John Akomfrah: Between the Fire and the Voice

Stoffel Debuysere


In November 2013, John Akomfrah was in Brussels to present Handsworth Songs (1986) in the context of the DISSENT! series. The following text is a transcription of the talk Stoffel Debuysere had with Akomfrah after the film, combined with some notes.

Handsworth Songs was the first film he made as a member of the Black Audio Film Collective, a group of artists, critics and filmmakers who set out to intervene in the cultural debates around black identity and representation that were raging all over Britain in the 1980s. The film, in many ways the key work of the collective, was made in response to the riots that broke out in September 1985, when roughly three hundred residents of Birmingham’s multi-ethnic suburb of Handsworth came into violent contact with the local police force. The violence was presented by the government as a solely criminal event with racial overtones, as yet another manifestation of the disintegration of norms regarding ‘law and order’. Confronted with the rhetorics surrounding these events, the challenge for Akomfrah and the collective was then to find a form that could address and problematize the dominant representation of the riots in particular and the figuration of race and ethnicity in general. The events in Handsworth resonated with other uprisings that had swept through England’s inner cities throughout the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. From the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 and the ‘riots’ which ignited nationwide in 1981, to the uprisings sparked in response to the shooting of Cherry Groce in Brixton and the death of Cynthia Jarrett in Tottenham in 1985: these were the events that painfully exposed the gap between the dominant discourses on ‘Britishness’ and what was intimately experienced by the ‘children of the Windrush generation’, those whose parents formed the first mass wave of migration from the Caribbean, the Indian Sub Continent and Africa during the 1950s, those ‘bastard children of 1968’ who came of age in a Britain that still carried with it so many unresolved ghosts from its colonial past. These were the events that crystallised what was felt by many: a sense of discrimination, marginalisation and downpression, cultivated by a state power deciding who belongs and who does not, who is the same and who is other, who has the right to speak and to be heard, and who merely emits senseless noise. At the heart of liberal realism, supposedly freed of archaic impulses and immature passions, a consensual order in which the rationalization of social roles went hand in hand with a propagation of a certain multiculturalism, a new racism roared its ugly head: one propelled and maintained by the state itself. Who could not forget the words of the infamous speech given by Thatcher in the run-up to the 1979 election, stating that the once so proud empire “might be rather swamped by people of a different culture”, upsetting the hearts and minds of its hardworking people? Who could forget the sight of Sir Ronald Bell on the set of BBC’s Panorama studio, disdainfully gesturing at the screen behind him showing footage of the ‘civil disorders’ of 1981, and saying: “If you look at their faces… I think they don’t know who they are or what they are. And really, what you’re asking me is how the hell one gives them the kind of sense of belonging young Englishmen have?”

These are the words that marked a whole generation, a generation who felt trapped in history, and was anxious to reclaim an affective counter-memory that could intervene in the official versions of historical continuity and national identity. For many of those who were coming of age in the England of the 1980s, who were painfully confronted with the complacency of a dominant order that contended to have ‘history on its side’ and the contempt of an imagined community in which they did not seem to have any part, the forage into counter-memory was not only a way of undoing the complicity of past, present and future, but moreover of the distribution of allocated places and roles that defined Thatcher’s ‘Englishness’. The organisation of representations and reasoning that shaped this reality had to be challenged and displaced by way of forms and narratives that could somehow express the uncertainties and anxieties that affectively contradicted and disrupted the state of consensus; forms and narratives that could establish new relations with the past: a past that had produced oppression, inequality, exploitation and discrimination, but had also grown inward, a haunting, unbinding past that had inflicted agonizing wounds and bruises to the sense of identity and collectivity.

John Akomfrah: “There’s a moment of apocrypha that for me underwrites personally the coming of Handsworth Songs. It was in 1981. Now, you’ve got to remember that the 1981 disturbances in the streets of London and across the country were being re-enacted by people of my age and that’s not too surprising because we were almost certainly the first post-migrant generation. Think about the demographic shifts that took place in England between 1949 and ’59: about 1.5 million people came across from Africa, the Caribbean, the West Indies, … It takes about four or five years to find your feet, so if you start to have kids in the beginning of the 1960’s, they turn 18 in 1981, give or take a few years. That demographic block which comes of age between 1976 and ’85, those who are the offspring of the original migrant settlers, are historically unusual because for the first time a culture has to find a way of processing them. But they are also historically unusual because in a very real sense they spell the coming of the ‘hyphen’. In other words these are people who will be uniquely hybrid, but not in the way that is nowadays fashionably spoken about. They are black British, yes, but their identities will be formed in that space between the two. Because both categories exist prior to them.

This is the first group that was coming into being in that gap between the two, and it was a complicated becoming: part of the complexity had to do with how much of the Faustian bargain pact my generation would make with its history, with its past. The past said: “your parents came here to clean, sweep up the floors, and ‘say yes sir, no sir’”. How much of that will you embrace? If you decide to embrace that, you’re a migrant. But this is an impossible demand to make of that generation because the amnesia that characterized that becoming is not deliberate. Many of these people don’t know an elsewhere. They can’t rely on the resources of an elsewhere to make this bargain, so they necessarily have to be subversive, because subversion just meant “no, I won’t be that”.

Before Handsworth Songs, we did a piece called Signs of Empire, and one of the speeches we used came from 1981 when a conservative minister said over and over again: “these people don’t know who they are or what they are. And really what you’re asking me” – and I’m quoting verbatim – “is how one gives them a sense of belonging”. Now he was speaking from the right of the political spectrum but I believe that in that particular instance he was voicing a common sentiment, which is: “who the fuck are these young people? We really don’t know who they are”. But crucially they don’t know who they are either. And there’s an element of truth in that. So when Handsworth happened, when it became clear that you had both a birth and death agony at the same time, we had to do something about it.

As for my moment of apocrypha: I remember standing in Brixton, London – then an area of large black settlements – during the riots of 1981. I have a camera and while I’m photographing stuff I see a group of policemen – young, in their twenties, very scared – who’ve got these shields and they are banging on them and screaming “kill, kill, kill!”, because they were trying to find some energy and courage. I was surrounded by all these journalists who were doing the exact same thing as I was. Now the next days’ newspapers all had that story of these policemen. But something interesting had happened – there was this “kill, kill, kill!” as the headline but rather than coming from the police these were now the words being uttered by the rioters. And that for me was a major lesson. Because I suddenly realized that there is something called a ‘regime of representation’ in which people play particular roles, narrative roles. In that regime at the time it was impossible to imagine that a group of police officers would be saying those words, ergo it had to be the young black people. So I became aware very early on that there was something called a ‘slippery signifier’ and that it was really all about naming. This was about undermining or confirming certain narrative expectations. And we – because many of the people who went on to form the collective were also around at that time – we became aware of this discrepancy between the fact and the naming of the fact. Part of the way in which you came into being as a subject was to chose the ability, to chose the terrain on which you name who you are. You had to involve yourself in that process.”

As part of the act of ‘naming things anew’, the collective had to look for narratives and forms that could undo and rearticulate the trajectories that framed the existing landscape of reality, and redraw the topography of places, roles and competences inscribed in it. A critical response to cultural and socio-political commonplaces could no longer be found in the language of binary oppositions and substitutions, as it was cultivated by Screen theory and its discussions on ideological stereotyping, nor could it be found in the paradigms of ‘cultural ethnography’, with its vocations to represent the inner workings of a community’s experiential reality. The problem did not lie in opposing the rhetorical messages that are disseminated through mass media or in, as Salman Rushdie suggested in his vexing critique on the film, “giving voice to the voiceless” by making heard their authentic colourful tales, but in questioning the way words and forms are interwoven in a common sense.

John Akomfrah: “There are several interviews we did for the film. The first two guys they tell you why they do this. The Asian people tell you “we knew there was something wrong, the problem was …” the point is that people might tell you what led to it but that doesn’t explain the acts themselves. And that is the problem that most of the discourse runs into. In other words, as long as you keep insisting that the reasons why people make certain social acts are purposive, rational and programmatic, you’re gonna miss the point, which is that we’re not entirely rational in our actions. Psychoanalysts understand this now and we all understand. There are certain obsessive compulsive acts, there are certain acts of hysteria or anger, … not everybody who’s on the streets is saying to themselves “we’re doing this to bring down racism in British society”, they’re just responding to it. I tried – like everybody else I was looking and asking around – but when we put it together, we realised it just wasn’t enough. It didn’t seem to explain the cataclysm. So you needed other ways of trying to do that and we did. We were editing this for a year trying to take seriously the folkloric and the ethnographic and it just wasn’t there. There was always a gap between the fire and the voice.

