Shadows of Progress: NS media partnership with the BFI

We speak to Patrick Russell about British documentary-making.

The New Statesman is delighted to announce that it is media partner for Shadows of Progress: British Postwar Documentary Film, a season running at BFI Southbank from 8 November to 30 December. The NS spoke to Patrick Russell, the curator of the season, about the history of British documentary-making and its future prospects.

In the preface to your book Shadows of Progress, which accompanies the season, you refer to "Britain's lost postwar generation of documentary film-makers". Could you briefly tell us about the documentary film-making tradition these film-makers came from?

Obviously factual film-making has existed as long as there's been film-making, since the late nineteenth century; but in the history of British cinema the period that's justifiably had the greatest attention is the period from roughly 1929 until 1945: the so-called British Documentary Movement, associated particularly with John Grierson who is seen as its presiding figure. The 1930s is when very well-known films such as Night Mail and Coal Face, films that have the status of classics in the canon of documentary, were made. The great battle of documentary is the battle for funding. During the Second World War, suddenly very large quantities of documentary propaganda films were required by the state for use abroad and at home. And here was a tradition of film-makers that had spent the 1930s learning how to do this and how to do it very creatively.

The received wisdom is that the British documentary film went into a steady decline after the war and your book sets out to challenge that view. What are the reasons why these films became unfashionable?

First of all, politics has something to do with it. More so than other varieties of film appreciation, documentary studies tend to be written from the left, politically, which is no problem; but I think it has caused for documentaries to be judged entirely on how progressive they seem to be in relation to the prevailing ethos.

What about the constraints that patronage and sponsorship put on film-makers in the period? Would you say these curtailed their creative freedom?

This, of course, is another reason why the films became unfashionable. Although, if you take the long view, all forms of cultural expression and communication, art and craft, were historically predominantly the products of patronage, of sponsorship, whether from the church, from the state, or from the nobility. So from a historical point of view the idea that creative work is incompatible with sponsorship is a very recent one. To answer your question against that historical backdrop, clearly the fact that these film-makers, in order to make films at all for the large screen, were dependent on sponsors meant that there was inevitably some limitation on what subject they could address and what they could say about those subjects. However, it doesn't follow that, within those limitations, there aren't all sorts of very interesting sets of relationships between the sponsor and the film-maker. Sometimes you have a film-maker who is commissioned to make a subject with which he has total sympathy and is able to do a brilliant job for his sponsor; sometimes you have a situation when the sponsor and the film-maker are absolutely at loggerheads.

Could you give an example of such tensions?

Well, the classic example is John Krish's The Elephant Will Never Forget. John Krish was working at the time for British Transport Films which was part of the British Transport Commission, nationalised transport. And Edgar Anstey, the head of British Transport Films at the time, asked John to take a few shots to document the ceremony marking the closing of the London trams. John argued that they should make a proper film about it. Anstey refused, so John and a small group of renegades went out and made the film anyway. The film was a beautiful, poetic, small classic of a film. In fact, it was a huge success. But it cost John his job at British Transport Films because he had broken the rules.

Can you say more about the key figures in postwar films?

John Krish produced some wonderful, eloquent, humane social documentaries in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Paul Dickson made a marvellous drama-documentary called David in 1951, which was the Welsh contribution to the Festival of Britain. Later on, film-makers such as Derrick Knight managed to merge the techniques of "direct cinema", which were coming in at the time from France and the US, with industrially funded documentary films; a fascinating hybrid. A different example again was somebody like Derek Williams: he worked for oil companies, particularly for BP, and didn't think of himself as a political person -- or certainly not as left-wing -- but he made some very thoughtful films, especially on environmentalism, as paradoxical as that will seem today. He made a film in 1970 called The Shadow of Progress, under the sponsorship of BP.

Hence the title of your book. Most of these figures are male. Can you think of any female documentary film-makers in the period?

The documentary movement had always been male-dominated but there was one unique case in the British film industry -- a woman film-maker who worked steadily in the postwar period. Her name was Sarah Erulkar. In fact, she was even more unusual. She was born in India, moved to London at a very young age, when it was extremely rare to see people of Indian origin living in the UK. She worked at the Shell Film Unit in the late 1940s; there was an editor working there named Peter de Normanville and the two of them met and fell in love, and married. Shell Film Unit had a policy of not employing married couples, and Sarah was told to leave. She went freelance and made dozens of documentaries over the next three decades. Some lovely films, such as Picture to Post, made for the GPO, which got very wide theatrical distribution in the late 1960s. It's a wonderfully creative, skilled piece of film-making.

You keep referring to these films as "creative" and "imaginative". And yet one of the reasons why they have suffered neglect is that they are sometimes perceived as mere documentary records. What scope, if any, is there for experimentation in those films?

One way of answering that question is to think about the differences between documentary television, as it gradually develops in this period, and these films, which are made for the large screen. They are shot on 35mm, with its wider range of lenses, with its better image quality. There is good use of photographic composition in many of them; there's a lot of interesting use of drama; and there are also essay films. And there is music. Composers such as Edward Williams, better known nowadays for scoring Life on Earth, the David Attenborough series, or Elizabeth Lutyens, a composer who had a reputation in the purely musical field as well as for her film scores. So, yes: colour, sound, composition, performance, a sense of form, all are strong in these films. That makes them rich, textured, poised, easy to rediscover and enjoy even now.

You've made an eloquent case for this tradition of documentary film-making and why it is worth rediscovering. One final question: what's the state of British documentary film-making today? Is it undergoing something of a revival?

That's a fascinating question. What it reflects is the crisis that television is in. For a long time, apart from some fringe examples, the terms documentary and television documentary became almost synonymous. Anyone who wanted to make documentaries for a living would join the BBC or another television institution. I think there is a re-emergence under way: as the spaces are being renegotiated between the large screen, the small screen and the computer screen, everything is suddenly up for grabs again. The other side is that digital production technology is becoming so much more accessible, so much cheaper, and it's being democratised. So I wouldn't say that we're in a golden age now but we're in a period of change, where something is going to come out at the other end. We don't know quite what it's going to be but it may have some of the best features of the documentaries of the past. I think there's a lot of inspiration to draw on for documentary film-makers today.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era