Entertainment & Arts

John Akomfrah: Little known, much decorated film-maker

Image caption John Akomfrah was born in Ghana before his family moved to the UK

John Akomfrah OBE has received an award from the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) in recognition of his work over a career spanning more than 25 years.

He may be the most critically acclaimed British film-maker you've never heard of. So, who is he?

The director, whose body of work stretches from documentaries to feature films and audio-visual art installations, received the Princess Margriet award from the ECF, a Netherlands-based independent foundation that aims to promote creative expression across Europe.

He received the award at a ceremony on Monday in Brussels, Belgium, after being selected from a list of 90 cultural practitioners nominated by their peers across Europe.

The foundation said Akomfrah had been honoured in recognition of his "ground-breaking film oeuvre woven from perspectives often hidden from the accepted narratives of European history".

The director says he was "shocked" to receive the award.

"I just feel that I do what I do and I'm surprised when it's recognised - I'm very grateful.

"Recognition from my peers is, in itself, an award."

It's the latest accolade bestowed upon Akomfrah, who has received more than 35 international awards.

He first came to prominence as a result of his critically acclaimed 1986 documentary Handsworth Songs, which focused on riots and racial unrest in London and Liverpool.

And a screening of the film at Tate Modern last summer, in the wake of the unrest across English cities, attracted a huge audience.

The fact that the film looked at unrest in parts of London, such as Tottenham and Brixton, prompted some to question whether Akomfrah would film a follow-up.

But the auteur says a follow-up isn't something that interests him.

'Dual identity'

"When I made Handsworth Songs I was roughly the same age as the people on the streets - we knew them. We were instinctively plugged into the zeitgeist. We knew, emotionally, what had to be done," he says.

"The people who were on the streets last summer were my son's age. I believe anything that's done should be done by people who are roughly that age.

"I have an ethical commitment to the belief that people should speak for themselves and not have others speak on their behalf."

The auteur is widely considered to be one of the chief architects of modern black British cinema after co-founding the Black Audio Film Collective, a production group set up to legitimise black voices, in the early 1980s.

Akomfrah was born in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in 1957.

His activist parents fled the West African country when he was just nine, shortly after political unrest meant their lives were potentially in danger.

The family relocated to west London, where he grew up. But he never lost touch with his Africa, becoming an avid fan of films produced in the continent as a child.

The director has returned to his country of birth on an almost annual basis for more than 21 years, spending a great deal of time at the family home in Accra.

Akomfrah says much of his inspiration is derived from what he calls his "dual identity" as an "Afro-Brit".

"Emotionally, I don't know where the stuff comes from. I understand Ghana's smells, music, rhythms and patterns. I understand it viscerally.

"It's hard to explain how much of us is left in one place and how much another. I see it all as me. I'm not confused by it.

"It's not a problem for me to have a foot in both camps. I'm very happy with that. It wasn't always like that. As I get older I realise how much of me was from there and I get to like it more. "

However, Akomfrah says his self-proclaimed dual identity did cause him to pause for thought when he was honoured with an OBE in 2008.

Some have dismissed the award as being a legacy of colonialism, most notably poet Benjamin Zephaniah who rejected the honour in 2003.

"It did cross my mind that it might not be something to accept. I understand why people turn it down and I'm not convinced that it's always a bad idea to turn it down.

"But I spoke to several friends - a few who had gongs. They said the system was set up to be meritocratic. We are being acknowledged for what we did rather than where we were from. It's society recognising our contribution."

These influences are evident in the director's most recent film, Nine Muses, which looks at post-war mass migration to the UK by people from Africa, the Caribbean and India.

The film, which has been shown at selected independent cinemas across the UK since late January, combines archive footage of black and Asian people travelling to the UK with shots of a lone figure in Alaska's wintry landscape and poetic quotations from Homer's Odyssey, John Milton and Dylan Thomas.

This meditation on colonialism and identity was originally intended to be screened in art galleries but became too long to be shown in such a setting.

Hilary Carty, formerly director of London arts at the Arts Council and one of the judges on the European Cultural Foundation board, described the film-maker as "a master craftsman", adding that his latest award "acknowledges the stunning cannon of work he has created and shared".

"The UK often struggles to recognise its most talented artists. Let's hope this pan-European accolade properly resonates back home," she said.

But a lack of recognition among the British public isn't something that seems to bother Akomfrah.

"You have to want people to know more about you, and I'm not sure that's something I'm that focused on. Fame wasn't something I was after," he says.

"I'm very comfortable, it doesn't worry me. I'm not a pop star or a great footballer, so I don't expect to be as well known as Spike Lee. I'm happy not to be known in the same way."

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites