The music, made of a single voice and some stringed instrument I can’t place, is as desolate as the wintry landscapes. And those landscapes are pretty damned desolate. (Alaskan landscapes, as it turns out, though they could be, are meant to be, anywhere cold and vast and glorious and terrifying.) These places are offered to us via portentous push-ins, the eeriness completed by the solitary figures standing within them, dwarfed by them, figures wearing snorkeled parkas so that the person inside could be any race or gender, everymen, epic-men, either very still, beholding the place, entranced, or walking toward us, boldly, perhaps ready to conquer. But mostly their backs are turned, and this itself is a tip-off, something that speaks of a certain relationship to camera, to power, to the gaze. This confrontation-by-refusal technique has been used before, its intention made more explicit, in previous work from filmmaker and installation artist John Akomfrah, who was born in Ghana, raised in the UK, developed his body of work as part of the Black Audio Film Collective, and tells stories about immigrant experience.
The Nine Muses, last night’s opening gala of the 2012 Images Festival here in Toronto, is Akomfrah’s most recent film, an audio-visual palimpsest of: 1. Archival footage collage of African, Caribbean and South Asians in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, working, walking, speaking, singing, and, in a particularly memorable moment, regarding—with back to the camera—a brick wall upon which “KEEP BRITAIN WHITE” has been spray-painted, 2. Readings of canonical texts from Western literature, everything from Dante to Shakespeare to Homer to Joyce to Beckett to Milton, being read by disembodied voices, among them Richard Burton and Michael Sheen, 3. Music, original music by Trevor Mathison and, as I recall, Wagner and Part, and 4. Those desolate wintry landscapes, along with other less desolate or at least more industrialized landscapes, presumably in England, where a black man sits, hides, contemplates, looks back at the camera... Am I forgetting something? Probably. The film pulls you into its undertow and washes over you as much as it pricks your critical faculties, your emotions and memories. All these elements coalesce to form a film-monument to the struggle of the Other, the push/pull of assimilation and assertion.
John Akomfrah on stage at The Royal, last night
“You get settled,” one of the on-screen figures in the archival footage tells us, “then you become part of the strangeness.” I think the speaker may be someone famous or important. I apologize for not being able to tell you who it was, but to be honest if one really wants to absorb the full force of all detail that’s contained in The Nine Muses a hefty volume of footnotes would be required. But this density, even when opaque, holds its own sway. Who are we to think we can take all this in? The film is an experience, a force of nature. It’s mythical, epic, and not easily digestible. Though Akomfrah’s Q&A with TIFF Artistic Director and one-time Images programmer Cameron Bailey—the pair are old friends—went a long way toward unpacking it. All in all, a truly impressive beginning to the 25th installment of this remarkable event. But much, much more is to come, including work from James Benning, Ben Rivers, and… Yo La Tengo!