Migrant and Diasporic Cinema in Contemporary Europe

Migrant and Diasporic Cinema in Contemporary Europe

The Nine Muses

John Akomfrah (2010)

United Kingdom

Genre: Documentary

The film is a memory text par excellence, combining archival footage of migrants from the Caribbean and India arriving in Britain, working at furnaces and carrying out physically hard labour, living in sub-standard housing, with mesmerizing footage of Alaskan landscapes wrapped in snow and ice. The voice over consists of a series of quotations from canonical literary texts - Homer, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Joyce and Beckett), read by a number of different actors' voices with different accents. Homer's The Odyssey serves as the master text to which the film returns again and again as we see migrants disembarking from large vessels, as boats traverse the shoreline of Alaska. The film's title, The Nine Muses, is itself a reference to Greek mythology and explained at the outset of the film: they are the nine daughters of the union between Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. In John Akomfrah's essayistic documentary, the nine muses lend a structure to the follow of images and citations in as much as their names serve as chapter titles: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (love), Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (hymns), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy) and Urania (astronomy).

The persistent use of high-cultural references, both from literature and music, almost exclusively from western culture as opposed to the migrants' cultures of origin, is perhaps surprising. Even shots of South Asians dancing are overlaid with incongruous classical music rather than, what one might expect, bhangra music that has become so fashionable in the West. Equally incongruous, at first glance at least, are the pervasive images of the landscapes of ice and snow with immobile, faceless figures (explorers perhaps) in blue and yellow protective suits, though they appear to represent the cold and inhospitable destination country of the migrants whose memories the film depicts in a most elusive and poetic manner. 

The film premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in 2010, where John Akomfrah discussed it in an interview: http://www.bfi.org.uk/live/video/470

Posted by Daniela Berghahn on 14 Feb 2012 •





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