Ghanaian-Briton filmmaker John Akomfrah on creating a narrative of migration and 'new ruins' to wander in / "The Nine Muses" [trailer]

I've long admired the work of John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective. As a viewer and artist, the way they intermix image, texts, language and sound into their film and exhibition pieces weaves a narrative of the colonial and migrant experience that is not reliant upon binary analysis, but a 'plurality of voices.' The importance of communicating authentic narratives seems to be paramount among my peers and a part of that, especially as 'modern' beings, is weaving those contemporary influences and voices with history and ancestral memories in ways that don't necessarily create a totalizing summary, but rather evokes a line of continual thought that will not be relenting anytime soon. Akomfrah's approach to storytelling is just one among many in this project of a 'collective eternity.' His new film The Nine Muses, includes the film Nine Muses. Akomfrah was given access to the BBC archives and used the project explore his idea on memory and migration, having moved to London at the age of 6 from his native Ghana.

About the film:
“I am obsessed with archival material: those ghostly traces of lived moments, those pariah images and sounds that now occupy a unique space somewhere between history and myth… How does one begin to say something new about a story everyone claims to know? … what considerations should govern how one constructs a “historical fiction” about events and lives that have been profoundly shaped by what the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott called, “the absence of ruins”? Lives without monuments, without the ‘official’ signature of recognition and interest.

This film is my attempt to suggest what some of those “ruins” might look like, a desire to look into that dark mirror of one’s own past in search of images, ideas, writers and music with which to construct such a monument.” (source)

Sound On Film: Interview: John Akomfrah
(SOURCE: Sound and Music)

Throughout his career, the director John Akomfrah has not only questioned the kind of stories we tell, but the way they are told. Since his earliest work with the Black Audio Film Collective, which he founded in 1982, Akomfrah has explored radical new forms of film-making in order to introduce voices and perspectives - notably those of black and Asian Britons - that have been shut out of official narratives.

The Nine Muses, which premiered at the London Film Festival this month (a shorter version, titled Mnemosyne, has been on display in art galleries throughout the year), is Akomfrah’s take on the story of mass migration in post-war Britain. Arising from a commission by the Made in England arts project, which gave Akomfrah unfettered access to the BBC’s television, sound and film archives, the film mixes footage of immigrant life in the West Midlands with haunting shots of a frozen Alaskan landscape. Just as remarkable, however, is its soundtrack, on which a series of actors read snatches of poetry, novels and philosophy, mingled with industrial noise, songs, and the synth-based compositions of Akomfrah’s collaborator Trevor Mathison.


Daniel Trilling: At what point in the film-making process do you start to think about the soundtrack?

John Akomfrah: One of the things I’ve tried to do in my work is to reconfigure the traditional relationship between a narrative piece, whether it’s documentary or fiction, and the sound. The traditional relationship is that you put your thing together and then at some point you score it. The assumption always is that the sound component either confirms or establishes something that’s already in place.

I’ve tried to seek a more dialogue-driven relationship between sound and image. The impulse for that comes from two distinct but interrelated sources. One is an abiding passion for the improvisatory gesture in jazz; the second is non-western musical forms, particularly Indian classical music. I’ve tried to see what happens if you bring those two together in some way; what kind of film making aesthetic that might suggest.


DT: The Last Angel of History is a film about dub, funk, jazz and techno, yet the soundtrack features Mathison’s compositions, rather than any of the music discussed.

JA: The Last Angel of History is about these Black Atlantic sonic worlds that are palpably present in black cultures. They co-exist with the established, legitimate world, but function more like ghosts. It’s a bit like how dub functions with reggae: I am here, I may never quite be the thing everyone accepts as the real, but I am nevertheless essential to how the thing works.


DT: You’ve written about your desire to create “new ruins” for people to wander in.

JA: I’ve been obsessed for a long time with something I read in Derek Walcott’s Omeros, where he talks about diasporic lives being characterised by an absence of ruins. There are no monuments that even as ruins attest to your existence, of your passing through a space. This then means that the intangibles, be they sound or words, become necessary building blocks. Lives that are not legitimised in the official monument can then be given a certain kind of legitimacy.

That’s very important in The Nine Muses. The very construction of it is about trying to say something of the migrant narrative...


DT: So is this where sound comes into your films? Does it set up a space where questions like these can be asked – by a plurality of voices?

JA: Absolutely. And there’s no attempt to try and force a unity in the voices. This is only impossible for people who have not heard new music, or not heard Ornette Coleman. Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics said OK, we will agree to start here, and at that point you can fuck off where you want to go, alright? What’s important is what everyone’s making of this.

So the use of these voices in this way is tied to a certain conceptual understanding of how free jazz improvisational techniques have been working in music, certainly for the last 90 years. With The Nine Muses the idea was that you can apply that not just to the sound but to words. (source)

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