Akomfrah, John 1957–
John Akomfrah 1957–
British filmmaker John Akomfrah has produced an impressive body of work in both documentary and feature-film formats. As an artist, he has been particularly interested in exploring racial tensions in the United Kingdom, and his works have also delved into the lives of such historic American figures as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Akomfrah has been a leading proponent of digital filmmaking, which is considered a revolutionary development for film artists such as himself, since the format eliminates the need for costly equipment and post-production processes which traditionally require studio financing.
Akomfrah, born in London in 1957, is of Ghanaian heritage. He told Sight & Sound’s Pervaiz Khan, “I grew up off the Fulham Road and there was a cinema there called the Paris Pullman which I used to go to regularly.” As a teen, Akomfrah saw much in the canon of art-house movies of post-war American, European, and Japanese cinema. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he became intrigued by African cinema, and was stunned by films like Djibril Diop Mambéty’s
Touki-Bouki, a portrait of disaffected youth in Senegal. In this Wolof-language work from 1973, Mory rides a motorcycle emblazoned with a cow’s skull, and in Dakar meets university student Anta. Both dream of running away to Paris, and concoct various illicit schemes to raise the necessary funds. In an interview with Sight & Sound writer June Givanni, Akomfrah related that he found Touki-Bouki “such a shocking revelation, that an African film needn’t be attuned to poverty and socio-economic problems, but was marked instead by the kind of youth traumas that have been a stock-in-trade of cinemas all over the world.”
In the early 1980s, Akomfrah was in college when racial disturbances broke out in English cities like Brixton and Liverpool. He remembered the time in another interview with Sight & Sound, telling Khan that he and his friends “were watching the way the riots were being presented on television and I think that was probably the moment when the two interests in my life came together: film and cultural politics.” Akomfrah became a co-founder of the London-based Black Audio Film Collective in 1982, which functioned as a workshop for filmmakers. His first effort was Handsworth Songs, a 1986 documentary examining the aforementioned
At a Glance…
Born in 1957, in London, England.
Career: Filmmaker, currently. Television movies include: Hansworth Songs, 1986; Testament, 1988; Seven Songs for Malcom X, 1993; Last Angel of History, 1995; Martin Luther King: Days of Hope, 1997; Speak Like a Child, 1998; Riot, 1999; digital movies include: Digitopia, 1999; Night Work, 2001.
Awards: John Grierson Award for best documentary film, British Film Institute, for Handsworth Songs, 1986.
Addresses: Office—c/o British Film Institute, 21 Stephen St., London W1T 1LN, England.
episodes of civil disorder. It took several international honors, including the John Grierson Award for best documentary film from the British Film Institute.
Akomfrah filmed part of his next work, Testament, in Ghana. It follows an African woman, once a government minister in Ghana, who was forced to flee when a coup occurred, and her return after twenty years of exile. His work aroused interest from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and Akomfrah began making documentary films for the highly regarded television network. One of his first was A Touch of the Tar Brush, which profiled three mixed-race families in the port city of Liverpool; their fascinating ancestry could be traced back to the late eighteenth century, in the years when British ships carried the majority of the international slave trade.
Akomfrah also profiled a once-notorious figure in black Britain, Michael X, in Who Needs a Heart? The work was produced by the Black Audio Film Collective and aired on Channel Four Television. Akomfrah’s camera revisits the radical activist’s earlier life running a brothel, prior to the time when he met American political activist Malcolm X. Newly politicized, Michael X abandons his own last name in homage to Malcolm, and goes on to co-found the Racial Awareness and Advancement Society in the United Kingdom. In the late 1960s Michael X appeared frequently in British news footage on behalf of various cases, but grew more incendiary in his speeches. Jailed for a few months under Britain’s Race Relations Act, he went to Trinidad to establish the Black Liberation Army. Accused of murder there, he fled to Guyana, but was captured, returned to Trinidad, and hanged in 1975. Akomfrah noted in his interview with Khan in Sight & Sound that because his subject had been such a controversial figure in life, he had a difficult time finding anyone willing to speak about him on camera even twenty years after his death. “People are still angry with him and that anger was transferred on to us,” he recalled.
