As a film archivist and student of Classics, The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah 2010), a Ghana/UK co-production, was irresistible to me. This film was pitched as an experimental documentary/personal essay about the plight of the filmmaker's ancestors and others like them - immigrants from former British colonies coaxed to Great Britain to reconstruct a depleted workforce after WWII - illustrated by archive footage and ancient and modern poetry and categorized by themes represented by the nine Muses and set in the framework of the story of Odysseus' son, Telemachus, searching for his father as told in Homer's Odyssey.
Although the film's premise was fascinating enough to draw me into the theater and garner UK lottery funding, the overall execution of the piece is very poor.
The movie is divided into nine sections, one for each of the Muses:
Calliope: epic poetry
Erato: love poetry
Each section features archive footage of workers who were brought to England to do blue collar jobs that badly needed to be filled in the country's struggling Postwar economy, then ostracized and eventually labelled an immigrant problem. The footage is accompanied by preexisting music and poetry meant to draw out to mood and fate of the immigrant community.
Unfortunately, many of the segments' content bears only a tenuous connection to its theme. The comedy section in particular displays a poor understanding of the ancient term, which generally referred to stage plays with happy endings. In The Nine Muses the comedy segment focuses on the tragic irony that the people brought in to save the British economy were later demonized as undesirables within the country.
The film's connection to The Odyssey is similarly vague. Homer's poem is quoted in the film, and we do see the filmmaker traveling in an inhospitable landscape in a metaphorical search for his heritage's meaning, but the metaphor is undeveloped. Throughout the film, we see Akomfrah and other, faceless people standing and walking in the snow in endless recurring segments unsubtly representing the lonely, misfit status of the descendents of this poorly integrated immigrant group. All of this footage was shot in Alaska, which is increasingly apparent as Akomfrah includes shots of American speed limit and other signs posted along icy coasts and snow covered roads. Although the cinematography in this section is very pretty, the repetitiveness of the shots and their irrelevant yet easily pinpointed location stagnates the film and the filmmaker's journey of personal discovery.
The subject matter in this film is historically and socially important and, it seems, little discussed in my part of the world. This documentary represents the poor execution of a creative interpretation of an important and interesting subject. Somebody should try again.