Wednesday 18 January 2012

Different voices, still lives: "The Nine Muses"

The filmmaker John Akomfrah's work typically centres on notions of place, from the nocturnal manoeuvrings of Handsworth Songs, his 1986 documentary (commissioned for the Black Audio Film Collective) about a Thatcher-era riot in Birmingham, to his recent installation piece Mnemosyne, which set foot into the snowy wildernesses of Alaska. Snow also proves a crucial element in Akomfrah's latest The Nine Muses, and it's a fascinating development that a director so concerned with the idea of what it is to be black should suddenly find himself preoccupied with whiteness - as a look, an idea, an organising principle; not least as these chilly landscapes must surely have been doubly cold for a child of Africa to have worked within.

A film-poem of sorts, The Nine Muses sets off archive footage of the black and migrant experience in Britain against stunningly mounted Alaskan tableaux (let's, in passing, say hats off to cinematographer Dewald Aukema, even if I'd advise everybody to keep their earmuffs on at the present time), in which figures in coloured kagoules assume places at the very edge of the frame. What joins these locations is that, in both, people came to live and work; and in both cases, it came to constitute a form of exile. The narration, along with occasional title cards, tell the tale of the Nine Muses, the children Mnemosyne gave birth to in Greek mythology after sleeping with Zeus over nine nights. (Beat that, Octomum.)

In backing the project, the UK Film Council may have had the crossover success of Terence Davies' Of Time and the City in mind, but that would seem unlikely here: Akomfrah's film - and this isn't necessarily a criticism - lacks a unifying perspective, that one voice as strong as Davies's coming through. This filmmaker's cinema has always been one of many voices; it deals in contrast and juxtaposition. Keening tabla music plays out over footage of boats bobbing in an icy harbour far from Mumbai; Akomfrah cuts freely and joltingly between two actors' separate renditions of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech. This patchwork, collagist approach isn't wholly removed from the aesthetic Akomfrah developed in his BAFC days, only now he has access to a greater selection of archive material - all of history's recent trends and turds - and can quote from epic verse and Emily Dickinson alike.

The politics may, perhaps, have become less fervent, eloquent art coming to replace ragged urgency; a work like The Nine Muses is, after all, made to be projected in galleries and mezzanines, not town halls and community centres. At times, it even drifts into abstraction, as though the director's concern was no longer plotting the progress of a civil-rights movement, but movement itself. (His imagery - horses, cars, kayaks in motion - seems to back up this semantic smudge.) Yet all the usual issues of identity, race and memory are still very much present, codified beneath the new film's crisply beautiful top layer: very moving in places, it's a gentle reminder of just how far we've come as a society, and - by way of evidence of a truly English sensibility behind the camera - a cautionary glance at what the weather's up to now we're here. Has the climate for migrants really changed all that much over time?

The Nine Muses opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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