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


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.

A little bit of British Council film history

Lloyd and I have been down in the bowels of the BFI, watching many British Council films. When I sat down this morning, I was meaning to put up our videoblog of that; but I realised that, before talking about the films, a little more context might be valuable. So, once again drawing on my National Archives trip, here’s a brief history of the British council’s engagement with film.

As I’ve mentioned before, the British Council’s film making golden age was during and after the war, up until 1946. It had a substantial in-house production / commissioning staff, and a clearly defined sense of mission. Films were intended to communicate information about one of four key areas:

  1. Arts (including architecture, drama, fine arts, music and town and country planning)
  2. Education (including films dealing with schools, teacher training, aspects of Britain and the British, law and order, sport and youth activities)
  3. Medicine (intended for medical and para-medical audiences only and not for the lay public)
  4. Science (including all branches of science, science teaching and technology)

About 90 films were produced; they were regarded as being important pioneer work, but with the end of the war came re-organisation and rationalisation:

It was decided that the production of officially sponsored films was to be the concern of the Central Office of Information – in effect, the government’s in-house advertising and communications agency – and that if the Council wanted any films made they would have to be produced through the C.O.I..

Much bureaucracy ensued, as the British Council’s film department was moved over to the new organisation. Quite apart from the logistics of the move, both had different pension and employment regimes; understandably disgruntled film staff battled to retain the rather better conditions they’d enjoyed working for the British Council.

Discomfort was felt more officially, too. Almost as soon as the new organisation was up and running, in January 1947, BFI Director Oliver Bell was writing to General Sir Robert Adam at the British Council. He bemoaned handover of film making reponsibilities to the C.O.I., and suggested that a small Sub-Committee of the Council should be set up to develop a clearly defined film making policy for the British Council.

Bell’s motivation is rather interesting; he admired the Council’s general output, but was particularly impressed by the way that it had created a trend in medical films with Surgery in Chest Diseases. I’ve talked about the positive overseas impact of the Council’s medical films in previous posts; it’s fascinating to see that they were very influential at home, too.

However, a combination of factors meant that Bell’s rearguard action was doomed. The General responded positively, but cautiously, in particular citing deep budgetary issues as an impediment to action. There was nothing more to be done; film production was now definitively in the hands of the C.O.I..

The British Council / C.O.I. relationship didn’t seem to be particularly smooth. There’s a fair amount of general grumbling in the records. Much of it is about a perceived lack of efficiency. A 1950 Treasury report bemoans:

The lack of adequate funds in the last 2 or 3 years, and the injunction to get any special films through the C.O.I. involving higher cost and delays in production as compared with what the Council could obtain by direct trade contacts.

There were also more specific issues. In 1950 and 1951, for example, the Council battled the C.O.I. over who managed the distribution of British Council films. The C.O.I. wanted to make distribution deals, and take a percentage of the profits; the British Council felt that it could handle this more efficiently itself, and objected strenuously:

Would you please advise me on this. I cannot quite see why we should seek C.O.I. Finance Division’s views on whether we are to make a good deal as regards selling our wares.

On 25th May 1951, the Council was victorious:

subject to Treasury approval, the Central Office should cease to conduct the commercial distribution in the United Kingdom of the Council’s films

The battle may have been won; the war, alas, was lost. The two organisations were tussling over Cricket, an enjoyable but inconsequential piece about – somewhat unsurprisingly – the history of cricket. It’s a fun little film (and is available to view at the BFI Mediatheque) but it lacks the deep political and social engagement of much of the Council’s earlier output.

From now on, the British Council’s filmic focus would be mostly on either artistic or linguistic subjects. However, there were consolations; from being a producer of its own films, the Council would move to develop a strong role as a booster of the British film industry in general.

It would establish a substantial film library, with movies available for screening worldwide, and work directly with major film makers to bring them and their work to the attention of international audiences.

Major figures including Terence Davies, Mike Leigh, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway and others would be closely associated with the Council’s activities; and there’ll be more on that in upcoming posts, once we’ve looked at the films the Council was commissioning and distributing in the 40s…

Audiences of the Forties

The British Council’s film making golden age lasted from the 30s to 1946, when its production capabilities were transferred to the newly created Central Office of Information. It had – as previously noted – a very clear sense of mission, as this comment from a 1969 internal summary of its film making activities shows:

During the war the Council embarked on the sponsorship of documentary films – some 90 in all – designed to illustrate and explain some of the cultural, scientific and educational experiences of the British people and to enable those in other countries to form some idea of their way of life.

These films were designed to reach very speicific audiences; and those audiences come out very clearly in the 1946 reports on British Council films. First of all, there were the specialists. Key among these were doctors and other medical staff. An unnamed British Council operative records an Eastern European showing of Accident Service:

This film was shown to a medical audience of approximately 200 persons at the Chief Military Hospital in Belgrade on Sunday 3rd February. A running-commentary was given in Serbo-Croat by Dr. Milos Simovic. Very great interest was taken in this film and a second showing will probably be asked for.

These medical films seem to have been part of a very specific communications effort that combined propaganda with education. Writing in 1947, then BFI Director Oliver Bell comments approvingly that the British Council has helped create a trend in medical films, while a 1950 Treasury assessment notes that these films are:

[valuable demonstrations of] the technique of surgical operations for limited audiences of specialists. The extension of anaesthesia in Italy, for example, with the consequential dependence of this specialisation upon British methods and equipment, would not have been possible without the aid of films…

Such formal engagement was not limited to medicine. British Council films achieved broader educational goals; here’s a town planning example. Writing in 1946, Margaret Travis – Assistant Secretary of the National Film Society of Canada – comments that Development of the English Town is:

[a] good film of historical and topical interest. Used on many programmes in conjunction with the American film The City for showings to civic and town planning groups. Also with New Towns For Old.

