Pathé of glory: archive images of the Caribbean

Ashley Clark enjoys a new documentary comprising archive footage and newsreels shot in the Caribbean between 1922 and 1970 by British Pathé Films.

Ashley Clark
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On Thursday 25 October 2012, the Queen made two appearances at BFI Southbank. The first was an official visit, in the year of her Diamond Jubilee, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the venue. The second was onscreen in the form of a brief cameo (seen opening the Trinidad & Tobago parliament in 1966) from Stuart Baker’s fascinating documentary Mirror to the Soul: British Pathé Films in the Caribbean 1922-1970.

Screening to a lively, mixed audience as part of the BFI’s monthly African Odysseys programme, the film was introduced by historian and scholar Paul Gilroy alongside Baker, who is the founder of Soul Jazz Records, and now its cinematic offshoot, Soul Jazz Films.  

Two hours in length, and made up entirely of footage from British Pathé newsreels (short pieces rarely more than three minutes long), Mirror to the Soul is a compelling work which looks to situate the history of the Caribbean as a part of the history of Britain. It provokes questions of national identity, authorship, representation, and the role of archival footage in telling our history. It’s as much about Britain and its values during this period – especially in its changing relationship with its colonies (and former colonies) – as it is a window into Caribbean life.

The short films, ordered non-chronologically, are a mixed bag of politics, promotion and plantation. Some of them – especially those focused on the tourist industry – are jaunty little numbers which, by making a virtue of local beauty (and local stereotypes), lay the groundwork for popular perceptions of the Caribbean as a tourist utopia.

Others are far more nuanced than you’d imagine. For example, Our Jamaican Problem (1955) which, despite its alarmist title, is a surprisingly measured editorial account of the difficulties of life in England for post-Caribbean immigrants. It concludes with the narrator stating philosophically: “If we dig deep enough, we may find a solution within us all”. Jamaica celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence in August this year.

The films are not just limited to the West Indies. The footage extends to the wider Caribbean region, including pieces on Florida, Belize, Colombia, and a strong focus on Cuba and its troubled relationship with the USA. The Cuba-USA footage (in which supposedly objective newsreels morph into anti-Communist propaganda) is particularly timely, as the Cuban Missile Crisis also marked its 50th anniversary this year.

Meanwhile, one 1969 clip from Venezuela highlights the extent of British cultural imperialism, with the swinging 60s transplanted wholesale to the country’s capital (“…they may have an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, but they sure got some cuties in Caracas!”). Amid the frantic bid to foster touristic competition, it’s difficult not to think of Austin Powers.

In using a non-chronological structure, the film takes on new meaning as a kaleidoscopic, Chris Marker-esque investigation of memory, asking the viewer to become active in stitching together the fabric of history from geographically and temporally disparate information. The structure is also informed by Baker’s experience of mixing and matching as a music producer and DJ (over its two hours, it develops hypnotic internal rhythms of its own).

Music is a crucial element of the film, lending it a narrative propulsion (and some incredible live performances), and revealing the extent to which Caribbean music – including Cuban and Puerto Rican salsa, Jamaican reggae, and Trinidadian calypso – has influenced modern popular music. “The music is the key to an alternative history of Britain”, says Gilroy.

As well as the range of Caribbean life it portrays (both home and abroad), Mirror to the Soul is fascinating in the manner in which it illuminates how a private British company actively constructed its images of a region for the benefit of a UK cinema audience (who would have seen these films before feature screenings commenced). As modern-day viewers watching this stuff, we need to be vigilant, and appreciate the space between intention and execution.

An offshoot from the original French company, British Pathé began life in London’s Wardour Street in 1910 to make newsreels for movie theatres. By the 1950s, in attempting to keep up with the rapid pace of media change, it began to add entertainment, educational and cultural stories to sit aside its news pieces (the later clips in Mirror to the Soul reflect these developments).

However, as the company could no longer compete with the increasingly dominant presence of television, it ceased production in 1970 (at which point it was under the control of Warner Brothers). This film was made possible by the digitisation in 2002 of the entire Pathé archive, which now holds over 3,500 hours of filmed history, 90,000 individual items and 12 million stills.

Though by no means exhaustive, Mirror to the Soul’s presence acts as a valuable document of a complex chapter in Britain’s colonial history, as well as a reminder of a long-disappeared element of British cinemagoing. Finally, it’s a powerful, jigsaw-like testament to the beauty and importance of archive footage.

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