Recovering my past: Amateur and avant-garde film

It occurred to me today that the work I did during my MA in Film Studies and Archiving (University of East Anglia 2001-2) might be of interest to someone of the Interweb. Here it is, retrieved from an almost forgotten folder on my hard drive. Let me know if you find it of any use.

My reason for undertaking the MA derived from my interest in amateur and avant-garde filmmaking. During 1998-2001, I lived in Japan and spent much of my spare time (and money), shooting Super 8mm and 16mm film (mainly landscapes and abstractions) and exhibiting international exchanges of European, North American and Japanese experimental film and video. I’ve never been interested in filmmaking as a career, but thought that working in film preservation and archiving would allow me to make a living out of a love for non-commercial filmmaking. With that in mind, here are the outputs of my MA.

Amateur Filmmaking During World War II

In my first paper for the MA, I discuss the dilemma of amateur filmmaking during war time, based on a study of original books and magazines from the 1930s and 1940s. In the second part of the paper, I draw heavily on my extended interviews with Dick Brandon, a soldier and amateur filmmaker during WWII. The paper lacks any critical theoretical method but offers a useful study of primary sources.

Amateur filmmaking during WWII

Site/Sight: Landscape and the Development of the Tourist’s Gaze in Early Travel Films

In my second paper for the MA, I discuss the development of amateur films within the context of early tourism. Specifically, I examine the broader development of commercial image making since the 18th c. and show how amateur travel films were simultaneously influenced by commercial, popular tourism and and its relationship with landscape painting and photography. I argue that “representationally, they add little to a notion of Englishness rooted in the landscape that wasn’t already well established and I am much more inclined to see them as commercial products which benefited from and contributed towards forms of economic and cultural consumerism.” I try to show how the production of amateur travel films was tied to the production of mass tourism, both of which are based on consumerism and the consumption of the immaterial. The paper draws on critical theory, secondary historical sources and my primary analysis of films held by the East Anglia Film Archive. Looking back at this paper now, I think that with the benefit of peer-review, this paper could be turned into a published journal article.

Site/Sight: Landscape and the Development of the Tourist’s Gaze in Early Travel Films

An Ecology of Images

Our end of year project was to make a short documentary which related in some way to the themes of archiving, preservation, conservation, etc. Some people made nice, straightforward documentaries about a given subject. I had a bunch of 16mm and 8mm footage that I shot during a trip across the USA (2000) and living in Japan (1998-2001) and used that to make a short film about history and memory.

I was heavily influenced by the narrative style of Chris Marker’s film, ‘Sans Soleil’ (my favourite film). The title is from Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’. I was reading John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ at the time, too…

The script is a blend of my own thinking at the time but also paraphrases Marker, Berger and Sontag considerably. The music uses bits and pieces by John Cage.

I was very proud of this when I finished it. Eight years on, I still quite like it.

Preserving the Hand Painted Films of Margaret Tait

In my dissertation, I discuss a small amount of the work of Margaret Tait. The Introduction offers a personal discussion on the profession of Archiving which I revisit in my conclusion. Section One provides a general overview of Margaret Tait’s life and influences. This brief biographical information serves as a background for the more substantial technical discussion in Section Two.

Though I do enjoy Tait’s films and find her work compelling, I should emphasise that I am not concerned with providing a critique of Margaret Tait’s films nor a complete overview of her life and work. I deem that to be a quite different paper and one I am not interested in writing. My main purpose here is to trace the technical developments Tait made in her filmmaking and show how an understanding of her practices can help in the restoration and preservation of her films. I hope this paper also demonstrates that the biographical is inseparable from the technical and for the Archivist, these two approaches to Tait’s work are again inseparable from the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the idea of permanence.

Preserving the Hand Painted Films of Margaret Tait

Jack of all trades

For much of my life, I’ve taken leaps from one interest to a seemingly unrelated other. As a kid, life was just a chronic habit of fads that my parents endured with some amusement. In my late teens, I slowed down and have managed to extend my interests over a period of years rather than weeks or months.

Typically, if I have a mild interest in something, I’ll buy a book.  Even in these days of the web, an interest is not ‘christened’ until I’ve got a book on the subject in my hands. Here are the pivotal books that marked turning points for me with a brief explanation of why. I’d be interested if anyone else can plot their life in this way.

