John Akomfrah's "commitment to a radicalism both of politics and of cinematic form finds expression in all his films," writes Sukhdev Sandhu in a profile for the Guardian. "Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) draws on the photographer James Van Der Zee's The Harlem Book of the Dead and Sergei Paradjanov's The Color of Pomegranates (1968) to fashion a probing, internationalist vision of the black radical leader that is far removed from the conventional hero projected in Spike Lee's biopic the previous year; The Last Angel of History (1995) advanced the concept of the 'data thief' as part of its argument about science-fiction elements in the music of Sun Ra, George Clinton and Lee Scratch Perry. Akomfrah's new film, The Nine Muses, is a multilayered, gorgeously shot and affecting work that interweaves archival footage of black and Asian people traveling to and working in Britain with moody, elliptical shots of an anonymous black figure alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Split into nine chapters, each of which is dedicated to one of the Greek muses, and sprinkled with quotations ranging from the Odyssey to The Waste Land, it suggests that stories normally seen through the lens of postcolonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms. In doing so, it invites viewers to reflect on the labels by which history — especially diasporic history — is framed and categorized."
"It's not always obvious how the Muses' presiding spirit (each section is named after one) relates to the archive footage," writes Jonathan Romney in the Independent: "what, for example, Urania, muse of astronomy, has to do with shots of an ancient bathroom with mouldering lino, or of depressed-looking donkeys huddled in the wet. A selection of literary readings — Milton, Beckett, Emily Dickinson et al — offers oblique soundtrack commentary. And running throughout, in illustration of the Homeric theme of wandering, is a series of tableaux in which parka-clad figures stand in snowbound Alaskan settings. These enigmatic and breathtakingly desolate images, shot by Dewald Aukema, seem to embody an idea of Absolute North, or of the cold, compassless exile that Britain might resemble to immigrants from warmer places…. It's hard to get to grips with Akomfrah's elusive, allusive film, or to do more here than describe it or compare it to, say, the more abstruse docu-essay/travelogues of Chris Marker, or to the more straightforwardly personal Of Time and the City, Terence Davies's archive homage to Liverpool."
"A handsome, restful, thought-provoking film," finds the Observer's Philip French. More from Geoff Andrew (Time Out London, 3/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 3/5) and Tim Robey (Telegraph, 2/5). Viewing (7'45"). A Q&A with Akomfrah at the 2010 London Film Festival.
The Nine Muses is screening at the ICA in London through February 2.