Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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 , 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.’
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
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite