The Empire of the Drone: Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

The trailer for Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

I feel a pressure to always write in the moment, certainly with reviewing to talk about something while it’s still happening, still accessible, as if to give people a chance to test my the sum of my words out for themselves. Real life frequently often gets in the way and that’s not always to the bad. The slower burn can be rewarding, spending a few weeks mulling something over, pulling it this way and that in the confines of my own head, in the end resulting in a reading which is perhaps less literal, indeed perhaps rather oblique, but at least it is mine, unpressured by the expectation to respond. So it was after seeing the Vietnamese artist  Dinh Q. Lê’s remarkable drone filmed, three screen video installation The Colony which was on display in Peckham over a month ago. Housed in the remarkable derelict space of one of London’s earliest cinemas, the installation has since closed and the work is now on display at Site Gallery in Sheffield. The intervening time since seeing and writing have I hope not been spent entirely idly, as ideas have circulated and other influences have intervened.

Lê’s practice to date has largely photographic and almost exclusively focused on the legacy of the Vietnam War, particularly the way it’s memories are incorporated variously as trauma and fantasy. Superficially then The Colony then is a great departure from his work to date, but there is also a clear continuance, a concern with ideas about imperial ambitions and power, and more visibily with the marks these things leave on the present, and perhaps also on a future yet to arrive. The Colony examines the Chincha islands, three remote outcrops of rock off the coast of Peru, and home to enormous seabird colonies which have over centuries layered the islands with their droppings. In the nineteenth century, before the advent of chemically manufactured fertilisers, this guano was a valuable commodity, a means to boost yields of vital cash crops like Tobacco. As a result, and to the loss of the native Chincha people, the islands were colonised and contested by regional powers. Spain and its former colony Peru fought over the islands in the 1860’s, with what began as an attempt by a once extensive empire to reassert its waning influence rapidly escalating into a regional conflict involving Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. As time passed the stockpiles of guano on the islands were depleted and the value of the product declined particularly as methods were developed to synthesise nitrogen based fertilisers on an industrial scale. The islands today remain dotted with relics of their former owners and while the practice of digging on the islands continues it does so on a far smaller scale than in the past.

With such subject matter, it was perhaps inevitable that many of the reviews of Lê’s installation fixated overly on the obvious, (Adrian Searle for the Guardian was one of the worst offenders in this regard with a joke about shit in the first line, someone take the man’s crayons away). What these reviews miss with their scatological puns is that the guano in Lê’s film is really only a very minor element, a foil to the much bigger themes he seems to be interested in. A much more prominent interest is clearly indicated by the title, it is the motivations for imperialism, and its ultimate leavings, the ruins both physical and psychical that great empires leave in their wake. The roving drove mounted cameras of Lê’s film crew explore the decaying derelicts of the island, hovering above abandoned buildings and even roving inside, moving cautiously through the corridors of abandoned buildings, their rotors mixing up the dust and bird feathers that line the corridors, pausing periodically to inspect a relic or negotiate a tricky obstacle. The Colony is a work about the battlegrounds that are fought over, exploited and then subsequently abandoned when they no longer prove worthwhile then, but it is also about the people who enter the frame at that point to take over the remaining crumbs which empire has deigned to exploit itself. Part of what makes The Colony remarkable is the depiction of the guano mining operations that continue on the island today, which seem like something out of an entirely different era. On these exposed, isolated rocks teams of men dig with crude tools to fill sacks of the dusty brown tuff, which are then physically hauled and slid to the water’s edge, to be pilled in huge, neat ziggurats awaiting offloading on to cargo ships. It’s hard to tell if this hellish existence owes more to the old empires of the nineteenth century, or of the new Empire of twenty first century globalisation. It’s probably a bit of both.

In this sense and in others The Colony bears some comparison to Richard Mosse’s The Enclave, a similar multi-screen video installation filmed using a now obsolete military infra-red film originally developed for military reconnaissance purposes. The chemistry of this film reacts to a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum to normal film or our eyes, meaning natural greens which absorb large amounts of infra-red light are rendered as a bizarre pink. Using this Mosse photographed and filmed in the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The footage shot by cinematographer Trevor Tweeten is particularly compelling, as the steady cam glides through an alien landscape to a soundtrack of faux radio chatter. The Enclave, like The Colony, is partly fixated on both old and new ideas about empire, but Mosse, unlike Lê, is just a little too beguiled with his image making technology, and the The Enclave becomes just a little bit too much about the process and the technology, not the subject matter it is pointed at. This really brings me to the core of what I think is interesting about The Colony. I would suggest though that the real stars of the film though are neither the guano covered outcrops with their anonymous workers, nor the descendant imperial ambitions that these places represent. The real stars are the drones that record it all.

