[29 April 2011]
PopMatters Associate Books Editor
Post-colonial Britain: Oh, how the mighty have fallen! When Molly Dineen began her film-making career in the ‘80s with the documentary Home from the Hill (1987) she admits that she did not suspect she would help launch a new kind of celebrity onto the world: the reality TV star. There had been ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries of various kinds before that; and in fact she was influenced as a student at the National Film and Television School in London by the then director of the course, Colin Young, and the head of documentary, Herb di Gioia, ‘both of whom were zealous advocates of the observational mode’ as Stella Bruzzi describes in her informative essay that comes as part of the material with the DVD release.
What Dineen did that was unique enough to grip the public imagination was to foreground the characters in her work that were inherently interesting and also controversial. So, her first work Home from the Hill introduced Colonel Hillary Hook to the British public. He was a former officer in the British army who had been farming in Kenya. This documentary was her graduation film from the NFTVS and re-edited for the BBC ‘Forty Minutes’ strand because it offered such interest.
Her next feature, My African Farm explored the life of Sylvia Richardson, a neighbour of Hook’s in Kenya, and another representative of the heyday of British colonialism in Africa. These first two films draw together many parallels and can be viewed as tandem works. They show the establishment of British colonial society in its retirement and, some would say, dotage. Everything has its time and must come to an end, and both Hook and Richardson have to face – towards the end of their admittedly challenging but privileged lives – the demise of the world that they knew.
Dineen’s style is both observational but also interventional; or a compromise of these factors: ‘participatory’ as she terms it. Working only with the sound recordist Sandra Jeans she draws out the characters she interviews and enables them to stand, or fall, by what they say. The material is dependent upon her choice of these interesting personalities; that is part of her skill as a film-maker. She selected Hook via her friendship with his son, and then her meeting with Richardson was a natural extension from that.
But it is the depiction of the surrounding lives in the case of Richardson that highlights Dineen gradual maturing with her style and enabling a wider range of more diverse voices to he heard. Even within the framework of such ingrained ‘old school’ (simply put: racist) philosophy as that of Richardson, with her territorial defiance against interlopers on her land, her views of the differences between races, and her utter belief in the necessary civilising function of colonial powers, it is the opinions of her domestic staff and farm workers that shine through.
Richardson believes she is the matriarch of her ‘tribe’ of workers and she is seen giving them exasperated, clipped orders as she tries to penetrate what she feels is their ignorance. Then we are shown Peter, who cooks and cleans for her and serves her, admitting that the staff are ‘kind’ to her. She is a reasonable employer in some respects, but they have known for a long time that she is out of her depth; she would not be able to cope without them and they care for her, non-cynically humouring her difficult attitudes and showing her ‘kindness’ in return.
Dineen manages in this way to expand and extend the argument; choosing as she does societies and human situations in transition. She was in the right place at the right time with much of her filming; but she also has the perception to identify these shifts and choose the people that best illustrate them. So, the obsolescence of opinions such as those held by Richardson and Hook are shown in their context and the wider picture is revealed. These features came through at a time in her career when she was still very new to the form.
The situation she revealed in the trio of films In the Company of Men (1995) is similar to these early works. She followed the Prince of Wales’s regiment of the Welsh Guards (the ones that wear the tall bearskin hats and guard Buckingham Palace) on their final tour of duty in Northern Ireland, just eighteen months before the ceasefire was called and the peace accord signed. Again, she worked within the context of a group in transition who display both obnoxious and sympathetic views. This strikes a useful dramatic tension within the documentary style and once more elicits a mixture of annoyance, outrage and sympathy in the viewer.
