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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism