Saturday, 14 April 2012

Images 25 - Opening Gala & John Akomfrah

I'm a few days late with this post, but with good reason. This weekend is my Easter celebration, as my family follows the European Orthodox calendar, and I've just completed my final essay for my fourth year of university. How coincidental that I would be writing a paper on the alterity of perceptual space in the structuralist works of Vincent Grenier and Peter Gidal at the same time the Images Festival kicks off. It's a pleasant surprise, and it has certainly gotten me in the mood for some Avant-Garde experimental works.

The opening Gala for the 25th Images Festival kicked off this past Thursday at about 7pm. The Royal was packed to the brim with art aficionados, students and cinephiles for the premiere screening of John Akomfrah's The Nine Muses. I went into this event cold, not having read the program notes or researched the director. I like to go into new films without having a prior knowledge of them so that my perception of them can be affected in an unadulterated way. I also knew that Cameron Bailey, one of the head programmers at the Toronto International Film Festival, would be having a Question & Answer session with Akomfrah proceeding the screening. In essence, I didn't feel as bad for not having done my research!

Akomfrah was a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective, a British based cine-cultural workship in which he conceived of a number of different projects, "including fiction films, tape slides, single screen gallery pieces, experimental videos, music videos, and documentaries" (Icarus Films). One of Akomfrah's best-known works is the essayistic Handsworth Songs, a feature I regrettably have not seen, but based upon Bailey's discussion with the filmmaker, it is something that will both compliment and contrast the Diasporic bent of Akomfrah's new work.

The Nine Muses draws its name and structure from the Greek myth of Zeus and Mnemosyne's nine-night affair, and is divided into sections based upon each muse. The film is a complex work that mingles many myths, poems, books, and plays with contemporary footage of Alaskan landmarks and archival snippets of African American life in London during the 1950s. Inspired by his mother's emigration from the United Kingdom just a few years ago, Muses is a rumination and reflection upon the multiple binds facing minority groups who "came alone, came as a group of strangers." The mash-up of literary works, including authors such as Milton, Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, poets like T.S. Eliot, ee cummings, and Zelda Fitzgerald, and further complicated by the voices of famous actors drawn from preexisting audiobooks, aim to subvert an easily identifiable and relatable retelling of Akomfrah's forefathers' experiences. Contemporary shots in Alaska further displace the proceedings, featuring a number of characters with their backs turned to the camera, scoping out a placeless space that seems to be in the middle of nowhere.

In essence, what Akomfrah accomplishes is similar to the cultural ruminations presented by James Benning in his neo-narrative works of the 1990s. In one of his better known examples, Deseret (1995) contrasts readings from the New York Times concerning Utah with over an hour's worth of contemporary shots of Utah landmarks. Though each artist's goal is different, each use pro-filmic elements to illustrate and reify the more obscured and cryptic aspects of their stories. Akomfrah's project is not immediately identifiable, and this is part of the reason the film is so lovely to watch. It can be interpreted in a number of ways, but its slightly jarring experience allows its audience to feel as though his characters might.

A great opening night was accompanied by a great opening film. The afterparty was wonderful, and Mr. Akomfrah is a genuine individual. I can't wait to see what the rest of this week has to offer.

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