Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen

I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.

Molly Dineen’s first three documentaries were made for BBC2, in a slot called “Forty Minutes” and so they all run to this length. However, her rather remarkable first film, Home from the Hill (1987), also exists in an hour-long ‘director’s cut’ (the BFI collection has both versions). The film itself cleaves to that classic documentary practice of focusing on a single fascinating central character, in this case the figure of Hilary Hook, an elderly gentleman who has served in various colonial armies since before World War II and has retired to a rather relaxing life in Kenya, before being evicted and sent home to Blighty, where he must readjust. He seems remarkably chipper about ‘coming home’ to a place he’s not been in 50 years, but a lot of the amusement (and certainly the notice it attracted when broadcast back in the late-80s) is in his inability to deal with simple everyday things which once he’d have had a man to do for him, such as a can opener (admittedly, a peculiarly confusing electric one, so I’m not sure any of us would really understand) or a broadcast of Top of the Pops, et al. He shows his poky little home to guests, remarking that “you couldn’t bloody swing a cockroach in here” as he takes them into a guest bedroom, and his string of expletives at the can opener segues into a forlorn desire to just go down the pub. It’s amusing for sure, but also illustrates a certain mindset, that of a man with genteel civility who nevertheless is hopelessly unable to cope with how we live (and it brings to mind certain current parliamentarians).

Like her debut, My African Farm (1988) also focuses on a single person who somewhat exemplifies the (slightly more benign aspects of) British colonialism. However, unlike the protagonist of the earlier film, Sylvia Richardson is someone who remains living in Kenya, who has a fierce attachment to the UK but who has barely lived in it for more than a few years since she was a child, and clearly has no intention of ever doing so. Her life, which she spends with another woman (apparently married, though we never see any men aside from the servants), is one of relative ease, and the film is quick to establish her grouchy condescension to the native population (who wait on her in her home). While there’s a slight softening of this persona when we see her handing out Christmas presents to those living and working on the farm, even there it’s mixed in with a nasty attitude. Amusing (and apparently self-aware) as she can sometimes be, it’s clear that the legacy of British imperialism is never very far from the surface.

The Heart of the Angel (1989), Dineen’s third film, finds her back in the UK but it’s one that seems like another world entirely from the London I’ve lived in for the last 15 years. Angel station on London Underground’s Northern Line was largely rebuilt in the early-90s, when it moved from a single-island station (like Clapham Common still is) into having two separate platforms and a completely remodelled entrance and ticket hall opening onto Islington High Street (rather than the old one on City Road). Indeed at one point during this film we see the staff looking over the plans, remarking that there’ll hardly be any place for them in this upmarket new station, and much of the rest of this film shows us how it used to be: it’s clear that the case for refurbishment was strong. After all, one of the constant refrains is the archaic lifts breaking down, to much irate feedback from customers, who then must tramp up and down the windy staircase. Less related to Angel station specifically, we also see the nighttime teams of workers who do the track maintenance, like the burly sweaty men walking the length of the line to find faults, or the women binning the fluff and other flammable debris from along the tracks. However, what makes it feel such a world apart is the attitudes of some of the service staff, like the guy at the ticket window contemptuous towards tourists asking for directions (including what he presumably finds to be an amusing pronunciation of the “Picklydickly line”; it’s not) — though when questioned by Dineen he then responds that he is largely happy with his lot in life — or the chirpy lift operator posing questions to everyone that gets on the lift (“so do we think the Earth is round or flat? Anyone?”). There’s an interesting set of outtakes on the DVD featuring an interview with a smartly-dressed young Irish woman in her station office, who basically explains the nature of micro-aggressions and how these dissatisfactions build over the course of the day into full-blown anger, and I can see that some of the staff attitudes are just ways of coping. But I swear if some guy in a lift kept up the kind of patter as he does in this film, I’d be so much quicker to punch someone during my commute. Perhaps the Underground has lost some of this character, but it doesn’t (usually) feel nearly as choked, dilapidated and Victorian as it does here, a mere 30 years ago.

