Power in Our Hands: It all started with a dusty pile of showreels in a skip

reels in box

As BDA documentary Power in Our Hands which premiered
last November prepares to go on tour
Kevin Watson finds out
how the project began.

A chance discovery during building renovation work in a basement in South London 12 years ago marked the beginning of a chain of events that led to the premiere in London recently of a groundbreaking documentary featuring footage from the BDA’s archives.

Power in Our Hands had its first showing before an invited audience at BFI London last November and is set to screen all over the UK from this February. It tells the story of the British Deaf and BSL community from the late 19th century through to the 1970s using archive footage.

The entire film, a 70-minute documentary, is told in BSL and while it has subtitles, the footage has not been dubbed – unusual in itself for a sign language film.

reels in boxesThe story begins in 2004 when a group of builders discovered 20 film reel boxes in a skip at a job they were doing in Brixton. Tomato Lichy tells the BDN: “These men, squatters from Poland, had been told to clear out rubbish when they came across these reels. They were history buffs and were intrigued by the mention of “deaf and dumb people” on the reels and were given permission to keep them for their own investigation.” Tomato’s brother was at an underground film festival when he met one of these men trying to thread film into a projector. When he saw the reels were of deaf people he contacted Tomato. “I asked him to get their contacts and met them at their squat for a chat. They were very happy to give me the reels, refusing my offer of beer in exchange!”

The reels were revealed to be the “lost” films of the BDA from 1931-1939 and were returned to the BDA. Tomato tells the BDN: “Chatting to Paddy Ladd, he said he found it interesting that these people knew nothing about deaf people or sign language, yet saw these reels showing deaf culture as intrinisically valuable cultural artefacts”.

A golden archive

On their eventual return to the BDA the reels were put into storage in west London while it was considered what could be done with them.

BBC See Hear’s use of some of the material to make a special programme entitled The Lost World of Leslie Edwards in 2007 led to an unprecedented response from the Deaf community who demanded to see more of this golden archive.

The BDA knew they had to do something. They decided that steps should be taken to preserve the collection and to ensure that these valuable and rare artifacts of Deaf history were never lost again, and were somehow made available to everyone.

The 20 discovered reels were only part of an even bigger archive belonging to the BDA totalling around 150 film reels and 500 videos.

They realised it would be a huge and expensive undertaking to digitise the collection, a project they could not undertake alone.

leeds 1955 group people

A first stage approach was made for funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund who allocated a development grant for one year. Jemma Buckley was appointed as project manager and the hard work of proving the viability and value of the project began.

A key part of the bid was a wish to make the archive “accessible to members of the Deaf community and beyond, and actively encourage learning of and engagement with this heritage.”

On successfully completing this stage an award of £719,100 was made by HLF and with additional support from trust foundations and individuals, the BDA had the green light for the full project.

The process of digitisation along with identifying people and events in the footage began. There was also a need for the transcribing and subtitling of selected material. “Subtitling the footage from BDA’s film archive was difficult,” says Flashing Lights Media Access Manager Gemma Winning, “the signing styles were so different to today.
I can see BSL has changed so much. It was a really good experience for me.”

The next phase was taking the newly accessible footage out to the Deaf community. Seven regional Deaf Heritage officers began work in June 2014. They held events around the country with the aim of “setting the historical, social and cultural context” for the footage.
This was invaluable in helping to identify people in the films and giving background to events. It also prompted others to come forward with their own films, some of which have now also been digitised and added to the archive.

And so to Power in Our Hands. The tender for the making of a documentary utilising the films was awarded to a Deaf company, Flashing Lights Media, who successfully connected the different parts of the archive and brought them together in a cohesive narrative for the film. Their chosen theme was empowerment of the Deaf community through BSL.

A challenging task

The BDA wanted the film to be aimed at both a Deaf and hearing audience, a challenge for executive producer, Sarah Tavner: “It’s hard to make films that appeal to Deaf and hearing audiences. It requires things to be self-explanatory and means it takes time to go into depth on a topic. I think by talking about the Deaf community as a whole rather than specifics this made it easier – because it was so general.”

What’s powerful about the film is seeing BSL throughout the ages and highlighting its place in British history. Tavner agrees: “I think finding out that BSL is a language is probably the most fascinating thing to hearing people. It’s the beauty of sign language that makes the Deaf community interesting and attractive to hearing people, I think.”

The documentary, the result of 10 months painstaking work, is narrated by John Hay, Clark Denmark and Wendy Daunt and includes interviews with people who themselves appeared in the old footage or are related to them.

Director Angela Spielsinger says: “It was a challenge to create a 70-minutes long documentary from a very large film archive. The film did not have a narrator with voice over so it was a challenge to keep the narrative interesting and stable by using our contributors to signpost throughout the film.”

Tavner believes the film has uncovered some important new angles from Deaf history: “It really reveals the close relationships between people in the Deaf community which is evident throughout the archive. For me, the most effective section is that covering the social and political changes of the 1980-90s. No one has told this part of history before because it’s so recent – I’m really glad we were able to do so in Power in Our Hands.”

power in our hands cinema poster

With only 50 minutes of the hundreds of hours of footage available being used in Power in Our Hands, does Tavner see the potential for more films in the future? “There are so many other stories that could be told!” she says. “The archive allows for a real analysis of changing signs. The BDA have so much important footage of the development of BSL.

“As well as this it would be great to go deeper into certain topics such as Deaf sporting memories, the workplace, communications, or educational experiences. And of course it would be great to flesh out those personal stories of individual families or focus on important individuals such as Leslie Edwards.”

Visit BDA’s new heritage resource SHARE: The Deaf Visual Archive