LOLAThe Future Made and Unmade: Andrew Legge’s LOLA (2021) Wheeler Winston Dixon January 2024 Feature Articles Issue 108 In 1941, during World War II, two sisters in Great Britain, Thomasina “Thom” Hanbury (Emma Appleton) and Martha “Mars” Hanbury (Stefanie Martini), invent a machine that allows the user to tune in to radio and television broadcasts from the future. The machine itself has a definite “steampunk” look, with a black-and-white television screen mounted to a utilitarian rack of electronic gear. They name it LOLA in honor of their late mother. The sisters soon decide to use their device to assist in Britain’s wartime fight against the Nazis, tuning in to military broadcasts detailing future German attacks to enable the British military to counteract such efforts. Yet not surprisingly, in doing so, they alter the entire fabric of the future, with disastrous results. Their story is recounted in a series of sync sound 16mm black-and-white film diaries shot with Thom’s futuristic homemade movie camera – a camera that records optical sound directly on the film while filming (anticipating the Auricon newsreel camera that was later used by Andy Warhol for his films Vinyl  and The Chelsea Girls , among others). So, in a sense, the film is a home movie from the future, which has now become the past. LOLA builds on Legge’s award-winning short film The Chronoscope (2009), which involves a machine that can view the past; with equally scratchy black and white cinematography, and suitably authoritative narration by Jeremy Irons, the film is a 20 minute marvel. But LOLA is altogether more ambitious. Seamlessly mixing archival footage with newly created sequences, LOLA creates an entirely convincing picture of an alternative universe while also functioning as a feminist tract, celebrating the sisters’ ambition and refusal to bow to the social conventions of the era. Although some digital manipulation is employed in post-production, every image in the film was shot on black-and-white film that has been pre-scratched and mutilated, with leader streakings, sprocket holes, and other obvious damage intact; in some cases, it was even hand developed to create a convincingly rough record of the events that we will see. The film opens with a title card stating that, “in 2021, a cache of film reels was discovered in the cellar of a country house in Sussex, England. The film appears to be a broadcast recorded in 1941.” We then get our first view of Mars as she speaks directly to the camera in the aftermath of all that is to follow, pleading with Thom to stop meddling with history. The camera records the wreckage of their country house, including the LOLA machine itself, which is now in pieces on the floor. It’s clear that things have not turned out well. What we’re about to see, Mars tells us, is “our story gathered together from whatever scraps of footage I could find, in the hope that somehow, sometime, this film will find you, and stop you.” We next see footage of Thom and Mars as young girls (played by the director’s two young daughters, Theodora [Thom] and Francesca [Mars]), presumably shot by their mother. The young girls are already fooling around with electronic circuitry at age 4 or 5, with Thom clearly being the leader of the two. “I’m going to show you how to see the future,” young Thom confidently says, as the words “I am a magician” appear in stop motion on a blackboard in the children’s playroom. With a jump cut, we get our first view of Thom as a teenager (Eva O’Brien), sketching out the design of LOLA on a blackboard in stop motion and then, with another jump cut, finishing up the construction of the machine as a young woman in her 20s. “I’ll never forget the day we switched her on for the first time,” Mars narrates, as Thom prepares LOLA for her first test run. The first image they pull from the future is a telecast of David Bowie singing his song “Space Oddity” (“this is ground control to Major Tom”) from a television broadcast in 1973. Thom is elated, exclaiming, “It works!” As the machine continues downloading the broadcast, Thom and Mars hug each other and dance around the room in sheer delight. But LOLA shows Thom and Mars not just the wonders of the future, but also the conflict to come as Hitler rises to power. Most of Europe has fallen under his sway, and the women see that the Blitz is about to commence. Thom devises an ingenious method of anonymously alerting the public with a series of pirate radio broadcasts as The Angel of Portobello, using the entire London system of gas lines as the antenna to evade detection. With information gleaned from LOLA, Thom warns Londoners that Hackney and Islington (two districts in the city) are about to be bombed, thereby enabling the residents to escape. Staged newsreels covering her broadcast follow, showing large areas of London demolished, but without any casualties. Thom’s warning has been a success. Surprised and embarrassed by the pirate broadcasts, the military mounts a desperate search for the source of the signal, led by Lt. Sebastian Holloway (Rory Fleck Byrne) and the officious and ultimately duplicitous Major Henry Cobcroft (Aaron Monaghan). By chance, Holloway spots Thom scaling a gasworks tank in preparation for a broadcast and follows her home. Holloway convinces the reluctant Cobcroft to let Thom and Mars monitor military broadcasts, resulting in a successful counterattack on German aircraft sent to bomb a Royal Air Force base. Thom and Mars become instant heroines. LOLA During a rather sedate celebratory party with British military staff and families, Thom and Mars surprise the audience with a rousing big band rendition of The Kinks’ song “You Really Got Me”—a song that didn’t exist until 1964. Yet despite Thom’s confidence in her ability to manage the military intel she’s getting, she eventually makes a mistake that sends the entire war effort down the wrong path, with disastrous results. The world turns fascist, and David Bowie vanishes from the future, replaced by a soundalike pop star who croons “fall in line” to swooning audiences. Both Britain and the US fall to the Nazis. It’s a nightmare vision come true, and despite the sci-fi premise of the film, the events leading up to this reversal of fortune are all too plausible. Shot in a rundown mansion house outside of Dublin during the pandemic lockdown in 2020, LOLA is a marvel of fictional construction. The cast and crew were masked throughout the entire production, but the remote location offered additional protection, making the production a decidedly communal enterprise. Cinematographer Oona Menges used multiple cameras, including a spring wound Bolex, to create the tattered look of the film, like the workprint of a dystopian future. Reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1966), a newsreel-like vision of World War III, as well as Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s It Happened Here (1964), which depicts the fictional fall of Great Britain to the Nazis, LOLA is nevertheless completely original, moving the found footage film into entirely new territory. Presenting the same scenario as a conventional film in color and polished to a high sheen would be far less effective, but this also means that LOLA, with its rough and ready look, will almost certainly never get a wide theatrical release. Streaming video is currently the only way to see this film, although it has been shown at various film festivals around the world in its original film format. Here, as we witness the future gone wrong as a scratchy artifact from the past, we see what happens when technology collides with history, creating a horrific vision of the future that serves as a warning: All it takes for fascism to gain the upper hand are a few small mistakes. In a larger sense, Legge’s film is yet another reminder that the most effective visions come from the margins rather than the mainstream commercial cinema. With a haunting musical score by The Divine Comedy, an Irish pop group fronted by vocalist Neil Hannon, LOLA is also a perfect example of a film made under duress by a small group of deeply talented people who came together to make a film simply because they believe in it. With its deep affection for the technological past and its audacious use of old school cinema equipment, LOLA is very much a personal project, offering a look back and forwards at the same time. History does not repeat itself in LOLA’s world, and what’s downloaded onto film from the machine becomes the only record of what might have been. The twists and turns of the plot are completely unexpected, so even though I’ve given you some idea of what the film is like, there’s still much more to discover. Seek this film out and see for yourself.