John Akomfrah, 'The Stuart Hall Project'. Film still courtesy Smoking Dogs Films

The Stuart Hall Project is a film about revolution, politics and culture, an intimate portrait Hall’s work as a founding figure of the New Left and architect of the field of cultural studies, culled from over 100 hours of Hall’s wide-ranging media appearances, with footage of the social and political upheavals through which he lived.

The film was introduced by Caroline Deeds, a documentary filmmaker whose work is inspired by stories of marginalised voices and people who refuse to lose sight of their dreams. With a background in fine art, Caroline has also made films about artists including Turner Prize winners Jeremy Deller and Chris Ofili. She teaches in the Film and Television department at Falmouth University.


It is an honour to present this special evening screening of The Stuart Hall Project and to have the opportunity to say a few words about the work of two titans of Black British cultural theory and creative expression: John Akomfrah and Stuart Hall.

The Stuart Hall Project is a mesmerising film, composed entirely of archive documentary film footage. It’s a personal exploration of Stuart Hall’s life and work, experienced in Stuart Hall’s own words.

Stuart Hall is one of the UK’s leading cultural theorists and considered to be one of the most significant intellectual figures of the last 50 years in Britain. He is the founding figure of Black Cultural Studies and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. His theories and writing continue to impact on the way we think and define ourselves today. He expressed the idea that identities are not fixed or grounded in an essentialised past, rather he said:

‘Our identity is always in the process of becoming.’

‘Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.’

He understood it is only from this position

‘…that we can properly understand the traumatic character of ‘the colonial experience’.’

Hall has been a major influence on John Akomfrah and The Black Audio Film Collective and on many of our great creative artists and thinkers, including Caryl Phillips, Isaac Julien and Paul Gilroy.

I’m a Lecturer at Falmouth University, in The School of Film and Television and I make documentaries. I’m Ghanaian in origin, as is John Akomfrah, and, like John, I grew up as a young person being Black in London.

I remember when I first met John Akomfrah.

Back in 2003, I was studying at the National Film and Television School and was busy preparing to make my graduation film, Walking Backwards. It was an incredibly inspiring time. I was finding my voice as a creative non-fiction filmmaker, trying to work out what it meant to be a Black filmmaker: how do life experiences and personal and political preoccupations shape the stories we tell and how to tell them?

I struggled with being one of the few Black students at the school. I wanted to see examples of the work of other Black filmmakers and to have a dialogue with their work. There were no documentaries by black filmmakers in the library and I remember the librarian questioning whether any existed? My best mate gave me a piece of advice: ‘You didn’t go to film school to learn how to be Black, you won’t learn that from there. Let them teach you how to make films.’

Dick Fontaine, who was the head of the documentary department at the time, suggested I get in touch with John Akomfrah. I met John and asked if he could be my tutor for my final year. John very kindly agreed to do it.

I was heading off to Ghana to make my graduation film. It was going to be a film about Ghana’s independence and about stories my mother had shared with me, a personal and political exploration of the idea of freedom and independence, a kind of poetic road trip.

I didn’t have a watertight plan yet for how I was going to make it (in fact no plan at all). It was incredibly rewarding and enriching to speak with John in preparing my project. We met in cafés and had long conversations about life and about family and stories about John’s approach to film.

Before I left for Ghana, John gave me a list of books to read and take with me to Ghana:

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera,

Illuminations, Walter Benjamin,

Mythologies, Roland Barthes,

The Healers, Ayi Kwei Armah.

At the time I thought, nice selection John, but how on earth is this going to help me make a film about Ghanaian independence and the death of the dream of African self-determination? I was looking for a road map, something more prescriptive, maybe a list of rules, or some advice about interview techniques.

Akomfrah wasn’t about prescribing how to go about making my film. His road map for me was to find a language with the help of the stories and influences from great minds and thinkers and writers. I still have these books and they resonate strongly to the themes we discussed in those conversations over cups of tea, and to the journey and conversations I went on to have in Ghana on my road trip: stories of dispossessed histories and poetry as strategies for survival, and a longing to create and define narratives of our own making.

John has said that aged fourteen he wanted to be an art historian. As a young teenager, he would visit the National Gallery and was mesmerised by the works of Constable and his scenes of pastoral England, and by Turner’s cinematic eye.

‘Paintings taught me to be a human being. They didn’t teach me to be a Black person. The whiteness offered to you in those paintings offered you a vision of excellence.’

I find this such a recognisable and relatable awareness of a vision of excellence in which our presence didn’t exist and is excluded. He describes this experience as:

‘A psychoanalytic moment of becoming. Discovering that the very thing you love may be the thing that’s keeping you in a place of discomfort about your place in the culture. You have to find another way of coming at the thing you love, by embellishing it with other histories and other narratives.’

John studied at Portsmouth Poly in the 1980s and, with a group of other students at Portsmouth, formed a collective called ‘The Black Audio Film Collective’. They were artists, filmmakers and writers: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, David Lawson, Reece Auguiste, Edward George, Avril Johnson and Trevor Mathison. They made ground-breaking, visually beautiful films, experimenting with form and compelling sound. Heavily influenced by the work of Hall, Akomfrah says that:

‘it was theory that provided an entry point into filmmaking.’

As a group they were concerned with issues of Black representation and with challenging racist ideas and images of Black people, presented as truth in the media.

They worked a lot with archives and understood the relevance of the archive in relation to memory and identity. Akomfrah says:

‘Memory is to be understood not as a dead past waiting to be excavated, but as a product of the present.’

Akomfrah’s work often takes the form of multiscreen experiences. Whereas The Stuart Hall Project is a single screen film, The Unfinished Conversation is a multiscreen experience using much of the same material, again involving the interplay of archive and audio. Both works embrace visual and aural pleasure and involve narrative displacement. Watching them one is not given a single thread to follow, but encouraged to become immersed in human experience.

John’s films come together out of a long gestation period, sometimes years of working with and being immersed in an archive. He isn’t so interested in the construction of the film in the classic sense of dialectical counterpoint on the single screen, where meaning is created as a result of conflict from one shot to another, creating story in a forward narrative propulsion. Rather, Akomfrah is interested in association, the interplay of images, music and sounds. Seeing images next to each other in dialogue, John sees himself more as choreographer than creator.

The importance of archive and identity is evident in his work. Archive is a memory bank, reconciling past and present. The past is always impacting on us and giving us clues to who we are becoming.

As Hall has said, there is no going back to a past, to an Africa before slavery, but the past is always acting on us,

‘As an unspeakable presence hidden in plain sight.’

Delivered on Thursday 16 December, 2021.