Nine Muses

Nine Muses – A film directed by John Akomfrah (2011: Ghana/UK)
Seen by reviewer (DoAn Forest) at: VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival) 2011

Nine Muses, a 2011 film directed by John Akomfrah, drifts back and forth between a solitary traveler in gorgeously shot Alaskan landscapes, mostly on or near a ferry or walking alongside highways, and archival footage of Africans living in Britain through the 1950s and 60s. Equally important is the audio, which offers a flow of beautifully-read excerpts from a range of English and other literature (Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, cummings, Dickinson, Li Po, etc.) while the pensive music of David Darling, Arvo Part, Lisa Gerrard, and others emanates. The unlikely assemblage could seem baffling to the viewer unfamiliar with the work of the Ghana-born British director Akomfrah, as said viewer would not realize how wonderfully this work speaks to and responds to the director’s past works. But, ultimately, every film does need to largely stand on its own, apart from any other body of work, and this film does succeed in that regard. Pulled into the journey, I, the viewer, found the theatre itself became a comfortable respite from the tribulations and ordeals one experiences on a long journey. While the film is not a travelogue, it does seem to exist in an aether of traveler’s emotions. For the inhabitants of this film, however, this journey is itself home and never-ending, which is suggested in the film by a quotation from the masterful Japanese poet Matsuo Basho: “Drifting life away on a boat or meeting age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey and the journey itself home.”

The film is structured into nine sections, one for each of the nine muses spoken of in Greek mythology, who were said to have descended from the nine consecutive nights that Zeus and the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, slept together. On one viewing of the film, and in light of my very limited knowledge of Greek mythology, it was not obvious to how each of the film’s sections connected with the individual muses. Nevertheless, in the sense that the muses relate to memory, creativity, and the passing down of knowledge, the film does well to invoke them on its journey, which owes so much to the opening passage of the Odyssey the film directly quotes early on, in which Homer speaks to a muse:

“Muse, speak to me now of that resourceful man

who wandered far and wide after ravaging

the sacred citadel of Troy. He came to see

many people’s cities, where he learned their customs,

while on the sea his spirit suffered many torments,

as he fought to save his life and lead his comrades home.”

This parallel which is set up between Odysseus’ journey and the African migrants of the British archives, who set out on the sea and were required to learn foreign customs, is a central theme of this film.

It is, however, only after seeing the film, that I could start to piece things together, by searching on the Internet for the pieces of quotations which I had scratched, in the dark, into my notebook, while delving deeper into the work of Akomfrah. Watching the film on the first pass, I had to do my own work, as viewer, to assemble in my own mind the assemblage unfolding before my eyes and in my ears. What on earth, I thought, did this person clad in a bright-yellow anorak stamping along the highways or gazing off of the ferries of Alaska have to do with the scenes of African post-migrant life in Britain? The Alaska connection is obviously one of the film’s most enigmatic elements. I could only guess that Alaska was not appearing on screen as Alaska, but rather a stand-in for a vast far-off land, a land beyond human habitation, a land remote enough that the return journey could seem impossible. In fact, director Akomfrah does offer an explanation for the Alaska metaphor in an interview he did with London’s Serpentine Gallery related to the Mnemosyne short film and exhibition, upon which this film expanded. Essentially, he suggests that, in discussions with African migrants to Britain of the period around the 1960s, there are two observations which are widely made. He says:

“It’s almost like the motif that runs through Post-migrant discussions about their arrival. One is that it was very cold. Two is that it was very gray. And they brought, they felt, colour into this place. And so I thought, how can I turn this into a kind of metonym, for a way of working? How could one turn what appears to be two statements of color – one the absence of it, and at the same time this profusion of it that one felt one brought – into an organized statement that was coherent enough to allow me to make sense of the archive. And Alaska provided that. Because Alaska is austere and monochromatic enough to begin to suggest a kind of visual metaphor, of the kind that some of these people were talking about, my parents for instance.”

