Category: Film archives

Britain on Film: Rural Life

‘Machynlleth (In the Heart of Cambria)’

This is a compilation of short films shot in the British countryside (and in the north of Eire) between 1904 and 1981. It is part of the Britain on Film series which has already offered Railways and has a forthcoming compilation Black Britain. This is an archive project to ‘digitise’ thousands of films, originating on celluloid, and making them available for public viewing. These ‘tours’ are distributed by the Independent Cinema Office, who have an excellent track record of providing features and archive material to independent cinemas. I saw this compilation at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the ‘Leeds Young Film Festival’.

Before the film we had an interesting introduction by Kate McGann, a curator with the National Film Archive in the documentary section. We had some notes with details of the films included in the compilation but she added some particular comments on especially interesting aspects. Her main thrust was to provide a context for these films. She commented that much of the period represented on the films had seen real ‘change and upheaval’ in the countryside. An aspect that is the focus of Laurie Lee’s memorable ‘Cider with Rosie’: Lee provided the commentary for one of the films.

She also talked about the changes in technology and style across the films. Cecil Hepworth, who made the earliest film in the programme, would have been working with bulky cameras, and the supporting equipment like tripods etc. It seems likely that he staged much of the action, seemingly merely observed. And since synchronised sound only arrived in the 1930s several film rely on title cards [intertitles] to provide information for the audience.

A little later Basil Wright, filming in the Cheviot Hills, was able to work alone with his camera and accessories, but the now available sound would have been added later in the studio. Both these films were in black and white. But another example from the Pathé Company used colour stencilling, one of several techniques like hand painting and tinting/toning for adding colour.

By the 1950s colour film stock had become available and the Technicolor brand offered a rich palette of colours on screen. We had two films that used this technology. (Note, you can see one of the Technicolor Cameras at the Insight Collection at the National Media Museum. Signposts re Science and Media Museum).

The camerawork in many of the films relies mainly on the static shot. As technology developed camera movements like pans and tracks became available. All the film used some sort of editing (cutting between shots), though the later films are more sophisticated .

The programme also illustrated a number of genres in what we now term documentary. The earliest would have been known as ‘actualities’. Early on there were also Newsreels, and there was an extract form one of these. And there were examples of ‘travelogues’, ‘marketing films’ and ‘public relations’, both commercial and state funded. Some of the later films came from television networks and a couple of films really fall into the amateur or ‘home movie’ category.

The compilation ran for 75 minutes. It was partly chronological but partly thematic.

Machynlleth (In the Heart of Cambria) | Dir: unknown | UK | 1929 | 2 minutes

This glorious Pathécolor film of the ancient capital of Wales pops with the beauty of rural life. “

This short film was essentially a travelogue. It offered a series of shots, beautifully coloured with hand stencils. These included shots of a valley, river, trees in blossom and sheep grazing.

There was an accompaniment on the sound track by piano and flute.

O’er Hill and Dale | Dir: Basil Charles Wright | UK | 1932 | 18 mins

The first sound documentary produced in the UK, this is an affectionate and at points humorous account of a Scottish shepherd’s daily life in the Cheviot Hills.”

Basil Wright has been described as a ‘humanitarian poet’. He was a member of the rightly famed British Documentary Movement. The film mainly uses single static shots with a couple of pans over the landscape. But Wright (filming himself) makes extensive use of angles, especially low-angle shots that emphasise the scale of the mountainous vistas. He also (later in the studio) edited the film into a mini-narrative. So after seeing the Shepherd, Martin, with his flocks drama ensues when a storm sweeps across the hills. This leads into a ‘happy’ ending with a lamb saved from expiring.

The commentary, by Andrew Buchannan, and the orchestral accompaniment were added later. And the film was seen in British cinemas courtesy of Gaumont British.

Great Hucklow Jubilee | Dir: L. du Garde Peach | UK | 1935 | 9 mins

These gorgeous scenes of Great Hucklow capture the Derbyshire village’s preparations for the celebration of King George V’s Silver Jubilee, presenting a charming portrait of life and laughter in the Pennine village.”

This is an example of amateur filmmaking in the period. L. du Garde Peach actually worked in the Film industry as a scriptwriter. One of his most famous contributions was co-authoring the 1935 Yorkshire -based Turn of the Tide. Here though he is showing off his locality and the Village Players whom he organised.

