Letters from Baghdad (Between the Rivers Ltd)

The Office Cat

20 June 2017

Letters from Baghdad was made for Between the Rivers Ltd. and Letters from Baghdad Ltd., and first shown at the Beirut International Film Festival on October 6 2016.

The film was directed by Sabina Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum and produced by Zeva Oelbaum who reported to Executive Producers Denise Benmosche, Elizabeth Chandler, Ashley Garrett, Ruedi Gerber, Alan Jones, Thelma Schoonmaker and Tilda Swinton (who also played the voice of Gertrude Bell). Zeva Oelbaum was also helped by three co-producers—Mia Bays, Fabrice Esteve, and Christian Popp—and four   Consulting Producers—Kevin Brownlow, Tracie Holder, Andrea Miller and Carla Solomon. Zeva Oelbaum had an Associate Producer Rob Quaintance and a Line Producer Serena Nutting, no doubt to keep the other sixteen Cos, Executives, Consultings and Associate in line. No one was credited as being responsible for Film Research (though ‘Insurance Broker’ and ‘Legal Services’ both got a mention) and that gave my inventiveness carte blanche.

I couldn’t help noticing that all the principals in this fascinating story—about how Gertrude Bell single-handedly invented Irak (If I’ve got things right) in the period immediately following the First World War—are now dead and buried, so I thought I’d produce a set of alternative facts and bring them back to life, so we could actually experience Lawrence of Arabia, Vita Sackville West, Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell, uttering words attributed to them. Of course, I had to pretty them up a bit so as to be presentable for a family audience.

I then turned my attention to my day job, and discovered the Cinématographe was not developed in the 1890s but at least as early as 1865, and found a close-up of the hands of the young Gertrude Bell playing the piano. She evidently didn’t like it much and wrote her mother so in no uncertain terms.  I’m sure that I too would have been annoyed by the presence a camera crew and its lights getting in the way of my practising scales.

When Gertrude Bell went to Oxford I found some grand street scenes of the city and its undergraduates in 1886.  My register of alternative facts tell me this was long after Donald Trump’s grandfather had sealed a deal with the Lumière brothers to develop their Cinématographe.  Even so, pushing the development of Motion Pictures back 30 years is no mean feat, even though it won’t by itself Make America Great.


*Letters From Baghdad was nominated for, and won, in the category for Best Use of Footage in a History Feature at the Focal International Awards 2017.

For readers of the IAMHIST Blog who have yet to meet the Office Cat (who writes regularly for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television), you’ll find it a ‘ferocious yet felicitous feline who has assisted in aiding and abetting slovenly television producers and directors since it first saw light in the pages of the History Workshop Journal’. (HJFRT, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 2016: 339). Born in 1976, the Office Cat is no ordinary cat, but a film researcher. It might be fluffy, but unlike human film researchers, for whom it has the greatest respect, never takes ‘no’ for an answer. It specializes in finding film footage that no other film archivist, historian, critic, or other researcher has found before. The Office Cat finds film footage that doesn’t exist or does exist, but not in the ways that film producers or directors would like it to. For example, the Office Cat’s ancestors found footage of the Wright brothers’ first flight, another found footage of the Battle of Jutland. One even unearthed shots of Adolf Hitler marrying Eva Braun in the Führerbunker…

Jerry Kuehl is an independent television producer whose principal but not exclusive interest is visual history. His first grown-up job in television was as a historical advisor to the 26-part 1964 BBC production, The Great War, he was then an associate producer of The World at War, the 26-part series made by Thames Television in the 1970s which set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of film archives. He was the Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In the 1980s, he was a director of Open Media whose productions included After Dark. In the 1990s, he was a writer and consultant to the 24-part CNN production, The Cold War. In 1991, he wrote and co-produced the 4-part La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée (English title: The Great Adventure of Newsreels) for France 3. He is responsible for Kuehl’s Reels, a programme series for YouTube which punctures the pretensions of those who misdescribe films sent to the site. He is also responsible for the Office Cat who skewers irresponsible producers and directors in both the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the IAMHIST Blog. He is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from FOCAL, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries.

