History of filmmaking in China from its beginnings in the 1920s to 1982, featuring Shanghai cinema of 1930s; the progressive filmmakers; the organisation of filmmaking under the post-war communist government; the impact of the Cultural Revolution; the work of Xie Jin. Presenter: Tony Rayns. Director: Ron Orders. Producers: John Ellis Simon Hartog, Keith Griffiths. Channel 4 Visions series. Total length 57 mins
Largely relegated to broadcast television, the British filmmaker’s highly visual work explored memory and social history, and pushed for stylistic innovations.
Read Wanda Bershen’s full article at The Independent.
First the eye, then the cinema, which prints the look….
“If Chris asked you to do something you did it: There was no question”, recalls Marc Karlin in one of his last interviews before his death in 1999. ‘Chris’, needless to say, was Chris Marker, Karlin’s friend who he called ‘le maitre’. The task was to provide an English version of Marker’s recent film Le train en marche (1971) – a celebration of the Soviet era filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin and his mythical ‘kino-poezd’ – a ‘cine train’ re-fitted with cameras, editing tables and processing labs, that travelled the breadth of Russia to make films for and with the workers. Films made on the spot, in collaboration with the local people, (workers in factories, peasants in kolhozs), shot in one, day, processed during the night, edited the following day and screened in front of the very people who had participated to its making… Contrarily to the agit-prop trains which carried official propaganda from the studios to the people, here the people was his own studio. And at the very moment bureaucracy was spreading all over, a film unit could go and produce uncensored material around the country. And it lasted one year (1932)!
This train that pulled out of Moscow January 25th 1932…
Medvedkin saw his kino-poezd (294 days on the rails, 24,565m of film projected, 1000km covered) as a means of revolutionising the consciousness of the Soviet Union’s rural dwellers. Marker hoped his recent unearthing would incite similar democratic film-making. In tribute, Karlin and other kindred spirits in London joined Cinema Action.” There was a relationship to the Russians. Vertoz, the man and the movie camera, Medvedkin, and his agitprop Russian train; the idea of celebrating life and revolution on film, and communicating that. Medvedkin had done that by train. SLON and Cinema Action both did it by car. Getting a projector, putting films in the boot, and off you went and showed films – which we did”.
The people were brought the filmmaker’s cinema, in the same way they were brought the artist’s art and the expert’s science. But in the case of this train the cinema was to become something created with contact through the people and was to stimulate them to make their own intervention.
…the train of revolution, the train of history has not lacked reverse signals and switched points but the biggest mistake one could make was to believe that it had come to a halt.
A big thanks you to Espaço Sétima Arte for posting this great find.
“Wanting to believe has taken over from believing,” a filmmaker observed. But the uncertainty did not stop filmmakers from making films, just as it didn’t stop movements from occupying the spaces that the traditional counter-forces had excluded and abandoned. Instead of holding on to the plots of historical necessity and lures of an imagined unity, they chose to explore twilight worlds between multiple temporalities and realms of experience, situated in the wrinkles that join and disjoin past futures and future presents, memories of struggle and struggles for memory.
Vertigo is grateful to the BBC and Patrick Wright for permission to print the following interview with Marc Karlin, which was broadcast in the Radio 3 series Outriders on Tuesday, 2 February 1999.
Patrick Wright: The conversation in tonight’s programme is just as we recorded it a few weeks ago, and yet everything has changed by the fact that Marc Karlin died suddenly last month, aged only fifty-five. At a time when many seem to be abandoning all critical perspective in the rush to keep up with the market, Marc Karlin stuck to higher ground, insisting that truth mattered as much as hope, and that the role of film was often to cut through received or manipulated appearances. I met him at the offices of his company Lusia Films in London’s Goodge Place, and I began by asking him what exactly he did.
Marc Karlin: Like all artists – artisans – I spend most of my time staring out the window. Apart from that, I make films. Lusia is an independent company in the sense that it affords its facilities to independent filmmakers, at very low rates, with the best equipment you can possibly have. And it publishes a magazine called Vertigo, which is an independent film magazine, to defend the notion and nature of independence as we see it. Independence doesn’t simply mean a plc after your name, but there’s an ethic behind it, and an aesthetic.
There are people who use the facilities, the equipment, to make their films. The way of editing films now is on digital equipment, and there is this terrible piece of equipment called the Avid. And the Avid is really a producer’s tool now, not a director’s tool, because the producer can come and crunch numbers. And in fact, in some Avids, there’s almost like a taxi-meter, registering how many hours the editor has been there, and how many cuts he or she has made. And of course everybody can number crunch, that’s one. Two, the Avid is used to disguise a lot of narrative holes that most filmmakers now make because they are ill-trained – a lot of people are not trained, they don’t know how to narrate a film, or construct one, or whatever. But, with the Avid, you can make lots of tricks, and you can see Avid edited films now on television…
PW: Even if you miss out a vital sequence you can…
MK: You can dodge it, you can slow it, you can reframe it, you can make it black and white, you can go upside down and sideways. It’s editing by tricks. The reverse side of that coin is that actually the Avid gives the creative person an enormous possibility of making the film in the editing, and, if it’s used creatively, it’s incredible. I mean an example of that was Chris Petit’s and Iain Sinclair’s film The Falconer. And you can really work on the image, on the text of the image, on the quality of it, on the feeling of it, and it really is like a painter’s tool, and, if it’s done with a sensibility, as opposed to a trickery, it’s an incredible piece of equipment.
