Miranda Pennell’s short films are a curious mix of anthropological study and playful experiments in cinematic form. Having originally trained as a dancer before moving into filmmaking her work displays a fascination with choreography and performance. Her films have explored the rhythm and repetition of marching soldiers, practising musicians, stage fighters and professional and non-professional dancers.
Her latest work Why Colonel Bunny Was Killed, which screened at London Film Festival last year, represents a change in direction for Pennell, drawing not on the movements of people but on archive photographs and the memoirs of a doctor in the Afghan borderlands in the early 20th Century. The film will be shown as part of a retrospective of Pennell’s work at Glasgow Short Film Festival on 18 February.
Dazed Digital: How do you describe your work? Do you see it falling into the genre of 'Dance Film'?
Miranda Pennell: My work has sometimes been categorised as dance film because I was a dancer before I started filmmaking and because I have often staged and documented different kinds of performances, from theatrical to more everyday, social aspects of performance. But my films often don't have any dancing in them, and I think this is probably a misleading way of characterising them.
Apart from the obvious fascination of spectacles in which groups of individuals behave as one, we are all drawn to look at other people, and people who are performing go through a transformation or enter a heightened state that can be particularly revealing and interesting, even in its most mundane, everyday manifestation. Some of my films are about trying to hone in on that state; other films are an attempt at a sort of group portraiture.
DD: You have studied visual anthropology - how does this influence your work?
Miranda Pennell: Having made films about large groups of people performing in various ways, I was curious about what anthropologists had to say about performance. I was making films about performance, yet this often demanded an incredibly elaborate kind of performance from myself and my crew. Thinking anthropologically helped me to think more clearly about the rituals connected with filmmaking and question the nature of the exchange between myself as filmmaker and the performance on the other side of the camera.
DD: Your films have been shown in different contexts: cinemas, galleries and broadcast. Is there one that you prefer?
Miranda Pennell: I like the idea of this sort of work invading broadcast schedules (though you can’t work with either silence or loud sound without being censored) - however this isn't really allowed anymore in UK programming. Most of my films need to be seen from the beginning, and they depend on their sound's nuances registering clearly, which isn’t great for the gallery. I generally appreciate the scale and intensity of sensory experience available in the cinema environment, although sometimes this can be created in other environments. To date the only video I made that is really ideally suited to gallery exhibition is You Made Me Love You, because of the constant nature of its sound, and because the video's movement works as a continuous flow, which you can enter or leave at any point.
DD: Your latest film, Why Colonel Bunny Was Killed, appears to be a departure from your previous work - was making this film a deliberate move to develop your practice?
Miranda Pennell: I made a deliberate choice to start from a different premise, to work entirely with archive photographs instead of constructing a film from the performances of large groups of people. Once I started working I realised that in many ways this offered remarkably similar possibilities - except that my subjects/actors were no longer living. I think of the 'poses' in the photographic images as performances. The stillness of photographs allows the viewer to invest meaning in the details of gestures, looks and exchanges, as well as the question of what would have happened before and after the picture was taken. I hoped to communicate the sense of curiosity and drama that came from searching through archives, so that a viewer might experience the same feeling of discovery that I felt when I first explored these images.
DD: The subject matter is fascinating for Colonel Bunny - how did you come across these memoirs?
Miranda Pennell: The memoirs were written by a distant relative of mine who was a doctor and missionary in the Afghan borderlands around 1900. He believes that he is bringing Christianity, peace and progress to the tribal people of that region. Meanwhile he is completely perplexed by an on-going insurgency which occasionally breaks through into his narrative. The memoirs were the trigger for the film, although my primary focus was on trying to communicate through playing images and sounds off one another.
Miranda Pennell Retrospective screens as part of Glasgow Short Film Festival, 18-20 February.