The Host


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Host
"In making this her first venture into long form, Pennell has bitten off more than she can chew."

Miranda Pennell is an artist and filmmaker who cut her teeth on short works, some of which have previously screened at the Glasgow Short Film Festival. Here she takes on a much longer project but uses many of the same techniques. As it centres on an exploration of photographs, there are a lot of still images; the camera sometimes pauses on them for some time after snippets of voiceover have ended, inviting the audience simply to look and think. This will work only for very specific kinds of audience and even then it's rather overdone, but the photographs themselves are often intriguing.

Pennell spent part of her childhood in Iran and this film, which began when she was going through her deceased parents' effects, is an attempt to create a picture of a time and place, a personal perspective on colonialism. It's not entirely her own or her family's. Exploring their connection with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later renamed British Petroleum), she came across the story of a geologist who was inspired by his travels to seek out the source of human civilisation. His dreamlike narrative combines with her more mundane one to capture something of the spirit, both materialist and spiritual, that drove the British Empire's obsession with pushing into the East.

Copy picture

If these stories seem remote, it's worth bearing in mind that the effects of that colonialist expansion are still shaping the world today, through everything from climate change to the Syrian refugee crisis. Pennell doesn't really touch on this but does provide a potted history at the start of the film, through captions, which will be useful to those unfamiliar with the subject.

The photographs themselves are not (with the exception of those mapping geological features) of professional quality, but they don't need to be to tell a story, and the fact that many of them are family snapshots with interesting details in the background makes them more reliable from a historical perspective than the polished works of an individual more likely to be conscious of the impact of such details. They provide a counterpoint to the musings of the geologist, who delivers one of those well-intentioned but deeply racist descriptions of Iranians and their society that blurs ethnography and taxonomy, typical of the period. Pennell's film makes him a subject of the same kind, a curiosity to be poked at and studied by the modern viewer. The sincerity of his work is never called into question but his increasing diversion into mysticism and his tendency to inflate fragments of evidence into wild theories (themselves somewhat derivative of ideas already popular at the time, though he seems to think them revolutionary) speaks for itself.

Despite all this wonderful material, the film is rather dry and never succeeds in capturing the passion that was clearly present in its subjects. Pennell is not a very engaging narrator and at times the experience is akin to sitting through a slideshow about somebody else's holiday. In making this her first venture into long form, she has bitten off more than she can chew, struggling with pacing and with attempts at adding a mystical perspective of her own that never take off. For those with a particular interest in Iran or in this period of history, however, it will no doubt prove valuable.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2016
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A documentarian uncovers the story of a petroleum geologist who searched for the origins of civilisation in Iran in the 1930s.

Director: Miranda Pennell

Year: 2015

Runtime: 60 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2016

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