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
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself