VOYAGE: Empire Windrush arrived in England from Jamaica in 1948
IT’S NOT often that you hear of the well-documented Windrush journey being likened to a major work of Greek mythology.
But according to John Akomfrah, the brave voyage that our parents and grandparents made, leaving their homes in Africa and the Caribbean to begin new lives in Britain, really was “that big.”
Having grown tired of the more common TV and film representations of black immigration to the UK in the late 1940s and ‘50s, the Ghana-born, London-raised director began working on a film that would offer an alternative to what he saw as a very “matter-of-fact” treatment of the black British experience.
The result is The Nine Muses; a unique and experimental film that fuses together archive footage of immigrants arriving in the UK, striking imagery of Alaska’s wintry landscapes, and – perhaps most interestingly – ancient Greek mythology.
Structured in chapters, which are dedicated to each of the nine muses in Greek mythology (the muses were goddesses that gave artists, philosophers and individuals the necessary inspiration for creation), and complete with excerpts from various works of literature, which are read in voice-over, The Nine Muses is nothing if not ambitious.
But while Akomfrah is aware that the film’s many juxtapositions may leave some audiences perplexed, he says it was important for him to try and tell the story of African and Caribbean migration in a different way.
“I know that there’s always the possibility, especially with films like this, that some people might not get it,” says the acclaimed director, famed for his works Handsworth Songs and Speak Like A Child. “But I look at it like this: There are a range of black identities or ways of being black in this country, and as black people, we accept that.
“So I just hope that people will extend that acceptance into the worlds of film, music and theatre; understand and appreciate that there should be different ways of looking at our experience, otherwise it just gets boring."
“In my heart, I’m assured by the fact that there isn’t anybody of colour in Britain who doesn’t have a parent, grandparent, or some relative who didn’t make the journey that this film is talking about. This is about trying to say to people, ‘this is what that journey could have been like, emotionally, for those that took it.’”
ROYAL APPROVAL: John Akomfrah
Indeed, the film does capture a sense of the emotions that immigrants may have experienced.
From the realisation that England’s streets were not paved with gold, (as had been suggested through - as one immigrant describes it in the film - England’s “false propaganda”), to the loneliness that many felt in trying to adapt to a foreign land (a rendition of the song Motherless Child by soprano singer Leontyne Price captures this perfectly), the film is successful in allowing audiences to get an idea of those feelings.
What is perhaps a little harder to get to grips with, is how our history can be likened to Greek mythology. After all, when has African and Caribbean immigration to Britain ever been dealt with in such a creative and poetic way in film?
For Akomfrah, that was exactly the point.
“I suppose I just got fed up with the way the Windrush journey was treated as a whole, both in television and films. It always seemed to be dealt with in a matter-of-fact way; you know, ‘black people came here for jobs and to keep England clean’, that kind of thing. I wanted to do something different.
“As I started to think about doing this film, I was reading quite a bit, and when you read a lot of the Greek myths, especially The Odyssey, that story is about precisely what our parents and grandparents went through,” Akomfrah says of the famed poem by ancient Greek author Homer.
“The Odyssey is a journey epic; an epic of travel, in which people discover who they are in the process of travelling. So I felt that this would be one way to elevate our story.
He continues: “I wanted to say that I believe that what my mother and other immigrants to Britain did, is on par with one of the founding texts of Western civilization. I truly believe that they undertook an epic journey. It was that big!”
Another interesting element to the film is the recurring image of faceless, hooded figures, trekking through the snowy landscapes of Alaska. It was hard not to feel cold just watching these scenes; again, job done, in terms of capturing how cold England must have seemed to the new immigrant arrivals.
“If you speak to someone of that generation and ask them what it was like coming to England, very often, they’ll tell you three things,” says Akomfrah, who was awarded an OBE in 2008. “Firstly, they tell you it was cold! Secondly, they often tell you they felt very alone. And finally, they say that when they got here, they found the place grey, which made them feel very out of place."
“So I was trying to give a visual voice to those emotions and enable people to think about just how difficult that journey must have been.”
More than anything, Akomfrah hopes that the film will inspire conversations between the younger and older generations of black families.
“It is important that we begin this process of gathering information inside the community. It shouldn’t just be for films. We should be talking to our parents and grandparents to get this information so that we’re able to pass it on to our children and grandchildren. When our children and grandchildren ask us what it was like for great grandma to come to this country, we should be able to tell them so that these stories aren’t lost.”
The Nine Muses is in cinemas from January 20 through New Wave Films