Farmer’s Boy was also much enjoyed. Jerusalem’s Functional Officer (he of the enthusiastic penguins) noted that:

This film has been appreciated by agricultural teachers and pupils as well as by the general public. I consider this somewhat of an achivement! More please.

while the Council’s Accra representative had no doubt of its educational usefulness:

A very good film, of great interest to the people of West Africa, where agriculture is a major question. Is calculated to encourage a return to the land, much needed here.

Of course, not all the films were for specialists. Many reached much wider audiences. Here’s a notably polyglot example from D. H. Adams, who thoroughly enjoyed showing Cambridge in Kabul:

This film is an absolute winner: it has been very much appreciated by all types of mentality, Afghans, Turks, Egyptians, Greeks, Czechs, English & Americans. The little talks by the dons are good and particularly that of the Provost of Kings. Personally I always delight in showing this film but naturally I am somewhat prejudiced!

Belgrade seemed to be a good place to show films; the representative there describes audiences of 150 people. And such film goers would have been treated to more than just documentaries. When shown in the Middle East, Local Government benefitted from ‘having an authority on the subject answer questions afterwards’; in Nairobi, Market Town was also accompanied by a talk (and shown twice!).

But not all viewers were enthusiastic, or even engaged. Here’s the previously enthusiastic Adams of Kabul, running into problems with a game of cards while showing Distillation:

The business with the playing cards seems quite unnecessary: the thing is perfectly clear without that. Presumably the film has not been produced for morons! As far as Afghans are concerned it introduces an unfathomable mystery into the whole thing as they have never seen playing cards – I had to waste a lot of time subsequently trying to teach them ‘Snap’ which they thought silly anyhow.

British Council representatives from South America to China complained about the lack of local language versions, while the irrepressible Major Cathcart Bruce of Malta submitted multiple rants about sound:

As I have repeatedly emphasised in reporting on other films, the background music is much too loud, in many cases spoiling the spoken commentary. This applies to this film under review. Why oh Why! cannot the musical background be toned down to pianissimo when the Commentator speaks? This is the opinion of many of our members, and spoiled an otherwise good film. News reels never give us this trouble.

Taken generally, however, these complaints were outweighed by the positive impact the films had. They seemed to delight audiences from Tashkent to Tijuana; and they seemed to very successfully communicate Britishness to a very wide range of people indeed.

The British Council film reviewers of 1946

So, as you know, I went to the National Archives, where I looked at three main British Council files. The first one contained a general history of the organisation’s film making. The second had more specific information about the 1946 handover of its film-making capabilities to the newly formed Central Office of Information.

The third – and most engaging – file contained reviews of individual films from British Council staff worldwide, written up in 1945 and 1946, and I’m going to begin by writing about that. Before going into detail, here’s a picture of one of the standardised review questionnaires that staff were asked to fill in:

A British Council film assessment questionnaire

A British Council film assessment questionnaire

Taken together, these questionnaires give very rich insight into what the films were intended to achieve, who watched them, and how they were received. I’m going to begin by pulling out some quotes which help illuminate that first point – just why were these films made and distributed?

The review questionnaires give us a very clear answer. In fact, the lead question, repeated on each, contains a very clear mission statement for British Council film making. It asks:

‘Does this film achieve its aim to promote a wider knowledge of Britain and her people overseas in your territory?’

For the most part, the various films reported on do achieve that main goal. What’s notable in particular is a strong sense of their very specific function as post-war propaganda. That comes through particularly well in these two quotes, which show the films working to correct both historic Nazi and (I suspect) more contemporary Communist propaganda:

London 1942: ‘The impression of London’s energy & vitality made a marked impression. The sight of the food available to the British People in 1942 interested some who remembered that Gt Britain was then supposed to be starving.’

E. A. S. Bullingworth, British Council Vienna, 9th May 1946

New Mine: ‘Good – valuable here (a mining country) showing progress does happen in the reactionary West.’

H Gardley-Wilmot, British Council Prague, 2nd November 1946

However, such propaganda could sometimes be too successful. Here’s an unknown British Council employee (he or she didn’t write their name on the form), who has had to deal with a rather disgruntled Greek audience:

Second Freedom: ‘Films of this type do more harm than good – presenting England as a Utopia where maternity homes, model schools, specialized training, employment under ideal conditions, are within everyone’s reach. Why not show food queues, the tiny meat and fat rations, housing shortage and other uncomfortable facts…The audience, believing the film gives a true condition of conditions in England, is dissatisfied with the absence of similar amenities in Cyprus.’

Respondent unknown, Nicosia Institute, 15th January 1946

And sometimes, of course, the films are either heartily disliked – Gardley Wilmot of Prague comments that Local Government ‘seems meant for mental age 14’ – or bafflingly irrelevant. D. S. A. Adams, of the British Legation in Kabul, when asked whether Life Cycle of the Newt helped promote wider knowledge of Britain and its people, responded:

‘NO! My dear sir…’

R. Wye, Jerusalem’s 1945 Functional Officer, was similarly puzzled to be asked about the propagandistic effectiveness of King Penguins, quite reasonably pointing out that ‘penguins are not particularly British’. He had other problems too:

‘I am cutting a little of the love scene between two penguins. It just goes far enough to produce raucous guffaws.’

In general, however, the films do seem to have been very successful. They were thematically varied, and both reached and entertained very diverse international audiences. But who were those audiences? The questionnaires reveal much about them, too; too much, in fact, to share just now, so they will be the subject of my next post.

Mining the National Archives

As promised, I took a trip to the National Archives, and discovered a wealth of fascinating information about the British Council’s film production and distribution. I’ll be going into more detail on that in future posts; for the moment, here’s a videoblog entry with some initial thoughts on what I found. Enjoy!