It’s been a long time since a film has moved me in quite the way that John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses did. It wasn’t that happy, tingly, feel-good feeling you tend to get with some films that has you smiling as you leave the cinema and which you soon forget (the feeling and the actual film) once you’ve brushed the last remnants of popcorn off your clothes, but a deep, cloying, feeling that lingered, and lingers still.
At 53, Akomfrah is one of the pioneers of digital cinema in the UK and The Nine Muses is a film that is more feature length art installation than documentary or narrative fiction, and perhaps something that most might expect from a younger generation of Black British artist or filmmaker, such as Steve McQeeen.
A UK Film Council production in association with Smoking Dog Films, The Nine Muses is described as
“…a stylized, unusual and idiosyncratic retelling of the history of mass immigration to post war Britain through the suggestive lens of Homeric epic.
Divided into nine overlapping musical chapters and mixing a vast array of archival material with shot scenes from the United States and the United Kingdom,The Nine Muses is a modern recasting of Homer’s epic as a ‘song cycle’ on journeys, on immigration, on memory and the power of elegy.
Devised and scripted from the writing of an array of authors include Dante Alighieri, Samuel Becket, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, John Milton, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Shakespeare, Sophocles and Dylan Thomas, The Nine Muses is a set of imaginary journeys through myth, folklore, history and a museum of intangible things.”
Despite its unusual narrative style, it’s a very British feeling film, not just for its bleakness, period references (both visual and narrative) and adaptation of classical literature, but more so in its evocation of Empire. The film opens with a man of Caribbean origin stating, in effect, how wonderful a picture of Britain is painted to the children of its colonies, stirring them up to dreams of living in that paradise, only to find out on reaching those hallowed shores that it’s blatant false advertising. We are then visually thrust into what will be a mainstay of the film, a beautiful but cold, bleak, harsh and unwelcoming monochrome landscape… quickly contrasted with the presence of a lone man in a fluorescent yellow jacket, the only spot of colour to grace the screen for what seems at least a good ten minutes or more. The introduction of colour after that is very gradual, a blue sky, a lone man in a blue jacket… always looking away from camera and/or out to sea… interspersed with black and white archive footage of immigrants from The Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, arriving on the shores of the motherland and often living in its most squalid of conditions.
Interestingly, it stops short of any mention of white immigration into the UK, of people who seamlessly blend in with the indigenous landscape. Neither does it include Chinese immigrants, presumably because they tend to have a tight knit, self-contained and self-serving community in most Western cities they migrate to. So rather than just be about journeys and migration, The Nine Muses focuses on the children of the more colourful colonies who bought into the oversold heroic call to adventure and, in a bid to be accepted by what was commonly known as, during the days of Empire, the motherland, went through an almost oedipal expulsion from their minds of the land of their fathers, killing off social mores and traditions in favour of the ways of Queen and country, only to be treated like both the unwanted but exploited stepchild AND viewed as the ugly siblings and, with little or nothing in their adopted home to laud their presence, memory takes the cold edge off their every day existence.
As depressing as all this might sound, The Nine Muses made for very compelling viewing. After the screening, I asked another viewer what she thought of the film. Seeming to share the same feeling of despair that had consumed me, she said she liked it but wondered how to recommend such a film and, given that she was from a radio station that caters to a Black British audience, I understood her concern. Although the film is very much the story of our parents (those of us of colour who were born here in the UK), it’s not exactly a film that seems to speak directly to them, nor necessarily to us, their children, but seems, rather, to address itself to the white chattering classes of the country in which they’ve been made to feel so very unwelcome and unloved, despite their best efforts and after most of them having had their hopes and dreams dashed.
I would, however, compare it to attending an opera or perhaps classical music performance. You can make this either an intellectual or a visceral experience (or both). You do not need to understand or be familiar with all the references to myth and literature from cultures that have been categorized as superior (and which you at least have the benefit of hearing spoken in a language you understand), but rather, let the words and music flow over you rather than talk at you, even as the images seep into you; allow yourself to feel, rather than just see, and you should find this a deeply moving experience.