30 January 2012

The Nine Muses

Written by Published in Issue 31 - Work It Out Read 3296 times

The history of mass migration to post-war Britain is tackled in John Akomfrah’s hauntingly mournful film The Nine Muses, to understated yet powerful effect.

Structured as an allegorical fable and based on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, this impressionistic documentary is divided into nine overlapping chapters and merges a dazzling array of archive material along with scenes shot in the UK and US.

Scripted from the writings of Western authors, including Dante Alighieri, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, William Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, the film whisks viewers on a series of imaginary journeys through myth, folklore, history and a ‘museum of intangible things’. We see beautifully minimal panoramic shots through the eyes of mysterious, faceless men, intercut with old video footage of people arriving from the Caribbean and India by ship and plane.

Journeys in all senses of the word, from physical crossings and heartbreaking quests for identity in the strangest of new worlds, to transformations undertaken by entire societies – all are told through the film’s ghostly, poetic voice.

Black writer, musician and director Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957, the child of anti-colonial activists, and admits the film was partly inspired by the journey made by his parents’ generation in coming to the UK. ‘When they were in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, these were all of the texts they would have read. They were part of the elements that made you English: Shakespeare, Milton, Beckett,’ he has said.

The film was shot in inhospitable Alaska, and placing these texts into such a cold environment is an act of storytelling brilliance. The barren landscape alludes not just to the cold, sharp shock of arriving on UK shores from warmer climes (‘Our parents had all said without fail that the UK was the coldest place they had ever been or would ever want to go to,’ notes Akomfrah) but also about placing a black presence in the whitest of white landscapes, literally ‘out in the cold’.

The soundtrack is immensely powerful, ranging from Wagner and Schubert to India’s Gundecha Brothers and is variously sad, stirring and frightening but always powerful, helping to temper the film’s slow and sombre pace.

Despite Akomfrah’s obvious connection to the subject, this is not really a personal film, and some may baulk at its non- linear structure and weaving, disorientating style. But it takes the universal themes of immigration, struggle and journeying – specifically pushing ahead despite the difficulties – and makes them beautiful and profound.

The exquisite collection of images, words and sounds, from footage of rain beating on windows to an ear of corn swaying in the breeze, is so carefully curated that, if viewers are able to allow the film to wash over them, its imprint will remain on their minds for some time.

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