Cerebral and sensual, British filmmaker John Akomfrah’s “The Nine Muses” considers the history of the African diaspora to postwar Europe through a highly unusual prism of structuralist cinema, archival footage, spoken-word recordings and the nine muses birthed by the union of Zeus and Mnemone, the Greek goddess of memory. Akomfrah’s steady, patient pace makes it fairly easy and ultimately fascinating to absorb his many heady references, but that won’t make this unique item an easier sell to distribs and cablers, with top-flight fests the likely alternative course.
In the heyday of the U.K. Free Cinema movement, a film about northbound African immigrants would have documented their difficult lives with an angry, you-are-there immediacy. But “The Nine Muses” is distinctly the work of an artist considering a social phenomenon from a greater, less emotional distance. This difference sets the film apart from the country’s predominantly social-realist tradition, and closer to the American experimental stream, though with a potent literary depth not common in Yank filmmaking.
Significantly, a constant motif of spectacular landscape shots framing figures in yellow, black and blue coats (usually observing the scene with their backs to the Red camera) was lensed in Alaska. The film generally alternates between these shots, extensively researched archival footage of African emigres in the U.K. in the 1950s and 1960s, and graphic inserts citing each of the nine muses (from muse of epic poetry Calliope to muse of music and dance Terpsichore), as well as literary citations ranging from e.e. cummings to Matsuo Basho.
The soundtrack is no less dense, including a vast range of selections from ECM Records artists such as David Darling and Arvo Part and an impressive array of selections of spoken-word recordings from the Naxos catalog of writers from Milton to Beckett. (One, featuring Richard Burton reading from Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” reminds that this is one of the great recordings of verse in English.)
The film’s challenge is to meld all of these disparate pieces together into a coherent and effective whole, which it does with the effect of suggestive poetry or music rather than literal reference points. It’s difficult when watching to account for how images of still figures in Alaskan landscapes and serene contemporary music somehow connect with the film’s historical/social concerns, but by the end, the sections have been woven together into a work that conveys huge movements of history across time and space.
Akomfrah and his team have clearly devoted considerable care to the film’s crystalline images (lenser Dewald Aukema) and a powerful, multilayered re-recorded soundtrack (by Ian Tapp). Though this audio richness was somewhat denied its full effect at the Sundance screening reviewed, enough of it came through to suggest its impact in a real cinema.