Incredibly Strange Films

Jonathan Ross presented a series called ‘The Incredibly Strange Film Show‘.  It was the high point of his career, if you ask me, and came into my life out of nowhere.  I dropped out of college to watch films and work in a video shop. Had I missed this series, I might have ended up being a Civil Engineer.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

For some reason, I don’t remember why, I left the video shop to study Journalism in London. By the time I ‘qualified’, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a hack. Besides, at the age of 19, I knew nothing about the world. How was I supposed to write about it? I returned home with no plans and picked up this book that my dad was reading. It totally captured me, so I decided to apply to university to study Buddhism. Up to that point, I had no aspirations to go to university and was the first person in my extended family to do so. I got a 1st Class degree because I loved the subject and won funding to study for an MA in Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan. I studied Japanese, practised Zen for four years, living for a while across the road from a Zen temple in London, and spent a summer in a Japanese Zen monastery. I went on to live in Japan for three years.  All because of this book.

Independent filmmaking

Towards the end of my MA, Buddhism had become entirely academic for me and I’d lost the deeply personal motivation that I had for it. Keen to complete my MA and move on, I looked for a distraction to see me through the last few months of study and picked up this book. I borrowed filmmaking equipment from the university and taught myself how to use an edit suite before heading off to Japan for three years. While I was in Japan, I ran a monthly cinematheque for experimental film and video called Eiga Arts and organised exchanges of experimental film and video between Japanese and international filmmakers. It was a blast but it wasn’t going to pay the rent so when I returned to the UK, I studied for an MA in Film Archiving at the University of East Anglia. It’s been paying the rent ever since. I was also able to use a lot of the film I’d shot while in Japan and the US to partially meet the requirements for my MA.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

While in Japan, I had the money to buy a nice new iMac. It came with OS 9 installed, which constantly crashed. I got so frustrated having spent nearly $2000 on on a computer that didn’t work, that I looked for alternatives and found Linux. This was ten years ago and while support for Intel-based desktop computers was still fairly hit and miss, support for Apple machines was a niche within a niche. Still, I persevered and over the course of a year, learned my way around a Unix/Linux OS. It’s the only time I’ve ever worked on something all night. Repeatedly. Learning about the Open Source movement was unavoidable and I picked up this book and knew I’d made the right decision, despite the huge learning curve. It gave social and political significance to a simple act borne out of frustration. I’ve been running Linux on my desktop for over ten years now and have a basic certification in Linux SysAdmin. Open Source opened the door for me to the Commons.


After finishing my MA in Film Archiving, I landed a job as Moving Image Archivist, with the British Film Institute. I stayed there for a couple of years until I saw that Amnesty International were advertising for an Audiovisual Archivist. The focus at Amnesty was on digital archiving and Digital Asset Management and so I found myself moving into the more general profession of Information Management. The problem with this, for me, was that I became removed from the physical aspects of film. It was all bits and bytes, storage and standards. After a couple of years at Amnesty, London was feeling oppressive and we saw no future for us there. I got talking to my Mum and Dad about how we could help each other out and we decided to build a house in their garden (my Dad was a builder but he died before we got planning permission). The deal was that we got the land for free (so making the whole thing affordable), and with 30 years or so of earning ahead of us, we’d look out for them financially as they headed for retirement. We wanted to build something modest but exceptional and I bought this book which is still a huge inspiration to me. It’s full of illustrated stories of people that have built their own, often mad, places to live. As it happened, planning restrictions meant that we had to build a fairly conventional stone cottage style place, which is great, but I still have aspirations to build a geodesic dome or a house raised on poles some day.

Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today

Between March 2007 and February 2008, we had a baby daughter, moved to Lincoln two weeks after she was born, got married and built a house. I was also lucky to spot an advertisement for a job working part-time on a JISC funded repository project at the University of Lincoln, which connected nicely with my work on digital archiving at Amnesty and my interest in the Commons. When the project ended, I applied for the job I’m in now, as Technology Officer, looking at how technology might be used to support research, teaching and learning. I love it. Last summer, I started to think about the problems of technology and one that seemed obvious to me was the relationship between energy consumption and technology and how a future energy crisis and climate change legislation might impact the use of technology in Higher Education. It’s an area of research that I’m still pursuing, but the most significant effect it’s had on me is to open my eyes to the political dimensions of energy and the economy. Holloway’s book was suggested to me and it had a similar effect as reading the book on Zen. In particular, the first chapter which talks about ‘The Scream’, resonates for me with the central Buddhist idea of suffering. There have been other connections, too, not least the metaphysical aspects of Marxist theory, which often remind me of the metaphysical aspects of religious philosophy.

And that’s where I am today.