Mnemosyne at the BFI Gallery


13 Tuesday 13th July 2010

John Akomfrah’s Mnemosyne, the latest film installation in the BFI Gallery, is a beautiful meditation upon the history of immigration into the UK and the specific experiences of labour migrants who have moved here. Named after Memory, the mother of the nine muses in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne explores the alienation and isolation migrants felt upon pitching up on the shores of a strange (indeed alien), cold, wet and grey country. 

An audio-visual collage, the film combines archival footage from key periods of immigration into the UK with Akomfrah’s own portraits of contemporary Britain and footage shot in a remote, arctic landscape with fragments of Shakespearean verse and quotes from Beckett, Homer and Milton read out over the footage. Don’t Panic spoke to John about the film and where the ideas behind it came from.
How did Mnemosyne originate?
I was thinking of doing a film piece on TS Eliot's The Wasteland when I was approached to consider doing this archival project.  And it seemed to me then that the themes that we were considering for the Wasteland project – which were really to do with questions of reminiscence and recollection – chimed perfectly with this. And so in a way they sort of morphed and became Mnemosyne. Some of the influences were for me the usual suspects (Alexander Kluge's work, Santiago Alvarez, Bill Brandt’s photography). But unlike some of my other projects, the influences here were much more self-consciously musical ones – the idea was to try to construct what the Germans call a Trauerspiel, a song cycle about mourning and remembrance. And Schubert's Winterreise was a dominant influence.
What were the ideas or inspirations behind the film?
The ideas were to try and summarise a kind of ongoing obsession with the 'official archive' – and what one could say about 'figures of colour' in that archive. I also wanted to use material important in my development that had never consciously made it into any of the earlier pieces: Milton's Paradise Lost and Samuel Beckett's writings, for instance.
Which archives did you draw material from? Going through old footage, were there any particular moments or scenes you recall watching that really stood out?
We drew on four archival sources – firstly the magnificent BBC archive of images and sounds, but we also looked at the ITV's MACE archive, Birmingham's Central Library and the Black Audio Collective/Smoking Dogs collection. What led me to those archives was an image I saw 25 years ago – it's in the piece and it's a bearded black man from a film by Philip Donnelan called The Colony (1964). This man simply talks about love, about how much his journey was formed by the love for this place, and that became the starting point. I was looking for images that sat somewhere between love and disenchantment.
Why did you decide to frame the film via the Greek muses? What was it about the muses' relation to memory in Greek mythology that resonated with the theme of migration?
From the beginning, I wanted to use Homer's Odyssey because the themes of that epic poem about journeys, about being and becoming, resonate perfectly with the migratory experience. Once we'd decided that, the question was what would be the 'spine' of the piece. The starting point was Mnemosyne herself; the goddess of memory, and what I hadn't realised until we started this project was the connection between the muses – the very direct filial relation between Mnemosyne and the muses. In effect what that is saying is that there is a direct connection between the creative impulses and the memory function. And so what I wanted to do was to find outlines of those creative impulses within the archive. James Joyce's Ulysees is of course the ultimate recasting of the "outsider" experience as a Homeric one. And so the question for Mnemosyne was – in a modest way – to attempt to emulate that monumental achievement.
The film is full of scenes of bleak, snow-covered landscapes. Cold, desolate places. What were you trying to communicate through these scenes about the experience of migration?
The first thing was to convey the terra incognita quality of the place of 'arrival'; this much I think is common to all forms of migratory experiences, the sense of shock of the 'unknown land' on the sensorium. And it seemed to me that the best way of achieving that in this piece was to find a place that was sufficiently abstract for it not to be 'here'. But one which also suggests at the same time the beauty and terror that the migrant first encounters on arriving. A lot of it is also biographical – I remember asking my mother about her first impressions of this place and she always talked in those terms – about the cold, the snow, the wind, because these were the alien things, not the people or the place, just these elemental qualities. I used to think that was just a family thing, but I've spoken to more and more people over the years and they all remember the same conversation with their parents. So it's a kind of homage to our parents really.
Mnemosyne is at the BFI Gallery, BFI Southbank until August 30. Entry is free.

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