Impact Documentary Filmmaking in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors

“What great respect for a fallen warrior to be dug up by another warrior,” says Michael Kay, an army veteran, as he stands by his trench. It’s a different trench to those he may have known as a rifleman in Afghanistan: rather than sheltering its users from enemy fire, this archaeological trench is intended to expose its occupants for all the world to see. In this case the occupant is a 6th century Anglo-Saxon warrior buried with his spears and shield. I’m so delighted to share Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors with you – this gem of a short documentary not only ticks all the boxes of DIY awesomeness (a well made archaeological story, community engagement, online platform, good production values), but also takes us deeper, into a discussion about archaeological ethics, access and interpretation. There’s a lot more here than I think either the archaeologists or filmmakers were aware of when they arrived on site and switched on their cameras, and best of all its available free online.

Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors titles (2012)
Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors titles (2012)

Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors was shot and released back in 2012, but I came into contact with it at the Festival of Archaeology at Salisbury Museum a couple of weeks ago, where archaeologist Laura Joyner from Wessex Archaeology was giving a talk about Project Florence, a community archaeology programme engaging local volunteers to help process excavation finds. Those finds came from an excavation of the Barrow Clump site by Operation Nightingale, another outreach project by Wessex Archaeology and the Defence Archaeology Group.

The crew at work in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).
The crew at work in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).

Operation Nightingale is a community archaeology programme that trains service personal and veterans injured in conflict in archaeological fieldwork. It’s a natural fit: both military and archaeological surveying and excavation requires the same abilities such as being able to carefully read the landscape, to excavate with delicacy, and they use much of the same specialist technologies, from GPS to remote sensing. It’s also a reminder of the historical overlap between the two fields, with figures such as Augustus Pitt-Rivers and Mortimer Wheeler famously adapting their own former military knowledge to the create scientific archaeological excavation methods we still use today. So there’s a nice symmetry here. But there’s another layer here too. Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors was written, shot and edited by young people from the Wiltshire Young Carers and Youth Action Wiltshire (via the Salisbury Arts Centre). Who better to understand the therapeutic aims of the project than those for whom caring and enduring is part of their daily lives? The whole community project is so nicely orchestrated and balanced – you couldn’t script this stuff. And under the mentoring of a local production company, the young crew does a surprisingly slick job of filmmaking: with nice narration (by Joyner), clever soundtrack design and a strong structure. It’s not quite broadcast quality but it doesn’t need to be to work. Ultimately Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors is a really nice example of how strategically planned documentary filmmaking can be used in archaeology not simple to promote our findings “to a broad audience”, but can be an active part of grass-roots community engagement and – given some space – can even challenge our own preconceptions about how and why we do archaeology.

The young film crew interview Time Team producer Tim Taylor on site in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors still (2012)
The young film crew interview Time Team producer Tim Taylor on site in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012)

And this is where Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors goes meta. Fortuitously, the Time Team crew visit the dig while the kids are shooting: so you get to see not only B-footage of a typical 3-day Time Team shoot and how that actually works on the ground, but the kids interview the Time Team crew too, who share filming tips (maintain eye contact with your subject!) as well as their own reflections on archaeology and the dig. I have to share one quote from Tony Robinson discussing Operation Nightingale, because it’s pure gold:

“These are skilled people. Most of them have been technicians, have been working with unexploded ordinances all that kind of stuff. So they’ve got very, very, subtle hands and the work that they’ve been doing over there is absolutely exemplarary. And to me, I think like, ‘Yeah, good on you!’ Because when we started to do the programme people used to slag us off and say ‘Oh yeah, what’s a bunch of television people doing archaeology?’ ‘What?! We can learn! You can do this stuff! So can soldiers! So can anybody! It doesn’t have to be the preserve of academics in universities!’”
I love this film. And now I really want to interview this man. In fact I want to interview the whole gang behind Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors about their experience filming it.

Filming the filmmakers film Tony Robinson in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).
Filming the filmmakers film Tony Robinson in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).
There's a hole in my 6th century Anglo-Saxon bucket. In Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).
There’s a hole in my 6th century Anglo-Saxon bucket. In Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).

There’s more here too of course: lots of cool Anglo-Saxon burials; slick osteological analysis; lovely Roman, Bronze Age and Anglo-Saxon finds (from beads to buckets); even a re-enactor bringing it all to life through live performance. But it’s the people in the present who make the past, and this short documentary, humble as it is, is one of the most thoughtfully constructed in the sub-genre of archaeology documentaries that I’ve come across thus far. The themes and questions it gently raises actually makes me want to put it in the same category as more professional works such as First Footprints, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Nostalgia for the Light. My only regret with Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors is it doesn’t seem to have been sent to festivals – I could be wrong about that – but it deserves more airtime than just being posted on a website and there are lots of youth-oriented and heritage film festivals that would happily showcase it. But overall, well done to Wessex Archaeology, Salisbury Arts Centre, the Defence Archaeology Group, Operation Nightingale and most of all to the young film crew – this is a great film. I hope there will be another.

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