How Time Frames Culture and Deserves Further Attention in Representation

Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah
Apr 17 · 6 min read
Presenting to the BFI

Time is generally treated as invisible, like gravity it just exists. It’s at the subconscious level. It’s bearing on proceedings tends to be viewed as an after thought. It happens in the background.

What you want to do might just be followed by “do you have enough time?” But when different cultures meet, time can be a primary trigger feature.

A piece in International Affairs, Constructing time in foreign policy-making indicated how people could be classified as time agents in how they used time to drive decision making. This is less physical clock time more that which happens below our awareness. Academics Andrew Hom and Ryan Beasley’s time theory is apt for explaining a well known BBC detective series, Luther, which is currently in the news. Is Luther, in the series, black enough?

Hom and Beasley forward a methodology of timing standards and timing theory; how time “signals the widespread and social acceptance of some standard as a reliable means of organising a social event”.

This is not the same as objective Newtonian time, but timing as it’s become embodied. Timing standards can swing from active, when say, the French Republicans tried in 1792 to introduce a new calendar to challenge the Gregorian one we tend to use.

Or time can be passive. Today’s calendar is taken as fixed. It’s the way it is. Active timing creates new conscious modes of perception and it’s usually when different timing standards come into play in the UK, such as the Chinese New Year and Diwali that people living in those systems become aware of different cultures.

So timing here becomes a governing agent. Its circadian rhythm, operates mentally and impacts ways of life.

The use of time in cause and effect is evidenced by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of how films work on different cultures and audiences, such as Europe e.g. Italy versus the West US, and indeed UK.

Deleuze unveiled two systems: one in which events (movement) structurally drives the film’s basal perception and the other where time is the envelop. An illustration of this can be gleaned from What is Neorealism — filmmaking by the Italians in the 1940s.

When you perceive time differently, it opens up a vista for active timing, new things, to challenge the status quo and hence new events become viable that may be important to a group or society.

To the BBC’s diversity chief Miranda Wayland’s point then. Wayland at a film event Mip TV is musing over the BBC’s hit TV series, Luther. She says after framing her thoughts:

‘We all fell in love with him. Who didn’t, right? But after you got into about the second series you got kind of like, OK, he doesn’t have any black friends, he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food, this doesn’t feel authentic.’

For some people it may appear flippant; some so called newspapers even mocked it. Perhaps the denotive images it creates may be at odds to the character you’ve come to love. Firstly, an apposite observation many already know. Luther wasn’t written as a black character. Its creator Neil Cross is reported to have said Idris took the role because race wasn’t central to the casting.

It’s not uncommon for back stories or traits to be created as the character becomes known. A question would be how you view time?

What, for instance, might happen if De Sica shot Luther? Plot lines act in service of a film and its goals. This happened, and then this, and then that, which build to a point. Neorealism embraces a loosening of time, life as we know it, and as such leads to elements in its plot lines that as the video above shows differ from Western films.

Neorealism time standards were problematic for Western audiences. Yet this was merely how different one culture saw the world. Is it so inconceivable now that different cultures in Caribbean or African see the world differently and that warrants different scenes in film?

Diversity, authenticity, and representation are three sides of a coin, not easily appreciated as integral to one another. I mentioned at the Edinburgh Film festival panel on the “The Importance of Being Authentic”, how policy makers tend to detach each as the armature for solving a problem.

If diversity is to manifest itself as true representation, then authenticity matters. It’s not just a question of numbers but quality. With time comes autobiographical memories. For many people of colour growing up there are various activities that are integral to their acknowledged time standard and hence merit inclusion in film for authenticity e.g. church going, community, studying, food, and dance, to name but a few.

This skit created before Wayland’s point pulls on many of the aforementioned. At 1.29 I absolutely lose it. Art imitates life.

In Steve McQueen’s Small Axe these cultural variants are featured to valorize what happens over time. During its showing I tweeted copiously at references which opened up my own memories.

In Charles Burnet’s seminal 1990s film To Sleep with Anger, filed at the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, time moves differently and is made up of community, reading/studying, food, dance.

This differential in time is evident in changes towards equality. What one group see as passive and the norm, awakens active modes in others. Baldwin is lamenting at timing standards.

I’m a fan of Midsomer Murders and caught an old friend Brian Bovell playing an artist on a recent episode. I was imagining watching and as the lead enters the home of a friend instead of being offered tea and biscuits, he obliges to a full meal. It might look incongruous. Does he have the time? How does the scene service the plot?

I spent my teen years growing up in Ghana, and each time I go back, I have to make adjustments for time, its cadence and context. My sensibilities become reconfigured.

Conversations around an issue, say the passing of a close relative, never starts off hurried to the point. There’s a preamble of “long time, no see”, before the words, “Mepa wo kyɛw, Na amineɛ” — please what is the purpose of your visit?

Visiting friends, neighbours, or some people I barely know, instead of the obligatory tea and biscuits, the refrain is invariably: “I’m just cooking some Jollof rice. I’m going to dish you a plate?”

In Canada on a sabbatical, I made a new wonderful friend Olivier Leroux and offered to cook for his family and mother-in-law at his house. It was a great evening. I cooked Omo tuo, which is rice balls with ground nut soup. His family are Chinese-Canadian. That intriguing story of the evening for another time, but that gesture of food making, is, I might add, not unusual amongst Ghanaian folk. But it requires making time. Something I had and his family had.

If we genuinely want a society, respectful of each’s customs, then we could look at the timing standards of people and their communities. It’s a conversation towards goals. That doesn’t negate the tripartite equation, diversity-representation-authenticity; it’s a way in — a methodology.

So yes, what I ask would I do, you do, with time available in a film in which you wanted to crystallise the character’s complexity? How is what you’re doing servicing the plot and for which audience? It’s a conversation which equally requires reflective rather than heuristic time in responding.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University. He is an expert in the field of cinema journalism and is co-founder of the journal Representology, a joint production between Cardiff University and Birmingham University and the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity. More on him here


Forethought — Looks to the future and reflects through past…


Forethought — Looks to the future and reflects through past learning, storytelling, media and tech evangelised by Brit journalist, storyteller and senior lecturer David Dunkley Gyimah, embracing the wisdom of crowds and sharing

Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah

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Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.


Forethought — Looks to the future and reflects through past learning, storytelling, media and tech evangelised by Brit journalist, storyteller and senior lecturer David Dunkley Gyimah, embracing the wisdom of crowds and sharing

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