Working notes and reflections
Watching ‘51 Birch Street’ (2005) directed by Doug Block had so many resonances for me. It made me feel very sad that my mother had died and I could never make a film about her in the way that Block did about his mother and the intriguing story he was able to tell after she died. But ‘51 Birch Street’ also inspired me to think about my own life. Early in my career, I had made a film in Wales in the 1980s which looked at Welsh culture and how the Welsh language had begun to reassert itself after years of decline. I was drawn to this story because I was a second generation Welsh person. And I began to think that in my film for ‘the Story and I’ project, I could trace my history through the family house we have in Wales. A house featured in another film I saw, Elspeth Kidd’s film ‘Stone Street’ (2012). It focused on a house in Trinidad. In the film Kidd says “I am looking for something, I am looking for somewhere – a place of belonging.” The story of the house in Trinidad brought back many memories of our house in Wales. But when I began to think more about this, I realised that I wouldn’t find my story there. I think I felt this partly because I had recently left the BBC and was feeling unsure about my own future direction and where my life was heading.
I began to think more about my own life. A very large part of it has been about the films I have produced and directed over the past thirty years. I realised that that this is the story that I wanted to tell.
I had stored away an enormous amount of material – programme files, note-books, papers, air tickets, pay slips and hadn’t looked at any of it since I had put it all into boxes. I decided to go through some of the boxes and look at some of the material to see what I could find. One of the first things I found was a shoe box with some of my old recce DV tapes in it. I had totally forgotten about them and I had not seen them since I had filmed them. Looking through some of the tapes, they were a revelation. I was there – holding the camera. This was my story. I realised the DV tapes I had shot would give me the opportunity to include me in the story – something I had never been able to do in the television programmes I had made.
There were several tapes from different stages of my career. My early programmes were shot on 16 mm film so all I have are the programmes themselves and some photographs. In the box, I found five tapes from Moscow – these were for a recce for a programme I made in Moscow in 1994. The idea of the television programme was to look at how Moscow had changed since 1991 following the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the programme, I had told the story from the point of view of four Muscovites from different generations. There were more DV tapes in the shoe box from other programmes I had made in Mexico and other places but I decided Moscow would be a good focus for ‘the Story and I’ project film. I had been in Moscow at a crucial time when people were still grappling with what the end of the Soviet era would mean to their lives.
The programme was called ‘Moscow: a city in transition’ and it was broadcast on BBC 2 for an Open University course called ‘Cities’. It was a fairly conventional documentary but I had found some very insightful people during the recce. My approach to film making has always been to find people to tell their own stories rather than using a journalist or celebrity travelling to a location and tell their story. And this was the first time I had been able to use a light weight portable video camera to record the recce.
Watching the DV recce footage allowed me to look back and reflect on what I had done. I reflected that I always used the ‘we’ pronoun about my films. We did this – we did that. This is because I usually worked with an academic consultant on the programme, working out creative ways to tell the academic story in the programme. But this time I had some DV footage I could now explore which I had shot. It wasn’t for use in the final programme but seeing it again in the context of looking for my story was very thought provoking and I was able to use it as the central pivot of my project film.
Another inspiration for ‘the Story and I’ project film was Trinh T Minh- ha. I had seen two of her films at the ICA retrospective in December 2017. It had included a Q and A with Minh-ha and screening of the Fourth Dimension (2001), and Shoot for the Contents (1991). At the Q and A, she spoke about the concept of ‘speaking nearby’ rather than ‘speaking about’. In an interview with Minh-ha by Nancy Chen in the Visual Anthropology review volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992, Minh-ha clarifies what she means by speaking nearby. It “is a speaking that does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is distant from the speaking subject or absent from the speaking place. A speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it.”
This was an important idea for how I then developed ‘my Story and I Project film’. I chose two extracts including Alexandra – an older lady who lives in one of the old apartment blocks of Moscow. The first sequence I shot on the recce – I am developing my relationship with the family. The second sequence is filmed with Alexandra going into her apartment block with subtitles – this is used in the final TV programme. The sequence I shot on the recce with Alexandra and her family is more interactive and personal. My voice can be heard. Not that the final programme isn’t revealing of how the changes in Moscow have not benefitted the older poorer people but the recce sequence does so in a more personal reflective way.
In one of my readings on the essay film from the Cinema and Me (edited by Alisa Lebow 2012), there is a discussion about ‘I’ and ‘We’. In a review of the book by Mary Moylan (2012), she notes that the “I” inheres the “we” – I found this very interesting, given my comments earlier. Moylan tells us that Lebow shares some of her inspiration from film theorist Jean Luc Nancy. Pointing to the formulation of the “singular plural,” Nancy clarifies that the “‘I’ does not exist alone, but always with ‘another.’ I understood this more as I looked at the DV footage. I felt that not only had I captured the lived experience of the characters but also that there was an aspect of me there as well.