PW: So, in a way you are winning over the new possibilities – or contrary possibilities, perhaps, of the new technology?
MK: Yes. But the problem is, it’s used by – let’s say television – as a replacement for the human being.
PW: Marc, you’ve been working in independent film for thirty years or something like that. I remember, in the seventies, you made a film called Nightcleaners with the Berwick Street Collective. This was a black and white film about the women who used to go out at night to clean the offices of the financial palaces in the City of London… many of them immigrants, many of them without correct papers, all of them very poorly paid and invisible. That was a film that came out of a very clear left wing avant-garde aesthetic. What’s changed for you since then?
MK: Well, the direct answer to that is that the nightcleaners haven’t changed, and it always comes back to this idea, you know, of Auden and all those people who say: “Well, you know, a poem won’t stop a tank.” Maybe not, but a poem can actually reveal a tank and… I think with Nightcleaners what we did was we revealed the situation of the nightcleaners on the one hand and on the other, the impossibility of capturing those lives…
PW: And what about the politics?
MK: The film was about the distance between the women who organise – the Women’s Liberation movement, who were there to leaflet on behalf of the trade union and try to get nightcleaners involved, and so on. The film was about distances. The film was about the distance between us and the nightcleaners, between the women and the nightcleaners, and was choreographing a situation in which communication was absolutely near enough impossible. I mean, there were these women who were in the offices at night who would wave, or sign or whatever, and sometimes we had to get into offices through very, very subterfuge-like means. The women’s movement came mainly from a kind of middle-class background, and I got in terrible trouble for even saying there were distances, or making a film about distances, and that is what I wanted to do, by and large.
PW: Another preoccupation of yours, which I think you’ve carried with you and worked over for thirty or so years – this is in your own film-making – is memory… You made a film, which I believe the BBC broadcast… was this For Memory?
MK: For Memory, yes.
PW: Now, you opened this film with interviews, long interviews, very still, and no movement of the camera – just these men talking about having gone into Belsen. You move through old peoples’ homes, where Alzheimer’s sufferers were revealing themselves to have a kind of memory, although not quite the one that anyone would expect – I mean extraordinary moments of lucidity. You had the National Trust Theatre, with children, reviving or re-enacting, life on a Tudor ship. Memory seems to be a centrally important issue for you?
MK: Well the film came out of a showing of a Hollywood series on the Holocaust. I was deeply shocked by it because of its vulgarity and stupidity… And yet, and yet…! In a sort of Auden-tank sense, it had an enormous effect! In Germany, for instance, where children saw it and were given history books or packages to do with the camps, and so on. I was really disturbed that something like this Hollywood series established some kind of truth, and I just wondered where another kind of truth had disappeared, which was that of the documents. The documents had died to the point where, much later on, in Shoah, Lanzmann would not use a single document. So, I was interested in kind of pursuing them. That led me to think out how, in the future, an imaginary city would remember – because it was the very convenient thing to say that modern times are totally to do with amnesia. Well, that’s not true. There is an enormous amount of historical production…
PW: Production of memory…?
MK: Production of memory… And, you can be an amnesiac as long as you can either pull yourself, or you can be pulled at the moment of danger, to a historical site. So, you can walk around freely, not remembering anything, but suddenly the leash will come and you’ll be asked to remember. So I was interested in this memory production, which by and large took place in this imaginary city that I built out of architects’ models… Which is now, of course, if you look at For Memory, it’s exactly what’s happening in Docklands.
PW: The imaginary city which comes between all these interludes…?
MK: So it was a way of trying to think how, in the future, this imaginary city would remember. And it would remember because, at all hours of the night, at any given time, you could have a memory shown – you could have Queen Elizabeth, you could have Queen Victoria, you could have the dockers, and so on. So, people would glide on that memory, could touch it. And, then the third part of the film was to do with those who were outside the city walls, who were busily, continuously, producing historical memory. This is the left. We all know the left is fantastically good at orations, funerals, memories… all that. I really had to come to grips with how such a dishonest, vulgar, horrible series as Holocaust could be so efficient, and how could I… so pristine, wonderful, imaginative, a poet!… be so inefficient. So, I had to meet that head on, and that was the reason for the film.
PW: I wonder if there wasn’t another dimension to this? As someone who comes out of the tradition of the cultural left, you have over the last twenty years or so, seen, as we all have, the disintegration of apparently most of the institutions, or the expectations, of that movement. Memory becomes a form of mourning in that connection, doesn’t it?
