Miranda Pennell on The Host: ‘Selective memory and partial remembrance is a problem’

Miranda Pennell tells us about her new film, a personal investigation into family history and connections with the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (BP) in which she asks provocative questions about our colonial past.

Georgia Korossi
Updated:

The Host (2015)

The Host (2015)
Credit: BP archive and Pennell family archive

First screening at the 59th BFI London Film Festival, director-screenwriter Miranda Pennell’s compelling film The Host is presented this month nationwide by the Independent Cinema Office. The starting point of The Host was Pennell’s memory of living in Iran with her family after her father had joined the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP) in 1946. She started investigating photographs from her family’s albums and a disorderly mass of material from the BP’s visual archive documenting the company’s origins in Iran. But during the process of searching her late parents’ involvement with BP, Pennell came across the letters of a petroleum geologist in Iran in the 1930s, who would later embark on a study of the origins of civilisation.

Originally trained in contemporary dance, Pennell later studied visual anthropology at Goldsmiths. Her award-winning work explores forms of collective performance and more recently uses colonial archives to investigate imperial history, living memory and colonialism. For The Host, Pennell says: “I spent four years working on it, on and off, so it was made up of hundreds of fragments. I knew it was going to be the kind of project that takes a long time piecing things together.”

The Host is both a personal and a fictional film, partly because she recreates her experience for the viewer, but mainly because it deals with British colonial fantasies and projections. The photographs she discovered could have been led to many different stories. Looking back at the process of her research for The Host, Pennell explains: “I felt like I had to say something.”

Interested in the outer reaches of documentary, Pennell has been an activist for a long time. But, as in documentaries by Albert Maysles, Robert Drew or Patricio Guzmán, with The Host we realise that exposing human struggles is not straightforward at all. So Pennell looked for strategies on how to communicate this complexity. She adds: “We’re all part of things that we don’t necessarily see, acknowledge or recognise. I don’t make a judgment about my parents; this was another time. But I make a judgment about the system they are participating in.”

The Host (2015)

Credit: BP archive and Pennell family archive

The Host (2015)

Credit: BP archive and Pennell family archive

What’s the link between dance, film and visual anthropology?

I first used film as a tool to help me think about dance. Film provided an opportunity to look at people in the world around me who worked with their bodies in very different ways than I did as a dancer; I was particularly interested in large groups of people moving together. Much later I studied visual anthropology, which offered a way of thinking about what I was doing as a filmmaker, as I’d never benefited from studying film. So anthropology provided a useful means of thinking about the whole ritual and performance of filmmaking; about the photographic encounter and the nature of the encounter between me and another person.

At the moment you’re working with the archive and its relation to colonial imagination. What was your starting point?

It was a straightforward desire to animate the past in ways that might be meaningful in the present. But it’s never straightforward in practice. My plan was to construct a film from the visual archive of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the company that later became BP. Although I wanted to reflect on the period around the Anglo-CIA coup against Mossadeq, my perspective foregrounded personal documents of the British company staff in Iran, including those of my own family.

My hope was to illuminate something about the nature of the colonial through the details of some of the intimate, everyday manifestations of the colonial encounter – rather than through the narration of big geopolitical events. And also to locate myself within that history.

The Host (2015)

Credit: BP archive and Pennell family archive

What was it like going through huge amounts of photographs from BP’s archive?

Archives are only as interesting as the questions you bring to them. In practice it’s a mixture confronting both the tedium of repetition, and the fascination of small and surprising revelations. The real discoveries occur in the process of making connections between seemingly disparate fragments.

To begin with, it was difficult to find things because the subjects that interested me were either not indexed under terms that I would ever find other than by chance, or were never recorded in the first place. For that reason, the personal albums of employees are particularly rich because they allow for stumbling across more intimate, incidental detail. In addition I had the frustration of knowing that there were masses and masses of material that hadn’t ever been indexed or looked at by anyone in the archive.

How did you work your way through and develop an order for the material that you found?

The logic of the imagery the company produced shows that they would have no interest in preserving images, say, of labour, and that they would have an interest in recording their gleaming machinery and technologies and the vast natural landscapes. These are very well represented and corresponded to what they wanted to show. So I had to find ways to glance sideways at what is presented in order to find another story. This is achieved in the film by rearranging the relationships between images and sounds through montage. I placed the story of a young petroleum-geologist in the 1930s, who was later a friend of my parents. His story provides an allegory for the whole imperial project.

