Harry Birrell was a filmmaker, a man in love with film and its possibilities. He was not some mogul, nor was he a successful director, nor even an unsuccessful one, he was an amateur at heart who adored capturing the world around him on celluloid until, at the end of his life, he had amassed reels and reels of footage from his life. But from a historical perspective, it would be his experiences in the Second World War that would be the most vital, since he managed to take a camera with him when he joined the British Army, and catalogued his days from his home in Scotland to the far flung locations his posting would take him. In his case, this would be Asia, around India and Burma largely, but other places as well, and in each of those places, if he had the film for his equipment, he would make a record of it...
In these days when anyone with a phone can capture the minutiae of their lives no matter how mundane, it is easy to take videos, either kept for private use or uploaded online, for granted. But this phenomenon began once the technology had advanced far enough to put cameras in those phones, and back in the nineteen-thirties when Birrell started his filming, it was a far rarer occurrence. For this reason his work is more precious-seeming than a video of a trip to the shops, or even a video of a concert with bad sound recording and other audience members getting in the way or talking through it: after all, Harry's reels did not have the benefit of sound, therefore it was only his captions that indicated what we were looking at when we watched his collection. This documentary found a solution there.
This was thanks to diaries Birrell kept of his time from the war years, extracts of which were read out by Scottish actor Richard Madden, which doubled as information germane to the imagery, and more resonantly as a narration describing the subject's reactions and emotions to what he was going through. This could have been monotonous in practice, as after all the thought of sitting through someone else's home movies may not be everyone's idea of entertainment, since they are not your own home movies being shown. But director Matt Pinder managed to serve up enough variety in what we saw, interspersed with newsreel footage and scenes of present day granddaughter Carina Birrell interviewing people who were connected to her grandfather in various ways as well as her readings straight from Harry's journals, sometimes tearfully.
If you may sit through this dry-eyed, feeling as if you were watching a civilian version of the BBC's hit documentary series Who Do You Think You Are?, then there remained the potential for many others to be moved by what they saw, or at least turn them to contemplative reflection as they considered the lives of their own relatives who would not be around anymore, either in the future or in the past. There was an undeniably hypnotic quality to this film which was only occasionally jarred by the sight of dead soldiers or animals being sacrificed by Birrell's Gurkha troops, who as an officer he was placed in charge of and paid warm tribute to throughout his writings. A bonus was the fact he often used colour film, wangled from the powers that be on a canny excuse that it could be used to make out enemy camouflage better, and though there was no soundtrack, it did bring the scenes to life, no matter how aware you were of their age. Every so often you would wonder what happened to the people we witnessed who had their own stories to tell, but aside from one we never had the answers, which was poignant in itself, especially in the case of Harry's true love who he lost touch with - then found a new true love after the war. As with much of this, it made you think.