Miranda Pennell interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini

Here is the second part of our interview with Miranda Pennell, a London-based filmmaker, current recipient of an AHRC scholarship for practice-led doctoral research at the University of Westminster. We discuss two of her films, Why Colonnel Bunny Was Killed (2010) and a film currently in the making, which explores the interconnections between the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company archives and a collection of phtographs taken by Pennel’s father while working for the same company.

Why Colonnel Bunny Was Killed will be screened at the Whitechapel Gallery on Thursday 30 January 2014, as part of Autobiography and the Archive, curated by Mnemoscape.

AF: In the film you are currently working on, you use images from both the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company archive and your family albums. When describing your project, you speak of a ‘intersection of personal memory and official (i.e. corporate-national) history’. Can you explain what this ‘intersection’ means and how you have approached it?

MP: I began by selecting, reframing and sequencing the photographs from the company archive but only towards the end of this process I started to consider the photographs from my parents’ album. When I started working on my family’s photographs it became necessary to use language, to speak. I hadn’t particularly wanted to put myself in the film, it wasn’t something I was looking forward to doing. But this voice positions me inside the history as I am constructing it, and enables me to give an account of the process of looking at and remaking an image of the past. This is a work in-progress, so the outcome of this trajectory is still uncertain.

However, it seems that this intersection of personal memory and official history means that aspects of a global imperial project can be brought into focus through attention to the presence and the singularities of multiple micro-histories, through the testimonies of individual participants of and witnesses to that project. It also enables me to emphasise the present, the ‘now’, as a dynamic, living point of reference from which history is made. My presence can supply a living conduit to the past, and can provoke a reflection on where I, as maker, and You, the viewer, might fit in an Imperial history as an unfinished, open-ended story.

AF: How have you approached the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company archive? Have you actually been looking for correspondences or links between this official archive and your personal archive?

MP: My starting point was to look for correspondences or gaps between BP’s narratives of origin, and colonial and national myths of scientific ‘progress’ for the benefit of ‘civilisation’, and signs of what these narratives betray or conceal. I was also looking for evidence of the individual lived experience of employees, and particularly of the local labour force and their families.

Correspondences with my family’s experiences in Iran are not hard to find, because, like many employees, they were connected to each of the sites of oil production and management, which remained in four key locations from 1909 until 1979 – the oil fields, the refinery and the administrative centre in Tehran, and the centre of power in London. The appearance and the relationships between these sites and their narratives don’t seem to change much across that time, although from around 1940 there seems to be a more deliberate effort to stage and produce public images of the company as a paternalistic force that works for the benefit of the Iranian society.

Since I don’t know what images I will find when first approaching an archive, I try to recognise patterns and the logic with which each particular set of images was taken – the representational strategies that cohere across individual albums. I am thinking about what the photographs or what these pictorial strategies betray – what they hide. I try also to detect the photographer’s obsessions: the way a photographer positions himself in relation to the world, home, work, landscape and people; the recurrences of certain kinds of images. All of this cumulatively describes the nature of the cultural encounter. This applies to both the officially commissioned photographs, the scientific imaging and the domestic image-making of employees (in addition to my own,I am considering also personal albums contained within the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company archive, donated by the families of the people who worked at the company).

Miranda Pennell, Working title, 2013, images courtesy of the BP archive

Miranda Pennell, Working title, 2013, images courtesy of the BP archive

AF: A curiosity: do you know why there are personal albums within the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company archive?

MP: I can only imagine that it’s a symptom of the problem of the overabundance of images and of collecting and accumulating personal archives. That people give their deceased husband’s or father’s photographic albums to BP, because they don’t want to throw them away (it’s hard to throw away an archive) – but neither do they want to keep them themselves. Perhaps they also feel that the albums are evidence of something significant, that they have been witnesses to History with a capital ‘H’, because of the centrality of the story of oil in the 20th Century, or even because of the Iranian revolution that came and swept everything away?

AF: Can you tell us more about the way you have selected the images?

MP: On the one hand I tried to identify effective examples of contrasting orders of image-making – technical imaging, geological surveys, staged public relations images, honorific portraits, domestic photography. These examples work as image series, each of which might merit an entire project of its own. However, my intention has been to move between these different registers, and also to work across time, across different decades of the 20th Century.

On the other hand, there are individual images that seem to address me directly, to stop me in my tracks and demand that I attend to them. Sometimes this happens in the archive and sometimes this only happens later, when I magnify them on my screen at home – they take on a presence I had overlooked when I was looking at them at a small scale. A certain number of images of this kind ask a question, or point to something out of the frame, or they have something complicated or unresolved going on. My assumption is that if some key images provoke these reactions in me, they can be positioned so as to punctuate the viewing experience of others in productive ways. These key images become jumping off-points for story-telling.

AF: This strategy of zooming in and cropping into colonial archives, really allows you to reveal details that would otherwise go unnoticed. For example, I am thinking at that shot in Why Colonel Bunny Was Killed, where you enlarge the figure of the dark-skinned servant who looms in the background of a group picture of soldiers. Can you expand on this?

MP: I was always looking for signs of the experience of the colonised people, which can sometimes be found at the peripheries of a colonial photograph, or which is sometimes felt most strongly by its absence. With Why Colonel Bunny Was Killed it was very much about enlarging the figures in the background, in the shadows or in the distance, the people who are not meant to be there.