Contact: theofficecat76@gmail.com



Utilitarian Filmmaking

Deane Williams, Monash University

20 June 2017

In recent years, outside Australia, there has been significant research undertaken into utilitarian filmmaking, particularly in the US, and across many territories in Europe. This research provides a highly informative, revisionist complement to the thoroughgoing study of the production, distribution, exhibition and viewing practices that have long been associated with feature-film drama, television, ‘art cinema’, and documentary filmmaking around the world. These latter domains have always been the mainstay of film history, film theory and media studies worldwide, including in Australia (which has been an extremely influential contributor to these disciplines on a global basis over the past four decades). But now European and American research into utilitarian cinema has begun to provide a provocative and informative complement to the disciplinary orthodoxies. For example, the recent books Films That Work (Hediger & Vonderau, 2009 – Europe-focused) and Useful Cinema (Acland and Wasson, 2011 – America-focused) have canvassed the scope and cardinal themes of utilitarian and non-theatrical cinema in a range of different national cultures and economies where it has only recently become evident that utilitarian cinema provided employment for thousands of people, fostered the long term publication of several trade journals and generated an international circuit of trade shows, festivals and industrial and governmental conferences between 1950 and 1980.

Also, highly influential archives have been made available to scholars under Creative Commons licences. The global ‘gold standard’ is the Prelinger Archives that is now administered by the Library of Congress in the US; Archive.org is also a vital contributor in this field. Even so, Australian specificities concerning utilitarian cinema have received almost no attention, at home or abroad. Archives of utilitarian cinema in Australia are nowhere near as consolidated as they are in the US and Europe, even though there are some small but notable exemplars such as portions of the Mu-meson Archive, and the Teasdale Collection of films detailing farm work and rural culture, which Ross Gibson has been investigating for some time (see Gibson, 2015): http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/john-teasdale-chronicle-of-a-country-life/.

Clearly an investigation of utilitarian cinema in Australia can inform an important and innovative recasting of audiovisual media histories as well as industrial practices in communications both at home and abroad. A team consisting of Ross Gibson (University of Canberra), Mick Broderick (Murdoch University), John Hughes (University of Canberra), Joe Masco (University of Chicago), PhD candidates Grace Russell (Monash University), Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd and Stella Barber (Murdoch University) and myself received Australian Research Council funding to pursue what we understand to be urgent and important research for at least three compelling reasons. Firstly, an understanding of the ‘peculiarities’ of the Australian utilitarian filmmaking ‘scene’ adds nuance to the global account and brings Australian- focused scholars into fruitful dialogue with their international counterparts in a rapidly-expanding field of scholarship. Secondly, we are generating and disseminating vital new knowledge about market-focused and audience-focused interpretations of Australian media and communications, particularly because of the way utilitarian filmmakers developed systems of exhibition and distribution in this country that were different (and sometimes even oppositional) to the US-dominated cartels that organised the entertainment sector here. Thirdly, from industrial-relations and labour-history viewpoints, a history of Australian utilitarian filmmaking deepens our understanding of how the utilitarian sector maintained a critical mass of well-trained technical and creative staff who formed the basis, despite long ‘fallow periods’ prior to the ‘renaissance’ that occurred during the1970s in the entertainment, of the theatrical and television-focused sectors of Australian film production. Indeed, for all their avoidance of explicitly aesthetic approaches to the medium, utilitarian filmmakers in Australia would appear to have supplied a consistent ‘through-line’ of factual, pragmatic and documentary ideologies and aesthetic and technical capabilities that have nourished and guided the more well-known, entertainment-focused sectors of cinematic production in the nation. This is a revelatory new line of investigation and explanation.


By utilitarian we mean pragmatic, purposeful films that were made and distributed outside the well-studied systems of entertainment, ‘theatrical’ exhibition and visual arts installation; films that were produced, distributed and exhibited to a wide range of (as-yet under investigated) audiences in mostly ‘non-theatrical’ and ‘mundane’ contexts and spaces.

