Records of War: Film, History and the Art School

Conny Klocker, intern at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) and PhD candidate at the School of Law writes on a recent screening of 1930s propaganda film. 

As part of the UCL Festival of Culture, the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) was showing two propaganda films about the Italian invasion in Abyssinia in 1935/36 according to a programme first presented at the London Film Society in 1937. One film depicted a Soviet account of the events from the Abyssinians’ perspective, the other from the invaders, the fascist Italian perspective.

The screening itself presented a difficult task for the two projectionists, who were doing a live montage of the films. Having to perform quick changes of 35mm film rolls, to work with two projectors at once, to rewind film rolls to the exact starting point and to turn projectors on ahead of their use to get their motor warmed up over and over again certainly includes complex manoeuvres which they performed brilliantly. In that sense, the Record of War screening could be rather seen as a performance by the two projectionists, not just as a screening.

In 1937, Thorold Dickinson, the director of the programme shown at the London Film Society, saw an opportunity to confront his ‘fashionable Sunday audience’ with a challenging screening programme. The films were shown in dialogue to each other, with one depiction of, for instance the preparations for the war from the Italian side, followed by the war preparations undertaken by the Abyssinians. The chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Italian side followed by their impact on Abyssinian civilians. This direct interaction illustrated the contradicting narratives of the same event. And the audience in 1937 was seemingly not prepared for it. As one of the organisers of this year’s event, Henry K. Miller, pointed out, 1937 was ‘a time when seeing was often equated with believing’. Film material on recent affairs was shown to the public only occasionally, for instance in cinemas before the start of the film screening.

Taking up on this aspect, the reconstruction of the programme in 2017 (the third time that the programme has been shown in this form at all) appears timely. Although seeing does not equate with believing in today’s reality, it is rather a form of seeing but not believing. The sheer amount of film material on current affairs on offer on news portals or sometimes rather flooding one’s social media accounts might well lead to a certain degree of scepticism. Of mistrust or suspicion towards “the media”.

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However, the challenge presented to the audience in 1937 and the audience today has remained the same. It is a question of making up one’s own mind. Of consciously deciding to take a stand. And that of course, means to defend it if challenged. Today it appears that more and more people do not want to engage with their environment in that sense and most discussions on political issues come to a quick halt after everyone has repeated the most recent one-liners. Anything going further than that is rather considered an annoyance, something people do not want to engage with in their spare time.

The resurgence of such sentiments requires to be challenged. And events such as the Record of War screening can contribute to that aim. Seeing the themes coming up during the invasion of Abyssinia and the way in which they were communicated by fascist as well as Soviet propaganda, one is invited to reflect on the presentation and narration of current affairs. Of the glorious restoration of peace in Abyssinia by the Italians or the struggle for independence of the Abyssinians, trying to fight against foreign occupation and colonisation. Similarly, there are quite a few issues today which are framed in such contradicting, opposing ways by various interest groups. The question here is then, if one decides to take those narratives as presented and to repeat them unfiltered, or, if one decides to question those narratives and to take a stance.

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Celebrating Birkbeck’s TRIGGER project

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on a celebration event for the TRIGGER project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) – which aims to increase the number of women in university sectors where they are underrepresented.trigger850x450On Wednesday 21 June, the Birkbeck TRIGGER team held a special event of celebration, discussion and networking at BMA House, to mark an end to the four year research project. The event provided an opportunity to share with an audience of friends, supporters and collaborators the team’s final research findings, and hear from external guests from various fields within academia and business on the challenges and successes of gender equality initiatives.

Since its inception in January 2014, TRIGGER has produced vital research to support the increasing presence of women in higher education and business where they are underrepresented. The applied project – a partnership between institutions in the Czech Republic, France, Italy and Spain – has considered and developed initiatives to foster organisational change by promoting the role of women in research and academia, in STEM subjects and in management positions.

