The themes of political cinema and the essay film will be explored in the next instalment of the Coutisane festival running from 23-27 March 2016. Pieter-Paul Mortier and Stoffel Debuysere have curated a vital selection of films over the weekend 25-27 March, including Poster Collective, Cinema Action, Black Audio Film Collective, Berwick Street Film Collective and Marc Karlin. Below are some beautifully crafted extracts from the programme.
There is a traffic of images, he wrote, with controllers qualifying and quantifying and giving these images permission to arrive, telling them where to arrive. These controllers then turn themselves into custom officers – Art Cinema this way – Commercial Art that way – Author Cinema straight ahead – Popular Cinema over here – Genre this and Genre that. You can declare your preferences. Experimental Cinema, may we open your bags, please?
And yet, he continued, there not only exists a welcome space for surprise, but there is also a real need for a cinema that will leave its designated niche; 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 hurt itself against that current order of things, a cinema that will deliver once again that wonderful surprise – that which is still possible.
An echo from far away, yet so close. These thoughts were formulated just over two decades ago by Marc Karlin, who is one of the key figures in this year’s festival programme. Never really at ease amongst the mourning choir of those grieving the irrevocable demise of cinema, he chose to keep on tirelessly searching for a cinema of the possible, one that sets out to keep discovering the world we are living in. This festival is dedicated to the work of reluctant heroes such as Karlin and countless others who today continue to embark on the path of cinematic discovery. Oftentimes ignoring guidelines and sidestepping roadmaps, regularly haunted by uncertainty and confronted with precarity, time and again forced to be on the defensive and pushed towards the margins, but always driven by a single stubborn belief: that cinema continues to offer us possibilities of life.
A few years ago, a six-year-old girl accompanied her father to one of the screenings at the festival and she asked him: “When I blink my eyes, don’t I interrupt the image for the other people here in this theatre?” With this 15th jubilee edition, Courtisane hopes to stay young, to create a meeting space where this question is at home.
“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.
Special thanks to Andy Robson / Marc Karlin Archive.
“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… The nightcleaners haven’t changed, and it always comes back to this idea, you know, of W.H. 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.” (Marc Karlin)
“To me ‘36 to ’77 is very important for the way it changes the understanding of how you live with representations. The normal film or television experience leaves you without any trace. It doesn’t hurt you at all to look at it. With ’36 to ’77 I realised how people desperately desire a certain normality for film. It’s such an obsessive need, and when for instance political people see the idea of rendering their politics visible, it completely breaks them apart. A film does test how real your politics are, to the extent of confronting you with something that breaks the very boundaries in your writing. Film acts as a sort of dislocating lever. There’s a lot of left rhetoric about personal politics which is actually a refusal to take personal politics seriously – it’s a refusal to dismember yourself, to re-think, re-phrase, re-constitute yourself in the light of your actions and the things in front of you. It’s a refusal to see age, to see change, to see distances, always taking the same photograph of yourself, wherever you are…The representation of workers on film is normalised because it’s always surrounded by and held in the situating of them as workers in a recognisable political situation, and which a lot of people might not be sharing. The idea that they might have other things that would contradict your idea of them never obviously comes into play now.” (Marc Karlin)
Produced between 1977 and 1982, this film remained on the shelves until the BBC finally broadcast it in a sleepy afternoon slot in March of 1986. For Memory is a contemplation on cultural amnesia, written as a reaction to Hollywood’s Holocaust films, a serialisation of the genocide. Karlin asks: how could a documentary image die so soon and be taken over by a fiction? Seeing that an enormous amount of documentation exists, why did it take a soap opera to have the effect that it did?
“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.” (MK)
So That You Can Live developed from a project called The Social Contract, which the Cinema Action collective began in the mid-1970s. When filming in Treforest, South Wales, the filmmakers met Shirley Butts, a union convenor who was leading a strike by women demanding equal pay. In the subsequent five years, they documented the impact that global economic changes had on her and her family. As Marc Karlin remarked, So That You Can Live is “a film of and in transit – from city to countryside, from employment to the dole, from generation to generation, from power to powerlessness”.
