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Filmmaker who is shaking the centre
He bounces into the Hyatt lobby like a friendly smoking dog, giving no hint of transatlantic jetlag; eyes flashing enjoyment, curiosity. Black jeans, black jersey and natty locks; black coffee, Marlborough cigarettes and a berth on the waterfront patio.
We’re set to go, and just like the relief John Akomfrah tells me he felt arriving in London in the 1960s, after fleeing the coming coup in Ghana, I sense my celebrity anxiety evaporating in the wake of the Spirit of T&T as it slides dockside.
He’s just a normal guy, one of those street- and world-savvy brothers I used to encounter in the squats, galleries, rehearsal studios of West London in the time of God Save the Queen, Long Live the Facist Regime, when cool Britannia was forced to look for the missing black in the Union Jack.
But then I have to remember this entirely unassuming fellow-smoker enjoys other identities: diasporic traveller and thinker; moving force of black British cinema; multi-award-winning experimental documentary and feature film writer/director and pioneer of digital filmmaking.
Akomfrah carries all his accolades (including a 2008 OBE for his contribution to the British film industry) with that same lightness as he dispenses poetic epigrams or references to cultural theory, which might otherwise grind a conversation to migraine or awkward silence. He was in town for the TTFF, which this year paid tribute to his work and screened five of his films including his latest, The Stuart Hall Project, his own tribute to the Jamaican-British intellectual responsible for contesting, shifting and deconstructing the delusion of monolithic British culture, introducing the more fluid concepts of multi (cultural) diasporic aesthetics and identities and a multi-disciplinary approach (cultural studies) with which to analyse them.
It was Hall who provided the voice, example and commitment for the militant 1970s cadre of black British youth, from which Akomfrah graduated, to frame their collective assault on the centre, and to open dialogues which besides challenging an assumed cultural hegemony are especially relevant now when the engine of neo-liberalism threatens all “Other” discourses.
When he was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957, both Akomfrah’s parents were political activists targeted in the anti-Nkrumah backlash, which culminated in the coup which removed him.
“It was clear something really bad had happened. The dragnet was closing in…The neighbours behind our house were chanting ‘You’re next.’”
Escaping to the anonymity of London with his mother was a huge relief for a small scared boy: “I loved it, not standing out, being a target.”
London, as it was initially for Lord Kitchener, was the place for Akomfrah and continues to be: “I consider myself a Londoner more than anything; it’s the place I know the most.”
Like many other diasporic refugees, travellers and nomads, for him the experience of living and working in the colonial-cum-postcolonial centre, what Marti referred to as “the belly of the beast,” catalysed an exploration of diasporic identity, the praxis suggested by Stuart Hall’s theorising: “The diaspora experience…is defined not by essence or purity, but by a recognition of a necessary heterogeneity, diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity.”
It’s no exaggeration to note that Akomfrah, along with others like Paul Gilroy of Black Atlantic fame and the English cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, young black British reggae band Aswad, Punk subversives The Sex Pistols and cross-over bands like Madness and The Specials were responsible for deconstructing London’s normative culture and by extension, notions of “Britishness.” As he fondly remarks of his hometown: “If I have any roots to speak of, they’re there. I helped make it.”
As “a bookish youngster” growing up in west London during the incendiary late 1970s, Akomfrah spent time “troublemaking…organising student occupations” and challenging the institutional racism he realised had obstructed diasporic elders like Trinidadian filmmaker Horace Ove in their individual efforts.
Aware of the powerplay between politics and culture, he observes; “It’s a fine-fitting suit, you need the elegance to wear it well.”
Another lesson learnt was that collective rather than individual action was needed.
There was anything but elegance in the punk explosion of 1976/7, which quickly forged alliances between white working class and black British youth.
“When the Sex Pistols swore and abused Bill Grundy on his own TV show, it lifted the lid. We thought ‘We’re off now.’ It was a generational thing.”
