Friday, August 17, 2007

Humphrey Jennings

It is good to see that the British Film Institute are running a series of the work of Humphrey Jennings.
Jennings was as outstanding a maker of films as any and it is regrettable that so few have had a chance to see his work.
Documentaries have never been fashionable with film goers although this is one area where television has come to the fore, if inadvertently, as they are far cheaper to produce than soap operas.
But Jennings was rather more than a simple documentary film maker. Apart from his many other talents which included poetry and design, he re-created, in the best possible sense of the word, unforgettable images.
His one full length film, “Fires Were Started,” the story of one night of the London blitz used real characters to give a picture of the horrors of aerial bombardment in a way that no other medium could. It could be argued that it was a contrived image but, unlike recent TV programmes which were contrived to deceive, Jennings generated a truthful picture by way of artifice, a very different matter.
He came to film by a circuitous route, only joining the Crown Film Unit at the beginning of the war, where his mentor was John Grierson, a champion of the documentary format. One of his most notable efforts was “Listen to Britain,” a commentaryless kaleidoscope of the sounds of a nation at war.
Sadly, he was killed in an accident in Greece in 1950 whilst working on a film there.
Since then, the art form has languished. Television audiences, now the only real outlet for such work, are treated by most channels as being unable to appreciate anything more cerebral than a simplistic approach.
In Europe, the Arte channel, a Franco-German station, frequently screens worthwhile documentaries but regrettably only in French or German.
So, if you would like to view a gem of realism and to get a feeling for the ordeal suffered by the citizens of the cities of Britain and Europe during the war, go to see “Fires Were Started.”
It is also available on DVD, rather stupidly (in my opinion) renamed “I Was a Fireman,” and is included in a collection of the work of Humphrey Jennings.


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