The latest obsession: an interview with Nine Muses director John Akomfrah

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Akomfrah in The Nine Muses
  • Akomfrah in The Nine Muses
On Thursday at 6 PM, the Siskel Film Center will screen The Nine Muses as part of its Conversations at the Edge series. The movie is as much of a mosaic as an essay, drawing from dozens of classic literary sources to address the experience of emigration. Director John Akomfrah says his central subject are the immigrants from former British colonies who came to the UK in the decades following World War II, but Muses also considers journeys in classical mythology and present-day explorations of the Alaskan wilderness. It's a heady work, to be sure, but a consistently engaging one. Akomfrah started making movies as part of the politically minded Black Audio Film Collective (one of their works, Handsworth Songs, screened at the Siskel earlier this year), and his filmmaking remains motivated by a desire to engage its audience directly. I spoke with the director yesterday about The Nine Muses and its place in his body of work.

Ben Sachs: I got to see The Nine Muses a couple weeks ago. I enjoyed the experience of watching it, but I have to admit I felt somewhat adrift. There are so many literary, historical, and personal references to take in; after a while I just decided to go with the flow. Was that part of the design?

John Akomfrah: Absolutely. Whenever I'm present for a screening of the film, I say to audiences, "Think of it as a kind of free-form performance." Because there are things that will become apparent in the course of watching it, some afterwards, and some you won't necessary know [at all]. I know that most people see that as a fault, but I don't. [laughs] Partly because the film is an act of homage to those who have gone, and I'm not trying to explain them; I'm just trying to get something across about how they might have felt in the course of being in this country for 40 or 50 years.

It's more of an exercise in mourning than anything. I'm just grateful when people watch it and say they take something out of it. That's enough for me.

Whom are you mourning in the film?

Between the late 1940s and the late '60s, there were about a million people all told from different parts of the former British empire—from India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, and Africa—who came [to England] as part of the postwar reconstruction of a country that was essentially shot to bits, both economically and politically. Now most of those emigrants have passed away, and there's no real epitaph for them. No one acknowledges that they played a role in the reconstruction of this country. So, the mourning is for their passing. It's a kind of elegy for that time we'll never get with them again.

I'm no more innocent of ignoring that generation—and it's my parents' generation. When you're young and not really old enough to understand, you don't go up to [your elders] and ask, "How difficult was it? What was it like for you coming here?" I never discussed those questions with my parents. It was only with the realization that they're gone that one's prompted to make things like [The Nine Muses].

The Alaskan wilderness, as seen in Nine Muses
  • The Alaskan wilderness, as seen in Nine Muses
I found it interesting that the movie addresses the experience of immigrants from the former colonies, but the quotations all come from these touchstones of Western literature: Homer, Dante, T.S. Eliot . . . How do you see these things fitting together?

A lot of people ask about this. Some will say to me, "Why are you using all these great white men to talk about people of color?" And, for me, that's a misunderstanding of what's going on. Because everything in the piece, apart from the stuff I've shot, was created by great white men. [laughs] You know, all the archival stuff was shot by white men. But I also wanted to find a way of elevating an experience that's not usually talked about in epic terms. For me, a million people traveling 4,000 or 5,000 miles by boat to reach their destination . . . that's Homeric. It's the stuff of the Odyssey.

So, the attempt was to recast these experiences—that are normally talked about in slightly belittling terms—within the frame of these great themes that underline the literature that you mention. A lot of the people [quoted] in [Nine Muses] are authors I studied in school; for me, they feel like part of an initiation into Britishness. I think this was common for a lot of black British kids of my generation. So, it felt right to quote these men in the film, because these were the materials at our disposal to talk about these experiences.

Part of what distinguishes the Afro-European experience from other diasporic experiences is that, yes, we have "our own" literature. But if you were growing up in the 70s and 80s, that's not what was handed to you. Coming into adulthood in British society, you were expected to read and understand the same [authors] as everybody else, from Milton to Shakespeare to Ezra Pound. So, I'm as familiar with the terms set down by those people as I am with the Alice Walkers and Toni Morrisons, and I don't feel they're any less legitimate sources for talking about what's essentially a black British experience.

This is the second film of yours to play in Chicago in 2012. Earlier in the year, the Film Center presented Handsworth Songs. How do you feel you changed as a filmmaker in the 25 years between these projects?

From Handsworth Songs
  • From Handsworth Songs
There are some continuities, but there are many more discontinuities. I made Handsworth Songs as part of a collective, so the making of it was very much a collaborative project. That's not to say that The Nine Muses isn't, because I have broadly similar collaborators, but it's still very much something I wanted to do. That's the main difference, I think, that I no longer work as part of an arts/political collective; I work as part of a company of individuals.

I think the culture's also changed quite a bit. When we first presented it, Handsworth Songs was seen as a revolutionary, treasonous treatise. I don't think that would be the case anymore. I think it would still be troubling formally and politically for quite a few people, but it wouldn't be so weird for most audiences.

Do you feel validated that some of the formal innovations of Handsworth Songs have become commonplace and thus normalized through things like online video projects?

No. I think what happens for most people is that you have a set of obsessions at a particular time. Whether those obsessions become currency or not doesn't really matter, because you get other obsessions, you evolve. So, I know that the questions behind Handsworth Songs—how one represents the underrepresented, how one gives structure to things without structure—these are questions that haunt the culture. And now, there are other artists and filmmakers who are trying to find ways of dealing with it.

You know, there was a series of quote-unquote riots in England last year, and all these people kept grilling me to make a film. And I said, "No, you misunderstood. We were trying to give voice to our generation's aspirations. If the same thing happens now, then someone who's roughly the same age as the people on the street—which we were at the time—should be the one who responds to it."

It's not so much a question of being validated or not. I think as a generation, as a set of artists who came of age in the 80s, we had some obsessions. We worked through those, but in the process we acquired some new ones; now it's up to us to work through those as we go along.

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