Open City Docs had two archive-oriented offerings at this year’s festival – a talk with filmmaker Miranda Pennell called Selective Memory: Repurposing the Archive and a participatory workshop Existence as Resistance by the recently formed collective Patchwork Archivists.
Gareth Evans led the Q&A with Miranda Pennell about her work using archive materials, and the “challenge of searching for traces of experiences that have been excluded or marginalised from the official record”.
To illustrate the talk, Pennell played clips from her film The Host (2015), which presents a personal investigation into the British colonial past, the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (which would later become BP) and its connections with her own family history. The overwhelming take-away from the clips was that the film deserves more public screenings. A large part of the audience hadn’t seen the film (me included), and it wasn’t screening as part of Open City Docs this year.
The film is made up of still images and photographs from the BP archives at the Modern Records Centre on Warwick University Campus. Having been there, it is amazing to think how a film as imaginative as The Host could be produced from such an uninspiring space – and from an archive that wasn’t indexed under the relevant terms, or even recorded in the first place. “Archives are only as interesting as the questions you bring to them” Pennell said in a BFI interview, adding that “in practice it’s a mixture confronting both the tedium of repetition, and the fascination of small and surprising revelations. The real discoveries occur in the process of making connections between seemingly disparate fragments.”
Seeing as most of the images weren’t yet digitised and the murky provenance of most of the sources made them likely to be orphan works, Pennell was able to come to a rights agreement with the BP archive to take photos of the things she wanted and make use of them in her film, while simultaneously helping to digitise the collections.
What became clear from the abundance of ‘stuff’ resulting from her time in the archive was that the company had little interest in preserving images of labour and the everyday realities of the workers, compared to their gleaming machinery, technologies and the vast natural landscapes. In order to find an alternative to the colonial narrative and activate the past in a new way, Pennell had to “find ways to glance sideways at what is presented in order to find another story”. Ultimately, it came down to rearranging the relationships between images and sounds through montage (the sound element being 75% of the work involved in making the film).
The film also serves as a way to record her own labour in the research process, and it is hard to find another film that so uniquely transmits the experience of being in an archive to an audience.
Two days later, the Patchwork Archivists also explored issues of labour and the everyday – in this case through the experiences of the South Asian diaspora – by forming a participatory workshop and screening some short films by filmmaker Kajal Nisha Patel.
While Miranda Pennell’s work explored the behaviours of the British in Iran through BP and her own family ties to the system, the Patchwork Archivists presented the other side of the same coin – the voices of the colonised.
This group of friends of Kashmiri, Indian and Pakistani heritage, born and raised in the UK, recently formed a ‘grassroots creative archiving collective’ reclaiming their histories as a form of resistance to the systematic erasure, reduction and homogenisation of South Asian experiences. If neo-colonisation dictates whose stories are significant, they see this “bias continue within the notion of archives and the formation of national collective memories.”
While they acknowledge that on occasion some attention has been given to their experiences, it is usually hosted by larger British cultural institutions, “where we see stories taken from our communities and told back to us through a colonial lens, resulting in depoliticisation, exoticism, and packaged stereotypes.”
Indeed, the BFI archive recently made available online a collection of early non-fiction films of India (1899-1947), acknowledging that they are “seen through the eyes of the colonist and often with strongly propagandist intention” and that “there are films aimed at inculcating the one-big-happy-family notion of Empire into schoolchildren in the UK.” While this is necessary as evidence of the past attitudes of the British, the Patchwork Archivists seek to reclaim their histories by owning their own stories, and curating their own archives. As they are a relatively new collective, it will be interesting to see what kind of events they do next and where they place themselves in the UK archive community (if at all).