Lux Imperium: Moving Images of the British Empire

This post was contributed by Noah Angell, co-director of the upcoming film Lux Imperium. A work in progress of the film will be introduced at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) Amateur Cinema Night on Saturday 18 June. Book your free place here.

Fishwick British rule ends

Lux Imperium is a new film and research project by Noah Angell and Francis Gooding. This afternoon session will introduce the project, before expanding its scope to look at amateur film in relation to cinema and examine some contemporary vernacular films drawn from online sources.

The home movie camera first became available to the public in the same decades that saw the unraveling of the British Empire. While using this technology to record their private lives, amateur filmmakers throughout the British colonies were also unwittingly capturing the biggest empire in history in free fall. Composed from hundreds of home movies and privately edited amateur films made during the dissolution of the British Empire, Lux Imperium reanimates these documents of late colonial vision and imperial collapse, showing the last days of the Empire from an intimate and wholly unseen perspective.

The ubiquity of privately-made moving images in the era of smart phones, Youtube, and mobile broadband makes the history of vernacular film a pressing contemporary issue that this work will imaginatively and critically explore.

For the session held at BIMI on the 18th of June, Francis Gooding will give his paper, ‘The Visual Vernacular: 6 note on amateur film’, which provides a formal framework for distinguishing amateur film as a cinematic language that is distinct from other modes of cinematic production.

This will be followed by a screening and discussion of in-progress edits of Lux Imperium and its source reels – private films from the colonies, recording the British colonial classes’ vision of events and daily minutiae, with subject matter ranging from anti-Imperial uprisings to colonial gardening.

2005-046-016_stare 3To conclude the session, Angell and Gooding will speak about contemporary amateur film, showcasing and analyzing vernacular film practice taken from Youtube, Vine and Instagram. Moving images are now an everyday mode of processing and preserving experience, and homemade films are now a critical tool in the constitution and cohesion of online communities who are geographically dispersed or otherwise isolated. Online spaces which traffic in moving images are frequently used to publicly document, present and define both political events and the private self, and also as a space of play.

Lux Imperium is based on material uncovered and first digitized as part of the BFI-hosted Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire project ( By recognizing the importance of home movies within the visual history of colonialism, Lux Imperium will further develop the ideas and research of the original Colonial Film project.

A work in progress of Lux Imperium will be hosted by BIMI at the Birkbeck Cinema (43 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PD) on Saturday 18 June 2016 at 2pm. Book your free place here.

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Reporting from the Essay film Festival 2016

This post was contributed by Jerry Whyte, who attended a selection of events at this year’s Essay film Festival.

Essay Film FestivalBirkbeck’s annual Essay Film Festival ran from 17-24 March and served up a lavish feast of riveting films. Those who’ve spent the past week or so beetling between the Birkbeck Cinema, Goethe-Institut and ICA to savour the festival’s competing, often complimentary, flavours will be digesting what they’ve seen, felt and thought for weeks to come.

All at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) deserve congratulations and grateful thanks for an imaginatively curated season packed full of unforgettable images and nourishing ideas.

Two festival events, in particular, set my taste buds tingling. An appreciative audience gathered at the ICA on the evening of Saturday 19 March for Lost Film Found Film – a programme of four monumental short films by the supremely talented Sarah Wood, and, in the Birkbeck Cinema on Monday (21st) afternoon, we savoured a rare screening of Judith Williamson’s documentary essay on advertising, A Sign is a Fine Investment (1983). Williamson and Wood exemplify an increasingly prevalent form of the essay film often referred to as ‘filming without a camera’. Theirs is an ‘appropriation art’ of collage or assemblage that recalls Godard’s notion of film as “a form that thinks”; both rework, reshape and recontextualize found footage, moulding archive material into streams of audio-visual consciousness and multi-layered holistic wholes.

Elegantly intelligent film

The range and reach of Sarah Wood’s work is staggering. In Three Minute Warning (2012), she considers how the twin thrusts of cinema and aviation propelled the 20th Century forward, for good and ill. In 10 X Murmuration (2015), Wood’s precise editing and keen eye for an arresting image find their perfect match in a scintillating script by Helen McDonald (of H is for Hawk fame). Their elegantly intelligent film combines tales of doughty starlings and ‘traitorous’ skylarks with consideration of wartime radar experiments and mass observation ornithological surveys, espionage and national identity.

Sarah Wood. Three Minute Warning 2012

Sarah Wood. Three Minute Warning 2012

For Cultural Purposes Only (2009) glides elegantly between History with a capital H and the history of images while recounting the story of the Palestinian Film Archive – a painstakingly constructed collection of films tragically lost during Israel’s siege of Beirut in 1982. What, the film and programme notes ask, must it feel like never to see an image of your homeland, in our image-satured era?

