Detail

Theme Commemoration

The familiar understanding of the concept of commemoration, and the focus for this theme, is when is it used to describe events associated with celebration and memorialisation. Films of this kind are associated usually with public acts of commemoration and as such could be an event that represents an individual, place or subject. These staged activities, such as historical pageants and those produced for Armistice Day, Royal Jubilees, coronations, express for their organisers, participants and audiences a collective identity that shares a common understanding of history. The film of such an event becomes a record of a commemorative act and, when screened, it itself becomes part of that commemoration.

One of the earliest commemorative films in Screen Archive South East collection is Funeral Procession of the Woman Who Dared (4 June 1913; 14 June 1913), a newsreel item produced by the Warwick Trading Company of the funeral procession for Emily Davison (1872-1913). She joined the ‘Women's Social and Political Union’ in 1906 and become actively involved in its campaign for votes for women. Over the next few years she was arrested, imprisoned and force-fed a number of times because of her political work. She became convinced that the suffragette campaign needed a martyr if women were going to succeed in winning the franchise. She attended the Derby at Epsom on 4h of June 1913 and stepped onto the track during the race. She was hit by the King’s horse, Anmer, and died of her injuries. There is a debate as to whether she had intended to either die through this action or to just stop the race by waving a suffragette banner. The film is of her funeral procession on 13h of June in London preceeding her burial at Morpeth, Northumberland, The procession was a significant event for the suffragette movement because Davison became, whatever the circumstances of her death, a martyr to this cause. Women of all ages march solemnly in front and behind of the funeral carriage and carry banners with such cries as, “Fight on and God will give the Victory”. As a film, it commemorates her life, the suffragette movement and its prominent place within British political history.

The Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary held on the 6th of May 1935 provided an opportunity for communities across the nation to celebrate the King’s reign and display, in public, their patriotism. The Screen Archive South East collection has many films from the region that depict the events that were staged on this day. Indicative of these is the film of the events in Chichester. The film is in black & white and Dufaycolor, an additive colour process first introduced in 1934, and provides a portrait of this day from the morning’s parade, the afternoon sports, the carnival with dressed floats and vehicles and, in the evening, to grand firework display with the message “God Bless Our King and Queen”. It conveys the sense that at this moment the whole city was unified in its celebration of the monarchy. Contemporary commentators saw the King and his Jubilee as representing the nation’s greatest strength. Harold Nicolson wrote, “Reverence in the thought that in the Crown we possessed a symbol of patriotism, a focus of unison, an emblem of continuity in a rapidly dissolving world. Satisfaction in feeling that the sovereign stood above all class animosities, all political ambitions, all sectional interests. Comfort in the realisation that he was a strong, benevolent patriarch, personifying the highest standards of the race.” (1)

Eric Hobsbawm refers to an “invented tradition” as, “a process of formalisation and ritualisation, characterised by reference to the past.” (2) This concept is very valuable to analyses of films of Jubilees and other commemorative activities as it focuses attention on the constructed nature of these public events and their historical and cultural context. The Chichester Jubilee film, for example, was the outcome of the careful planning of a day’s worth of events involving many organisations and the design of the parades, floats, street decorations and costumes. How this day relates the ideological nature of Britain and Europe in the 1930s is a subject that requires proper attention. When commemorative films are drawn from different historical moments and viewed together, such as those of the Jubilees of 1935, 1977 and 2002, they can serve as a barometer for the changing nature of public commemoration. Jubilee films, therefore, can be used to explore the evolving relationships between communities, the nation, the monarchy and history.

Alongside public commemorations, there are also films of private commemorations. Family films, for instance, record such rituals as birthdays, weddings, Christmases and activities such as holidays. These are private acts of commemoration that capture those moments, as deemed by the film-maker and the participants, to be of a ‘special’ time. Their natural analogue is the family photograph album. Films of this kind are introduced within the Family Life theme.

It also possible to discern more generalised acts of commemoration by considering the nature of particular non-fiction films and the work of film archives. Works of non-fiction that are designed to represent individuals, places and activities, usually have either explicit or implicit commemorative characteristics. They tend to have a focused, sustained and usually sympathetic engagement with a particular subject. For example, many of our rural films from the 1930s document a horse-drawn non-mechanised world. These films, such as The Wheat Harvest (1935), celebrate traditional agricultural practices that were beginning to disappear with the arrival of the tractor. This broader sense of commemoration is also amplified by the passage of time and by the work of film archives. When made, a film may not have been seen as a specific act of commemoration but it can acquire a commemorative character in the future because it can become a rare and unique record of a distinctive aspect of the past. This status is usually conferred if a film becomes ‘archived’. Through the process of acquisition, documentation, preservation and historicisation, it acquires this new connotation.


References

1. quoted by David Cannadine, "The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’, c. 1820 - 1977", in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 152.

2. Eric Hobsbawm, "Introduction: Inventing Traditions", in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 4.