In an article by Laura Rascaroli – the Essay Film: problems, definitions, textual commitments in Framework 49, No. 2, 2008, pp. 24–47, she says that ‘the essay film disrespects traditional boundaries, is transgressive both structurally and conceptually, it is self-reflective and self-reflexive.” I could see the power of this in the fragments of DV footage I had shot myself in Moscow. The DV recce sequence with Masha Filepenko and ‘Sharkey’ reveal a moment in time in Moscow in the 1990s more than any commentary could do. The freedom of being able to shoot the material myself without a film crew allowed me to develop my relationship with Alexandra and Masha which comes across in the DV recce shots that I include in ‘the story and I’ project film. The light weight camera equipment which is less obtrusive also allowed me to do this.
The development of low cost video equipment has been key to how story telling is developing. Richard Leacock was one of the first people to develop portable 16mm synchronous sound and film cameras. These cameras were at the heart of “direct cinema” – later Leacock worked with Hi 8 cameras. In ‘the Art of Home Movies’ (1993) he says “ let’s invent a new verb, the act of videoing is a delight, a pleasure, like singing or sketching with pencil on paper, capturing the essence of places, people, situations, tragedies, comedies… life as we see and hear it around us. Then to go home, not to a studio; home, and edit, creating a bridge to ones friends and yes, people you don’t even know who might be interested in this evocation of what was experienced.” I felt this watching the DV tapes again and editing them into ‘the Story and I’ project film. The energy and sense of excitement that I had experienced in Moscow comes across in the DV tapes and captures the essence of my time in Moscow.
There is no doubt that the development of low cost video and phones has democratised story telling. Two relevant readings for me were the ‘American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: the Cambridge Turn’ (2013) and ‘the Autobiographical Documentary in America’ (2002) where Jim Lane comments that ‘the proliferation of inexpensive video technology, individuals with little formal training in film technology have become documentarists.’ ‘By presenting their own lives in film and video nonfiction, documentarists have reversed the homogenizing effects of mass technology and mediation.’ Lane sees the autobiographical documentary form as ‘an alternative to the traditional postures assumed by more popular forms of documentary.’
This change of emphasis and autobiographical thinking was behind a project I developed in 2004 – nearly twenty years after Moscow – not as a TV producer but as a Project Director. In the shoe box, I had found another set of DV tapes which I had recorded in Cairo for the project called My Life. The theme was autobiographical with a question of ‘where am I now?’ and ‘where do I want to be by 2015?’ The project included young girls taking photographs of their life. I had shot some footage of the girls as they were having fun with the sound equipment and showing us the photos they had taken.
The idea of the project was to give young girls aged between 14 – 20 – some who hadn’t been to school – the opportunity to make their own digital stories with photographs and audio. We used disposable cameras – this was a time before smart phones. To do this we developed creative digital story-telling workshops with partners in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. The digital stories were uploaded on the BBC Arabic web-site. The project provoked a very big response across the Arabic speaking world and generated huge debate with the listeners and users of the Arabic web-site.
But the interesting aspect of the project was that for the girls it was taking part in the workshops as much as seeing their stories published that was the most important thing. This was the first time they had taken photographs. I reflected on Susan Sontag’s comments in her book ‘On Photography (1977): ‘photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow…. each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.’ Looking at the work of Jacob Riis and Dorethea Lange, photographs also remind us of our history. W. Eugene Smith said ‘a photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, the photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought’.
In the film ‘5 broken Cameras’ (2011: Emad Burnat and Guy David) it is possible to see how quickly Emad developed a sense of empowerment by being given a camera. His camera became a way of uniting his fellow citizens, publicising their struggle and becoming a witness for posterity when the Israeli authorities sent in troops to deprive them of land to create a defensive barrier of steel and wire that later became a high concrete wall.
Looking back at the project ‘My Life’, I could see how empowered the girls were by taking their own photographs. This was the first time they had been able to take photographs and their enjoyment in the DV footage is palpable. They took photos of their own lives and were excited. They took photos of their families and sometimes of their environment touching on health and education issues.
In Susan Sontag’s words ‘Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.’ This was so true with the girls in Cairo. The project in Cairo was before the Arab Spring and the photos are a reminder of life at a different time. I am not sure we could do the same project again. Telling your own story is a powerful moment in time – as I have also discovered making ‘the Story and I’ project film. Having the opportunity to look back through my DV tapes and putting them in the context of some of the readings and other materials on ‘the Story and I’ project – I have found my story inside my work.
