Fabric of War: Why Wool?

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 3 2021

Trish FitzSimons: Director, Producer, Researcher
Madelyn Shaw: Lead Researcher and Key Interviewee
Film: Fabric of War: Why Wool? 
Length: 12.16 minutes
Year: 2019

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Research Background 

Fabric of War: Why Wool? is an intrinsically multi-disciplinary work, incorporating documentary filmmaking – including archiveology (Russell 2018) and digital media; museology; social history, political economy and fibre science. It is the product of collaboration between the then textile curator of the National Museum of American History (Madelyn Shaw); an Australian screen academic (Trish FitzSimons) and Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) – the representative body for wool growers. It was commissioned by AWI, drawing on both their research and marketing budgets, after a direct approach from the filmmaker.  AWI’s particular request was that the film have a strong digital media aesthetic and that it address an American as well as an Australian audience.

Contribution 

Consistent with Catherine Russell’s neologism “Archiveology” and her conception of using archival film and photographs to find “new ways of making history come alive in new forms (2018, 5), Fabric of War: Why Wool? is novel in form, content, funding and distribution. The product of a mature collaboration between a museum curator and a documentary filmmaker, both of whom are also historians, this film is part of a transnational commodity history that broadens perspectives on Australia as the country that “rode on the sheep’s back” (R.W. Thompson 1932) by looking at the intersection of wool and war, in both military and civilian aspects (St Clair 2018). Its use of the (quite literally) material culture of war as both historical source and expressive media is innovative. AWI funding made filming in the US, UK and Australia as well as the use of archival film from several countries possible – unusual for filmmaking arising from the academy. AWI’s access to the film for marketing purposes is one key and novel distribution mechanism. At a time when there is an increasing concern for the magnitude of synthetic fibres’ contribution to microplastic pollution of the oceans, a focus on the chemical properties of this natural fibre is timely.

Significance 

While the ARC system of fields and field classifications allows for interdisciplinary work, academic structures drive most researchers to account for the contribution of their work to singular disciplines. Academics also tend to avoid sponsored productions, lest the researcher’s voice be compromised. Why Wool? however, is a classic example of the ‘braided voice’ of contemporary documentary (FitzSimons 2009; Sanders & Nash 2019) in which the filmmakers were responsive to the commissioning body’s wishes but nevertheless retained full editorial control. The continuing distribution of this work into multiple fields and disciplinary spaces evidences its impact. This film, screened at the Textile Society of America conference in Vancouver in September 2018, contributing to Shaw and FitzSimons receiving the Founding President’s (cash) Award for strongest paper/presentation. It has been screened to historians (ANU April 2019), the general public (Smithsonian NMAH Jan 2019, Griffith University May 2019); military historians (Duntroon April 2019) and in association with Myf Warhurst interviewing the filmmakers for ANZAC Day 2019 (https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/myf-warhurst/wool-wars/11049596). In November 2020 it will be screened, along with a filmmakers’ Q&A, as educational outreach for a US travelling exhibition entitled “Crafting Democracy: Fiber Arts and Activism.”

In summary, Why Wool? evidences filmmaking originating in the academy as central to new forms of history and museology and reaching multiple different specialist and general audiences. Just as print-based historians contribute to fields other than writing, so can filmmakers simultaneously contribute to their discipline (1902) but also to other disciplines, in this instance history and museology.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

The subject matter of the film covers a broadly unknown connection between wool production and military campaigns. The film firstly provides a concise history of the development of the wool growing and spinning industry, particularly in the two research focus nations of Australia and the U.S.A. The film then makes its key research connection which is that of wool to war (aptly recognized in the film title). As the research statement alludes to, the connection between an ostensibly peaceful and even ‘crafty / homespun’ technology with military technology – which is commonly regarded as more specialised and high-tech – was a very impactful new narrative for this viewer.

I believe that the submission successfully manifests creative practice as research.  The research issue is very clearly expressed and the research argument is developed well through the film’s rhetorical, aesthetic and formal choices. While the formal elements that the film uses are relatively conventional (and trusted by audiences as authentic to content), they are masterfully produced and structured – especially for such a relatively short duration film. The variety of visual and aural components presented and the rhythm with which they are edited provides a  dynamic platform and means of expressing the research data. It is evident that this work has been produced by a filmmaker of great experience and skill. The variety of interviewees, archival and original materials used by the filmmaker successfully situates the research within historical, social, agricultural, artistic and military theoretical fields. The insights presented, through a skilful combination of traditional and creative research data, methods and expression, certainly provide substantial new knowledge.

I have no suggestions for adjusting the Creative Work itself.

I found the Research Statement’s claims to innovation, significance and impact to be very concisely expressed and evidenced with relevant examples from the production methods and on-screen expression.

As soon as synthetic fibres were mentioned in the film, I considered the impact of newly popular fibres such as polar fleece on the environment. The research statement refers to this environmental impact, although the film does not. I suggest that the research statement would be stronger if it qualifies why the film did not cover this aspect which the statement identifies as significant.

I also suggest that the research statement could be stronger where it claims formal novelty in the film through the use of the material culture of war as ‘expressive media’. Although wool as a material culture within war was abundantly clear through the content of the narration and imagery, I did not recognise this aspect as a new form of documentary filmmaking form as I watched the film. Some further elaboration in the statement would help the viewer/researcher to recognise how this innovation is  ‘materialised’.

The Sightlines editors have asked me to comment on the quality of referencing and citation in the research statement. While this is excellent at the close of the film, I  am uncertain whether it is also expected to be included as part of the statement.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

The film work itself is impressive in terms of its aesthetic and creative attributes. It conveys a deep knowledge of the subject matter, as well as displaying high-quality technical skills. Its mode of representation is engaging and presents information in an easily digestible form for audiences.

The subject material used is very broad-ranging and suggests that the researchers have spent much time gathering the material. This helps to give the work credibility.

Does the submission live up to its potential?

While I found the film engaging, I feel that order to achieve its full potential with regard to being “innovative” in its approach, more emphasis could have been placed on the signifying potential of sonic material. I felt the use of interview to camera, along with the addition of musical accompaniment, somewhat limited the film’s overall creative and discursive scope. The use of archive material was predominantly visual, whereas a more immersive soundtrack, which treats audio archive material as having signifying potential, would create more innovative and alternative forms of knowledge.

How does the submission expose practice as research?

There was some evidence of presenting the subject matter within its social, economic and political context, however, engagement with theoretical discourse was not wholly evidenced in the statement, nor in the film itself. As such, my overall impression of this documentary is one that is well researched, with regard to its subject matter and one that is very well produced in terms of its technical and creative attributes. However, I think the statement would benefit from the inclusion of more references to theoretical/scholarly writing, as this would evidence practice as research more clearly.

There is significant emphasis in the research statement placed upon “innovation”, therefore, perhaps the researchers would benefit from analyzing the film work of the early 20th Century experimental documentary filmmakers, such as Joris Ivens, Jean Vigo and Dziga Vertov. There is much scholarly writing about this innovative period of documentary filmmaking and I feel that this would help inform the researchers approach to developing a more innovative representational strategy.

I would also suggest that the researchers look at the film work and writings of more contemporary documentary filmmakers, such as Trinh T Minha Ha, whose output focuses on how film form itself impacts upon knowledge exchange.

 

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

Fabric of War: Why Wool? is an intrinsically multi-disciplinary work: a documentary film whose elements include archival film and digital media; museology; social history, political economy and fibre science. Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) – the representative body for wool growers –  commissioned this film after a direct approach from the filmmaker.  AWI’s particular interest was that the film have a strong digital media aesthetic, that it address an American as well as an Australian audience and that it use history to have its audience understand the value of woollen fibre. Why Wool? is an example of the ‘braided voice’ of contemporary documentary (FitzSimons 2009; Sanders & Nash 2019) in which the filmmakers were responsive to the commissioning body’s wishes but nevertheless retained full editorial control.

The documentary is part of a broader creative research project – Fabric of War: The Global Wool Trade from Crimea to Korea – that has had print history, documentary, web and digital media outputs (see fabricofwar2018.omeka.net/about). The whole project has resulted from a mature collaboration between the textile curator of the National Museum of American History (Madelyn Shaw) and an Australian screen academic (Trish FitzSimons). Both principals are also historians, together developing a transnational commodity history that broadens perspectives on Australia as the country that ‘rode on the sheep’s back’ (R.W. Thompson 1932), and puts this nation at the centre of a fascinating and little known global history. Textiles have been largely overlooked as strategic military resources in the twentieth century (Coulthard 2020; St Clair 2018) and they and other forms of material culture are often underplayed as historical sources except, as in the case of archaeological sites, where standard sources are lacking.

Consistent with Catherine Russell’s neologism ‘Archiveology’ (2018) and her conception of using archival film and photographs to find ‘ways of making history come alive in new forms’ (p.5) Fabric of War: Why Wool? innovates in content, form, funding and distribution. The film incorporates substantial primary research (photographs, film archives and documents), and brings these sources together to give a deeper understanding of a largely forgotten, nay unknown, dimension of Australian and international history. Working with a textile curator as co-principal meant that textiles were used extensively as historical sources and in the aesthetic of the final piece. We also collaborated with both a fibre scientist and a historian and curator of sheep husbandry to animate their still graphics to better communicate what makes wool so special as a fibre.  AWI funding in addition to university funding made filming in the US, NZ, UK and Australia possible – unusual for filmmaking arising from the academy. And at a time when there is an increasing concern for the magnitude of petroleum-based fibres’ contribution to microplastic pollution of the oceans, an exploration of the history of how these textiles arose and the contrasting chemical properties of synthetics vis a vis woollen fibre is apt.

This work’s impact is evidenced by its continuing distribution into multiple fields and disciplinary spaces. It was screened at the Textile Society of America conference in Vancouver in September 2018 and contributed to Shaw and FitzSimons receiving the Founding President’s (cash) Award for strongest paper/presentation. It was screened to historians (ANU April 2019), the general public (Smithsonian NMAH Jan 2019, Griffith Univ. May 2019); military historians (Duntroon April 2019) and in association with Myf Warhurst interviewing the filmmakers for ANZAC Day 2019 (https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/myf-warhurst/wool-wars/11049596). In November 2020 it was screened, along with a filmmakers’ Q&A, as educational outreach for a US travelling exhibition entitled “Crafting Democracy: Fiber Arts and Activism.”

While the ARC system of fields and field classifications allows for multi and inter-disciplinary work, academic structures drive most researchers to account for the contribution of their work to singular disciplines. Fabric of War: Why Wool contributes to various fields of history (social, military, economic, textile) and to the creative practice fields of screen production: this breadth is a distinctive contribution. In summary, Why Wool? evidences filmmaking originating in the academy as germane to new forms of history-making and is reaching multiple different specialist and general audiences. Just as print-based historians contribute to fields other than writing, so can filmmakers simultaneously contribute to their core discipline (1902) but also to other disciplines such as history.

 

REFERENCES

Coulthard, Sally. 2020. A Short History of the World According to Sheep, Apollo.

FitzSimons, Trish. 2014. “Braided Channels: A genealogy of the voice of documentary,” Studies in Documentary Film, 3(2): 131-146.

Sanders, Williamien and Nash, Kate. 2019. “The (Braided) Documentary Voice: theorizing the complexities of Documentary Making,” In The Palgrave Handbook of Screen Production, edited by Craig Batty, Marsha Berry, Kath Dooley, Bettina Frankham, 231-241. Palgrave Macmillan.

Russell, Catherine. 2018. Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices, Camera Obscura.

St Clair, Kassia. 2018. The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, John Murray.

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