MK: I have never been keen on this mourning department of the left. I get hugely irritated by it actually. I find it totally unbearable. You can swim around in this kind of amniotic fluid of memories, and just go to sleep like a wonderful baby, like Tilda Swinton’s baby. So, I don’t belong to the mourning department.
PW: But you’re not talking about the sentimentality of being attached to a sort of inadequate, probably half-Stalinist past, which… I understand what you are saying, but at the same time you are looking at a century which has these hideously traumatic truths in it, which tend to be forgotten. I mean, you’re making a film now about a teenage girl who has to be struggled against if she is to understand that history has anything to teach her.
MK: I think history is, in that sense, in deep crisis. You know… what are we to remember? What are we to forget? Why remember? I mean there’s always this wonderful rhetoric about if you don’t remember you’re condemned to repeat, and all this kind of stuff. And, it kind of free flows, that rhetoric, and you have to really examine it… Why? I mean why? Why would somebody who’s totally not interested in history repeat mistakes? I think that’s much more interesting. For me. And you have to persuade this little girl that history is important because this little girl really does think that history is boring… It’s full of huge books, it’s dusty and it’s slow, and she has to live in slow-time! Whereas she loves living in fast-time. In fact, most of us have to live in slow-time, mid-time, and fast-time, and they all conflict. But this little girl has got one time and it’s pretty difficult, if you think about it, to be very moralistic.
I think that’s why I agree with Benjamin, that it is the dead on whose behalf you work half the time. You feel them, they’re with you. It depends upon what your attitude to death, mortality and so on is, and how you’re still recovering for the dead, how you’re still fighting for the dead. I think that’s, for me, very important. It would be my lack of humanity… it’s very difficult to describe to a twelve-year-old girl that she should be fighting on behalf of the dead but, you know, you have to present the idea that we’re not eternal, we are mortal, and that people have handed things to you. Actually the film I am doing now is on Milton. Poets have those secrets hidden within them, and you have to reveal those secrets.
PW: You’ve been making films successively… I mean, you’ve stayed alive, you’ve stayed in work… You may have had moments where it’s been pretty difficult to keep it going… It could fold, presumably, most days of the week… What is it that keeps you on the independent side? Why is it that you haven’t followed many of the people you’ve known in the past, and disappeared into senior echelons of the BBC? What is it that keeps you in Goodge Place?
MK: The idea of me disappearing into the echelons of the BBC is wonderful! I think the obsession is … there is one, again, coming back to Auden. I had this strange encounter with Auden in Bond Street tube station. It was at a time when I was making a film, or wanted to make a film, on the Thirties, because I thought the Thirties was like this ghostly presence, and they had to be re-examined and… I was very innocent and I didn’t know Auden was gay, and I went up to his seat and I said: “Look, Mr Auden, I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, blah, blah, blah, but I really want to make this film so could I meet you?” And he said: “Oh, dear boy, yes. Manchester Square” where he was staying in a flat. And I went up there and he opened the door and as he turned round I could see he had this huge hole in his trousers, revealing his polka dot pants, and I thought, it’s a grand poet – polka dot pants!? – grey flannel trousers with a hole!? In any case, we sat down and I started off, of course, asking him about his poem “Spain”. Why had he changed it? “Oh, dear boy,” he said, “you are not going to get at me for this, I am really bored with the Thirties and I’m bored with “Spain”, and being bored with why I should be political. Let me tell you… and please switch off that tape recorder…” He says: “The only thing a poet can do is protect the English language.” And, I thought, there’s a hell of a lot more I can think of a poet can do! But then, on thinking about it, the idea of that sort of passion for language is really what I think a filmmaker has to be, which is a passion for images and to protect them, to have a feeling for them. In no way to shoot a dishonest image or a dishonest edit or… Those cinematic values, you know, because everything now is so trickery and trickery.
You know, the first person who will film a face in ordinary light… To see how a hand moves – an image must actually take out what we all take for granted. The problem is that there are two kinds of film, if you like. There’s one film that I would call illustrative, whereby you go into cinema or television and you see – you don’t see, you recognise – it’s “heimat” or “at home”, it’s a feeling of pleasure at seeing life as we recognise it… under control. And then, there would be what I would call illuminations cinema, which is really what I’m after, whereby something that you have not seen or you’ve taken for granted or you’ve forgotten or whatever, is seen in such a way that it actually pierces that “I take it for granted – I’m at home.” It makes it strange. But it is actually about the relationship between images and the sounds, and what reality can be created, and protecting that. Deeply… deeply… deeply.
PW: One of your most recent films is called The Serpent, which went out on Channel Four last August. This is your film about Murdoch. It starts with a man on a train who is arrested because the train stops and he decides to think his way through Murdoch, to resist Murdoch as much as he can. It then moves into an account of what Murdoch has done to the television world, particularly in this country. You’ve got a thorough-going, rather fable-like museum of Murdoch’s imagination, which is full of models of Page 3 girls vulgarising beauty, and all the rest of it. A strong film, but also quite different from your early work, I thought, in that it’s actually very funny as well. You’ve got a new tone in these more recent pieces.