“The most important British independent film since Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners, Cinema Action’s So that you can live (For Shirley) is in many ways a very simple film, about a family in a South Wales valley community which has been struck down in the last five years – the period over which the film was made – by the socially destructive consequences of pit and factory closures and the resulting unemployment… Slow and beautifully controlled, a poetry unfolds in this film of enormous depth of feeling and lucid intelligence, and in this way it becomes a passionate plea for the voice of conscience to be heard again in the labour movement. For the word and the idea to become once again part of our vocabulary, as it was for previous generations. For us all to look around and see, in the shapes and forms of our environment, what parents and grandparents tell to those who ask of what is only recently past, the history of Living memory.” (Michael Chanan)
The Year of the Beaver documents the strike at the Grunwick film processing factory in North London in 1976-‘78, which was then described as “a central battleground between the classes and between the parties”. The film, which incorporates a lot of the material from the reporting that was being produced at the time, is not only a documentary of a strike, but a portrait of an historical period, as it underwent transition to the modern ‘civilized’ state under Thatcherism.
“It wasn’t until the early eighties that a film called The Year of the Beaver emerged and I first really met Marc Karlin as he hugged me on seeing it. A film which had, for all the efforts of the inexperienced people who had worked on it, managed to create layers of meaning and make connections between the myriad of things it had had to take on board. It showed what had come to be viewed as the seeds of Thatcherism developing long before her reign. This mammoth work had been years in the making, years in editing rooms struggling for ways and means to illuminate a story that needed to be told, to find an adequate form in which to tell its tale.” (Steve Sprung)
Followed by a DISSENT! talk with Ann Guedes (Cinema Action) and Steve Sprung (Cinema Action, Poster Collective).
DISSENT! is an initiative of Courtisane, Auguste Orts and Argos, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent).
1985, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 42’
The first film in Marc Karlin’s four-part series on the Nicaraguan revolution that brought down President Somoza’s regime in 1979, Voyages is composed of five tracking shots, gliding over blown-up photographs that Susan Meiselas took during the insurrection. The film takes the form of an imagined correspondence, which interrogates the responsibilities of the war photographer, the line between observer and participant, and the political significance of the photographic image.
“Photographs are in a way far ahead of our ability to deal with them – we have not yet found a way of dealing, living with them. We have appropriated them in a channel – ‘language’, ‘papers’, ‘magazines’, ‘books’ – all of which seem the only tools by which we can give them an earthbound gravity. We brush past them, flick them, demand of them things they cannot give… Liberate photographs from its priests and jujumen – including myself. We do not need interpreters. We need looks – and thus the task is up to the photographer to renew his or her contract i.e. what can photographs and their arrangement do to defy the prison house interpretation à la John Berger – and make us think of ourselves in relationship to Nicaragua.” (MK)
Black Audio Film Collective / Auguiste Reece
1989, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 52’
“The film presents an imaginary epistolary narration of a young woman’s thoughts as she writes to her mother in Domenica about the changing face of London, then in the throes of the new Docklands development. She fears it is a city that her mother would not now recognise should she return. The film cuts between this narrative voice and interviewees bearing witness to their youthful experience of the city as a territory mapped by racial, cultural, sexual, gender and class boundaries, a place ‘of people existing in close proximity yet living in different worlds.’ This polyvocal narrative moves restlessly back between past and present, reflecting on the loss of roots and erasure of history caused by the demolition of old established neighbourhoods. The further displacement of already marginalised communities falls under the shadow of the films’s recurrent motif of the public monument to a heroic British imperial history notable for its effacement of its disruptive descendants.” (Jean Fisher)
Revisiting material of his earlier four-part series, Marc Karlin returns to Nicaragua to examine the history of the Sandinista government, to consider its achievements and assess the prospects for democracy following its defeat in the 1990 general election.