Before I explain this I have to take issue with drone videography as an artistic medium. In itself it is simply a process for making a work, and the results of course are variable and contingent on what is being filmed and how. I often think that an over emphasis on process in art is a bad sign, regardless of how fantastically byzantine or exotic the steps undertaken, it’s the end result or effect on a viewer that matters, and unless that exotic process really does something to a viewer then I find myself asking ‘so what?’ Perhaps because drones are new and exciting in themselves drone film makers often seem to get caught up in the novelty of their technology without really reflecting on what it means to use it. I recently attended a talk by researcher Bradley Garrett who showed a sequence of drone film made on a Scottish island at a point where an undersea internet cable comes ashore. Garrett is an academic but the film is undeniably artistic, not only it’s clear aesthetic concerns but also in the sense that the video actually provides very little information about its suggested subject (this is not exactly a criticism, it’s more or less inevitable given the subject matter). More interestingly all hints of both drone and operator have been excluded from the frame, and Garrett acknowledged in response to an audience question that he had been hiding behind a small structure during the sequence, guiding the drone unseen. This to me is representative of a certain aesthetic in drone films, that fantasise the drone and it’s operator as not really being there at all. It is a roving, god’s eye view, and this pretended disappearance of the technology that makes this viewpoint possible also makes it in some way also easier to avoid difficult questions about the technology itself. Amongst the varyingly interesting ideas Garrett discussed in his talk it was noticeable that there was no conversation about what it meant as a researcher to employ a technology like a drone which has a very specific lineage. That is a line of descendent that even in civilian dronesleads backthrough a history of militarism and imperialism, and this seems a particularly important observation in relation to Lê’s previous focus on the conflict in his native Vietnam, a laboratory for some of the earliest millitary drones.

Lê on the other hand seems highly aware of these issues. In The Colony, the two drones produce staggering aerial imagery of thousands of bird nests, of jagged cliffs and greyed decaying structures. But beautiful as these are they would be little more than eye candy without the frequent appearance of the drones themselves in each other’s footage and in static shots filmed from the ground. It says much of the aesthetic of drone cinematography that these insertions feel like continuity errors the first few times they occur in The Colony, but over the course of watching the three separate projections that make up the installation one has a mounting sense of a transformation of the drones into key characters themselves. At moments, this sense of personification is inescapable, particularly in sequences where the drones appear to enter into strange aerial ballet routines, and during several sequences where they follow each other, at one stage into the corridors of a dilapidated barracks building. As one drone pauses to inspect a faded piece of pornography pasted to the wall besides a crude bunk bed while it’s companion looks on, one has the overwhelming sense of watching as the vanguard of some unknown high tech power, tentatively scouting out the ruins of its predecessor. In that sense The Colony feels less like rumination on old empire, even though it certainly is also that, and far more a meditation on the rise of something new and very different. A new power far less concrete than the competing empires of the nineteenth century, perhaps even less tangible than the diffuse global empire of post-cold war capitalism. Lê seems to be hinting at an empire yet to arise, an imperium hard and soft wired into the circuit boards of the supposedly neutral technologies with which we surround ourselves.

Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation


Still from the trailer for Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation (2016)

It’s increasingly popular to speak of our world as ‘post-truth’ an idea lent credence by politicians from Vladimir Putin to Boris Johnson who seem able to be able to spin fantastic lies and almost entirely get away with it. History tells us that leaders have always told lies, indeed that it is an almost inseparable part of the job, but there seems to be a sense that this occurs to an unprecedented extent today, and that no one is immune from it, with even the apparently unimpeachable Jeremy Corbyn standing accused of it during the fracas dubbed ‘Traingate’. The accessibility of information today makes it easier than ever to call liars out for what they are, and it is a staggering thing to watch a political candidate like Donald Trump deny doing something that you can simultaneously watch happening in an adjacent browser window. This is not entirely positive however, for two reasons. Firstly because the ease of identifying lies ironically contributes to the malaise of apathy towards politicians, because it is now so easy to know the extent to which they spin, manipulate, and mislead, that it creates a sense that they are all irredeemably corrupt. Secondly, because politicians seem to respond more and more to this public capacity for fact checking not with greater truthfulness, but with barrages of information which seem intended to confound verification or render its conclusions moot. By making constant swerves in ideology, policy and rhetoric, politicians evade the consequences of being caught out. What I told you yesterday might have been a lie, but what does it matter, because today I am saying something quite different, and by the time you realise this too is a lie I will be somewhere else entirely.

