Friday, August 19, 2005

The British Empire in Colour

I saw an interesting program on WGBH (Boston's public television station) last night, The British Empire in Colour.

This was a documentary, based on color film footage of Britain and India in the 1920s that was apparently shot by a documentary filmmaker (the British footage) and amateurs (the India footage). It was really quite remarkable. I had always assumed that color film wasn't available for small cameras (16mm, or whatever gauge was considered small at the time) until well after the first commercial-grade Hollywood productions in color, which were Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the late '30s.

Another remarkable aspect of this program is that the India footage is mostly made up of vacation shots of street scenes, parties for Indian notables, military processions, and expat lawn parties. Using skillful editing, narration, actor voiceovers, and dubbed sound effects, the modern producers have created an intriguing picture of life during the late era of the Raj.

Besides the entertainment value of this program, the process of making such a film is very interesting to me, for two reasons. First, I was a broadcasting and film major during my undergraduate years at Boston University, and at one time I hoped to become a documentary filmmaker. Although I did shoot some documentaries as a student and later on my own with a video camera and iMovie, the closest I actually came in my professional career to being a documentary filmmaker was working in broadcast news in Taiwan. TV news is kind of a documentary process -- pictures and narration are cobbled together in short chunks to tell brief stories about what's going on. The concept that 80-year-old home movies can be turned into an excellent overview of an important era of modern history is not only testament to the skill of the modern producers of this film, but also how every-day relics and records from past eras can help modern people understand history. At one time, historical documentaries tended to rely on interviews with experts and modern footage of ruins and old buildings. Fifteen years ago, Ken Burns' The Civil War really opened the door to letters, photographs, and other everyday records being turned into powerful documentary films. The British Empire in Colour continues this tradition, and I am certain 50 years from now the e-mails, websites, cameraphone images, and blogs will form the basis of a new generation of historical documentaries.

Second, as a student of history, I am interested in the potential of film to bring history to life in color. The fact that the producers of The British Empire in Colour were able to find so much footage from India in the 1920s indicates to me that similar color footage of life in China during the same era probably exists as well. The British Empire was a very large presence in China at this time, most notably in Hong Kong and "concessions" in Shanghai and other coastal cities, and I would expect amateur filmmakers there probably shot street scenes, expat parties, and other spectacles of Chinese life that are long gone. It would be wonderful if some of that footage was unearthed and made public.

The British Film Institute talked with some of the producers of The British Empire in Colour, and I found a few quotes to be very revealing of the processes and concerns that they had to deal with:

Adrian Woods:

A whole team did the work. I've been looking for film for twenty years and when I first thought about material for Empire I was astonished how much more was discovered by the team, whose work should be appreciated. It came from national and regional archives who have suddenly become to realise the value of private film as a record of social history. We go along as a team and ask them what they have in colour, which is not a way that film is usually categorised. We appeal for material on radio and in newspapers and in TV interviews. But the principal source is regional archives and collections.

Lucy Carter:

We researched all over the world. We think we saw over 1000 hours of film. In-house we ordered over 100 hours of film, of which 20-30 hours went into the edit for each one-hour programme. That's the sort of percentage we worked with. ... We never aimed to tell the whole story of the British Empire. Obviously we are limited by the footage we can find, and that gives us our starting point. From then on we look into the stories to work out which stories we can tell using those images, but also using the other elements which are the letters and diaries, which are just as important to show the emotional experience of Empire.

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