“For ten years, the Sandinistas had tried to make democracy mean access to education, health, nationhood, and the sense of collective responsibility. Now in one swift move Nicaragua found itself suddenly transplanted to the political events of Eastern Europe. It was as if differences, identities, separate histories, could all be electronically and democratically jammed. But then in this day and age, anyone and everyone could speak the word democracy. What it meant, what it felt like, what it could be as opposed to what it was not no-one would dare say. As if a democracy to really work had to be by definition valueless, orderless, heard but not seen. As if democracy could be about nothing else but the right to be left alone… For ten years Nicaragua had been out of the headlines. Now that it was officially declared a democratic nation, it was hardly ever heard of. As if democracy instead of making voices heard was there to silence them, a confirmation after all that history and all its wrongdoings had officially ended. But these images, so often seen in films on the third world, to the point of invisibility, were the product of a bitter poverty which had not been erased.” (MK)
Michala Paludan, Cyclus, 2016. Image from Malmö City Archive: Suell Factory 1962.
Artists: Maja Bajević, Berwick Street Film Collective, KP Brehmer, Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen, Jeuno Kim, Michala Paludan, Esther Shalev-Gerz, Mladen Stilinović, Oliver Walker
Lunds konsthall is very happy to be able to present Our Work, an exhibition that investigates how work organises our existence and defines our characters. Today salaried work determines not only the working time; contemporary work creates roles and modes of being that have a deep impact also on what may be called leisure, values, life. The exhibition reflects how work regulates how we live but also how it may be used as a political tool.
The exhibition title, Our Work, references the history of Lunds konsthall. In 1978 a group exhibition with this title was produced, but then the emphasis was on the worker’s body and the perspective mainly Swedish. In 2016, Our Work incorporates two points of view: that of contemporary reality and that of the 1970s. The exhibition moves between the dichotomy that dominated the Cold War period and today’s globalised outlook, between the pioneers of women’s liberation and contemporary feminist consciousness.
There is a long tradition in art of depicting and influencing how we work. Here nine rather different artists are brought together, each with a specific approach to the theme of work. Some of their works are ongoing projects, which started before this exhibition and will continue after it is over.
Lunds konsthall wishes to first thank all the artists for their extraordinary works and our excellent collaboration. We also warmly thank all the lenders for their generous contributions to the exhibition, among them Sebastian Brehmer at KP Brehmer Sammlung und Nachlass in Berlin, Galerie Peter Kilchmann in Zurich, René Block in Berlin and Galerie nächst St. Stephan in Vienna. We also thank the Labour Movement’s Archive in Malmö and the City Archives of Lund and Malmö. Special thanks to Inter Arts Center in Malmö.
Berwick Street Film Collective, active in 1970–78 in London, consisted of Marc Karlin, 1943–99, and James Scott, born in 1941. The film Nightcleaners was a collaboration with Mary Kelly, born in 1941, and Humphry Trevelyan, born in 1944; KP Brehmer, born in 1938 in Berlin and died in 1997 in Hamburg; Revital Cohen, born in 1981 in Jerusalem and Tuur Van Balen, born in 1981 in Leuven, works in London; Jeuno Kim, born in 1976 in Seoul, works in Berlin and Malmö; Michala Paludan, born in 1983 in Copenhagen, where she also works; Esther Shalev-Gerz, born in 1948 in Vilnius, works in Paris; Mladen Stilinović, born in 1947 in Belgrade, works in Zagreb; Oliver Walker, born in 1980 in Liverpool, works in Berlin.
American conceptual artist Mary Kelly discusses how feminism informed her seminal work Post-Partum Document 1973-79 and the origins of her lint technique.
Mary Kelly arrived in London as a student at a time when the public began to protest contentious political issues like gender equality and the Vietnam War. She became involved in the early women’s liberation movement throughout the 1970s and went on to lead the way for representations of women in the arts.
Feminist theory, political discourse and education have remained a constant theme in her work throughout her career. Her work Post-Partum Document 1973-79 draws on contemporary feminist thought and psychoanalysis to explore the roles of woman artists as both creative and procreative.
