As part of our current John Akomfrah Onscreen season A Storm is Blowing, we recently conducted an interview with John to explore the making of the film Testament (1998).
Below are a few fragments from the interview. The full transcript can be downloaded here.
JA: One of the things I’d learnt and took very seriously by the time we made Testament was that you needed the ability to draw from a range of sources, from multiple ways of seeing and doing that could form a kind of working paradigm or language or a working practice. This was something I took from the cinema of Latin America, watching the films of Tarkovsky, Jansco, Angelopoulous, and African cinema in general: basically from any cinema interested in exploring the historical by other means. So, the idea was to use the notion of a testament to draw from a range of sources: African colour theory and folklore, the value of Dirge singing as a kind of narrative device, and, of course, the mix of fiction and fact, documentary and drama, history and memory – the usual tropes that then came to define the Black Audio Film Collective. And the ambition was that if we drew on this range of stuff to formulate a language, it might give us access to an impossible history. The impossible history of Testament is this: there had been these experiments in African Socialism, they had come to an end, and the consensus was that they were a failure. However, the question for me was: what does this failure mean in narrative terms? How do you narrate failure? Since narrative is visually about agency, how does one construct a project which is about trying to understand the process of things failing?
SF: Of course, there’s another sense of testament, as in the ‘last will and testament’. Is there a sense in which this is looking at what was bequeathed by that revolution and by that experiment?
JA: Yes. And up to that point it had been a secret, even to myself – the secret of how much of one’s formation owed something to that history. Now I kind of take it for granted. When somebody asks me, I say one of the reasons why we’re here is because of what happened in ’66, because without that that, my family wouldn’t have had to emigrate, to go into exile. But then that was all a secret even to me – I hadn’t quite made the connection between the two. I’d made the connection between the place where we were at and the process by which we’d arrived at it, and it was in a way the making of Handsworth, going to Africa in 1987, being exposed to this vast array of narrative strategies by which people were trying to say something about Africa in the present, that I thought, hang on – I have some investment in this.
SF: You were trying to reclaim from Werner Herzog, who was in Ghana making Cobra Verde, and fulfill a certain responsibility towards African cinema. That puts a heavy burden on your shoulders!
JA: Yes, but in saying, the whole thing starts with that burden of representation. It’s recognising something that I’ve tried to apply ever since: if you say that you admire African cinema, for instance, and one of the reasons why you say that you admire African directors is their ability to wrestle with this problem of representation, to wrestle with the way in which all manner of influences – political, cultural, psychological and professional – impact upon a stage called representation, then of course, the thing to do is to take it on! There’s nowhere else to go. So that was a recognition I made personally, that helped the way I approached most of the things that would have been otherwise impossible to navigate.
The subtitle of the film is warzones of memory. The fact that you accept you’re combatant in this field – conceptual, geographic and psychic; the minute you accept that this is the space you are in – a space in which the question of memory is a product of contestation – what you see yourself offering is a counter movement to that officially sanctioned amnesia, the one that says that this fucker (Nkrumah) and his party (the CPP) doesn’t exist, in fact, never exited: this was the official narrative, okay? The minute you realise this – you also realise that this then means there are certain ethical and political responsibilities to be taken on – you have to fight for the space of that counter-narrative to come into being. And that also necessarily means having to accept certain burdens as necessary prerequisites for this to work.
JA: So much of the rhetoric of the coup was about the idea that the African Socialist experiment had taken us to some dark, barbaric place, and what they were about to inaugurate was something that would take Ghana into the space of light. In fact, the opposite happened, because if there had been a descent, we continued down that road of descent to the point that when I arrived in Ghana, the full outline of the tragedy was in front of me.
The African Socialist war happened to be a Post Colonial first. Nkrumah wanted to inaugurate this space, this state that would be a state of agency. It was all about practicing the activity of statehood. What dawned on me, which in a way is the idea behind Transfigured Night, was the extent to which many of these coups were about arresting that agency to the point of narcolepsy. They were about trying to stop these states being active units and the most graphic extension of that moment was evident in the local cemetery, where there were hundreds or tens, certainly, of graves that had been broken into. People were breaking into graves and taking from them – people were buried with items of value and thieves were after that. So we had arrived at this situation where the state was so narcoleptic, was so indifferent to the living that it was prepared to turn a blind eye to the living literally disfiguring the dead. That was a very stark situation to be in. My father’s grave was in precisely that state. These looted graves seemed to me a graphic illustration of the state and made me feel that we should do something about it.
Akomfrah’s exploration of the Post Colonial world that began with Testament is continued in his two-screen installation Transfigured Night (2013), currently on view at our Eastcastle Street Gallery. Click here for further information.
In the coming weeks, A Storm is Blowing continues with:
17 – 23 March – Seven Songs for Malcolm X
24 – 30 March – The Last Angel of History
31 March – 6 April – Memory Room 451
7 – 13 April – Nine Muses