Real Lives: Video Nation

By Mandy Rose

A young couple sit on a couch watching TV. We can hear the soundtrack of a football match. She turns to the camera,

‘So this is it, the World Cup.’

He imitates the roar of a football crowd.

‘Endless watching football.’

He roars.

‘Endless talking about football.’

He roars.

‘Endless listening to boring wafflings-on about football.’

He roars.

‘It’s boring.’ ‘It’s bliss.’

‘Boring.’ ‘Bliss.’

‘Boring.’ ‘Bliss...’

‘He’s consumed by it. He eats it and breathes it and sleeps it. He doesn’t talk to me about anything else. He’s watched every match that’s been televised.’

‘Except last night when I got in the bath with you.’ She looks horrified. They giggle. She thumps him.

Fade to black.

Extract from Video Nation, one of about 100 two-minute shorts that have been transmitted on BBC since the Spring.

In 1993 I was lucky to be appointed one of two producers of Video Nation. The project had been in genesis in the BBC Community Program­mes Unit for years, as a way of building on the success of the Video Diaries series. As finally conceived, Video Nation would fuse the production practice of Video Diaries with the spirit of Mass Observa­tion, using camcorders to hold a mirror up to Bri­tain, mapping everyday life and attitudes in the 90s through the tapes of people across the country.

We spent 1993 finding 50 people to place cameras with for one year. Some demographic work established a few parameters, e.g., 20% of the contributors should be over 60 – a rarely reflected truth of our society. But while we wanted a multicultural group who would, broadly speaking, mirror the country in terms of income range, regional spread and political opinion, we were clear that we couldn’t represent the country. We decided, rather, to establish a group who would collectively ‘reflect the diversity of Britain today’ and key themes in society now.

People were very willing to do the project. A number of factors were key. People in general feel misrepresented on TV. Over and over again people we visited said that they wanted to show what Christians, bikers, Irish people, New Agers etc. etc. were really like. Secondly, all the material shot for the project was to become an archive, under the auspices of the British Film Institute, and everyone we met felt that was important. Thirdly, though for logistical reasons we couldn’t offer access to the cutting room, we did offer contributors a contractual right of editorial veto: to see any material we wanted to transmit in context and to say no if, for any reason, they weren’t happy with it. This has, I believe, been crucial both in people’s willingness to take part in Video Nation and in the openness with which contributors have recorded their lives.

Last autumn 55 contributors were trained in a series of two-day workshops. These involved a brief technical training, a lot of talking about the project and exercises during which people became accustomed to shooting ‘subjectively’ rather than as the silent observers of ‘home movie’. We stressed that we needed to hear from them and see them in any sequence they shot. We wanted material which showed us aspects of their lives through their eyes, to know what they thought and felt about what they were showing us.

The arrangement was that they would shoot more or less one 90-minute tape every fortnight. These would be made up of sequences on subjects they chose plus material shot in response to ‘briefings’ and questions sent out by us. The contracts they signed gave them a token sum of money for shooting paid out gradually during the year. The contract was left deliberately open, stating that they would shoot material ‘in accordance with discussion with the BBC representative.’ There was no contractual obligation to shoot anything at all.

We were optimistic, but we simply didn’t know what was going to happen. On Video Diaries the diarist has an intense relationship with a producer for some months. Here a small team was looking after 50 people. Would they have enough support/feedback to feel motivated? We didn’t know how people would settle with the camera. We didn’t know whether they would tire of the project or run out of steam after a few months. More fundamentally, we didn’t know how interesting their material would be. Would this method prove fruitful, producing new ways of seeing everyday life?

It’s now a year since their recordings started arriving in the office. We’ve received about 1,000 tapes. The material has been a revelation. At a literal level each tape is a surprise; as you log, you just don’t know what will appear next.

The tapes are full of peculiarly intimate detail, often overflowing with extraordinary tenderness. What I‚Äąthink is perhaps most interesting about the projects is that it allows the contributors to emerge as complex people.

When I first started work on Video Nation I thought it was very important that the project should have an agenda, that it make priorities and tackle pressing issues (e.g., take on racism via a project on cultural identity). I still think that, but I’ve also come to think that in the context of an increasingly fragmented society, it is not just valid but important to simply provide a space on TV for the diversity of views that exist in the country, including, perhaps especially, when the views aren’t ones I share. Early on it felt like an abdication of my role as a producer to let views I disagreed with be transmitted without context or comment. I don’t think so any more (though that’s not to say that particular pieces aren’t troubling). However, it seems to me now that too much TV is a reflection of the views of producers who censor attitudes they deem ugly or offensive. It’s important in a democracy simply to know what people think, to see that people’s views are inflected in all sorts of ways by personal history, class, income, gender, and also to see how complicated and unpredictable people are.

The language of TV documentary generally mitigates against complexity. People are ‘cast’ in documentaries as points in an argument, each representing one bit of experience or attitude. ‘Video Nation’ recordings represent life as absolutely three-dimensional. For myself, watching these recordings has been a process of constant small surprises as the contributors resolutely refuse to conform to stereotype.

If you were making a documentary about ageing you’d be unlikely to ask Gordon Hencher for his opinion. He’s got nothing special in his experience to lead you to him. As an ex-army officer of a certain class, you might expect him to be reticent about his feelings. And it’s women after all, we tend to ask about such things. If you had asked Gordon directly, he’d probably have shrugged off his feelings, denied he’d got anything useful to say. But in the context of his own home, on reflection, he offered something which I felt privileged to have been told.

It epitomises something precious that the project has yielded: thoughts, feelings, moments of life that are both unexpected and utterly recognisable. Whatever the recordings are, they have a dignity which I think has to do with the fact that the contributor has chosen to turn the camera on, to volunteer an image or opinion. In the observational films which had come to be virtually synonymous with documentary on British TV, the subjects become objects captured by the camera. Video Nation contributors are the subjects of their own recordings.

Briefing 10: Your Least Favourite Thing

This week we’d like you to shoot something you don’t like. It could be the traffic on the high street, the weather or the socks which your son leaves on the bedroom floor. It would be nice if the subject was something in your life which you could show us like the above examples but if there’s been something else on your mind that you’d like an opportunity to talk about then here’s your chance.

Extract from one of the 25 ‘briefings’ we have sent over the last year. Topics have included ‘A Favourite Place or Thing’, ‘Spare Time’, ‘Cultural Identity’, ‘Money’ and ‘Holidays’.

The following is a full transcript of the first short that was shown:

A sequence of shots of mirrors.

An elderly, dapper gentleman sits in an armchair facing the camera. Caption: Colonel Gordon Hencher, retired Army officer, Seaton, Devon. He spells out:

‘M-I-R-R-O-R, mirror.

‘There was a time then they were very useful, still are of course, I have to use them.

‘But it’s a ghastly thing to look and see your face, what it is now, and what you feel it should be inside you.

‘One doesn’t feel old, you know.

‘You get to, I don’t know what the age is, 30 or 40, and after that time you don’t feel any older, but every time you look in that confounded mirror and see what time has done and age has done to your face, your body, your hands, everything – that’s what I dislike more than anything.’

He leans forward to turn the camera off.

Fade to black.

Mandy Rose is project producer of Video Nation with Chris Mohr.