Dineen’s longest film is The Ark (1993), a large-scale observational documentary about an institution, originally a four-part piece for BBC TV about London Zoo, as it negotiates a funding crisis in the early-90s. Indeed, the Zoo almost closed in 1992, so this is a fascinating insight into the institution at this fraught time, as staff are laid off, animals sold off to other zoos, and expenditures drastically reduced in an effort to stave off financial ruin. The four parts are themed around various topics, the downsizing of keepers and the animals in the first two parts (although those who remain thread throughout the entire film), the arrival of a ‘celebrity’ animal (Ming Ming the panda) as a means to drive public interest and thereby revenues, and the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring between reformers within the zoo and its management that leads to the axing of the role of the director general of the zoo. As ever, Dineen’s focus is on the people, with whom she cultivates strong relationships, and who become our conduit to understanding what’s going on. The keepers come across as likeable and driven, some gregarious, others amusingly sardonic and world-weary, whose care is primarily the animals (one is reduced to tears when one of his elephants leaves), but the management are clearly also operating in rather straitened circumstances. It could be a bleak film about desperate people in sad times, but it retains a fierce compassion for peoples’ (and animals’) lives, and suggests these may be the basis for the necessary change.

There’s a certain way in which Dineen’s interest in institutions in such films as The Ark is reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman, and yet her approach is completely different: she inserts herself into what she’s filming, eliciting commentary and sometimes confessions from those around her, and trying not to efface her (and her sound recordist Sarah’s) existence. It’s important in her follow-up film In the Company of Men (1995) because she’s working with the British Army and thus there are limitations to what she’s given access to document, and the way the (male) troops and their commanding officer relate to her camera.

Another aspect of her documentary work that comes to the fore is the way she always seems to find interesting central characters, and this three-part TV documentary is largely based around the presence of Major Crispin Black, who like most officers (and like Hilary Hook in her first film) has an excellent private and Oxbridge education, and speaks and acts in that kind of very patrician English way (though he’s leading a regiment of the Welsh Guards, so his loyalties can sometimes be rather more aligned with that identity). However, he is also very self-aware and provides at times amusing reflection on certain aspects of the modern Army, as well as narrating for the viewer what’s going on in a day-to-day operational way, elucidating matters of discipline and procedure. As it happens, this was filmed during a tour of service in Northern Ireland just prior to the peace agreement, and though it largely avoids engaging with the complexities of that particular deployment, the very fact of their existence there certainly does lead to questions about their role — and indeed a great deal of the time Molly films them, they are guarding a police station, which occasions some withering commentary by Major Black. There are insights in all three of the parts about the procedures (as well as some of the limitations) of the Army, and though it’s hardly propagandistic, as mentioned it does avoid any overtly political engagement. One nevertheless feels you couldn’t make the same film today, as depicting the administration and perpetuation of state authority — and the systems of control and inculcation into it which go along with the Army life — inevitably raises uncomfortable questions. Still, thanks to Major Black in particular, this is very easy to watch, and rather fascinating in its way.

All of Molly Dineen’s films in the 2000s took her into the British Parliament and this trend towards more directly engaging with the political process started with a short film commissioned by the (nominally left-wing) Labour Party in 1997, only somewhat jokily called “Tony Blair: The Movie”, which is probably best to watch alongside her longer reflective piece about its making (an extra on the BFI collection). The Party Election Broadcast broadcast itself is ten minutes of fairly laidback conversation in the backs of cars and in Blair’s home that touch on his feelings about change and leadership, his family background, some of his childhood dreams, intercut with a few more focused political speeches. It does its job, which is to present Blair as a human being that people can relate to, but Dineen has rather more complex feelings about taking on the job in the first place, and whether doing her kind of work with a politician could ever really be successful. Anyway, I didn’t live in the UK during much of Blair’s leadership, so I don’t really recall anymore why people now have such antipathy towards him, but I suppose it’s (at least partly) for just these reasons that Dineen prevaricates about: that he’s presenting an untruth in the way he projects himself.

