Magazine article New Internationalist

John Akomfrah, Being the Director Who Combines Politics and a Mystical Feeling for Film

Magazine article New Internationalist

John Akomfrah, Being the Director Who Combines Politics and a Mystical Feeling for Film

Article excerpt

John Akomfrah agreed to an interview at the British Film Institute, where he is currently editing his latest film Speak Like A Child. When I arrived he greeted me with a smile and we started chatting about Cuba, the Latin American Film Festival, the work of Cuban film-makers and the Revolution. He spoke warmly of the first Film Festival in Havana, ten years ago, where movie-makers discussed the politics of their work and Cuba was as much a reality as a symbol of an alternative way of looking at the world.

An hour later I hadn't even started recording, he had to go back to the editing and we arranged another meeting. We hadn't spoken at all about his own films but I was left with a sense of the power of Akomfrah's concerns and memories which are at the heart of his work. Our second meeting further revealed a feeling for film-making that verges on the mystical.

John Akomfrah was a founding member of Black Audio Films, a production collective set up in 1982 to deal specifically with legitimizing black voices and concerns. It defined its own editorial policy on the basis of black cultural and political agendas.

His first film, Handsworth Songs, was a documentary about the Brixton riots in 1985. The early 1980s in Britain were a turbulent period of riots and civil disorders of all kinds but the mainstream media seemed fully to misunderstand the underlying causes. 'We saw a connection,' Akomfrah explains, 'between the events of 1985 and events 30 years earlier, when the parents of the kids who were now rioting came off the boat at Southampton Docks. We tried to provide the urban unrest with a memory and a history. Television is very amnesiac.'

In the 1980s most black film-makers were part of a collective or workshop as a cultural and political option in order to explore certain themes. Akomfrah went on to direct numerous documentaries and feature films, such as, Testament, Who Needs a Heart?, A Touch of the Tar Brush, Seven Songs for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King -- Days of Hope. He has been profoundly influenced by film-makers who were religious or spiritual, from Tarkovsky to Bergman, Bresson to Giaubert Rocha.

But, he says, he has a kind of love-hate relation with religious iconography. 'With Seven Songs for Malcolm X, I thought we could speak through the image, the icon, because most people never met him in his life and he came to us as a sanctified image, while people remember King for his legacy,' he says. …

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