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Cinematic Translations: The Work of John Akomfrah

Cinematic Translations, a three-day tri-campus event, principally sponsored by the Jackman Humanities Program for the Arts and the Cinema Studies Institute, among other units, took place November 27 to 29, 2013 at the University of Toronto. The event showcased and analyzed the work of the acclaimed British filmmaker John Akomfrah, a founding member of the celebrated Black Audio Film Collective, a London-based group active in the 1980s and 1990s, dedicated to exploring Black British identity through film and media. Akomfrah is best known for his compelling hybrid documentary works, his career spanning over three decades.

The event began with a meet and greet student salon hosted by CINSSU, where students were introduced to Akomfrah and professors Manthia Diawara (New York University) and Kobena Mercer (Yale University) in the Innis café. Official events commenced in Innis Town Hall with a keynote address by Professor Diawara, a noted scholar on topics of African and Black diasporic film culture. He spoke on the prescience and prominence of Akomfrah’s oeuvre, highlighting The Nine Muses and his latest much-anticipated film, The Stuart Hall Project. Diawara emphasized the significance of the historical-cultural theorization of Black diasporic identity to situate Akomfrah’s work. A screening of The Last Angel of History, a work that explores how Afrofuturism informs Black identity and cultural expression, offering a revisionist take on history, followed the keynote. A Q&A session followed led by Christopher Smith (PhD candidate, OISE) wherein Akomfrah was asked how he might alter the film, in light of current trends in Afrofuturism. Though conceding to the relative absence of women in the film, particularly given their growing presence in Afrofuturism today, he claimed that the film intended to capture a specific moment within the Afrofuturist movement, rather than examine the entire movement as a whole.

The following night’s events took place at UTSC, with a screening of Seven Songs for Malcolm X, followed by a spirited conversation between Cameron Bailey, artistic director of TIFF, Diawara and Akomfrah. The closing day began with a symposium at the Munk School of Global Affairs, which featured professors from Carleton University, York University, and University of Toronto, including event organizers Kass Banning (CSI) and Rinaldo Walcott  (OISE).

The symposium culminated with a sneak preview screening of Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, to a large and appreciative audience at Innis Town Hall. Using exclusively archival footage, the film explores the life of the renowned “father” of British cultural studies and public intellectual Stuart Hall, punctuated by the music of Miles Davis. As Diawara indicated in his earlier keynote address, the film poetically weaves together Hall’s intellectual and activist biography- a stunning accomplishment considering the fact that the film was entirely comprised of archival footage. Diawara also mentioned the importance of the Miles Davis score both to the temporality of the broader historical moments in the film and to Hall’s own life specifically. Finally, the screening ended with a Q&A session with Professor Kobena Mercer, the leading critic on the visual arts of the Black diaspora, as interlocutor. A lively dialogue ensued wherein topics discussed ranged from alternative formal strategies for documentary practice to potential authorial bias, to the artistic arc and progression of Akomfrah’s life work. When asked why he chose to produce The Stuart Hall Project, Akomfrah spoke to the significance of Hall’s work, personally, politically, and professionally. He also addressed the intimate relationship he shares with Hall. In all, the film offered a unique window into both Hall’s experience as a colonial subject and discerning Black British social commentator, as well as Akomfrah’s process as a filmmaker who uniquely reworks the archive.

Submitted by Chelsea Phillips-Carr and Barbara Mamabolo



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