The Molly Dineen Collection: Volume One Review
The past few years have seen a concerted, and continuing, effort from the British Film Institute to map out British documentary filmmaking and reveal its various gems and delights to a discerning audience. The key players, movements and institutions have been treated to lavish boxed-sets and standalone special editions, but so too have the lesser known and the unsung. There’s an equal billing at play allowing the same care and attention to be afforded to both the major and the minor, the filmmaker who has appeared in all the history books and the filmmaker who has appeared in none. And this is exactly the point: a re-writing, or re-distribution, of history so that the limelight no longer focuses entirely on a handful of central producers, directors and film units. Instead it is becoming slowly shared amongst immense pools of talent, whether they be working during the silent era or the 1970s, in film or with video, making travelogues or polemics.
This sense of equality is perfectly demonstrated by two new collections to be released either in part or entirely during 2011. Each will be devoted to single filmmaker, extend to three volumes and come with plenty of extras plus the usual hefty booklets. The key difference is that one of these directors is very well-known and arguably the most highly regarded of all British documentary makers. He’s been the subject of documentaries himself, as well as a number of monographs and a previous DVD collection (not to mention a number of his shorts also appearing across various compilations). In other words there is a certain name recognition at play and perhaps even a pre-existing demand for these discs: one great filmmaker and his complete works released in instalments and presented in the best possible fashion. (Or at least that is the hope.) The other director is somewhat lesser known though hardly one who has been lacking in acclaim. Various awards and glowing reviews have peppered her career, yet it is one that has taken place, almost entirely, within the medium of television. For all the plaudits the audience is ultimately fleeting, either there for transmission or not; in some cases repeats have never occurred and in all cases VHS or DVD releases have been non-existent. In this respect she’s in as much need of a resurrection/reclamation as any of the other documentary makers the BFI has focussed its attentions on in recent years. As with those directors we are afforded, for the first time, the possibility to consider the vast majority of her work within a relatively short space of time. No longer must we wait for that initial transmission - often years apart - and rely solely upon it. Now we can have to hand much the same as we will for that other director: one great filmmaker and her (near) complete works released in instalments and presented in the best possible fashion. Indeed, from the BFI’s point of view the treatment is effectively exactly the same. The quality of the filmmaking is there, and so it should be matched by the quality of its DVD incarnation. The only real difference relates to recognition and reputation - but then how are you going to alter or enforce such aspects if you don’t treat the unjustly unsung and the already canonised with equal weight and respect?
I have intentionally left the two directors unnamed so as to avoid any potential clouding of the above argument. The bottom line is that the BFI are to be trusted with their documentary releases, to the point where I would imagine some are now happy to simply blind buy any new non-fiction discs owing purely to the quality of those which have preceded them. Of course, the directors’ concealment doesn’t really work as one of them has their name in big letters at the top of this page and, furthermore, this piece would be something of a perverse promotion if it somehow managed to avoid naming the filmmaker in hand for its entirety. And so the revelation: the two directors gaining their own three-volume collections courtesy of the BFI are Humphrey Jennings and Molly Dineen. Now that they have been named the inevitable question is are they equals? Is Dineen as good a filmmaker as Jennings? He is, after all, the man behind Listen to Britain and “Fires Were Started”, to my mind two of the greatest works ever produced for the cinema. In a way it’s an unfair comparison as the two were working under very different circumstances, during different eras and with different methods; only their nationality and choice of documentary as their medium provides a genuine, concrete link. Yet they, and their respective bodies of work, are arguably as interesting as one another and as equally deserving of a reputation as amongst Britain’s finest non-fiction filmmakers - and, indeed, the BFI treatment. The various volumes will be reviewed individually as and when they get a release (only the first of the Jennings collection has been announced to date with the remaining volumes expected in 2012) so any further discussion of Jennings can wait until then. But hopefully the point I am trying to make is clear enough and we can now move on to the discs at hand.
