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

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Nigel Farage's love for Dunkirk shows how Brexiteers learned the wrong lessons from WWII

Film has given Britain a dangerously skewed perspective on World War II

For months now it’s been hard to avoid the publicity for what seems like an epidemic of new World War Two films for 2017. June brought us Churchill (starring Brian Cox), which concerns Operation Overlord and the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. A month later, in July we were pushed back four years, to Dunkirk, with Christopher Nolan’s film of the evacuation of Allied troops from French soil in the summer of 1940. April had already brought Their Finest, a comedy about making a - let us not let the irony go unacknowledged -  stirring film about the evacuation of Dunkirk in the event’s more or less immediate aftermath and November will bring us Darkest Hour, some events in which will predate all three earlier films, as Gary Oldman’s Churchill struggles through the earliest days of his war premiership.

This glut is peculiar. There are no significant round anniversaries to commemorate (e.g. Dunkirk is 77 years ago, the Normandy landings 73). More, we’re meant to be in the middle of a series of commemorations of the horror and waste of the Great War of 1914-18, but that seems to have slipped away from us in the political turmoil that’s engulfed this country since 2014. Instead, it’s to the Second World War we return yet again. To modern Britain’s founding myth.

It’s a coincidence, of course, that these films should come along together, and at a seemingly odd time. They were developed separately, and films takes so long to conceive and produce that no one could have anticipated them arriving together, let alone arriving in a toxic Brexit Britain where they seem like literally the least useful things for anyone in the UK to watch right now. As works that will inevitably, whatever their own creative intentions and merits, be hi-jacked by a press and political culture that is determined to gloss its opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union, and its appalling mishandling of the process of exit with garbled references to, the conflict the films portray.

This is an impression that is not exactly dismissed by Nigel Farage posting to twitter of an image of himself standing next to the poster for Dunkirk, along with a statement in which he encourages all young people to see the film. For what reason, we’re entitled to wonder, does he make this encouragement? Does he admire the sound design? Or the aerial photography? Or is he just a big fan of Mark Rylance and Harry Styles? Or perhaps he is, inevitably, indulging in a behaviour that some might call "nostalgic"? Of pining for the past. Except, of course, nostalgia requires an element of pain. The suffix "algia" the same as employed when referring to chronic conditions. For Farage and his ilk there is no pain in this behaviour, just the most extraordinarily banal comfort.

Farage is asking us and asking the young who voted against his chosen cause by an overwhelming majority, and who are are sickened by where he and his ilk have brought us - to share in his indulgence. To enjoy, as he does, those fatuous analogies between the UK’s isolation between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour with its imminent failures in European politics. To see that "escaping from Europe with nothing is at least better than not escaping at all". Or to believe, once again, in a "plucky little Britain, standing up against the might of a wicked mainland European tyranny, its back against the wall".

All this, confused, indeed nonsensical, as it is, is being invoked, as surely as the anti-EU right have always invoked Churchill. This is despite his own family recognising him, as the EU itself does, as the fervent pro-European he was. Indeed, he was one of the founding fathers of the whole post-war pan-European enterprise.

What Farage and his behaviour demonstrates, yet again, is that British culture, in many ways, learned not merely the wrong lessons from the war against Hitler, but exactly the wrong lessons. It’s a lesson that found its most enduring, poisonous expression in Margaret Thatcher’s breathtaking assertion that the European Union was a "third attempt" by Germany to take over the world.

In contrast to the rush of war films in cinemas, television has recently given us glimpses into theoretical worlds where Nazism did succeed in conquering the planet, in Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle and BBC One’s SS-GB. There are lessons too, in these alternative histories, proper lessons that we have collectively failed to learn from the real one. Which is that fascism or authoritarianism are not diseases to which anglophone countries are somehow miraculously immune due to [insert misunderstood historical fetish of choice].

The Man in the High Castle, particularly in its more subtle first series, goes out of its way to show Americans that their lack of experience of collaboration with Nazi occupation is a result of circumstance, even luck. Not because collaboration is a peculiarly European tendency. SS-GB also worked hard to demonstrate the helplessness of occupation, and how that leads to the sheer ordinariness of collaboration. Both show the understanding that while fascism from the outside is funny accents and funny uniforms, fascism from the inside is your neighbours informing on you and the absence of the rule of law.

That experience of occupation, of subsequent complicity, and humiliation, felt by many other other European nations, is absent in Britain. Farage’s fellow Leaver Liam Fox, without anything resembling self-awareness, asserted that "the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history". Fox’s remark summed up, again seemingly unintentionally, the oafishness of the principle Brexiteers. A group who exemplify a culture that boils a vast and unimaginably complex conflict down to the title sequence of Dad’s Army - an animation in which a Union Flag is forced off the European continent by a trio of Nazi triangles, and after returning home bobs around defiantly. A group who, in a strange and witless inversion, have fantasised themselves into a position where they see the Britain’s membership of the European Union as the occupation the country once avoided.

This is the UK’s postponed tragedy. At a timethat European countries experienced national humiliations which fundamentally reconfigured their understandings of their place in the world, the UK got yet another excuse to shout about how much better it was than everyone else.

I’m a child of the very late Seventies. I grew up in a world where (British) boys’ comics were dominated by war stories rather than science fiction or superheroes, where literally everyone knew several people who had fought in World War Two - and almost everyone someone who could remember World War One. That war was the ever-present past. I am, as a friend who teaches history neatly phrased it "Of the last post-war generation." After me, the generations are post-post-war. They are free. The moral clarity of the war against Hitler has, in the end, been a curse on British culture - a distorting mirror in which we can always see ourselves as heroes. 

But, not, of course, all other generations. The war generation collectively (I make no claim that there were not exceptions) understood what the war was. Which meant they understood that the European Union was, and is, its antonym, not an extension of it. Unlike their children and the eldest of their grandchildren, they had real experience of the conflict, they hadn’t just grown up surrounded by films about how great Britain was during it.

The Prime Minister who, or so he thought, had secured Britain’s European destiny had also, as he related in his autobiography, seen the devastation wrought by that conflict, including by shells he himself had given the order to be fired. Like Helmut Kohl, whose worshipped, conscripted older brother died pointlessly fighting for Hitler, and Francois Mitterrand, himself captured during the fall of France, his experience was real and lived, not second hand.

This can be seen even in the voting in 2016 referendum. That the young principally voted Remain and the old voted Leave has been often noted. But if you break that over-65 vote up further, there’s a substantial flip to back towards Remain amongst the oldest voters, the survivors of the survivors of World War Two. After all, someone who is 65 today was born nearly a decade after the war ended. It was their parents’ war, not their own. A war that has been appropriated, and for purposes of which those who fought in it would, collectively, not approve.

Let’s return to Dad’s Army, after all, BBC Two does often enough. Don’t Panic! The Dad’s Army Story (2000) a cheerful history of the sitcom great written and presented by Victoria Wood contains a telling juxtaposition of interviewees. The series' surprising continued popularity is discussed and Wendy Richard (born 1943) expresses a nostalgia for the war years, and how people banded together during them. This is a sentiment which Clive Dunn (born 1920) bluntly dismisses. “Like most people I had a foul war,” he says, and disgust and horror briefly pass across his face.

It’s the difference between those who remember war, and those who only remember war films.