Shifting Ground Stories of environmental transformation from our moving image archives

Film programmer and archive activist Rachel Pronger takes us on a journey back in time and across the UK.

Shifting Ground is a new nationwide funding programme that supports organisations to explore people's changing relationship with their environment through archive film. Following the launch of the fund earlier this month, we invited Rachel Pronger - Film Programme Coordinator at Tyneside Cinema and co-founder of archive activism project Invisible Women - to explore the UK's national and regional moving image collections and provide an introduction to some of the forgotten stories that Shifting Ground might help bring to light.

Her guest article takes us on a whistle-stop tour of UK film history; crossing eras and geography to uncover a varied selection of the archives' riches and sketch out a number of ways that filmmakers have used the moving image to explore our connection with our surroundings. There's vivid tales of farming life in remote island settings, stories of urban expansion, community formation and social exclusion - even the curious case of a man camping out in a tree in a Gloucestershire market town. 

Separated by time and distance, these sporadically plotted points of our shared screen heritage evidence certain common truths that persist no matter the period or place. Firstly, that film has long been a powerful tool for understanding our complex, shifting relationship with the environment; and secondly, that these stories of past environmental changes can still illuminate - in sometimes unexpected ways - the turbulent transformations of the present.

Read on - and take a journey back in time and across the UK, all the way up to the here and now.

Shifting Ground

Perhaps it’s the nature of every generation to think that they live in uniquely turbulent times. In 2019, when every news story and viral tweet seems to take us one step closer to the end of days, it can certainly feel that way. Gentrification, the housing crisis, protesters in the street, environmental meltdown – the images on our churning screens show us a world in a state of unrest. Yet none of these hot issues, the ones that keep us awake at night feverishly refreshing our feeds, are really without precedent. We have the films to prove it.

Archives are powerful and personal places. When we go looking in our regional and national collections, digging through old reels and VHS tapes, what we find is ourselves. These images might seem foreign at first – the outfits eye-popping, the soundtrack kitsch, the voiceover a relay from another planet – but beneath the surface lies something fundamentally familiar. It is the threads that connect us, the continuities that transcend time and geography, which fascinate. In these films we meet people whose lives are defined by the same issues that preoccupy us today. The ground shifts beneath their feet, just as it does beneath ours. The lives we live, and the realities we’ve filmed, resonate across time. Nothing is ever really new.

Let’s begin in the countryside: the lush pastures, the beating heart of our national identity, the green fields where we reap and sow pride and patriotism. We often think of the countryside as a place of stability, an oasis of tradition where the old ways persist away from the whims of modern life. But the idea of our countryside as an untouched idyll is a conscious construction manufactured to serve myths and markets. These rural landscapes shift and change just like our towns and cities, with similarly seismic repercussions.

In Evelyn Spice and Marion Grierson’s deceptively playful Around the Village Green (1937), we see these clichés in full swing. Squarely aimed at the overseas tourist market, this documentary presents with a picture-perfect profile of an Essex village, all frolicking kids (goats and children), cheerful farmers and Benjamin Britten. Yet even here, in this bucolic bliss, we can sense rumblings. “The old order changes in rural England” states the patrician voiceover ominously, although clearly the latest shifts are themselves nothing new – the village pub is packed with old men who have been bemoaning the pace of change, every new telephone or bus route, over pints of bitter for decades.

The countryside has never been a place of stasis – as long as humans have been alive, they’ve been shaping the landscape to meet their needs. British Foundation short An English Fen (1947), talks approvingly of the transformation of the Lincolnshire countryside from a “worthless swamp” populated by “a race of lawless fenman” to the “richest agricultural area in the country.” There is no discussion here of what might have been lost in the process; the landscape is a raw material to be mined for profit. Another, slightly gentler take on the age-old struggle of Man vs Land can be found in the surprisingly poetic government information film Land of Ulster (1950). Here Northern Ireland is “a small fist with a lot of punch… much packed into it by nature and man.” For all the merry shots of country fairs, it is clear that the hard work of harnessing the land to feed “the great industrial mouth of Britain” is a serious business.

A fear of the bulldozing effect of that insatiable “industrial mouth” has driven many filmmakers to make work capturing rural traditions “as they are.” Ethnographic documentaries, such as Jenny Gilbertson’s evocative Shetland films - A Crofter’s Life in Shetland (1931) and Northern Outpost (1941) are two beautiful examples - offer heartfelt attempts to elevate the everyday, to capture and preserve the way in which people have traditionally interacted with the land. These films also form a kind of quiet resistance, a response to the fear that the ever-shifting ground will open up and swallow our past.

We feel a similar urge to preserve and elevate (albeit more abstractly) in another Scottish island filmmaker: Margaret Tait. Some Changes (1981) offers a complex reflection on Tait’s hometown of Kirkwall in Orkney, exploring our emotional connections to place and the subjectivity of memory. Tait presents us with an island town teetering on the brink of modernisation - buildings are demolished, anti-Uranium protesters gather and Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior is glimpsed in the dock. Yet this is also a place of continuity, in its own way as deeply rooted in tradition as Gilbertson’s Shetland. As children play in the water to a backdrop of bagpipes and folk songs, residents debate how much has really changed: “nothing?” “Just the shops?” Or “everything?”

