by Ann Jones
That it’s hard to know where to begin writing about John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses is illustrated by the fact that this is my fifth, or is it sixth, attempt at an opening paragraph. And that’s just the ones I’ve actually typed; there are several more rattling around in my head. And none of them quite works. Do I want to start with the beauty of the thing? Or the fact that it’s made me yearn for snow even more (and I was already feeling more than a little disgruntled about the lack of snow this winter)? Or should I focus on Akomfrah’s use of colour? Or his interspersion of archive film with exquisite footage filmed in the snowy Alaskan landscape, or the extraordinary soundtrack culled from a diverse range of sources, or the framing of a film about immigration into Britain in the 1950s and 60s with Greek myth, or, or, or…
Those who pay attention to such matters will know that though I write for Mostly Film fairly regularly, film doesn’t usually feature very much unless it’s shown in a gallery. There is a reason for this. Mainly it’s that others are much, much better qualified to write about it than me. But I like film and I like cinema. It’s just that somehow, thanks to a combination of laziness and a long commute, I almost never actually get there. So this is the first time I have written here about a film you can go and watch in an actual cinema. In many ways though The Nine Muses is more akin to the gallery works that are familiar territory for me; indeed it is actually an expansion of Akomfrah’s installation Mnemosyne. Intended to be seen in a cinema – or at least, by an audience who watches it from start to finish – I’m not sure that The Nine Muses wouldn’t work just as well in a gallery (providing suitable seating was available for those who chose to stay with it; film should not be watched from a bean bag); there are narrative strands flowing through it but seeing a random section might actually work quite well.
The central concern of The Nine Muses is the journeys – both actual and metaphorical – of those who came to Britain in the 1950s and 60s from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian sub-continent. This is a film about migration and the experience of the immigrant on arrival and afterwards. Archive footage of an unusually hard winter – presumably 1959-60 – offers a picture of Britain as cold and inhospitable; the obvious struggle with the weather all the more pronounced for those for whom it is perhaps a first experience of snow. The version of Britain we are shown is familiar but also somehow alien; this is an urban landscape still visibly scarred by war. There is inevitably a certain feeling of nostalgia – film and television ensure that the 1950s always feel familiar – but that makes the extremity of the racism all the more shocking when it comes sharply into focus.
The lone figure in the Alaskan landscape offers a clear visual metaphor for the isolation of the new arrival, feeling alone in unfamiliar territory and sticking out like a sort thumb or almost disappearing into a scene too vast for comfort, that at first feels rather too obvious. The figures who wander this particular wilderness are clad in brightly coloured jackets, one blue, one yellow, possibly briefly one red (though I now wonder whether I dreamt that); they are almost the only colour to be seen against this wall of whiteness; again perhaps too laboured a visual metaphor. The landscape is utterly stunning though – and very beautifully filmed – and there is real pleasure to be gained from watching it. Ultimately, though the use of colour feels too obvious at first, Akomfrah wins me round here and not just by the sheer pleasure of watching the film. The yellow and blue of the jackets is not quite the only colour in this footage; green and orange creep in at times and there are moments of intense red (that I definitely didn’t dream) in the form of signs and life-belts on a boat amongst other things. The overwhelming whiteness is disrupted by primary colours making all other representation possible.
The film was made as a commission for Made in England, a collaboration between Arts Council England and the BBC English Regions. This allowed Akomfrah access to the BBC’s archives and thus to the archive footage interspersed throughout. There are some extraordinary, and extraordinarily depressing, moments here from the bleakness of post-war Britain facing an unusually hard winter and the drudgery of hard physical work in factories and foundries to the awful reminders of the worst of an overtly racist time.
In the end though I think it’s not the visual imagery that is the film’s greatest strength. The audio track is a mix of the sound of the various film clips, music, poetry and odd sound effects; at once baffling, compelling and at times disturbing, the sound takes us on an odyssey through the windswept landscape of Alaska to the matter of fact racism of anonymous interviewees on archive footage from half a century ago via poetry and prose, much of it read by actors, a haunting rendition of ‘Motherless Child’. This is music, noises, voices and verses from around the world. The common motifs of migration, isolation, identity, acceptance, isolation, hard work, community etc are here too and though the haunting images will stay with me longer it’s the sound that drives the work.
Akomfrah is operating in difficult territory. This is not a film that will easily find an audience in the cinema and at over 90 minutes it’s not comfortably at home in the gallery though I think it would get much of its message across in a context where many would stay for minutes rather than the duration. The film could easily be described as pretentious. The film’s overarching narrative of the nine muses – the daughters of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory – meant little to me, but then classical mythology was never my strong point.
Effectively, despite strong documentary elements, The Nine Muses is a visual poem, a collage of sound and film, and as such it works for me. I found myself lost in its beauty, utterly absorbed by what was on screen. For all that this is a film that I greatly enjoyed watching, I’m honestly not sure that I can actually say that I liked it. Either way, I’m certain it’ll stay with me for a good while yet.
With David Cameron calling for public funding to support the making of “commercially successful pictures” the outlook doesn’t look great for future projects like The Nine Muses but for my money, despite my reservations about the film, this is precisely the sort of work that should get access to public funds.
One thing I am sure of: I have been feeling increasingly cheated by the lack of snow this winter though and, for all its good points, The Nine Muses really hasn’t helped.