For Akomfrah living within walking distance of designer Vivienne Westwood and impresario Malcolm McLaren’s shop, Sex, and film director Don Lett’s Antiquarius shop on the New King’s Road (hot meeting spots for this new generation of seditionaries) punk was localised, its centrifugal impetus spiralling out from his own “manor,” as they say in London.
Akomfrah points out it’s hard from our position in 2013 to fully grasp “the rebel spirit of the 1970s against the backdrop of shared assumptions” about social responsibility, when this has been replaced by the stark logic of: “You’re on your own.”
For the young Akomfrah, “It was the first time you sensed that an alliance of those on the margins had made a seismic difference to the centre.”
In those rip-up days of defiance, as “the UK dealt with its postcolonial status” the “do-It-yourself aesthetic of punk was instant.”
Young black kids severed both from their diasporic roots and the colonial attitudes of their immigrant parents’ generation “had a crisis of identity, they didn’t know whether they belonged.” Like their white working-class compatriots, “everybody was looking for something, they didn’t quite know what.”
Stuart Hall provided Akomfrah and other diasporic youth with some kind of coherence amid the flux of the times.
“He’d come from a colonial space to the heart of the metropole and rejected the Mimic Man colonial image.”
Hall made sense of the popular culture erupting in the centre, while simultaneously challenging (racist and gendered) notions of British cultural homogeneous hegemony.
Evolving from collective action in school, then the clubs and finally the political stage, Akomfrah also found inspiration in the work of Kenyan writer/activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o. While still a student he staged Ngugi’s play The Death of Dedan Kimathi about the Mau Mau leader hanged by the British in 1957 and credits Ngugi for alerting him to the crucial issue of “Nation Language.”
The impetus for collective action “To set up a posse, some kinda army” led to the formation of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982. Searching for pointers in their project of doing something different, the collective embraced the work of Bengali filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray (“central for the discussion about tradition and innovation”), the Cuban cinema of the 1960s, early Russian film and militant European cineastes like Godard. All these “gave a sense of possibilities.”
While much of Akomfrah’s work, first with the collective and more recently with his own Smoking Dogs Films company from Handsworth Songs (1986) right down to his documentaries on Malcolm X (1993) and Martin Luther King (1997) and the latest on Stuart Hall ,may initially strike audiences as socio-political, there are no hard lines. Experimentation and a willingness to engage in a multi-disciplinary approach always inform his work. Music features prominently (cf the Miles Davis soundtrack to the Hall documentary).
“Dub and free jazz are two important musical sensibilities which are important in what I’ve done,” he explains. “That’s what’s great about artistic impulses, they’re beyond either/or (limiting binarism). I don’t need to fully understand the theoretical basis to work. In the space of art you get to experiment...Holding conversations with other art forms you trust the dialogue with the Other. I don’t know the answer but when it comes together this way it moves me, maybe it can move you.”
Experimentation, playfulness and especially humour are all intrinsic elements of Akomfrah’s approach and these give his work an organic and poetic quality, which far more powerfully conveys multiple meaning rather than any social realism.
Like Hall, he has contested the bounds and boundaries of identity, of race and gender and a time worn and irrelevant cultural hegemony.
“In this period of flux, how do we continue to name? There’s a fatality of misunderstanding about identity.”
The “glacial shift in British identity” he has been active in was achieved by “walking in the centre and making a dialogue.” Reviewing his own life experience, he’s emphatic that “I’m an aggregate of previous moments, from the boy terrified of the military to the kid who met a bunch of other black kids.”
Akomfrah’s contribution to transforming popular culture, of continuing the project of Emancipation, helping us to accept the multi-identity nature and complexity not only of diasporic life but the human condition itself, shows us “other ways to revolutionary transformation rather than violence.”
As he puts it so eloquently: “The complexity of being presupposes any identity. Everybody is from multiple locations. The human condition is underpinned by fluidity, flux and turbulence.”