When we almost finished the film there was a key British post-structuralist called Colin MacCabe, who was very close to Salman Rushdie. He said, “I love this film, I’ll show it to Salman and he will love it too”. Salman did this article in the Guardian and it appeared that he hated the film. The key accusation that he made was that instead of telling stories we had rehashed bits and pieces from archives and this was the worst way of going about things. The argument was that we needed a certain ethnographic veracity and it was difficult then to persuade people that it’s the very language of veracity that had to be challenged.

By the time we came to this film, we knew the cinema of Michael Powell, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Tarkovsky… We had seen everything because we had been to the same fucking schools as everyone else. But nobody believed that. We went to the arts council to get money to make ‘avant-garde’ films and they were like: “you can’t because black people don’t make avant-garde films.” This was the environment. This was the primal scene of our becoming. Salman just couldn’t believe any more than most people who ran the film funds that you might do this deliberately. The assumption is that if something exists like this it is because you don’t know any other way of doing it.

What we wanted to do, and this is going to sound very pompous but I don’t mean it that way, is to write a kind of feelroom about the coming of hybrid identities, to suggest that this is a kind of neural pathway. I’m not surprised that the work has some kind of resonance here in Brussels, because the condition of the diaspora is the same everywhere and always. In terms of impact on the community, it’s always the same: people love it, some hate it. But it forced us to talk to each other about what the film is trying to say, which is really where are we and what do we want to say to each other about this country. Are we Ghanian, black, black British, how do want to name ourselves? And I’m glad we made it because it helped that discussion.

We just wanted to say: “look, there are no stories in the riots, they’re just ghosts of other stories”. These are just infinite rehearsals for this moment, and in order to just understand this moment you need to sift through all of this. You’ve got to understand that nobody leaves their country saving up money for five years, getting up a boat to travel 10.000 miles to come anywhere to cause trouble. Nobody does this. So if someone with their family made this journey to come here and their kids are on the streets rioting, it means that something has happened in the nature of the pact made between them and you. Something has gone wrong. So in order to understand what has gone wrong you’ve got to go back, to look at the moments of affirmation and when this affirmation goes wrong. That is the only premise for the film, there is no other reason to make the film, because anybody else had done the other stuff before. You can still watch it every day on television: there will be a socialist MP and a conservative MP and a newscaster in-between – and he will say, “Mister socialist, why are these young black people doing this?”, and he will answer “Oh well, because there is unemployment and policing, etc.” And then the newscaster will turn to mister conservative who will say “Ah, but these problems you are talking about: white people in poor areas also face the same problem, so that can’t be the reason why they are rioting, the reason why is because they’re black, they don’t belong.” There’s no amount of great storytelling that will get you around this problem. The problem is race. Everybody knows it, but everybody is trying to wish it away. So we had to confront it: yes, it is about race, yes, all the kids on the street rioting are black. But why is it about race? That’s the question.”

There has always been a certain undecidability at the heart of the image, a tension between the composition of a distinctly visual sensibility, and a sensory fabric of indistinct intensities, circulating independent of any predetermined relationship of address. In other words, there is always a play with the variable significance of images, which are isolated to convey the tonality of the whole entity, or combined into an opaque object or dynamic form. It is this versatility of signs that has been dismissed by structuralist thought, which restored them to their signifying materiality. Within film culture, this tendency ultimately collapsed in endless discussions on ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ images, which more than often filled the pages of magazines such as Screen. The work of the Black Audio Film Collective can be considered as a break with the idea that there was a sort of wholesomeness to the image and that the response to dominant imagery had to be found in its antagonistic double. Their work was an attempt to render sensible the gaps and silences of Britain’s colonial history on the strength of the signs of those who had written it, addressing the uncertainties of the colonial archive and their effects on the diasporic condition by creating a space of poetic reflection in which the irreconcilable gaps and fissures between history and myth, the imagined and the experienced – there where diasporic histories lie in wait – can be excavated.