MK: Yes, it was about a man railing – I mean it was Don Quixote… Sort of – he will fight and he is single-handedly going to defeat Murdoch. It’s his ambition. But, we all do, you know… Walking along the street: Yes, I’m going to get rid of Blair tomorrow by twelve noon, or I’m going to revolutionise this or I’m going to transform that! He’s a daydreamer, he’s a liberal daydreamer, which of course makes him totally inefficient. So, in that sense he is a strange funny person with these children he can’t quite get around – twins who are totally awful. He’s continuously bemused.
PW: You’ve also got in that film footage of Murdoch himself talking at Edinburgh. There he is, and he’s outlining his vision, saying this is the new – almost the Copernican revolution! We’re going to turn the world of media upside down, we’re going to deregulate, there are going to be a thousand channels of whatever. You then show the audience, who are basically television professionals to a man, and a woman too, I guess, looking apprehensive and saying nothing. And, you’ve talked about silence. Now, in a lot of your recent films you re-show television footage, whether it be Newsnight or whatever, whether it be people responding to how marvellous Princess Diana was… And you show your own impatience by revealing images of inertia, of concessions you think should never be made. What is that we should have done with Murdoch?
MK: Well, I find it pretty strange they invited him. In a way you could say it is a very healthy part of British democracy, whereby you invite the wolf who doesn’t disguise himself at all. But if you are going to invite the wolf, then you better start shaping up and debating. I mean, I think Murdoch in The Serpent… I think he does represent the real contradictions of Milton’s Satan, so the Edinburgh Festival thing was about that contradiction. On the one hand you invite him, on the other you don’t fight against him. You say: “How terrible it is, Murdoch is going to ruin England!” You know, the number of articles that have been written about Murdoch ruining England, as if those people who have been ruined have had no participation in it whatsoever. They are virgins, they are white paper, they have no soul, they have no passion, they have no heart, they have no ideas, nothing. Murdoch, apparently, has walked all over them. It’s Murdoch who’s done it, not us. That really does make me angry, because you can’t have your cake and eat it. I mean, you can’t, on the one hand say: “We’re democrats, therefore Murdoch can do everything he wants” and on the other: “We can’t stand for our own values because that would be imposing.” That would be saying: “This is what we stand for,” and that would be hideous because that means we would be censorious!
PW: Your character in The Serpent, he ends up basically in a loop. He ends up confronting the fact that he’s participated in the invention of this thing called Murdoch to such a point that he’s got nowhere to go but off in a taxi, where Murdoch seems to be driving. So his revolt is a form of ultimate consent.
MK: Yes, and there’s these Edinburgh people sitting there saying: “`Yeah, kill me, there’s nothing I can do, kill me!” Or when John Birt says, I’m going to give a thousand documents, none of which you will understand, but they all sum up to the fact that you’ll have short-term contracts, and that you will be limited in your creativity, or whatever… “Yeah, kill me!”
PW: Now Marc, many independent filmmakers, including people you’ve known for years I’m sure, have not survived. A lot of people have gone out of business, a lot of people have disappeared into a rather despairing sort of political separation. You, meanwhile, have stayed very closely engaged. I mean, you’re out there arguing, you run a magazine, you’re out there knocking on the doors of commissioning editors, you stamp the halls…?
MK: I like that: “Stamping the halls!” I got lost in the BBC, now I’m stamping ’em! That’s good! Yeah!
I think, really, what has informed the last fourteen years, and still does very much so, is fear. And I understand people who are fearful. You see, I’m lucky! I mean, what do I lose? I lose this, right? But I’ve always been losing this, every day I’ve been losing, but I think the idea of recovering centres whereby democratic dialogue can start again, and people can rise and say: “You cannot treat me this way… You cannot talk to me this way!” that, I think, is what is being slowly restored. The idea… You know, it’s not Habermas’ kind of rational communication, but it is something whereby you engage the opposition on a respectable level – that they have to respect you. That they can stop treating people like they have done. And, I think that may end with Birt going, thank God, because I think you cannot address people that way.
PW: Marc Karlin, thank you very much.
Revolutionary Nicaragua is celebrated, analysed – and now remembered – in the late Marc Karlin’s remarkable documentary series.
An incongruous print. The faded sepia suggests a dusty portrait from many years ago. But the photo of a film crew sweating it out against a church wall in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, is only two decades old. It is the street photographer’s equipment which is not of its time: the black cloth over his head, the handheld cardboard shutter, the camera box doubling as darkroom for development in an old tobacco tin – typical technology of a third world country further impoverished by a US blockade. This was 1984, when the five-year old Sandinista Revolution we were there to film was struggling against President Reagan’s obsession with ‘communism’ in Central America. Economic sanctions were reinforced by military aggression; the US-backed counter-revolutionaries, the contras, were wreaking havoc in the countryside, defence costs were crippling the economy and Nicaraguans feared that they would be next in line for US invasion after Grenada.
