Tales from the archives

John Akomfrah subverts the cheery official narrative of multicultural Britain.

I once had a job as a civil service story-teller. I weaved the state's archives into a tidy multi-cultural narrative about the migrant history of England for an official website. There were lots of "problematic" files to absorb, like a 1935 one from the Home Office, which contained "reports on black seamen in British ports . . . itemises vice, sexually transmitted diseases and mixed race children as the principal dangers". The gig left me with a special dread of the state's watching eye and the pat, reductive, triumphalist narrative of Black British history beloved of hideously white cultural institutions.

So Mnemosyne, a film which tells the story of Commonwealth migrant labourers in the West Midlands with its flagrantly artistic and boldly transgressive sampling of the BBC archive, really hit the spot. It is hauntingly mournful, crisply original and utterly seductive. John Akomfrah, the pioneering documentary filmmaker famous for the seminal 1986 anti-documentary Handsworth Songs made this 40 minute post-modern "filmed poem" through Made in England, an Arts Council / BBC English Regions collaboration. He's ambivalent about ideologically-tainted state archives but, paraphrasing Derek Walcott, says: "In the absence of ruins they are often the only public trace of diasporic histories."

At the opening last week at The Public in West Bromwich I spotted some of the angry young men featured in Handsworth Songs, now middle-aged. The place looked in the snowy dark, like an odd warehouse plonked in the midst of unprepossessing low-rise residential streets. I stumbled in, blinking, into a high church of digital worship - asymmetric multi-coloured strip lighting, floating walkways and spaceship-like toilet blocks. Just four miles away from where the riots raged in Handsworth, it makes an uncanny setting for this epic futuristic film rooted in local history.

The poem is split into 9 verses named after the daughters of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory and muse of epic poetry: Tragedy, History, Music, Sacred Song, Astronomy, Comedy, Erotic Love and Dance. Archive footage is stripped of its original Mr Cholmondeley-Warner voiceover and replaced with stirring archive recordings of Paradise Lost and The Odyssey amongst others. Captivating modern-day footage of a mysterious solitary figure on an existential voyage across oceans, icy mountains and dystopian cityscapes loop us constantly back to the future.

It opens with Milton's description of the fall of man and the loss of Eden as a hooded figure walks steadily through an arctic landscape. This pure, empty world is contrasted with a shot of young Caribbean migrants, eyes shining with hope and ambition on board a ship bound for England.

Later, we hear the crinkly recording of a Caribbean man's voice soaked in sorrow: "When I was home it was more or less like a land of paradise, but after advancing up in age and beginning to read books and things like that, finding out for myself it wasn't altogether the way I thought it was . . . I would like to see if I can go home back someday." The intimacy of the man's regretful confession is rendered poignant by his formal post-war manner of speaking, presumably to the BBC interviewer.

Akomfrah tells me: "The challenge is: what can you get the (archives) to say beyond what they said the first time?" In an act of poly-vocal sorcery, his work says a great deal about the fragility, the burden and the excess of remembering itself.

Towards the end comes a 5 second black and white archive clip of little Sikh girls playing in the street, seemingly unaware of the BBC cameras. Suddenly they see they are being filmed, caught like gazelles in the cross-hairs. They are momentarily shocked but then they giggle and escape out of shot down an alleyway away from the dead hand of the archivist. Good for them.

Sara Wajid is the editor of Untold London. "Mnemosyne" is at The Public, West Bromwich until 7 March.