“Let Us Speak”: people talking about culture, tolerance and mutual understanding

Penny Jackson produced a film for Tuttle and Counterpoint, asking people in the street for their views on cultures and what it means to live in a multicultural society.

Penny’s starting  point was words about the British Council’s work, and she used this to prompt strangers she met in the street to give their thoughts.

I think there are some powerful messages in this film: when I first saw it last week, it felt quite hard-hitting. Their views are disarmingly honest; there is a certain charm, too, in the frankness of their thoughts.

Bits of the film I found quite moving, particularly the man who was visiting the UK and valued Britain’s many cultures.

The British Council And A Bacon Sandwich

I wanted to make a film about the British Council and as I had come to the project knowing very little about them I wondered how much others knew. “Tell me what you know about the British Council?”  I asked. I asked friends. I asked friends of friends. I asked people in shops and at bus stops. My family joined in. They ask me on a regular basis “What are you up to now?” Which actually means “Have you got a proper job yet?” I noted  their response to “I’m doing some work with the British Council.”  Everyone it seems, had heard of the British Council some knowing more than others with many saying “I should know- but I don’t”. My  film takes from a market research technique and  captures the many responses I got from a variety of people.

Before shooting I needed to get some idea of how it might all pan out, I can’t draw, so story-boarding is out of the question and as I fancy myself as a bit of an actress  I decided to do a mock-up of what I thought the final film might look like, so dressed as nine characters I  acted out various responses. None of the lines were scripted – it really is all one big improvisation and proved to be such a success I turned this ‘sketch’ into a spoof film doing some extra filming until I was happy with the result.

The screening of my two films, alongside Penny Jackson’s film took place at ICA on December 3rd 2009 with talks from the rest of the Tuttle Team whom  have been working with the British Council and Counterpoint over the last few months.

Editing reality

As you know, Lloyd and I have been deep in the bowels of the BFI, watching films. Seeing so many at once is a little overwhelming, so I thought I’d leave a few days for them to sink in. Now, a sense of each of them is beginning to emerge. And to be honest, I’m more than a little surprised by the films that have really captured my imagination.

Two films have really stood out: Mary Field‘s The Life Cycle of the Onion, and The Green Girdle, shot by Jack Cardiff for Ralph Keene. Field’s film is – for the most part – a stop motion record of onions growing, from seed to reseeding. The Green Girdle records the parks around London, in full technicolor. Both films focus, tightly and plotlessly, on a small part of life; and each is absolutely stunning, in terms of both initial impact and insight generated.

To start with Life Cycle of the Onion. We live in an age when the nature documentary has become an epic form. To be excited, we must be shown footage of truly wild subjects in truly wild environments; and we must know that a film crew has battled across huge distances, or through overwhelming environments, or even just waited in hides for weeks or months, to get that footage.

Life Cycle of the Onion is the exact opposite of this. It shows an onion, growing; and that’s it. A seed buds; that bud becomes a stalk; the stalk thickens; and a new plant appears. Stop motion filming is the only technical trick used, condensing the onion’s life cycle into ten minutes or so. With a little time and effort, any one of us could step into our back gardens and witness this.

And yet this is an astonishingly compelling film. The rapid movement of the growing onion is hypnotic; there’s something profoundly intimate in the way that the film takes such slow, private growth and exposes it to public view. Watching new life bloom, we become aware that we are watching something truly secret – something that, before film could control time, was hidden from us all.

It’s that control of time, and the consequent revelation of the hidden, that also makes Mary Field’s film a profoundly surreal experience. When our experience of time changes, our experience of all that is caught within it changes too. By pulling her onion out of real time, and into film time, Mary Field makes it something rich and strange; a vivid new creature, all pulsing tentacles and living movement, bursting out of the earth and reaching for the sun.

That shifted experience is a profound reminder of the unreal nature of film. No film is a reproduction of reality; each one is an approximation of it, a manipulation of it, a remaking of it. That sense of remaking is profoundly present The Green Girdle, a small masterpiece leant very literal brilliance not by its director, but by its cameraman, Jack Cardiff.

I’ve got to stop for a moment here, and declare a personal interest. Jack Cardiff was Powell and Pressburger‘s director of photography on their 40s classics A Matter of LIfe and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. These complex, brilliant films are among the greatest ever made; peaks of British imaginative cinema that drew on some of Europe’s finest creative talent to respond – with dazzling style – to the new complexities of the post war world, and to refute the then-dawning tradition of British realist film making.

If you’ve seen them, you’ll know why I’m enthusing about them; if you haven’t, then nothing I can write will do them any sort of justice. Go and see them! I hope you get as much out of them as I’ve done, over the years. One of the things that I’ve always loved about them is their deep awareness of the fictive nature of film – and Jack Cardiff’s camerawork is at the heart of that awareness.

