“A cinema that will unfreeze that icy and now constant experience of being addressed only as a social construct for the benefit of the market; a cinema where the tension between a world that is being illustrated and a world that is being illuminated can make us live again in that dream-state so necessary to our very breathing; a cinema, therefore, that will hurl itself against that current order of things, a cinema that is not a calling card for a career but a cinema that will march straight past this present Praetorian guard of cultural and commercial administrators and by so doing will deliver once again that wonderful surprise – that which is still possible.” – Marc Karlin 1943-1999
On his death in 1999, Marc Karlin was described as Britain’s most significant, unknown filmmaker. For three decades, he was a key member of the country’s radical filmmakers, acting as a conscience of his generation, jolting his contemporaries to seek radical forms and themes in a medium that was becoming increasingly aesthetically and politically conservative.
Present in Paris around the events of May 1968 and inspired by the output of Chris Marker, Karlin submerged himself into London’s newly formed independent film collectives. Karlin was drawn into the women’s liberation movement drive to unionise female nightcleaners, perfectly framed in the Berwick Street Film Collective’s seminal film, Nightcleaners (1975).
Although informed by an international perspective, most of Karlin’s work focuses on the UK. An exception was the remarkable series of five films on the Nicaraguan revolution encompassing the popular guerrilla war of the late 1970’s, the development of the Sandinista government, the effects of the US-backed contra war, and the defeat of the FSLN in 1989. Rather than foregrounding the Sandinista leadership, the films speak from the grassroots, both urban and rural. This rare perspective portrays a revolution for what it is – an exhausting, uneven process. The transformation of society generated extraordinary achievements, but was beset not only by right-wing opposition, but by contradictory expectations and daily organisational problems at a local level. Apart from providing a unique record of a revolution, the films are particularly relevant today, providing perspectives on the ‘Arab Spring’ and popular demands for democracy around the world.
Undeterred by the fundamental societal shifts of Thatcherism and the crippling confusion affecting the left, Karlin invested himself in the continued exploration of socialist themes. In For Memory, he outlined the dangers of cultural amnesia, which had helped contribute to the silencing of the left wing voice at the end of the 20th century. Defiantly resisting the announced ‘death of Socialism’, Karlin then gave voice to its pluralist principles in Utopias (1989) and its contradictions in Between Times (1993). In these films, he depicted socialism as in flux, preferring to proclaim it as a way of life, a vision, a subject of dilemma and an inspiration. His 1990s work expressed a cultural isolation. The Serpent (1997) uncomfortably revealed our complicity in the fantasy projections of Rupert Murdoch and the tabloid media, while The Haircut (1998) protested against the new conventionality of New Labour.
There has been almost no publication or commentary on his films and way of seeing. This project aims to reveal the importance of his film texts for contemporary audience and to build public awareness of his commitment to independent filmmaking and his contribution to the heritage of the Left.