Arthur Howes

Documentary-maker passionately involved in the griefs of Sudan

Jeffrey Geiger
Tuesday December 7, 2004
The Guardian

Arthur Howes, who has died aged 54 from lung cancer, was an award-winning filmmaker. As an expert on the Sudan, he was often asked for his views during its recent years of political crisis. His documentaries, most of them made on tight budgets, were screened on Channel 4, acclaimed at international festivals and are taught on film courses the world over.

Filmmaking was only one facet of Arthur's talents (he painted, spoke five languages and was a charismatic storyteller), but his films are his chief legacy, revealing passion and respect for the people he filmed and for cinema itself.

His films show keen sensitivity and a knack for engaging people, whether he was working in Brixton (his home for 30 years), the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, or Brazil in Bacchanalias Bahianas 1-5.

He was born and educated in Gibraltar, and migrated to London to find the intellectual and creative stimulation that he craved. He did art and teacher training at Furzedown College, applying his avant-garde interests to experiments with super-8 cameras.

In the mid-1970s he did a BA in film studies at the Polytechnic of Central London, where he made Threatened Assassins, a deft fictional work that was influenced both by French New Wave and genres like film noir.

Arthur was unafraid to challenge the filmmaking status quo. He had been a teacher in Kadugli, Sudan (1980-82), and in 1984 he brought his experimental technique to the National Film and Television School.

Under the tutelage of Colin Young, he came into his own, showing a strong affinity for the fluidity and immediacy of the vérité style of Jean Rouch and DA Pennebaker. He made, with Amy Hardie, Kafi's Story (1990), about Sudanese labour and migration from Torogi in the south to Khartoum.

It won the BP Expo/BBC Documentary Award, the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival award and other prizes.

Despite this, funding was never easy to find and Arthur bemoaned the funding culture at institutions such as the BBC, where documentary seemed to be valued only if it had heightened dramatics, voyeuristic intrusion, and the heroic presence of on-camera directors.

Arthur had a great love for celluloid aesthetics, but adapted brilliantly to digital technology. The filmmaker, carrying his camera, could now move across borders with the ease of a tourist, and Arthur took full advantage of this, making Oromo - Human Rights (1996) in Ethiopia and Kenya, and Nuba Conversations (2000), in the Kenyan refugee camp at Kakuma and across the war-damaged regions of Sudan, where 60,000 Nuba children had been abducted to "peace camps" and then forcibly recruited into the Sudanese army.

Nuba Conversations showed Arthur's gift for putting people of all walks of life at their ease; his empathy for human suffering; his hatred of injustice; and his unwavering photographic eye, which captured life in all its beauty and tragedy.

The Village Voice called it "searing journalism and a document of what has to many western eyes remained an invisible cataclysm". A Nairobi screening helped inspire UN ceasefire talks between the Sudanese government and the SPLM (Sudanese People's Liberation Movement).

Benjamin And His Brother (2002) returned to Kakuma, further tracing Sudanese displacement and forced migrations. It follows two young men in their attempts to emigrate to the US; only one manages to secure visas for the journey, leading to a painful separation. Benjamin found wide success, including screening at New York's Margaret Mead Festival, the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, and Brixton's Ritzy.

Arthur, always interested in other media, was visual director for the multimedia shows Kaddish (1995) and Physical Cinema (1999), mounted by the avant-garde group Towering Inferno; produced videos for the "krautrock" band, Faust; and did installations for London nightclubs.

He taught film for years at Brixton College, and also held posts at Essex University, Napier University, Edinburgh, and the London College of Printing. He was an inspiring teacher who encouraged students to make documentaries as far afield as West Africa and Ethiopia, and wrote scholarly pieces on documentary history and theory.

Arthur's last, unreleased, work is a meditation on his battle with lung cancer while in Bahia, Brazil. Highly experimental, it visualises his deterioration in health, as the camera becomes progressively heavier and the images grow increasingly painterly and static.

In many ways it brought his life and career full circle, returning to the world of the African diaspora, to the pleasures of light, food and the body; and to the sea, which he always associated with his beloved home, Gibraltar.

He is survived by his son, Eli Hardie-Howes.

· Arthur Christopher Joseph Howes, filmmaker, born July 15 1950; died November 29 2004