Harvey O'Brien
University College Dublin, Ireland | Views:

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Two DVD releases of 2007 brought a gust of cold wind from Ireland’s Imperial past: Mitchell and Kenyon in Ireland(BFI, 2007) and Saoirse? (Gael Linn, 2007). Though George Morrison’s much-vaunted but commercially unsuccessfulSaoirse? actually hailed from 1961, it is composed of archive material filmed between 1919 and 1921, the last days of the British Empire in Ireland. The Mitchell and Kenyon footage is earlier, filmed between 1901 and 1906, comfortable in its Edwardian exoticism, boasting unassuming gazes from the faces of British subjects attending events including the Cork Exhibition of 1902 and the startling sight of a Union Jack fluttering languidly in the breeze on Patrick Street.

The Mitchell and Kenyon story is almost too good to be true. It is one of those wonderful fairy-tales from film history like the rediscovery of The Passion of Joan of Arc or the casting of Casablanca: the kind of thing cinephiles tell their children — or other cinephiles — to inspire awe. It begins (possibly in sepia, with scratches) with young Peter Worden solemnly observing severe, waxed pencil-tipped mustachioed photographer Sagar Mitchell behind the counter of his photographic parlour in 40 Northgate, Blackburn in the late 1940s. Worden knew that Mr Mitchell had been a filmmaker at one point, though he and his son had by now confined themselves to stills alone.

After Mitchell’s death in 1952, Worden vaguely wondered what treasures might lurk in the recesses of the property but it was not until (dissolve to colour) demolition work on the premises in 1994 led to the discovery of sealed, milk-churn-type barrels, containing rolls and rolls of mainly well-preserved nitrate film. You couldn’t write the script better: burly no-nonsense Blackburn construction workers asking someone nearby if this lot might be worth anything; the elderly Worden receiving a phone call to ask him his opinion; ‘Spielberg shot’ of the widening eyes of the child within the man as he gazes upon the contents of the barrels: the lost films of Mitchell and Kenyon, a film production company active both in fiction and non-fiction throughout the early years of the twentieth century until 1913 or so, calmly and diligently documenting local events for local people, and, as evinced by the Irish films, taking on ‘overseas’ commissions as well. In the summer of 1994 this cinematic bounty hovered between two destinies — as trash in a skip, or as the centrepiece of a film restoration project that would have a long and wide reach.

Peter Worden donated the collection to the BFI in 2000. The films began to see daylight a few years later first in theatrical exhibition at the BFI, then as a television series (and subsequent DVD) Electric Edwardians: The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon. It was a piece of saturation bombing for BFI publishing, who not only launched the programme, the TV show and the DVD, but brought out a volume of essays edited by Vanessa Toulmin, Simon Popple and Patrick Russell (BFI, 2004), then followed up with further DVDs including Edwardian Sports (2007) and our immediate concern Mitchell and Kenyon in Ireland.

The contents of the Irish collection are duly and ably catalogued and reviewed by Irish film historian and filmmaker Robert Monks in Toulmin et al. (2004: 93-102), and those who care to view the DVD will also have access to a detailed historical commentary written by Toulmin and read by Fiona Shaw. In summary, the films are fairly typical early film actualities: short subjects featuring workers leaving factories, trains arriving at stations (I kid you not), phantom rides, sporting events, firemen at work, and other miscellaneous cityscapes and views. As with any film production company active during this period, including the Lumiéres, Mitchell and Kenyon were out to capture as many familiar scenes and as many human faces as they could manage so that the films could be screened in the same locality shortly afterward to an audience keen to see themselves and their home on the big screen. The films in this collection were shot in Belfast, Derry, Dublin, Wexford, and Cork, primarily the latter, and mostly in 1902, marking the successful Cork Exhibition: a fairly typical Edwardian celebration of progress and majesty in the mould of the Victorian Great Exhibition.

It is as continuity with the practice of Empire that these films are at their most fascinating. The aforementioned image of the Union Jack flying over the streets of Cork is merely the most explicit statement of the prevailing sense of an Ireland that is neither rural nor colloquial, but merely another happy, urbanised corner of the British Empire. As I wrote in my 2004 book The Real Ireland, Mitchell and Kenyon were, no more than Alexandre Promio in 1897, not seeking out an identifiably “Irish” Ireland, but rather seeking out local, mainly urban, audience by filming what that audience wanted to see. The films were not ‘owned’ by Mitchell and Kenyon, nor all shot by the men themselves. They were commissions by a variety of companies, including Edison, and used several camera operators, including Irish pioneer Louis de Clerq. Though the Mitchell and Kenyon logo was ‘local films for local people’ (a phrase with a whole new set of associations thanks to The League of Gentlemen), what they were at their heart were commercial products, documentary-like advertisements for lifestyle and locality under the umbrella of Edwardian capitalism. Toulmin’s commentary makes the interesting observation that when the Belfast films were screened, the admission price was equivalent to more than a weeks’ industrial wages at the time, meaning that, as she observes, the films were intended for a primarily middle class audience. She also notes how several of the films presented challenges to the filmmaker in the form of elaborate headgear worn by the well-to-do ladies attending the events they’re trying to shoot. The Mitchell and Kenyon films’ view of Ireland’s classes and castes in no way reflect or, more properly, foreshadow, the political turbulence of the years to come, although an Irish-language banner is seen at one public parade.

