Nathan Budzinski talks to the Black Audio Film Collective founder about the endless journeys of migrants, bricolage and music, as documented in the archival footage that makes up his new film The Nine Muses
"The amount of waste that filming produces is phenomenal. For every hour of a film made, there are tens or hundreds of hours that never get used, just sitting there in boxes." It's a sunny morning in February and John Akomfrah is standing outside his East London studio battling the wind sweeping down Shacklewell Lane, trying to smoke a fag. Akomfrah is quick to laugh and passionate in his discussion, but right now he is holding forth on the subject of archives, and this particular topic brings out a slightly melancholy mood, discernible in a slight softening of the timbre of his voice.
Earlier, when I arrived at the studio, Akomfrah and his producer David Lawson were rearranging dozens of large white box files and concealing them behind tall sliding doors built into one wall. "And that's all of it, each one of those boxes is a programme," Akmofrah tells me, a personal archive of his film work stretching back to the early 1980s when he helped found the Black Audio Film Collective. During its lifespan, the BAFC produced numerous films, such as 1986's Handsworth Songs or 1993’s Seven Songs For Malcolm X, which focused on how race and immigration were understood and represented in mainstream media. And much of this work utilised footage previously hidden away in archives, reinterpreting it and reinvesting it with significance.
Later, we move off the street into the editing suite where Akomfrah put together his new film, The Nine Muses. He points to a large stack of DVDs. "That's effectively a fraction [of what we used], 450 tapes that we took from VHS onto DVD because you can't edit now, with VHS. In order to get this material into this Final Cut system, you have to transfer it [to digital], which is a massive manual labour."
Ostensibly The Nine Muses is about immigration in Britain – it is full of images of Caribbean and African migrants from the 50s and 60s, "the generation conveniently referred to as the Windrush Generation", as Akomfrah puts it. He prefers the term 'tone poem' rather than documentary to describe his films, later describing his working process as treating sound and music not as an add on or after thought, but one in which "the feeling for the sound world can come first, and everything else has to line up and do their thing in relation to that." Like Handsworth Songs, The Nine Muses splices together original footage with archive material, intertitles and music in a manner that feels more akin to songwriting than conventional film making. The main recurring motif shows lone figures in snowy landscapes, wearing yellow, blue or black jackets, hoods pulled up, visors obscuring faces. The figures wander through these frozen landscapes, sometimes coming to a dead end as they reach an icy seashore.
The effect can be dreamy, but every once in a while the constituent parts jar, disrupting the narrative: "One of my young film maker friends was watching it last week at the ICA, and he said, 'Oh, I didn't get this… I wanted this.' I said, 'Well, I know, but you have to watch the whole thing almost as an allegory.' Of course there's lots of things I would want in there that might clarify or delete obfuscations but they don't exist! You know, that's part of the challenge of working with the archive: what there is is what there is. I would love to not make the narrative trajectory of The Nine Muses one of endless journeys, but that's partly what the archive was obsessed with. And so at some point you think one of the facts of migration are these endless journeys."
Throughout The Nine Muses a multitude of voices read from texts such as Milton's Paradise Lost, Homer's Odyssey and Beckett's The Unnameable. These texts are cut with a wide array of music, including Indian dhrupad, Paul Robeson singing “Let My People Go” and Arvö Pärt compositions. "It looks eclectic but actually there's something that connects the motives of Paradise Lost with Beckett's Unnameable because both are obsessed with this question of becoming. Paradise Lost is about how the Fall came in, which by implication is about how 'man became man'." For Akomfrah, using multiple voices rather than one narrator is part of his commitment to allegory, which is also informed by music and intertwined with a blues aesthetic, "in the sense that none of it is on the note, none of it is on the beat, but you kind of garner from it what's going on. It's that thing of just not hitting anything straight."
Using this allegorical method, Akomfrah works towards destabilising received histories about how "the hyphen, Black-Britishness, was created". And he identifies this lack of historical imagination as a symptom of received artistic and representational structures themselves, such as conventional documentaries or traditional forms of composition: "Documentary is exactly like the symphony when Schoenberg and that crowd encountered it... It was completely ossified, formulaic. [It had] this almost fossil-like symphony structure to it: here's an intro, this is the story of how black people came to Britain, and then it's rounded off and the story starts. The whole kind of boring, meaningless, slavish attempt at propping up some fiction and myth of Britishness and how Black-Britain became, I'm not interested in that, that is not what we're doing here."