Her two subsequent more directly political films are The Lord’s Tale (2002) and The Lie of the Land (2007) (pictured above). I didn’t start watching the former, about the 1999 reform of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords, expecting to find any sympathy for this group of old men, whose titles had passed down in some cases for hundreds of years and whose attendance of the second chamber of the UK government was, for many, more of an amateur pursuit to be taken up in their old age. However, Dineen finds the humanity in this group of dinosaurs shambling off into the sunset, less angry than just frightfully disappointed by the whole affair, dash it all, as they see their House left to the professional politicians who care rather less about what they’re debating. Dineen’s argument is to contrast the passage of the Lords reform with sharp criticisms of the government’s own attacks on social welfare, many of which come from across the political divide, both Labour and Conservative peers. That said, in the end these are a bunch of interesting characters who are quite aware their time has come, so the tone is elegiac after a fashion. The hereditary peerage we see is a rather nice thing for a few men, that isn’t without its benefits, but is being rather abruptly retired. As for The Lie of the Land, there’s a slightly disjointed sense as it skips from an initial interest in the protests for and against the practice of fox hunting, to following some of these hunts, to moving to a story about farmers trying to make ends meet in a changing modern environment and under a government that doesn’t really make much effort to understand the rural sector or the work they do. There are plenty of good points being made, even as we see some of the slaughter and hurt caused (in some cases needlessly, or for tenuous bureaucratic reasons) to the animals. Still, it amounts rather to a move away, perhaps a conscious distancing, from Dineen’s earlier work on behalf of the new Labour government, and an awareness of the complicated balance of power (not just party political, but in terms of the politics of food) that lies between cities and the countryside.

One final notable film by Dineen, perhaps her most well-known (and certainly most widely-seen) work, for obvious reasons, is Geri (1999). I have to admit, having not lived in the UK during the 90s, that I may never fully understand that era, and this documentary (along with the others mentioned above, made during the Labour government) really brings that home to me. Of course, even in New Zealand we had the Spice Girls, and what’s fascinating here is just the access that Dineen has to her star, free from the control of industry handlers and PR people. There’s an unguardedness to Halliwell that’s rather refreshing, not that I think it necessarily allows Dineen to fully grasp her thorny and probably impossible subject: the entire nature and business of “celebrity” in the modern world. Still, it may be as close as any documentary is likely to get, in showing this (perhaps necessarily) self-involved star and some aspects of her daily life, and already some of the things that look massively tiresome to a viewer (the hordes of papparazzi) she barely gives a second thought to. Even being thrown into the deep end by the UN with a short-notice press conference as a goodwill ambassador doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm. It must be said that she comes across very empathetically on the whole — and not because this is a hagiography, as Dineen is clear to establish early on, in a rather direct and confrontational conversation with Geri — and even her occasional bouts of self-criticism and childish pique when Molly is talking to Geri’s mother never derail this portrait of someone who for all her narcissistic flaws, seems genuine and impassioned about what she does.

The Molly Dineen Collection DVD coverMy African Farm (1988) [medium-length film, certificate PG]
Director Molly Dineen; Cinematographers Molly Dineen and Sarah Jeans; Length 40 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 April 2019.

In the Company of Men (1995)
Director Molly Dineen; Cinematographers Molly Dineen and Sarah Jeans; Length 180 minutes (in three 60 minute episodes).
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 25 April 2019.

Party Election Broadcast for the Labour Party (aka Tony Blair: The Movie, 1997) [short film]
Director/Cinematographer Molly Dineen; Length 10 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 25 April 2019.

The Molly Dineen Collection Volume Three DVD coverGeri (1999) [certificate 12]
Director/Cinematographer Molly Dineen; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 May 2019.

The Lord’s Tale (2002) [certificate PG]
Director/Cinematographer Molly Dineen; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 May 2019.

The Lie of the Land (2007) [certificate 12]
Director/Cinematographer Molly Dineen; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 25 May 2019.

The Ark DVD coverHome from the Hill (1987) [certificate 15]
Director Molly Dineen; Cinematographers Molly Dineen and Sarah Jeans; Length 60 minutes (originally 40 minutes when first shown on TV).
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 April 2019.

The Heart of the Angel (1989) [medium-length film]
Director Molly Dineen; Cinematographers Molly Dineen and Sarah Jeans; Length 40 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 23 April 2019.

The Ark (1993) [certificate 12]
Director/Cinematographer Molly Dineen; Length 240 minutes (in four 60 minute episodes).
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 9 May 2019.


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