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Geography on film

Geography on film RGS-IBG
06 Jul
With the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s film collection recently digitised on the BFI Player, Felix Driver reflects on over a century of film-making by geographers and others who used the moving image to bring the subject alive for wider audiences

‘In the early decades of film-making, geographers were drawn to its potential use in education, on expeditions, and in the dissemination of research. This was especially the case in France, where one of the pioneers in colour film and photography, Albert Kahn, sponsored a Chair in Geography occupied by Jean Brunhes, one of the leading geographers of the day.

‘In Britain, a new generation of geographers became interested in documentary film (including Robert Flaherty’s influential 1922 film about the Arctic, Nanook of the North). This interest helped to stimulate the development of the film appreciation movement.

‘In the pre-digital era, UK geographers were enthusiastic about the capacity of film to convey movement and more broadly the character of landscapes and regions; and some even encouraged teachers to involve children in the making of films themselves. Geographical published a series of essays during the 1950s on feature films and documentaries: one memorable article (by the BFI Director Roger Manvell) was titled Robert Flaherty, Geographer.

‘The newly digitised RGS-IBG film collection includes a wide variety of archival film, including commercially made travelogues, feature-length films, home movies, expeditionary films, educational shorts and unedited footage from many parts of the world. The collection presents geographers with rich possibilities for further research.

‘Highlights include remarkable film from expeditions in Amazonia and on Everest during the 1920s. Explorers used film both to publicise their expeditions and to celebrate the technological achievement of film-making in extreme environments. Such footage can be connected by researchers with other archival material available at the Society and elsewhere, including unique correspondence and original photographs, giving vital evidence of the way in which films were actually made, processed and distributed.

‘The recovery of a rich film heritage allows researchers to explore the diverse uses of geographical film in the past. It also presents exciting opportunities for geographers to develop new ways of thinking about film today.’

Felix Driver is Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London

This was published in the July 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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