This background is pertinent to Adam Curtis’s new film HyperNormalisation which assembles a complexly woven conspiratorial narrative from the cultural and political wreckage of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Using esoteric stock footage sewn together with his own narration and a dub soundtrack Curtis leads us from Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik, via Syria and Iran, the growing power of the financial sector, suicide bombing, the demise of ideology, the rise of computer networks, the Arab Spring, and the rise of right wing populism in Europe and America (if some of the things on that list seems a little contradictory, well yes, they are). From this Curtis draws the conclusion that we live in a world which we all seem to know is deeply problem fraught and artificial but which we are hardly able to penetrate the unreal surface of, much less do anything to change. Seen through Curtis’s eyes reality and truth have become empty terms, readily twisted and manipulated by politicians and other powerful figures to support ever shifting agendas which have more to do with holding power than with any definable ideology. Buried in here are some interesting, deeply important ideas, not least about the role that networks and algorithms increasingly play in creating our own personal ideological echo chambers. The trouble with HyperNormalisation is that in its frantic rush to cover huge amounts of ground it simplifies and generalises to the point that it nearly becomes post-truth in it’s own right.

First it’s worth noting how the form and length of Curtis’s films have changed over the years, from the three single hour episodes of The Politics of Fear, to the two hours of Bitter Lake, and now the near 3 unbroken hours of HyperNormalisation. The shift to continuous films rather than episodes and this increasingly length hasn’t led as you might expect to deeper analysis, instead his more recent films seem to expand even further the grand narratives that he has always sought to create (even as he often seems to be trying to dismiss grand narratives in general) causing them to balloon even further, incorporating more and more widely flung causes, actors and consequences. For my money the older series format served Curtis’s work far better and allowed a closer focus on particular topic areas while still constructing a large overarching argument. Considering the enormous length of HyperNormalisation it’s interesting what doesn’t figure in the narrative, the refugee crisis is virtually absent from his brief discussion of the rise of populism, despite being a significant contributor to the rise of the right, and being the consequence of many of the events in the Middle East which he also discusses. Although one of his core arguments seems to be the loss of faith in alternatives and our inability to respond to the challenges of a late capitalist world Curtis gives only a fleeting analysis of movements like Occupy which intended to do exactly this, and never really reflects on the fact that groups like ISIS are hardly the nihilists we often try to paint them as, but in their own twisted way have an alternative vision of the world that they might imagine to be every bit as utopian as that of Occupy.

It’s been said that watching a Curtis documentary feels a bit like listening to a man in the middle of a Wikipedia binge, although I’d counter it’s more like someone getting their information from Uncyclopedia, the anarchic and irreverent spoof of Wikipedia. HyperNormalisation repeats some dubious claims, and frequently explains complicated ideas in staggering brevity. I don’t want to turn this piece into an extensive fact checking of this film, but a couple of things that stood out for me because I’ve looked into them before include the claim that the Iranian regime used zealous children to clear minefields with their own bodies as part of ‘human wave’ attacks during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The evidence for this is at best unclear, with very few primary sources to support it and some evidence that this idea was originally propagated as anti-Iranian war propaganda. Curtis trots it out however as if it were undisputed fact. Even as he often appears to criticise other thinkers and figures for promoting simplistic grand narratives which serve their own ends, it’s notable how little space there is in his own narrative for shades of grey, ambiguity, or self-reflection. Normally one would hardly expect footnotes in a documentary film, but in HyperNormalisation and the director’s other films they start to feel rather vital, and the lack of them problematic. Given that Curtis maintains a blog on the BBC site he has the perfect platform to expand on these omissions and provide sources for his claims, if he so wished.

