Counter-Media, Migration, Poetry: Interview with John Akomfrah

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by Nina Power Source: Film Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 59-63

Published by: University of California Press Stable URL:

An interview with British avant-garde filmmaker John Akomfrah, focusing on his 1986 feature (made as part of Black Audio Film Collective) about riots in the U.K., Handsworth Songs, and his latest work, The Nine Muses, a blend of archive footage, mysterious landscape shots, and poetic voiceover.

KEYWORDS John Akomfrah, Black Audio Film Collective, Handsworth Songs, The Nine Muses, film essays CREDITS The Nine Muses. Writer, director: John Akomfrah. Producers: Lina Gopaul, David Lawson. Cinematographer: Dewald Aukema. Editor: Miikka Leskinen. Music: Trevor Mathison. © 2010 Smoking Dogs Films, UK Film Council. Journeys The Nine Muses. Courtesy of New Wave Films.

John Akomfrah (born in Ghana in 1957) was a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective (active 1982–98), which produced a wide range of films, videos, installations, photographs, essays, statements, film programs, seminars, and talks. His latest feature film, The Nine Muses (2010), which screened at MoMA, New York, October 6–12, is an unusual and hybrid work; it could be described as a poetic film essay. It shifts between archive clips of cold, dreary, snowy Britain in the 1960s to icy footage of arctic tundra and choppy seas. A meditation on travel, journeys, and becoming, it reflects, via the use of voiceover readings of poetry—Homer, Milton, Beckett, Emily Dickinson—on the experience of migration, of never really arriving, even when one is “there.” As such, it works not only as an investigation of the experiences of those who emigrated to Britain in the twentieth century, but also as a philosophical rumination. The film’s concerns are both personal and metaphysical: in much of the film a solitary figure dressed in a blue or yellow coat stands still against a snowy or watery background, representing perhaps the personal nature of traveling to another country, but also a more classical figure of the epic hero whose very mode of being is the journey.

Akomfrah’s collective and solo work over the past three decades has touched upon many questions that have a major importance for any serious thinking about cinema, especially its essayistic mode. How can a film essay construct an image of the world that operates at a different speed than news and other “factual” reporting? How far can we trust documentary images and accounts, archival sources? What kinds of politics can be questioned and expressed in both the form and the content of a film essay? More specifically, what does it mean to examine the archive as it represents (or rather, half-represents) you as the subject, rather than the agent, of immigration? The question of the archive has always been central to Akomfrah’s work: how it is possible to “open up” an image, to detach an image from the narrative and the chronology of which it used to be a part. As I was preparing to interview Akomfrah this summer, rioting broke out all over England. The first major Black Audio Film Collective film, Handsworth Songs (1986), a reflection on the 1985 civil unrest in Tottenham and Birmingham, suddenly seemed to be on everyone’s mind again. Handsworth Songs is not, it should be noted, an attempt to explain why riots took place twenty-five years ago. It attempts instead to ask questions through the use of archival clips spliced with both the collective’s own record of the events and news reports. The film is a significant example of counter-media in the sense that it radically slows down the demand for instant explanations, a demand that always amounts to more or less overt condemnation. Refusing the reflexive timeframe of this hysterical demand for denunciation and crackdown, Handsworth Song creates a space instead for the history of immigration to Britain to be part of the debate. This has the unusual and challenging effect of directing attention to media and police hostility toward the black and Asian population, the scene shows a young black man running through a line of several white policeman who surround him on all sides. As they grasp at him and he manages to break free, if only for a moment, you long for him to make it through, to escape the inevitable punishment and media stereotyping, to be part of a better history that never was, but that might still be. Tate Modern screened Handsworth Songs on August 26, 2011, which was followed by a question-and-answer session with the reunited members of the Black Audio Film Collective. This interview took place shortly after the packed Tate screening.

Nina Power: At the Tate you said how surreal it was to receive this kind of art-world legitimation. How much has the cultural and funding landscape changed since you made the film?

