Reviewing the BFI Mediatheque films

So last night I hit the Counterpoint relaunch event at the rather nifty Jerwood Space as part of the Tuttle crew; it was a very enjoyable evening indeed, but what was particularly gratifying was the extent to which people were asking about – and fascinated by – the British Council / BFI archive exploration project. In particular, they were very intrigued to know what the documentaries themselves are like. So, I thought for this post I’d talk in more detail about last week’s films. I’m going to cover four of the eight I watched – more to come a bit later on.

Heart of an Empire, 1935

On the one hand, this is a pretty static little film, about the St James district of London. On the other, there’s a fascinating sense of imperial confidence to it, a deep ease with Britain’s (then) status as a global administrator of nations. That confidence is embodied in the film’s opening scenes, a roll call of the various Colonial Offices in and around St James.

Sadly, looking at several offices doesn’t make for thrilling cinema, although things do get a little more interesting when the history of St James’ Park is explored. In sum; certainly a powerful reminder of Britain’s mid-30s imperial reach, but not one (I suspect) that had audiences queuing round the block back in the day.

Island People, 1940

‘Island People’, fortunately, was much more engaging. Made in 1942 by Paul Rotha, it seems to have been produced for a US audience. An American narrator extols the virtues of British culture and society.

For me, the film was notable for its sexual even-handedness; as much time is spent with psychiatrist Dr Jane Martin, and confidential secretary Elizabeth Anderson, as with various male farmers, scientists and sailors. It’s an effective little documentary piece, giving a series of insights into 40s British society that remain as compelling now as they no doubt were back then.

Development of the English Town, 1942

Another winning little film; and another one that made my inner feminist very happy, directed as it was by prolific female documentarist Mary Field. This film is a history of English town planning, from Saxon to contemporary times. Its descriptions of urban growth are – to be honest – pretty dry, but it comes to wonderful life when ghostly town inhabitants appear, and start haranguing the audience about conditions in their various times.

As the film concludes, it strongly endorses a model of town planning based on social justice and quality of life for all. I read this endorsement as an implicit rebuke to the stratified, exploitative and downright lethal urban rule that Nazi administrators were then trying to establish across Europe.

History of the English Language, 1943

Another Mary Field film, and another subtle and yet very punchy piece of propaganda. The film documents the development of the English language, showing how it includes linguistic components from a wide variety of European and Asian tongues. That inclusiveness positions the English language – and therefore the British people – as being open to the shared best of a variety of global cultures.

Viewed on release in the early 40s, this film would have subtly but firmly reminded its audience that Britain (and, by implication, its English speaking ally America) was fighting for an open and highly creative inclusivity; one that that its opponents very firmly denied.

So that’s the first four films; watch this space for more! And, if you find the above intriguing, all you need to do is head to any one of the BFI Mediatheques dotted round Britain, to watch the films yourself.

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