In terms of Akomfrah’s body of work, Nine Muses fits in very snugly, both expanding upon and adding to the background of previous works. As a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982, Akomfrah emerged in the ’80s as a key figure in both Britain’s black culture and in the milieu of experimental documentary cinema. His 1986 film Handsworth Songs (I found the film uploaded to YouTube) embedded the viewer in the 1985 riots of London and Handsworth (an area of Birmingham, England), and left it up to viewers to process the diverse streams of visuals and audio, and draw their own conclusions. Later, in 1999, with the film Riot, Akomfrah looked at a British riot with a 650 minute exploration of the Liverpool riots of 1981. While the rioters were of mixed-race, the riots did mark moments of culminating dissatisfaction in British post-migrant lives. Speaking in conversation with Alan Marcus in 2008, Akomfrah spoke about the unconventional approach he took in Handsworth Songs, in terms of shedding light on the riots by exploring other events and archival footage. What he says, I think, puts Nine Muses, a work he would be two years away from completing, into much clearer perspective:

“If you accept, as I think we did then, that the riots weren’t simply about troublemaking — and the reason we knew was for something very simple. What you have to empathize with is this – who in their right mind leaves a small village in the middle of nowhere, be it West Africa or the Caribbean or the South Asian subcontinent, who in their right mind incurs a 10 year debt to raise the money to ship their family across seas and oceans to come and settle in shitholes across the British isles just to cause trouble? Who does that? So if people did not set off to cause trouble, how have they arrived at this moment when causing trouble seemed the only option? And so one of the things we did was to go back and look at earlier forms of representation, of black arrival, [and see] just how people saw themselves in language before 1985, what they thought they were about. And sometimes you’re talking to people, or looking at people who are throwing stones, whose moms and dads you see in an earlier image saying, “Oh we’re here because it’s a great country and we really want to do something good.” So you realize that what you’re doing in a way is really putting together a bank of affects. And when you put them together what you notice is this slow dissipating of several things, and one of which is hope, one of which was the sense that this country held something. I’m talking specifically about England now, that England held something in store for you, held something almost as a kind of promissory note that your arrival meant you could cash in. And you could see people suddenly realize that the notes were fake, the ink color wasn’t what it was supposed to be. So the film took that collage-istic approach because of what we unearthed. We realized that the events needed a counterpoint, we needed to get the events to speak to other events, to see really what, in distillation, all of these series of arrivals actually meant, because it was a kind of arrival.”

While the archival footage of Nine Muses does focus much more on daily life scenes – such as hanging the laundry, going to school, shovelling snow, working – there is also great evidence of this dissipation, in the form of decaying buildings, derelict living conditions, and even the burnt-out aftermath of riots. In one sequence of the film (viewable here in an extract from the related work Mnemosyne), the film’s editing cuts back and forth from a migrant stoking a fire in what could be a fire and the solitary traveler on a ferry passing through an Alaskan waterway. On the soundtrack, the distant voice of a migrant man is reasoning as to where the blame could lie for the dissatisfactory state of post-migrant life in Britain: “It is we that have come to their country. But on the other hand, if they in the first place had not come to our country and spread the false propaganda, we would have not come to their’s. If we had not come, we would none be the wiser. We would still have the good image of England, thinking they are what they are not, and the English would be as ignorant of us.”

In the quotations that are spoken in Nine Muses, one can gather a sense of loss and the struggle to find one’s bearings. We hear a character in Beckett’s Molloy orienting himself: “I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone.” We sense hands reaching out in the dark, with Rabindranath Tagore’s line: “I can see nothing before me. I wonder where lies thy path!” We hear the disorientation of Li Po: “Hard is the journey, Hard is the journey, So many turnings, And now where am I?” And Emily Dickinson states clearly the predicament: “Retreat — was out of Hope — Behind — a Sealed Route.” Thus, the journeyer can only advance. But, on the sea, there are answers to be found. We hear e.e. cummings: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

Akomfrah’s role as filmmaker, then, is to reconcile, or at least better understand, the unrealized promise of England as paradise and the reality of post-migrant struggles. In the same interview with Alan Marcus, he says, “An idea that you find as a staple of modernist ethics is somehow this sense that all political crises, all cultural crises are simultaneously a crisis of storytelling, a crisis of language, a crisis of identity.” By exploring the archives as thoroughly as he has, and by bringing about this cinematic space in which we can dwell on these matters, he brings a clearer perspective to where we are now. He brings that moment to the journeyer, when lines on a map connect in a real, physical, or even metaphysical, space.

See trailers, excerpts, and related links for John Akomfrah's Nine Muses and related films.