This film may not be that easy to see: so far in my area we have had a solitary screening at the Hyde Park Picture House, (also one at Hebden Bridge Picture House). However, it really is a must, and really should be seen in a cinema, on a large screen with quality sound and vision and with the audience able to give it undivided attention for its 96 minutes of running time. A fellow audience member commented that it was both ‘brilliant and mesmerising’. The cinema flyer described it as a ‘film essay’, but it is an essay in the poetic mode, a visual and aural tapestry of both archive and contemporary film records. The archive film offers records of the experiences of the black migrants who came to these shores from the 1940s to the 1970s but presented so as to comment on British culture and its responses to its new citizens.
The film is directed by John Akomfrah, produced by Lina Gopaul with David Lawson and with sound design and music by Trevor Mathison. They were members of the experimental and pioneering Black Audio Film Collective. Probably the best-known work by that group was Handsworth Songs (produced in the aftermath of the 1985 riots/rebellions), which The Guardian reported was successfully re-screened at the Tate Modern following the riots/rebellions of last summer. An oft-quoted line from that film runs: “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.” It is an equally apt comment for this new film. Members of the original collective have now formed Smoking Dog Films. Their new work apparently developed out of a gallery installation, which is an area in which the group produces. The film is a modernist work, paralleling in some ways last year’s Film Socialisme by Jean-Luc Godard: though the latter work has very distinctive idiosyncrasies. A closer parallel would be the film essays of Chris Marker. What all the filmmakers share is commitment to aesthetic as well as social qualities, and a belief that the human experience, whilst complex and ambiguous, can be placed in larger analytical frames.
The Nine Muses offers stunning visuals and sound constructed through a montage true to the original practices of the Soviet Masters, especially Dziga Vertov. And there is also the influence of the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko. The film opens in the snowy and bleak wastelands of Alaska. We constantly returned to this landscape which is presented with lone hooded figures, seen mainly in reverse shot. This is a counterpoint to archive footage of black people’s travel to, arrival and working experience in Britain: and at play and leisure. Much of this is from film of Birmingham and the Black Country: the factories, metal works, canals, terraced street and urban sprawl (some shots recognisable from the earlier Handsworth Songs). A further set of images have been filmed in contemporary Liverpool, frequently setting a different lone figures against often bleak industrial landscapes.
The sound track that accompanies this includes a range of literary works and voices. Milton and Shakespeare are there, as are Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. The most frequent of the commentaries is Homer’s The Odyssey, that epic of travel and migration. This does not offer a straightforward analysis or set of explanations. There is a cumulative development, as indeed occurs in poetry. But the recurring Alaskan landscape makes the point about the coldness and isolation that was part of this historic movement. The Alaskan sequences are predominantly in long shot: much of the archive footage gives us close-ups of people and faces, emphasising the personal stories that make up the larger tapestry.
The larger framework for all of this is also taken from the Greek myths. The nine muses are those of Greek legend: Calliope – epic poetry, Clio – history, Erato – love, Euterpe – music, Melpomene – tragedy, Polyhymnia – hymns, Terpsichore – dance. Thalia – comedy, Urania – astronomy. The film is divided into nine sections headed by these titles. At times these offer a feeling of contrast, even contradiction, but for much of the film they point up parallels between these established works and the experience presented on film.
Memory has always been a central focus in the work of John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective. But they also use film to unsettle our use of perceptions of the past. One aspect of the film is the strong sense of the existing British culture in the period: but the placement of material also questions its assumptions. At times this is done with real irony: my favourite position was film of Enoch Powell and some of his supporters who was here placed in ‘comedy’.
The modernist sense of the film is partly suggested by the clear evidence of influences in the work. Akomfrah commented that the original inspiration for the film was connected to the experience of T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land. One of the earliest quotations is from John Milton, and this work mirrors his great ability to rework the classical heritage into his then contemporary poems. Cinematically Humphrey Jennings and his colleagues in the 1930s documentary movement spring to mind. The contemporary shots of Liverpool reminded me of the bleak beauty of Bill Brand’s photography. At the same time the filmmakers have distilled the many influences and voices into a distinctive and memorable essay. It was produced with funding from the UK Film Council: will we get works of such quality from its replacements? The film was produced in 2010, so the has been a notable delay in reaching audiences.