Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War

 

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An intriguing and unique work reflecting a past world through one man's camera eye.

 
Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War

  

Here is a film that stands alone, its appeal quite distinct from any other movie that I have seen. The aim behind it is to present to the public the work of a man whose love of cinema led him to make his own films, over four hundred of them. If you have never heard of Harry Birrell that is not in the least surprising because he appears to have made these short films for himself and his family and it would appear that they come to us now at the instigation of his granddaughter Carina. Indeed, Matt Pinder's film draws on material which up to this point existed on reels of film put to one side in a garden shed.

 

Harry Birrell lived from 1918 to 1993 and came from Paisley. Between 1940 and 1945, he wrote a detailed diary which now supplies the narrative read here by Richard Madden. After training in Scotland, the war years found Birrell in the Far East and soon in command of a battalion of Gurkhas whom he admired enormously. However, due to the surveying skills he possessed, his main contribution during the war came not from participation in battle but from work done for mapping. When he started his diary, he also looked back to his life in London in 1938 and to the time when, following cadet training, he fell in love with a girl during a trip to the Isle of Arran. All of this is reflected in the films which were often shot in colour, but the greater part of them trace his experiences in India, in Burma, on leave in Nepal and surveying for troop routes in the Himalayas.

 

The special attraction here is that these key times in our history are viewed by somebody who, his filming apart, could be thought of as an ordinary man, somebody whose lack of special standing enables viewers of this film to identify with him closely. But, if the personal nature of what we see (you could almost say its amateurishness) lies at the heart of its appeal, there is a paradox present. That's because we are only seeing bits and pieces of Birrell's films and this documentary is enormously enhanced by the sheer professionalism of its assemblage (Colin Monie, editor) and by the adroit choice of accompanying music on the soundtrack.

 

The character of this work is so individual that it is sufficiently self-recommending for its flaws to matter less than they might have done. But, that said, the use of Carina to provide a framework as she seemingly discovers her grandfather's films for the first time needed more context and the final quarter of an hour of the film is badly constructed. Having become increasingly dark as it depicts the sufferings of war, the film suddenly jumps from 1944 to 1953 for a quick look at Harry's later years following his marriage. This feels like an anticlimactic conclusion until the wartime footage (1945 now) is resumed - but even then Carina reappears as the film sidesteps to show her visiting the daughter of one of Harry's wartime companions. This all feels singularly shapeless and less telling by far than what has preceded it, but when it is really working this film is a valuable take on history which draws in the audience.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Carina Birrell, Norman Spiers, Judy Thomson, Anne Fry, Johnny Birrell and Richard Madden as narrator.

 

Dir Matt Pinder, Pro Carina Birrell and Matt Pinder, Screenplay Matt Pinder, Ph Harry Birrell and Matt Pinder, Ed Colin Monie, Music Ian Dolamore and Harry Lubin.

 

BBC Scotland/Creative Scotland/Hopscotch Films-Jade Films.
90 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 4 October 2019. Cert. 12A.