Molly Dineen began making films in the mid-eighties whilst at the National Film and Television School. Thanks to a combination of luck, good fortune and determination her first year student film earned itself a screening on the BBC as part of the prestigious 40 Minutes slot. Since that transmission she has continued to work in the world of television documentary, initially for the BBC and subsequently for Channel 4. Over the course of their three volumes the BFI’s Molly Dineen Collection will take in all but a few of these films, encompassing that very first effort and her two other documentaries for the 40 Minutes strand; the multi-episode series In the Company of Men and The Ark; the three feature-length docs Geri, The Lords’ Tale and The Lie of the Land; and her ten-minute portrait of Tony Blair which screened across all four television channels as a 1997 Labour Party Political Broadcast. The only omissions are her two 30-minute contributions to the Operation Raleigh series (made in 1988 whilst still at the National Film and Television School) and 1990’s The Pick, the Shovel and the Open Road, which screened as part of Channel 4’s Cutting Edge strand. No reason has been given for their lack of an appearance, though one may assume - given Dineen’s heavy involvement in these releases - that the decision was either ultimately hers or relates to complicated rights issues (or, perhaps, a combination of the two). Nonetheless, three volumes over six discs housing nine documentaries - some totalling a number of hours’ worth of screen time - is more than enough to allow Dineen her due.
Volume One concentrates its attentions on the 40 Minutes pieces and the 1995 series In the Company of Men. The approach isn’t strictly chronological, simply because The Ark (made in 1993 and comprised of four hour-long episodes) requires two discs itself and will therefore occupy the whole of the second volume. (Volume Three will house everything from 1997 to 2007.) Yet chronology isn’t a major concern when it comes to Dineen, simply because her quality control has been so high over the years. Certainly, we can see themes and techniques develop and hone themselves from documentary to documentary, but there is little need to allocate a ‘starting point’ title or to watch in a strict order; the unwitting viewer could happen across any of the films to earn themselves a place on one of these discs and immediately recognise a genuine talent. With that said, the very fact that Volume One of The Molly Dineen Collection does unite certain titles cannot help but prompt the making of connections and noting of various traits and tics. As such the following review will primarily consider just how they inform each other. Interestingly, those elements which led to Home from the Hill’s television appearance - that luck, good fortune and determination - emerge as being key to her entire oeuvre, showing themselves time and again.
Home from the Hill came about through Dineen’s friendship with Harry Hook (a filmmaker himself, he would later direct The Kitchen Toto and the 1991 adaptation of Lord of the Flies). As a result she became acquainted with his father, Lieutenant Colonel Hilary Hook who left the UK at 19 to serve in the Army, went on to become the military attaché for Sudan and eventually settled in Kenya where he ran safaris until his retirement. With such a background he, of course, emerged as a fascinating subject for a documentary portrait, one that started out as a look at the end of colonialism but would eventually become something slightly different. The colonial angle remains, but it is given a different flavour courtesy of Hook’s return to the England. Evicted from his Kenyan home we follow his adjustment to a world he no longer recognises and the struggles of self-sufficiency.
The ‘proper’ colonial documentary surfaced in Dineen’s next 40 Minutes film, My African Farm, which serves as a sequel/companion/gender spin on Home from the Hill. Here the subject was Sylvia Richardson, resident in Africa since the 1931 and the age of 21, plus the neighbour of Hilary Hook. There is no explicit nod to this connection made in either piece, but it’s easy to see how Home from the Hill informed My African Farm. Both are portraits of an ageing Brit who seem stuck in another era; as Richardson notes when mentioning that she is due her spend her 40th Christmas on the same farm, “basically everything is exactly the same.” Their attitudes to race and class are entirely out of time, which of course only enhances their fascination as filmic subject matter. Yet My African Farm also broadens out the Kenyan scenes of Home from the Hill to offer a broader portrait. The servants and their offspring are just as central to Dineen’s attentions, creating a dual portrait, as it were, and a considerably richer picture.
