John Akomfrah, the director of this pristine film, was once a member of the Black Audio Film Collective in the 1980s. Their most famous work was Handsworth Songs (1986) which explored the experience of the immigration through the extensive archive available; whereas the former work mixed archival footae with that of the urban present, the new work The Nine Muses mixes the archive with that of stunning landscape cinematography of the vast, empty Alaska.
The Muses who provide the film's title and its nine chapters - Calliope (Epic poetry), Clio (History), Erato (Love), Euterpe (Music), Melopmene (Tragedy), Polyhymnia (Hymns), Terpsichore (Dance), Thalia (Comedy) and Urania (Astronomy) - were the product of a union between Zeus and Mnemosyne, the personification of memory. This new film, is a film about memory and how the different kinds of memory - personal, institutional, cultural - all have an effect whether good or bad on each other.
There is no narrative voiceover overhead, removing the 'voice of God' factor you sometimes get in films that deal with archive footage. Instead the voices we hear are all from borrowed texts of canonical works like that of Shakespeare, Dante, Joyce and most tellingly Homer's The Odyssey. Akomfrah, who admits to watching near to a thousand hours of archive footage in preparation for this work, handles with great sensitivity the material which deals with immigrants on the move and arriving at a new home.
Whilst the archive footage deals with movement - people running, people driving, immigrants on boats or trains. The footage in Alaska is very still and meditative, it depicts a hooded figure in a coloured hooded jacket (either blue or yellow) who stands with his back to the camera. His face is not seen by us leaving us with no characteristics with which to judge them by, rendering him an everyman to the audience.
The person stands still in reflective mood, looking out across the landscape in contemplative fashion looking at the last possible place to emigrate to. Alaska looks like the end of the world or a place after a terrible disaster, also it has the feeling that has the person been abandoned here with no chance of immigrating. Even in a moment of stillness, the person can think of nothing but moving.
The Nine Muses is distributed by New Wave Films, whom I thank for the review disc. They also reviewed Le Quattro Volte (the goat film from last year), whilst this film does not have the critical acclaim and festival exposure of Frammatino's work, yet this is a work that is both poetic and mesmeric. The release may be minimal but the exposure and acclaim it receives will nonetheless be positive.
The Nine Muses is out on limited release from Friday 20th January.