The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah, Ghana/UK, 2010)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010

Shown at the 2010 London Film Festival, but denied even a brief and minimal release until now, The Nine Muses is one of the best films that Jean-Luc Godard never made.

Boring stuff: the film combines archive footage and images of faceless men staring at ganzfeld-like Alaskan snowscapes (think J.M.W. Turner’s later paintings that are more or less depictions of fog in Italian cities) with spoken and written quotations from Joyce, Beckett, Shakespeare, Nietzsche and others, and music by Godardian composers like Arvo Pärt, David Darling and Hans Otte, to develop a poetic collage of ideas that combine to form a meditation diaspora and black (British) history.

The above is ‘boring’ because that’s the brass tacks of the film.

The interesting stuff (to me) is something like the following:

The poet does not necessarily know history, but the poet certainly feels history. The Nine Muses includes a prominent quotation from Zelda Fitzgerald that “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” And yet, even if this were true, John Akomfrah as poet is sensitive to (he ‘feels’) the pain that weighs down on migrant peoples as a result of their travels.

That is, not everyone who is from a migrant family knows or understands the past that their ancestors have endured. Indeed, as someone like Ariane Sherine has recently written, the question ‘where are you from?‘ is a boring one.

No disrespect to Sherine, who can make any claim she wants about the implicit (and certainly real, if ‘well intentioned’) racism that such a question entails. I’m not saying that she is in denial of her roots, but her argument runs the risk of saying ‘[personal] history is boring and unwelcome burden.’

And, sure, her roots are in the UK. I’m not trying to imply that she or anyone else whose family immigrated to the UK long ago – and certainly before she was born – is not ‘British.’

But, again, if we don’t pay attention to history, then we might find ourselves repeating it.

Which is to say that we don’t all need to have a full genealogy mapped out such that we can say that we are descended from Spanish gypsy immigrants (as, according to my cousin, I am). Nor do we need wear badges that make clear our family origins.

But we must understand that the long and troubled history of immigration did happen, and we must perhaps try to get a sense of what global relocation means.

And this is what Akomfrah’s masterful cine-poem seems to be about. It reworks Homer to say that African, Caribbean and Asian immigrants to the UK are wandering souls, and that, as Basho has said, the journey/the wandering is perhaps itself our home.

And yet, wandering is a difficult home to inhabit; it is cold, arduous, and it puts humans on the limits of all that they know, there where humanity itself is forged (for humanity is only a measure of the limits of humanity; anything easily within its limits is almost inhuman, perhaps it is even death).

The enormity and difficult nature of this journey – this is what Akomfrah suggests, and his reworking of footage of immigrants now either grown old or lost to the world, such that literally their beautiful holograms haunt the screen as we see them reanimated – a cinematic punctum of the highest order – is what we should not forget.

We should not forget that the most famous rapist of all time, Zeus, begot the muses with Mnemosyne, the incarnation of memory. That is, memory is the mother of all art. If we forget, then, pace Sherine, art like this will be lost.

The answer to the question ‘where are you from?’ is not, then, some mythical ‘Africa’ or ‘Barbados’ or ‘India’ – but that we are from here, the place in which we currently reside, and which is perhaps always changing. It is not the condemnation to death of the past by declaring the past to be, precisely, finished; it is the declaration of the continued existence of the past in the present.

The poet, then, carries history not as history – but as the fundament upon which is based the present. This is what I mean by ‘feeling’ the past rather than necessarily knowing it (being ‘good at history’ in terms of dates and events, important though that also is).

In a week when the government published its findings on and hopes for the British film industry, it strikes me that a film like Akomfrah’s is all the more important to champion.

The document published – which admittedly I have only glossed – talks a good game of supporting diversity in British independent cinema. And many of the films cited – usual suspects including not just The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, UK, 2010), but also people like Terence Davies – would arguably make us think that this diversity extends beyond the popular appeal of the former and into the ‘art house’ realm of the latter.

But… One gets the jittery feeling reading the document that it really does mean supporting more mainstream cinema – The Inbetweeners Movies (Ben Palmer, UK, 2011) was a commercial hit, don’t you know? So why not make more films like it? – with not so much regard for art cinema of the kind that Akomfrah has made here, and which does not have much/any of the commercial appeal of British comedies and heritage films.

Given the year and a half turnaround on The Nine Muses between the London Film Festival and its current cinema release (showing only at the glorious ICA at present), one worries for films like Akomfrah’s: it must take a lot of persuading for someone finally to agree to stump up cash to take on the risk of even a one-week run at a single screen in London. Sure, DVD sales will be reasonable, but even with the plaudits on the poster (testimony to the failing power of journalists to convince anyone other than the pre-converted to step out of the multiplex?; there were 9 (nine) people at the beginning and 7 (seven) at the end of the screening I attended), The Nine Muses is still obviously struggling. And with the government paper’s emphasis on the profitability of films, one cannot see labours of love like Akomfrah’s being anything other than lost in the future.

And yet, this is the kind of film precisely to support as vociferously and as eloquently as possible. It is a poem that deserves to be seen repeatedly, and even if it is ‘lost’ on some people (those who walked out of the screening I attended?), its feeling for, or sense of, history – and not in the sense of the ‘great man’ myth peddled by The King’s Speech, but, rather, in the way that human lives in a collective sense prop up and enable any great man (or woman) to exist at all – is what makes it worth promoting.

I know I’ll carry on making movies for nothing – and I more or less expect never to get funding for my films. Sad though this makes me (if I allow my vanity to speak), a superior talent like Akomfrah should be supported at every level: by funders and by audiences.

See The Nine Muses, then, before it is too late.