In Miranda Pennell’s latest essay film, the filmmaker carefully plaits a number of seemingly distinct cultural and historical strands, and in so doing, offers a counter-narrative of British colonialism in the Middle East. This is a subject that has concerned Pennell for quite some time, but with Trouble, she retains her usual political acuity while wedding it to truly inspired cinematic poetry. Opening with a series of aerial shots of Egypt and Iraq, Trouble examines the role of archaeology in mapping and controlling the terrain of foreign lands for the British Empire. The images of structures and shadows in a sand-covered landscape are nearly indecipherable, until we’re given a bird’s-eye look at a pyramid. In fact, Pennell implicitly likens these archaeological and military photographs to a series of proliferating cracks in the white walls of her home.
Trouble articulates how the thievery of the archaeologists, as well as the destruction of towns by bombardment, are processed in the British cultural imaginary. The “mummy’s curse” became a predominant myth in the ‘40s and ‘50s, a sort of triangulation of national guilt through Orientalist superstition. Pennell considers the fate of the Earl of Carnarvon, who paid for the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, as well as the seemingly neutral investigations of aerial archaeologist O.G.S. Crawford, whose archives in the British Museum she reconstructs into a coherent map of the region, one that covers the walls of her apartment.
Pennell also addresses her own experience of the Covid-19 lockdown and how this isolation instigated her own obsessive plunge into the Internet’s archival holdings. Through a bit of lateral examination, she compares Crawford’s pictures with those of one Edwin Newman, a pilot who documented his missions, labeling the photos with captions such as “good bombing” and “punishment for not paying taxes.” In time, Trouble enacts a temporal slippage, bringing these early 20th-century offenses into dialogue with the 1990s Gulf War. Pennell covers a tremendous amount of conceptual ground in just over thirty minutes, so much so that Trouble ought to seem digressive or overstuffed. The fact that it doesn’t, and that each element successfully orbits the others in a deft, rueful constellation, speaks to Pennell’s talent as a thinker as well as a filmmaker.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27