Sometimes they are large and un-missable in the picture, but yet they are apparently invisible to the people who took the photographs or to the archivists who have not identified or referred them in captioning or the subsequent indexing processes. The task was to make these figures’ presence felt. They have a cumulative force because they are not supposed to be noticed, and because these figures in the background are most often looking back at the camera. They are observing the colonisers and, in particular they are observing the ritual of photography. This return of the gaze becomes quite strong especially because it is a recurring pattern.

Miranda Pennell, Working title, 2013, images courtesy of the BP archive

Miranda Pennell, Working title, 2013, images courtesy of the BP archive

AF: When creating a film of still images, the montage takes on a significant role. Can you expand a bit on your use of montage and on what it entails?

MP: Montage is a process that puts heterogeneous things into relationship. By putting different images in relation to each other, to sound and to language, you draw attention to something that may not be visible inside any one image. Rather than isolating an individual image to understand it, you are drawing attention to things through the coincidences, collisions or clashes between different images. When you make a montage from close-ups, the detail of an object comes to stand for something else, it becomes a metonym for a bigger project. I think this is something I play a lot with in Why Colonel Bunny was Killed. For instance, the polo player’s boots seems to be the power of the whole colonial project. Then there is the Mullah’s furniture that is seized by the soldier and then there is a picture of a trophy, a stuffed deer. All of these things take on a kind of symbolic meaning through the montage.

Montage also gives me the opportunity to change the way an individual photograph reveals itself. By breaking down an image into details, and reordering the sequence in which my eyes move from a detail to another, the hierarchy of relationships contained within a photograph is disrupted, creating new meanings.

Then there is montage with sound. I have sections where there is no voice, only image and sound. As soon as you put even minimal sound on a photograph, it gains duration so that suddenly the image is moving through time, and it is also spatial. A small amount of atmospheric sound suggests a spatial dimension and an off-screen world. Changing the sound affects the way the viewer sees what they think they are looking at. I play with this quite a lot. It creates polyvalent meaning for a photograph.

AF: I would like to dig deeper into the autobiographical elements at play in your work with archives. Even though you try to create some distance between your personal history and the viewer, leaving your father off-frame, you root your work in a personal narrative. And narrative is a very important aspect of this project, which strongly reminds me of Why Colonel Bunny was Killed. Could you tell me more about the way you have negotiated between these two different registers – the personal and the collective – in the off-frame, spoken narrative?

MP: I don’t want to use a biographical or autobiographical mode where the convention is to construct the illusion of a psychologically coherent, central character, with whose testimony an audience will identify. Even though this may occur at times, my aim is to emphasise the possibility of imagining other subjectivities, especially experiences of colonised people. Rather I am interested in reading between the lines of the colonisers’ testimonies, to attend to the form, pattern and operation of discourses that are used. It is rather delicate operation to figure out how to do that. With Why Colonel Bunny was Killed I used the anecdotes related by my ancestor, the medical missionary, and I am asking the viewer to pay attention to the way he speaks and the binary images he creates around his themes of religion, science and violence.

In my current project, I don’t want to make a film ‘about’ my parents or myself even though we are part of it. My parents are no longer alive, and these images, and the identities I see in these images fifty years later, are really quite opaque and enigmatic to me. I am using fragmented, partial traces of memory and material remnants to knit together a series of possible stories which are yet to be filled-in. I really want to create the conditions that are conducive for attending to the creative process of looking and meaning-making, for myself and for a viewer.

Miranda Pennell, Working title, 2013, images courtesy of the BP archive

Miranda Pennell, Working title, 2013, images courtesy of the BP archive

AF: Could you expand on the way you are constructing the narrative in your current project?

MP: I am opening with a story of a woman who wishes to resolve an enigma around the death of her parents, and who turns to the archive in order to investigate their past in Iran. This narrative is told in a third person, though I plan to end the film within a first person narrative. Along the way I hope to incorporate a number of narratives that move between my search for clues and for meaning in looking at the past, to the narratives of the people living inside the photographs, and then sometimes these two worlds might become blurred.

I am trying to use both the framing of pictures, and language, to shift the way viewers relate to the pictures, and the very notion of what they feel they are looking at. For example, at certain moments, the viewer should feel like being inside the world of the photograph (through sequencing photographs – you feel like you are inside the present of the photographs even though you know it is the past). At other moments, by stepping outside the photographs, I suggest the feeling of being inside the story of the person who is looking at the photograph of the past. I am trying to de-stabilise the way we look at a picture of the past and to bring it closer, to play with distance and proximity. This repositioning of the viewer can give an unsettling experience of time which I hope to exploit.

AF: In this movement of zooming in and out, of going inside the picture and then out again, there is though a character who always remains off-frame: your father. Can you tell us a bit more on the meaning and power of what remains unseen, obstinately off-frame?

MP: My father is out of the frame nearly all of the time because he is the one holding the camera. But through the sequencing and the positioning of the photographs – all of them, not just my father’s – the presence behind the camera can be made palpable. Looking through the photographs at the archive, you cannot help but noticing how often they give such a strong sense of a figure that you cannot see but who you know is there, directing the action. I speculate about how the image came to be taken, what my father, mother, sister and brother were doing or thought they were doing. I think this is part of the compelling power of working with photographs, that they suggest that there is more to be known.

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