But the photo still seems to speak of a distant past, both personally and politically. I was working in Honduras and Nicaragua from 1978 to ’81, where Marc Karlin, the instigator of Vertigo and the producer-director of the Nicaragua series, visited me several times. We then returned to film again on three occasions from 1982 to 1984, and again in 1988-89. Ten years later, in 1999, Marc died suddenly from a heart attack. Politically, the 1989 electoral defeat of the Sandinista party (the FSLN) by the US-supported candidate brought to an end an extraordinary experiment in independence and social transformation. At the time, we were among many internationalistas from Europe and North America flocking to Nicaragua. The revolution rapidly became the last repository of hope for a generation witnessing the collapse of the socialist project, the (then unforeseen) imminent demise of the Soviet Union, and the scorched earth policies of Reagan and Thatcherism, whether abroad or at home.
But today Nicaragua is no longer the flavour of the month. How many people will mark the 25th anniversary of ‘the triumph’ over the dictator Somoza’s regime on July 19th 1979? Somoza’s friends and family are now back in the country from Florida; a president has recently been jailed for corruption; the illiteracy, malnutrition, polio and high infant mortality rates, once tackled by popular campaigns, have now all returned with a vengeance. But does anyone care? The title of Peter Raymont’s 2003 film (recently seen in the 2004 Human Rights Watch Film Festival), which revisits Nicaraguans interviewed in 1987, puts this question very succinctly: The World Stopped Watching.
In the face of this political and cultural amnesia, Karlin’s five films, spanning the Sandinista decade, form a unique historical record. The first, Voyages (1985), is composed from stills, by the acclaimed Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, of the popular insurrection in 1978-79 which brought the FSLN to power. These include the predominant images that represented Nicaragua to the outside world at the time – yet Meiselas had no control over their use. Through her own words, the film interrogates the responsibility of the war photographer, the line between observer and participant, and the political significance of the photographic image.
Armed with an understanding of Nicaragua gained from Voyages, Marc then embarked on an exploration of the Sandinista state’s development, and the successful mid-term elections. Making of a Nation (1985) pursues the complex incarnations of history and memory present in many of his distinctive essay films. During the Somoza dictatorship, no mention could be made of the legendary guerrilla leader Sandino, assassinated in 1934 for leading armed resistance to an earlier US occupation – one which continued with barely a smokescreen until 1979. Following the revolution, rediscovery of this clandestine history, led by the Nicaraguan Historical Institute, gave back to Nicaraguans a sense of their own identity.
In Their Time (1985) is a portrait of the Sandinista party newspaper, Barricada. By following its journalists and photographers, Karlin portrayed radical social change through the stories they covered and the issues raised by the vox pop ‘popular post-box’, and through observing closely the internal political and social life of the paper. The film powerfully conveys the horror and fear of the contra war, as does the fourth film Changes (1985). This also documents the effect of popular participation and the radical wing of the Catholic church on the lives of Nicaragua’s campesinos (peasant farmers). Tellingly, in his choice of a rural location, Karlin did not go for a Sandinista stronghold, but a remote village community with a history of opposition to the FSLN.
The final film, Scenes from a Revolution (1991) revisits individuals from earlier shoots, assessing the achievements of the revolution from their experiences. It witnesses the aspirations of the opposition, the electoral defeat of the FSLN, and the swaggering return of contra leaders to Managua. Thus the sequence of films, conceived as a journey into a revolution, caught both its birth and its demise.
The Sandinistas often referred to the revolution as ‘el processo’. In spite of all the written accounts, it is the moving image that can most clearly represent the process of social, political and economic change. This process was driven by astounding dedication, optimism and intelligence, all of which is reflected in the films.
But it was also uneven and messy, contending with inexperience, inefficiency and apathy. Revolutions are made by people, not just philosophies and political slogans, and it is the ordinary Nicaraguan that Marc made visible – there is hardly a comandante, an FSLN leader, in sight. It is individual portraits and stories of local events, set against the backdrop of national politics, that form the fabric of the films. Social and agricultural policies are conveyed through the experience of a campesino and by following a tireless local party militant. Popular democracy in neighbourhood committees is illustrated by squabbles over the issue of food rations to a woman’s lover with a family elsewhere. The devastation of the unexpected electoral defeat is seen through the eyes of anguished mothers who have lost their sons and daughters to the contras. And Karlin portrayed the impact of a war economy through the closure of the National Circus, the whirling of trapeze artists replaced by a derelict tent and the sadness of a redundant acrobat.
This focus on real lives leaves space for contradiction and opposition. The barrio committee resents the half-built school, campesinos complain about prices, market women blame the FSLN for shortages, and the circus performer grieves the loss of his unicycle, appropriated by the state. Karlin’s films show deep respect and admiration for the Sandinistas, but they are not triumphalist works.