Dressing a Chicken (Victorian Department of Agriculture, Australia 1960)

These were films produced in significant numbers worldwide (including in Australia) for the functional purposes of instruction, surveillance, quantification or recordkeeping rather than principally for reasons of commercial entertainment, creative non-fiction narrative, or clearly-contextualised artistic and aesthetic appreciation. The project is, at the same time, seeks:

  1. To survey the full extent of holdings of utilitarian cinema dispersed across private, public and government-administered collections in Australia;
  2. to assay the themes and patterns of historical information that are contained within this reservoir of cultural, pedagogical, sociological and industrial evidence; NOTE: as part of this assay, the team is conducting, recording and making available a range of oral history interviews with practitioners, users and consumers’ of utilitarian history 1945 – 1980;
  3. to work with partners (such as the National Film & Sound Archive, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, the National Archives of Australia and the online departments of State Libraries) to ensure not only that there are secure repositories for the discovered material but also that there is continuing policy-development as well as curatorial commitment devoted to accessing and interpreting the national heritage of utilitarian cinema in Australia;
  4. to consolidate and communicate to scholars and the interested general public the findings about Australian utilitarian cinema so that this new knowledge can be productively compared and integrated with extant knowledge of Australian media as well as with the global understanding that has begun to be accrued worldwide within the new sub-discipline of utilitarian film and media studies.
  5. to engage the participant public in a process of continuing, long-term data-collection, assets-collection and oral history via the project’s online repository and via the crowd-sourcing and citizen-curatorship enterprises that are now being enacted by the partner institutions.

Deane Williams is a film historian specialising in documentary film history and Australian documentary from Monash University, Melbourne. He is the author of 7 monographs and edited collections and of articles published in Screening the Past, Continuum, Media International Australia,  Framework and Critical Arts. He is also Editor of Studies in Documentary Film (ISSN 1750-3280 (Print), 1750-3299 Online), the only international, refereed, scholarly journal dedicated to the history and criticism of documentary. In 2015 he commenced work with Ross Gibson, Mick Broderick, John Hughes, Joe Masco on the four-year Australian Research Council Discovery Grant supported project, Utilitarian Filmmaking in Australia 1945-80. ($AUD 363,359).


The Big CON? How Theresa and ‘her team’ failed to mobilise the media of the age

Llewella Chapman, University of East Anglia

13 June 2017

How was it that Theresa May and ‘her team’ (the Conservative Party) went from being predicted to win a historic landslide to losing their overall majority in the 2017 General Election? Here, I review how Theresa May’s lack of engagement with key media platforms led to one of the most disastrous Conservative campaigns in modern history.

On Friday 9 June 2017, the British electorate woke up to what was deemed almost unthinkable by traditional press outlets weeks before when Theresa May called a snap General Election on 18 April 2017: a hung parliament.

Having failed to secure the landslide expected by pollsters, members of her advisory committee, and if one can believe the Sunday Express, Jean Claude Junker (who allegedly pressured May to hold an election in order to get a stronger mandate for a hard Brexit), Theresa May spoke to the country outside 10 Downing Street in an apparent attempt to assure the country that nothing had changed:

Many of the Prime Minister’s enemies could not hide their glee at such a disastrous result: leading the backlash was the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (sacked by Theresa May after being reportedly told that he ‘needed to get to know his party better’). Now editor of the Evening Standard, Osborne exclaimed on BBC 1’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 11 June: “She’s a dead woman walking”. Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, also twisted the knife: “Whatever happens, Theresa May is toast”.

