Molly Dineen, Voice Behind the Camera

For over 25 years, this Canadian-born director has mapped British character

27 mins read

Molly Dineen, an award-winning documentarian who was born in Canada but identifies herself as British, is driven by the need to understand the world in which she lives. Dineen is solidly in that tradition of filmmakers such as Michael Rubbo of the National Film Board of Canada who insert themselves as observers, even participants, in their search for the “story.” Rubbo was frequently seen on camera, but in Dineen’s case we don’t see her—she is in fact behind the camera, shooting. But we hear her voice, questioning, prodding her interviewees. “Interviewees” is not really the right word; we do not see her characters in a neutral interview setting. They are in their world, talking about it with her. Sometimes we feel we are witnessing a soliloquy, when suddenly Dineen’s voice comes from behind the camera, moving the action to a new level of insight. Sometimes she is a witness to events, in the observational manner, but overall it is the relationship between Dineen and her subjects that drives the films.

Born in Canada in 1959 and brought up in Birmingham, England, Dineen loved photography, and studied it after high school, first at the Bourneville School of Art and then at the London College of Printing. Photographing people is what interested her. This led to film courses at the National Film and Television School, where in 1985 she made a remarkable student film, Home from the Hill. She went to Kenya with a friend, Harry Hook, to visit his father Hilary, taking with her a spring-wind 16mm camera and a tape recorder. Dineen and Hook arrived at a critical moment: Hilary Hook had just been given notice by his African landlord to leave his home near Mt. Kenya. So the film became about that departure and his new life back in a small town in southwestern England. Despite being a student film, Home from the Hill was a success and was picked up by the BBC for its 40 Minutes strand. The film was an hour long, and 20 minutes had to be cut. The process was a painful one for Dineen; there were big conflicts with the editor, who disliked the presence of the director in the cutting room.

The two versions of Home from the Hill are available in a set of DVDs released by the British Film Institute in 2011, and make for a fascinating comparison. The re-cutting is not just excision of 20 minutes, but a restructuring. BBC Television wanted a strong scene at the beginning, a hook that would keep the viewers watching, so a scene from near the end of Dineen’s original 1985 student film became the opening scene of the 1987 television version. It depicts an annual gathering of ex-cavalry in London’s Hyde Park, a remembrance for fallen comrades in two World Wars; the veterans are dressed in dark suits, with bowler hats, umbrellas, and medals. It is something to which viewers can immediately relate and bring their own conceptions. For some they are heroes, for some they are a visual expression of the ruling class, and, for others, a collection of Colonel Blimps. We briefly meet retired Lieutenant-Colonel Hilary Hook. Under all this there is an introductory commentary by Molly Dineen. It then cuts to Kenya six months earlier: Hook is on his verandah, vodka near at hand, musing on his life and eviction by the African landlord. The TV version, in a sense, becomes a flashback.

These musings are cut not just of content, but of pauses, the natural rhythms of Hook’s conversation. A TV habit, and a critical point: pauses and rhythms tell us much about a character. Walter Murch, the great Hollywood editor, wrote a book, In the Blink of an Eye. His theory is that the blinks of a person’s eye tell us much about the inner self, the way a person thinks. So his cutting of dialogue is based upon those rhythms. Dineen’s original student version begins with a shot of the house in Kenya, Hook prone in bed, smoking, the cooking of breakfast in the kitchen by an African, Hook on the verandah musing on his life in Kenya, culminating with his thoughts on his coming departure. It feels uncut and Dineen has kept Hook’s natural rhythm of speaking.

The student version presents us with an unknown person in his environment. Dineen begins to unfold the mystery, to take us into Hook’s world. Any preconceptions are softened by Dineen’s reticence, her respect for her character. This process of discovery is at the heart of her work; “truth” is not what it may first seem, people and life are multifaceted. Later in the film we see Hook in England, struggling in the kitchen to open a can of ravioli, ultimately helped by Dineen’s sound recordist, Sarah Jeans. We laugh at him, but also with him, because we are coming to understand him. Hook’s life, including his army career, unfolds naturally in the film’s linear structure—his story is also the filmmaker’s journey. Dineen’s subsequent films have maintained this approach, albeit with increasing sophistication.