The film uses intertitles and was accompanied by a piano and percussion on the soundtrack.

‘Dry Village’ | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1964 | 5 mins

A cautionary tale of the ‘dry village’ of Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, whose founder believed that the absence of a pub would remove the need for both the police and pawn brokers.”

This appears to be an ironic offering from television reporter James Boyce, presumably working with a network team. The film offers a series of interviews and comments. Boyce’s offerings for viewers appear to have capitalised on the eccentric, this is a good example. There is no hint of the ‘troubles, only a few years away.

The Village Pet | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1931 | 1 min

After Billy the seal was caught in the Wash and rehoused in the village pond, this heart-warming newsreel item shows him tentatively accepting a fish supper from his adoptive family – the good folks of Warham in Norfolk.”

This is an extract from a ‘Topical Budget’ newsreel; a newsreel series that ran from 1911 until 1931. The film opens with a highly embroidered intertitle. Then we meet Billy and the village inhabitants, especially the children, enamoured with this occupant of the pond.

The film has an accompaniment by piano and accordion.

West of England | Dir: Humphrey Swingler | UK | 1951 | 10 min

Glorious Technicolor casts a dreamlike spell over Gloucestershire’s Stroud valleys in this gorgeous short film. Author Laurie Lee contributes to the script for a narration which accompanies painterly images of evergreen scenery, people and industry. “

This was a fine example of the lustrous palette found in Technicolor. The commentary is read by Stephen Murray. The film is full of glorious shots of the Stroud Valley, old buildings and a graveyard, valley slopes, smooth rivers and nestling tress and flora. Later we enter an old linen factory where the rich colours of the cloth exploit the colour process. The film is edited into a  gentle narrative. The opening shows a horse and rider wending their way down hill. There follow later some good example of forward and reverse tracking shots. The commentary proposes a ‘secret’ which is followed till we hear and see an explanation of the Stroud cloth industry. At the end the horse and rider wend their way back uphill; then a cut shows us a modern tractor, presumably as comment that Stroud is modernising.

The commentary and orchestral accompaniment were added at Merton Park Studio,. And the film received a cinema release from United Artists.

Cold War Villages | Dir: Unknown| UK | 1981 | 3 min

In 1981, with no end to the Cold War in sight, plans are afoot in the Midlands to prepare for nuclear attack. These include a bunker for 400 people in a Rutland village with a population of 300, while in Derbyshire a local landlord takes responsibility for the somewhat simplistic advance warning system.”

This looks like one of those programme fillers in regional television broadcasts. The reporter, Terry Lloyd, introduces two mini-stories related to ‘the nuclear threat’ with interviews with local people. Rather like the ‘dry village’ this looks like an ironic comment on eccentricity, possibly even invented. By 1981 (despite the 1984 TV film Threads) the nuclear question was less of an issue than that of US missiles based in Britain.

The first case is a plan to turn a disused Rutland railway tunnel into a commercial bunker; £2,000 for a single person. Predictably it was never built.

The second tale is a Derbyshire pub with an ‘early warning system’. Among the limitations of this device are the absence of a warning device. There is (almost certainly staged) film of the publican warning the village on his bicycle. It seems the village was spared a nuclear attack.

Any Man’s Kingdom | Dir: Tony Thompson | UK | 1956 | 5 mins (extract)

A standout from the British Transport Films collection of travelogues – this one highlighting the attractions of Northumberland, the northernmost part of England. In this extract people travel from far and wide to enjoy the delights of Bellingham Fair, which includes traditional Cumberland wrestling.”

This film has a commentary and an orchestral accompaniment with actual sound including traditional pipes. It offers shots of the people attending this traditional fair and of some of the attractions. There is a fine sequence of a country dance edited through a series of close-ups of the band and the dancers. Towards the end of this extract twilight falls and a young couple are seen in silhouette followed by a pan over a river. The film, in Technicolor, was finalised at The Anvil Studio.

Blacksmith | Dir: Peter Baylis | UK | 1941 | 5 mins

‘Things aren’t what they used to be’: Mr Bosley, village blacksmith at Corfe, near Taunton, is the subject of this nostalgic study of ancient craftsmanship. As his commentary talks us through the process of shoeing a horse, the patiently composed images gracefully evoke an ageless sunlit Somerset day.”