John Akomfrah: I don’t want to make it sound like the 1980s were some sort of dark age where nothing moved when it came to questions of race and representation and critical art practice, because there was a lot going on. For some reason, there were probably more of us around then than now, which should caution anyone against this idea that things always get better. The interesting difference, discontinuity, or change has to do not just with race but with the whole transformation of the art world. We’re talking pre-YBA, pre-Saatchi—before the massive injection of funding into the art world. So this is before all that. We’re also talking about a period before the emergence of a state idea that there might be something wrong with institutional practices when it came to race. So there are profound shifts and transformations in the culture— mostly, I have to say, for the good. But if you’ve lived through both moments, it is slightly surreal. Handsworth Songs, made principally in the margins of the art, film, and TV world, suddenly can come to stand in for that moment. That’s what’s weird for me. I was interested in the way you described the police’s confusion about what you were doing when you were filming Handsworth Songs. I think there were both practical and cultural reasons for that confusion. If we were journalists, if we were “legitimate” purveyors of news, then we would be behind their lines, we would need their licence to operate in that field because we would share the same assumption as the journalists there, which was “this is dangerous, we need the police to protect us.” But most of the time we weren’t behind their lines, we were operating between lines, between demarcations, so people just couldn’t figure us out. It involved very complicated questions about how viewers are constituted—what constitutes propriety, what constitutes racial identity, legitimate media practice. Handsworth Songs was a new thing, even for us. And we realized we were onto something. There Asking questions Handsworth Song was a matrix of representation and we were reporting it, we were producing it, we were going to be responsible for it. As a result all sorts of political, ethical, and cultural assumptions that we’d made before that moment started to be dissolved. One of the important things about Handsworth Songs is its relative slowness. Now maybe you’ve got the opposite problem: there are too many images, and of course they’re still going to be framed and they’re still going to be one-sided in terms of which ones people will see. Can the idea of slowness as a method, as a technique, still be important? By the time we made Handsworth Songs we had read Paul Virilio on speed, but I can’t say that was uppermost in our minds. What had happened occurred over really a very short period of time. Essentially most of the events that you see in the film happened in three afternoons and two evenings. We were filming with 16mm equipment, magazines that last for ten minutes max. So we were having to make choices there and then about what we could capture in that ten minutes that might be of value. So we always knew that what we were getting there would be approximations, even if we were able to shoot sixty rolls. We needed to slow it down, open it, stretch it out. Because although you might say this happened in one afternoon, actually what happens in one afternoon has decades in it. We were going to open it up and show you how there are five decades there. There’s a way in which people counterpose how they work now—access to cameras and so on—with how they worked then and conclude that everything is better because of this greater access. But we should resist such teleological reasoning most of the time. If everything is so much better, then why aren’t there fifteen film essays about what’s going on now? It’s not simply better. There are more people with degrees, there are more people with cameras, with time on their hands but there aren’t more film essays. Having said that, I always try to resist nostalgia. It’s important to resist the idea that we were superior because we made film essays rather than YouTube shorts. I don’t think that. How relevant do you think Handsworth Songs truly is to the summer riots in London, which prompted this screening at the Tate? We’re trying to resist the idea that Handsworth Songs has answers. We saw it then and still see it now as one strand in a series of interrogations of that moment in the 1980s, a cri de coeur if you like. We didn’t claim to be political theorists with all the answers. Because in some ways it was the very idea that there was an answer that the film was trying to problematize. Because all the “answers” seemed to suggest that someone was at fault. And invariably the category that was as fault was the “rioters.” So it was a more complicated attempt to look at why people do what they do—why does anybody do what they do? A work which perhaps has an affinity with Handsworth Songs is Stuart Hall’s 1978 book Policing the Crisis, which explores the highly restricted media representation of crime—the lamentable lack of history, context, sociology. What we’ve got at the moment is the denouement of the authoritarian populist strand that Policing the Crisis was trying to delineate. Since the 1970s, there has been this particular regime of representation in which a certain pathological image of black youth and working-class lives emerged. What Policing the Crisis was trying to say was that this is not entirely accidental; it is taking place against a backdrop of a sense of social crisis. And in that classic psychoanalytic way, things come to stand in for what they actually are not. Race came to be the mirror through which this crisis unfolds. Race becomes a symptomatic residue, the embodiment of the problem. Today’s media reflections on these topics are more or less variations on this same thirtyyear- old theme: we’re going to shit and somehow urban youth are to blame for this. It’s in a way the final triumph of the neoliberal agenda, in terms of how one looks at individuals, agency, society. There are no structural explanations anymore. We’ve come down to this pathetic situation where everything’s down to individual will, lusts, wants, or desires. The sense in which there might be causal links between individuals and activities, or structures and individuals, it’s just all gone. All we’re left with as a way of trying to explain things now are ethics or morality, good people or bad people. At the very least it’s inadequate. I think one should be cautious about calling for the death of anything, but it seems to me that the paucity, the porous nature of such rhetoric has been shown up for what it is, which is empty. Either it’s reached its own denouement, or its chickens have come home to roost. If you say that there’s no such thing as society, only individuals, then what stops anyone from doing what they want? If there’s no society, no structures that we are supposed to adhere to, pay for, support, and criticize, none of those structures mean anything. If all that matters is the market and the will to make money then what can you say to your “rioter” who’s basically doing that? What is the ethical obligation between helping yourself to goods in a shop and someone telling you that the state has no ethical obligations toward you? It’s not entirely coincidental that the year government says to its citizens “the party’s over, go home and suffer” that, for the first time in twenty-five years, a group of people takes to the street to perform an unlawful protest. It’s not a coincidence, and anyone who thinks it is misjudges the intelligence of the populace.

