This essay was first published in Underline Issue 4, ‘The Abadan Issue’, Autumn 2018.
Miranda Pennell’s hour-long documentary The Host (2015) is a work of striking contrasts: between the apparent simplicity of its narration and use of photographic images, and the abundance of historical information it conveys; between the avowed lack of a clearly delineated arc and the intricately stitched patterning in the film; and between the economy of artistic means Pennell uses as against the story of capitalistic exploitation that the history of Abadan reveals. Without being didactic, Pennell underscores the distinction between official histories and the public image on the one hand, and private experience and the perspective of the individual on the other. Finally, unable to gain any all-enveloping vantage point, the filmmaker reminds us of what is always off screen, in the margins of written texts and behind the camera, waiting to reveal itself to us.
Ostensibly, The Host follows Pennell’s investigation into her family connections to the oil trade in Iran, her father having been employed by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in the 1960s during her childhood, some of which she spent living in Abadan. But rather than simply revealing secrets and coming to firm moral conclusions about the activities of British interests in the region in general and her father in particular, her exploration of public archives, private memory, testimony and speculative fiction affirms and undermines clear judgements. Pennell begins the film by mentioning a curious connection between the rare form of leukaemia that affected both her mother and her father – as if to embark on a scientific enquiry into the working conditions of those in Abadan in its heyday as Iran’s ‘Oil City’. But this track is left and Pennell becomes lost in the volumes of records held in the BP archives at the University of Warwick; in an obscure text by a former Abadan worker that leads her to the author’s later fantastical alternative to the Genesis myth of humanity’s origins; meeting’s with the author’s wife and family friend, and finally the touristic images drawn from the Pennell family photo albums.
Lines of questioning open further out, while Pennell expertly weaves together all these disparate materials as well as found sounds to emphasise visual resemblances across eras, cultures and subjects. The snaking lines on a geological diagram match the appearance of the thin cable trailing from the earbuds of headphones. The towering columns of ancient Persian ruins are shown alongside the billowing smoke stacks of the Abadan refinery. Christian O’Brien’s account of the ‘Shining Ones’, mysterious visitors whom he believed initiated human culture and society from above, is set against the condemning evidence of British power interests and the manipulation of the public image of their affairs in Iran. The eyes are repeatedly drawn to these resemblances, to provoke attention, to spur interrogation and to suggest credible links between what might previously have been kept apart.
And yet, while these unexpected connections are forming throughout the course of the film, the way in which Pennell withholds information and shapes our perspective becomes ever more conspicuous. There is the initial reference to the sickness that affected her parents, which is never returned to. And there is a subliminal image, one presumes of Pennell, that appears only once again – almost as briefly – towards the end as we see more of the family pictures from 1960s Iran. Her slog through the unending BP archives and her reports on the poor metadata in the holdings – which, for instance make it impossible to search by her father’s name – contrasts with the manner in which Pennell primes us to look at the photographs she chooses to include.
Pennell introduces many images by first withholding them, while describing them in the voiceover narration, which is played over another image. Rather than allowing our eyes to roam over the images, as viewers are able to do at the beginning of the film, Pennell increasingly comes to limit our perspective. She refers us to the background elements of a seemingly uninteresting domestic scene – two ashtrays in the form of figures – before scanning quickly through a succession of private holiday photos without commentary. In this way, one gets a sense in The Host of the way that investigations into the past, especially one’s genealogical history, and autobiography is both complicated by emotion and driven by a compulsive need to answer questions. Add to this the public interest of reviewing Britain’s national and imperial interests in the twentieth century and the complexities of perspective multiply.
In looking over personal and public history, details are uncovered, perspectives shift, but other elements are pushed out of the frame, other troubling matters are masked – whether consciously or not. In showing the history of Abadan, and the workings of the AIOC, the British government and BP in a new light; by showing us the faces of the workers, as if they wish to tell us all that has been forgotten or left out of the public records; drawing on autobiographical details to make crucial history more personal to us, Pennell makes judicious, poetic use of audiovisual materials to connect historical memory with criticism. In doing so, however, Pennell reminds us of the ways in which she is limited, in the ways she wishes to shape our experience of her materials, to see the connections she sees. As enthralling and curious as this process is in The Host, what remains is the question: what else are we not seeing?
Our compulsion to look, our lives as voracious viewers makes the act of reading an image second nature. But it is the second look that The Host encourages us to take, time and again. And there will certainly be elements of Pennell’s film itself that will be missed on first viewing. Subtle evasions, unremarked details, connections between images that appear at different ends of the film. The ability to suggest the seeming inexhaustibility of information, the impossibility of gaining a firm footing on which to view the past while making such economical use of old-fashioned media – as well as imaginative use of online resources (YouTube and audio files from freesound.org) – make The Host at once a work of remarkable concision and depth. It is full of untold stories, unfinished histories, people just outside our purview. But it gives us a profound sense of relationships that are compelled to make themselves evident; of details that demand magnification.
There is no way of viewing the past but from a specific point of view, and there is always more buried history to dig up. Pennell is aware of all this, and in showing us what she remembers and what she sees one feels that she is a welcoming host, inviting us in – not an unwanted guest, imposing on us.