A Legacy of Mentoring and Leadership

In his welcome address, Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck College, praised the innovative nature of TRIGGER, which has helped the College to rethink the way it approaches equality through Athena SWAN more broadly, too: “While this celebration marks the end of the TRIGGER project, it is important to note that the initiatives the team have introduced, such as College-wide mentoring and carefully tailored leadership seminars, will go on past the life of the scheme itself.” As Chair of the College’s Athena SWAN committee, Professor Latchman went on to describe the transformative influence that the mentoring programme has had on women academics at Birkbeck, especially on early career researchers.

The TRIGGER project team then took to the stage to present on the following areas of research and impact:

  • Networking
  • Academic Mentoring
  • Rethinking Research Methods to Investigate Sex Differences
  • Commercialisation of the work of women scientists
  • Gender cultures in research and science
  • Gender and Leadership

Each member of the team reflected on the outcomes of their individual part in the project, and on how these outcomes were both impactful and applicable. The project’s focus group sessions, for example, provided a platform to hear the personal experiences of women and men in the institution to analyse the way in which the infrastructure could better support and maintain gender equality in the workplace. Similarly, panel events with external collaborators in London, Dundalk, Lund and Pisa built on internal discussions and offered insight into how these initiatives could be transformed and applied to fit in with organisations beyond Birkbeck.triggerFollowing their research dissemination, a panel of experts in their respective fields of academia and industry were given a chance to react to these findings and comment on their own experiences.

Among concerns such as the gender pay gap, lack of support following a career break, and ‘the glass ceiling, the issue most frequently addressed by the panel was that of unconscious bias, and the need to step away from calling it ‘a woman’s problem’.  Gemma Irvine, Head of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Higher Education Authority in Ireland, described the effect of this on a woman as ‘not a lack of confidence in herself, but a lack of confidence in the organisation to treat them fairly and provide the right infrastructure for change. Unconscious bias is not something that can only be fixed by women – but those who have privilege are often blind to it.’

What can we learn from the TRIGGER project?

Simply recognising unconscious bias does not remove it from the system – and as a society, we must work day-to-day to chance the deeply entrenched stereotypes and imbalances. We need skilled leaders – both men and women to advocate for leadership for women – but there is also a need for women to identify role models, and aspire to the next stage in their career. The TRIGGER project has demonstrated the power of mentoring and of networks, but also the value of a balanced network; while women do not network as readily as men, removing all men from women’s networking opportunities is not a solution to the problem.

Ultimately, the short and intermediate changes, or outcomes, are not enough; we must strive for impact, changes in decision making and a culture shift to a ‘no closed doors’ policy for men and women. Only in collaboration with projects such as TRIGGER can we achieve broader changes within research and industrial communities and wider society. We must stop treating the symptoms of gender equality and start identifying and chipping away at the foundation of the problem to make a change.

The TRIGGER team would like to thank the panel, audience and its many international supporters for their work over the last four years. Find out more about TRIGGER on their website.

Many thanks to all the panelists:

  • David Stringer-Lamarre, Fortis Consulting/Chairman, IoD City of London
  • Amanda Bennett, Fairplay Enterprises Ltd
  • Sally Hardy, Regional Studies Association
  • Aggie Cooper, Aramco UK Ltd
  • Dr Gemma Irvine, The Higher Education Authority, Dublin
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Law, Race and Brexit Britain

This blog was contributed by Devin Frank, a graduate of the School of Law at Birkbeck. He will soon be returning to the College as a PhD candidate and part-time seminar tutor.

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Credit: Cole Peters 2017.

On 15 May 2017 students and academics gathered for the launch of Birkbeck’s new research initiative, the Centre for Research on Race and Law, focusing on Law, Race and Brexit Britain.

After an introduction to the new Centre by the Acting Dean of the Law School, Dr Stewart Motha, and the co-director of the Centre, Dr Sarah Keenan, five speakers discussed how conceptions of race permeate law, politics and policy — not only in Britain, but across numerous jurisdictions.

