The Nine Muses Review
John Akomfrah has been making films since the early eighties. In 1982 he co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective and directed their most famous work, 1986’s Handsworth Songs. This multi-award-winning documentary, an experimental essay on the riots in Birmingham and London the previous year, combined archive footage and newly-filmed material with a mosaic-like approach to its soundtrack. Such techniques were central to the Collective’s output and indeed much of Akomfrah’s work that would follow. That work has taken in theatrical features, television documentaries and installation art pieces. His latest film, The Nine Muses, combines elements from all three.
Dealing with the experience of Black Britons from the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1948 through to the early seventies, Akomfrah is once more asking questions about Black British identity. He does using material culled from old television news reports and beautifully photographed sequences filmed in Alaska especially for this new feature. The soundtrack, meanwhile, lacks a definitive authorial voice but is instead composed of readings from classic literature - predominantly Homer’s Odyssey but also passages from Shakespeare, Eliot, Dante, Milton and so forth - plus music from across the centuries, whether it be Mozart or Motherless Child. The task of the viewer is to piece together this collage, to maintain the connections and ask how this speaks of and to the Black Briton.
By pure coincidence The Nine Muses arrived onto DVD on the same day as the BFI issued the second volume in their Complete Humphrey Jennings collection. Housing the most famous of the director’s war-era works, among the inclusions were Words for Battle and Listen to Britain. Both are pure propaganda, flag-wavers intended to up the spirits of those on the home front. The former did so via quotes from Shakespeare and Milton, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, et al. The latter did so via the sound of spitfires, Myra Hess performing Mozart and Flanagan and Allen. The connections to The Nine Muses are hard to ignore and Akomfrah has previously stated how Listen to Britain (alongside Chris Marker’s Sans soleil) informed the approach of the Black Audio Film Collective. However, whereas the two Jennings films succeed in providing an immediate emotional impact - their power is undiminished seventy years later - The Nine Muses is less direct in its effects.
Jennings’ remits were fairly simple and so too were his running times (Words for Battle is just eight minutes in length, Listen to Britain only nineteen). Immediacy was therefore essential. Akomfrah, on the other hand, has a far greater duration to take advantage of plus, I would argue, fuzzier aims in place. The Nine Muses feels like the director is working through ideas, making associations as he pieces the film together and in doing so going through a process of realisation. Born in Ghana to political activist parents but educated in London during the sixties, this is clearly a personal work for Akomfrah; the various quotes - both from literature and from music - speak to him as an individual and have resonated throughout the years as he has attempted to understand and vocalise his experience as a Black Briton. The Nine Muses is simply the latest step in that process; it doesn’t come with conclusions, nor does it necessarily seek them - it’s the piecing them together and the associations they create which are key.
As a result the film has met with criticism in some quarters as being too effusive and too demanding on an audience. Certainly, our own knowledge and experience has a bearing on our response, providing its own context in the absence of one that is firmly defined onscreen. However, such a dismissal arguably misses the point. By refusing to establish and explain, Akomfrah also bypasses any accusations of being reductive. The conclusions formed are our own, not The Nine Muses; the film is simply a means of allowing us - and its director - to consider the questions it asks, not the answer to them. Even Akomfrah’s newly-filmed footage of men in brightly coloured Parkas against a bleak Alaskan backdrop comes without explanation. Are they to be interpreted as men of colour in a mostly white landscape? Does that landscape represent the loneliness of a migrant coming to a new country or perhaps a blank slate? Once again, we are asked to draw our own conclusions. Or a whole series of them.
The overall effect is hypnotising. The soundtrack choices and steady editing rhythms slowly draw us in as does the familiarity of many of the musical and literary passages. The Alaskan imagery, meanwhile, is simply stunning. Combined they make The Nine Muses a film you want to spent time with, a perfect invitation to engage with its many rich and complex layers. Indeed, given its richness and complexities it’s also a film you’ll want to spend additional time with, to revisit a number of times. There’s so much possibility in its construction that one viewing simply isn’t enough.
I suspect The Nine Muses would have looked superb on Blu-ray, its pixel-perfect HDCAM footage switching back and forth to grain-heavy material from the archive. However, experimental documentary filmmaking is always going to be a niche area so it comes as no surprise to find this being a DVD-only release. Nevertheless it’s hard not to be impressed with the presentation New Wave have offered up here, both visually and in terms of the multi-layered soundtrack. The former is in pristine condition and its original aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced). The latter is similarly allowed to shine in DD5.1 (and DD2.0 is also available though completely unnecessary). Of course, some of the archive footage is in bad shape as we would fully expect, but everything else looks wonderful. The spoken words and musical passages, meanwhile, are as crisp and clear as you would hope; every last detail of the sound design is perfectly discernible. An excellent presentation all round.
Extras consist of the theatrical trailer plus a 10-minute interview piece entitled Chiasmus. Essentially this is an interview with Akomfrah, except it’s also self-produced and as such comes with some of the texture and approach as the main feature. (If only all such on-disc additions were so carefully put together!) Akomfrah discusses his history as a filmmaker and his concerns as a director over those years, from the Black Audio Film Collective onwards, highlighting the continuity in his work. We also get clips from some of those early films, reminding us how little of it is currently available on DVD. In fact, the only other Akomfrah on the shelves apart from The Nine Muses is his short Norman Beaton tribute documentary, Beaton But Unbowed, hidden away on of Channel 4’s Desmond’s discs.