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)