Category Archives: Films

Film Showing: The Politics of Famine in the Greek 1940s.


The Birmingham Centre for Modern & Contemporary History, in association with BOMGS, is pleased to present

A Basket of Food: Greece in the 1940’s

Directed by Dr. Sheila Lecoeur (Imperial College)

Muirhead Tower Room 118, Wednesday 26th November, 2 pm.

All welcome. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the director.

This dramatic and moving film tells the story of Greece in World War II. The frightening prospect of running out of food leading to a critical famine is remembered by survivors. Their human stories show that society began to fall apart when people could no longer help each other. The film uses rare historic footage and links past and present to show that shadows of the past still haunt Greece today.

Dr Sheila Lecoeur is a lecturer at Imperial College, London and author of Mussolini’s Greek Island: Fascism and the Italian Occupation of Syros in World War II, London: I.B. Tauris 2009.

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Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall passed away yesterday.  Matthew Hilton and Kieran Connell have written a thoughtful obituary about Hall and his contribution to Birmingham, particularly in shaping the Centre for Cultural Studies. The fiftieth anniversary of the Centre is being commemorated at Birmingham this year.

The Stuart Hall Project will be screened at the University on the 20th of March. It’s a visual feast that draws on a wealth of old BBC archival footage, from Hall’s visits back to the Caribbean, various interviews, and news footage of race riots and the Thatcher era. Hall’s experiences of growing up in Jamaica in a mixed family, his arrival at Oxford and his involvement the New Left are at the centre of the story. This is a life that both spans and intensely reflects on imperial and post-colonial Britain. His taste in music (Miles Davis especially) also comes out beautifully in the film, as it does in this highly recommended Desert Island Discs podcast.

When I was an undergraduate studying at a North American liberal arts college in the late nineties, the influence of Cultural Studies was deeply embedded in the curriculum. Hall’s ideas had particular resonance for me. Although he was speaking mainly from his own experiences of a post-colonial Britain struggling with its own multiculturalism, I found in his work an eloquent articulation of the politics of belonging in all societies that have become increasingly global. The words below spoke to the multicultural Canada in which I grew up as well as the historically cosmopolitan Asian port-cities I started studying as a graduate student. To a social historian of cities and globalization, they still seem fresh:

“In a world of constant movement, both forced and free, both at the centre and the periphery of the global system, communities and societies are increasingly multiple in their nature. They are composed of communities with different origins, drawing on different traditions, coming from different places, obliged to make a life together within the confines still of a fixed territorial boundary or space while acknowledging that they are making a common life, not living a form of apartheid of separatism. They want, nevertheless, to retain in some sense the distinctiveness of their historical roots in the place in which they have ended up”.


A boat laden with…

Our colleague Monica Jato, in the department of Hispanic studies, recently made this film about the Basque author Cecilia G. de Guilarte, who was exiled from Spain after the Civil War and didn’t return until the 1960s—when her series of newspaper articles about her exile, Un barco cargado de… [A boat laden with…], was censored by a regime still headed by General Franco.



The articles are now available in a scholarly edition that Monica has also produced, in Spanish, in the Biblioteca del Exilio series.

You can read more about the project on its bilingual blog, which contains details of where the film has been screened.

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A word from Lord Vader

Darth Vader dialectic

That’s actually Immanuel Kant behind that mask

The random wilds of the internet

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A day in the life

One of our second-year undergraduates, Hannah Witton, is a film-maker—her short film on the history of gay marriage in Britain was a finalist in the Guardian’s recent student film competition. She’s just made another film about a day in the life of a history student:

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Luc-Olivier Merson, Quasimodo at Notre-Dame

Fiction and Film for French Historians is an online cultural bulletin for historians working, and teaching, on France. It’s an offshoot of the scholarly discussion network H-France, which anyone working on French history should be signed up to (tip: get the daily digest, it’s a very active list). Each issue contains shortish, approachable articles on films and novels that have something to tell us about French history, or that can be used for teaching it. The bulletin is published six times a year, on a slightly irregular schedule that fits US teaching semesters. Although it’s only been running since 2010, the bulletin already has articles on a wide range of novels and films about aspects of French history ranging from Louis XIV to Vichy, from the Haitian revolution to the Algerian war of independence—check out the previous issues page.

The current issue has two pieces about Victor Hugo: one on the recent film adaptation of [the musical of] Les Misérables, which we’ve already discussed here, and one on the vision of Paris’s medieval past that Hugo presented in Notre-Dame de Paris, better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The books were written at quite different times: Notre-Dame de Paris in the unrestful early years of the July Monarchy, in 1831, when Hugo wasn’t yet 30, and Les Misérables in 1861, under the authoritarian Second Empire—the climax of the later book is an abortive insurrection that took place in 1832, just after the first had come out.