John Akomfrah: “We were talking earlier about this distrust of ambivalence and agnosticism in regards to the truth of the image. Yes, all these kids are out on the streets, but the reasons why they’re there is not implicit in the image. This is the standard ethnographic myth: that if you see people breaking stones, somehow it gives you some insight in their being, in their nature. Bullshit, it doesn’t, it’s just them breaking stones. If you see people throwing Molotov cocktails, that’s what they are doing. What it means, that’s a different proposition. It seems to me that when you reach these conceptual ruptures in the tissue of the social, you have to go somewhere else in order to effect a kind of repair. You have to find resources from other spaces, other than what is immediately in front of you, to make sense of that. So the fact that we were sceptical about documentary realism had to do with that. With the fact that you just had to question the value of the immediate, of what is immediately in front of you. Because sometimes it is telling you as much of the truth as it was lying.

The diasporic relationship to the archive is a very special one. In the case of the African diaspora in Europe in particular – between 1949 and ‘69 maybe 2 million people passed through – there is no epitaph, no monument anywhere that tells you that these people ever passed through. Most of them are dead now. The only tangible record of them ever having existed is the archive. But the archive is also paradoxical is the sense that these are also official memories of moments written in the language, or allegedly in the language of the official narratives. So from the beginning you have to have an ambivalent relation to the archive: everything that is in there – you see people coming off ships or boats, there is a voice-over saying “here are the immigrants, they’re going to be causing trouble” or “we have to be kind” – it’s the voice of the outsider of the interior of the archive. Most of these people have no idea that they’re already being constructed as a social problem before they’d even landed. So part of the ethical task in using this material is unravelling the polyvalent, to take apart the multiple meanings which are always present at the same time and make a choice about which of the possible meanings you are going to commandeer and use for certain aesthetic, cultural or political ends. And this starts with the realisation that things are always in multiple places at the same time.”

Handsworth Songs does not assume a posture of urgency and emergency, as is typical of the so-called ‘militant’ films which attempt to take up the torch for those considered as ‘surplus’; it does not aim for the awakening of a political consciousness, as was the case for some films of Horace Ove, Menelik Shabazz, or Franco Rosso, who each in their own way attempted to express the sense of dread and disquiet that gripped 1970’s Britain. It rather proposes a rearrangement of words, images and sounds in another fabric of sensibility, one of intimacy and vulnerability. It takes on the tonality of an allegory, choosing the fragmentary and the incomplete over the symbolic and the whole, choosing doleful monody over dramatic discursiveness, the expression of sorrow over the rhetoric of agon. What perspires is a sense of loss, of place and time, a loss that cannot be recovered but that leaves behind its traces, in images of departure and words of reminiscence. But there is also something else that remains vacated, another absence that haunts and taunts the lives of those portrayed: that which Orlando Patterson and Derek Walcott have called ‘the absence of ruins’, the lack of tangible documents or monuments, memorials or libraries, that legitimize the existence of those anonymous lives, of those who perish in the cracks of history, perish by never being allowed to go behind the definitions that others made of them, by not being allowed to spell their proper name or recount their own memories. What is felt, especially through the use of poetic texts, is a melancholic agency who cannot know its history as the past, cannot capture its history through chronology, and does not know who it is except as the persistence of a certain unavailability and unavowability that keeps haunting the present.

John Akomfrah: “When I first came across the phrase ‘the absence of ruins’ it helped me so much. It is a phrase by the Jamaican sociologist/novelist Orlando Patterson. He was using it to describe the new world, the Caribbean, and how it, as a place of the diasporic subject, is marked by the absence of ruins – ruins that suggest a kind a civilizing trace. There’s no Acropolis, no elegy marble, these are places formed on the basis of an ever present. It struck us that the absence of ruins characterizes all diasporic lives. It’s the sine qua non of the diaspora. It’s marked by an absence of tangible traces to your existence. The available means are partly the archival records and you have to look not only for what the archival trace says but also what it doesn’t say. Because sometimes it’s hidden there. So all the words we used in the project were ones we rewrote because we believed those sentiments, silent though they are, were present as well at the time when those images were shot.”

