In focus: A contemporary take on the British Council film archive collection

A girl wearing a hearing aid sits next to a teacher.

To celebrate the British Council film archive collection's online launch, we commissioned three filmmakers to produce a short film, each inspired by the collection.

The films by John Akomfrah, Penny Woolcock and Mark Cousins, were unveiled as the centrepiece of an exhibition at British Council's London office entitled 'View From Here'.

Penny Woolcock - Jerusalem

'Before starting this edit I selected and logged about forty-five of the films in the British Council archive collection. They present an untroubled narrative of full employment, of nuclear families drinking tea and eating dinner together. Schools are inhabited by well-behaved children with shiny faces and clean hair despite the lack of indoor plumbing. What is concealed is the trauma of war, not just at home but abroad.

I was born in 1950 and grew up in the British Community in Buenos Aires and Montevideo where we ate off willow pattern plates, learnt about kings and queens and adults talked about England as ‘home’ although many of them had never been there.

So the films in this collection feel very familiar, I knew all about this Britain in which everyone was law-abiding, people were as honest as the day was long and jolly children enjoyed adventures in which everything turned out right in the end. Even as a child I found rigid class and gender stratification and unquestioning conformity utterly stifling.

As the saying goes: the more things change the more they stay the same. Social mobility has stalled and is now reversing at high speed, our top statesmen and scientists are still drawn from Oxbridge and we lock up more ‘misfits’ than ever.

We put together a forty-minute assembly [first edit] and in the process tried inter-cutting miners and Cambridge scholars to a Latin soundtrack. We knocked it together as a sort of placeholder but it survived every cut virtually unchanged. Other sequences we laboured over and over. It’s always like that, some things fall into place almost by magic and others you sweat over.

Alex, the editor, repeated shots and echoed sounds. Repetition as a technique does something surprising: it makes you question the image. It was a dreamy process, respecting the beautiful footage we had without being throttled by its Imperial demands.

The title came late. The deaf girls sing the hymn beautifully and the deep meaning of the poem emerged: Jerusalem as an aspiration and not a patriotic invocation. Bring me my arrows of desire!'

Mark Cousins - But Then Again, Too Few to Mention: A Life of Bob

Go into a film archive or image bank and you feel overwhelmed by voices all speaking at once. Such places are towers of Babel. Though the British Council Film archive consists of films made in a relatively short period, and they share certain tones (optimism, the sense of a unified Britain, etc), they are still multi-vocal.

At the start of this project I decided to use a single voice – a fictional man called Bob – who would, as it were, pull the images I had chosen into line. But who would Bob be? As many of the commentaries in the films, and the people who appear in them, are middle class, I decided Bob would be working class – to read against the grain.

The concentration of films from the 1940s and 1950s determined Bob’s approximate age. As I have never lived in the home counties, I wanted him to be a Northerner, so I settled on Liverpool. I have always liked the film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and have long been interested in happiness contra mundum, so I thought we could have a film narrated, like Capra’s, ‘from the stars’, a film of a man looking back on his life. This little film doesn’t believe in heroes in the Hollywood sense.

John Akomfrah - The Silence

'The Silence is a portrait of the Deaf in post war Britain. Using the film Education of The Deaf (1946) as its narrative spine and adding to that material from over thirty films from the British Council Film archive, the film – through multiple strands of one central life – explores the implication of lives lived in silence. Exploring the themes of motherhood, of memory and of solitude, it chronicles the experiences of one woman in her quest for a full and rewarding life.'

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