Following the success of Home from the Hill, Dineen returned to Kenya and filmed My African Farm (1988), featuring Mrs. Sylvia Richardson, a widow and former neighbour of Hilary Hook. Richardson was a difficult character, the settler who saw herself as partially carrying the white man’s burden, by turns aggressive and kind with her six African servants and their families and friends. At the end of the day, one may not like Mrs. Richardson, but one also does not dislike her. Dineen has led us to why she is what she is and to be tolerant of her, as her servants are. As Dineen stresses in interviews, she is not interested in “stitching up her subjects.”

After these two films, Dineen’s canvas broadened. Over the next 20 years she made a series of films that deals with institutions undergoing change. What interests Dineen is what is happening to the people in a changing institution, what they think and how they act. Her role as behind-the-camera interlocutor becomes more pronounced; we become aware of how a filmmaker becomes part of the story, often affecting what we see happening in front of us as she prods the subjects into rumination and analysis. We also learn the difficulties of filmmaking, of just how much work is involved gaining access and winning the confidence of the characters.

The first of these “institutional” films was Heart of the Angel (1989), filmed at the Angel Underground station in London. We see not just the daily operations on the surface, where nothing seems to work and the staff seems more disgruntled than the paying public, but also the Dante’s Inferno of the Underground at night, when the power is turned off and gangs of men and women clean and repair the tunnels. At first the workers don’t want to talk on camera, ashamed of their work in Victorian conditions. But Dineen gradually earns their confidence: perhaps most remarkable of all, that of a long-time ticket-seller, who apparently wouldn’t let her into his little cabin without all the proper signed permissions. But eventually she captures a soliloquy from him, as he gazes out of his booth, sometimes turning his head to her camera eye: “You don’t ask to be born, and when you are, you are just waiting to die. You are not, you are, and you are not, and that’s the end of it. I want to know why.”

That question hovers in the background of The Ark, a four-part BBC documentary broadcast in 1993 that won the BAFTA Award as best series. In 1990, a journalist friend of Dineen’s told her about the crisis at the London Zoo. Founded by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in 1826, the zoo was losing money by the late 1980s, and closure seemed likely. The administration was planning a huge reorganization, with the firing of keepers and removal of animals, and a switch to a more market-oriented approach. The opposition feared that the zoo’s scientific programmes would be sacrificed and that it would become a mere theme park filled only with animals the public liked, such as pandas. Dineen decided to make a film. Its production coincided with a period during which the BBC itself was going through a tumultuous reorganization—as it became more “management oriented,” Dineen somehow got lost in the shuffle, and was happily able to shoot for nine months. She shot over 100 hours of film with her super-16mm camera, documenting the highly-charged events at the zoo, followed by a year of editing. Apparently, editor Edward Roberts and Dineen had many battles as they carved out the film, which had a shooting ratio of more than 20 to 1.

The result is faultlessly structured filmmaking, brilliantly cut as the film interweaves the daily life of keepers and animals, the general meetings of the ZSL, management meetings, and meetings of a reform group made up of keepers and ZSL members. Access was not easy. There is a natural suspicion of a person running around with a camera, accompanied by a recordist with a microphone on a long pole, especially when this partially-hidden camera person asks probing questions and interrupts you in your daily work. In the case of management, access was more formal and restricted; but with most of the keepers and animals it became an everyday activity. There is little doubt where Dineen’s sympathy lies. Management gets its way in the end: more than a third of the keepers and animals go—but so does the director-general. Ironically, it is only when he is awaiting his fate that he lets Dineen into his office to talk at length with him.

