a question for film as a way of analysing social issues

I’ve been invited to an event on Monday 23 May at Queen Mary, University of London.  It’s part of a research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust that uses film to create an understanding of the transformations and continuities in how migrants manage their health.  The research participants are from Nigeria, Poland and the Indian diaspora; all now live in south London; some are recently arrived and some have lived there a long while.  The research team are Isabel Dyck and Iliena Ortega-Alcazar at Queen Mary and Marta Rabikowska and Matthew Hawkins from the University of East London.  The team are going to screen a first cut of the film and there’s going to be lots of discussion about health, migration, and using film as a method to explore those issues.

Well, I’ve never been involved in making a film, and health geography is not my field!  But their project reminded me of another film made a long time ago, in Poplar in east London.  I found it when I was doing some research in Tower Hamlets Local History Library in the mid-1980s.  I was trying to find out about Poplar’s local council, several of whom were sent to gaol in 1921 for spending all the local rates on the relief of the local poor rather than sending what they should have done to other local authorities like the London County Council.  The very helpful librarian there brought me a videocassette (remember them?), saying that he thought I might be interested in it – and I was – part of the film had news footage of the councillors parading through enthusiastic crowds on their way to prison in 1921.

Councillor Minnie Lansbury on her way to Holloway Prison in 1921. Note the film cameras in the background.

But I also got very interested in the film itself.  Made around 1973, distributed by an outfit called Liberation Films and called Fly a Flag for Poplar, I never managed to find out very much about who exactly had made it.   But it’s a fascinating film and raises some interesting issues about making films and about the relation between the people who make them and the people who are pictured in them.

Now, there are all sorts of heated debates about the ethics of filmmakers representing other people, particularly poor people living in difficult conditions.  The East End of London in particular has a long history of journalists, photographers, filmmakers and artists all creating sensationalist images of what in the late nineteenth century was often called ‘darkest London’.  What Fly a Flag for Poplar tried to do, though, was to make a film as a call to social activism in what was (and to an extent remains) a very poor area of London.  They wanted to get people in Poplar campaigning for their rights.  Hence they showed that newsreel film of an earlier struggle for social justice in Poplar, as an inspiration for efforts in the early 1970s to improve social conditions in the area.

What the film also showed, though, was the importance of the places that the film showed, and the importance of the place where it was itself shown.  The film pictures its own making; you can see people lugging around bulky video cameras with huge battery packs slung over their shoulder, meeting people, talking and filming as they went.  And the film also filmed its own premiere: in a big church in Poplar, which was packed with a huge and excited crowd watching, listening, commenting, catcalling and at the end of the screening bursting with talk and discussion and planning.

So, while what the film showed and told is important, just as striking to me is the attention it pays to the conditions of its own production (or at least some of them – there are no discussions of the editing process, for example), and the emphasis it places on its screening and its audiencing.

And it’s the last point I think I’ll emphasise on Monday.  A film is not just its images; it’s not just a cultural text.  It’s also a product, that’s made in particular ways, and screened in specific places to particular kinds of audience.  For a film like Fly a Flag, that hopes to provoke social activism, those contexts of production and audiencing are crucial parts of how the film works.  Which raises a question: what sorts of social practice should a film of social analysis incorporate into its screenings?

(A postscript – Fly a Flag for Poplar is now listed on the British Film Institute’s Film and TV database, where the people involved in its production are listed.)

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