He said to her, Remember Bunny Enriquez and Greta Borg and Lady June Barkerî.
Remember Countess Corblunska with her black velvet top her skirt of figured net over satin.
Remember the nights of Coruba cocktails and Curuba sour, their secret pregnancies, your wet nursing and me nappy washing.
It ís about time we had our own child.
Our own master George Hammond Banner Bart.

John Akomfrah: “All of those names are from real people, based on research into Caribbean upper class life in the 1940s, so they are the very people many of the people inside the film would have left to get away from, because migration is a profoundly utopian act – you leave because things are gonna be better in the future, somewhere else. But by virtue of it being utopian it’s also a dystopian critique of where you’re leaving. It suggests that they are in flight. A number of the voice-overs were either to suggest what might be the reasons for flight or what might arrive – what you would meet in what Naipaul calls the ‘enigma of arrival’, because in the very real sense you are being made into something new. The journey of migration is the journey of diaspora. By the time you arrive you are something else. And you will never be the same again; you will never be a fola or wolof, you will now be something else and that something else is what that life you’re about to lead is about to discover, the implications of that something are what you about to discover. These are deeply held sentiments that we felt the writing should aid people to understand. “I walk with my back to the sea, horizon straight ahead.” Well, which horizon? “Night time, I am the sea”. In the evening you might go the Caribbean, in your dreams, but in the daytime you will be here in this cold, in this space, this impossible space that you have chosen. This is the awful thing about migration, no matter how awful things are for you, you made that choice. So you have to deal with it, you have to process this decision that you’ve made. That’s the importance of the writing.”

In the 1980s, when it became clear that the legacies of the Bandung moment and its varied postures of nonaligned sovereignty had effectively come to an end, the narratives of liberation and overcoming that sustained the force of the politically engaged cinematic practices from the 1960s could no longer hold the critical salience they once had. This was especially felt in regards to the legacy of the so-called ‘Third Cinema’, referring to the often militant cinema forms that were developed in subaltern cultures as an answer to the hegemony of western cinema and an instrument in the process of decolonization. “Inscribed in the militant and nationalist pretensions of the term ‘third cinema’,” wrote Akomfrah in 1988, “is a certainty which simply cannot be spoken anymore. A certainty of place, location and subjectivity. What now characterizes the ‘truths’ of cinema, politics and theory is uncertainty.” In times of uncertainty we can no longer hold on to these stories of salvation and redemption, depending upon a certain utopian horizon or a prospect of homogeneous collectivity toward which the emancipatory history is imagined to be moving. In times of uncertainty, as Cyrille Offermans wrote about Michel de Montaigne’s essays, other fictions tend to be created, reports of wanderings without preconceived maps or destinations, forms of inquiry that are not in search for the one and only Truth, but for a sincerity of small truths. As David Scott has written, there is a need of fictions that embrace the ‘unknowing’ and oppose the view of history as a chain of events on a ‘road to salvation’ with that of a broken series of paradoxes and reversals in which action is ever open to unaccountable contingency, chance and peripeteia.

John Akomfrah: “The quote is from a journal that I co-edited. It was really about trying to grapple with what we called the ‘politics of location’. Now it seems to me that the politics of location debate is connected to the question you were asking about diaspora and the notion of uncertainty. Just to make it real simple, if I speak to my mum – or rather, when I could speak to her when she was alive – she would say “we Ghanians, we do this”. There was a certainty that underpinned the utterance of identity that I couldn’t use. Because I couldn’t speak with the same assurance, the same certainty about what a Ghanian was. For the simple reason I didn’t really know – she did. The lack of not knowing has to do with this business of diaspora, of relocation. Because I am being formed in her home, in the care and love and concern of her home. At the same time as I am being processed by something else: a school, an outside. So I have to work on the assumption that this uncertainty, this döppelganger in my head saying “everything’s OK, don’t worry, you are really like everybody else” – that döppelganger has to at one point meet the other phantom on this side of my shoulder saying “if you’re really like everybody else how come you are being treated in different ways?” In other words, you’re split psychically and culturally in ways that you begin to understand are references to how the society in itself is split towards you and people like you. At that moment you choose something. You say “I will be the product of this and that”. And it seems to me that this need to make uncertainty a militant gesture, the need to make the hybrid identity a condition of speech, this is what diasporas do. At some point you say “I will sit here and I will sing about river Jordan”. Because I now know that I’m not wholly of here, and will probably never be of there. So whatever I am going to become, has to be made of my will, effort, gestures which we’ll have to take from both somewhere. Uncertainty becomes the condition of speech.

David’s point, which I think is a really important one, was that there were moments when a certain political narrative could become endear to explain certain actions, certain moments of anti-colonial struggles. But in the absence of those things, do we measure the effectivity of current actions in relation to the so-called pregivens, the narratives of a past? In other words, if a bunch of kids is out on the streets, even helping themselves to 10.000 Nikes, if you can’t explain it by the discourse of socialist action, is the problem the theory or them? That’s what David is trying to grapple with: what happens in post-political times when the categories are not adequate to explaining the acts? What is the act now and how do we make sense of it without recourse to pre-existing ones, which by definition will say that these are not good enough? Because the pre-existing ones have models that are obviously always much more dramatic. In Ghana, in 1949, when Nkrumah started the CPP there was a country of 7.5 million people and 2.5 of them joined the party. It’s a mass party, so of course if you have that model in your head about anti-colonial struggle you’re going to run into problems when you hit the inner cities of London where there may be 10.000 people on the street who don’t and don’t want to belong to any party, and the cause they’re making is not for something clear.

After the 2011 riots in London there was this big event at Tate. Hundreds of people turned up to watch the film and to discuss it. Lots of people told us we had to make another film. But no! I believe very much in generations taking responsibility. The people on the streets in London in 2012 are not 45-55, they’re 25 and they have to find their own way of articulating the reasons why, they have to find a narrative for speaking out. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t help if I was asked but I will not initiate a project on another riot. Because the reason why we did it was because we wanted our generation to have it’s own stake in the argument. I wouldn’t do it for another generation, they have to do it themselves. I would help them but first and foremost they have to make the effort, otherwise it is not worth it.

We were very careful in Handsworth Songs to not take on the militant posture which says “these are revolutionary acts to bring down capital”. I mean that’s not what we were saying there. I’m not saying in Handsworth Songs that there were no criminal acts, but here’s the thing: there’s a tautology at work which you have to unmask. Criminals are subjects, you can’t be tried as a mass for a crime. Crimes are committed by criminals. They have to be able to face the law as subjects. So if you have 10.000 people on the streets committing a crime, then something else is going on other than a crime. Since the singularity is missing. This is a mass act. One needs to discuss how a certain form of sociality in a place at a particular time takes that form. Why? It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “it’s just criminal”. It doesn’t help you to understand that. I don’t believe, as many of my generation said about the event, that these were just kids interpellated by capital, that they just wanted Nike shoes, etc. If you want Nike shoes you can go buy them or steal them on your own. When you do that with 10.000 other people, you’re making another sort of statement – as well as the fact that you want Nike shoes. So what is that statement? Why do people choose to bang together to do this in the name of Nike shoes, even if that’s all it was?

The fact that there is no grand narrative at the heart of it may well be their modus operandi. If the modus operandi of an event is “we don’t have a slogan”, that seems to me to be a political gesture, a political statement. Question is: what is it? You need to unpick that. Some lazy cultural theorist who goes “oh, they don’t have a political slogan, they went home and they took the fridge and the Nike shoes”. Do your job, dude! You are the guy who is paid to think about the impossible, they don’t have to. If you read the beginning of ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ by Edward Thompson, you never find anybody in the opening saying “we are the working class people, our historical mission is to take over capital.” People don’t speak like that. Nobody ever has. Bolsheviks might, but the people who joined the Kronstadt rebellion didn’t say “we are the avant-garde of the working class.” Nobody speaks like this. If you want the language, you have to make analysis, calculations, deductions, based on what you’re seeing or reading about. To expect the actors to announce in pamphlet form or, even better, in three volumes of ‘Das Kapital’ is an impossible demand. Nobody has ever done it and no amount of young black kids are going to do it for you. It’s that basic. I don’t know of any social formation ever that did that. Including the most powerful one, the working class. There is no record. The moment when people become aware that they’re a class for themselves comes two centuries later, but not when it’s being formed. And that’s an important point to remember when we make these accusations about people without a signal or orientation. People never do have those things.”