In exploring the relationship between keepers and animals, and the keepers’ relationship with management, Dineen was faced with the danger of anthropomorphizing the animals, an easy way to gain sympathy and misrepresent the situation. Nonetheless, it is clear in some instances that there is a communication between the creatures and keepers. In one remarkable scene, Thai, an elephant, is being transferred to another zoo. For safety reasons, the event was shot telephoto with a radio mike on the keeper, Brian Harman, as he talks incessantly, as a mahout, to the frightened animal. And in the final reel, we witness the heartbreak of keeper Frank Wheeler, nursing a koala dying of cancer.

The Ark was naturally seen by many as a mirror of the state of the nation, with values and questions facing society as a whole. Even though we are glued to the struggle being played out within the walls of the zoo, we are always conscious of an underlying question: what sort of institutions do we want, and what values should they reflect?

The next institution Dineen took on was the British Army, in a series of three films about the Welsh Guards in Northern Ireland. In the Company of Men (1995) presented huge problems of access. As Dineen pointed out in an interview, she sometimes wonders if the people she approaches for permissions ever look at her films, or her track record. With In the Company of Men, she was really only half in; even then the regimental sergeant major restricted her access, and we sometimes feel the soldiers deflecting her probings. But her tenacity does pay off, ultimately illuminating a soldier’s life in a dangerous posting. After the series was released, Dineen received a letter from the head of the General Staff, an oblique apology for not having trusted her more.

In 1997, Dineen was commissioned by the New Labour Party to make a short film about Tony Blair for use in the general election campaign. This experience sparked her curiosity about the democratic process. In 1999, the New Labour government pressed ahead with plans to reform the unelected House of Lords. The intention was to make it an elected upper chamber, rather than one based upon inheritance and political appointment. A bill passed in the House of Commons to remove all but 92 of the inherited lords. It then went to the House of Lords for debate and vote. Dineen wondered if there was a case to be made for a hereditary peerage in Parliament as a wise second voice for potential legislation, so she decided to make a film, to be called The Lords’ Tale, about the events around the vote. Access was, however, again a problem.

The New Labour members of the Lords were untrusting of her intentions, so she was restricted to filming with non-Labour lords in corridors, lobbies and offices. In time Dineen earned more trust and was able to film more widely, at times in the actual Lords’ chamber. On the whole we have a film shot in the hallowed halls, with lords caught on the run, talking in striking intimacy. With her unerring eye, Dineen finds fascinating characters in the Conservative opposition, who are not at all the duffers living on huge estates that the public imagines. With great wit, she digs deep into the story of British democracy.

Dineen’s place in the proceedings onscreen is greater than in her earlier films. Her point of view is more apparent, and this heightens the realization that documentary is partly a manufactured world, an interpreted actuality; but Dineen does believe there has to be a balance between what she wants to say and what her subjects want. In the closing minutes of the film, Dineen breaks her rule and leaves the institution and goes to the farm of Lord Romney, an 89-year-old who has yet to make his maiden speech, “but they want my vote.” He makes trenchant comments on democracy:

Romney: “The way democracy works—it’s so irresponsible.”
Dineen: “Irresponsible?!”
Romney: “Yes. People say ‘What’s he done for me,’ or ‘I don’t like the look of his face, I wouldn’t trust that fellow.’ You’ve heard people say that?”
Dineen: “Yes.”
Romney: “Well, is that the way to use your vote?”

In The Lie of the Land (2007), her next study of an institution, Dineen continues where she left off. What is the responsibility of those of us who benefit from or use institutions? Initially to be a film about the banning of foxhunting, it evolves into an examination of the relationship between modern urban society and the countryside. Dineen accompanies a head huntsman as he goes to collect dead animals for food for the hounds—or so she thinks. She witnesses him visiting a farm and shooting a perfectly healthy calf. Horrified, she discovers it is because the calf is the wrong breed; it does not give the sort of meat the supermarkets want, so must be destroyed. Dineen eschews shock in her films. She believes it is too easy a way to get the viewer’s attention. But in this film, she felt she could not avoid it. In The Ark, we sensed the animals as creatures with their own world. In The Lie of the Land, Dineen takes us further into that world, and into the understanding that animals aren’t the dumb creatures we take them for. There is a pivotal scene where a horse, very ill, will be shot. Dineen’s camera makes it very clear that the other horses know/sense what is going on. She uncovers what is happening to the countryside as it becomes more industrialized, bureaucratized, and as incomers buy the farms for homes. Her message is as it was at the close of The Lords’ Tale: as a farmer puts it near the end of the film, “We are all in it together.”