At the heart of the discussion was an underlying paradox: conceptions of race and racism manifest through law, while law in itself is often a last defense against racism. Reflecting on my own experience working as a caseworker and paralegal, nowhere is this paradox more apparent than within the immigration systems of the Western world, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. Having endured the horrors of having to read and engage with Home Office refusal letters, it is abundantly clear that racism is not only tolerated within the diameters of immigration decision making, it is actively encouraged. When faced with a letter claiming that an individual’s immigration application is refused based on a legally accepted notion of race, the response of any lawyer is then to plead with the law, often in the form of an appeal or judicial review, to seek a legal remedy to the artificial and racist conception of law that allowed for injustice in the first place.

After Professor Patricia Tuitt, Executive Dean of the Law School, skillfully laid the foundation for considering how race and racism permeates all institutions, including that of law, the next four speakers showed how race matters in political discourse, immigration controls, EU trade policy and Brexit Britain. Tuitt’s opening talk had reminded us that the colonial dogma of race still infects the bureaucratic mechanisms of all aspects of society, including the university – a critique from which Birkbeck and the Law School are by no means immune.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra (University of Warwick) aptly highlighted the need to ‘get history right’ in order for concepts to have useful meanings — something that was an abysmal failure in the Brexit campaign. Bhambra began by examining the Brexit referendum data to debunk the myth that the Leave result was the resounding voice of ‘the left behind’ white working class. Rather, Bhambra showed that the vote to Leave was determined by property owners, pensioners, and well-off white middle class voters.

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The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ lacks any kind of historical or political reality: Britain is not and never has been a nation, rather it is an imperial polity. British citizenship only came to refer primarily to people living in Britain in 1981, as this citizenship was formerly shared between Britain and its colonies. The British psychosis brought on by a fear of non-white migration goes to highlight the need for research initiatives such as the Centre for Research on Race and Law to further facilitate discussion based on sound research, with dignity and respect.

Following the EU referendum, it became all too common to ignore the underlining causes, divert attention away from blatant racism and xenophobia and pose a simpler question: ‘what about the economy?’. Professor Diamond Ashiagbor (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) discussed the relationship between economic inequality, race and global trade in the context of ‘Empire 2.0’, encapsulated in Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox’s, plan to negotiate new trade deals with Commonwealth countries in order to compensate for the EU trade that will be lost with Brexit. Ashiagbor argued that leaving the EU against the backdrop of rewriting/forgetting histories of empire, migration and race will exacerbate the internal economic equalities caused by open markets and global trade.

Drawing on ideas stemming from the political economist Karl Polanyi, Ashiagbor argued that markets only work without destroying society if they are constrained, and if social redistribution is facilitated. Pre-Brexit, such constraints and redistribution were put in place by domestic British law and also by EU law. The irony of Brexit racism, Ashiagbor argued, is that much of the labour migration upon which Britain has relied and against which the Leave campaign rallied, has long been fuelled by European plunder of the rest of the world. The sense of ‘the left behind’ voting for Brexit fails to capture the reality that the industrialised working class (both white and non-white) in the UK has long been supported by extraction from colonised states. Only through the plunder of resources and exploitation of labour from the Global South has the UK been able to build its welfare state.

Professor Iyiola Solanke (University of Leeds) sought to address the question: what of the forgotten groups that will be affected by Brexit? In the news and within mainstream discussion many rightly pose the question: ‘what status will EU citizens have in the UK and what status will UK citizens have in Europe?’. While this is a pertinent question, Solanke noted that it fails to address the situation of third country nationals, such as spouses and family members of European citizens in the UK, and so-called ‘Zambrano families’ (those who care for EU/UK citizens). While it seems likely that predominately white men, coming from the United States and earning high incomes working in London’s financial centres will find the legal categories to remain in the UK regardless of the ultimate Brexit deal, the future status of black parents from Nigeria, Ghana and Jamaica currently in the UK caring for their British children is much more ominous.

