Award-winning Ghanaian British filmmaker Baff Akoto’s films Leave the Edges and Virtual (Black) Reality both screen at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Leave the Edges is the first in a trilogy of three moving image works that explore the diasporic experience in West Africa, The Caribbean, and Europe through movement, spirituality, and music. Virtual (Black) Reality is a narrative VR series filmed in 180° and was conceived as part of the YouTube Creators Lab in London in 2018. Comprising the Afropean experience, they follow the stories of 4 very different individuals (Bella, Babs, Kwesi, ShaNon), unified by their origins and cultural backgrounds.

With a back story which includes living in Ghana, Madrid, and Kampala, being mentored by critically acclaimed and award-winning documentarian John Akomfrah, and being noted as a Screen International Star of Tomorrow we caught up with this talented under the radar creative who’s taking British artistic contemporary filmmaking into his own hands …

Please introduce yourself …

Baff Akoto – artist and filmmaker 

Give a word or a sentence that best describes you

Curious

What kind of filmmaker are you?

Questioning films which probe and try to make sense of a world which often seems upside down.

It’s not often as a filmmaker you get the opportunity to screen more than one of your projects at London Film Festival – can you tell us about the work being featured?

Leave The Edges is an atmospheric artwork less concerned with narrative than the themes of cultural expression woven throughout the film. It reimagines Black cinema through our cultural inheritances as African diasporic peoples. Virtual (Black) Reality is part of an ongoing series of vignettes featuring everyday Black folks going about their business – filmed with a VR camera.

We’ll start with Leave the Edges – talk about what was going on in your life when this film idea came to you?

I’d been working as a TV drama director with Channel 4 and the BBC for 5/6 years which was invaluable for learning about the apparatus & logistics of filmmaking. In between directing jobs I’d kept up the practice of making more visually interesting shorts work (primarily for brands and musicians) and when I hit the glass ceilings with the TV drama gatekeepers, I decided it was time to really focus on making a work of scale that centred my visual artistic practice. 

In making that decision, I was able to make space, in conceiving the work, to incorporate some of my influences from both the academic (Édouard Glissant) and the filmmaking (John Akomfrah) canons. This allowed me to ground my aesthetic explorations with some of the rigorous intellectual work from Black scholars, thinkers and artists from bygone eras including Glissant’s theories on “difference” and other ideas around the disaggregation of Blackness.

A scene from short film Leave the Edges by Baff Akoto

Leave the Edges is ‘surreal‘, you leave room for individual interpretation – some may get it, some may be confused – how do you stay within the lines when you’re colouring outside them?

This isn’t a narrative work. It’s not been made to be a cerebral audience experience. It’s an emotional one. The conversations I’m having with the audience and the onscreen collaborators is about the nature of culture, diaspora, and plurality and those themes are the ones we hope the audience will meditate on and feel their way through in a nonverbal way.  not sure.

John Akomfrah has such a legend, but I’m not sure he’ll get his flowers as they say in a way an English filmmaker with his experience and body of work would. What does he mean to you, also with the Ghanaian connection?

As a young filmmaker starting out, I realised the best cinema (my favourite cinema)  aspires to art. So I knew that was something I needed to pay attention to and figure out how to nurture within myself. But not going to film school or art school, the only way I could figure out how to do that outside of institutional study was to pay close attention to my influences – my elders. And that’s when I started paying attention to John Akomfrah and the evolution of his work as a Ghanaian British filmmaker who also comes from documentary. He continues to carve a truly independent niche for himself which consistently redefines cinema in the (Black) British context. He provides me with an understanding and an example of how I could be an artist and evolve my practice in a way that is intellectually and aesthetically curious while transcending commercial boundaries and the limitations of form. I’m not an academic or an essay writer. Cinema and filmmaking provide the foundational framework for me to figure out the big questions of life. And John has been instrumental in showing me how I can and should have confidence in my curiosity as I constantly explore the questions of “what is cinema?” and “what is cinema for?” 

Your other film project Virtual (Black) Reality is also showing at LFF programmed as part of their immersive Expanded strand … please expand on how this came about?

V(B)R came about because I was introduced to VR Filmmaking at Berlinale Talents in 2016 when I attended a lecture & workshop series on worldbuilding and VR filmmaking. A couple of years later I got invited by Google/YouTube to play with their VR180 technology and I was interested in how Black people could exist in VR living our regular, normal unremarkable lives.

It’s fascinating that you took something like VR which is so new and unexplored when it comes to filmmaking but used it to tell such normal stories … What’s the priority when using filmmaking styles which are bigger than the narrative?

There’s a quiet radicality to drawing these VR portraits which showcase the normality of Black life. Especially as the technology moves forward, it’s important that we’re part of that evolution telling our own stories, rendering our experiences and avoiding the systemic exclusions of past technological advancements.

You have been listed as a Screen International Star of tomorrow however, you’ve been making films and winning awards for a while now. Where do you think you fit in the narrative of British Black filmmakers?

Not sure. I’m just trying to do things that are of interest to me whether they are deemed art or narrative or documentary is not the point. I’m keen to stay curious and not entrench myself in any one lane or genre that can become the “permission bottleneck” if you’re not careful. Fluidity is key for how I approach my practice – regardless of the resulting work and how it’s experienced.

Leave The Edges feeds into the fabric of identity and roots and embracing/learning all we can about who we are whilst we reject oppression. How do you feel about the landscape of filmmaking and content creation?

There has been noticeable change in front of the camera and in the amount of incredible writers being paid to write for the screen (though most of these still aren’t getting their work produced). Positive change behind the camera is much more glacial. The landscape is exciting when you consider how much Black and Brown British filmmaking talent is emerging now and potentially able to build on those who came before us. So that’s progress. It’ll be interesting to see how much this emerging generation of directing and filmmaking talent are embraced by the industry gatekeepers and how we’re able to plough our own independent furrows outside of that machine too. As a collective we can do it all from art house film to broad genre comedy, horror and action. Let’s see how the industry embraces us, or not.

What is next for you?

Next for me is developing my feature film and next VR project. I’m also finishing my next art project.

Getting To Know You

  • A book you have to have in your collection? – Autobiography of Malcolm X – curious about how he would have aged and been an elder during these past decades since he became an ancestor
  • A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – Expensive Shit by Fela Kuti or Testing Me by Peven Everett
  • A film / TV show that reminds you why you’re in this business? – Godfather pt II from Copolla and The Battle of Algiers by Pontecorvo
  • The first play you saw and what it meant to you? – Can’t remember!! I’ve seen so many. Love the physical and emotional endurance of watching actors working in this way. Makes a difference form auditioning them and seeing them on screen.
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? – My Children  

Leave the Edges and Virtual (Black) Reality are available to watch during BFI London Film Festival. Find out more here.

Leave the Edges and other Exposing Territories artists at Experimenta will feature in a Q&A this Saturday 17th October at 8pm BST. Find out more here.