Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings
Humphrey Jennings

A new exhibition at South Wales based Ffotogallery looks at the work of Humphrey Jennings, the English documentary film maker during the 1940s. The exhibition focuses on his 1943 propaganda film The Silent Village, set in Wales but based on Nazi atrocities in Czechoslovakia.

Humphrey Jennings has often been edited out of analytical cinematic theory, yet his influence should be appreciated as a critical figure in British war-time film making. He was called not only a film maker, but “a poet, a painter, an intellectual and an anthropologist”.

After graduating from Cambridge University with a double First in English, Jennings worked as a painter, photographer and theatre designer. In 1940 he joined the GPO Film Unit, which became the propaganda film branch of the Ministry for Information. Jennings’ films may remain in shadows of appreciation, but their importance to British cinema are paramount. Listen to Britain is often regarded as one of the best British films ever made. However, The Silent Village is perhaps one of his most powerful works.

In the Czechoslovakian mining village of Lidice, on June 10th 1942, 340 villagers were murdered by the Nazis. It was a shocking massacre of human life, either by firing range or suffering the horrors of the gas chambers. The barbaric act sent waves of anger and sympathy across the western world. Just days after Lidice, the Ministry of Information and Jennings set to work on a propaganda film based on the events, only set in the South Wales mining village of Cwmgiedd near Ystradgynlais. Using real villagers of the South Wales community, the miners felt a strong connection to their Czech counterparts.

The drama-documentary film is almost underplayed. Jennings does not use violence or action, which makes it all the more effective. We are shown Nazis taking control of the Welsh village. There’s a clever montage of shots – particularly of the small details – which emphasise the lives of the people, the reality. This is then alongside images and audio (one of Jennings’ technical strengths) of menacing messages to the villagers. The Welsh language is banned; the songs, are forbidden. Slowly, the oppression and fear creeps towards the front; the menace and threat seeps through the threads of mundanity to almost an inevitable horrifying conclusion. The line of innocent children, holding hands, being lead off towards a terrifying fate is one of the most potent scenes in British cinema. Jennings ends the film with the singing of the Welsh National Anthem, sung stoically. It is this British spirit that is captured so triumphantly and sensitively by the director.

That Jennings tragically died so young – in an accident in Greece in 1950 – arguably robbed British cinema of one of its finest ever talents. Like the lives of the people Jennings set out to portray in his films, Jennings himself is remembered in these very works. The poignant drama-documentary film The Silent Village is not only a cinematic tribute to the tragedy in Czechoslovakia, but also a lesson in how propaganda media is still important to study now, for it documents the past, illustrates what we could have lost; a reminder to us all of how these atrocities could easily occur close to home, to anyone of us, wherever we are.

The Silent Village exhibition at Ffotogallery, South Wales runs from 16th January to 27th February 2010.
Illustration by Sian Prescott

Shibboleths as Spoken Cultural Passwords

A rusty lock on a wooden door

A shibboleth is, more or less, a linguistic password used to identify a cultural group. For example, English visitors to Scotland or Wales can often be identified by their asking them to pronounce the place names “Loch Lomond”, in Scotland, or “Croesgoch”, in Wales. In both examples, they would be unlikely to pronounce the hard “ch” sound, as a native would.

The word shibboleth originates from a story of the Hebrew Bible. The Gileadites, having successfully occupied the land of Ephraim, were able to prevent the refugee Ephraimites from returning to the territory by asking them to “say Shibboleth”. The Ephraimites dialect lacked the sh sound; the Gileadites did not. According to the story, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed using this test.

This seems ridiculous, yet modern history has witnessed a similar atrocity. Over five days in October 1937, the Parsley Massacre saw up to 35,000 Haitians killed in the Dominican Republic. During the massacre, Dominican soldiers could identify Haitians by holding a sprig of parsley and asking them to speak its name. A Haitian would be unable to pronounce the trilled ‘r’ in the Spanish for parsley (perejil), and would be slaughtered.