The film was part of a series on ‘craftsmen’ by the Shell Film Unit. This commercial film’s documentary unit was launched in 1934 and carried on to the present, now ‘The Shell Film and Video Unit’. Its output of mainly short films was an important contribution to British documentary. This film follows a farm horse into the forge as we watch the traditional techniques of shooing in a series of close-ups and mid-shots. .

Eardisland Village | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1978 | 5 mins

The residents of Eardisland, a picture postcard Herefordshire village, are unhappy about their impending conservation status which would curtail new development. How can a village continue to thrive with an ever ageing population and no new blood?”

This films is from ATV’s ‘Today series’ with reporter Peter Green and shot in colour.

The camera takes us round the village and a series of interviews with inhabitants. There are few young people and ‘conservation’ threaten to embed this further. The catalyst for this concern is the proposed closure of the village school. Added to this is the comment that they have even

‘taken the vicar away’.

Despite the film the school did close in 1979.

Day in the Hayfields | Dir: Cecil M. Hepworth | UK | 1904 | 3 mins

Enchantingly beautiful, Cecil Hepworth’s modest interest film captures the essence of an English midsummer and the harvest in a time before tractors with men cutting hay using a horse-powered reaper. Less productive but very charming are the local babies and toddlers playing in the cut grass.”

Cecil Hepworth is one of the most important pioneers from the early days of British cinema. One of his most famous titles was a the key contribution to canine cinema, Recued by Rover (1905). Here he is filming on location alongside the Thames near to his studio at Walton-on-Thames. The film offers a series of static shots, almost like tableaus. we see the harvesting, transport by horse and cart, and the local children playing.

There is an accompaniment on piano and accordion, as lyrical as the film itself.

Skating on Lough Neagh | Dir: Unknown | UK | 1963 | 2 mins

As the Big Freeze plays havoc with the working life of Northern Ireland, there is plenty of time for play. The frozen Lough is a call to the adventurous and the ridiculous as dogs, dancers and even drivers take to the ice.”

This appears to be either amateur footage or something filmed for a local television network. It appears that it is actually the ‘Black Lough’ at Dungannon. And like some earlier films it is partly a record of oddities and eccentricities, including a group performing the twist and a mini car travelling over the frozen lake.

The end credits of the compilation include Stephen Horne who performed the musical accompaniment for the films without soundtracks. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist as demonstrated in the accompaniments.

The films came courtesy of BFI National Archive, the Media Archive for Central England and the Northern Island Screen Digital Archive.

They were all transferred on to a 2K DCP. All were in either 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 ratios. The image quality was generally good. Note, as usual the DCP was in 1.85:1 and the titles for the individual films was spread across the complete frame; this was a shame as it prevented the cinema bringing in the masking to the Academy ratio. The sound was variable, presumably partly due to older prints and also to transferring optical or magnetic tracks on to digital.

Definitely a programme worth seeing. And there is more information about the films, the series and ‘Britain on Film’ at the BFI.

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Peter von Bagh 1943-1914

Peter

Regular readers will be familiar with the reports from Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. Peter was for many years the Artistic Director for Il Cinemas Ritrovato and he was a familiar and friendly face at Pordenone. So the tribute circulated by the Cineteca di Bologna, together with one posted on Le Giornate WebPages, was sad news and well deserved.

It is with great sorrow that we announce the passing of our friend Peter von Bagh, artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato since 2001.

Peter was an enlightened intellectual and cinéphile, former director of the Helsinki Cinémathèque, he first discovered Aki Kaurismäki and was himself a filmmaker: his documentaries are permeated by a deeply human voice and a clever vision.

Peter gave a lot to the Cineteca and to the city of Bologna, contributing in a decisive way to Il Cinema Ritrovato and its international stature.

He had a wealth of unique talents: he had an intimate and voracious relationship with cinema – he had seen virtually every film in existence – which he had learned to understand and know with an unparalleled depth. He was an uncommonly cultivated man, admired by many filmmakers and carried himself with a simplicity and a playful sense of humour that naturally lead him to support many right – therefore often impossible – causes.

His departure is a huge loss for the international community of film lovers. Cineteca di Bologna lost a precious friend, his personal and human presence will stay with us as well as the rich patrimony of studies and films which is bound to acquire more and more relevance in the future.

Peter left us on a high note: a presentation at Bologna this year of his Socialismi. The film uses montage and an impressive assemblage of axioms to trace the developments in the primary progressive movement of the last two centuries. The film is not available at present but hopefully it will become so – a fitting tribute to a great and committed cinéaste.