The final 40 Minutes piece was entitled Heart of the Angel and concentrates its gaze on the Angel Islington over the course of two days and one night. Unlike the earlier films, there is no central focus but rather a mostly fly-on-the-wall approach as Dineen captures the chaos of broken elevators, harassed employees and disgruntled passengers. Workers from all walks of life are interviewed throughout during the quieter moments, but this is arguably the closest Dineen has gotten to ‘direct cinema’. The camera points and records, we sit back and take in the details; the entire film dripping in stress and dissatisfaction. Yet opting for such easy categorisation is a slippery slope; as Patrick Russell noted when including Heart of the Angel in his 100 British Documentaries book, this is also “a film stationed somewhere between the crafted ‘day-in-the-life’ single-film documentaries of yore, and the disreputable docusoap series of television’s then near future.”
This lack of a simple definition also makes itself known for In the Company of Men. Ostensibly another piece of proto-docusoap, in this case following the Welsh Guards at close quarters during a tour of Northern Ireland, it prompts comparisons with another such BBC series, albeit one made almost twenty years earlier, 1976’s Sailor. Both take the military as their prime focus (the Army for Dineen, the Navy for Sailor), cover a significant period of time and opt for a chronological format. Yet whilst In the Company of Men is by far the shorter series (three hour-long episodes as opposed to ten 30-minute instalments), it is also arguably the richer. The reason for this is Dineen’s combination of methods. As well as the docusoap elements she also maintains the portraiture approach of her earlier films (the first two episodes, entitled The Commander and The Novice, take particular individuals as their main source of attention) and is also quite happy to intervene into the action. Time and again we’ll hear a voice from behind the camera - which Dineen herself operates - not only to interview those in its gaze but also as an aid to the audience; “Crispin, can you explain…” is a common question, thereby allowing us into the enclosed world of regimental life.
It’s important to make clear, however, that Dineen’s presence is not a heavy one in the manner of a Nick Broomfield, say, or a Louis Theroux. It’s more a case that she understands how her being there is affecting what she is recording and therefore has no qualms in acknowledging that. There is no point, for example, in hiding the manner in which both Hilary Hook and Major Crispin Black (the titular Commander of In the Company of Men) will, on occasion, play up to both Dineen and her camera. One particular moment in Home from the Hill has Sarah Jeans, the film’s sound recordist, enter the frame as Hook struggles with an electric tin opener . Yet whilst it make break the documentary’s ‘fidelity’, it nonetheless demonstrates a key aspect of Hook’s character at that particular point. To lose it simply as a means of adhering to one particular documentary technique would be to lose a fundamental characteristic of the man she is filming. Moreover, given that in the 40 Minutes pieces Dineen has just that amount of time to portray her subjects, the filmmaking needs to be lean and able to rely on such telling moments. If that means combining ’direct cinema’, fly-on-the-wall reality TV/docusoap methods, more personal techniques and a bit of rule breaking then so be it. Of course, such a mixture also gives us an end result that is distinctly Dineen’s own.
Another aspect that comes to the fore in Volume One’s inclusions, and therefore also feels somewhat Dineen-ian if you will, is the choice of subject matter and the questions relating to which figures are treated to the main focus. If you were to approach her films from a perspective of class then it is the upper reaches that are predominantly documented. Of course, a broader canvas piece such as Heart of the Angel, with its range of characters from ticket collectors to night cleaners, offer up a mass of different backgrounds and walks of life, but then arguably no-one is central. This is a portrait of a place, not so much its people (though understandably they are key). In the Company of Men could be similarly seen as a broad canvas work, courtesy of its covering of an entire regiment, and over a significant amount of time at that. Yet at three hours in length as opposed to just 40 minutes, this canvas is able to have some of its characters genuinely stand out. As already noted two of the episodes are titled The Commander and The Novice, and so it is these men who become the main point of interest. However, the novice in this case is not a squaddie but Second Lieutenant Bruce MacInnes, fresh from officer training at Sandhurst. Meanwhile, Major Crispin Black, the Commander in question, has a similar background and is ex-Harrow and Cambridge. The squaddie element of the regiment does garner some attention, but never to the same degree as either MacInnes or Black. To them we can also add Hilary Hook and My African Farm’s Sylvia Richardson, also members of the more privileged class; Richardson, for example, has six servants, whittled down from an initial 25 following the death of her second husband.