The trouble with triumphalism is that, if the project fails, erstwhile enthusiasts, like jilted lovers, feel personally betrayed. Appreciating complexity makes for more solid support. But at the time, the films were not greeted with enthusiasm by the UK solidarity constituency – they wanted cooperatives and clinics, not circuses. They preferred the clutch of celebratory documentaries shot in the 1980s on revolutionary success. John Pilger’s Nicaragua: a Nation’s Right to Survive (1983) or Ken Loach’s feature Carla’s Song (1996) bring a strong, and necessary, indictment of the ravages of US imperialism to a wider public. But such testimonies to Sandinista fortitude leave little room for internal faultlines. By contrast, in Scenes for a Revolution, FSLN activists reflected on their own mistakes, which contributed in part to electoral defeat, problems already signalled in Karlin’s earlier films.
Karlin’s style allows space for ideas as well as events. In contrast to the visual and aural clutter of some contemporary documentaries mesmerised by style, the films are still and quiet. They allow time for the subjects to interpret their own reality, and for the viewer to absorb and reflect. Instead of each sequence illustrating a soundtrack that monopolises interpretation, meaning emerges from the fruitful juxtaposition of word and image.
In Voyages, the viewer must negotiate the tension between narrative and visual threads. The filming itself is of a piece with the editing. Significance is built up through the use of Nicaraguans’ own words, representation of their daily activities, and careful inspection of faces, objects and landscapes. It is the ordinary that constructs the extraordinary. Just as the camera slowly pans over the enlarged reproduction of Meiselas’ images, so the same technique allows us to contemplate the façade of a building or the symbolic significance of Sandinista memorabilia.
Marc sought magic; he saw the quirky and the idiosyncratic as well as a common purpose and collective resolve. Although coming at the revolution sideways, or from below, his Nicaragua films never intended to romanticise the FSLN. But now, fifteen years on, after the extinction of so much hope, the erasure of so much energy, they seem suffused with nostalgia, and are painful to watch. The rare, but timely screening of the complete series at London’s Other Cinema on July 18th stood as a tribute both to a singular film-maker and an extraordinary decade.
Each film that Marc Karlin directed during the period in which I worked with him was on a grand scale, predominantly documentary in nature, and with strong poetic elements. Each was largely or completely financed by television. For me, the reasons why they were totally engrossing to work on are the same reasons why they are fascinating to look at now. The films were always about major subjects, always undertaken on account of something that Marc was deeply affected by, something that he became preoccupied with almost to the point of obsession, something he felt passionately about – never for any other reason.
He was constantly reflecting on what was going on around him and in the world at large. The TV series Holocaust, and the nature of its reception all over the world, appalled him and provoked him into thinking about the themes and ideas that were to become the subject of For Memory. While visiting Hermione Harris in Nicaragua, he was astounded by what he saw taking place there and this led him to make a series of four films of great clarity and complexity, four distinct parts of an epic whole. Then, back in Britain, came Utopias, Marc’s response to the endlessly repeated assertion that socialism was dead.
Marc was like an explorer. Each time he began work on one of these films he was like someone embarking on a journey, taking a group of people with him. Each collaborator was essential to the different stages of the journey. The films explored ideas, themes, histories, and physical realities. They drew portraits and told stories. They also explored the forms of documentary film, continuing and developing the work of the preceding films. Marc knew how to draw vital contributions from all his collaborators at every step of the way. He directed them, and at the same time demanded their input. He knew how to channel other people’s creative energies into the enterprise.
When we were editing together, he wanted me to contribute, rather than carry out his plan. He wanted me to bring my mind to bear on the material, on what the film proposed to accomplish, to do some of the exploring in that phase of the making of the film. He directed the editing in such a way as to draw me into doing this. The editing had to be both descriptive and reflective, it had to convey ideas and themes as much as it had to portray concrete realities. It had to allow the viewer to make multiple connections between these things. And it had to bring out the lyrical and sensual aspects of the images and sounds. The juxtaposing and interweaving required to achieve this is one of the things I enjoy most about editing, and as Marc and I had the same sense of what needed to be done, we worked together very harmoniously.
Looking at these films now, years later, it seems to me that one of the things that makes them so singular is this constant and multiple interconnecting and interrelating of ideas and individual concrete realities. Here are films with grand themes, in which the individual lives and characteristics of the people who appear in them have as much weight as the ideas they are related to, so that each contains vivid portraits of individual people. Marc was as passionate about individuals as he was about ideas, and this was evident at every stage of the making of these films. I was conscious of it during the editing and I can see it in the films now.
Watch the Marc Karlin Collection here
Marc Karlin – Look Again. Edited by Holly Aylett. Available here
I first became aware of Marc Karlin’s film-making at the screening of Nightcleaners at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1976. The film made a very strong impression. I had not seen anything like it before in Britain. “Political” film, yes. Formal experiment, yes. But not the combination. And although I can recall a sense of worry about what I conceived as a possible lack of political urgency, I also remember an excitement at discovering something closer to what I was looking for in the 1970s.