World Cinema Project – Volume I.

Mest

Mest

Eureka / Masters of Cinema,  Region B Blu-ray.

This new disc contains three films restored under the auspices of the World Cinema Foundation. Since 2007 the Foundation has done sterling work restoring classics from earlier periods of cinema. There are different discs with different titles in different territories. So in the USA Criterion have produced a box set whilst in France it is the Carlotta label. The UK release contains three titles, Dry Summer ((Susuz yaz, Dir. Metin Erksan, Turkey 1964), Trances (Dir. Ahmed El Maanouni, Morocco 1981) and Revenge (Mest, Dir. Ermek Shinarbaev, USSR 1989). The three respectively deal with a village conflict over a dam: a documentary about a Moroccan band: and an allegorical period film set in Kazakhstan. The films are introduced by Martin Scorsese who has been the key figure in the Foundation. And in each case the restoration has returned to the original film and consulted with the filmmakers, since all three films have suffered from at least two of the ravages of time, distributors. and censors.

It seems that the production of digital releases has been partly hampered by the films’ rights in particular territories. The US set has six titles and the French set, which unfortunately does not have English sub-titles only French, contains four titles, including Redes. Moreover this DVD came out over a year ago. The review in Sight & Sound praises the quality of the UK release disc. Unfortunately there do not seem to have been many screenings of the original restorations, nearly all are available in 35mm prints or on DCP, in the UK. I hope we will not find exhibitors using this Blu-ray as a substitute for the ‘real thing’. Note, most of the restorations by the Foundation have been screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato and usually in 35mm prints.

Al-Nakba (Qatar/Palestine 2008)

nakba5

This is a documentary film about ‘the catastrophe’ that befell the Palestinian people in 1948. It traces the history of the colonial policies and actions that led to their expulsion from their homeland. It was made by Palestinian filmmaker and journalist Rawan Damen in 2008 and transmitted on the Al Jazeera Arabic network. Now an English-Language version is being transmitted on their English Television network [Freeview 83 in the UK, with other language versions also available]. It runs for 200 minutes and is going out in four parts. Two episodes have already been transmitted but are being repeated.

Rawan Damen’s film is a fairly conventional television documentary using ‘talking heads’ and film and photographs. Much of the material and comment has been available in academic and historical publication. But now it is being presented in a fairly popular medium and it has the advantage of using visual material, which brings an increased power to the story.

The film starts with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, a key event that was analysed by the Palestinian writer Edward Said in his great work Orientalism. The first two episodes address the British occupation and Mandate of Palestine following the First World War. In was in that conflict that the new Zionist Movement achieved its coup of the Balfour Declaration – the British support for a Jewish State was seen as a way of ensuring the British presence and it’s interests across the Middle East.

It is difficult to decide which was more objectionable: the British colonial manipulation of a people and its lands, or the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the Zionist in pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel’. Certainly the policies and practices of each have much in common. The British Mandate saw the use of house arrests and executions, concentration camps, house demolitions, the exiling of leaders and the harassment and dissolution of Palestinian institutions. Just as British laws from the Mandate still serve the Zionist State, so do the brutal methods pioneered by the British.

Episode two focuses on the Palestinian resistance and revolution from 1936 to 1939. This is a part of the tale which gives lie to Zionist clams of  ’a land without people’; and claims that a Palestinian nation did not exist. It also highlights the weakness and limitations of the Palestinian and Arab official leaders. Their failings were to be an important aid to the Zionist take-over in 1948. The other was the development of the Zionist military forces, which were happy to use actions now loudly condemned as ‘terrorism’ by Israel.

Rawan Damen has added an impressive range of commentators, including both Palestinian and Israeli historians, and ordinary Palestinians including refugees from Al-Nakba. This and the impressive array of actual film from the period really create its effect. There has been excellent research to retrieve film that has not been seen for a long time, including material in the British Archives.

This is both an important documentary film and contribution to the struggles of the Palestinian people. Fortunately Al Jazeera tend to repeat their programme several times. So it will be possible to catch up with episodes one and two if you missed them. Episode three will take us to the key year of 1948. Definitely tune into Al Jazeera –  the channel is worth watching for a different slant on the news.