More recently, Kelly has developed a process where she creates various sizes of prints cast from units of lint, the textile fibres that separate in a domestic dryer. Fashioned over several months and hundreds of washing cycles, the panels of image and text are then assembled and pressed in intaglio.
Mary Kelly is Professor of Art at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is Head of Interdisciplinary Studio.
Also, here is Mary Kelly in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist.
As part of the curated conversation programme On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Period of Time, Mary Kelly talks to curator, critic, art historian and prolific writer Hans Ulrich Obrist as they explore what defines an era.
Promotional Material from Cinema Action’s Rocinante – found in the archive.
Last week in the BFI’s Essential Experiments slot, William Fowler presented the work of the filmmaking collective, Cinema Action. Two films were screen from the collective’s vast filmography – Squatters (1970), an attack on the Greater London Council regarding their lack of investment in housing . The film provided important – if controversial – information about the use of bailiffs in illegal eviction. And So That You Can Live (1981) which is widely recognised as one of Cinema Action’s finest works. The film follows the story of inspiring union convenor Shirley and the impact global economic changes have on her and her family’s life in rural South Wales. The landscape of the area, with all its complex history, is cross-cut with images of London, and original music from Robert Wyatt and Scritti Politti further reinforces the deeply searching, reflective tone. It was also broadcast on Channel 4’s opening night in November 1982.
Here is a history of Cinema Action via the BFI’s Screenonline
Cinema Action was among several left-wing film collectives formed in the late sixties. The group started in 1968 by exhibiting in factories a film about the French student riots of that year. These screenings attracted people interested in making film a part of political activism. With a handful of core members – Ann Guedes, Gustav (Schlacke) Lamche and Eduardo Guedes – the group pursued its collective methods of production and exhibition for nearly twenty-five years.
Cinema Action‘s work stands out from its contemporaries’ in its makers’ desire to co-operate closely with their working-class subjects. The early films campaigned in support of various protests close to Cinema Action‘s London base. Not a Penny on the Rent (1969), attacking proposed council rent increases, is an example of the group’s early style.
By the beginning of the seventies, Cinema Action began to receive grants from trades unions and the British Film Institute. This allowed it to produce, in particular, two longer films analysing key political and union actions of the time. People of Ireland! (1971) portrayed the establishment of Free Derry in Northern Ireland as a step towards a workers’ republic. UCS1 (1971) records the work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyard; it is a unique document, as all other press and television were excluded.
Both these films typify Cinema Action‘s approach of letting those directly involved express themselves without commentary. They were designed to provide an analysis of struggles, which could encourage future action by other unions or political groups.
The establishment of Channel Four provided an important source of funding and a new outlet for Cinema Action. Films such as So That You Can Live (1981) and Rocking the Boat (1983) were consciously made for a wider national audience. In 1986, Cinema Action made its first fiction feature, Rocinante, starring John Hurt.
Marc Karlin joined Cinema Action in 1969. He had just returned to London after being caught up in the events of May ’68 in Paris while filming a US deserter. It was there where Karlin met Chris Marker, who was editing Cine-Tracts (1968) with Jean-Luc Godard at the time. Marker had just formed his film group SLON and had since released Far from Vietnam (1967), a collective cinematic protest with offerings from Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, inspired by the film-making practices of the Soviet film-maker, Alexander Medvedkin. The idea of taking this model of collective filmmaking back to the UK appealed greatly to Karlin, and was shared by many of his contemporaries. He details this enthusiasm in an interview with Sheila Rowbotham from 1998…
…when Marker started SLON, ideas about agitprop films were going around. Cinema Action had already started in England by 1969 when I joined. There was a relationship to the Russians: Vertov, the man with a movie camera, Medvedkin and his Russian agitprop train; the idea of celebrating life and revolution in 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 is what we did…
…when I joined there was no question of making documentaries for television. We showed our films at left meetings, where we would set up a screen, do leaflets and so on. It is often hilarious. I remember showing a film on housing in a big hall in the Bull Ring area of Birmingham. It started with machine gun noises, and Horace Cutler, the hated Tory head of the Greater London Council, being mowed down. The whole place just stopped and looked, but, of course, as soon as you got talking heads, people arguing or living their ordinary lives, doing their washing or whatever, we lost the audience. I learnt something through seeing that.