At the time I was completely absorbed in a search for a progressive form of film-making, one which sought a new and adequate form through which to express a revolutionary conception of the world whilst at the same time respecting, or at least holding on to, a perceived need for an element of agit prop – maybe a reinvention of Dziga Vertov. I think there was a rediscovery of the “Workers Films” of the 1920s and ‘30s at the same Edinburgh Festival.
Within the next three or four years I had seen Marc’s next two films, Ireland Behind the Wire and 33 to 77, both of which I admired for different reasons. Ireland Behind the Wire because it was unafraid to take sides in a struggle. It was clearly on the side of the besieged nationalist community, and blew apart the comfortable and ultimately deceptive ideology of “balanced” reporting to be found on British television at the time. 33 to 77, which I have not seen since the early 1980s, I remember as a film of tenderness and incredible formal daring.
I began work as Channel Four’s first commissioning editor of Independent Film & Video in 1981, with a very open brief as to how that Department should be defined. Although the Thatcher government was two years into its long reign by then, my Department and many of my commissioning colleagues at Channel Four represented the ideas and politics of the late 1960s and 1970s. Voices from the left, questions of race, class and gender, internationalism, the formal experimentation actually written into the parliamentary legislation which brought Channel Four into being – all this was central to the early Channel Four. A huge release after years of stifling aesthetic and political conservatism from the BBC and ITV.
Independent Film & Video, self defined as the cutting edge of the cutting edge of British television, was able to embrace formal experimentation and political radicalism in an effort to give space to new voices, ideas and images, and simultaneously provide a critique of the rest of televisual output. The four programmes that I commissioned Marc to produce between 1984 and 1993 all fell within this broad policy.
I supported and identified with Marc’s engagement and involvement with the national and international left. He produced Nicaragua, a four programme series about the processes, hopes and fears of the revolution; Utopias, a two-hour film centred around the period of the miner’s strike; Scenes from a Revolution; and Between Times, a programme about Thatcherism, the Left, memory and change.
I valued Marc’s passionate concerns about these major issues. He realised all too clearly that the resolution to the Nicaraguan revolution and the miners’ strikes were central to defining the world in which we now live. In his films he struggled to find the appropriate form to represent the broader issues but, perhaps above all, to carve out a space of dignity and respect for the invariably rather powerless grass-roots actors in those epic events. It was his commitment to grappling with this set of aesthetic and political problems to which I responded as a commissioning editor.
Our discussions prior to the making of the films often circled around issues concerned with audience and the political moment, clarity and obscurity. For all my support of his work I had reservations on these questions, and tried to push him towards what I perceived to be a greater directness and clarity of political purpose. My attempts at persuasion never really worked, and I was left feeling deeply ambivalent, on the one hand remaining convinced of Marc’s considerable film making talents, on the other feeling that a wider audience could have been reached, a bigger political splash made.
I had not seen the films for some time, but recently had the opportunity to see Nightcleaners and part of the Nicaraguan series again, and was wonderfully surprised to find myself able to celebrate and understand them in a completely fresh way. Both seemed to me to be incredibly valuable documentations of people and events now fading from memory or, for younger people, never known. Here were two films of insight, clarity, and sensitivity of inestimable value – not least to anyone interested in socialism.
I now look forward to re-viewing Utopias, Between Times and Scenes from a Revolution. In the meantime these thoughts raise interesting issues for the past and present. One of the most important aspects of Independent Film & Video was its support for a range of aesthetic strategies, stretching from the very populist to the highly experimental; thus it offered a real choice for audiences. The department repeatedly commissioned Marc Karlin because we thought – even with some trepidation – that he was a significant film-maker. The Channel backed us to back him, win or lose.
I hope that a new Marc Karlin would be commissioned in the television climate of today… and fear that he or she might not. Walking the tightrope of supporting talented programme makers, particularly if they do not easily fit into prescribed patterns and boxes, is a difficult business. It is undoubtedly much more so now than in the early days of Channel Four, but there are few signs that the broadcasters have any interest in walking the tightrope, or possess the imagination or sense of public responsibility to do so.
What I take away from all this is the somewhat baffling certainty that commissioning Marc’s films for ten years was the right decision, even if it has taken me nearly ten more to appreciate quite why!
Here is a festival report from Ma Ran, reviewing the DMZ Documentary festival from September last year. Via Senses of Cinema
To visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea might be a thrilling touristic option for Seoul’s visitors if they feel bored by the repetitive shopping and gourmet options in this vibrant Asian metropolis. Yet the DMZ as a buffer zone, evidence of division and Cold War remnant has also lent its symbolic weight to an emerging film festival – DMZ International Documentary Film Festival (DMZ Docs), launched in 2009. Taking Seoul subway line number three to its final stop, we find ourselves in the city of Goyang, which hosted all the DMZ Docs events this year, although the nearby city of Paju co-organised and co-funded the festival.
