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Copyright Featured Image and Page Header Image: GPO Unit

Britain rules the railroads

Deze bedrijfsfilm uit 1936 gaat over de routine van het sorteren van de post in de speciale nachttrein van London naar Edinburgh. Dit klinkt niet erg spannend, toch is de film fascinerend.

De afstand van de tijd helpt hierbij, want de beelden van de theekantine zijn heerlijk nostalgisch, om maar te zwijgen over de imposante stoomlocomotieven en het Britse glooiende landschap. De film toont in detail de efficiëntie van de hele operatie, met als meest opmerkelijk onderdeel het ingenieus opvangen en uitwerpen van postzakken tijdens de rit, in volle vaart. Een nieuwe collega krijgt de fijne details van de procedure uitgelegd en wij kunnen meeluisteren en op gepaste wijze onder de indruk zijn.

De film is bijzonder vakkundig gemaakt, met een virtuoze finale waarbij de compositie van Benjamin Britten en het gedicht van W. H. Auden subliem samenvallen.

Night Mail – UK 1936, 24’ – directed by Basil Wright, Harry Watt. Production: GPO Unit. Poem: W.H. Auden. Score: Benjamin Britten.
De tekst van het gedicht van W.H. Auden staat op het internet, ook als pod cast, zie onder andere:
Aanvullende films – zie o.a.
  • The Midnight Hours, 1987 13 minutes. “A documentary showing each phase of the extraordinary operation of collecting, sorting and distribution of the nation’s mail by road, rail and air. The structure of the film updates Night Mail, some 50 years on.” Notes: ‘The Midnight Hours’ gained the nickname ‘Night Mail 2’ because many years ago it was screened on TV immediately after the original version, but separated by a commercial break. Hence the second part was labelled Night Mail 2. The Midnight Hours was written by Eve Hunter with original material from TVS.
  • Poste Haste 1988, 19 minutes. “A film celebrating 150 years of the Travelling Post Office train service, which revolutionised the sorting and delivery of mail around Britain.”
  • Mail Rail 1987, 10 minutes. “This film was made to mark 60 years of the Royal Mail Underground Railway – Mail Rail. This unique railway sits 22 metres below the streets of London and at its peak carried more than one third of the capital’s mail.”
  • Geoffrey Jones: RAIL (1967), LOCOMOTION (1975)
Overige associaties
How to describe documentaries?
In my view, documentary filmmakers have to face three major choices:
  1. Would you like to be clearly visible and present, interact with the reality before your camera … ORdo you want to be as invisible as possible?
  2. Would you like to be a neutral observer …ORdo you want to find facts, discover the truth, build an argument, make a statement, express your opinion?
  3. Would you tell a particular, personal story, about an individual … ORdo you want to tell a general story about a society, reflect on social phenomena and trends?
Nichols (2017) made a subdivision in six documentary modes of production, based on differences in film form and directional intentions: The Poetic Mode, the Expository Mode, the Observational Mode, the Participatory Mode (or Interactive Mode), the Reflexive Mode, and the Performative Mode.
 1. The Poetic Mode: “[…] a way of representing reality in terms of a series of fragments, subjective impressions, incoherent acts, and loose associations.” – Documentary taken as autonomous film art, with an intrinsic aesthetic value. The film team is making a creative use of the reality, rendering an artistic vision on the reality through a documentary film. Reality is transformed into poetic material.
2. The Expository Mode: “[…] addresses the viewer directly, with titles or voices that propose a perspective, advance an argument, or recount history. […] emphasizes the impression of objectivity and well-supported argument. […] facilitates generalization and large-scale argumentation.” –  Documentary taken as rhetoric tool: an opinionated view on reality, an orchestration of arguments, apersuasive intention, taking an instrumental view on documentary as a means to support an argument.
3. The Observational Mode: “We look in on life as it is lived. Social actors engage with one another, ignoring the filmmakers. […] We make inferences and come to conclusions on the basis of behaviour we observe or overhear.The filmmaker’s retirement to the position of observer calls on the viewer to take a more active role in determining the significance of what is said and done” –  Documentary as window on the world: a truthful account of the reality, an unmanipulated representation of reality, a neutral registration of facts. Capturing the reality as it is: invisible camera, fly-on-the-wall, candid camera. Also known as: ‘Direct Cinema’.
The Participatory Mode (or Interactive Mode): “We expect to witness the historical world as represented by someone who actively engages with, rather than unobtrusively observes, poetically reconfigures, or argumentatively assembles that world.” –  Documentary as tool for questioning the reality, the filmmaker makes herself/himself very visible, through interviews and statements and use of found footage. Also known as: ‘Cinema verité’.
5. The Reflexive Mode: “From a formal perspective, reflexivity draws our attention to our assumptions and expectations about documentary form itself. From a political perspective, reflexivity points toward our assumptions and expectations about the world around us.” – Raising questions like: which choices were made by the filmmaker? Which consequences have these choices? And the eternal question: what is reality? How could we capture it?
6. The Performative Mode: “Performative documentary underscores the complexity of our knowledge of the world by emphasizing its subjective and affective dimensions. […] Performative documentaries primarily address us, emotionally and expressively.”
Further reading: Nichols, B. (2017) Introduction to Documentary (3rd edition), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
To be compared with the writings of Michael Renov, who identified in 1993 four modalities of documentary poetics: preservation, persuasion, analysis and expressivitiy. In 2007 he added a fifth aspect: the ethical function of documentary.
  • Renov, Michael (1993) ‘Towards a Poetics of Documentary’, in: ibidem (ed.) Theorizing Documentary, New York: Routledge, pp. 12-36.
  • Renov, Michael (2007) ‘Away from Copying: The Art of Documentary Practice’, in: G. Pearce & C. McLaughlin (eds. 2007), Truth or Dare: Art and Documentary, Bristol: Intellect Books, pp. 13-24.