Evidently, Karlin was frustrated about the political and aesthetic approach of Cinema Action. In fact, salvaged in the archive is two thirds of a letter written by Karlin to Humphry Trevelyan that goes into some detail over the reasons for why Karlin intended to leave Cinema Action. For now, here is Karlin giving a somewhat exaggerated reason for leaving in the interview with Rowbotham…
…Schlacke (Cinema Action co-founder) had a thing about the materialist dialectic of film. Somehow or other – and I can’t tell you how are why – this meant in every eight frames that you had to have a cut. Schlaker justified this was some theoretical construct, but it made his films totally invisible. After a time I just got fed up. James Scott, Humphry Trevelyan and I started The Berwick Street Film Collective and later went on to join Lusia Films.
The Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975)
Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
Directed by Marc Karlin
Self-reflection, collaboration and debate were vital to Karlin, who was a member of the Berwick Street Collective and a key figure in the political avant-garde from the 1970s onwards. To launch new book Marc Karlin: Look Again, we present his insightful, far-reaching TV piece about the state of the Left after Thatcher. Join us as we also discuss with his friends and collaborators the work and legacy of this much-missed radical.
Joint ticket available for Essential Experiments £16, concs £12.50 (Members pay £1.70 less)
Here is a fascinating excerpt from the audio commentary track on the British Film Institute’s Dual Format Edition of Riddles Of The Sphinx (Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1977). In this sequence, Mulvey recalls the technique of re-filming found footage material using a motion analyser projector borrowed from Marc Karlin while he was filming 36′ to 77′ (known then as Nightcleaners Part 2) with the Berwick Street Film Collective.
Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies by Scott MacDonald (Cambridge Film Classics:1993)
Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s visually accomplished and intellectually rigorous Riddles of the Sphinx is one of the most important avant-garde films to have emerged from Britain during the 1970s. The second collaboration between Mulvey and Wollen, both of whom are recognised as seminal figures in the field of film theory, Riddles of the Sphinx explores issues of female representation, the place of motherhood within society and the relationship between mother and daughter. Composed of a number of discrete sections, many of which are shot as continuous circular pans, the film takes place in a range of domestic and public spaces, shot in locations which include Malcolm LeGrice’s kitchen and Stephen Dwoskin’s bedroom. BFI
Featuring Richard Heslop, Marc Karlin and Derek Jarman.
This new exhibition draws together works from three strikingly independent filmmakers key to the radical trajectory of the post-1976 English underground movement. Connected by themes of left field personal politics, history and nationality, and marked by an intense visual sensibility, Richard Heslop, Marc Karlin and Derek Jarman developed work both technically original and aesthetically radical.
WEEK TWO: THU 13 – SAT 15 JUNE EXHIBITION & EVENTS PROGRAMME
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Thu 13-Sat 15 June, 12-5pm daily
EXHIBITION // Marc Karlin
Described as one of the most significant unknown film-makers working in Britain during the past three decades, Karlin (1943 – 1999) was a central figure in the radical avant-garde of the 1970s and made a major contribution to the shaping of Channel 4. Newly digitised works are shown including Utopias (1989), For Memory (1986), and Between Times (1993) alongside a one-off screening of Nightcleaners (1975) on Saturday 15 June. Courtesy the Marc Karlin Archive.
Thu 13 & Fri 14 Jun, 12-5pm // Utopias (2h 15m) and Between Times (50m)
Sat 15 Jun, 12-2.15pm // Utopias (2h 15m) and For Memory (1h 44m)
Sat 15 June, 2.15pm (admission £3 on the door)
SCREENING // Nightcleaners [dir: Berwick Street Collective, 1975, 90m]
A documentary about the campaign to unionise the women who cleaned office blocks at night and who were being victimised and underpaid. Nightcleaners is increasingly recognised as a key work of the 1970s and an important precursor, in both subject matter and form, to political art practice. Courtesy LUX.