Interestingly Dineen was able to make these people the subject of her films through personal connections. As said, she knew Hook through his son and then subsequently became acquainted with Richardson as she was a neighbour of Hook. In the Company of Men, on the other hand, came about as she had lodged at the home of historian Antony Beevor, another ex-Sandhurst man, whilst he was researching Inside the British Army and found the subject fascinating. It is more than tempting to presume that connections were made through him as a means of getting the series off the ground. As such you feel that Dineen’s background must have been somewhat similar and no doubt goes some way to allowing this very solid connection between filmmaker and subject. Indeed, they seem to feel comfortable with Dineen and vice versa, to the point where you sense that she is able to persevere with them if need be to get them to open up or answer with complete honesty. More importantly this connection also prevents the films from being potentially mean spirited. The likes of Hook and Richardson may be from a bygone era, whilst Black and MacInnes come from a walk of life that may be entirely unknown to the vast majority of viewers, yet this never once means that Dineen presents them as cartoon-ish or ‘other’. Indeed, given the casual racism of Hook and Richardson such a skewed portrait would perhaps be tempting. Likewise Black and MacInnes both come across as slightly dislikeable individuals, especially Black as he liberally sprinkles “shagging” into his vocabulary as an expletive, listens to Mozart during a rare bit of downtime or shows off in front of Dineen with a vague bit of embarrassment. Yet each of the films gets the more unappealing elements out of the way early on and slowly we warm to each of these characters as we notice just how sensitive these portraits are. For my own part, reactions to and perceptions of Major Crispin Black by the end of the final episode of In the Company of Men were entirely unrecognisable to those initial judgements during episode one.
The bottom line, ultimately, is that a great subject is a great subject - and it is here where Dineen has found the continual good fortune. Hook, in particular, is a documentarian’s dream, continually coming out with quotable lines or doing wonderful things. I could quote for paragraphs so just a few choice moments: on making it from Kenya to the UK he sums up his trip as one in which he has “lost my gun, lost my baggage, lost my temper”; on describing his new flat in England to a friend he sums it with “couldn’t swing a bloody cockroach in her”; a shopping trip for food simply results with a collection of spirits in his basket; elsewhere we have the tale of a servant eating his goldfish raw and another involving the word “arseholes” whilst he was still at school. Dineen could have simply switched on the camera and walked away, Hook is that good a subject - and arguably the key reason as to why Home from the Hill remains so fondly remembered to this day. But then each of her films are just as rich in character and incident. Some are perhaps not so overt in either, although in the case of In the Company of Men, for example, this would simply be too much. It doesn’t require larger-than-life dialogue and incidents; here the minutiae of regimental life is just as fascinating.
There is another element at play here and it’s also one that again demonstrates how lucky/fortunate Dineen has been in choosing where to focus her attentions. Hers are films that manage to capture a very particular moment in time and as such serve as distinctive time capsules. That regimental detail of In the Company of Men is one that arguably no longer remains courtesy of the continual amalgamation of regiments over the years since the series’ production. Major Crispin Black, meanwhile, has gone on to be awarded an MBE, become an intelligence consultant, an author and a vocal opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In other words he remains an important figure, yet here is his 1995 self perfectly encapsulated on film. The same is also true of Hook and Richardson, representations of the last living signs of British colonialism, and the Angel tube station prior to its massive rebuild in the early nineties. (Anyone looking for reasons as to why it deserved such work need only watch Heart of the Angel’s opening minutes.) Of course, in all of these cases Dineen could never have been absolutely certain that she was capturing something soon to be lost, or at least to the extent that is has been lost, yet it adds immensely to the richness of these documentaries so many years down the line.
