Filmmaker in Focus: John Akomfrah


Early this week, sad news came from London. Stuart Hall, the great Jamaica-born educator and orator and organic intellectual, par excellence, has died at 82. Hall had been ill; his passing, to his legion of friends, wasn’t unexpected. But death’s finality always is, especially when it claims a person whose contribution so enlarged the humanity of each community—and there were many—to which he belonged. The hole Hall left is gaping; the legacy, immense.

Eulogized as the “founder of British cultural studies,” he was also, always, a proud West Indian; a major “theorist”, who also mastered the plainer idioms of radio and TV; a revered scholar who eschewed his field’s stock-in-trade—the singly-authored book—to focus, always, on collaborative work. This last trait has perhaps queered his import: one can’t go into a bookstore, or go online, and simply procure Stuart Hall’s Collected Works. His influence derived more from the students he taught, and from the artists and intellects who have worked in the space, in Britain and beyond, his ideas pried apart. And Hall’s influence derived, too, from the hundreds of BBC programmes, from the 1950s to our day, on which he was seen descrying history’s unfolding, even as it occurred.

For John Akomfrah, whose own shining career was forged squarely in Hall’s wake, this last piece of Hall’s archive has been key. When Akomfrah visited Trinidad last September, for a ringing tribute at the ttff/13, several film from his oeuvre was screened—from Handsworth Songs (1986), his classic look at the riots and resentments of Thatcher-era Britain, to Peripeteia (2012), his latest film-essay mingling of classical allusions, and gorgeous images, with super-current subjects and sounds. But the undoubted highlight of Akomfrah’s visit was his presentation of The Stuart Hall Project. Watching the film, then, one was struck by a project whose subject, and maker, and all the requisite parts, had come together just so. Now, one feels an even greater gratitude for this beautiful film, stitched together from Hall’s BBC archive, that preserves Hall’s public life in such artful form—and one feels grateful, too, thanks to Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, Akomfrah’s sterling producers, that Hall himself got to see it, before he died.

One night toward the Festival’s end, I sat with Akomfrah to discuss The Stuart Hall Project, in the light of his larger career. Herewith, an edited version of that chat, published now for the first time.

–Joshua Jelly Schapiro

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: I wonder if you could talk about the genesis of The Stuart Hall Project. We know that this man’s work has been important to you; that you’ve known him a long time. But when did it become clear you wanted to do a film with him, or on him?

John Akomfrah: Well there are two dates, really. There was the date when it became clear that to us—to Lina [Gopaul] and Dave [Lawson] and I, the Smoking Dogs outfit—that we were going to do something with the archive. We decided, along with the people at Autograph ABP, who made Stuart their Patron of the Year, that something had to be done with this guy. That was three years ago, exactly—and it led to The Unfinished Conversation, the three-screen piece. The desire to do a single-screen film happened later. I realized we’d left so much out of the three-screen version, which was about one question, basically—this question of identity: how it comes into being, what shapes it takes, etcetera etcetera, as applied to this life. That was it. The Stuart Hall Project, by contrast, is kind of about the entire earth—up to 2000 or so, anyway. [Laughs.] But with a sense that this life, whichever way you go at it, is essentially a New Left existence. That that’s what it is. And that the way to make sense of its inventory is through [examining] where this thing called the New Left came from; the conditions that brought it into being; the byways and alleyways and cul-de-sacs it walked itself into, and out of, across the postwar world.

JJS: Which are all questions, of course, shot through with this subject’s own role in that story—and the place from whence he enters into and shapes that story.

JA: Right. When we talk about the New Left, people always talk about Suez and Hungary; 1956; Stalinism, the crisis of Stalinism. And all of that’s important. But what becomes clear looking at Stuart, is that people come at these questions with their own trajectory. If a guy is born in Jamaica, where he faces the petty tyrannies of colonialism, feels the dramas of colonialism in his own family—the take he might have on politics, on how you “resist” what’s going on, would be quite different. It won’t mean a politically different position, but the way by which he arrives at that political position will be quite different than a Raymond Williams or an E.P. Thompson or, you know, a Victor Serge. Each has their own ways for arriving at these so-called revolutionary scenarios. When you talk about Lenin, or Marx, or Rosa Luxembourg, whoever—that biography is important. So why wouldn’t it be as important for these people, for Stuart? So it just became important, to get that right. He clearly comes from a Caribbean radical tradition— Padmore, James, Garvey. But what particular form did this track take, in the postwar world? And what can we say about it? And we were immensely helped, in [tracing] that, by the fact that he had given interviews and appeared on radio programs, where you could glean an outline, of the trajectory.