Dineen’s early working method was to shoot her films with an accompanying sound recordist. But in the late 1990s, Dineen began to use small digital cameras. Geri (1999, about Geri Halliwell, a former member of the pop group the Spice Girls), The Lords’ Tale, and The Lie of the Land were shot with a video camera with built-in sound. Dineen is concerned how this is affecting her films. The very way of handling the camera changes the relationship between filmmaker and events. She misses the accompanying sound recordist not only for reasons of quality but also for her need of that second person as companion and sounding-board. Yet the physical intimacy of some of the conversations in The Lords’ Tale would not have been possible with a super-16mm camera. Dineen’s work stands outside of the depressing trends in mainstream documentary—reliance on celebrities, wallpaper music (often playing under the interviews), explanations of what the camera is showing us. Dineen is of the tradition that a documentary film is the filmmaker’s journey, her exploration of a subject.

I once spoke to a man who had been a key interviewee in a British TV documentary. He told me he had been very conscious that the filmmaker was not interested in him as a person. He was in the film to serve the filmmaker’s intentions and preconceived ideas, a mere part of the narrative line. Subjects know when they are being “stitched up,” and keep up their guard. But, in Dineen’s work, the contrary is true. Most of her subjects recognize her integrity and determination, and that she is there seeking to understand.

Do these documentaries of Molly Dineen change anything? Yes—perhaps not fundamentally, but they become part of the “marketplace of ideas,” and make viewers think. Speaking personally, The Lie of the Land often looms up in my mind when I enter a food store; probably in some subtle way, it has changed my buying habits. I am sure that other viewers are affected in the same way. Since Dineen works in television, her films are already part of the folk memory of viewers in Britain. Documentary filmmakers rarely have that privilege of reruns accorded to the makers of fiction films. Yet the issues in her films have a relevance long past their screening date. In 2011 a new panda was delivered to the Edinburgh Zoo, with the same hoopla as the arrival of the panda at London Zoo in 1993. And a debate about reform of the House of Lords recently erupted again in British political circles.

Dineen’s examination of institutional practice and her insistence that we, the public, have a responsibility vis-à-vis that practice is what gives Dineen’s films their relevance and value outside the moment when they were made.

Dineen’s newest project? “I am working on an incredibly demanding but interesting film about ‘portable power’ at the moment…as in generators,” she says. “Sounds dull but power is one of the big issues of the day, I think.” When we see the disruption caused by war in, say, Syria, or from natural climatic events such as Katrina, she may indeed be right. Certainly, as in all her films, Molly Dineen will invite us to join her on her journey and in the debate about contemporary issues.

Dineen on DVD
The BFI’s The Molly Dineen Collection DVD releases contain most of her work to date:

Vol. 1 A two-DVD set with Home from the Hill (1987 BBC-TV version and 1985 Director’s Cut student-film version), My African Farm (1988), Heart of the Angel (1989), In the Company of Men (1995);

Vol. 2 The Ark (1993), a four-part BBC-TV documentary series;

Vol. 3 A two-DVD set with Geri (1999), The Lords’ Tale (2002), The Lie of the Land (2007), plus Party Election Broadcast for the Labour Party [a portrait of Tony Blair] (1997).

The three DVD volumes, which are in the PAL format, have excellent extras—interviews with Dineen and colleagues, director’s commentary, outtakes, unseen footage, and informative booklets.

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