Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War (2019)
Directed by Matt Pinder
Full disclosure, I was immediately ready to love this documentary when I discovered it partly chronicled the life of a British soldier in the Burmese jungle during WWII. My incredible granddad, who sadly passed away at the end of last year, was also in Burma, having enlisted at the age of 17 by lying about his age. The similarities to Harry Birrell don’t end there. My granddad was fiercely dedicated to his camera. My entire childhood up until my mid-teens has been well documented on about 30 or 40 VHS tapes. He loved being behind the camera, focusing on life through its lens, getting the chance to capture some of his favourite things. Just like Harry...
Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War is Harry Birrell’s film. Though the director might be credited as Matt Pinder, the footage is most-certainly Harry’s footage. Pinder masterfully weaves years of incredible scenes into a life story that, along with detailed diary entries, allows for an incredibly unique insight into the life of this man. Birrell’s granddaughter Carina is our present-day guide, unpicking his backstory, learning about her grandfather’s past at the same time as we do. Richard Madden’s sombre tone acts as Harry Birrell’s voice, reciting Harry’s diary entries as we see his life play out before our eyes. The footage is incredible enough without the narration. 1930s London springs to life before our eyes and in colour! His youthful days play out with abandon and the inevitable arrival of the war looms heavy over images of smiling faces an innocence.
As the film shifts from his early years and moves to focus on his wartime activities across Bombay, Burma and Nepal - Harry never stops filming. The camera becomes a conduit for us, as it may well have to Harry, for glimpsing the reality and gravity of his situation. What’s surprising though, given the setting, is the amount of smiling faces and general camaraderie between Harry and the battalion of Gurkha’s he commanded. Though there are tales of heartache and homesickness, there is also wonder and excitement at the new lands he was discovering. The heart and truth in Harry’s words are backed up by the pure honesty that filters through his camera lens to us.
Intercut throughout are moments set in the present as Carina speaks to those who knew him (he died when Carina was just 7 years old). Tears flow as tales of lost love and homesickness resonate deeply. But these moments do not deserve to be picked apart in a review such as this. They deserve to be watched, experienced and felt exactly as Harry would have liked. Carina has shown that the Birrell blood is still pumping. In producing this film she has carried on Harry's legacy of capturing the beauty of the world around us. Her granddad would be proud.