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Work / Film

“Photos always make you feel they hold a secret beyond their obvious meaning”: a filmmaker on archives and autobiography

Looking at things said and things unsaid, and the hidden powers and meanings of found images, Miranda Pennell’s new film The Host is brave, multilayered and fascinating. The filmmaker used found images from the BP archives to explore her own family history against a backdrop of the wider context of 20th Century colonialism. Below, she explains how she made the film, why she made it and how personal memoirs are just another way of telling a story.

“I started making The Host after visiting the BP archive. I was interested in the history of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which later became BP) because my father had worked for them from 1946, and my family lived in Iran for a time. I was aware that this was a really troubled history, in particular the Anglo-CIA coup d’état of 1953 and its after-effects. I was curious to see what could be gleaned from images produced at that time. I had also found photographs of my family in Iran and I was interested in how the relationship between individual, personal experience, and the great abstractions of big geopolitical events might play out.

I collected what felt like a multitude different fragments and stories, and the film’s narrative only emerged later. At first I didn’t know where it was going to go at all: it really came together through the process of making connections between different places, times, people and things.

The records in the archive present a very partial view, a British perspective on a colonial situation. Part of what the film does is to question the perspective from which you look at the past. There are many different ways of looking at archival material and of creating meaning from it, and I really wanted to invite the audience to make associations between things in the same way I had done when I encountered them. It’s very speculative in that sense. My job was to search for what the images betray, rather than to take as given what they show.

Photographs in particular always make you feel as though they hold a secret beyond their obvious meaning. There are a lot of details in this film, and the film invites the audience to inspect them as though this were a detective story. I make my own connections between different clues, but I also allow for the possibility that I could be wrong. In the end the film suggests that the process of pulling historical threads together is always a provisional process, a work-in-progress.

The Host is the first project where I’ve positioned myself inside the film as a character. Here I’m the narrator but I am also a participant in the history I describe, and hopefully this allows the past to come alive for a viewer, in the here and now. Although I’ve made films from archival images before, this one relates to my parents lives, so it’s much closer to me and more personal. You can see I have a stake in it. I was initially intimidated by the prospect, however I realised through making the film that a biographical or autobiographical approach is just another story-telling device, another tool you can use to engage people and it involves the usual creative play between masking and revealing. And in the end this film is not about me at all, its about a much bigger narrative that I happen to have been bound up in.

I hope that the film makes an apparently distant time feel much closer, more unfinished and more relevant in the here and now. I also hope people will recognize some of the ways in which the repetition of colonial ways of thinking continue to shape our present.”

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015)
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015)
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015)
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015)
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015) 
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015) 
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015) 
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015) 
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.

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Miranda Pennell: © The Host (2015) 
Images for the film are originally sourced courtesy of the BP archive and from Pennell family photographs.