Akomfrah also wrote and directed the 1993 documentary, Seven Songs for Malcolm X. The production, which aired on Britain’s Channel Four, features interviews with American filmmaker Spike Lee as well as with Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X. Another documentary film for television, The Last Angel of History, was Akomfrah’s intriguing look at the link between science-fiction themes and expressions of contemporary pan-African culture. Featured artists include legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, jazz-funk fusionists Sun Ra and George Clinton, and contemporary electronic music pioneers like DJ Spooky and Derrick May. The film explores the “otherwordly” aspects of the music and persona of Sun Ra, who asserted that his Arkestra band had alighted from another planet, as well as Clinton and his Mothership. “This history is intercut with images of early Egyptian culture and African folklore about man’s relation to the cosmos,” wrote Afterimage reviewer Jeffrey Skoller, who added, “The interviewees speak of the interconnectedness of certain African traditions of astronomy and sun/sky worship and the contemporary spaceship image.”
The Last Angel of History points out similarities between spacecraft and the space travel theme as a metaphor for liberation, and discusses the work of such black science fiction authors as Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delaney. Akomfrah interviewed the first African-American astronaut on the moon, Bernard A. Harris Jr., as well as Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhuru on the cult Star Trek television series. Interspersed throughout these interview clips and archival footage is commentary from a “Data Thief,” a visitor from the future who comments on the black diaspora. Skoller, writing in Afterimage, remarked that “Akomfrah has deliberately constructed this film as a fragmented series of ideas, images and sounds that are temporally non-linear and incomplete in order to convey a sense of ideas as pure velocity and as a unique and problematic environment that the digitized information age presents to us.”
Akomfrah’s film ends with a look at new technological advances, such as cloning, artificial intelligence, robotics, and cyborg or “created” beings, drawing parallels to slavery, the idea of a person as a machine, personal liberty, forced displacement, and a sense of otherness. Afterimage’s Skoller felt that the film’s 45-minute running time was “hardly enough time to address, in their full detail or complexity, such a wide range of issues,” but did concede that “the playfulness and intellectual virtuosity of the film transcends its surface gloss, to become a kaleidoscopic celebration of the richness of Pan-African culture.”
Akomfrah has often been invited to lecture on film in Britain at such esteemed venues as the University of London, and abroad at the California Institute of the Arts and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Though he is a scholar of black cinema and its history, Akomfrah has come to reject the label “black filmmaker” for himself personally. In the interview with Khan in Sight & Sound he commented that, until relatively recently, “If you called someone a black film-maker, you were saying that person was a ghetto film-maker, incapable of particular kinds of things, unable to speak general truths.”
Akomfrah ventured into directing feature films with Speak Like a Child, a 1998 work funded by the British Film Institute. The story revolved around three youths who meet during time spent in a foster home. The film project, however, was fraught with problems when the Institute closed its production unit. Though the film was technically complete, the Institute’s closing meant that Akomfrah’s project lacked a distribution network and promotional budget. “It’s been a complete waste of time,” Times (London) writer Dalya Alberge quoted him as saying. “I would now rather not have done it.”
In 1999 Akomfrah made a short film called Digitopia, which was shown at the prestigious Venice and Toronto film festivals, and he used the term to describe “the schizophrenic space between two extremes—the analogue and the digital,” according to a review in Korea Times. In a similar vein he created a short digital film titled Night Work, which premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival in Korea in 2001, and was made at the invitation of festival directors interested in this new medium. Akomfrah had been working privately with this technology since its advent in the early 1990s. Night Work revisited the themes in Digitopia, with its fictional portrayal of a man who leads a dull life by day but at night lives vicariously in private over the Internet, with its various cyber-communities. “The film will be an attempt to explore questions of intimacy and what intimacy means in the digital age,” Korea Times journalist Hankook Ubo quoted him as saying. “The character lives his days in an analog world and his nights in a digital world.”
The Korean film festival hoped to use Akomfrah’s short film, along with two other entries by Asian filmmakers, to showcase the new medium and its revolutionary potential; directors like Akomfrah can take their cameras into homes, onto streets, and behind otherwise closed doors without attracting much notice—a crucial element in places like China and parts of Africa, where censorship and political repression still linger. “Digital cinema is still an unfamiliar territory,” Akomfrah said, according to the Korea Times article. “But there are people willing to trust that, at the end of the road, there will be success. I’m committed to the freedom this new technology offers. There is an inherently democratic undertone and function in digital that I like.”
Hansworth Songs, 1986.
Seven Songs for Malcom X, 1993.
Last Angel of History, 1995.
Martin Luther King: Days of Hope, 1997.
Speak Like a Child, 1998.
Afterimage, November-December 1997, p. 14.
Guardian (London), November 18, 1999.
Korea Times, January 20, 2001.
Sight & Sound, May 1992, p. 30; September 1995, p. 37.
Times (London), September 8, 1998, p. 9.