At one point in the film, in between shots of frozen land and seascapes, there is a cut to a black man working in a factory, unblinkingly focused on the work at hand. The scene is striking in its intensity, but the film quickly moves on, never returning to this remarkable shot. For Akomfrah, who seems to feel an intimate connection and sympathy with all of the represented figures, this is an integral part of how archives store and represent individual experience: "They're like figures on a flat earth, in a Paracelsian universe. They go to the edge, ie they're filmed coming off the boat and they just fall off into obscurity and you never see them again. In 20 years of watching and using archival material, I don't think I've ever met one person in a factory who I've then seen in another film later on. In other words, the sense of their lives being continuous is not one of the obsessions of the archive, and so part of the challenge is to make these discrete fragments cohere into some whole. And one can't do that without them being left with lacunae, gaps..."
Akomfrah is skilled at identifying and dismissing things that don't interest him or that he feels don't belong in his films. He's especially quick to avoid any ideas that might restrict his freedom to create the conceptual tangents and narrative detours that give The Nine Muses its shape. To dispense with these restrictive compositional conventions – which all require an answer, or an end, before one's even begun their journey – Akomfrah asks the question: "How do you unburden images of the past with certain associations? Because people look at archives of our recent past, especially ones that involve migration, and they think they know what it says, because on the whole, television's told them what those images mean."
The tactic he comes up with, focusing on process and improvisation, is inspired by music: "Especially the jazz of the mid- to late 1960s and some of those figures who I've obsessed with and worried with and loved, from late Miles Davis through Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. That whole thing is obviously an inspiration, but so is classical Indian music, especially dhrupad, the idea that the point is not to arrive at a note but to take any note as the point of departure. It's the improvisatory gesture par excellence and I'm very committed to that. So those sets of musical principles didn't just affect the sonic world of the film, it's also what I took as the montage premise for the whole thing. The point was to get off the road of certain knee-jerk recognitions, facile assumptions about what constitutes black life, black music, black noise, etc… I'm a born bricoleur. I love the way things that are otherwise discrete and self contained start to suggest things once they are forced into a dialogue with something else."
At one point in our discussion Akomfrah sums up a central question in Beckett's writing by exclaiming, "What the fuck do I do with this thing called life?!” Explaining how this question is reflected in The Nine Muses, he says, “When you concentrate it, it feels depressing or it feels that it's not about hope, but actually it's really dealing with the key existential question that everybody kind of has to get their head around: what do I do with this thing in the absence of some narrative that says, 'Oh, don't worry, there's somebody out there who'll take care of all of that'? In the absence of that, what do you do? [And] there's something about the migrant experience which is – in embryo – what everybody has to deal with in their lives. Except that when you're a migrant, migrant-hood dramatises this thing of becoming."
In another section of archive footage cut into the film, two black men stroll down a British high street. One of them pats the head of a little blonde boy as he runs along the pavement, chased by his friends. The scene cuts to the men rounding a corner and coming across a brick wall on which has been scrawled the phrase, 'KEEP BRITAIN WHITE'. The camera cuts back to the expressions on the faces of the men, which appear resigned and dejected. "People jump to these conclusions and say, 'Oh we've seen it all before', and it's true, they have seen it all before, but the question is, the meaning they ascribe to what they've seen before, is one that I find problematic and I wanted to dislodge that. Because these are not just workers coming to save Britain, this is also a narrative about how the hyphen, Black-Britishness, was created, it's about how people were literally altered, psychically, psychologically, physically, by a process of their journey. They left one space and literally it was like going to the moon because they were never the same again."
It seems that many artists who plunder the archive for material can end up somewhat disheartened by the dormant nature of the material, as if weighed down by the sheer volume and breadth of the recordings at hand. But for Akomfrah the use of the archive is not only about following the endless journey of its index, but also the endless process of its indexing, where the artist must question and reinterpret the previous realities made from its materials: “We spent a couple of years being doom and gloom, but I actually think that this is a really interesting moment, a really good moment, there's sort of a return to radical contingency. Suddenly everyone's stopped worrying about being Stephen Frears or Ken Loach. And I think that commitment to radical contingency, or indeterminacy is one of the defining features of the moment. Increasingly the reality for a whole number of people [is] that you can move between the gallery, the museum, the art world, new cinema, alternative platforms, late television, commissions... The range is quite staggering.”
Later, with a loud laugh Akomfrah returns to the thing that structures and propels his own work forward: “And partly the reason that I love it [now] is that it feels just so jazz! This is the stuff, this is where we're at, that's what we've got, let's go. Because committing to the process was actually much more interesting than just worrying about whether you've got the right score, whether it was jazz or not jazz, or whether it's New Music. I mean, who cares? Just play the fucking thing, let's just hear it!”