Film project about Tate & Lyle Sugars selected for showcase event

A collaboration involving Birkbeck and featuring archive films from Tate & Lyle Sugars was shared at a major event about research and the creative economy.

Footage from sugar cane farms in the West Indies and the Thames Refinery in east London was shown alongside sugar products and vintage adverts at a stand at the exhibition organised by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The World in a Cube collaboration was one of nearly 40 projects that were featured at the AHRC Creative Economy Showcase at King’s Place on 12 March in central London. It was one of only three projects chosen for the event by Creativeworks London - a Knowledge Exchange Hub funded by the AHRC - from the 34 projects it supports through the Creative Voucher Scheme.

Films from another era

The £15,000 action research project centred around six films owned by Tate & Lyle Sugars from its archive of 300 films dating back to the 1950s. The footage featured places and processes from all over the world, including harvesting sugar cane in the UK’s former colonies and the refining process at the company’s factory in east London, which opened in 1878.

The films were digitised and discussed in focus groups as part of the collaboration between the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, and New Media Networks – an international creative industry company based in east London.

The films included British Refined, which featured a cane sugar farm in Jamaica, the refinery in London, and Ghanaian street markets – one destination for refined and packaged sugar cubes. Another film, called Attitudes, from the 1970s, focused on the relationships between workers and managers at the Thames Refinery and other companies in the Tate & Lyle group in Toronto, Canada, and New Orleans, US. It revealed the professional hierarchies within the workplace and the ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture typical of the time.

Reaching new audiences

The action research project included various types of public engagement, thereby allowing the collaborators to explore and evaluate effective ways to reach audiences through live participation and digital exhibition and distribution.

In June 2013, three focus groups were held with different contributors – one with historians, the second with members of local community groups, and the final session with employees of Tate & Lyle Sugars. All three meetings were held at Tate & Lyle Sugars’ Thames Refinery in Silvertown.

The films were also made available to film students and emerging film-makers (under 30 years old) for the World in a Cube film remix competition. The young film-makers were asked to produce a five-minute film or audio/visual sequence inspired by the film archive of Tate & Lyle Sugars. The prize-winning entries were published online.

Ken Wilson, Community Affairs Manager at Tate & Lyle Sugars, was a member of the advisory group for the project. His involvement included selecting the archive films, and giving tours of the Thames Refinery for the focus group participants. During an interview at the AHRC Creative Economy Showcase, he said: “The project has been fascinating, and has opened our eyes to the history of Tate & Lyle Sugars. In particular, the film called Attitudes stands out. It shows the stark difference between workers and managers back in the 1970s. When we showed the films at the refinery, there was real interest from the employees – at all levels of the business.”

Suzie Leighton, Head of Knowledge Exchange Programme at Creativeworks London, was also at the AHRC event. She said: “It has been a tremendously interesting project. The impact of the work has extended further than Tate & Lyle Sugars, and has strengthened an interest in history in the borough of Newham. History is of contemporary value and needs to be showcased for the community.”

Collaborative work

The World in a Cube film project is a collaboration involving many advisors and experts from academia and the film industry. The working group includes Birkbeck staff (Dr Wendy Earle, Professor Ian Christie, Dr Nick Lambert, and Dr Eleni Liarou) Paul Stanley from the Phoenix Cinema and the partners at New Media Networks (Karen Merkel and Akim Mogaji).

The advisory group members include Professor Jerry White (Birkbeck), Ken Wilson and Frances Bull (Tate & Lyle Sugars), Dr Matt Cook (Birkbeck and the Raphael Samuel History Centre), and Patrick Russell, Mark Duguid and David Somerset (all from the British Film Institute).