Finally Dr. Nadine El-Enany, Senior Law Lecturer and Co-Director of Centre for Research on Race and Law spoke about the importance of taking critical race scholarship seriously. With explicitly racist far-right movements on the rise in many parts of the world (including but not limited to the Brexit and Trump victories), El-Enany argued that it is more important than ever for legal academics not only to offer analyses which critique the role of law in upholding racism, but also to be creative about the strategic use of law for immediate survival of the most vulnerable in society. Drawing Mari Matsuda’s work, El-Enany argued that we have much to learn from critical race feminists who have written about the need to be strategic in relation to law in order to survive in a structurally violent world.  El-Enany recounted that during her own PhD studies she was told that race was not a useful analytical concept for scholarship on migration law, and that her intellectual development and psyche were significantly hindered by this falsity for many years. The new research Centre will lead the way, and provide a much needed space, to support the study of the relationship between race and law.

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Birkbeck Graduate Research School Relaunches

This post has been contributed by Rima Amin, Registry Officer at Birkbeck.

To Brexit or not to Brexit, that was the question posed to students and speakers at the Birkbeck Graduate Research School’s (BGRS) “Relaunch” event on Monday, 23 May. The event hosted a Brexit debate followed by a drinks reception and an informal group discussion on the development of the Research School.

The BGRS is a network providing resources, skills workshops and social events to support students during their time at Birkbeck. These are currently provided through the BGRS website, academibirkbeck-entrance1.jpgc workshop calendar and email communications.

The BGRS is currently revising the services it provides, how it communicates and seeking further ideas on how it can be improved to meet research students’ needs better.

In his welcome speech Pro-Vice Master Julian Swann said “Tonight is about engaging in debate on Brexit which is an event of great topical interest to us all. Development of the research school is a priority for Birkbeck, so along with the debate tonight we look forward to having you give us your views about how to create a stronger community for research students.”

Chaired by Professor Rosie Campbell from Birkbeck’s Politics Department, the debate began with Ben Harris-Quinney from the Leave side making his case saying: “Research students are a crucial group who can find great opportunity in Brexit as they are people ready to engage in the world with ideas.”

He said that Britain is a bigger contributor of academic research opposed to its European counterparts inferring that research students are currently giving more than they are gaining.

Next was the turn of Lord Richard Balfe from the remain side who began by criticizing campaigners on both sides of Brexit who treat the referendum as though Britain is going to end if they don’t get their way.

Lord Balfe spoke of Britain in the 1950’s where racism was rife and signs saying “No dogs. No Irish” were visible on the streets. He said that Britain had come a long way since then and migrants have played a key role to the current well-functioning economy in Britain.

The students raised challenging insights to both speakers. Lord Balfe was questioned over the lack of transparency over decision-making in European Parliament compared with British Parliament.

The conclusion from the remain drapeaux européensside: “One person’s red tape is another person’s working rights- we should be proud of what we have achieved.” And that from the leave side: “With champagne receptions and lobster dinners, the EU can appear glamourous, but when you see through it, you realise democracy is more effective when local.”

The Chair of the debate thanked the speakers and the questions from the students calling the contributions “a much richer discussion than what we can find in the papers.”

Research student Ekua Agha said “The debate was extremely innovative and provoked a lot of thought on the issues. The informal setting but formal discussion was struck at a nice balance.”

Birkbeck Graduate Research School would like to thank Ben Harris Quinney, Lord Richard Balfe and all attendees.

It’s not over.

If you couldn’t make last night’s debate, we still want to hear your thoughts on how we can develop the research school. Here are the questions we asked research students at the event. Please send your thoughts to researchstudentunit@bbk.ac.uk. 

1. What do you want the Graduate School to be/do?
2. What’s the best thing about studying at Birkbeck?
3. If you could change 1 thing about your time at Birkbeck, what would it be?
4. How do you want to find out about training & events?
5. What do you think about tonight’s event?/Ideas for future events?

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