It seems to me that in the past fifteen to twenty years there’s been a real interest in questions about the archive (following Jacques Derrida and so on). But what’s interesting about a lot of your work, and the work of the Black Audio Film Collective, is an emphasis on the archive that isn’t there or is problematic in the way it represents, in particular, race. It seems to me that all those points you’ve identified should dampen down a certain “archival euphoria,” which is based on a kind of “innocent” assertion: somehow the truth resides in the archive, unsullied, unmediated.

That back there you’ll find “what really happened.” In some sense, of course, the archive does exist as a kind of official memory of place, a moment and so on. But the archive survives in a very complicated way for diasporic subjectivities. Someone made the point that disaporic lives are characterized by the absence of monuments that attest to your existence, so in a way the archival inventory is that monument. But it’s contradictory because the archive is also the space of a certain fabulations and fictions. So there needs to be critical interrogation of the archive. One of the important ways of doing this is to remove the narrative voice. Once you remove the voice, nine times out of ten the images start to say something else. If you remove one of the key structuring devices from archival images, they suddenly allow themselves to be reinserted back into other narratives with which you can ask new questions. Who are you, this man on the bus? What are you really doing?

The narrator tells you he’s an immigrant who’s come from Antigua in 1961, but without this narration there’s more ambiguity—what the narrator’s telling suddenly isn’t there. We then begin the process of reconstructing—or, in Derridean terms, it’s deconstructing. That’s pretty much what we do. It’s reformulating the premise by which certain things exist and letting them function instead in erasure as what they always were, but also as something new. This places our work at certain odds with a euphoria for the unsullied, innocent image of the archive and the sense that what the archival memory bank needs is just to be let loose on everybody and then we’ll understand. I absolutely agree that people should have access to the residues of the past that the archive gives us. And there is a certain kind of pleasure in watching people watch themselves, or their mums and dads. There are affective freedoms in being given access to something that you feel connects you; it’s powerful and useful. But just giving people access is not enough. You need to extract the images and the narratives and the stories out of a certain preformed chain.