One last example of this comes even in the film’s title, adapted from writing by a ‘soviet writer’ (apparently Alexei Yurchak, for some reason unnamed by Curtis in the film, perhaps because that description of him seems again rather disingenuous). Yurchak emigrated to the United States in 1990 as a graduate student and later wrote that the late Soviet experience was one of an uncanny or hyper normal reality, where everything was clearly going wrong, but where this was hidden under the guise of a functioning state. Yurchak’s argument is again a little more complicated than this, and still by no means the definitive account of life in the late Soviet Union. By coincidence I’m currently mid-way through reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time, an epic oral history of the period from a Russian perspective, which makes it clear how generalised Curtis’s claims about the views and feelings of Soviet Union’s people often are. Generalisation feels like the order of the day however, and HyperNormalisation frequently declares that entire groups of people felt the same way, invariably confused, disillusioned, frightened, etc. This jars most noticeably when you realise the groups he’s referring to include you, the viewer, and you know that you felt nothing of what he is describing. These examples might seem like small things, but when a near three hour film is built so heavily on these sorts of claims, it starts to make you wonder how far the entire edifice of HyperNormalisation is built on misconstrued information. Much like contemporary politics however the narrative moves on so quickly, bombarding you with new imagery, names, and ideas before you have time to think that what you’ve just seen is perhaps less straightforward and interconnected than the film wants to suggest.

Curtis’s raiding of the BBC archives for intriguing footage is one of the things that makes his films distinctive, a strategy resulting in visually compelling collage documentary style which juxtaposes the fascinating, strange and disturbing. It’s can be a source of frustration though for anyone trying to pay close attention, as this footage often has little to do with what’s being discussed and can feel more intended to paper over the numerous argumentative leaps in HyperNormalisation (for an interesting experiment just listen to the film’s narrative while ignoring the images and see how compelling you find it). Sometimes the juxtapositions are funny, occasionally clever, but often just a bit crass. A blending of grainy video recordings of the execution of the Ceausescus with clips from a Jane Fonda workout video in order to illustrate the death of collective faith in ideology and the rise of a superficial individualism is a little of all of these things. I also can’t help but think Curtis’s inability to resist a good bit of footage also somewhat accounts for the film’s flabby length. Chris Applegate’s Adam Curtis Bingo gives you a good of what to expect, all the familiar tropes are here, from moody aerial footage of massive cities, to footage of people dancing, to more pointless raiding of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. In terms of the latter Curtis does the same thing he did in his previous film Bitter Lake, exploiting a clip of a key plot twist towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker for the benefit of his own film, in the process basically gutting Stalker of one of its most powerful moments, ruining it anyone who hasn’t seen it. He also pushes a reading of the film which fits the HyperNormalisation narrative to a tee, but which anyone who knows Tarkovsky’s films and writing will probably find jarringly mechanistic.

Curtis’s films are often hit and miss when it comes to endings, which partly accounts for his (frankly unforgivable) use of the climax of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to end Bitter Lake. Unlike a traditional documentary, which you might expect to mount towards some sort of concluding argument, HyperNormalisation just seems to end, much like one of Curtis’s jarring mid-sequence cuts. The film peters out with a mixture of typically weird footage, including the prom sequence from Carrie and a clip of three young girls dancing badly in a backyard. It feels a bit like Curtis has run out steam and browser tabs, realised that it’s 3am and that he has to be up early for work in the morning. Like his other films HyperNormalisation is a strange, even contradictory beast, on the one hand speaking the language of a sort of concerned left wing radicalism at the same time that its tone and conclusions are oddly nihilistic. On the one hand employing some very traditional aspects of documentary, while at the same time being a sort of oddly anti-documentary documentary. In these ways and more they are fitting works for a post-truth era, because in a way they are themselves prone to the same tendencies of simplification, obfuscation or in some cases I suspect outright inaccuracy. Curtis’s desire to connect together the complex networks that define our world is a valid and extremely interesting ambition, but it feels as if he’s all too ready to water down these ideas in order to build what can start to feel like the left wing equivalent of Loose Change, a massive, compelling pseudo-conspiracy which on closer inspection is not so tightly argued or evidenced as it first seems. Curtis’s defenders will argue that his valid points justify his sometimes invalid means, but that argument is itself so post-truth I find it incredible to hear intelligent people suggest it. Can’t one precisely imagine someone like Trump or Putin saying something similar? I know my cause is just, so what does it matter what means I employ to achieve it? As HyperNormalisation reveals, the means matter entirely as much as the end, because ultimately the choice of any particular means can entirely shift the nature of the end.

Review – Finding Vivian Maier

finding vivian maier
Finding Vivian Maier

From time to time as a writer you feel like you’ve said all you want to say about a particular person or subject. Sometimes you manage to move on, but at other times you can’t quite resist having another look, perhaps because the subject is so intriguing, invigorating, or even just enraging. Despite the feeling that I had already said most of what I wanted to say about the rediscovered work of Vivian Maier (see here), the sense that there might be something more to learn led me to watch the new feature length documentary about her. Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of director/producer John Maloof’s discovery of a cache of extraordinary photographs at an auction, the lifetime’s work of a reclusive Chicago nanny who spent much of her spare time photographing the city streets with a remarkably acute eye.