Cardiff was one of the early masters of Technicolor. His camera creates a world that reflects the vivid colours of reality, but that does so in a way that is clearly, beautifully artificial. Watching these films, we are always aware that we’re not watching reality; we’re watching a technology reproducing reality. That Cardiff-driven awareness is a core component of Powell and Pressburger’s broader artistic project; but it is only a component.

In The Green Girdle, by contrast, the medium of Technicolor is the real subject of the film. There is no plot; there are no characters; there are only a series of landscapes, burning off the screen. Shot in autumn, the film explodes with colour. Cardiff’s amazed joy at the visual capabilities of the new technology is brilliantly evident in every frame. It’s like peeking into the sketchbooks of an early Renaissance master painter, as he discovers perspective. I took some pictures off the screen; they don’t really catch the brightness of the film, but they give at least some idea of it.

An Autumn Tree, Jack Cardiff, 'The Green Girdle'

An Autumn Tree

Man drinking, Jack Cardiff, from 'The Green Girdle'

A man drinks in Technicolor

And again, we’re reminded of the unreal nature of film. Like Life Cycle of the Onion, The Green Girdle is honestly, joyfully abstract. At one point, some bison pop up, grazing contentedly. Within the film’s invented world, their Sussex presence seems entirely reasonable. ‘OF COURSE that’s what cows look like in Technicolor’, I said. ‘It makes perfect sense’, agreed Lloyd.

The Bison of Sussex, Jack Cardiff, from 'The Green Girdle'

The Bison of Sussex

And these films – so unambitious, so honest, so startling – make perfect sense too. They remind us that every film creates a partial version of the world. Each one is – in the deepest sense – an edited artefact. And it’s that editing, that partiality that brings hidden aspects of the world into sharp, surprising, revelatory focus, that is at the heart of documentary, and of all the films we’ve been watching.

A Red Bus, Jack Cardiff, 'The Green Girdle'

A Red Bus

Flash Conversations

Here’s a little experiment in conversation about culture – a flashmob of sorts except I don’t expect a *mob*

On Thursday 19th November, I will be spending all day in the Great Court at the British Museum facilitating conversations between small groups of people as described earlier.

You’re welcome to come along and join in at any point between 10.30 and 17.00 – so if you happen to be in Central London and have a spare hour or so, come and see us, learn and contribute something, rather than whiling your time away surfing the web in Starbucks.

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My first taste of the archive

BFI British Council film archiveI went to a place in space-time yesterday that was lovely, but I wouldn’t want to live there. The spatial co-ordinates were familiar ones in London & Birmingham and other parts of the UK but we shifted down the timeline to the 1940s watching films in the BC collection held by the BFI.

So it’s a world that’s very familiar, a place that you’ve heard about and seen pictures of, but never actually been to. My parents and grandparents saw it first hand but I never will – and neither do I wish to – not to be churlish, but I do believe in progress, although that doesn’t mean I think we should forget or lose everything from the past. Looking at treasures like these helps us see what’s on offer, how things used to be done not so long ago and consider bringing some of them back to life in a 21st Century context. I’d love to call that being a “progressive revivalist” but because of connotations that both words have acquired, that makes me sound like a religious sex nut, which I’m not, so let’s not go there.

The viewing experience was strange. Al and I were shut up in a small room with a Steenbeck film player – we were given a quick introduction to how to set up the 35mm film and the key controls for playing, rewinding, changing volume and getting the picture “in the rack” (a bit like twiddling the vertical hold button on your old TV set)

We had to call the technician back after my first pathetic attempt to do it on my own which resulted in several feet of film lashing free because I’d basically put the reel on upside-down. I had visions of the room filling up with unleashed celluloid, and a hilarious cartoon entitled “The man who trashed the British Council Film Archive” but I managed to switch it off before calling for assistance and no harm was done except to my pride. Al was in charge of loading film up for the rest of the day.

We started with The Lincolnshire Poacher – a little animation set to the folk song of the same name. Just how this piece, celebrating the catching of a hare in the moonlight and other general outlawish behaviour fits in with something like The English Criminal Justice System escaped me. I suppose it’s a picture of the British (or at least the English) as pragmatic anti-heroes pluckily outwitting the rest of the world… perhaps… What grabbed my attention more though was the rhythmically pulsing white lines on the left hand side off the moving image. It was the soundtrack. There’s no separate magnetic recording here, just a bit of the film given over to an optical analog representation of the soundtrack which is read by a sound head and presumably very slightly out of synch to account for the distance the film travels through the projection equipment before it gets froom the light source to the sound head. Fantastic.

The whole day became a reminder of the impact of digital technologies. Who knows or cares about how sound is packaged up in a video file now? But with these films you can see it, actually see the recorded changes in sound. Like being able to go down into the groove of a record and see the undulating landscape over which the needle travels. Analog approaches to the problem of reproducing sound somehow seem much more clever than digital ones, perversely enough, because they are actually easier to see.

And so the theme that emerged as we watched was how far we have built our current society and culture on abstract representations. Everywhere in these films we saw men (and women during wartime) making stuff, making useful things out of natural materials.

