Interview with John Akomfrah

We talk diversity at the Oscars, the possibilities for British film-makers and the vital importance of film-making pedagogy

February 25, 2016
John Akomfrah, Film@CultureLab, Newcastle University
Source: PA

John Akomfrah is an award-winning British film-maker and artist. He co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982 and its film Handsworth Songs, his directorial debut, won the 1987 BFI Grierson Award for best documentary. He has had a long association with higher education and has held positions at numerous universities. In January, he was appointed visiting professor of film practice based in Newcastle University’s Film @ CultureLab.

Where and when were you born?
In Accra, Ghana, on 4 May 1957.

How has this shaped you?
I was brought up in an exiled political family in London, which meant that you were always aware of this heritage. My earliest sense of belonging to anything was to a London community. As a child, London was my universe and everything that happened in it had a major impact on my evolution, whether it’s going to the Tate Gallery or independent cinemas on the King’s Road.

What do you hope to achieve in your new role?
One of the main aims is to ensure that the kind of independent film practice I’ve been involved with over the past 25 to 30 years has an afterlife in the academy. That’s a crucial point for me.

For students of film practice or any of the associated fields, how important is the education aspect as opposed to the natural flair someone might have for film-making?
Very important. I don’t know any of the major film-makers who have garnered immense respect or admiration across the world who didn’t have something to do with being initiated via a kind of formal means. Whether it’s [Steven] Spielberg, [Andrei] Tarkovsky or [Ousmane] Sembène. All of these guys had, of course, natural flair, that goes without saying. But you need a space in which that’s harnessed, critiqued, informed by other traditions.

On your appointment you said: “Nowadays making films is easy. But making films that work, socially, politically and aesthetically, is a different matter.” Is there a paucity of modern films that fulfil those criteria?
I think there’s a paucity of films that tick all the boxes I’m interested in. I understand it’s now one of the biggest industries in the world, so of course quite a lot of it is about trying to get returns and make money. Raising questions and making a living are not mutually exclusive. It’s important for people to get their heads around that.

Your films often have a particular societal/political theme or message. What is your view of the society we find ourselves in today? Does it offer good material for films?
If you make films that are...seeking to pose questions or investigate, then this is the best time of our lives. The range of stuff, be it issues of ecological, political, industrial [or] post-industrial concern, is massive. The challenge is to remain engaged but not doctrinaire.

The news surrounding this year’s Oscars has been dominated by the lack of diversity among nominees. Do you think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a problem with diversity?
I think the Academy has a problem this year, for sure. What is intriguing is why it does, because I don’t understand it. I’ve heard the Michael Caines and Charlotte Ramplings. You would understand their comments if there [had been] a spate of great films that didn’t have people of colour involvement and a huge swathe of films that were equally brilliant but [did have] people of colour, [because] then someone had a complicated choice to make. For me, the most interesting thing is that it doesn’t feel like a vintage year. There is some interesting and fantastic stuff but it doesn’t feel like a bumper crop. So it’s more surprising that in a moment like that you would have this flare up.

Is there a solution?
I’m going to trust the Academy to get it right. I don’t normally give them a blank cheque but there does seem to be genuine remorse.

If you were a prospective university student facing £9,000 fees, would you apply or get a job?
One of the reasons I was involved in many of the campaigns against these fees is precisely because of this question. All I can say is try as much as you can to hold at bay the very necessary fear and anxiety that going to university and [thus] incurring debt now entails.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
There were two really. I remember going to a fantastic gig where The Specials, Madness [and] the whole 2 Tone posse turned up in Portsmouth, and it was an amazing evening. The second one was organising what used to be called an “Afro-Caribbean” Society – a black students’ organisation. Some of the discussions that we had were fantastic. They have stayed with me until now, because you suddenly became aware that there was a group of you, all learning to recognise the same things.

What’s your advice to students?
Embrace difficulty; become friends with the unexpected and unusual, because there lies illumination. There’s no point in doing education just to confirm what you know.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The cash nexus is uppermost in the minds of just about everyone involved with education at the moment. You feel as though all the institutions that you thought were “safe” now seem precariously balanced on the edge of some kind of precipice.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best bit is I leave everything I do knowing that, in a way, we’ve created another universe. The worst is the uncertainty. You’re always looking for someone to back it, finance it, support it. Most people who make anything with images spend most of their time waiting for some dickhead to say “yes” or “no”.


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