John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses: Black History Month Screening
Deputy Editor Neha Shaji discusses The Nine Muses, screened as part of Exeter University’s Black History Month series.
As part of Exeter University’s series of events for Black History Month, Dr. Felicity Gee screened John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses. On the choice of material, Dr. Gee expanded on how “the film addresses Windrush and the immigrant experience, which are of vital and ongoing urgency in our time. This film sprang instantly to mind.” She continued how she “first got into Akomfrah’s films through my research on film in the gallery space, and remember when this extended version of Mnemosyne became a feature-length film, thinking how wonderful it was that now a huge number of new viewers would experience his ideas.” Dr. Gee gave a short introduction to the film, reading an excerpt from an interview with Akomfrah, and stressing how the film was both experimental and radical.
The Nine Muses was an emotive departure from general social-realist fare, instead being a delicate framework of visual poetry swathed around archival footage of immigrants to the UK, and the chilling bareness of an Alaskan landscape. Dr. Gee explains how Akomfrah’s creation of a “’philosophy of montage’ from stock footage, newsreels and his own footage offers new avenues for thinking about the Black British experience, and immigration histories across the UK.” The archival footage was heartwarming visually, with several shots of people first arriving in Britain and newly-immigrated children playing in the snow or on sidewalks. Yet it remained heartbreakingly plaintive in the context of the very real historic trauma these transplanted children would have faced in the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s.
The reading of poetry from Shakespeare to Joyce rested on the austere Alaskan landscape, an exhausting blizzard, and archival footage – yet was made jarring by interjections of historical vox-pops from racist groups discussing immigrants, and the immigrants’ own relations of their experience. Dr. Gee talked about how the poetry “also speaks to scholars of literature and addresses how canonicity – Shakespeare, Homer, Beckett, Dickinson, Eliot – might be challenged and critiqued.” At a time when academic institutions across the country are looking inward at the curriculum with a view on decolonizing, the literary canon and its relation to both the contemporary and historic experience of the Othered, is a pressing question.
The Nine Muses is also an ode to travel, not just the experience of being an immigrant, but of becoming one…
The immigrant perception of Britain as a cold and hostile landscape is carried through, and the film holds an ecological, geographical statement as well as the social and cultural points Akomfrah makes. He displays a poetic acuity for the aspect of not just arriving, but getting there in the first place. The Nine Muses is also an ode to travel, not just the experience of being an immigrant, but of becoming one, the shots taken on the boat in Alaska jumpy and exhausting in comparison to the shuddering-still finality of the archival footage. Akomfrah layers history and literature upon themselves with the splicing of footage and poetry, the numbered titular Muses chaptering the film and thus the structure of the film itself evoking the peregrination of both historiography and migration.
Dr. Gee referred to how she “hopes that anyone who sees this film really feels the isolation, wonder, fear, and struggle of immigrants brought to a desolate and unyielding landscape, with no map, having to learn the rules and regulations on the job.” The film is both a literary and visual journey, emphasized by the myriad of travel in the film in both archival footage as well as the lonely traverse across the Alaskan landscape. Sound is also immersive in the palimpsest that is The Nine Muses, the music shifting (sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes jaggedly) across classical violin and piano, jazz, and an amalgamation of Indian classical and folk singing. It’s an unsettling, discordant film for how beautiful it seems visually – the decentred loneliness of the bright figures on the Alaskan snow driving in the isolated incongruity of the immigrant experience.