How, though, did it all go so very wrong for Team Theresa? There are a variety of answers that have been offered up by various media outlets over the last few days:

  1. Her team underestimated the youth vote. 18-24 year olds have hitherto felt disenfranchised by politics. They are perceived to feel that either their vote ‘doesn’t count’, or that when they do vote, they aren’t listened to (the EU referendum is a case in point). Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, successfully mobilised this core vote to great effect. The Conservative Party also underestimated the 25-35 age group, suggesting that university tuition fees continue to be a problem after the 2010 coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, where fees rose to £9000 per year.
  2. The Conservative Party Manifesto. The main problem with the manifesto centred around the plan to provide social care for the elderly. This was slammed by many as a ‘dementia tax’, where the manifesto pledged that £100,000 would be protected if elderly patients needed to pay for their own care (it had been suggested before the manifesto’s release that there would be a cap on the amount of care costs paid). As one un-named backbench Conservative MP put it: “It seemed like two people got off their potties without wiping their botties and wrote a manifesto.” (Sunday Times, 11 June 2017: 13). Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for Ribble Valley, was more damning: “It was an amazing own goal. We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we shot ourselves in the head… A manifesto should be about apple pie and cream but ours was laced with arsenic.” (The Sun, 10 June 2017: 9) How were campaigners for the Conservative Party supposed to sell such a manifesto that attacked their key voters on the doorstep? More importantly, the Labour Party Manifesto, accused of being funded by a ‘magic money tree’, appealed to voters from across parties, and offered ‘hope’ to an electorate sick of austerity politics.
  3. Theresa May herself. Ultimately, she became the key issue with the entire campaign. First, if you want to run a presidential-style campaign based on personality, you need a personality. Second, no one likes vacuous statements like ‘strong and stable leadership’. Especially if you commit U-turn after U-turn on manifesto policy and reveal that you are not so ‘strong and stable’ after all. Third, don’t call what the electorate perceive to be a ‘stupid’ election: nobody likes that. Least of all because the British have been called to the polls three (if you live in Scotland, five) times over the last four years. Brenda from Bristol became the proclaimed ‘voice of the nation’ when told that there was to be another General Election: “You’re joking?! Not another one?!” Fourth, never assume that the electorate are willing to give you a coronation. Finally, Theresa May lacked the magic ingredient: hope. Jeremy Corbyn offered this to younger voters, and hope is something which Barrack Obama campaigned on in 2008 (“Yes we can”). Theresa May offered no hope to anyone, and neither did the Conservative Party manifesto.  Her campaign echoes that of Edward Heath’s in 1974, where he asked the country “Who governs?” The answer returned by the electorate was “Not you”.

These points understood together point towards an aspect of Theresa May’s campaign which was not as effective as it could have been: social media. Unlike the Labour Party who mobilised Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets relatively well, the Conservative Party, or rather ‘Team Theresa’, focused more on traditional press formats. This, I would argue, contributed to May’s failed campaign. Hillary Clinton also failed in this area, with @gyalalmighty summing up the difference between Clinton and Bernie Saunders thus:

‘Bernie Saunders is the grandpa who’s really nice and tells you stories about the war or civil rights movement when you didn’t even ask’.

‘Hilary [sic] Clinton is like the white mom who tries to be “cool” by saying/failing at using slang. She makes lemon squares for school bake sales’.

Sound familiar? To quote the Independent on Clinton’s Presidential campaign:

Complacent beyond belief, riven by a sense of entitlement, an empty slogan-fixated orator of pulverising tedium, incapable of projecting empathy, twice as robotic as the Supreme Dalek… Fatally underestimating the appeal of a maverick rival promising change [Donald Trump], Hillary hid herself away as far as possible in the assumption that she could coast to the line.

A ‘maverick rival’ promising change, @jeremycorbyn had 1.11 million followers on Thursday 8 June (this has since risen to 1.25 million followers at time of writing). @theresa_may has 354,000 followers. Reviewing both party leaders’ tweets, Jeremy Corbyn’s most popular recent tweet scored 157,954 likes (https://twitter.com/jeremycorbyn/status/873899597147639809), Theresa May’s 4,683 (https://twitter.com/theresa_may/status/871395319510118401) [at time of writing]. Momentum, the grassroots campaign movement established in 2015 after Jeremy Corbyn’s successful Labour Party leadership bid, was also integral to Corbyn’s social media campaign. They developed MyNearestMarginal.com to mobilise activists and they offered schooling in how to make best use of social media.

