London Film Festival preview: The Nine Muses

John Akomfrah dazzles with a poetic tale of wandering lives.

What happens when you introduce a note of primary colour into a landscape that's largely white and grey? This is the question that The Nine Muses addresses, and not just visually. The latest work by John Akomfrah, the film is a dense, extended "tone poem", a siren's song of migration, memory, alienation and working life in Britain.

A feature-length version of the installation Mnemosyne, which premiered in January at the Public gallery in West Bromwich followed by a run at the NFT, The Nine Muses is superbly edited by Miikka Leskinen and featured in the Orizzonti prize section of this year's Venice Film Festival. Further screenings are planned everywhere from Sundance to Berlin, and it's running in the current London Film Festival.

The film focuses closely on experiences of immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean to the UK, but is also the story of other migrants and migrations: Irish, Maltese, ancient Greek. Akomfrah, who moved from Ghana to Britain in the 1960s, weaves a tapestry from painstaking research on hundreds of hours of archive footage dating back to between 1952 and 1981. And then there are those haunting landscapes – the ice-covered wastes of Alaska – in which colour confronts colourlessness. The frigid expanses recall a sensation the director has spoken about: the sense-memory of that first, shocking slap of the cold on arriving in England from a hot country.

The scenes are intercut with shots from today of the cultural historian Colin Prescod at dockside and industrial locations, many of them connected with slavery, the whole overlaid with a highly poetic soundtrack.

The fine selection of sound clips includes uncanny washes of crashing seas that travel from left ear to right, Winterreise, Dido and Aeneas, snatches of Indian pop music, a man talking in a rich patois about "love fram the heart", Stuart Hall recalling weeping, and choice readings from the Naxos AudioBooks list: Burton with "Under Milk Wood", Heathcote Williams with Inferno, Josette Simon with the Old Testament, Derek Jacobi with Milton, Dermot Crowley with Molloy, Michael Sheen with Oedipus, Alex Jennings with Nietzsche, Marcella Riordan with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Anton Lesser with the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The Nine Muses continues work Akomfrah began in 1982 by co-founding the Black Audio Film Collective with Reece Auguiste, Eddie George, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson and Trevor Mathison. Joined two years later by David Lawson, they built an unrivalled visual archive of black and Asian life in Britain, making their first significant public statement with the post-riots documentary Handsworth Songs in 1986. The group seeded such offshoots as the Shoreditch-based Iniva and this year's Turner Prize-nominated Otolith Group.

Yet the film deliberately misleads. Just when you think you've spotted a thread in the loose structure of sections named after the muses -- daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, repository of memory -- the story arcs back again and the tapestry unweaves itself. The section on Thalia, muse of comedy, opens playfully with shots of a huge crowd of children of all races, giggling, jostling and smiling in a playground in the Seventies. But it segues swifly into a snatch of Enoch delivering his doom-filled message of race hate and flows on to a huddle around an interview with a "respectable"-looking, white working-class man in the Fifties, who declares: "No, there's not enough room for all those niggers round here . . . I mean coloured people."

It's both a highly unusual, engaging work of history and a reflection on Britain here and now. The structures that made it possible seem a thing of the past; among the many production partners was the UK Film Council, now dead. And yet, on the morning of the film's British premiere, the Today programme played host to Eileen McCoy, a white, Catholic mother-of-ten, who blamed immigrant families for housing shortages, for placing the heaviest burden on the welfare state and for rising unemployment among "indigenous" workers in Scotland. There's not enough room: one-step forward, two-step back.

Akomfrah and the producers, Gopaul and Lawson, had privileged access to the BBC Regions archives, and have turned up remarkable images, in colour and in black and white, capturing snippets of life in the new England, especially in the Sixties and Seventies. There's the New Testament Church of God holding an open-air convention in Brum, circa late Sixties; Ugandan Asians arriving at Stansted in 1972; the sweat-beaded, cherubic face of a black worker at a foundry in a short, timeless shot. There's colour film of Asian men hauling cauldrons of molten iron in another inferno-like workshop; the Bull Ring on a wet day in the early Eighties; a Caribbean man with a sharp haircut wiping knives and forks at double-speed in a steam-filled kitchen; a young woman with her head bent over piles of laundry; a black girl sitting down to supper in the Sixties at a square table hard up against a big bed in a tiny bedsit with two women, both still in headscarves and coats, one of them lifting a pan of soup off a two-ring gas burner no more than five feet away.

An Asian woman teaches basic English to a packed room of women and girls from the subcontinent, holding up an object and asking, "Vat is dhis?" and they reply: "Dhe teacup." (Or perhaps "dirty cup"? Hard to tell.) And a tugboat packed with Caribbean immigrants sails down a canal: its name the Sir John Hawkins, after the buccaneering, 16th-century slave trade pioneer.

