likewise demonstrates no technical flaws. Indeed, as one of the BFI’s own productions we should, of course, be getting the best possible presentation – and I’m convinced that we are.
Equally impressive is the consideration which has gone into the disc’s special features content. Shabazz reunited with his leads McFarlane and Romero for a superb commentary which balances a refreshing honesty with some insightful intelligence. Indeed, oftentimes the track resembles a debate as much a chat as the trio argue the significance of certain scenes and, by extension, Burning an Illusion as a whole. More potent, however, are the moments in which McFarlane in particular touches upon her struggles to capitalise on the success the role brought and branch out into further cinematic ventures, both as an actor and director.
Shabazz also appears for a 10-minute introduction in which he discusses Burning an Illusion, his short film Blood Ah Go Run made the same year, and the context of their productions. Describing himself as a filmmaker/activist, he’s extremely eloquent in evoking the era of the early eighties (Thatcher, the Suss Law, riots, etc.), whilst his involvement in the disc itself also allows Blood Ah Go Run to make a rare appearance. A 13-minute documentary, it functions as an alternative news report, Shabazz’s reasoning behind its production being that normal media channels wouldn’t cover the deaths of 13 youths as the result of a racist arson attack. Indeed, it’s a forceful, angry piece which doesn’t pull any punches – a direct approach which makes it difficult to ignore. [Note that Blood Ah Go Run was taken from a ¾inch tape which shows intermittent signs of damage owing to its age.]
The disc is rounded off by the film’s original theatrical trailer plus a fine eight-page booklet which includes new liner notes by Bonnie Greer, an archive review from the Monthly Film Bulletin and pieces on both Shabazz and black filmmaking in the UK.
As with the main feature, all extras where applicable come with optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Anthony Nield takes a look at the BFI's forthcoming Region 2 release of Menelik Shabazz's Burning an Illusion, the latest title in their 'Black World' range.