Shibboleths aren’t all morbid, and don’t necessarily have to be based on sounds that can or can’t be made. Science fiction fans can identify one-another by their use of ‘sf’ rather than the mainstream ‘sci-fi’; natives of Toronto (and some other Canadians) by the dropping of the second ‘t’ when pronouncing their city name; and novice programmers sometimes by their use of ‘object orientated’ rather than ‘object oriented’. A long list of shibboleths can be found on wikipedia.

The U and non-U English debate of the 1950s is an interesting related piece of history, where the upper class (U English) and aspiring middle classes (non-U English) were supposedly identifiable by their use of language. Interestingly, the shibboleth words were often the reversal of what you might expect: the middle classes using “Dentures”, “Preserve” and “Pardon?”, but the upper class using “False Teeth”, “Jam” and “What?”. This was, of course, because the aspiring middle classes were trying to appear to be upper class, whereas the upper class were not so self-conscious.

Lock photograph by ToniVC.

iPhone Users Keep Snow Reporting Honest


In June 2009 Jonathan Zimman and Eric Ztizewitz from Dartmouth College published an interesting study called Snowed: Deceptive Advertising by Ski Resorts. In the report they present extensive research that demonstrates a level of deception in how ski resorts are skewing the data they post to their websites, which are “collected by aggregators and then rebroadcast over the Internet and via print and broadcast media.”

Among other things, they found that on average, “ski-resorts self-report 23 percent more snowfall on weekend [but] there is no such weekend effect in government precipitation data.” The reason? People are more likely to go skiing or snowboarding if the snow is good. The report goes into a range of risks and benefits in using this practice – while they may end up with more people  turning up and paying to ski, they also risk angering people with their dishonesty, resulting in bad PR and a low rate of returning customers.

One of the most interesting findings of the report is that, where reception exists, the use of the iPhone forces resorts to be more honest about their reporting. Increasingly, skiers and snowboarders are using their iPhones to comment on weather conditions on the slopes in real time. This does two things:

1. It forces the resorts to keep their data in check so that it doesn’t look blatantly false compared to other reports.
2. It gives skiers and snowboarders a source of weather information from other users who do not have a vested interest in making money off of them.

Just another example of the value of user generated data and content. It keeps the money makers honest.

Snowboarding – 326 image by Boolve.

The Slimikin Snobographer, and Other Rare Words

Dictionary of the English Language

The fascinating Compendium of Lost Words indexes the rarest modern English words. The words must appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, and must have been used in standard modern English, rather than a regional dialect. They also must not have appeared on the Internet in their proper context, so hopefully this post won’t reduce the glorious list.

Some seem so useful that one wonders why they have slipped from common usage:

  • airgonaut: one who journeys through the air
  • boreism: behaviour of a boring person
  • redamancy: act of loving in return
  • speustic: made or baked in haste
  • uglyography: bad handwriting

Others, meanwhile, are perhaps rare for a reason:

  • quadragintireme: vessel with forty rows of oars
  • triclavianism: belief that only three nails were used at Christ’s crucifixion
  • urette: dried animal urine absorbed into calcareous soi

On that note, I’ll let you explore the remainder yourself.

Dictionary photograph by Muffet

Dr Sketchy: Where Cabaret Meets Art School

Dr Sketchy London

We often find the naked form sexy, and sometimes humorous; and yet, most life-drawing classes expect us to act unnaturally serious and professional. Luckily, Dr Sketchy was founded in 2005 by Molly Crabapple as an “anti-art school”, to cure us of our coyness.

The three-hour mix of burlesque, cabaret, life-drawing and competitions has been such a success that they now hold events in over 80 cities worldwide; the photo above comes from the London branch, which can also be found on Twitter.

We’ll leave you with their description of a Dr Sketchy evening:

We find the most beautiful burlesque dancers, the most bizarre circus freaks, and the most rippling hunks of man. Then, every other Saturday, we let you draw them for three hours. Interspersed with posing are comedy skits and ridiculous drawing contests (best left handed drawing? Best incorporation of a woodland animal?) where you can win booze or prizes.