I Am a Spy (2014) tells an amusing, but chilling anecdote about Stasi cross-dressing while probing the politics of representation and surveillance cultures. In conversation with Catherine Grant after the screenings, Wood confided that espionage runs in her blood. Both her parents spied for Britain. In her dotage, Wood’s grandmother would mumble about her time in Wormwood Scrubs but the family’s indulgent smiles froze when they learned the prison had served as MI5’s wartime HQ and that granny had been a spy too. Wood is as witty as she is gifted so that conversation and the subsequent Q&A provided the icing on the cake of a delicious evening.

A path through the maze of advertising

Judith Williamson’s A Sign is a Fine Investment is often compared to John Berger’s earlier Ways of Seeing series (1972) but cuts its own distinctive path through the maze of advertising. Unlike Berger, Williamson eschews conventional to-camera narration and largely allows the images to speak for themselves. Her starting point, she explained, was the assumption that, although the original context of any product is that of its production, the world of work is excluded from advertising. As she delved deeper into the archive, she was startled to discover that this has not always been the case and that when labour was associated with the national interest, in wartime for instance, images of the workplace were commonplace.

A Sign is a Fine Investment by Judith Williamson, 1983

A Sign is a Fine Investment by Judith Williamson, 1983

In this acutely analytical, often witty film, Williamson resists the false separation of production and consumption, the economic and the ideological, life and art. As she does in her better-known writing, she asks: if a product’s context is its production, what is the context of the consumer – without whom, after all, there can be no consumption? Inevitably, much of the film’s appeal lies in the nostalgia of recognising familiar products. Listening to Williamson recall more radical times, it was impossible not be nostalgic, too, for the days when the Arts Council would regularly commission non-commercial films like A Sign is a Fine Investment and Laura Mulvey’s Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1980), and when such work would be screened in independent cinemas like the Academy.

Williamson provided a salutary corrective to such rose-tinted temptations, though, by describing the fractious avant-garde turf wars she experienced back then, when arguments over competing representational strategies often turned nasty. In her essay ‘Two or Three Things We Know About Ourselves’, Williamson respectfully critiqued Laura Mulvey’s seminal film Riddles of the Sphinx for “locating both the struggle and its solution in the inner lives of the oppressed.”

As I sat in the Birkbeck Cinema listening to Judith Williamson respond to a respectful question from Laura Mulvey, I thought of footsteps and giants and experienced a rush of pride in the culture that produced two such extraordinary and significant figures. High among the achievements of this year’s Essay Film Festival was that of bringing them together.

Jerry Whyte also recently reviewed ‘The Pearl Button’ by Patricio Guzmán, and interviewed ‘The Club’ filmmaker Pablo Larrain for Cineoutsider

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Kinetic Connections – Laura Mulvey reflects on her career as avant-garde filmmaker and feminist film critic

This post was contributed by Felicity Gee, Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London.

On February 7th, The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities held an afternoon event in celebration of Laura Mulvey and her influential body of work; and, as you would expect, every seat in the lecture theatre was taken. I came to Mulvey’s work via the same route that I imagine most film students to have taken, through her famous 1975 Screen essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. The Birkbeck event, chaired by Ian Christie (Birkbeck), was a semi-retrospective of Mulveyan dialectics in feminisim and psychoanalysis, but also a look forward to new developments in film analysis. For me, the most stimulating segment was Mulvey in conversation with A.L. Rees (ICA) discussing avant-garde filmmaking in London during the late 1970s and early 1980s, an account which also seemed to prompt the majority of questions from an enthused audience.

AMY! Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1980, Colour 30 mins.

AMY! Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1980, Colour 30 mins.

This fascinating discussion peppered with frank anecdotes regarding the political climate and funding for film projects in the UK, was accompanied by a rare screening of Mulvey’s film Amy! Using melodrama’s gestural form and a self-conscious avant-garde aesthetic, the film examines the rise to stardom of the first woman to fly solo from Great Britain to Australia, Amy Johnson. Mulvey explained how she was inspired by Brecht’s dictum ‘Happy the lad that needs no heroes’, adjusting it to ‘Happy the feminism that needs no heroines’ for her portrait of Amy.  The film offers imagined scenes dramatising Amy’s reluctance to embody the role of newspaper sensation or national heroine, which are intercut with newsreel footage of the ‘real’ Amy’s public reception, ironically delivered ‘broadcast’ of newspaper headlines, and black and white footage from student film seminars. It is a collection of disparate segments that are juxtaposed to reveal Amy’s private and public identities to tragi-comic effect.

I particularly enjoyed Mulvey’s confessional anecdote on how her ‘naïve optimism’ and penchant for symmetry are thrown ‘off-kilter’ by co-director Peter Wollen’s canted patterns of composition, a combination which, for me, gives the film its counter-narrative politic while retaining a certain pathos. Mulvey’s insights into her work as a filmmaker surely augment any discussion of aesthetics and spectatorship in her more widely known film criticism. Her films have certainly been under-researched, and I hope this event will encourage scholars to engage with them further.