Some highlights from films I have produced and directed
City Stories (1998-99)
Moscow – a city in transition
More than any other city in the world, Moscow is a city that has gone through huge changes over the past decade In the post – communist era, Moscow is at the brunt of global forces. There has been a market led attempt to transform the economy and make Moscow a flagship of a regenerated and forward-looking Russia. But the people of Moscow are living in very uncertain times. This programme explores the changes that the people of Moscow have witnessed over the last ten years. Through the stories of four different generations we glimpse the highs and lows of life in Moscow.
Cities in a hurry
This programme juxtaposes life in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, both competing with each other to become the Smart city of the South-east Asian region. The film features diverse groups within the cities – an internet company, two architects and Poetic Ammo, a Rap Band in Kuala Lumpur.
Sydney – Mardi Gras March and Festival
Sydney has become a world focus for the gay and lesbian communities. How did this city become such a focus for the gay and lesbian communities worldwide? Part of the answer lies in the Mardi Gras March and Festival — an event advertised through lesbian and gay networks the world over. Twenty years ago, at the first Mardi Gras, many people were arrested. Now it is an event to which thousands of people go. The city, once again, as the focus of international interconnections, a different kind of globalisation.
Tales of the New Pacific (1998)
Family ties – the story of Adeline Yen Mah
A film based on the best selling autobiography of Adeline Yen Mah. Set in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. Adeline rediscovers her past as she traces her roots back to the Shanghai of the 1930s.
The Struggle for Democracy in South Korea
Documentary investigation into the democratisation of South Korea. Through the story of the making of a feature film, I explore the struggle for Democracy in South Korea.
Environmental Policy in an International Context (produced and directed 1995-96)
The rainforest of Western Canada is one of the oldest old growth forest in the world. Yet a large multi-national company is logging there. This film chronicles the struggle to preserve the area.
The Shape of the World ( Series Producer and Producer and Director of 6 of the programmes 1993-95)
Co-production with Annenberg/PBS, USA)
Imagining New Worlds
Mexico, after the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, was invaded by the Spanish. What they found and attempted to destroy was a flourishing culture – one very different from their own. The programme explores the world of the Maya – ancient and modern. The programme is a voyage of discovery through the eyes of Doreen Massey, an eminent Geographer. What she discovers are both new worlds and new ways of imagining the world.
Reflections on a small screen
This documentary focuses on the global strategy of three of the world’s largest media companies, Warner – now the biggest communications company in the world; BBC World-wide, whose news operation is competing with CNN in East Asia and MTV which is the biggest satellite company in the world.
Documentary using music and dance. Hawaii was one the first places in the world to develop a mass tourist industry. The programme examines how the image of Hawaii as a tropical paradise for tourists was created. This was the era of radio and ‘Hawaii Calls’ – radio played a major part in creating the image of Hawaii as the home of surfing and hula dancing girls.
This pattern has been repeated around the world. As a result people are searching for `unspoilt’ places. Malaysia is an area of the world which has recently begun to experience major development in the tourist industry. The island of Penang seems to be well on the way to ‘Hawaiianisation’, as high rise beach hotels sprout at a rapid rate. Even in such remote places as Borneo, the fabled home of head-hunters, tourism is taking firm root. The consequences on local traditional culture is only just starting. In Hawaii, after a century of tourism, they realise that only by preserving authentic Hawaiian culture will it be possible to maintain the tourist industry.
Alaska – the Last Frontier?
This documentary gives a historical perspective on how native Alaskans lost their communities, cultural identities and control over their own lands, through Russian and then American colonialization. This is not a romantic look at indigenous peoples, but shows clearly how enmeshed modern culture is in their lives.
Mali has the richest and most sophisticated musical heritage in all Africa. This film tells the story of Bajourou – a group of four musicians. Bajourou started out playing acoustic music in the days when microphones and amplifiers were still not the norm. Each of the musicians show us a different aspect of life in Mali.
The World of the Dragon
Shanghai is China’s largest city with a population of just under 13 million. At the head of the Yangtse River basin, Shanghai is ‘roaring’ economically.
The overseas Chinese are ‘in’ the West, but not ‘of’ the West. They are part of the Chinese Diaspora, the transnational network of connections The programme traces some of these family connections all over the world.
Health and Disease ( produced and directed 1992)
Health Care in Zimbabwe
Two programmes investigating the health issues of Zimbabwe, including the rapid development of aids.
Developing World (Series producer and producer and director of 5 of the Series – 1990-92) A co-production with Oxfam and the EC
Out of Development?
