Epitaph to a generation: John Akomfrah interview

Siobhan McGuirk speaks to John Akomfrah about his new film – and the 2011 riots

March 9, 2012
7 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

A still from The Nine Muses

John Akomfrah is a British filmmaking pioneer. Born in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, he moved to London as a child with his political activist parents. A passionate musician and visual artist, Akomfrah co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) in 1982, with the explicit aim of producing innovative, independent media focused on black history and culture.

Akomfrah found critical success with his debut film, the experimental documentary Handsworth Songs (1986). Made with the BAFC, the provocative film layers personal testimonies, photos, newsreels and soundscapes into a mosaic retelling of the 1985 disturbances in Handsworth and London. It won the prestigious John Grierson award for documentary and set the tone for Akomfrah’s future work.

Memory, history and race remain central concerns. A prolific artist, Akomfrah’s films have been shown on television and in galleries and cinemas around the world. He is also a celebrated lecturer, writer and critic.

Akomfrah’s latest cinematic release, The Nine Muses, is another poignant, idiosyncratic meditation, on post-war migration to the UK. The film is structured around Homer’s The Odyssey, but draws quotes and passages from a vast selection of literature.

These are layered over archive footage, from the Windrush era onwards, intercut with high-definition shots of frozen wilderness, where trucks drive through the night or figures stand motionless. Their brightly-coloured jackets are stark against a foreboding sea of cold white. The allegory is beautifully plain.

The Nine Muses is a haunting, moving and wholly immersive 90 minutes of cinema. A shorter version, Mnemosyne, has toured as a gallery installation. In both forms, feature-length essay film or selected ‘tone poems’, Akomfrah’s considered aesthetic captures the intangible nature of memory and the ceaseless journeying of history.

Constructing an epitaph

For Akomfrah, The Nine Muses was inspired by the aim to ‘construct an epitaph to this generation – really, three generations – of people who came here to find lives for themselves, not just jobs, but lives.’

The project was 20 years in the making. ‘When we were working on Handsworth Songs [1986], I watched a 1964 BBC film, The Colony,’ Akomfrah reveals. ‘There was a clip of a [Jamaican] man saying: “I love you, but you don’t love we . . . I’ve come here with a pure heart.” I knew I wanted to use that, but it just didn’t fit.’ The scene played over in the director’s mind. ‘I regarded it as a kind of failure on my part, that I couldn’t include it,’ he confesses. ‘That compelled me to go back and use it in some way.’

Trawling through hundreds of hours of archive footage, Akomfrah was struck by their original framing. ‘The material was made in a different time, and the filmmakers had certain questions which reflect that,’ he says. ‘They’re asking: “Are these people criminals? Why don’t they want to go back home?” Those aren’t the questions that interest me but, at the same time, this is the only material we have.’

That notion gave the director pause to consider how memory may be shaped and, potentially, reclaimed. ‘I’m interested in how that [footage] speaks to now. Is it possible to find new meanings?’ Akomfrah asks. ‘In a way, that has become our history; on the official record. But it can be used in ways that tell a different story. The challenge is how to do that.’

Evolving and innovating

Granted a cinematic release, The Nine Muses has received rare exposure for an experimental film. Akomfrah is pleased with the reception, balking at pressures to describe his work along traditional lines. ‘I strongly believe that artists and filmmakers whose work falls between those gaps – and intentionally so – have a responsibility to keep making work that refuses rigid categorisation,’ he says, ‘so that we can keep working in ways that are complex and challenging.’

Akomfrah honed his approach at the BAFC, experimenting with formats from music and videos to stills and installations. The work was produced in a collaborative environment and ran in independent cine-clubs, bringing underground and avant-garde voices to new audiences.

Now, increased availability of sophisticated cameras and editing software has made film-making a broadly accessible pursuit. Clips are streamed and uploaded online with ever‑increasing ease. The next generation of British directors may, arguably, gain a cinematic education and hone their skills without leaving the house.

Akomfrah is unfazed by the suggestion that technology might damage the independent scene. ‘The BAFC aim was that film-making became democratised; that people had easier access to the means of production,’ he reflects, ‘so I don’t think [new technology] is a bad thing.’ A quick turn around, however, is only useful for certain work. ‘If you have footage of a policeman using pepper spray on peaceful protesters, then there is a value in getting that out quickly,’ Akomfrah says. ‘It’s a cinema of immediacy.’

Possible alternative uses of such imagery must also be considered, he argues. ‘If you want to say something about the history of police violence, that image is not enough. Time to reflect, to make connections, never stops being important, and there’s no reason why contemplative work can’t be put up on YouTube.’

Criminal politics

Throughout his career, Akomfrah’s approach has been both thoughtful and thought provoking. Renowned for his measured expression of potentially inflammatory views, commentators were quick to approach Akomfrah about the riots that swept the UK last year.

‘A lot of people asked me my thoughts on the riots, and a lot of their questions were framed in this way of “How are they different?”’ Those questions, he says, hinged on preconceptions. ‘People were very fast to say: “This wasn’t political; this was about rampant consumerism and greed, for TVs and trainers.”’

Akomfrah was far from convinced. ‘Of course it is political!’ he says. Obvious contributing factors, he argues, have been deliberately ignored. ‘When a family goes to a police station and says, “I want to know why my son was killed” and are refused answers, they are being treated with the same kind of contempt that all of the young people in the area experience every day, and identify with.’

The director was further bemused by media coverage, and the public’s response. ‘The bizarre thing,’ he says, almost incredulous, ‘was how the police, who were the catalyst and instigators, were then removed from the drama as it unfolded, only for calls to be made that they should be the ones dealing with it.’

Ever conscious of connecting links and deeper exploration, Akomfrah goes on. ‘It’s not just the police; there are other issues that people were responding to. The Guardian, just a week or so before, published an interview with a boy from the area. He spoke about youth clubs being shut down and the desperate efforts being made to keep them up and running.’

With such information at hand, argues Akomfrah, the reaction of politicians is nothing short of scandalous. ‘For Boris and his gang to say “We don’t understand what caused this” is just criminal,’ he says. ‘They may say that they don’t fully understand, but it’s a travesty to imply that they aren’t aware of all these conditions that people are responding to.’

Unanswered, and eventually unavoidable, questions linger on, Akomfrah suggests. ‘The important question is: why is the same thing happening again, 25 years later? It’s just too easy to say that it’s the youth. People who weren’t born when Handsworth happened and have no living memory of the fact, whose parents moved into the area afterwards, are expressing the same thing as back then.’

As the riots continue to be dissected, in parliament, newspapers and classrooms, more insightful and informative work is likely to emerge, in film, art and music, from innovators around the country. In more ways than one, Akomfrah has taught us the value of paying attention.

The Nine Muses opened in London on 20 January and is on limited release around the country


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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