“Men Who Work”, about the Austin plant at Longbridge in Birmingham, shows the peak of industrialisation that doesn’t rely on the use of plastics – everything is wood and leather and metal and glass and the focus is almost entirely on the manufacturing process – the only management task shown here is the accounting function. And even then we see women manipulating huge typewriter/cash-register/calculating machines to produce a spreadsheet of wages for the week and the production line stuffing pound notes, half-crowns and sixpences into little pay packets for the workers to pick up at the end of the week. At this time, there were 19,000 people employed at Longbridge and the total payroll cheque is shown at just over £85,000 (so an average of less than £5 per person per week).

Writing now brings up the frustration of this project. Ideally, I’d want to illustrate each of these ts by showing you the frame that’s sitting in my memory, but that would require a great deal of other work. The digitisation of all of this material is important so that we can share not just these films as social objects but also individual shots and story lines for us to talk about and discuss our reactions.

Also watched in this session were:
“Women in Wartime” about the WVS before it became the WRVS. “Little Ships of England” showing wartime work in an unnamed shipyard in the West Country. “Learning for Life” about the pre-Education Act state school system, “Papworth Village Settlement” which has nothing to do with heart disease as I’d originally thought but turns out to be about a TB colony in Cambridgeshire with lots of insights into community and attitudes to illness and work. “City Bound” and “London 1942” show how London kept calm and carried on in the early days of the war. “For all Eternity” is a soporific trip around the cathedrals of England and we finished off with “Ulster” which combined tourist information with some oblique references to the loyalty of the province, no doubt something that would be very interesting to those with a better grasp of Irish history and politics than I.

Lloyd and I talk film

Lloyd and I spent Wednesday deep in the basement of the BFI, watching various British Council films. Most of them were from the 40s; most of them were, in one way or another, rather wonderful. We’re going down there again this Friday, and will be writing about it all in more detail over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here’s some initial on-video thoughts about what we’ve seen so far – brought to you in authentic FORTIESvision! And I’ve also tried to catch the rather wonderful Steenback machine we were watching the films on.

Setting Conversations Free

060720091694We’re trying here to get conversations going around culture, cultural difference and cultural relations, but we’re mightily aware that while online conversations are all very well (in particular they help us to talk to people all over the world), we get just as much (and probably more) from talking to a small number of people, face to face.

So we’re proposing an exercise:

We’d like you to invite 6-8 people to meet with you for a short time to have an informal chat. Yes, that’s it, just have a chat. Well, perhaps it’s a bit more.

We’re interested in what people think about cultures and relations between people from different cultures. Our definition of culture is very broad. It may be that you’re most interested in cultures defined by geography: regional, national, continental or even hemispherical cultures or perhaps you get more excited by culture as defined by religion or organisation or political orientation – whatever you like.

You might find it easiest to do this around a meal or drinks but it doesn’t have to be a dinner party in your home, it could be a picnic lunch in the park or over tea and cakes…. or cocktails … or breakfast! But steady on, we’re also going to be asking you to make a record of the event either using video or taking some photos and writing something for our blog. It can be something simple, you don’t have to create a comprehensive documentary, and we don’t want it to interfere with the conversation, but we’d like to have something at the end that captures the spirit of what happened.

Our hope is that you’ll enjoy doing this and perhaps as a result you might choose to continue to get together and talk to each other – it’s nice isn’t it? Furthermore we’re hoping that members of the first round will become hosts of their own groups for another next round – a bit like Tupperware parties…

Here’s the first draft set of instructions for group hosts:

1. Find six people who are willing to take part and choose a time and place to do it. If you are booking a space make sure you have a little time there before and after.
2. Think about your experience of culture: cultural difference, unity, conflict, etc that you wish to share. Be ready to tell a (short) story of your own that illustrates what you’re interested in.
3. Start the meeting at the agreed time. Build in time beforehand for mingling, introductions and smalltalk, depending on how well the participants already know each other.
4. Read together the principles and guidelines for participants (to follow).
5. Tell your story and then let go until you’ve reached the end. Make notes only to capture who said something you’d like to talk to them about.
6. Thank everyone. Give out instruction packs (to follow) to those who’ve taken part and have a discussion, if necessary and if there’s time about what they might do and how you can support them.
7. Ask those whose contributions strike you as interesting to either write a paragraph about it on the blog or speak for a minute on camera. Make this facility open to anyone who wishes to contribute, not just those that you find interesting – and make it clear that they’re free to blog about it wherever they like.

This reminds me is what’s missing:
Some guidelines for participants to read at the beginning of the meeting
Some instructions for submitting written, audio or video content to the blog
An instruction pack to give out, although that might be a link to this post and the guidelines & instructions.

But don’t let that stand in the way of you choosing some people and a place to get together – if you’re interested in doing it, you could get on with 1 and 2 without anything more from me.

Also don’t assume that I’ve got everything covered, if you think you need something more from me to be able to do this, let me know!