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John Akomfrah: One From the Heart - Sight & Sound

Article relating to an individual, 2012
Published by: Sight & Sound
Year published: 2012
Number of pages: 3

image of John Akomfrah: One From the Heart - Sight & Sound

‘One from the Heart’ was it an important feature on filmmaker John Akomfrah that appeared in the February 2012 issue of Sight & Sound International film magazine (pages 44-46). The feature consisted of an interview between Akomfrah and Kieron Corless. It was illustrated with a portrait of Akomfrah and stills from several films including his Nine Muses. The feature was introduced as follows:

“A densely woven film tapestry linking the black British experience to ‘The Odyssey’, ‘The Nine Muses’ marks a spellbinding return to the cinema screen for ‘Handsworth Songs’ director John Akomfrah. The contents page of the issue had made mention of Akomfrah talking about fusing Greek myth and black British experience. This important feature opened as follows:

First, a bit of backstory.  The Black Audio Film Collective formed in 1982, comprising seven members. Throughout the 1980s and 90s they carved a space of themselves as arguably Britain’s foremost visual and sonic innovators, in a range of documentary, gallery-based, video and essayistic modes exploring the Black British experience in all its myriad formations. (Chris Marker [Marker - 29 July 1921 – 29 July 2012 - was a French writer, photographer, documentary film director, multimedia artist and film essayist] is the most prominent of their legion of admirers.) Handsworth Songs (1986), an essay film made for and transmitted by Channel 4, is generally held to be their masterpiece, a political and poetically allusive exploration of the historical roots of Britain’s post-imperial malaise, whose most visible manifestation was in the wave of riots in 1980s Britain.

The collective disbanded in 1998. A few former members ultimately formed a smaller unit, the production company Smoking Dogs Films and one of them, John Akomfrah, assumed the mantle of director. A range of acclaimed feature films, TV documentaries, gallery pieces and music promos followed. At the same time, the reputation of the BAFC continued to grow apace, fuelled in part by a touring perspective in 2007 and a superb monograph, The Ghosts of Songs, produce the same year by FACT in Liverpool under the editorship of the Otolith Group’s Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun.

Back to the present. The latest film by John Akomfrah, The Nine Muses, started life as a gallery piece called Mnemosyne, which revisited broadly the same area where Handsworth Songs was filmed, in a further act of haunting archival reclamation and historical recuperation. The gallery piece was then expanded, with completion money from the former UKFC, and renamed The Nine Muses - a layered, immersive, lyrical, densely woven feature-film tapestry that mixes fragments of archive with Greek myth, poetry, music, brooding ambient sounds and contemporary footage shot in Alaska and Liverpool.

As that description suggests, it’s phenomenally rich and multifaceted: a profoundly moving lament and ‘ghost song’, a fractured dialogue between past and present, a complex sounding of the exilic imaginary. Easily one of the best of the much-vaunted recent crop of British films, it shows Akomfrah and his collaborators are still right at the top of their game.”

There then follows the interview with Akomfrah in which Corless asks questions such as “How would you characterise the imagery you were turning up in the archives?” and “’The Nine Muses’ also has contemporary footage you’ve shot with solitary figures in different coloured coats in snowbound Alaskan landscapes. Why did you decide to include that?” Amongst Akomfrah’s answers: “I felt there was unfinished business with Handsworth Songs that required us to go back into the archive. When we were in Birmingham for that film in the mid 80s we came across all this stuff, but it didn’t quite fit with what we were trying to do. For instance there was a guy in a film from 1964 - he is now in The Nine Muses - and he’s clearly been asked what he thinks about race relations in this country. He says “I love you, but the majority of you don’t love we. We came here with pure heart for you.

A review of The Nine Muses, written by Mark Fisher, appeared elsewhere in this same issue of Sight & Sound (page 75).

Related people

»  John Akomfrah OBE CBE

Born, 1957 in Accra, Ghana