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Reviewed: Steel - A Century of Steelmaking on Film

The BFI screens rarely-seen films from the great era of British steelmaking.

Hot red molten sludge drips from the gruelling furnace. Sweat-drenched, open-shirted, the man shovels his shovelfull of coal through the yawning mouth of the open flame. Little more between him and the fire than a cotton vest and a pair of black specs – small, round, and rather less than hearty in the face of flying molten metal.

Archetypes of the steel man – son of the golden age of industrial Britain – walk freely across the BFI’s latest project, Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film. So to do the truths. In a comprehensive spread of 20 rare documentaries, narrative films, shorts and animations, Steel examines the pivotal role of steelmaking at the heart of British industry, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century. The collection is both a nuanced examination of the steelmaking process and an insight into post-war factual film as a British cinematic sub-genre. These astonishing, moving pictures almost fetishise the white-hot liquid rivers and sublime mechanisms that made the steelworks tick. As Mark Miodownik writes in Steel on Film:

The steelmaking process documented in these films seems rudimentary, brutal and raw. But this is because the subtleties that make the material revolutionary are hidden from view inside the metal itself. The steel created is not just a grey blob of matter; it is, in fact, made up of billions of tiny crystals.

That steel is celebrated using celluloid, a material that created the new visual culture of cinema itself, is entirely appropriate. After all, steel is often perceived as monolithic and bland, and needs its exotic cousin to bring out its magic.

I spoke with Patrick Russell, a senior documentary curator at the BFI, who explained how Steel came about and why it resonates today.


How did the program come about?

Steel is the third part of our project This Working Life looking at major British twentieth century industries represented on film: coal, shipbuilding and finally steel. The impetus for this project is firstly that the collections of the BFI are particularly rich in these areas. There are literally thousands of films documenting these once-staple industries, which themselves are immensely cinematic.

Where did most of the archival film come from, and was it difficult to recover and restore?

All the material is preserved either by the BFI National Archive, the Scottish Screen Archive or the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales. Material will have come from many different sources over the years – production companies, commissioning organisations, laboratories, private individuals… Some of them had not been seen since they were released. Various levels of restoration are required. In the case of steel, our signature title Steel required full Technicolor restoration, which was complex and expensive but produced wonderful results.

Has the age of steel left a residual cultural impact?  

All the ‘staple’ industries had a huge – unavoidable - presence in mid-century Britain. In truth, they were in slow long term decline since the heights of the industrial revolution to which they were so important, but at this point that was far from obvious: their economic and cultural place in the life of the nation remained huge.

I can’t think of a better illustration of their continuing cultural impact than Danny Boyle’s use of the industrial Britain – and of steelmaking – in particular as a central part of the national story he told through the Olympics ceremony. When we look at the films of these industries made in the twentieth century, their visual charisma and place in national personality becomes very palpable.

Which of the films particularly resonates with you?

Like everyone in the project, I’m particularly in love with Steel (1945). It exemplifies how brilliant industrial filmmaking can be – great technical information accompanying (almost literally) breathtaking visual artistry, in the form of bold yet painterly Technicolor cinematography.  Another film which we’re showing in the season, and that I love personally, is Stone into Steel (1959), which takes that visual grandeur in even more formalist directions – there is no commentary or dialogue, just images and music. 

These films all come from the ‘classic’ British industrial documentary tradition, but it’s interesting to compare them with more politicised, oppositional or experimental works. Penny Woolcock’s film When the Dog Bites (1987) is a very interesting, unusual take on the de-industrialising of Consett in the Thatcher era.

Is cinema is a particularly apt tool for examining history? 

Film has the power to awaken us to history as no other medium can, and to strengthen our emotional relationship with people, places and events. Equally, of course, we have to be as critical of it as any other historical source. I hope people come away understanding of the magnitude and the complexity of these industries – their technical and social worlds that grew out of them – and the sheer scale and fascination of the filmmaking that allows us, in the century that has followed, to be drawn back into those worlds for a moment.

Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film is on at the BFI from 5 - 28 February, 2013.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis