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An editorial cartoon, circa 1882,
depicting British imperialism.
Photo by Hulton Archives/Getty Images

“I think what it meant to dismantle one of the largest empires the world has ever known has never really been thought through by the British people, with dangerous results,” MacCabe says, pointing to the war in the Falkland Islands and Britain’s current engagement in Iraq, where the Empire suffered one of its most humiliating defeats in 1916.

Action! Empire

Film archive illuminates imperial-era Britain and its consequences

On a holiday break after high-school studies in London, 17-year-old Colin MacCabe has time to kill during his continental travels. He’s in Paris on a stopover to Geneva, and he decides on visiting a cinema, one of his favorite pastimes. It’s 1967, and he goes to see a film by the trendsetting French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. Despite its title, the film, Made in U.S.A., is in French, without subtitles. The teen doesn’t understand the spoken language, but it doesn’t matter. He’s captivated by the film’s visual images, their color and light. For the first time, but not the last, he enters Godard’s world.

Today, decades later, MacCabe sits in an office surrounded by posters of films that he has helped to conceive as an executive producer. The room overflows with books and papers, but the office is not in a Hollywood studio. Rather, it’s in the University of Pittsburgh’s English department on the fifth floor of the Cathedral of Learning. Since that long-ago day in a Paris cinema, the youthful filmgoer has become not only a filmmaker, but also a film critic, literary scholar, and cultural commentator.

MacCabe is a Pitt Distinguished Professor of English and Film; a former head of research and education at the British Film Institute; and the author of several books on cinema, literature, language, and politics. He has even written two books on Jean-Luc Godard based on his own personal interactions with the iconic French director, who, at 77, now lives in Switzerland. Beginning in the 1970s, MacCabe had a series of dealings with Godard through correspondence, conversations, interviews, and even film collaborations. He wrote a biography of the filmmaker, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), published in 2004.

Now, thanks to a 2007 grant of more than $1 million from the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom, MacCabe recently has begun what may be his biggest film-related venture yet, titled “Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire.”

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Members of the British Hodson’s Horse cavalry regiment in India during the rebellion of 1857.
Photo by Hulton Archives/Getty Images

“Colonial Film” has twin goals. First, it will annotate, catalog, and digitize more than 6,000 films that are housed at the British Film Institute, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, and the Imperial War Museum. The films range from pre-World War I silent shorts to contemporary television programming, and they offer images of the British Empire from the points of view of both the colonies and the colonizer. The cataloging is already under way, with researchers viewing the films and making annotations regarding origins and portrayals, or “historic representations,” of Empire.

By the time the archival project concludes, an Internet portal will link to the Web sites for the three institutions that house the country’s film archives, each with its own comprehensive online film catalog. The portal itself will include 30 hours of digitized film from the archives. The work also will be accessible to a wider academic community through quarterly seminars in London. MacCabe and Lee Grieveson of University College London are sharing management.

The work of viewing, annotating, cataloging, and digitizing films also serves a second, more profound goal. The proposal that secured the grant speaks of “a national rememoration, a process in which the descendants of colonizers and the colonized could establish the truths of Empire,” and it cites scholars who argue “that the British Empire is the crucial repression within our national memory.” In the end, MacCabe and his colleagues want to make the films “an active part of the nation’s memory.”

“There is probably no more important topic in some ways in Britain than the aftermath of Empire,” says MacCabe, adding that the British people simply don’t think about the colonial past, choosing instead a type of willful amnesia.

“I think what it meant to dismantle one of the largest Empires the world has ever known has never really been thought through by the British people, with dangerous results,” he says, pointing to the war in the Falkland Islands and Britain’s current engagement in Iraq, where the Empire suffered one of its most humiliating defeats in 1916.

The idea for the project formed gradually in MacCabe’s mind. From his 13-year stint at the British Film Institute, he knew there was extensive material in the institute’s archives “that had never been properly investigated.” But he cites the work of fellow academic Paul Gilroy as a significant factor in the decision to launch the project. Gilroy has written extensively about the persistence of colonial social structures in contemporary Britain, including his book, After Empire, which MacCabe characterizes as saying “the problem with Britain is that it hasn’t properly engaged in the work of mourning over the loss of Empire.”

Britain is not alone in possessing an imperial history. France, Holland, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain all had colonies—and all, MacCabe says, have “well-funded” film archives that could provide the raw material for the refreshing of their national memories through projects similar to his. To help launch such projects, “Colonial Film” will include two international conferences, one on film history in London and one on cinema and colonial and post-colonial studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Taken together, these projects could shed new light on the imperial era—all because of a young boy’s fascination with stories told in the dark.

Breakthroughs in the Making

Fresh Start

Giving liver transplants to those who also suffer from alcoholism is a topic that has sparked debate. Some doctors believe that patients who are addicted to alcohol will continue

their destructive habit after surgery and thus damage the dontated organ. But a study led by Pitt psychiatry professor Mary Amanda Dew found that only 6 percent of alcoholics and 4 percent of illicit drug users relapse into their addictions in the year after organ transplantation. Her research team gathered data from studies published between 1983-2005. In partnership with UPMC organ transplant programs, Dew and her colleagues help substance users in need of transplants commit to quitting. Supplemented by close follow-up medical care and family support, transplants give these patients a fresh start on healthy lives.

missing image fileSpeed Counts

Walking speed is affected by the health of heart, lungs, muscles, and other vital body systems, says Stephanie Studenski, a geriatric researcher and professor of medicine in Pitt’s School of Medicine. A reduced walking speed could indicate health problems. In a 1996 study, Studenski and colleagues measured the walking speeds of nearly 500 older people. It turns out that gait speed may predict longer-term survival. When the researchers tracked the survival of their gait-speed participants in 2005, 73 percent of those with a fast gait (about 3 feet per second) were still alive. Meanwhile, only 23 percent of those with a slow gait were alive, along with 50 percent of those with a medium gait. A related study found that elders who improve walking speed also reduce the risk of death.

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