Toulmin’s script is literate and informed, and does not shy away from analysing and contextualising at least some of the films being shown. Primarily though, the DVD is presented as an historical object, a trip into a distant past of faces and places duly and properly labeled and presented as incidental actualities. Robert Monks’ essay in the Toulmin et al. volume is similarly diligent and scholarly, which is why I have opted to editorialise a bit more freely here. In reviewing the DVD and putting it in the context of 2007, it is hard not to ask the difficult question of what function the release can serve. For the general viewer, these are exotic short subjects, presented with the usual tinkly piano and fiddle score evoking distance and nostalgia. And yet, in themselves, the films are not especially interesting as short subjects, at least no more or less so than any of their ilk. There is almost a giggle in viewing the one and only extant Irish ‘factory gate’ film Lee Boot Factory — Dwyer & Co. Ltd (1902) and the similarly reminiscent ‘train arriving at the station’ Wexford Railway Station (1902) and comparing them with Lumiere, but for those unfamiliar with the latter, of what value are the former?

Historians would be more interested, especially those with a keen interest in the period or the geographical area, and I think it is here that the DVD is actually most likely to be at home. However, the commentary, as noted, does play into the prejudice that films are somehow the raw evidentiary data of things that were, and that the presentation of this data must subscribe to a fairly limited level of contextualisation in order to serve a ‘historical’ project. To be fair to the BFI and the scholars who have worked on it, this DVD release is merely one small segment of an overall film-historical project that is much more ambitious and valuable. But from the point of view of a punter hiring the DVD, one might ask why they would bother. The last category of viewer would be the film historian, and here, again, we have the wonder of the Mitchell and Kenyon story itself. The Irish collection does not change our concept of cinema, but does have the novelty of running the gamut of early film genres in an Irish setting, and it does provide a valuable link in the film-historical chain between Lumiére and Irish Events.

Irish Events was, of course, the newsreel from which the bulk of the footage came for George Morrison’s Saoirse?Long a cinematic bete noir in Irish film history, Morrison’s film was the disastrous sequel to Mise Eire (Morrison, 1959), released to such aplomb in 1959 that it became the official history of the Irish state for more than a generation afterward. Where Mise Eire had charted the history of Ireland from the Celts through to 1919, presenting a crowd-pleasing portrait of centuries of struggle against English occupation, Saoirse? moved into more problematic (and then more recent) territory. Beginning where Mise Eire left off with Sinn Fein’s victory in the 1919 General Election, Saoirse? proceeded through the War of Independence and the Treaty Debates, closing with the outbreak of the Civil War and the clouds of smoke above Dublin as Free State troops fought their former IRA colleagues. WhereasMise Eire had been celebrated in 1959, Saoirse? was rather more cooly received. Perhaps the events it charted were still too contentious in 1961, perhaps audiences were now bored with nationalism in the light of Whitaker and Lemass’ reversal of economic protectionism. Morrison himself has always claimed that the reason the film was not popular was that it did not concede to romantic nationalism, that the film was a self-conscious counterpoint to Mise Eire’s triumphalism. Whether this view is sustainable or not may remain as much a matter of faith as interpretation, as, viewing Saoirse? again on DVD, it is still hard to escape the fact that it is formally, stylistically, and emotionally much the same film as its predecessor: only the history is different.

There is arguably a fascinating irony in the fact that the ‘problematic’ history here comes in viewing the end of the Empire. It is in finding its own feet as a bourgeoning democracy that Free State Ireland comes up against its own dark id: the history of violent struggle so lionised in Mise Eire and in popular nationalist history in general. The ghosts of the Empire are passive martyrs, the ghosts of the Civil War are nobody’s fault but our own. Oh, we can talk about postcolonialism and the legacy of the British Empire throughout the world and the pattern of independence-civil war that still echoes across the world, but on viewing the historical project of Saoirse? alongside Mitchell and Kenyon, we must inevitably question the nature and role of the cinema as an agent of history.

Now that Saoirse? has passed its sell-by date in controversy, what are we left with? It is an extremely well made, beautifully scored compilation film that, in spite of any problems one might have with its interpretation, at least has the benefit of having one. Where Mitchell and Kenyon in Ireland can sit, as a DVD, in an uncomfortably neutral ground of passive recorder, Saoirse?, by dint of content alone (and the all-important question mark in the title), invites deeper reading. Morrison’s assembly of historical footage was, in itself, an act of historical argument, but Mitchell and Kenyon in Ireland retains the troubling veneer of ‘mere’ history.

[Ed. Note: Saoirse? on DVD is made available for the first time with English subtitles; a facility denied earlier viewers of the film.]