The other article in the current issue is about Alexis Jenni’s novel L’Art français de la guerre (‘The French art of war’), which came out in 2011 and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. This book isn’t out in English yet, though it’s been translated into several other languages. It traces the history of what Jenni calls the ‘twenty-year war’, from France’s own resistance to German occupation through its postwar attempts to reassert and retain control over its colonies in Indochina and Algeria—when former résistants became torturers. The novel is also about the formative impact of that period on contemporary France: if you want to know why policemen in modern-day Paris, Lyons or Marseilles go about like so many Darth Vaders, this—Jenni argues—is it.

So, it’s worth keeping an eye out for updates to FFFH. But really this whole post is just an excuse to include the gorgeous image above, an engraving by Luc-Olivier Merson from an 1881 edition of Notre-Dame de Paris. It’s so wonderful that my admiration of it survived the discovery that Merson was responsible for the mosaics over the chancel in the basilica of Sacré-Cœur, one of the ugliest bits of the one of the ugliest architectural manifestations of 19th-century French Catholicism, though the golden statue of a freakishly huge Virgin and Child on the tower of Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles (where the basilica itself is less grotesque) perhaps beats it. Apologies if this is something of a derail to end on, but yuck. See below.

Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille

This is what the Saviour looked like in 1860s Marseilles

This is what the Saviour looked like in 1860s Marseilles

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Save the Children, sue Ken Loach

A guest post from Matthew Hilton, ahead of our forthcoming round table on ‘imperial humanitarianism’ (brief details here, more details to follow, but keep the afternoon of Friday 1 March free):

In the run-up to its fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1969, the humanitarian agency Save the Children (SCF) commissioned a film. Surprisingly for this rather conservative charity, it approached the overtly left-leaning film-maker, Ken Loach, fresh from the success he had had in highlighting the plight of the homeless in Cathy Come Home.

Loach was given free reign by SCF to make the film that he wanted. He picked on some surprising themes. Focusing first on a children’s home run by SCF in the UK, he depicted the staff as extolling all the worst patrician aspects of Victorian philanthropists. Turning to the fund’s work in Kenya, he implicated SCF in a system of neo-colonialist exploitation symbolised by its creation of what effectively amounted to an English public school in Nairobi. Warming to his theme, Loach then forgot about the SCF altogether and chose instead to undertake a wholesale attack on the very principles of charity. Linking the causes of poverty around the world, the film ends with a call for a global socialist agenda.



To suggest that SCF didn’t like the film would be to put it mildly. Senior executives and trustees were appalled at the private screening. But the lengths they then went to to bury the film were quite extraordinary. Loach and his film company were sued, and the film was eventually deposited at the British Film Institute on the understanding that no one could view it. Only in 2011 did the SCF finally permit a public screening.

Thanks to a deposition of the archives of SCF at the University of Birmingham, Loach’s accusations can now be tested. Researchers can explore the hundreds of boxes of material to see whether Loach was correct to argue that SCF was overly paternalist, too politically moderate, too connected with political and social elites to be able to offer an alternative point of view, and too hand in glove with governments to be able to speak truth to power.

Ken Loach


Have things changed since? Certainly the organization’s CEO thinks it took a while. At the screening of the film in 2011 he made the extraordinary claim that from the 1960s to the 1980s aid did ‘more harm than good’. Unfortunately, we are not yet in a position to ask this of the SCF. Although the papers reside in the Cadbury Research Library, the NGO’s lawyers have blocked access to any papers after 1972. It is to be hoped that this decision will be changed soon and SCF’s archives will be made available to researchers, like those of Christian Aid, War on Want, the Red Cross, and Oxfam (from 2014).

The Save the Children Fund archives are held at the Cadbury Research LibraryThe available inventories aren’t complete, but you can get a preliminary look by searching for ‘SCF’ in the catalogue. (At least one third-year Birmingham undergraduate is already writing her dissertation using earlier material from these archives.)

History on Film

One of the great pleasures of being a professional historian is snarking at the mistakes in discussing the problematic aspects of historical films. At the University of Texas’s excellent history site Not Even Past, they have a whole page dedicated to it, with recent posts on Django Unchained and Argo among many others. Elsewhere on the internet, the new film of Les Misérables is generating some thoughtful comment: there’s a good piece on Foreign Affairs about the film’s pessimistic vision of revolution, which Victor Hugo wouldn’t have shared, and a shorter piece at the Historical Fiction eBooks blog which will help you explain to your non-historian friends that Les Mis may be about French revolution, but it’s not about the French revolution. We may have to start doing some posts like this ourselves.

Russell Crowe as Javert in Les Misérables

Russell Crowe’s brow furrows as he spots a historical inaccuracy (click image for source)

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