Brazil is one of the biggest countries in the world but two thirds of the people live below the poverty line. This programme explores some of the history of Brazil.
In Search of Identity
Through music and poetry, this film tells the story of some of the immigrants to Sao Paulo and how they are actively contributing to the development of their adopted home town.
The Cutting Edge of Progress
This programme chronicles some of the accounts of the people who were forced to move when the Kariba Dam was built in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe in the 1950s.
This film tells the story of some of the women in Zimbabwe since Independence in 1980. In the words of the women themselves, using drama, poetry and music, we explore some of the complex aspects of life for women in the new Zimbabwe.
Mozambique Under Attack
One third of all health clinics were destroyed during the war in Mozambique – the government has not been able to rebuild them because of World Bank-IMF imposed spending limits. Instead Mozambique has been forced to rely on aid to rebuild them. The children living on the streets of Mozambique are also a symbol of The World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programme. How have these economic policies and the war affected the people of Mozambique and what are their hopes for the future?
Environment ( Series producer 1988- 90)
Valued Environments: Environmental Values
A film documentary investigating the history of environmentalism told through the stories of the formation of the English Lake District National park and Yosemite National Park in the United States.
Film documentary. Endau-Rompin is a national park in Malaysia. It is under severe pressure from logging companies. Malaysia is also under pressure from Western governments over deforestation. What does it do? And how can Malaysians identify the solutions and determine their country’s strategy?
Living With Drought
Film documentary. Before the Ethiopian famine, the drought in the Sahel, one thousand miles to the west, was already fifteen years old. In Niger, solutions adopted by the communities themselves for managing the land have helped to halt environmental degradation.
Bangkok – A City Speaks
Film documentary. Bangkok is one of the fastest growing cities in the world – an economic success story. But watching its fast-track growth is like watching a time-lapse film. Its traffic problems make ours look trivial – it can take two hours to drive one mile. And as underground water is used in ever greater quantities, the city is sinking at the rate of three inches every year.
No Place To Hide
Film documentary. Parts of North West Ontario look like the moon – so much so
that NASA used the area for astronaut training. Under pressure from environmentalists and politicians, the mining companies have been trying for the past ten years to return the land to its original state. One of the solutions – higher smokestacks – has only succeeded in exporting the problem downwind.
The Heat Is On
Film documentary. The Earth is warming up – that’s definite. But how much? And how do we make policies when we don’t know – something almost universally acknowledged as necessary if we are to avoid catastrophe. This is what a conference in Geneva in November 1990 met to discuss.
Walk Softly On The Earth
Film documentary. In Bergen in May 1990, Ministers from European governments met to consider international strategies aimed at halting and reversing environmental deterioration. Many outside the West were critical of the rich countries’ initiatives. In India, the manufacture of refrigerators using ozone-unfriendly CFCs is in full swing. At a conference in Delhi in September 1990, delegates said that if the rich countries want to reduce greenhouse gases they’ll have to foot the bill.
Social Issues and Social Intervention ( Producer and Director 1987-88)
The Making of Childhood
The creation of childhood is examined in this programme using Neil Postman’s theory of technological change in the 15th Century. Dramatic re-construction of Victorian school and medieval life.
The Disappearance of Childhood
This programme continues to examine Neil Postman’s theory of the disappearance of childhood as a result of television. We then examine how children are in fact active agents in their socialisation by examining anthropological work in Peru and Jamaica.
A look at the history of The Thomas Coram Foundation and Barnados and at how the care of disadvantaged young children has changed since the nineteenth century.
A Question of evidence
Changing Britain, Changing World: Geographical Perspectives ( Producer and Director 1984-86)
South West Donegal I and II
Two programmes about the history of South West Donegal and the changes in rural life that have taken place. We tell the story of the Fuller family who epitomise life in this part of Ireland.
Made in Dundee
A film documentary about the history of the jute industry in Dundee and its links with Bengal. We then examine how ‘high-tech’ industry has replaced the jute industry.
A film documentary that compares Bangladesh’s response to two periods of food crisis in 1974 and 1984. We filmed in Bangladesh during the crisis of 1984, concentrating on agriculture, food production, distribution, environment and community. We use the story of a village called Katuli, a day’s journey from Dhaka, to help us make the points.
Agriculture and Conservation
A film documentary about the history of agriculture in Britain since the Second World War.
Understanding Pregnancy and Childbirth ( Assistant producer and director 1984)
Pregnancy – A Time to Grow
Film documentary about ante-natal care and different approaches. Intercut interviews of women talking about their experiences with activity footage of examinations.