Can you speak about the relationship in The Nine Muses between the images of frozen Scottish and Alaskan landscapes (which somehow make one feel cold) and the archive footage of cities with traffic jams and crowds? How do you get one from one world to the other? One guy said to me at Sundance “this is one of the most offputting films I’ve seen, man.” I said, “why?” And he said, “because it’s so fucking cold!” He meant it literally. I knew what he meant. The minute I decided to do this film I just remembered conversations with my mum about coming to England and then I asked other people, and they all said the same thing. There’s a kind of folklore about immigration which is all tied up with the cold. Ask grandmothers, mothers, and the first thing they’ll say about coming here was that it was so cold, and the second thing they’ll say is that it was so gray that they felt that they were the only thing with any color in it! So the film is premised on those two ideas, which constitute a kind of mythology or apocrypha. With The Nine Muses we were working with tropes and ideas of being and becoming. (Samuel Beckett was very important for this film.)

We were trying to understand how people “become” migrants. How you move from a place of certainty—your country, your town, your continent—into this other thing, which is not really either here nor there. I don’t think it ever ends. I’m working on something with Stuart Hall at the moment and he still talks about “the English.” I said, “Stuart, you’ve been here since 1951, what do you mean ‘the English’?” And he said, “I’m not sure I’ve ever become English.” It’s a kind of interminable process, people are endlessly arriving but never getting there, so to speak—and rather than see it as a problem, I was trying to explore what this means for a sense of being. What about the use of recorded poetry? People asked me why I quoted Milton and Beckett and the other writers. It was partly because I like the poems, but there is also something that connects all of them. Paradise Lost is a monumental exposition of precisely that transience, that ontological transience, that we were interested in. Paradise Lost is about man’s first disobedience—we are born in that moment of flux and we never really move out of it. And this isn’t a migrant speaking, this is the major poet of the English language, who understood this.

And everybody else in the film is trying to understand this same problem. Beckett is all about flickering sparks in that transience, no one ever “is” in Beckett. I think I am, I may be, I could be tomorrow. Endless questions. I wanted to make familiar, to dramatize something that’s absolutely present in all our lives. What most of us settled people suppress is that the migrant life as a real thing. Who am I? Where am I going? What is this place? What is this moment?

It’s not just West Indians and Indians in the 1950s and 60s asking those questions, they’re caught up in those questions, their lives are a living monument to those questions. So you look at how they’re living, and you’re looking at how everybody else is living. I’m not making some bogus claim to universality, but if you ask me what animated the film, that’s what I would say. This interest in transience—the journey, these endless states of being—seems to me to mark migrant lives. And so, too, it is essential to stress the centrality of memory in those lives. Although I love the work of Chris Marker, and have loved it since I first came across it in the 1970s, and much as I respect it (and he has been an ally too), there are other modes of film essay that have kind of eclipsed it for me. I’m interested in Humphrey Jennings, and in the incredible kind of work that Betjeman and Dylan Thomas and others did with filmmakers like Jennings. It’s really a turn to those other traditions of the film essay, the more “poetic” kinds, away from fabulist tales. I’m trying to find another way of invoking the voice, away from the epistolary. We need to keep rethinking how the voice exists. Sometimes the rethink involves invoking something very old. But at a moment when people making film essays have never heard of Louis MacNeice’s contribution, never heard Auden, never heard Dylan Thomas, never heard Betjeman, then we’re doing something radical. And the GPO filmmakers led by Jennings, for example, saw what they were doing as collaborations with poets. We were exposed to their film essays before we encountered Marker, Ivens, Vertov. But the affinities between these supposed polar opposites are also much greater than people think. Look at the intertitles in Man With a Movie Camera and Eisenstein films. They are calibrated to work poetically, in cadences that are rhythmic: da da da strike! There’s a rhythm there. So: why poetry? I’ve got it from a few friends who watched The Nine Muses and asked, “why poetry”? There’s a suggestion that you’re somehow throwing in the revolutionary towel by using Milton, Beckett, or Dylan Thomas and I just don’t believe that. We have to always see the things around that are useful: what Milton and others say about the numinous or the liminal is just incredible, and I wanted to use that.

NINA POWER teaches Philosophy at Roehampton University and Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art in London. She is the author of One Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009), and more recently has written for the Guardian on policing and protest in the U.K.


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