The film sets out to unravel more of Maier’s story, through interviews with some of those who knew her, a certain amount of primary research, and also quite a bit of straight to camera monologuing by Maloof. The result is a movie which offers some interesting additions to the Vivian Maier story, but which I also found pretty frustrating to watch. Maloof certainly unearths some intriguing insights, including new discoveries about her background (my favourite being the enticing suggestion that her French accent was completely put on) and a fleshing out of her final years, alone and increasingly eccentric and erratic.

What I found frustrating about the film though was that the film-makers often steadfastly refused to join apparently connected bits of information together in the way that you expect from a good documentary. At one point Maloof states his desire to know the reasons for Maier’s intensive interest in photographing peripherial or marginalised people and places, and then almost in the same breath notes that she was a compulsive hoarder, two details which seem connected but which are never really explored in relation to each other. This happens a few times and after a bit it feels like you are watching a detective movie with a hyperactive protagonist who can’t stay focused on the facts in front of him (this sense is heightened a little further by the rather frenetic Elfman-esque musical score).

At other times there are what feel like rather illogical leaps of reasoning made from scant evidence. Half way through the film a letter emerges which suggests Maier might have contacted a French printer about printing her photographs. Maloof seizes on it as evidence that Maier did intend to show her work publicly, but the wording of the letter, at least as it was repeated in the film, seemed highly ambiguous. I sense Maloof might have felt the ambiguities in the letter were less important than the fact that it offered a potential validation of his publicisation of this reclusive photographers work, something several of his interviewees suggest Maier would have probably hated. At one point in the film Maloof himself professes a little sense of guilt for it, although not long before a section which shows him signing prints made from Maier’s negatives, ready for sale.

Indeed much of the film has a sense of someone trying to make the facts fit the story they want to tell, rather than using the facts to reconstitute a story. It’s notable that nowhere in the film is mention made of the other collectors who own sizeable chunks of Maier’s creative output, they simply don’t figure into Maloof’s narrative, presumably because they’re the competition. This is a problem mainly because gradually the whole project starts to feel doubtful, it begins to feel difficult to take any part of the movie at face value. The story behind Finding Vivian Maier is undeniably gripping story, and the film is well put together, but I think that if you come to it with any more than a casual eye then you may find as I did that it leaves you with more questions than answers.

Find Vivian Maier is in cinemas now.

Review: 5,000 Feet is the Best at Imperial War Museum

Still from ‘5,000 Feet is the Best’

Currently in the middle of a huge renovation project, London’s Imperial War Museum is running a skeleton display of exhibitions which includes a series of special displays and commissions under the banner of Imperial War Museum Contemporary. The first of these commissions is Omer Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best a thirty minute film about drone warfare and specifically about the pilots who operate these nightmarish machines from their bases thousands of miles away.

The story behind the making of the film is quite interesting in itself because it reveals the extent of the secrecy which still shrouds the drone program (they are after all routinely deployed in countries like Pakistan with whom the US is not even at war). Fast advertised online for drone operators, and had most of his adverts shut down by the FBI. Finally however he was able to arrange to meet a former pilot. This filmed interview, with the pilot’s face heavily blurred, forms the first of three narrative strands that make up the film.

The second strand is a series of repetitious excerpts from this interview, this time dramatised by actors. These take place in a strange and rather unpleasant hotel, where there is no daylight, and with long claustrophobic corridors that disappear off seemingly into infinity, perhaps intending to echo the inside of an aircraft, or the control pods where the drone pilots work. The final strand of is a series of pieces of aerial footage of locations in the United States, sometimes tracking in slowly on a building, at other times following a child riding a bike down a suburban road. The film flits between these strands, creating a disconcertingly disjointed narrative that attempts perhaps to emulate the pilot’s experience of fighting in a foreign war from the very heart of the US.

The most interesting part of the film are the insights offered by the interview with the pilot. In much mainstream media drone warfare is characterised in terms of computer games, a cliché the accuracy of which is both confirmed and dismissed. For example the pilot explains how some of the operators go home at the end of the day and play computer games before bed, a bizarre image. At the same time he contradicts the image of drone pilots as spotty nerds disconnected from the brutality and mayhem they unleash on strangers thousands of miles away.

