With one of the highlights of my year, The Cambridge Film Festival, only a few tantalising weeks away, it just so happens that I have been re-watching one of the films shown at last year’s festival – The Nine Muses.
At the time I found the film beautiful and poetic, although I also felt it a little uneven. On this second viewing I find my appreciation of the film growing. Peter Bradshaw sums the film up nicely in his Guardian review:-
Film-maker John Akomfrah has devised a collage of quotations and archival clips, and constructed an audio-visual meditation on the themes of myth and memory, journeying and homecoming, inspired by Telemachus’s search for his father Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem. The result is engaging and pregnant with ideas, although some of the juxtapositions work better than others… A thoughtful cine-essay.
Paul Brunick, in his New York Times piece, highlights what he sees as some problematic aspects of the film:-
The placement of chapter divisions [seem] … arbitrary. Themes don’t develop so much as they endlessly repeat…
I find that I am somehow now more receptive to the deep emotional power to the film. The two elements which made such an impact on me the first time – the use of readings from classic texts (Homer, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Beckett, Emily Dickinson, etc) and the enigmatic silent figures photographed within vast, stunning landscapes – have not lost their potency on this second visit. As Geoff Andrew says in his short Time Out review:-
There’s no denying the dazzling beauty of the piece (especially the Alaskan sequences) nor its import as a salutary reminder of how things were for immigrants to Britain not so very long ago.
This time I have been particularly fascinated with how the archive footage is incorporated into the film, managing to bring emotional depth and immediacy to the themes of the film.
After watching the film, I looked up an interview with director John Akomfrah in Sight and Sound (the February 2012 issue). When discussing the use of archive material he comments on how it is often created for a specific contemporary agenda:-
Most of it’s through a social-problem prism. So the images of migrants coming off the boat would usually be framed by, “Why the fuck are they coming? There are too many of them.” So part of the job, really, was to see if we could help these images migrate from that world into one where they start to speak for themselves…On the one hand [these images] are repositories of official memory, but they’re also phantoms of other kinds of memories that weren’t taken up.
It’s that phrase “phantoms of other kinds of memory”, twinned with the thought of images migrating from their place of origin to a place where they are free be to “speak for themselves”, that resonates so well with me; conveys some sense of the rich, complex and strange potency of this material when placed in the right context. Chuck Bowen in a Slant Magazine review says:-
The disparity between the images and influences adds up to more than a mixtape for eggheads, as the masterful editing allows every bit and piece to achieve a unity that honors the immigrant experience while transcending that specificity to come about as close as a movie ever has to capturing the ineffability of the free-associational process of mixing and matching that we call “memory”—an accomplishment that imbues the film with an air of mystery that honors the humans on display here. Or, to put it simply, the faces in this film aren’t reduced to statistics by another unimaginative filmmaker’s earnest civics lesson, because Akomfrah has managed, with his skillful assemblage, to give these images a ghostly power that allows you to see people from the past as you’d see people you personally know: as living beings entitled to their contradiction, as well as to their joy and disappointment—and ultimately their beauty.
What a wonderful way to conceptualise archive material: as ghostly presence, or as phantoms of other kinds of memory…