"Known predominantly for his seminal, free-associative debut documentary, Handsworth Songs, director and some-time video artist John Akomfrah again adopts a mood board framework for this latest offering, another impassioned exploration – alternatively exhilarating, haunting and baffling – of the black and asian immigrant experience.
Binding together striking archive newsreel which depicts the struggles mounted by ethnic minorities attempting to quietly settle in the UK, Akomfrah infuses these potent images of loneliness and conflict with a classical sweep by having various poems, speeches and literary quotations subtly intoned over the top.
Elsewhere, much of the film also consists of newly-filmed tableaux in which mysterious figures wrapped tightly in a range of colourful all-terrain gear peer out on a series of pristine Alaskan vistas, always with their backs to the camera. The “Muses” themselves are the daughters of Zeus, all referenced in Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ and which crop up as thematic inter-titles during the film.
Upon initial inspection, The Nine Muses feels like it could be a companion piece to Terence Davies’ rakish cine-memoir, Of Time and the City. Both films toy with chronology and geography, and both directors clearly have fun trying to marry social history and personal memory with the grandiloquent writings of the great poets, playwrights and philosophers.
And both have impeccable taste in music, here the soundtrack includes selections by Wagner, Schubert and much of the ECM back catalogue (one snowy scene which uses Arvo Pärt’s ‘Spiegel Im Spiegel’ is quite breathtaking). Yet where Davies’s musings were purely personal, Akomfrah doesn’t explicitly make this film about himself.
Those possessing a broad knowledge of Dante, Sophocles and Nietzsche might be better placed to unlock some of the more playful juxtapositions. But is this even a film which is supposed to be unlocked? Perhaps pointedly, Akomfrah never offers any clear narrative or thematic throughlines, and even the relationship between the newsreels and the snowscapes remains open to interpretation.
But that doesn’t make this a failed enterprise. On the contrary. Here is a film which consciously takes on the structural tenets of a poem, where it’s as much about the flow and the rhythm in which the images are delivered as it is about what we see and hear in the moment.
One of its many pleasures is the way Akomfrah grapples with opposing extremes: the crisp, glassy new footage against the warm, fuzzy celluloid; the rumpled, weather-beaten faces of the black subjects against the implacable perfection of the white snow; the authoritative tenor of the of literary quotations against the immigrant labourers straining to articulate their anxieties.
For that reason, cinematographer Dewald Aukema and editors Miikka Leskinen and Ben Hun deserve the same critical garlands as Akomfrah for a work which dares challenge the senses." - David Jenkins
John Akomfrah’s Hauntologies
Culture Now: John Akomfrah
DEATH AND LIFE OF FICTION