The Host (2015)

Credit: BP archive and Pennell family archive

Could you expand on the company’s commercial imagery and promotion?

From around the 1940s the company produced self-consciously staged imagery that was part of a public relations strategy to counter the build-up of complaints and criticism of the company’s practices in Iran. These were staged to show the supposed benefits of the company’s presence to Iranian society. The 1947 portrait of the company board I included in the film draws attention to the fact that, looking closely at this and other portraits, you can see (and I’m sure it’s common practice) how the photographer paints over details to help improve the image that’s projected.

Right from the start the company hired some of the best filmmakers and animators of the time (including the Iranian filmmaker Ebrahim Gholestan) and they produced a lot of high quality productions, which circulated widely to cinemas and film clubs. So the company was always very proactive in projecting an image of what they were doing. And as a result those films are fascinating historical documents, at many levels. I am really excited to have the opportunity to present some of these historic short films from the BP archive at the Essay Film Festival screening of The Host at the ICA on 23 March.

What was the high point of making your film?

Seeing archival fragments take on all sorts of metaphorical meanings when woven together. Rather than being shown documents as facts, over the course of this film, documents take on unexpected layers of meaning. Sometimes playing on double-meanings and producing visual puns. This enabled the central narrative in the film to take the form of allegory.

But I am also fascinated by the potency of sequencing photographs within film, as film. This has really invigorated my excitement about filmmaking. Magnifying, reframing and sequencing still images with sound within the moving image produces such a powerful sense of engagement with the enigmas of history. The process draws attention to the presence of the person behind the camera and the person looking back through the lens. You are made very aware of the whole dynamic of the photographic encounter, which is particularly charged in a colonial situation or any situation of radical inequality.

The Host (2015)

Credit: BP archive and Pennell family archive

The Host (2015)

Credit: BP archive and Pennell family archive

The Host reveals a gruesome truth about capitalism. Can we ever learn from history?

It can be a shock when you recognise something in the past that is entirely present in the politics of now. When it dawns on you that something has been persistent for a very long time and is being presented under new legislative guises. This certainly has an effect on me and maybe it has an effect on other people. So I’d like to be able to deliver that kind of shock of recognition through film – to notice familiar ways of speaking, ways of justifying, and ways of shaping images of the world.

At the moment the UK government has promised be ‘muscular’ about promoting British ‘values’ which presumably depends on insisting on a partial remembering of history. In the particular history covered in this film, the government sees its interests as inseparable from that of the wealth extracted by a private company from foreign soil (the board of that private company includes government ministers), and is willing to undermine the democratic rights of entire people and the sovereignty of another nation, producing vicious smear campaigns as a smoke screen.

The Host (2015)

Credit: BP archive and Pennell family archive

What was the impact of the British colonisers on Iranian society?

The film presents the revolution of 1978-79 as an after-effect of the coup of 1953 and of the repression that followed the crushing of a democratic movement. The nationalisation of Iranian oil was, for Iran, a struggle for independence. And the trauma of the crushing of this long-awaited moment of independence, which was achieved during such a brief moment of emerging freedoms, democratic rights and institutions, cannot be overestimated. All this came after decades of British interference in political, social and economic realities on the ground, both in the oil regions and beyond. The film tries to create a space to imagine how this might have been experienced.

What is the contemporary relevance of colonialism today?

I think the contemporary perpetuation of selective national memory and partial remembrance is of itself a problem. Knowledge of colonisation and decolonisation, what that meant and how that shaped and informed a British sense of collective identity is not acknowledged. Without this we cannot hope for a shared understanding of our histories in order to envision a properly shared present and future.

The film presents the colonial as a continuing process of self-justification that separates the civilised from the uncivil, the rational from the emotional, and facts from fiction. And it shows how the British protagonists deploy each of the characteristics they hold in contempt in order to explain their sense of entitlement, superiority and ultimately violence, over others. The demonisation and casual denigration used at the time of Mossadeq went unquestioned in the west. The method continues to be an effective political strategy for justifying the unjustifiable.

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