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lime Screen Interview: Nine Muses

Lime interview - Screen

Nine Muses

words by

Gillian Fisher

Reporter: Gillian Fisher

John Akomfrah discusses his new movie The Nine Muses

How would you describe your film ‘The Nine Muses’?

It’s an attempt to tell the story, the Windrush story of migration using Homer’s Odyssey as a guide.


You used a great deal of archived footage, what period is most of it from?

The task we set ourselves was to find material from the beginnings of migration, essentially from the forties and fifties, which sort of reaches its climax in the seventies. I wanted to concentrate on that because it seems to me most of the drama of migration gets played out in that period, after that everything was sort of a rerun of the same sort of issues or a very different story. After that these people begin to have kids so I wanted to tell the story of the people who came over here rather than people who were born here.


Where did you find most of your footage?

The bulk of it came from the BBC; the BBC has a fantastic ranger of researchers. Then about eight percent then came from ITV archive library called MACE, really just from the west midlands. Really when the project initially started off I was looking almost exclusively at the midlands region, Birmingham in particular. I think about eighty percent of the footage is from that area.


The film begins with scenes of people migrating from Africa and the Caribbean and then there’s a shift showing more Asian families. Was that representative of the migration timeline?

In the last third of the films there’s a lot more emphasis on Asian families migrating.

I wanted very much for it be the story of post colonial migration from the commonwealth, so it was very important to have materials that reflected the patters of migration. What you find so often is materials on the peak of migration, so even though there clearly was a lot of migration from the Indian subcontinent there was very little imagery in the archives until the 1960s.

So the film also reflects the current state of the archives on migration.


A lot of the imagery is used from Alaska and snowy scenes from urban Britain. Why was snow and barren landscapes such a central feature of the film? 

One of the things that I’ve done over the years making documentaries is interview lots of first and second generation migrants from this country, it just struck me that they always talk about it in terms of the extreme climatic conditions that they felt they were coming into. 

It didn’t matter if people came in the summer of the winter, so I realised that it was more of a psychological state; how cold metaphorically they felt this place was, so Alaska seemed to reflect some of that internal visual imagery that came back to me as I spoke to people.


Another thing they kept mentioning is that they felt very alone, which is unusual as if you’re coming into the country in plane loads, but in this new place they still felt completely isolated. The final thing that kept getting brought up, particularly by people from the Indian subcontinent was that they felt very colourful in this rather barren land.  What I liked about Alaska and that landscape is that despite being cold and lonely it was eerily beautiful. Similarly a lot of the people I interviewed said that coming over to this country they found it cold and lonely but were also very attracted to it. So Alaska seemed to encapsulate that beautifully.

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