One of the most astonishing online resources is the British Council Film Collection, where some 100 short documentaries – artworks, really – showcasing life in Britain in the 1940s and ’50s can be viewed. I say ‘artworks’ because while the films’ primary purpose was to promote Britain around the world, and although they cover pretty ordinary subjects – from the history of cricket to the manufacturing of plastic – they were nevertheless created with a high regard for aesthetics, often by innovative filmmakers, using specially commissioned scores and sometimes even actors. A work like ‘Steel’, for instance, is justly famous for its Technicolor vision of industrial processes, its glowing, hellish pyrotechnics. And there are scores of other, less well-known gems you can search out, each one a fascinating window on to a vanished world.
All of which makes the prospect of a physical exhibition devoted to the films seem slightly superfluous: why not just put all the extra info online, too? The real point of the exhibition, though, is three new commissions that ‘remix’ the original films, compiling and editing the old footage into new works.
It’s an intriguing idea – and marks the launch of a competition where anyone can submit remixes of the collection. The danger, of course, is that the revamps end up less engaging than the originals. And that’s the case, unfortunately, in Mark Cousins’s fictional narrative about growing up in Liverpool and John Akomfrah’s fragmented chronicle of a deaf woman’s life. In attempting to craft new, linear stories, both feel a bit constrained by their source material. A far more successful approach is taken by Penny Woolcock, who combines clips in a more impressionistic, cyclical way, building up a portrait of the rigid structures and sanitised propaganda of British society that feels dreamlike and at times rather nightmarish.