The session concluded with a demonstration and discussion of ideas from Mulvey’s 2006 book, Death 24x a Second, commencing with a short segment from Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life that had been stretched and slowed through freeze-framing. The video aims to reveal ‘hidden’ aspects of the film using this strategy of fragmentation, and effectively illustrates how ‘the opposing iconographies’ of spectacular and maternal femininity are staged. The Mulvey day traced a complete cycle from the manipulation of images by the filmmaker, to the suggestion that manipulation of the image now lies as much with the spectator, who has much greater control over how the film is screened. Pausing, stretching, cropping, and repetition of cinematic time is made possible by new digital formats and file sharing systems, and alters how the gaze and linear narrative function.

By the end of the session I was left slightly hypnotised by a palimpsestic image of Marilyn Monroe that had been contorted and drawn out by Mulvey’s hand, and left to repeat endlessly in the ‘twilight zone’[1] – the enigmatic celluloid repository of cultural history.

[1] Mulvey applies Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘twilight zone’ (the point at which personal memory disappears into history) to cinema: ‘On celluloid, personal and collective memories are prolonged and preserved, extending and expanding the “twilight zone”, merging individual memory with recorded history’. (Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, 2006, 25).

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Cinema and Human Rights Days

This post was contributed by Dr Emma Sandon, Lecturer in Film and Television, Department of Media and Cultural Studies

What is the impact of cinema in raising public awareness of human rights? Can films about human rights make a difference and promote political change? These are some of the questions that the Cinema and Human Rights Days addressed at the Gordon Square cinema, Birkbeck, on 15 and 16 March. Timed to coincide with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, Birkbeck hosted a debate on human rights cinema, a screening of Salma and a Q & A with the documentary film director, Kim Longinetto, and heard John Biaggi, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival director and Nick Fraser, the BBC commissioning editor of Storyville, talk about their promotion of human rights films and programmes.

John Biaggi talked about how important it was that ‘good’ human rights films were selected for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and he explained how that criteria was arrived at, whilst Nick Fraser, in his discussion of the importance of storytelling for any programme that television commissioned, admitted that ‘the spectacle of injustice is always gripping’. Rod Stoneman, former commissioning editor at Channel 4 and director of the Irish Film Board, presented a timely discussion and screening, in the week that Hugo Chavez died, of Chavez: Inside the Coup (also entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Televised|) (2003), a film that caused media controversy when it was screened on the BBC and which was turned down by the Amnesty International Film Festival in Vancouver for being biased in favour of Chavez. Participants then watched the Human Rights Watch Film Festival screening of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s film, Fatal Assistance (Haiti/France/US, 2012), an indictment of the international community’s post- earthquake disaster intervention and the failure of current aid policies and practices. The screening was followed by a discussion with the director at the ICA.

Dr Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, from Birkbeck’s School of Law, and I asked participants to consider the politics of human rights discourse in film. What is a human rights film? How has the notion of a human rights film emerged? Can we talk about a history of human rights cinema? How are human rights films selected, promoted and circulated through film festivals, broadcasting, cinema theatrical release, dvd sales and internet distribution? What are the criteria by which a human rights film is judged?

I discussed how the human rights film has been constituted by human rights film festivals, first set up in the late 1980s and 1990s by human rights organisations, to promote human rights advocacy. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the Amnesty International Film Festival (now Movies that Matter), the two largest of such initiatives, then established the Human Rights Film Network in 2004, to ‘promote the debate on the ethics, professional codes of conduct and other standards regarding human rights film making.’ The charter of this network seeks to promote films that are ‘truthful’ and that have ‘good cinematographic quality’. It is these criteria of style and taste that become politically charged in the process of commissioning, selecting and curating films. If we look at a range of examples, it becomes clear that the subjects of human rights films are constituted in specific ways. However the way in which film represents human rights and engages viewers and audiences are complex. It is important that we understand the effects of the different audio and visual narrative and rhetorical devices used in films, be they feature films, documentary, newsreel, essay films, community or advocacy video.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera reflected on the dimension of political agency shown in films that represent revolutionary struggle in Latin America. Drawing on his forthcoming book, Story of a Death Untold, The Coup against Allende, 9/11/1973, and screening clips from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s, Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del Subdesarrollo) (Cuba, 1968) and Patricio Guzmán’s documentary, Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile) (Cuba, 1975, 1976, 1979), he weaved a layered narrative of the human potential for change. These important political films engage with the portrayal of what he termed the ‘discourse of anxiety’ and the ‘discourse of tenacity and courage’ in relation to people’s belief in the possibilities of social transformation and their ability to fight for freedom. These films are also tributes as well as memorials to those who have struggled for real social and political change.

The event was the result of a collaboration between Birkbeck, the University of Galway and Middlesex University and was supported by Open Society Foundations. The organisers hope to run this event in conjunction with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival again next year at Birkbeck.

The podcasts of this event are available on the School of Arts website.

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