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Interpreting the Archive, Interpreting Oneself: The Host by Miranda Pennell

The Host is the latest film by Miranda Pennell in which she explores her family history and the history of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, now BP, where her father worked. Pennell speaks over hundreds of photographs from the company’s and her family’s archives, alongside drawings, to gently take the viewer through her discoveries of letters, facts, but also allow her to play with colonial representations. I had the opportunity to assist on the Q&A with the artist as part of the Open City Documentary Festival event Selective Memory: Repurposing the Archive with Miranda Pennell. Pennell explained the way she worked and how it started with a letter she discovered after her parents had passed. She said she wanted to show her family story as it was, that of a coloniser in Iran, without reproducing the violence by representing it. She sought to create multiple layers: her memory of that time and of relationships, her current concerns, but also the “experience of the other”, and finally history as it’s been written and shown often in colonial narratives. Pennell said she was the “glue that knits it together”, that is to say she fully assumes the subjectivity of her interpretation of the pictures. She wove her drawings and understandings of what it means to be a British employee of an oil company in a foreign country into a one-hour long tapestry, which is at times critical and raw.

Pennell’s work is about making the gaps and failures visible. What she found interesting with archives was what was not seen, not cataloged. She looked into the edited bits of the company’s history in Iran, as if not recording some aspects meant they did not happen. She explained that she was trying to explore the psychic world of the British colonisers, how they were looking at the world, how they were looking at people. She showed that in the archives, the “others”, the hosts, the Iranian folks, are constituted through these absences, by not making it to the history of the company. In this sense, the title itself could be interesting: if the English meaning of Host is unequivocal, as the person who receive guests, the french hôte means both host and guest. Pennell confesses herself that this is a film as much about her and her family as it is about the perceived other, which is never present in the archives. She interprets her memory as much as she interprets the archive, like a piece of music. Pennell’s work reminded me of Michel Foucault’s lectures on The Hermeneutics of the Subject at the College de France. Foucault, using texts from Ancient Greece, talked about the practices of the self. Foucault argues that the Socratic phrase “know thyself” was about elaborating a knowledge of oneself that would eventually equals to power. Building subjectivity, in Foucault’s conception, means treating oneself as an object to be interpreted, in order to gain agency. Owning one’s subjectivity, in terms of identity (be it sexuality or family’s history), means being less likely to be objectified by others, the actual point of the infamous (and often misunderstood) quote by Foucault’s rival Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is others”.

In this context, I find that Pennell was trying to gather as much knowledge about her family’s history to understand what it means to be the daughter of British colonisers. By elaborating on her heritage, she showed that her privilege also lied in her history being written, while the oppression of the hosts also lied in them missing from the archive. She highlighted the subjectivity of the discourse that is history by owning her own subjectivity. The drawings in the film illustrated her exploration of the traces and voids in her findings. How much is there in history that we actually cannot see? Words by Margaux Portron Images courtesy of Open City Documentary Festival and Miranda Pennell

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