By extension, the placement of so many rich films next to each other - as both volume one and the entire Molly Dineen Collection do - can only help further. No longer tied down by transmission dates and the slim possibility of repeat screenings, it becomes doubly interesting to be able to draw such certain parallels between the various works and realise just how coherent and consistently impressive they are. There isn’t the reliance on memories from 1995 (the one and only time In the Company of Men has been shown on British television), for example, in conjunction with other one-off screenings, rather it is all there right in front of us eagerly awaiting a rediscovery and, for the first time, a proper consideration as a whole. Needless to say, anyone who has been following the BFI’s documentary output over the past few years should snap up Volume One immediately, place that pre-order for the imminent Volume Two (with a review also due shortly) and eagerly await the arrival of the concluding volume in early November.
Volume One of The Molly Dineen Collection, and the same will be true of future volumes, comes in the form of a two-disc set encoded for all regions. The first disc houses the three 40 Minutes documentaries, plus their relevant special features, whilst the second contains the entirety of In the Company of Men and its attendant extra. As television pieces made during the eighties and nineties, each of the films comes in a ratio of 1.33:1 which the DVDs maintain here. (Fans of archive television will also be happy to hear that the original 40 Minutes title sequences are also maintained where applicable.) Utilising original analogue video masters the discs, at the very least, look as good as the original broadcasts did, if not better. The booklet notes that every effort has been made to present them in the highest quality possible, and there is no reason to think otherwise. The image is consistently clean as is the audio with only minor flaws making themselves known as we should expect from such material. Note, however, that optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are not present.
The special features can be split into three: the original cut of Home from the Hill made in 1985; newly recorded interview material with Dineen and others; and the accompanying booklet. The original Home from the Hill was made as Dineen’s first year student film for the National Film and Television School and is fifteen minutes longer than the 1987 40 Minutes cut. Interestingly, in one of the interviews Dineen reveals that Hilary Hook much preferred the television version, noting its improved professionalism. His judgement is a valid one and I’m in some agreement with him; it’s certainly the more tightly structured of the two options. Yet the presence of the original also points up how much Dineen is able to encompass into her films - those fifteen minutes do change the film somewhat, plus it is also the director’s preferred version (referred to as the ‘director’s cut’ on this volume’s packaging) so its inclusion shouldn’t be deemed a mere afterthought.
The new interview material is split into three featurettes, the first taking in Home from the Hill and My African Farm, whilst the second and third focus on Heart of the Angel and In the Company of Men respectively. For the first Dineen is joined by the films’ editor Edward Roberts allowing for some interesting insight into how Home from the Hill changed from its original version into the one that would eventually screen on the BBC. On top of this the interviews are also chockfull of background information and various bits of trivia making their presence an undoubtedly welcome one. Such qualities are also true of the other two pieces, although the one on Heart of the Angel ups the interest factor by including various snippets of deleted footage alongside the anecdotes, whilst In the Company of Men also features Crispin Black as interviewee to give some valuable insight into just how it feels to be filmed by Dineen over the course of a number of months.
Finally the illustrated booklet which consists entirely of newly commissioned pieces. Stella Bruzzi offers an initial introduction and overview of Dineen’s career, followed by Edward Mirzoeff, editor of the 40 Minutes strand between 1985 and 1989, who discussed the series and Dineen’s contributions to it. Each of the films featured on Volume One also receives its own write-up by members of the BFI Archive, plus there are the expected notes on the transfer plus acknowledgements. Two letters have also been reprinted: a piece of fan mail received by Hilary Hook; and the Ministry of Defence’s Chief of General Staff, Charles Guthrie’s reaction to In the Company of Men. In sum an excellent package.
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