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Black & White - Writing a documentary film treatment

As a documentary filmmaker, I'm often asked where do you get your ideas from? And this is followed up by, how do you make a start? To illustrate this here is the background to how I made the short film: Black & White.

In December 2021 I was invited along with 7 other artists working in a variety of media to contribute to the 4 Corners Festival February 2022. The theme we were asked to explore was: Common Ground - Common Good. After some initial thoughts I sought to combine my interest in social history with some reflections on how conflict in Ireland has narrowed our view of history. I did some research on events in the first 3 decades of the 20th century producing a timeline, attached at the bottom below.

As I wanted to shoot a film I then decided to make it a personal narrative communicating directly with my audience and exploring some of the echoes from history: conflict, pandemic, votes for women and the birth of the trade union movement. I then set this down in a Film Treatment, which you can see below. Finally, I shot and edited the film which was screened during the festival.

Film poster for Black & White
Film Poster for Black & White


BLACK & WHITE: Echoes From the Early 20th Century


In Northern Ireland too many of us only see the world in black & white, through the narrowing prism of conflict, missing the spectrum of colour that history can teach about the diversity of our people, culture, and society.

How Do You See the World?

Do you see the world in vivid colour, with all the colours of the spectrum, or do you see the world in black and white?

Look around you. The world is changing fast. Technologically, economically, socially, even our global climate. We live in a digital world, an interconnected world, with mobile phones, tablets, computers and the internet. Whole new industries have evolved to meet our insatiable appetite for instant gratification, news and entertainment. It is the age of the disrupter, of the tech giants, the global corporations, the super chip and the super-rich.

But when we look back, do we see history only in black and white? Kingdoms? Wars. Empires. Imperial might and divine right?

They say history is written by the victor. If so, then often that history is written in plain black and white, or we choose only to view it in those stark terms.

A Time of Momentous Change

The first 3 decades of the 20th century were a time of momentous change. Industrial revolution, the move from agrarian to urban based economies. New ideas of democracy evolved challenging the old order. Trade unions demanded recognition, better conditions at work, fair pay. New thinking emerged and new political movements and parties were formed. Women demanded the right to vote, emancipation, and equality. Revolution was in the air from Ireland to the Balkans, from Germany to the steppes of Russia. In India, Iran and China, the peasants were revolting.

Here in Ireland, we oft times see history in Black & White terms. Unionism versus Nationalism. Protestant v Catholic. Planter V Gael. And as we revisit the events of over 100 years ago that led to the partition of Ireland we do so from the safety of our prescribed separate histories. We are unwilling to revisit our history, to see it through another lens for fear that we will be viewed as revisionists.

Yet is that not what the study of history is about? To re-examine our past, to uncover fresh facts, to establish new perspectives.

In film narratives are central to our understanding of a story. Here in Ulster, the narratives are those of the successive political tribes of nationalism and unionism The first 3 decades of our history have been removed from their global contexts and we focus on a narrow history based on the conflict leading to the partitioning of Ireland 1916-22.

Airbrushed From History

Real events that happened before, during and after this period, are airbrushed from history. The 1907 Carters & Dockers strike, lasting 5 months and which saw the emergence of trade unions fighting for workers’ rights, labour pitched against capital, working class against ruling class, just a footnote in history.

Votes for women, the emergence of the suffragette movement with middle class women joining with their sisters in the cotton & linen mills to demand the right to vote.

And what of the nations’ health. Between 1918 and 1922 a recorded 20 million people all over the world died from the so called “Spanish ‘Flu”. Our revisiting of that history has led us to understand that the global ‘flu pandemic first emerged from an American military training camp and travelled across the Atlantic on troop ships when America joined the War in 1917. It returned and spread across the world as the troops were demobbed. We also know from recent viral modelling that it is likely to have killed almost 50 million people globally, and yet we still call it the Spanish Flu.

We must stop seeing history in black and white, as something that divides us. Rather we should explore history, share and discover our common narratives. I think that we will find more in common than we might at first think. History is meant to be revised. It comes to life in the personal, in the familial and in local communal histories. However, we also need to connect these as part of greater movements of social change, attached and not detached from what else was happening in the world.

© Fergus Cooper

A timeline of history in 20th Century 1900-1930

1900 Founding of the British Labour Party

1903 Wright brothers first flight

1903 The Suffragette Movement Britain & Ireland 1918 (1928)

1906 First radio broadcasts

1906 Colour photographs produced by the Lumiere Brothers

1907 The Carter & Dockers Strike in Belfast

1910 Edison & Lumieres first moving pictures

1912 The maiden voyage of the Titanic

1914 The Government of Ireland Act (Home rule)

1914-18 The First World War

1915 Armenian Genocide

1916 Irish revolution

1917 The Russian revolution

1918 Eglantyne Jebb arrested for distributing leaflets about famine in Germany

1919 Eglantyne Jebb & Dorothy Buxton found Save the Children

1919 Mussolini founds the Fascist Party in Italy

1919 Massacre in Amristar India

1920 Ghandi becomes leader of the Indian Independence movement

1921-22 The Partition of Ireland

1925 First television broadcast

1926 The Wall Street Crash

1926 The General Strike in Britain

1928 The discovery of Penicillin

1930 Mahatma Ghandi’s Civil Disobedience campaign

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