As ever more of us move to other countries seeking work, or safety, this film about the journeys that have made the world what it is today could not be more thought-provoking. You leave wanting to read much more of the poetry that suffuses it: how does "The Journey", by Tagore or by Emily Dickinson, compare with Li Po's "Hard is the Journey"? Or with T S Eliot? In the opening words of the film:

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."

The British premiere of "The Nine Muses" took place on 8 October; there are three further screenings in the London Film Festival:

Saturday 16 October (NFT1, 6.30pm)
Sunday 17 October (NFT Studio, 7pm; sold out)
Monday 18 October (Institute of Contemporary Arts, 6.45pm)

Nana Yaa Mensah is chief sub-editor of the New Statesman

BBC screenshot
Show Hide image

Theresa May dodges difficult questions about social care and NHS in Andrew Neil interview

Prime Minister was on message but on the back foot.

Theresa May was interviewed for 30 minutes by Andrew Neil on BBC One this evening, and she managed to say next to nothing. Whether you see that as skilful politics or shameless dishonesty, there was very little that came out of this interview. Here’s the little we did learn:

The Prime Minister is assuming victory - even if she says otherwise

Although the Conservative party’s campaign has been based on trying to convince voters that there is a chance Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister (to spook them into voting for May, and against a Corbyn-led coalition – a very unlikely scenario in reality), Theresa May revealed just how strongly her party is assuming victory. For example, when pressed on her plans for funding social care (means-testing the winter fuel allowance, and taxing the elderly on their assets), she could only answer that her government would hold a consultation to iron out the details. No matter how hard she tries to push the message that Corbyn is en route to No 10, if her policies are not policies at all but ideas to be fleshed out once she returns to power, this remains just rhetoric. As Neil asked about the consultations: “Wouldn’t you have done that before you came out with the policy?”

The Tories won’t lower themselves to costing their manifesto

It has always been the case that Labour has to work much harder than the Tories to prove its economic credibility, which is why in the Ed Miliband days it was decided that all policy proposals had to add up. But never have the Tories been so shameless in taking advantage of that political fact. For all the stick its received for being idealistic, Corbyn’s manifesto is more costed than the Tory effort, which May herself admitted during this interview is a set of “principles” rather than policies: “What we set out in our manifesto was a series of principles.” Where is the money going to come from for £8bn extra for the NHS? “Changing the way money is used”, “The strong and growing economy”, and “a variety of sources”, of course! At least Labour could patch together something about corporation tax and cracking down on tax avoidance if asked the same question.

Playing politics

Neil went in hard on May’s u-turn on her plan to fund social care – asking repeatedly why the Tories are now planning on bringing in a cap on how much the elderly have to pay, when originally there was no cap. All May could offer on this was that Corbyn was “playing politics” with the policy, and “scaremongering” about it. This deflection was flawed in a number of ways. First, it provided no explanation of what the policy will now be (what will the cap be? When will we know?), second, if Corbyn has been “scaremongering” it means he must have influenced the policy change, which May denies, and third, all it highlights is that May is herself “playing politics”.

Brexit is always the answer

As May cannot answer a single question about the specifics of policies or spending, Brexit is the perfect topic for her. It is a subject defined by its uncertainty and lack of detail, therefore something she can get on board with. She answered almost every question on every subject broached by Neil by asking who voters want around the Brexit negotiating table after the election – her or Corbyn.

Why are the polls closing? “...I’ve set out my vision for that strength in negotiations and that stronger plan. And the choice is who’s going to be doing those negotiations, me or Jeremy Corbyn.”

Are your policies uncosted? “...I think it is important that the country has certainty over the next five years, has the strong and stable leadership I think it needs, as I’ve just explained, particularly for those Brexit negotiations.”

Where is the extra NHS funding going to come from? “...Crucial to that, is getting the Brexit negotiations right, and that’s why this is so important. That’s why who is sitting around that negotiating table, 11 days after the election it’s going to start…”

Will National Insurance go up? “...Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations…”

Will you break the immigration target promise for a third time? “...The question that people face is who do they trust to take this country though the Brexit negotiations..?”

But the soundbites must be working

A few seconds in to the interview, May had already used the phrase “strong and stable” and “my team”. While political insiders will groan and mock the repetitive use of such banal phrases, and emphasis on Brexit negotiations, we must remember the “long-term economic plan” slogan of 2015’s Tories. It worked, and clearly behind the scenes, the masterminds of the Conservative campaign believe these soundbites must be working. Theresa May is miles ahead of Jeremy Corbyn on the “who you trust to be Prime Minister” metric, which is why the Tories repeating how “strong and stable” their government would be, and running such a presidential campaign (“my team”, and May versus Corbyn) must be working.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496