“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” – Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks
While making Handsworth Songs, his debut film as part of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1986, John Akomfrah used the above quote, stuck to the wall of their editing space, to inform the work in progress.
Stuart Hall, a leading figure in contemporary cultural studies in Britain, was invited to view and comment on the film and, after reading the Gramsci quote, said he thought he understood what it was all about.
27 years later, Akomfrah’s ongoing exploration of the products of the interregnum can be seen in his new film The Stuart Hall Project – part of a 3-part work on Hall, and a project on memory that he says he has “been ‘preparing’ for a very long time indeed, possibly all my working life”, revolving around the life and work of the British intellectual with whom he has had a long-standing dialogue and friendship.
The respect and gratitude that Akomfrah has for Hall is evident in the treatment of the film, and a deep understanding between the two men can be traced through not only intersections such as the making of Handsworth Songs, but through their individual careers – with Hall becoming a founding figure of the study of film and media for challenging cultural hegemony, and Akomfrah putting these ideas into practice with film-making, into which he initially arrived with what he calls “a certain kind of anarcho-syndicalist distrust of the authority”. Both men were aware that images largely functioned as what Akomfrah calls a “regime of tyranny that determined your life in quite alarming and complicated ways”, making the marriage of Hall’s life and Akomfrah’s direction a perfect harmony for the film.
Using extensive archive footage such as Hall’s television appearances, home movies, photographs and a specially mixed Miles Davis soundtrack used as a temporal tracking device to complement the film’s changing historical landscape, the film explores the morbid symptoms and the defining political moments of the twentieth century that Hall had encountered throughout his life and in his rise to becoming one of the most prominent and influential intellectuals of the New Left. The ‘recycled aesthetics of the past’, that Akomfrah attributes to his use of archival footage, present elements of an essayistic film style.
The film essay form was debated extensively at the British Film Institute this August in the Thoughts In Action strand, where Akomfrah wondered “whether there’s something about the nature of the post-war project, the question of our disappointments and the melancholia of defeat – multiple defeats – which form the kind of leitmotif for the essay film?” The defeat in question is the defeat of the Left, and the inheritance of the people in it. This defeat runs throughout The Stuart Hall Project as a theme which calls for, as Gramsci said, a pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.
The film is now out in cinemas:
Curzon Renoir, London
BFI Southbank (Studio), London
Cambridge Arts Picturehouse,Cambridge
Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin
Greenwich Picturehouse, London
New Park, Chichester
Duke of Yorks Picturehouse, Brighton
Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford