John Akomfrah's film The Nine Muses (2010) is a poetic essay film on the immigrant experience, based on archival documentary footage and structured around The Odyssey and the muses of Greek mythology. The reason I'm writing about it here is that it also includes, as Peter Bradshaw put it in The Guardian, 'mysterious images of people in different coloured coats with their back to the camera, in stark and snowy Alaskan landscapes: I wondered if he intended an allusion to Caspar David Friedrich's painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.' I wondered this too - it is hard to tell precisely what these beautifully shot landscape sequences are for and I was expecting some more direct connection to be made (perhaps at the end) with the disorientation and dehumanising solitude of the immigrant. The DVD we watched had an interview with Akmofrah but he makes no mention in it of these Alaskan landscape scenes.
Looking now online I have come across a Press Pack with an interview in which Akomfrah explains that in 2009 he had gone to Alaska to do a film about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill for the BBC. 'And I fell in love with the place. So the bulk of this stuff came from Cordova, Anchorage.' But he also says that 'what I wanted to do initially was a piece on T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. That's what I shot the material for.' So the landscape element of The Nine Muses was not filmed with the subject of immigration in mind. Some viewers are therefore likely to find, like the Telegraphs's critic, that 'Akomfrah’s staged wanderings around chilly Alaskan landscapes' unsuccessfully integrated with the rest of the material. On reflection I thought they worked surprisingly well, partly as a result of Trevor Mathison's impressive sound design. In some ways though, the film's most interesting landscapes were those glimpsed in the old black and white footage of 1950s Britain - a kind of wasteland of dingy shopping streets, back-to-back terraces, bare trees and grey winter roads on which the snow seems unable to settle.