SHAPING Some thoughts about the film poetry project You Should've Seen Us
You Should’ve Seen Us presents a selection of films from the Yorkshire Film Archive edited to combine the moving image with a recorded spoken text. The presentation covers a period from 1908 to 1958. Audiences hear Paul Mills`s poems, spoken by himself and actors. Some are commentaries, others imagined voices of people in North Yorkshire from before, during and after the Second World War, so that a picture emerges of a period of cultural change. Through the use of different voices and skilful editing, the aim of the collaboration is to question, often in a tone of comic irony, how we respond to images of local and national history, to encourage audiences to discuss their reactions, and to explore some of the various ways archive films can stimulate new writing.
The fifty minute presentation has been designed for showing at literature and film festivals within the region and beyond. Viewing is in two parts, with an introduction, short interval, questions and discussion. Overall time two hours.
Paul Mills writes:
Some years before working on the project I had written two or three poems based on film footage from the Yorkshire Film Archive. One of these films – about women workers in a munitions factory – took me to the Imperial War Museum in London to find out more. What were conditions really like in these factories? What did the people there talk about, how did they speak? The version of the poem that worked best for me made use of the thoughts of one particular speaking voice, an amalgam perhaps of voices preserved in the museum's records through pamphlets and war propaganda of the time.
In response to the offer of new funding, late in 2010 I began the long process of selecting film I could use for writing and again the triggers seemed to come from voices. What was more, as I immersed myself in the period we were covering, particularly the early 50s, I started to recall – or even actually hear – the way my parents spoke. I grew up in Cheshire and the films were all based in North Yorkshire, but the vocabulary came from a time more than a place. It belonged to that period just after the war; my father, for example, saying, 'Come on lad, shape!' if I wasn't doing something the way he thought I should. My grandmother with too much to do in the house muttering to herself, 'I'm just not shaping this morning'. Just one example, yet I'd completely forgotten this strange usage until the films brought it all back.
So in November and December of 2010 I had to find the right films, and do my own shaping (in the both senses of the word) in order to produce a coherent set of poems. The films I was looking at had been made during the first half of the last century, the Second War and the decade that followed. I was interested in how we respond now to what we see of life then. Comparing ourselves with the people in the films we confer on ourselves certain privileges. We see beyond their immediate present. We know how the war turned out. We are altogether better off, well-fed, In fashion, technology, opportunity, things have progressed. We also make the strange assumption that everybody seen in this or that street festival or procession, this or that garden fete, all felt the same as each other about what was happening. The films enhance a feeling of conformity. If we see a family on the beach in 1939.we assume they are somehow representative. They are doing what everybody else at the time was doing, dressing the same, behaving the same. For us, they become 'the thirties'; their private moments represent the typical, whether they actually were typical or not.
In my treatment of films from the archive, I wanted to question that way of seeing, and challenge, to an extent, that sense of everybody thinking, looking and being essentially like everybody else. One thing audiences also enjoy is difference – the person with the funny hat, the boy with a cheeky expression, and I wanted to celebrate unusualness in the midst of so much apparent conformity, The use of the voice and voices – the discovery of a voice – is one way of fulfilling that intention. The films are silent and so gave me plenty of scope. Voices can speak out of the silence, or people in the films can be spoken to, addressed by a voice from outside. In one poem I felt I was speaking to myself, aged eight, therefore to people from my own generation growing up in the fifties. Through voices I was learning new ways of bringing the films to life. There was no need to write about just one piece of film at a time. Footage from a range of films could be put together to reflect one imaginary character's experience.
The 'shaping' came later – how to get the poems and films to say something together. The last piece, which is the title, enabled me to get my ideas through finally, and, at the same time, give expression to all those silent faces. Overall, there is the contrast between the numbers of anonymous faces, and the single expressive voice. Also there is the tension between communities and being an individual, a non-conformist in the crowd. The films clearly have something to say about that, about what has happened to something we might call the spirit of the nation and the way it finds a collective expression, the way it perhaps no longer can, unless this jubilee year proves us wrong. But the overall shape of the piece follows my engagement with it, from the reasonably tidy, one poem for one bit of film, to the more experimental and complex presentations which also required more complex and skilful forms of editing. Here the project truly was collaborative, allowing the editor an increasingly free hand in choosing how to render the gist of a piece of writing. Perhaps it was the final poem that allowed him the widest scope:
You Should've Seen Us
In old film on parade in funny clothes
you think we dressed up for you?
so you could say, Takes me back.
The old days. No!
It was just us being who we were.
That's how you should've seen us.
Instead, we look poor and grimy –
old bricks in old walls, costumes and junk.
Not how it seemed to us, in the moment,
in the skin of the present
with its random shout,
You should've seen us!
You should've seen us, oh
you should've seen us, a scream
that Saturday, showing our ankles.
Not to you. We did it for ourselves!
In a fit, lifting voluminous skirts.
Or maybe… just a little bit for you.
You like us, don't you, care a bit?
We have to be careful... how do we know
how many years we'll be on show?
Your future's future could be watching.
Eating a cake. Alone. In a procession.
Always in processions. Or on a beach,
under some patch of sky. Young in our skin,
saying hello, goodbye.
You should've seen us.
What if you'd never seen us?
How I do wish you'd seen us!
You saw us. You did. Didn`t you?