When we move from rural to urban, the pace of change leaves no room for doubt. Cities are always and unapologetically in flux, a human-made landscape constantly defined and redefined by those who call it home. Our island nation is built upon immigration, and where people move they reshape the environment in their image. In Lionel Ngakane’s tender, New-Wave inflected Jemima & Johnny (1966), we see this imprinting in action: the divided streets of post-riots Notting Hill are transformed through the child’s-eye-view of a black Jamaican girl and a white boy, united in friendship. 

Further hopeful visions of thriving multi-cultural cities are offered by the diverse, celebratory home videos Living Together (1971) and Tiger Bay and The Rainbow Club (1960), which portray Leicester and Cardiff respectively, and in the Black Arts Video Project’s Kanga (1992), which casts Brixton as the backdrop to a hip-hop infused African odyssey. That’s not to say that multi-culturalism is only the preserve of urban environments. Springtime in an English Village (1944) offers a glimpse of a young black girl crowned as a May Queen, a hopeful, if too-rare depiction of racial diversity in a rural setting.

A city’s landscape is shaped by those who live there; cold grey concrete and stone animated by the warmth of thriving communities. But where people go, the market follows, and this uneasy collision can have troubling repercussions. Gentrification is often driven by positive intentions – see for instance the fizzing optimism on display in freewheeling documentary Boats, Goats and Yuppie Flats (1986), about the renovation of Newcastle’s industrial heartlands. Yet too often such plans make way for profit-driven development, driving out long established working class and ethnic minority communities. We see this process in Harley Jones and Chris Bellinger’s thoughtful After Many a Summer - the changing face of Tiger Bay (1968), which documents how a regeneration project pulls apart and isolates a long established and diverse Cardiff community. We feel this pulse too in Lorenza Mazetti’s powerful, neo-realist Together (1956) which shows us London’s East End through the eyes of two disabled dock workers, a pair of marginal figures overlooked by looming cranes that pre-figure the transformation of these slums and bombsites into sleek 21st century penthouses.

Both these films suggest that, in the built landscape of the city, our lives are dictated by the quality of the architecture that surrounds us. Nowhere is that relationship felt more acutely than in our homes. The profound psychological implications of poor-quality housing are demonstrated poignantly in A Place To Call Our Own (1987), a short TV documentary which outlines how the residents of a dilapidated Nottingham housing estate have become ostracised, labelled as “rubbish” thanks to the “atrocious abomination” of their surroundings. Housing is a truly intersectional issue, and many archive films on the subject offer perspectives that reflect the wider social shifts of the moment. See, for example, how Kay Mander’s fiery Homes for the People (1945) offers a feminist take, or how housing shortages intersect with growingly visible minority communities in reports such as Afro Housing Self Build Scheme (1987), about Afro-Caribbean communities in Birmingham, and Oxford Housing (1982), which covers the controversy surrounding a decision to grant LGBT couples access to council homes.

Yet while the day-to-day experiences of our local neighbourhoods are profoundly emotional and inherently political, our contentious relationship with the environment spans far beyond the four walls of home. As temperatures and sea levels rise, the existential threat of wider environmental collapse hangs over us more tangibly every day. But it’s important to remember that even this sensation of teetering on the brink is not a new feeling.

We are a nation with a rich history of protest, and the archives’ compelling collection of stories of counter-culture and rebellion demonstrates how frequently we have been driven to organise in response to urgent environmental issues. From local grassroots resistance – such as demonstrations against deforestation in Apsley Protest (1976), or a determined defence of an elm tree in Tree Squatter in Stow on the Wold (1974) – to grander, more flamboyant displays – an anti-nuclear hippy camp in On Site Torness (1979), and an anti-car carnival captured on Super 8 in M41 Motorway - Reclaim the Streets (1996) – these acts of protests, large and small, are reclamations of power and space. Watching this footage we feel a tingle of recognition, a through-line to present day movements; to anti-frackers, Greenpeace, Occupy, Extinction Rebellion and The School Strike for Climate Change. Perhaps these films even stir us to pick up a placard ourselves - to stand up once more for our surroundings; threatened on so many fronts and defended so passionately by the people who call them home.

Rachel Pronger is Film Programme Coordinator at Tyneside Cinema and co-founder of archive activism project Invisible Women.

Shifting Ground can provide organisations with funding of £500 - £15,000 to support archive film events that explore people's changing relationship with the environment. Applications are open now.

Images: Around the Village Green (1937, East Anglian Film Archive), After Many a Summer - the changing face of Tiger Bay (1968, The National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales), Land of Ulster (1950, Northern Ireland Screen), Some Changes (1981, The National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive), Living Together (1971, Media Archive for Central England), M41 Motorway - Reclaim the Streets (1996, London's Screen Archives).