HKBU Enews Eyes on HKBU
Jan 2014 | Issue 40

Professor Ian Aitken: Film detective

"My job is very much about detective work and building a story from documents that might not make sense individually but that add up to something when you put them together,” says Professor Ian Aitken of the Academy of Film. A renowned expert in the history of the documentary film as well as an acclaimed film theorist, Professor Aitken has authored a number of influential books and was awarded the President’s Award for Outstanding Performance in Scholarly Work in 2013.

Interestingly, he discovered his passion for film while at art school. “I did my first degree in fine art at the then Stourbridge College of Art, about 12 miles outside of Birmingham. I was quite happily doing that for the first year,” he recalls. Then, a lecturer who taught History and Theory tried to arouse students’ interest in his subject by screening art films such as the French New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.

"I had vague memories of seeing these films when I was 12 on BBC2’s World Cinema series. I decided to start a film club. It was a one-man band. I got the films through distributors and I projected them. I gained a bad reputation for showing subtitled black and white films from the 50s, Polish films from the 60s and 70s, and German films.”

Professor Aitken would go to Birmingham every weekend and watch three or four films of the New German cinema movement, an art house movement by young German filmmakers from the late 1960s into the 1980s. “It was an all-day trip there and back by myself, as all my classmates were painters and not interested in film. Those were very powerful films and got me very interested in cinema,” he says.

He realised he was better at critically analysing films than at creating art. “When you read about films, you see the stills from the film. It’s a bit like a painting but different. It was an easy transition from the image to film.”

Interest in the documentary
After completing his undergraduate education, Professor Aitken decided to pursue a Master’s in Film Studies at the University of Westminster where he went on to do a PhD. His thesis was on the British documentary film movement of the 1930s, a reformist movement that had become unfashionable among film theorists in the 70s. “The prevailing view of those documentary films was that they weren’t radical enough but I argued that it actually was a genuine reformist movement that had a big impact. Academia is very fashion conscious. It’s difficult to go against the trend. I became unfashionable at that time, but now it’s stood me in good stead.”

Professor Aitken counts his research on the British documentary film of the 1930s as a milestone in his career. “I published my very first article on the subject in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 1989 and it remains the most cited article in that journal up to the present day.” Soon after his PhD, he was commissioned by Routledge to write a book on the subject, published in 1991, which is still a classic on the British documentary film.

After his PhD, Professor Aitken worked part-time at the University of Westminster. “I was quite happy living in London. I didn’t want to go to the provinces but eventually I had to, as I needed a full-time job.” He then went on to Bristol University and De Montfort University at Leicester before joining HKBU in 2003.

Research in Hong Kong
"I quite liked the idea of coming to a totally different place,” he says of the decision to move to Hong Kong. He found the transition to life in Hong Kong easy. “My colleagues were very good, especially Professor Cheuk Pak-tong, the Director of the Academy of Film.”

Professor Aitken started looking into Hong Kong’s documentary film history. “I thought there must be lots of documentary films, but I kept being told there were none. The reason is that the Hong Kong Film Archive is focused on Cantonese feature films. The Hong Kong film industry doesn’t have a reputation for documentaries but for martial arts films.”

However, he discovered that there was a colonial film unit called the Hong Kong Film Unit from 1959 to 1973. “The Film Archive didn’t know about it because the Film Unit was a government agency and all its records were in the Public Records Office. I discovered about 300 films which the Hong Kong Film Archive didn’t know about.”

He is also interested in written records connected with those films, such as memos, official reports, or plans on filmmaking. "While going through the files related to the Film Unit, I found that in one file half of the documents related to the period of the riots had been removed.”

"Recently, the British Foreign Office admitted that it has kept a huge stack of documents secret without giving it to the British Public Records Office. My research assistant will be going to London to see if we can find this missing material, which relates to the larger historical picture. That it is missing raises issues of accountability and making records available to the public.”

Professor Aitken’s article “The Development of Official Film-making in Hong Kong” published in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and TV in December 2012 was the first to discuss colonial official films in Hong Kong. His focus has now shifted to official filmmaking in Singapore and Malaya in the 1960s.

2013 was a satisfying year for Professor Aitken. “Six of my books came out last year,” he says with a smile. The condensed version of The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Films, the result of 12 years of work, was released in 2013. Four volumes of writings on the documentary film in Routledge’s Major Works series were also released last year. He has also co-authored a book Hong Kong Documentary Film, covering everything from early documentary films, to the colonial film unit films and TV documentaries to the independent sector to be released this year.

Realism in film
Professor Aitken’s other area of expertise is film theory, particularly realism and classical German philosophy. Last year, he published an influential book on the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács. “Lukács is a literary theorist whose literary theories have been applied to film. No one in the English-speaking world appeared to know that he had written about film, as he wrote them in German. For the first time, I translated those writings into English.”

Lukács’s writings on film were completely different from the assumptions people had been made by applying his literary writings to film theory. “He wrote on film during the latter part of his career when he was changing his views. Some of his theoretical notions changed.” Professor Aitken’s findings represented a redrawing of Lukács’s influence.

Professor Aitken has been teaching two courses – Studies in German Cinema and Studies in French Cinema – both of which relate to his research interest, covering the historical background of realism and naturalism. “I found students were not very interested in the British documentary film in the 1930s as it’s too removed from their experience. That might be different now as the students have changed. When I came here in 2003, the students were very insular. But now their interests are much wider.”

Writing and running
Not surprisingly, Professor Aitken spends most of his time writing at his computer. "I don’t even watch that many films because I’m continuously writing about theories or film history. Because I teach films, each week I see a film at the big theatre at HKBU. I sometimes watch independent films on a cable channel called Movie Movie.”

To unwind, he’s made a habit of running every night. "I’ve been doing that for 25 years now. I live in Tai Po and the air is relatively clear. I’ve never taken part in any competitive event. I just do it to rebuild my energy levels so that the next day I can continue working.”