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Film festival honours influential director
Ghanaian/British film legend John Akomfrah is visiting T&T for the first time under a shower of praise for his latest documentary, The Stuart Hall Project, which makes its Caribbean premiere at the film festival here. The festival is paying tribute to Akomfrah, screening five of his films, including Stuart Hall. The film explores the life and ideas of the leftist Jamaican/British academic, broadcaster and commentator, who created and popularised cultural studies and is credited with developing the concept of multiculturalism. “As an alternative history of Britain in the last half century, The Stuart Hall Project… could hardly be bettered,” went the review in the UK Guardian. The film “does justice to Hall’s words and his remarkable career,” said the Telegraph. The Stuart Hall Project was also well-received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Plaudits have become par for the course in Akomfrah’s near-30-year career. Like Hall, Akomfrah is admired for his intellect and fresh—sometimes controversial—way of looking at issues. Akomfrah was born in Ghana in 1957. His father was a member of Kwame Nkrumah’s Cabinet. The family, fearing for their safety, fled the country after the 1966 coup. Many of Akomfrah’s films deal with the struggle of migrants and social unrest. In 1982 he and other like-minded artists founded the iconic Black Audio Film Collective, which for 16 years sought to use different media to express black thought in inventive ways. His first film, 1986’s Handsworth Songs—which will be screened at MovieTowne tomorrow, looked at the race-based riots in that district the previous year.
Made for UK’s Channel 4, it won many awards. One of Akomfrah’s narrative films, 1986’s Who Needs a Heart, will be screened at the Little Carib Theatre next Sunday. Essentially a silent film, it’s backed by the work of experimental musicians, including John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and is based around the life of a Trinidad-born leader of the British Black Power movement, Michael X. Born Michael De Freitas, he was hanged at the Port-of-Spain Royal Gaol in 1975 for murder. Akomfrah’s company, Smoking Dogs Films, calls it the Black Audio Film Collective’s most controversial film. The documentary short The Last Angel of History will air tomorrow at MovieTowne. The film festival says it’s “one of the most influential video-essays of the 1990s.” Last Angel looks at and adopts the surrealistic style called afrofuturism, made popular by the musicians Sun Ra and George Clinton. Another short, the fictional film Peripeteia, will air at the Little Carib Theatre next Sunday. It’s a look at a 16th-century black couple that the film festival calls “a beautifully told story of alienation, loss and memory.”
Akomfrah is also getting praise for another recent film, The March, a PBS documentary that premiered last month and looks at the 1963 March on Washington. He’d previously done documentaries on Martin Luther King Jr, and on Malcolm X and Louis Armstrong. But Stuart Hall has a special place in Akomfrah’s heart. Hall was a big influence on Akomfrah even before the two met when the filmmaker consulted with Hall on Handsworth Songs. In an interview last year, Akomfrah called Hall “one of my mentors.” “He helped my generation, the young people whose parents were from immigrant families, think about who we were and what we want to do with our lives,” said Akomfrah. “When I was a young person in the late 70s, early 80s, to hear him talk about what it means to be different in a society was very, very important. It gave you a sense of, not simply of self, but of agency, of what you could do with your life,” he said.
“So it seemed like a fitting tribute to be able to at some point use that life, my life, to do something on his life.”
John Akomfrah will be present for a Q&A at the second showing of The Stuart Hall Project on Saturday at MovieTowne, Port-of-Spain. More info on times and additional screenings: ttfilmfestival.com or 621-0709.
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