[Note that their transmission times are given in GMT not in British Summer Time],

BIFF 2013 #15: The Films of C. H. Wood

Filming at Listers Manningham Mill in Bradford. This shot shows a set-up in which Listers innovative velvet seat coverings for buses are explored. (Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.)

Filming at Lister’s Manningham Mills in Bradford in 1955. This shot shows a set-up in which Lister’s innovative velvet seat coverings for buses are explored. (Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.)

BIFF19logoOne of the definite achievements of British film culture, typically not celebrated by the national UK media obsessed by success in Hollywood, has been the development of Regional Film Archives to complement the National Film Archive. The Yorkshire Film Archive is celebrating its 25th Anniversary and it has recently merged with the North-East Film Archive to preserve a total of 50,000 film titles across the two regions. Several thousand hours of film, now part of the collection, came from a Bradford photography and film company set up by C. H. Wood which operated over eight decades before closing in 2002. The event at BIFF was presented by Graham Relton of the Yorkshire Film Archive who introduced a selection of clips across the range of productions completed by the company. The two sons of C. H. Wood who effectively ran the company from the 1960s onwards were in attendance.

I arrived late for the show and discovered a packed Pictureville Cinema with around 300 in attendance. I was lucky to eventually find a seat and although I missed a couple of clips, I’m sure I saw enough to appreciate what a terrific event this was. I should have guessed that there would be a large audience – my previous experience of these kinds of archive screenings has always been very positive in terms of audience reactions. We watched an extract from Crikey! (1947) a comic sequence from a film about Bradford’s traffic taken from a Road Safety film. Later we saw a 1980s public announcement film about the Green Cross Code with David Prowse (aka Darth Vader). C. H. Wood was well-known for aerial photography (and helped train photographers in the Second World War) but one of the main types of films made in the 1940s and 1950s were concerned with motor sports including motorcycle trial racing on the moors (this part of Yorkshire has produced world-class trial riders) and also Formula 1. We watched clips from the first win by a British Vanwall car driven by Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss at the 1957 Grand Prix held at Aintree, Liverpool – with pistons designed and produced by a Bradford firm! Other clips took us on a Wallace Arnold bus excursion and showed us all the various sports featured at Bradford’s famous Odsal stadium, the enormous arena that once reportedly held over 100,000 fans for a Rugby League Challenge Cup Final replay in 1954.

Shooting motorcycle trials. Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.

Shooting motorcycle trials. Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.

My two favourite clips were from a ‘works outing’ documentary and a corporate film for Lister, the Bradford textiles company. The works outing was from Salts Mill to celebrate 100 years of operation in 1953 and the large party took a railway excursion to Blackpool for the day. I now frequently visit Salts Mill and in 1953 I was a small child living in Blackpool, so this was a very personal viewing for me – and that is what archive film is often about. What was remarkable was the high quality of the camerawork and editing. Graham Relton told us that C. H. Wood became something of a ‘holder’ of films produced elsewhere in the city and this seems to be one of those films. We don’t know who operated the camera or who did the editing. In 1953 the 16mm cameras was an expensive piece of kit and the camera operator must have been trained. You can see the whole film (and others mentioned here) on the YFA website. What do you think of the footage?

The Lister’s film struck me as very revealing. The mill, a replacement for an earlier mill destroyed by fire in 1871, was the largest in the North of England. The Samuel Lister company was one of the major silk textiles companies in the world and Lister was a major innovator, especially in the production of velvet. The C. H. Wood film is a corporate promotion for the company. It reveals that everything in the production process was contained within the mill – which at one time employed 11,000 workers. We saw parts of this process, including the weaving of velvet and the testing of new dyes produced in the company’s own laboratories. In 1976 the company supplied velvet curtains to the White House. The business began to decline rapidly in the 1980s and the mill finally closed in 1992. I realised as I watched this colour film made in 1955 (30 mins with sound) by C. H. Wood just how much Bradford has lost because of the decline of the textiles industries in West Yorkshire. It wasn’t just the jobs in spinning and weaving, but all those technician jobs in the laboratories – and the associated engineering jobs.

At the end of the event David Wood answered questions from the audience, finishing by pointing out that the National Media Museum had been in Bradford for nearly 30 years and this was the first time he’d seen his films on the Museum’s screens. It’s good that omission has been put right and another similar event would be a good idea in future years. Meanwhile there is another opportunity to see archive films ‘made in Bradford’ on Friday evening at the Cathedral. There will be a posting on that event as well.