Respected Afro-British director John Akomfrah’s haunting film The Nine Muses is an unusual, genre defying, literary based contemplation of migration, memory and the power of elegy.
On Distant Shores by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In simple terms John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses can be summed up as an unlikely trilogy of Homer’s Odyssey, the African diaspora and the bleak and beautiful landscapes of Alaska. Combining these three elements, renowned Ghana-born director Akomfrah’s latest film is broken up into nine overlapping musical chapters mixing archival material and a narration of texts from some of the behemoths of classic European literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Joyce and Homer himself, to name a few you “might” have heard of.
Pure white Alaskan landscape scenes feature large. Figures are few and far between; the apparent emptiness is occasionally broken by a distant kayak or a primary-coloured, hooded, anorak-wearing standing figure gazing out into the beyond. The colours and tones are exquisite; different depths and shades of blacks and whites jostle for attention in a world that appears anything but monochrome, and belies the technical challenges of shooting in such a harsh and extreme environment. The faces of the figures themselves are never seen; the standing figures are always shown from a distance, with their back to the camera.
By his own admission obsessed with archival material, Akomfrah breaks the pure white of the still Alaskan landscape scenes with a wealth of different clips from between 1940 and 1970 that must betray a huge number of hours spent trawling footage, equivalent perhaps only to the writing of an epic poem. The seamless flow of movement between the monumental, constant, timeless landscape of frozen nature and the human stories of migration, natural disaster, ethnic diversity, war and social dislocation provides a blunt contrast, throwing the human condition sharply into relief.
The aim of this artful construction is a re-examination of the past using building bricks from a variety of sources; a Proustian attempt to take another look at our recent history, drawing parallels with an ancient age that is definitely not quite so recent but still offers deep resonance. A founder member of the Black Audio Film Collective in the UK in the late 1970s/early 80s, Akomfrah’s history is about more than epics and heroes however, as these share focus with thousands of unacknowledged, unnamed players in history who themselves set out on their own epic sagas across continents and history. On arrival in the UK we see them struggling to adjust to a world so different from the one they left behind. Striving to “say something new about a story everyone claims to know” was key for Akomfrah, a door into one’s own past in search of “images, ideas, writers and music”.
Music is a key element of the “song cycles” adding both a depth and traditions that assist the rolling waves of the film’s structure. These include works by the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, a favourite of Akomfrah’s, and the score is heightened by pieces by the Gundecha brothers, the supreme exponents of India’s oldest musical form, the Dhrupad, intended to bring the mind to a settled and meditative state.
A quest for knowledge and identity, at times The Nine Muses is undoubtedly more about a visual composition of images rather than a narrative sequence. Akomfrah’s artistic vision, referred to by the director himself as a “hybrid”, is perhaps not for everyone and can boarder on the impenetrable. Perseverance is rewarded nonetheless and The Nine Muses takes its place among a currently strong offering of Afro-British art and culture.
The Nine Muses is released on 20th January 2011 in the UK