This is an incredibly famous documentary made in the dark days of World War II by Humphrey Jennings as a means of uniting the United Kingdom. I’d heard a lot about it but never seen it before. Documentary maker Kevin Macdonald introduced it, describing it as a masterpiece; it is that and more.
There is no narration, mostly natural sounds, a day in the life of a nation. We see men harvesting in the fields beside others in uniform gazing at the skies with their binoculars. An extraordinarily crowded ballroom, the men mostly in uniform, a whirlpool of couples dancing. A concert including The Bartered Bride at the National Gallery with the queen in attendance. Windows were sandbagged, there were a lot of empty frames, but several times we see the painting of Gainsborough’s daughters. A man in a suit walking to work past damaged and sandbagged buildings with a helmet strung from his suitcase. The surreal becomes normal. A soprano singing at a piano while women sit in silence in a big old building – a basement for shelter? Flanagan and Allan sharing a microphone, then the audience packed into an aircraft hangar whistle along with them. Big Ben hidden by scaffolding, glimpses of Nelson atop his column. There is a real sense of ordinary and the less than ordinary in time of crisis. utterly beguiling.
As Macdonald said, Jennings showed documentary could be a real art, poetry, as finely crafted or more so than any feature film. He clearly loved his subjects.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of this film, the British Film Institute commissioned 12 short films. It seemed to me this is an opportune time, with Britain struggling to survive attack – not from wartime enemies but from multinationals and incompetent leadership in general.
Accent Louder than Words followed a Polish woman who has lived here for decades but sought help with her accent as she is now being insulted for it.
Listening to Bridgeton was set in an old bus garage scattered with old beasts being brought back to life. Voiceovers were from men describing the restoration, but also the damaged men who worked there, who found that stripping the bus down and building it up again helped them do the same to themselves.
Maesteg followed a taxi driver round this isolated Welsh town, talking to locals of how the once flourishing area is dying in the shadow of closed coal mines and iron works.
Eric was about a therapy dog who visits people – mostly elderly – in institutions, where they stroke him and talk to him. He is the most important person in their lives.
Portrait of the Artist As a Young Woman followed a woman with Downs Syndrome who has become a prolific poet.
That Yorkshire Sound was probably the closest to the spirit of Jennings, a scribbled cartoon with music showing snatches of Yorkshire life – kids playing, horse riding, drunks fighting etc. A lot of fast, jerky action, but good.
Silent Rooms was about young gay coloured people bemoaning their invisibility in the media.
In Other Words followed 3 young poets, ending with an extended performance of their work.
Learning to Swim was about a woman who takes in young single male refugees and helps them settle in.
From HK to MK was made by the son of a Hong Kong immigrant. It follows the retired dentist round Milton Keynes, discussing new towns and identity.
The final one, Voices of Britain by Alex Campbell definitely followed Jennings’ footsteps. But with words. “We are not really listening to each other and that can cause a lot of problems… You’ve got a lot more time than you think you’ve got. What is your life if you have no time to stop. Sorry, I was starting to fade by the end of this.
Sitting through over 2 hours of uninterrupted short films was a stretch, so apologies for the brief summaries of the works. they were all worthy, some funny, a few challenging, but some felt more like promotions of minority interest rather than attempting to put them into a national context. I tend to think film should be more visual than verbal, though this is a problem when you are dealing with poetry. Jennings’ film aimed to unite Britain in time of war. I kept wondering what was the purpose of these films? Many seemed purely to show diversity, which is fine, the world has changed a lot since the original work.
But Britain became great by creating neutral spaces for people to meet and come together, to work for the greater good. This idea seems to be increasingly under threat, and these films – though interesting in their separate ways, contributed little towards such a unifying dialogue. The films didn’t deal with the mainstream, the ordinary, the parents at school gates, the weekend footballers, the volunteer litter pickers, the drunks out on the weekend, commuters packed together like sardines. Big Issue sellers, the list goes on.
But perhaps I’m expecting too much. Jennings world was smaller, united in the face of danger. Whatever he showed would be recognised by the majority; society has fractured and diversified. Maybe my problem with this series is not that it had the wrong content, but that there was not enough shorts to tell the wider story of our nation.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Jennings’ work is the title: why listen rather than look? Maybe he saw the images as a focus for the less obvious part of the film, the sounds. Or maybe it was about the time he was working: the danger came from above, the alarms were aural. Maybe he was warning the viewers that what he filmed could soon be lost.