JJS: The archive exists.

JA: It exists. It’s not complete, but it’s there all the same. And we had an arc for the project. So it just seemed worth it, at the risk of repeating ourselves, to go ahead. [Laughs.] But when you commit to an archival project, something very interesting happens. I often say to students: The archive isn’t just the place where you go to corroborate, or collaborate, what you already know. The archive, as often, contradicts or complicates the standard narratives. As you’re listening to this archive, or watching it, it becomes clear that something is going on. An example here: there’s the standard line on how “Stuart Hall and cultural studies” came to be—you know, in 1964, Stuart goes to Birmingham to work with Richard Hogarth; they begin to work on questions of popular culture; it goes from there. And only later, this line says, does Stuart Hall become involved with “other questions”. That’s the standard line. And this has political implications, because it means that when he embraces race studies and “new ethnicities”, in the 80s, some members of the left attack him, for deviating from the programme. But then you go into the archive. And there in 1964, there’s a radio program where Stuart’s talking about…race. Black kids. This is not supposed to happen. The narrative suggests that he’s twenty years too early. [Laughs.] But there he is, in 1964, obsessing this thing that Paul [Gilroy] calls the raciological—this cluster of themes and concerns and attitudes that produces the racialized subject. There he is, worrying about that, obsessing about it, pronouncing on it—twenty years early.

This is what the archive does. It has this way of forcing you to reassess what has happened, and thereby of deepening your sense that [the archive] has these limits. And when you start to work with it, I think, it changes both your sense of the archive’s value vis-à-vis academic or intellectual work, and of its place in that culture.

JJS: I wonder if you could speak about that “place of the archive”—and about your own trajectory, as it were, towards it. You’ve said that “for a diasporic subject, the archive attains a special importance.” What do you mean by that?

JA: Over the years, I’ve taken to sort of flippantly suggesting that the archive is a kind of diasporic monument that stands in, as Orlando Patterson has put it, for the absence of a ruin; this fragment of civility. A lot of that is lifted from readings of Patterson. But there is something serious about that, in my head. And it has a bearing on The Stuart Hall Project. Because if you were to go to England tomorrow, from Mars, you’d find very few physical traces—except people, of course—of this grand narrative that starts somewhere in Jamaica, in 1949. When the Empire Windrush leaves with 400-something passengers, it launches this narrative which will transform not just English and British culture, but how the world, in a way, will live with itself. From that movement, [from the colonies to the metropole], all sorts of reverberations happen. But there’s no monument, or markers; very few. And there’s a willful amnesia involved in how Englishness, regularly and routinely, writes itself into being, that works against that story’s tangibility. Because Englishness, as a sort of broad, discursive regime, has to suggest that it doesn’t exist, in order to maintain the wholeness it aspires to. And in these sorts of instances, the question of the archive is absolutely critical. Not only does it provide a kind of evidence of this historical moment, but it starts to fight against itself. It becomes sort of schizophrenic—it can’t help but be. On one level, it says, “I am official memory, and anything that’s not here didn’t happen.” But when you watch it, or read it, or listen to it, it clearly comes at you in this polyglot way. Which allows for readings. And the readings can suggest that the wholeness to which it aspires, that take on Englishness, really isn’t true. When the New Left came into being, it wasn’t some corn-fed white boy from Dover who spoke for it. Here’s the evidence. It was this hyphenated figure, from the Caribbean, struggling with his own identity, but certainly intact enough, in his identity, to speak for this thing, coming to be, which is both himself, and a New Left.

And that, in tangible form, is what this slightly poncy stuff we’ve been saying about “the archive” over the years, means. Stuart is one of the examples—his inventory is an example of what we’ve been talking about. Will you find a statue to him, anywhere, given how extraordinary his contribution is? Will there ever be one? Probably not. But in that sense, what is likely to happen to Stuart, vis-à-vis official memorialization is emblematic of what happens to diasporic subjects, period. I don’t mean just black ones.

JJS: Your own sense of the archive as “inventory”, and this project’s form and tone, also mesh in potent ways with Stuart’s sense of “radical contingency”—of the openness of history; the openness of research, too, if you do it right. He is a great Gramscian, after all. And I found myself thinking, as I watched the film, of that quote from The Prison Notebooks, about how the starting point for any ”critical elaboration…is understanding oneself as a product of the historical processes to date, which [have] deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”

JA: You know, I was talking, recently, about editing Handsworth Songs, and how I had another quote from Gramsci on the wall—the bit about the crisis residing precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new can’t be born; about how “in the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear.”…And that stuff is here, too. It was very clear to me, with this project, that we were tracking moments. We were encountering [Stuart] on these radio and TV programmes, always on the cusp of what’s about to happen, and being forced to respond—What do you think the problem is here? What will happen? What will become of this, or that, or these kids? It was clear that that’s what we were doing. And that was married to another idea—or a resolve, really, that we weren’t going to do any more interviews with Stuart. [Laughs.] This had to be an inventory of the self from the archive. That’s it. Because if we couldn’t get the past to make sense, in that way, then the very notion of a historical document, in a very real sense, was a fiction. So that was the task—to cull from this recorded material some sense of seamless narrative. But to do so in such way, too, that the tempo registers in such a way that the question of temporality, really, is in the foreground. Because that’s what we were dealing with—indexicality, and temporality; you know, the passing of fucking time. [Laughs.]

JJS: And one way, of course, that that’s done is through this film’s score—through the use, throughout, of Miles Davis; of records from these different moments in time.

JA: Yes. From the beginning, the question of how the index itself might be organized, and what the tonal register would be, was very clear. But the moment I heard [Stuart] say, “Miles Davis put a finger on my soul”, I thought, that’s it; that’s what we need. “Miles put a finger on my soul, and never took it away.” At that moment, it became a dialogue between the two of them. Not a dialogue in the sense of one saying something as substantial as the other, and the other replying. Miles is very much the slave in this master narrative. [Laughs.] But nevertheless, he does bring something to bear which is indispensable, in the unfolding of time, that’s central to this piece. Because we needed a way of marking time, and thank God [Stuart] went for Miles—I mean, if he’d gone for Sonny Rollins, we would have been in trouble. [Laughs.]

JJS: When we think of musicians, who is more periodized, in a way, than Miles Davis?

JA: Talk about contingency! I mean, here’s Mr Opaque, but he’s subjecting each moment to these urgent questions; with this sense that whatever’s happening needs to be digested, incorporated, spat out right away. And it’s so interesting to me, when you talk to people who worked with him, how little of this was articulated. Herbie Hancock, [Keith] Jarrett, whoever—they’d go over to the house, the studio: Miles says “You’re there” [in a croaky whisper], “play.” But he was a great casting director, is the thing; he got what he needed. You listen to the recording of the complete sessions of Bitches Brew, and at some point, he’s there [croaking whisper]: “Ok, that’s it.” It was all open, you know. “Let’s keep that tape running”—but at some point, he had an idea of what it was that would have to be spliced, for want of a better word, into this new being. He knew what he wanted.

I suppose the difference, between Stuart and him, is in the quality of subconsciousness involved. “Radical contingency” suggests that at any one time, you’re throwing yourself into something not knowing where you’re going to end up; you’re comfortable taking that risk, that gamble, that wager. Every time Stuart goes into a radio station, that’s what he’s doing. The sonic accompaniment is slightly different, in the sense that Miles may be embracing contingency, but he has some idea where he’s going. And I think it’s that mix, that I suddenly realized would work—the marrying this contingency with a kind of radical openness. That just seemed to suggest something, aesthetically, about how to go about things in general, that I hadn’t really thought of before.

JJS: You’ve never been one, going back to Handsworth Songs, given to using voiceover—to imparting or forcing a narrative onto the images, after the fact. The narration there, as here, is diagetic; comes from the archive. I wanted to ask you, though, about “the archive”, vis-a-vis this question of Englishness. Because when we think of England’s great totems—high tea, football, Jaffa cakes, whatever—the BBC, certainly, belongs on that list. And that is unique—from the vantage of the US, certainly, where private companies own the archives; or from here in Trinidad, where as in so many places, the stuff is just gone; the resources for public broadcasting and preservation aren’t there. In England, though, you have the BBC.

JA: I was a governor of the British Film Institute for six years. In those six years, the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport—i.e. The Government, via its cultural arm—gave the BFI 18 million pounds. Which is exactly how much it costs to look after the national archive. So despite the myriad activities the BFI takes on board, and partakes in, and does, the most important thing, in the state’s mind, was to give us enough money to look after that monument. [Laughs.] Anything else could go to hang. And it seems to me that that describes a kind of desire, which is fairly recent, but that goes back long enough to be a tradition, to think about the past, and in particular the so-called great British past, in very particular ways. The idea is that there’s something of substance that needs to be preserved, and passed on—and that this archive is an extension of that substance. As we’ve said though, it is always inconclusive. It doesn’t exist as self-evidence. It requires interrogation. And that’s where the task we’re involved with comes in—and not least, incidentally, to see that one of the archive’s fiction’s is unlimited; that every subject under the sun is in there. Because it’s not. People often say to me about this project: “Why didn’t you have this?” Or “Why didn’t you have that?” They think whatever it is, in this case, that Stuart Hall, was involved in, over the past 60 years, could be found. It’s not true.

In making the film, of course, in certain ways, we preserve that illusion for people—that everything’s there. But that’s something I regret, in ways, because people watching [the film] don’t realize, say, that before Stuart comes on the BBC in 1958, to say what he does, there was a guy before who spoke in a very, very condescending way about the New Left, and him. What we’ve preserved, is that in 1958, [Stuart] spoke. Which is true. But it’s also true that in 1958, Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, made a film about the New Left to which it brought to it the same snootiness, the same sense of privilege and detachment, that it took to everything else. What it didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, is that in another 50 years, some people would be interested in that archive, and interested in using it in a way that was somehow counter to those original aims and ambitions. So, I have a kind of maniform set of investments in the existence of the archive—even in the bits I don’t necessarily think are great. And the ambivalence stretches to the role that we play in it. Because it’s not a question of replacing right with wrong; it’s one mythology with another.

JJS: How do you think, then, that your vocation as a filmmaker, as someone who deals in images, shapes your relationship to Englishness? How does it compare to someone who works in print, or music, or, you know, in a bank?

JA: I think there is a primacy to the image. And my relationship to it is a historical one—by which I mean something very specific. Because it seems to me that something happened to the status of the image after the Second World War. When people looked at those images from Treblinka and Birchenau, something happened—[those images] awakened a new sense of fidelity to the importance of the image. And all manner of people made all manner of contracts to preserve this fidelity, because they realized there’s this disjuncture between what we want to be, and how we can be. And I stand in that tradition. Of [Iain] Sinclair and Rosselini and [Humphrey] Jennings, and [Chris] Marker. All those people who believed in persevering with the image as something distinct, something that has almost a kind of ontological value in its own right. About that, we can quibble. But what’s certainly true is I think that there is a historical specificity to the status of the image—which means that it’s changing, too. For a time, the custodians of it were television, and some kind of cinema. But “the image” is now a slightly migrant, itinerant figure—it doesn’t really have a home anymore. The homes it had are full. You know, “Go find somewhere else to live, dude.” [Laughs.] So it’s even more important, I think, that people who believe in the sanctity of the image, continue to worry that note—about what it is, what it should be, what it can be, where it’s going.

Because one thing that frustrates me, too, when I talk to slightly younger directors, is the assumption that somehow what they take as their birthright will always be there. That somehow “film “as they know it will always be, that people will like it. No. Why?

JJS: This is contingent, too.

JA: You know what I mean—”Grand Theft Auto is around the corner, dude! Get out of bed!” [Laughs.] There’s no given in this at all. No guarantees. But I believe very, very passionately in there being this special space of investigation, of analysis, of interrogation, of some form of cerebral activity, vis-à-vis something one could call the image. The very question of what it constitutes is precisely what that space is about. [Laughs.] But I would certainly say that one needs to cordon the fucking area, and say: inside there, something will take place. And when it’s done, it will be called the image. Because it’s meant too much. The revelations, the illuminations that have come via the image: they are too precious, too important, to be just left to some neoliberal fucking index.

JJS: If Englishness is one pole around which your work, and The Stuart Hall Project, revolves, another pole, certainly, is Caribbeanness. Stuart calls the Caribbean “the home of hybridity.” He echoes C.L.R. James’ claims for the Caribbean, his argument that because of how this space was produced by the Atlantic system, and because of how the continents mingled here, its people were uniquely placed to shape “Western civilization”. I wonder if you could speak to those themes; about your own relation to the Caribbean, and to Caribbeanness, in your work.