Handsworth Songs was made in a time when various ‘endisms’ started to make their way into the political and cultural imagination: the end of all grand narratives, of ideology and utopia, of politics and history, and ultimately the end of any meaningful time whatsoever. What was said to be dead and buried were the optimistic narratives that contained a historical faith in a possible transformation of the dominant world order, and the credibility of the theoretical models that sustained this faith with the promise of providing both the means to entangle the workings of our lived world and the weapons in the struggle for a new one. But this rhetoric also tainted the thinking about cinema: in the aftermath of the golden age of structuralism and semiology, there was talk of the death of the image, of the emergence of a certain post-cinema, a cinema that could no longer keep its promise and renounced its historical and political possibilities. The collective, however, did not concern itself with mourning the ‘end of cinema’ and lamenting the growing banality of signs and images, but on the contrary, with awakening the potential that is inside of them, a potential that is realized in new topographies of the significant and the insignificant, documents and monuments. The sense of mourning in Akomfrah’s film does not seem to be prompted by a loyalty to a world of lost ideals or a helplessness in the face of catastrophe, it rather coincides with a resistance to closure, finality and fixation.

John Akomfrah: “I started to make Super 8 films when I was very young and then I started up film societies. In fact, I am very proud of the fact that I was once beaten up for showing Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) in a film club. Cinema was really important to me from the beginning. But the collective did start off working in the gallery and at some point, about a decade ago, everybody denied this was the case. I don’t necessarily believe the theoreticians who announce the post-cinema moment, but it’s clear that something is happening. It’s clear that the disenchantment that we feel vis-à-vis the image is not just paranoia, it’s clear that some of the questions that people of my generation and certain generations before felt were the providence of cinema are now being addressed in other spaces, other platforms, other spheres. So I’m trying to respond to all of that.

I don’t love all cinema, there was a time when I could put my hand on my heart and say “I love cinema”, but not anymore. I love certain kinds, forms, practices, authors of cinema but I don’t love cinema in general anymore. Because so much is consciously not for me. So I’m happy to find spaces in which it’s possible to make some of the questions I want to pose. But I also think something happened just after the war. It had a long trajectory but essentially when you watch Ladri di biciclette (1948) or Rosselini stuff, you see a certain approach to the real. People say “we will be custodians of what you embody”. A number of institutions then came up, television being one of them, who said “we too will join you in this contract with the real”. I don’t feel that this is the case anymore. I think the real is again a fugitive subject, a pariah subject. Certainly television is like “the real, we don’t do that, we do reality TV but we don’t do real stuff because it involves open-endedness, fluctuation and ambiguity”. Suddenly all sorts of other spaces and platforms are receptive to the messiness of the real and they’re willing to take it on. I’m happy to go there because first and foremost that’s what took me into cinema. Because it was the custodian of that thing. Which it is not anymore, or at least not exclusively. You look at the opening sequence of Ladri di biciclette (1948) or Roma città aperta (1945) and you can see all of these things. The dialogue, the discussions, the critique, it is all there. The fact that it is presented doesn’t mean that everything is accepted. There’s a sort of analytic power at work which is open to the very messy, protean possibilities of the real. Some of my favourite stuff is from television of the 1960s: you watch it and there’s just this obsession with the insignificant. Now everything means something. It’s so tame, everything is ‘meaningful’. It’s that disenchantment with the real that I’m talking about, with it’s subversive, protean possibilities.”


DISSENT ! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of  VG & VGC. The visit of John Akomfrah has been made possible with the support of CINEMATEK, Le p'tit ciné, Brussels Arts Platform and VUB Doctoral School of Human Sciences.