For example he talks lucidly about the challenges of trying to avoid killing innocent people, and how he rationalises it by telling himself if he wasn’t doing it someone else would be, someone less skilled, and more likely to kill the innocent. He also discusses his experience of post-trumatic stress, still strangely a risk of the job despite the fact he is never directly in harm’s way. He also reveals that like much modern military activity the job is often profoundly boring, for example one assignment required him to keep watch on the same house for ten hours a day for a month.

While this interview is fascinating, If I’m honest the other bits of the film feel rather clumsy and awkward, as if Fast didn’t really get enough footage of the interview and is rather desperately trying to fill the gaps. At one point, in an attempt I suppose to really bring home the awfulness of drone warfare, the narrative moves to following a nice American family transplanted into an alternative reality America which is occupied by a foreign power (China judging by the characters and uniforms). Needless to say they end up being killed by a Chinese drone when it attacks three American insurgents who are burying an IED on a remote road. It’s shocking, but in a ‘Game over, restart level’ sort of way. 5,000 Feet is the Best is screening at the Imperial War Museum until 29th September 2013.

Review: The Mexican Suitcase

Having just reviewed a small London show of Robert Capa photographs it seemed like a good moment for me to see The Mexican Suitcase, a 2011 film directed by Trisha Ziff. The film narrates the rediscovery of the titular suitcase, a cache of negatives taken by Capa, Gerda Taro and David ‘Chim’ Seymor during the Spanish Civil War. Presumed lost, the suitcase was remarkably rediscovered in Mexico nearly seventy years after it was entrusted by Capa’s darkroom manager to Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez, the Mexican representative to Vichy France.

The story of the case of negatives and it’s journey through France, across the Atlantic, and to Mexico is complex and forms only part of the film’s narrative, which really uses the suitcase more as a convenient lead in to discovering and discussing Spain’s coming to terms with the past (or rather it’s precise lack of coming to terms). The story of unearthing the suitcase is unfolded in parallel with the stories of other similar rediscoveries. For example a dig at the site of a Civil War era mass grave, and the reminiscences of a series of people who directly experienced the conflict, as fighters, civillians, refugees and exiles.

For me the interviews with these direct witnesses to the conflict are by far the most interesting aspect of the film. Having suggested in my earlier review of the Capa exhibition that it might still be too soon for his photographs to sell in galleries for thousands of pounds I found it quite moving to hear the accounts of people who lived through the events of the war. People for whom the past was clearly not just an abstract historical event or even a dormant memory, but something still experienced intrusively on a daily basis, even seventy years after the Republic was defeated.

Also interviewed are a series of academics, photographers and other professionals who are connected to the suitcase or the civil war, and who explore the continuing relevancy of Capa’s work, and the contextualisation made possible by the rediscovery of these missing negatives, many of which cover the latter stages of the war. The rediscovery of the negatives was clearly important, not just as a piece of photo-historical material, but because they visually demonstrated the scale, the barbarity and the human toll that came with the end of the conflict. Particularly interesting are Capa’s photograph of the exiles in France, dumped by the thousands into desolate concentration camps and Chim’s documenting of the passage of luckier Republican exiles to Mexico.

My main problem with the film is the lack of alternative views on either Capa or the Civil War, The Mexican Suitcase has it’s own clear historical bias in both regards. There are no interviews with anyone involved in the conflict on the Nationalist side, and regarding Capa many of the experts are attached to the International Centre of Photography, which clearly has an interest in perpetuating the Robert Capa myth. A few criticisms creep in, for example Capa’s overshadowing of Taro and Seymour, and even the places and events he photographed. Another interesting criticism comes from the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer, who quite convincingly argues that the suitcase has become as much a part of Mexico’s history as Spain or Capa’s, and criticises that the continued looting of artefacts from countries like Mexico for museums in Europe and North America.

Although made in 2011 this isn’t by any means a bad time to return to The Mexican Suitcase, with the process of de-Francoisation stalling and the question of which narratives of the past are sanctioned and which remain hidden back on the agenda in recession hit Spain. Equally although I generally find comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and the current conflict in Syria vacuous in the extreme, it’s hard to hear the story of the young Chim, Taro and Capa photographing their way to fame in the remains of Madrid and Cordoba, and resist the desire to draw parallels with the young, inexperienced freelancers heading off today to try and make their names in the ruins of Allepo and Homs.