This blog is about some of the things that are surprising me as I grapple with leaving the BBC after thirty years. I haven’t written a diary over the years but I have kept all my old note-books. I also have a lot of photos and with them I will try to piece together some interesting and surprising stories. This blog is really for me but if you find it interesting and surprising I will be happy.
My career at the BBC has spanned an unbelievable time of change. I have been interested in international development issues and the role of the media from my early days as a Producer/director at the BBC in the 1980s. My early programmes were mainly British based but in 1984, I made a programme about Dundee and how the Jute industry had transformed the city. I had the idea to look at how jute was grown in Bangladesh and the links with Dundee. I was able to raise some additional funding to go to Bangladesh and at the same time we made a film about how Bangladesh had recovered from one of worst famines in its history – ten years earlier. We filmed in a village, ten hours up river from Dhaka – a long boat trip with film (16 mm) equipment – through flooded areas. We arrived at the cut-off village – we were working with a local NGO who were staging a puppet show about how to tackle the issues of landlessness and the consequence of poverty. There was a huge amount of energy and humour which I was able to highlight in the programme. This was the beginning of my interest in international development and people telling their own story. With new technology the ability of people telling their own story has never been stronger.
‘Troed’, as it is affectionately known by the family, has been in the family since the early 1900s when our maternal great grandmother bought the farm. Dating back to the 17th Century, it is the original farmhouse of the area and is of significant historic interest today. Now ‘Troed’ is part of a hamlet of former miner’s cottages built in the 19th century revealing the rich history of coal in the area.
Troedrhiwtrwyn Farm is full of character and has retained many of its original features. It is constructed in stone on a south facing hillside near Pontypridd. Retaining many of the original features, it includes two living areas with low oak beams – each room has a large inglenook fireplace with bake ovens and oak lintels. There are two stone winding staircases leading to the upper floor comprising three bedrooms and one bathroom.
The house is reached by a private drive leading to a large garden on two levels. As you reach the house, there is a large south facing terrace with a Summer House and barbeque space. On the lower level there is a large grass lawned area on the lower level with mature trees.
Although Troedrhiwtrwyn farm was built in the 17th Century, there is evidence that the site was settled by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th Century as a station on their pilgrimage route from England to west Wales, probably because of its location. The farm is situated on a south-facing hillside overlooking a river valley near the present-day market town of Pontypridd. The original exposed stone of the house – up to one metre thick – attests to this early history.
Legend has it that a noteworthy and celebrated inhabitant of the farm was Evan James, the author of the Welsh national anthem – Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers). According to family legend, his son James James was walking one day in January 1856 on the banks of the river when the melody for Hen Wlad fy Nhadau came to him. When he gave the tune to his father, Evan James was able to compose the words of the present-day Welsh national anthem.
A memorial to Evan James and his son, in the form of two figures, representing Poetry and Music, stands in Ynysangharad Park in Pontypridd.
The Rhondda Heritage Park demonstrates the rich history of the area. Part of the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery, Trehafod, it is one of the top heritage and cultural visitor attractions in South Wales. Facilities include the ‘Shift in Time’ Guided Tour which shows what life was like for those working in the mine.
Substantial remains of a Norman stone-built castle, raised by the de Londres family. The initial earthwork castle was established by William de Londres, soon after 1100.
Idyllically situated beside the river Ewenny, the joining point of two major Welsh counties of Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan, the castle was built to guard a strategic fording point.
You can still cross the river via the stepping stones at low tide, but take care as the tide changes quickly and you might get stranded on the wrong side. there is a pathway that leads from the stones to Merthyw Mawr village and sand dunes.
The Bunch of Grapes has been in the same family for 30 years and has evolved to survive as the climate changes.
It’s become a thriving gastro pub and a real-ale lover’s paradise that continues to develop and react to the changing market and the needs of people.
The Bunch of Grapes of today is a far cry from its former back street boozer image from its days serving the nearby canal and chainworks. The introduction of an in-house delicatessen, cookery classes, tutored beer tastings, a beer academy and regular beer and food festivals have all helped to establish this pub as the best in Wales!
To the rear of the Bunch is the only remaining double-lock system from the Glamorganshire canal, this impressive industrial superhighway of the late nineteenth century was a vital link for the steel and coal industry between Cardiff and Merthyr, long since buried under the A470 only small sections remain. The Pontypridd canal conservation group has been beavering away for the last few years trying to uncover and restore a vital piece of local history. The Bunch has been committed to helping whenever possible as the Bunch‘s history has always been linked to the canal and the Brown Lennox Chainworks. A selection of authentic photographs from this era is on display in the Bunch courtesy of RCT and Aberdare Library.