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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.