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Behind the camera

Updated Tuesday, 28th April 2020
When you use film as a historical source, explains Douglas Allen, you must first understand the person behind the camera.

Photo of Douglas Allen

When we look at an old film (and its ‘big brother’ still photography for that matter), some basic questions come to mind. Why was it made? By whom was it made and for whom? Who used it, and how? We know that historians are among the current most avid consumers of film, since its academic ‘discovery’ in the 1970s as a valid historical primary source. Their most immediate concentration was on the more obviously respectable ‘semi-official’ sources such as newsreel and documentary. But more recently, feature films have entered into the reckoning as primary sources for the ideological and social attitudes of their time. Historians have found great value in studying both the ‘texts’ of films as well as the ‘contexts’ of their production.

But who made and used the original – primarily non-fiction – films which historians still mostly study? How and why did film-makers use this medium? Three broad categories of user come to mind - professionals, amateurs and organisations. The professionals were those who embraced the new medium of film from the late nineteenth century as a way of making a living or expressing themselves. They ranged from the entrepreneurial showmen, who filmed local events and toured the shows and fairgrounds with them, to the artists, who exploited the realistic – or sometimes in their creative hands, surrealistic – view of the world afforded by the still or moving picture. The amateurs were those who came in their wake, hobbyists embracing the excitement of the new technology. With their small gauge cameras, they documented their world – a mixture of domestic and public spheres – but with little awareness of their value to future generations of film archivists and historians. The organisations were the bodies, from government level downwards to anti-establishment militants, who sought to harness the medium to help spread their message. Sometimes it was ‘official’ information and education that emerged, about the latest initiative and improvement to the system; other times the films’ content was ‘unofficial’, agitational propaganda against the current order.

Taking all these users together, a number of common threads emerge as to how and why they used film - what might be defined as the personal/psychological, the social/cultural and the political/ideological motivations.

On a psychological level, much use of film has come about to overcome the basic existential conundrum of life - why are we here, and if life is so transitory, how can we make a mark to let the future know we have passed by? One prominent strand of fine art – the portrait – had developed to ensure the immortality of those rich enough to commission their likeness. Photography in the nineteenth century democratised that process to the petit bourgeoisie, and set in motion a technology that has ensured everyone now has the ability to record and leave a still or moving image of themselves, be it on celluloid film, DVD, or online. From the naive, bemused, suspicious stares of the turn of the century factory workers and holiday-makers caught by the early film-makers, to the later familiar, gleeful mugging for the video camera or the mobile phone, we all love/hate the egotistical boost of being filmed by someone. It offers the primal satisfaction of having your image – whether still or moving – captured for posterity. Why else do so many holiday snaps and selfies end up saying no more than ‘Look at me - who I am, where I am and who I’m with’. It is a basic existential statement to validate your identity and experience or boost your status to friends and the world at large - no different, in effect from the portrait-seated ancient king or medieval prince. When the home movies of older generation celebrities are included in TV profiles, it is generally a privileged middle or upper-class world of mansions, lawns and swimming pools we see before us. With the pervasiveness of digital cameras and mobile phones, it is anyone’s world that we (and posterity) now have access to. How to deal with the sheer weight of visual information will be one of the main problems for future generations of archivists and historians to solve!

An extension of this personal use of film has been its social/cultural use, where whole communities have used film to record and validate their existence. It may be in the form of immigrant groups using film or video to preserve their culture or fight back in the face of economic and social discrimination, or town or village projects to record a perhaps vanishing way of life. Whatever the collective project, it has become a valuable way of using film to say ‘We are here!’ And again this process has become gradually more democratised with advances in technology. In the early days, the assistance of sympathetic professionals was needed, as when pioneering photographers went into the slums to photograph the miserable conditions of the nineteenth-century working classes. Their 1930s cinema equivalents, the Grierson documentarists, did the same, with films like ‘Housing Problems’ giving slum dwellers a voice to highlight their conditions in the first filmed ‘vox pops’. Less campaigning and more anthropological was the photographic work of Humphrey Spender – who from 1937-38 documented the life and habits of the ‘natives’ of Worktown (Bolton) – and the films of Humphrey Jennings – who put the workers’ popular culture hobbies on the screen in 1939’s ‘Spare Time’ – as part of their ‘Mass Observation’ social documentation activities. Now such well-meaning, liberal assistance is redundant. The availability of equipment is wide enough, and the skills needed basic enough for any group to document themselves, in whatever way they want.

Image of a clapper Hollywood cinema board

One step beyond the socio-cultural documentarists is the ideological-political activists, who have used film not just to document conditions but to campaign for change. Running parallel to the liberal Griersonians of the 1930s were the communist film and photo groups, using audio-visual media from the heart of their working-class communities to fight for social improvement. Taking their cue from the Soviet Union – the pioneering workers’ state which had harnessed cinema to the cause of the revolution – these groups got hold of still and movie cameras and made films about events like hunger marches, free of the censorious comments of official newsreel coverage. Other campaigning and pressure groups did the same, making films to advance their cause, whether it was religious, tee-total, anti-war, pro-strike or whatever. Pitted against the limited resources of these ‘outsiders’ were the limitless, official resources of the state, making film and videos as part of their PR function to educate and persuade the public of their policies on health, housing, childcare and education.

The state often branded the unofficial users of the film as ‘ideological’, missing the point that they themselves were ideological, and the even larger point that we understand today – thanks to the work of theorists like Roland Barthes – that all images and audio-visual end-products are ideological. They all have meaning if you take them apart and dig deeply, and usually, that meaning involves the operation of some form of power relations. In a capitalist system, say the radical theorists, all images have the function of naturalising the world, making it appear as fixed and unchanging or unchangeable. As we learn from the critical work of John Berger, even the most innocent artistic portrait through the century is encoded in terms of power, with the prime message being usually the social or ideological power of the sitter. What has been interesting is the way that technology has gradually democratised this process of documenting the world, so that the means of production of images are now potentially in the hands of everyone in the digital age. But a warning is usually needed to accompany this progressive development. This spreading of power may be illusory, as real economic and political power is still in the hands of the global giants of technology – computer and media corporations – who will always have the last word when it comes to the development and use of the various technologies and the images created with them. Which leaves us with our final question: how much real power do we currently, consumer-users of the film, have?

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