The Observers Observed: 'Reflections on making a film, The Day War Broke Out, with the Mass Observation Archive' by three PhD researchers


Elizabeth Chappell
Simon King
Dominique Baron-Bonarjee


Elizabeth Chappell, Simon King and Dominique Baron-Bonarjee made a film, The Day War Broke Out, in the summer of 2019 as part of a CHASE film making training course led by film-maker Karen Boswall at The University of Sussex. The film focuses on the way in which the Mass Observation (MO) Archive came about. The film brings to life the materiality of the archive through voice, music, hand-written letters, historical objects and setting as well as through an interview with one of Mass Observation’s curators, Kirsty Pattrick.
But what can we understand from the stated intentions of MO’s founders for anonymous volunteer contributors to write diaries ‘so that their [the public’s] environment may be understood and thus constantly transformed.’? This article takes the view that the ‘single voice’, i.e. in this case the personal reflective narrative, can offer a ‘way in’ to understanding collective lived experience. Exploring the research questions through three case studies, it offers a dialogical approach to the parallel and overlapping questions of how past lived experience can be brought to life on film as well as how researchers can use materiality to access the context of lived experience. It asks, how does the creative exploration of the archive through film offer the possibility of a more open dialogue to occur between researchers and curators? And finally, how can film making open up new vistas and avenues for researchers to share findings as well as to transform their own field of research?


Author Biographies

Elizabeth Chappell, Open University

Elizabeth Chappell has published fiction and non-fiction in, among others, Wasafiri, Contemporary Review, The Conversation and Auto/biography (The British Sociological Journal). Her research has been featured in the Smithsonian Magazine (2020). She was co-editor of Wasafiri issue 102: Japan Literatures of Remembering (2020). She is completing a PhD titled ‘Hibakusha Narratives In Context’, based on her original long-term interviewing project with survivors from Hiroshima at the Open University where she also lectures. Contact: @ElizabethChapp8 

Simon King, Birkbeck, University of London

Simon King is a tutor and lecturer in art, design and media contexts between the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins in London. Co-founder of the RCA’s Walkative Project, in which walking with others is used dialogically to trigger thinking, research and communicating, Simon is currently undertaking a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. 

Dominique Baron-Bonarjee, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dominique Baron-Bonarjee’s practice spans different mediums, with liveness occupying a central place in her process and inquiry. Guided by the Eastern spiritual traditions of nonduality, she speculates on an expanded field of the body to nurture ecological and ethical relations with nonhuman entities. She has shown work internationally, in galleries, festivals, biennales and public space, including at the Nakanojo Biennale in Japan, the Isamu Noguchi Room (Keio University) Tokyo, Galerie Wedding in Berlin, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). Her public space performances have been commissioned by Chisenhale Dance Space, London and Håb / Word of Warning in Manchester. She is a current undertaking a PhD in the Art Department, Goldsmiths University of London See: