Category Archives: Review

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.


A Touching Story

One of the really cool things at the Royal Anthropological Institute’s International Festival of Ethnographic Film was the video library: a pop-up mediatheque where delegates could watch not only any of the screened films they may have missed, but also any of the DVDs in the RAI collection. This included a veritable treasure trove of archaeological films and while I only got to catch a couple of them, this one in particular stayed with me.

Volunteer Chloe and UCH patient Carol come to grips with an ancient Egyptian jar in Touching Objects.
UCL volunteer Chloe and UCH patient Carol come to grips with an ancient Egyptian jar in Touching Objects.

Touching Objects (2013) is a short film by independent British documentarist Sasha Andrews. The film follows Chloe, a Heritage Studies student and hospital volunteer, who cleverly brings objects from the UCL’s Petrie Museum collection in to be handled by in-patients as part of a wellbeing programme. The patient in this case is Carol, who is recovering from recent surgery, and her enthusiasm for the objects is infectious: a small jar “feel Russian” she says of as she tries to guess what it is, while a raw piece of sodalite stone which is described as having healing attributes “is so powerful […] very emotional!” Ultimately this is a nice little study of affectivity through the power of touch – a human quality unique to archaeology and an experience familiar to all archaeologists. After all, who can resist the desire to touch ancient things, to know them intimately by their texture, weight, temperature and – in this case – even their energy? Having just volunteered at a public artefact handling session for the Festival of Archaeology, I can definitely attest to the remarkable effect that handling real archaeological objects has: it’s as if these objects lack depth, lack a kind of realness, until their physical presence pulls you into their world.
Short films are experiencing a major comeback with the opportunities for exposure now available via online distribution, which is good news for early career filmmakers and those who simply wish to experiment with the medium. The RAI Film Festival cleverly included several shorts in their scheduling, but you may have also noticed the major film festivals and commercial cinemas increasingly doing the same (Pixar shorts in particular come to mind). It would be great to see more short films like this produced by or in collaboration with student and research archaeology projects.

Can a documentary really save an archaeological site from destruction?

One of the wonderful things about ancient sites is how they reveal how humans fit themselves into and are in turn affected by the environment. Our choice of the most sensible trade routes, site proximity to water or access to resources can reveal not only the long term patterns of human occupation but also the depth of human connection to place over time. And even when sites are forgotten, even after thousands of years, their discovery can reignite that connection once more. The problem then, is what happens when an ancient place becomes a victim of its own geography? When war, trade, corruption, and personal conflict intersect and the fate of an ancient site is left hanging in the balance, can there even be a positive resolution? Such is the crisis face by Mes Aynak.

The view over Mes Aynak in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Promotional Still (2015).
The view over Mes Aynak in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Still (2015).

Mes Aynak (also called Tepe Kafiriat) is an ancient settlement near Kabul in eastern Afghanistan. It’s a very impressive site: dating back to the Bronze Age about 5000 years ago, Mes Aynak peaked during the 5th and 7th centuries CE as an important Buddhist trading city along the silk road, possessing a citadel, forts, monasteries, temples, and – crucial to our story – a complex of copper mining and processing infrastructure. Overall Mes Aynak spread to a size of 40 ha (that’s about 2/3 the size of Pompeii) before its decline and abandonment in the 9th century. Although it was identified as an archaeological site in the 1970s by Afghan and Russian archaeologists, it was not until 2010 that intensive large scale salvage excavations kicked off. You see, in a tragic twist of fate, the copper that attracted the ancient settlers to the site in the first place may also be the seed of its destruction as Mes Aynak sits atop one of the worlds largest copper deposits (over 6 million tonnes of copper, worth an estimated US$100 billion) slated for open-cut mining to begin in late 2015. So which is more valuable to Afghanistan, the copper, or the heritage?

Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Poster (2015).
Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Poster (2015).

Saving Mes Aynak examines this heritage crisis by following the personal journey of Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori as he and his 550-strong crew race against the clock to excavate as much of the site as possible before its destruction. Commercial archaeology is not an easy game in any country, but add to it the long term impact of war and poverty and the outlook for heritage preservation very quickly turns grim. The commercial conflict – deepened by a history of government corruption – is only one battlefront Temori must face. Daily Temori’s crew face reprisals from the local Taliban: one crew-member even tells us how he had a landmine explode in his face as he was pick-axing, partially blinding him but not deterring him from returning to work. Bureaucracy too proves to be a source of tension as half the crew is employed through the Ministry of Mines and the other half through the Ministry of Culture, and international aid funding – necessary for pay and equipment – at one point is delayed for 3 months, causing further friction between the local and international members of the dig team. Even the professional credentials of the archaeologists are drawn into question as some of the team resort to excavation with heavy machinery in their haste to expose the site, to the displeasure of their peers.

Huffman interviewing Temori on site. Promotional Still (2015).
Huffman interviewing Temori on site. Promotional Still (2015).

Unlike most archaeology documentaries this is very openly a social-justice story. Although there are interviews with French and American archaeologists, Afghan politicians, and even the director of the mining company, director Brent Huffman chiefly follows Temori’s perspective and the impact of Mes Aynak on his life (including his young family). By taking this angle Huffman makes the explicit argument that the real value of this site is its cultural significance to the local Afghan community. It’s a really nice example of how story structure can complement and amplify a more abstract argument about ethics and heritage. In keeping with this approach, whilst the cinematography is stunning, it does tend to over privilege the treasure-like quality of the finds and the crew’s personal response to them, and the subsequent dearth of more scientific analyses may rub some archaeologists and history buffs the wrong way. I do think however that given the lack of voice that Afghani archaeologists seem to have, that Huffman deserves a bit of leeway to tell this story this way – sometimes open bias is justified. I also really like his portrait of commercial archaeology as really being the frontier of archaeology as a discipline – both in terms of new discoveries as well as ethical debates – and I’d like to see more documentaries that put commercial archaeology under scrutiny given its dominance out in the field.

Huffman filming a Buddhist Stupa at mes Aynak. Promotional Still (2015).
Huffman filming a Buddhist Stupa at mes Aynak. Promotional Still (2015).

I also love how strategic Huffman has been about this production. Saving Mes Aynak aims to do exactly what it says on the tin: it is the flagship of a much larger activism campaign seeking to inspire viewers to get involved in saving the site before mining begins. By building an audience through crowd-funding (quick disclosure – I signed up too), spreading the word through social media, striking out with multi-platform broadcasting (you can currently watch it on Al Jazeera), and following the trend of providing free unlimited access within its country of production, Saving Mes Aynak is all about using documentary to make a real world impact. It comes from a good lineage too: Huffman is an award winning journalist and documentarist, and the production team (via the non-profit production company Kartemquin) are the makers of Hoop Dreams (1994), one of the 20th century’s most famous social justice documentaries. If anyone can pull this off, it’s these guys.

One of 600 Buddha statues recovered during excavations. Promotional Still (2015).
1 of 600 Buddha statues recovered during excavations. Promotional Still (2015).

But what now? Mes Aynak was scheduled for mining to begin this month, a deadline that has been delayed until later this year, but at the time of filming only 10% of the site had been uncovered, and the archaeological team estimate another 10 years will be required to fully excavate the site. Even if that were granted (slim chance), it seems guaranteed the site itself (and the mountain it sits upon) will be destroyed. So can a documentary really inspire an audience to activism in order to divert the powers that be? Time will tell, and tell us soon.