I want to approach DMZ Docs here as a “projective” film festival (to borrow a concept from Claire Bishop), based on a neo-liberal logic that foregrounds “projects” designed to foster connections, from three angles (1). Firstly, the idea suggests how we can think of film festivals as part of a series of arrangements made by the festival organisers in connecting with the urban setting and the national/regional cultural industries. Secondly, the idea also reinforces our understanding of film festivals as never isolated from global “networking,” both spatially and temporally. A network-based, projective film festival is capable of generating new visions and trends in both content and structure via programming and other events. Thirdly, a project-cantered logic is embodied in and through project markets and pitching sessions.
The relationship between a film festival and its hosting city is always intriguing in the Asian context. As the tenth largest city in Korea, Goyang impresses as a well-planned satellite city, with blocks of modern exhibition centres and shopping malls. Actually, the festival’s main multiplex theatre is located in a mall surrounded by sparse residential quarters and expansive undeveloped land. For sure, the entanglement and tension of the DMZ could be faintly sensed in this modern new town. But what was more strongly felt was Goyang and Paju’s joint official efforts to boost the local cultural industries via the film festival, especially given that Goyang aspires to become “a mecca for broadcasting and visual media in the northeast in the near future,” according to the vice chairman of the film festival Mr Choi, who is also the mayor of Goyang.
Indeed, DMZ Docs’ timing in late September is revealing about the interconnections and competitions between this festival and two other major documentary film festivals in East Asia – namely theTaiwan International Film Festival (TIDF, established 1998 and held annually held since 2014, this event takes place just after DMZ Docs in early October) and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan (YIDFF, established in 1989, this biennial event takes place in mid-October). Kicking off on September 17, DMZ Docs’ sixth edition boasted a line-up of 111 documentary films and three major competitive sections: the International Competition (twelve films), the Korean Competition (nine films) and Youth Competition (Korean short films by students), besides themed sidebars. Although the festival promoted a too generalized value of “peace, communication and life” in its booklet this year, its highly diversified programme incorporated some of the most exciting 2013-14 productions from around the world, to highlight refreshing methodologies, daring experiments and pressing issues in documentary cinema. It seemed as if the programmers were trying to bombard festivalgoers with as heterogeneous a selection as possible, in order to leave “what counts as a documentary” an open question.
At the same time, the retrospectives on Marc Karlin and Italian documentaries (from filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Cecilia Mangini) were simply too valuable to be ignored this year. The festival paid tribute to Karlin (1943-1999) in its “Masters” section, with a body of work that was introduced to the Asian world for the first time. The screenings also anticipated two major publications in the UK on this highly significant, yet little known British filmmaker.
Karlin carefully constructed his politically charged cinematic essays with hybridized materials from reenactments, found footage, interviews and even installations. Karlin’s filmmaking sets out to carve a space for what the director calls a “dream state,” full of the tension “between a world that is being illustrated and a world that is being illuminated” (2). While you might find in films such as Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Collection, 1975), For Memory (1982) and Utopias (1989) the Marker-esque traces of insightful contemplations and debates upon memory, history and the agency of people, we also notice that Karlin’s obsession with a cinema which reasons and thinks is also rooted in the sociohistorical undercurrents of his time. Instead of didactically addressing issues of class, gender, ideology and so forth, Karlin’s pursuit actually ventures into effectively engaging with the spectators via formal/structural experimentations.
In Nightcleaners, for example, Karlin and his colleagues approached the issue of unionizing underpaid women office cleaners in the 1970s by turning away from the conventions of observational documentary filmmaking of the time. That the film is a work being directed and constructed is revealed at the very beginning, as it “contains within itself a reflection of its own involvement in the history of the events being filmed” (3).
Even images of the interviewed subjects prove to be an unorthodox study of physiognomy, as the camera zooms in and out, adjusting its distance from the interviewee, while the spectators are confronted with partial facial expressions, movements of eyes and sometimes mismatching voice tracks which disrupt any authoritatively imposed meaning of the images. The filmmakers’ manipulation of images and sound therefore not only throw up questions about documentary truth and photographic images, it also positions the night cleaners’ fight and their campaign in a multi-layered, historically complex space in which tensions exist between the cleaners, the Cleaner’s Action Group and the unions.
DMZ Docs might be one of the contact points, no matter how limited the scope of reception, for spectators to trace the genealogy of global political filmmaking. Thus we may want to rethink the significance of a retrospective such as the one on Karlin. If films like Nightcleaners “could provide the basis for a new direction in British political filmmaking” in 1975 (festival catalogue), is a Karlin retrospective in 2014 simply about the rediscovery and redefinition of a lesser-known filmmaker vis-à-vis film history? Or could it also be a programming gesture of broader social significance? The retrospective may also offer documentary filmmakers and the like working with socially engaged methods and topics a certain framework of reference in speaking from a geopolitical perspective, as democracy protests and civil campaigns are renewed across East Asia in locales such as Okinawa, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, and even some Mainland Chinese cities.
Read the rest of Ma Ran’s article here.
Senses of Cinema – Festival Report – Dec 2014 – Issue 73