As Andre van Loon, research and insight director at We Are Social, explains: “They [the Conservatives and Theresa May] would have seen the data as it came through and yet they didn’t change anything. They could have tried to be more appealing to young people from the start.” van Loon further argues: “Theresa May’s core message of stability did not appear to play well with undecided voters, but Labour’s engaging and social posts performed better: The ‘strong and stable’ message didn’t seem to attract any new support on social media” (Telegraph, 9 June 2017).

Theresa May’s campaign also failed in making use of another aspect of the media, that of taking part in live televised debates against leaders of other political parties. This concept is relatively new in Britain, having been introduced during the 2010 General Election. A guide to politicised television debates can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26753299.

Since their introduction in the UK, ‘Leaders Debates’ have adopted different formats. In 2010, there were three debates held between the leaders of the three main parties: Gordon Brown (Labour Party), David Cameron (Conservative Party) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats). The debates were broadcast on ITV, Sky and the BBC on successive Thursday evenings. In 2015, this format was adapted where the BBC and ITV staged debates to include more political parties: Conservative Party, Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru. Sky and Channel 4 also broadcast a head-to-head debate between David Cameron (Prime Minister) and Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition).

In 2017 the format changed again. This time, ITV broadcast their Leaders Debate on Thursday 18 May. All party leaders had been invited to attend, however after Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn refused, those who turned up included Tim Farron (Liberal Democrats), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Paul Nuttal (UKIP), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) and Caroline Lucas (Green Party). As Theresa May refused to debate Jeremy Corbyn, Sky and Channel 4 adapted their previous head-to-head debate broadcast in 2015, and instead arranged for the two main party leaders to answer questions from a live studio audience and then be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman separately in May v Corbyn: The Battle for Number 10 (broadcast on Monday 29 May). Finally, the BBC held the Election Debate on Wednesday 31 May. As with ITV’s Leaders Debate, this was to be a seven-way podium battle between ‘spokespeople’ from the seven parties, alluding to Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to attend televised debates with other party leaders.

By refusing to appear on this media platform, and by Jeremy Corbyn’s late U-turn announcing that he would show up to debate other party leaders on the BBC after all, this worked to undermine May’s decision to avoid the debates, and arguably contributed to making her refusal appear arrogant and a weakness in her leadership. Indeed, during the BBC’s Election Debate Caroline Lucas slammed May’s absence: “I think the first rule of leadership is to show up. You don’t call a general election and say it is the most important election in her lifetime and then not even be bothered to debate the issues at hand.” Tim Farron received huge applause from the audience when asking: “Where do you think Theresa May is tonight? Take a look out your window. She might be out there sizing up your house to pay for your social care.”

She was also roasted on Twitter, for example on the official Twitter account for the TV show House of Cards: “Theresa May. They respect you more when you show strength. Or show up”. This post that was shared more than 13,000 times. Her refusal to appear also started a parody Twitter search:

As the self-proclaimed ‘political love-child’ of Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton, one would think that Theresa May might have learnt from her adopted political parents’ mistakes. But then, as I was once told: ‘As parents, you can hope that your children will listen to the mistakes you made yourself and learn from them. But sometimes, if they won’t listen to you, it’s necessary to let them learn for themselves’. In her disastrous General Election campaign, Theresa May will have to learn the hard way.

*At time of writing, Theresa May is still “squatting in Downing Street”, as Emily Thornberry puts it (but one day is a long time in politics).

Thank you to Professor John Charmley and Dr Ellen Wright, who kindly read this piece before publication and offered excellent advice.

Llewella Chapman is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral research focuses on the use of film and television in the UK heritage industry with particular reference to the representation of Henry VIII and Hampton Court Palace. She has published on fashion and lifestyle as promoted in the James Bond films, and is currently under contract with I. B. Tauris to write a monograph entitled Fashioning James Bond: Costume, Gender and Identity in the World of 007. Her research interests include British cinema and television history, fashion, costume and gender.


  • Archives