JA: I’ve been around this world my whole life. More so than I have been around any other, really. Which is saying something, because I’m the child of West African political radicals. Which would suggest I’d have more connection and contact with that world, but no: most of my schooling came via this space of our planet, this colonial and postcolonial space which was the Caribbean. And look: I’ve seen, and heard, every variant of Caribbean exceptionalism, ever. [Laughs.] From the Cesaire-ian version, to the James-ian, to Glissant’s rhizomes—I’ve heard all of them. And I think now, it’s possible to say that some of those claims were a little overstated. But what I still admire is the Promethean zeal. The holding out of this space which has been a space of emptiness, as a space which can actually bring disparate things together in ways that are novel, interesting, new. Whether it would save Western civilization is another question. [Laughs.] But I’ve always admired it—the Promethean zeal. We may end up tied to rocks, and torn to bits, but fuck it—we might as well go for it. Because in the broader scheme of things, no one else is going to make those claims for you. So the Caribbean has every right, given its place at the apex of New World sensibilities, to continue to insist both on the particularity, and the potential universality, of this strain of being. And long may it continue. Because when a Bob Marley, or a Usain Bolt, or a V.S. Naipaul or Wilson Harris punches through, we think, yeah, that’s what we’re talking about. It keeps me coming back. I mean, C.L.R. James: it’s still an enigma to me, how this place produces people like that—I’ll never understand it. How did this place produce a C.L.R. James? I genuinely don’t know. I don’t know. But I don’t think that’s the point—the point is he was created by this place, and so since he was, all his claims for it have to be taken seriously, if you take him seriously. And I take him very seriously indeed.

JJS: James, curiously for someone who became so well known as a de-colonial thinker, often spoke of this idea of “western civilization”. It was a category that mattered to him. Your film Peripeteia, which showed here at the Festival, is a riff on some sketches by [Albrecht] Dürer—these images of the eruption of difference, if you like, in that civilization. But that piece places Dürer’s images of black people in dialogue, too, with your own.

JA: Yes. I love the film. And when we made it, I was hoping—I’m still hoping—that it was one of a series. That we would occasionally find another subject, and come back to it; I think we will. And all of them, in one way or another, will be alternative cartographies of certain seminal images, brought into this new constellation to talk both to images that we create in this moment, and to other inventories—whether they’re photographies, or musics, or something from the past. So that’s very much a broad ambition. And I think that that, in embryo, carries something of what I think the relationship between the various versions of our past, and the present, needs to be. I don’t want to go and look at [Heironymus Bosch’s] Garden of Earthly Delights as something good or bad, to say whether it has any “relevance”; I want it to have what the Althusserians used to call “relative autonomy”. But in that relative autonomy, what is at stake is its ability to converse, with other archives, or other images. And there’s a political and ethical move involved here. Because so much of our discussion of the trans-Atlantic past, especially when it comes to artifacts, gets re-routed either through this economy of “negative” images, or through the language of restitution: the idea that someone must pay for the past, because they stole important bits of our past, and so on. But what both of those tend to leave out, and leave silent, are the millions of fragments that don’t fall into any of this.

JJS: One thinks of Derek Walcott’s Nobel speech—his line on the Antilles as “fragments of the original continent”; and on the artist’s vocation, to reassemble those fragments. But so many of those fragments are gone, are even actively destroyed, by their institutional keepers.

JA: All the millions of fragments of the past which are not Benin bronzes, or Elgin marbles; the hundred million spears that are lying around in British museums that no one wants. And it’s worse with images—with some of these economies, you know, built on ascertaining which images are “positive” and “negative”; on having a debit-credit sheet where they can say: we have deemed all of these “negative”—they should be expunged from the accounts. “All of this stuff with Africans standing with no clothes on: useless! Take ‘em out to sea!” But if we’re not going to say that, what can we say? Because we can’t stay in this interregnum for much longer. Somebody’s got to say something else—other than these images are “negative”, or that they’re no good. And I’m not trying to suggest that using them in a way that puts them into, or out of, circulation, necessarily makes them “positive”. I am saying that that question of what they are cannot be answered solely in those terms any longer. We have to find other ways of getting them to circulate. That’s the task. To move beyond the reverence, and the disgust and loathing. That, I think, is what we have to do.

Date: Fri 14 Feb, 2014
Category: ttff news and features

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