Major Crispin Black, leader of the 100-strong battalion of Guards, is the lead character of this trilogy, very much the dominant ‘alpha’ personality, as the men in his command enjoy emphasising. More than once he is described as something of an ‘actor’ and admits that he would have wanted to go on stage had he not decided to rely upon the armed forces for a career. He and a number of the men under his command: a young officer, NCOs, and enlisted men or ‘squaddies’, have their lives somewhat dissected and their place in a border town in Northern Ireland, largely populated by Nationalists and Catholics, illustrated and analysed. They are guarding a police station as it is being reinforced and fortified; camping out, patrolling, observing and awaiting the inevitable attack by the IRA (which actually comes after they have pulled out and returned to base). Major Black makes the illuminating and distasteful comment: ‘You’ve got one of the most modern armies in the world living in a fort, waiting for the Apaches to come.’
The subjects stand or fall, as I say, by the words they speak. But Dineen, in the interviews that accompany the documentaries as part of the extras, admits to a certain interventionist style, and to the fact that once the camera establishes the scene and images are captured in the frame you have affected real life: ‘One way or another you are creating a manufactured world and that’s what documentary is.’
Much can be interpreted by her editing style. From time to time she interjects with a snippet of commentary or her voice interrogating the subject is heard off camera, but it is the images and what is not commented upon that can be most illustrative of the difficult and ambiguous position that her subjects are in. The brusque way in which the local people in Northern Ireland dismiss the soldiers as they patrol past houses and gardens, fully armed, and search garages and cars for explosives displays the tension, ever present, that infiltrates all aspects of life in the province.
Dineen stresses, in interview, her apolitical position in all of this; amongst the most political of situations in British/Irish history. How right and appropriate is it to be neutral in such a context, and more especially in such a context as that of the colonial farmer in Africa? Should the documentary maker be observational and free of any agenda? And is she actually convincing on that front? Are not the asides and cutaways that show unspoken responses and contrasts more illustrative of her position?
The sometimes controversial and difficult figures at the centre of her works just go to show the appropriateness and timeliness of these films. Whether they are agreeable or comfortable viewing – they are necessary as a depiction of change and the need for change. Less difficult but just as striking is the film Heart of the Angel (1989). This follows the working life of the Angel tube station in London at 100 years old just before extensive renovations began. A disheartening aspect about this is just how dilapidated and rundown everything is and how hard the staff work in vain to reverse the poor safety record, sometimes at the risk of their own lives.
This documentary came just two years after the devastating fire at the King’s Cross tube station in 1987, caused by rubbish that had gathered beneath a wooden escalator, which killed 31 people. Dineen’s underscoring of how much the staff put themselves through to still maintain a service and how the passengers are constantly inconvenienced contributed to the continued pressure exerted by public opinion to have renovations carried out on the tube system, decades overdue.
This film is personal, dramatic, funny and at times awe-inspiring. Affectionately and cheekily known as ‘Fluffers’, the cleaning crews are women of many years experience who venture down the tunnels at night in high-viz jackets and grease-stained trousers to dig rubbish and fluff out from around the tracks. The work is more like coal-mining than cleaning. And the fluff? Human hair that blows from the heads of passengers as they wait on the platforms. That will teach me to tie my hair up when I next travel on the tube! Dineen has never ceased to be amazed and inspired by these workers and they remain a landmark in her film career. ‘I used to think I heard footsteps, but not any more, you get used to it,’ says one of the team.
As always the extras on this BFI release are of great quality – documentary ‘making of’ and interviews with Dineen and Crispin Black, along with academic essays examining the significance of the work, by Bruzzi and others. And it is, after all, one of the most significant and remarkable forms of modern film and television making, with many imitators and parodies: from Christopher Guest to the UK and US versions of The Office. It throws up the great one-liners, the best of which are delivered in an un-selfconscious and unaffected fashion, and stay in the mind. Such as the ticket inspector at the Angel, behaving like a soothsaying gatekeeper: ‘They tell me doomsday’s not far off, because of the exhausts from the motor cars – Hello – we’re all going to die.’ Or the ticket office manager: ‘No, I’m never miserable – just got that sort of face.’ And his enduring advice to some confused tourists: ‘Change at King’s Cross onto the Pically Dically line’.