Sheffield Hallam University Thursday, 13 June 2013 from 10:30 to 18:00 (BST) Sheffield, United Kingdom
“We want to make films that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that do not soft-sell” Robert Kramer, ‘Newsreel’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Winter, 1968-69), p.46, University of California Press
The late ’60s and ’70s saw the development of documentary film collectives in the UK that addressed the burning political issues of their day. They developed radical forms of independent film production and distribution prior to digital or the web and produced a large body of work, from short agitational cinetracts to sophisticated essayistic features.
The symposium seeks to re-ignite the work of this radical wave, to ask how they engaged with politics and film and how this might inform politically engaged filmmaking today. It will feature films, and filmmakers, from the ’70s generation alongside radicals of today.
Keynote Speaker: Federico Rossin (Critic and Curator)
Panelists include: Holly Aylett (Vertigo and ‘In the Spirit of Marc Karlin’ project) · Luke Fowler (Artist, Turner Prize Nominee 2012) · Lina Gopaul and David Lawson (Black Audio Film Collective/Smoking Dog Films) · Ann Gueddes (Founder of Cinema Action) · Dan Kidner (Writer and Curator, recently published ‘Working Together: Notes on British Film Collectives in the 1970s’) · Christine Molloy (Artist, Desperate Optimists) · David Panos (Artist, Jarman Award Winner 2011) · Steve Sprung (Cinema Action/Poster Film Collective/Lusia Films)
RELATED TICKETED SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST SCREENINGS:
Wednesday 12 June · 18:45 · Showroom 2
‘The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott‘ (2012) by Luke Fowler
Thursday 13 June · 20:45 · Sheffield Library Theatre
‘The Stuart Hall Project‘ (2012) by John Akomfrah
The symposium is supported by: Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield Institute of Arts, Art and Design Research Centre, Sheffield Doc/Fest
Producers: Virginia Heath, Esther Johnson, Steve Sprung
Enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org · +44 (0)114 225 6918
The Year of the Beaver (1985), directed by Steve Sprung, Dave Fox and Sylvia Stevens, recently screened by Radical Islington earlier this month, focuses on the industrial dispute at the Grunwicks photographic processing plant in Willesden, London in the summer of 1977. The workforce, predominately consisting of British Asian women, most of whom had only recently arrived in the UK, decided to go on strike over the issue of trade union recognition. The strike lasted for two years.
Jack Jones, the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) under the Callaghan government, had tagged 1977 the ‘Year of the Beaver’ in an endeavour to encourage productivity and revitalise confidence in union-management relations. Contrary to this optimism, weaving workers interviews with news footage, the film reveals issues of race and gender discrimination in the workplace, media misrepresentation and dubious trade union conduct, all intensified on the picket line by an excessive police presence. Fundamentally, Year of the Beaver reveals the epoch transition from the post-war consensus in Britain, underpinned by the Keynesian economic model, to the neo-liberalist attitudes and policies adopted by the Thatcher government. The film depicts the inauguration of the post-Fordist paradigm – the casualised, flexible, temporary, outsourced working life to which we have now grown accustomed.
Steve Sprung, the film’s co-director and editor, was a member of Cinema Action, a leading independent film group, which became one of Channel 4’s first ‘independent sector’ workshops, a founder member of Faction Films and member of the Poster-Film Collective. In addition, Steve was a key collaborator with Marc Karlin and Lusia Films. Here is an excert from a wonderful article written by Steve for Vertigo magazine recalling his collaboration with Marc Karlin.
It was this Thatcher period which formed the context for my work with and for Marc. My background had been in a more agitational cinema, but I had been struggling for years, labouring away in the basement under Lusia Films, with a film about a failed strike under the previous Labour government, and its role in laying the ground for the Thatcherism that was to come. How to talk about events which had been mischaracterised both by the dominant media industry and by the working classes’ own trade union and political organisations? How to reveal this massive content, tell this necessary story, and find an adequate form in which to do it? This film, The Year of the Beaver, finally emerged in the early eighties. It manages to create multiple layers of meaning, drawing connections between the myriad things it had been necessary to take on board. When he saw it, Marc hugged me. This, I felt, was our first real meeting.
Steve Sprung would act as cameraman, editor and narrator on five films directed by Marc Karlin, including Between Times (1993), an essay on the future of the left and the search for viable alternatives, and The Serpent (1997), an indictment of the left’s demonising of Rupert Murdoch. Here are the first thirty minutes of The Year of the Beaver (1985).
The Year of the Beaver
UK 1985 Dir. Dave Fox/Steve Sprung/Sylvia Stevens. 77 min 16mm/b&w/2772 feet
Script SPRUNG, Steve
Script STEVENS, Sylvia
Script FOX, David
Director of Photography SCHESARI, Nancy
Director of Photography SPRUNG, Steve
Photography SPRUNG, Steve
Production crew SCHESARI, Nancy
Editor SPRUNG, Steve
Editor STEVENS, Sylvia
Editor FOX, David
Editorial consultant RONAY, Esther
Title Design GREEN, David
Sound Editor MacGILLIVRAY, Carol
Narrator LAMONT, Anne
Narrator SPRUNG, Steve
Other Cinema Ltd – Foreign Theatrical Distributor
Poster-Film Collective – Production Company
Faction Films – Production CompanyGLC Productions, Inc. – Producer Credit
Just before Marc Karlin’s death, film-maker Isaac Julien remarked, ‘The reason why his (Karlin’s) work is still screened, is because he is seen as like the Chris Marker or Jean Luc Godard of the British independent scene. He was more or less the only person representing that sort of voice, that sort of perspective’.
Indeed Marker’s reflection on images, the media and their relationship with memory and with human subjectivity are themes shared by Karlin. And in terms of form, both film-makers are key to deploy alternating commentaries on history and society, with private musings and recollections. It is a voice that constantly shifts in linguistic registers, adopting poetic and prosaic tones in order to shake an amnesia strikened history.
Marc called Marker ‘The Monk’, on account of his reclusive nature and mythical standing with his contemporaries. Up until his death last month, Marker rarely granted interviews, opting to leave calling cards such as pictures of cats or owls. It is clear that Marker was a key influence on Marc, but what has been forgotten is Marc Karlin and Chris Marker were actually long-standing-collaborators. He met Marker during May ’68 while Marker was working on Cine-Tracts (1968) with Jean-Luc Godard. 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.
Born in 1900, Medvedkin was little known outside of his homeland unlike his contemporaries, Sergei Eisentstein and Dziga Vertov. Marker was drawn to Medvedkin after viewing his film Happiness (1934) in 1961, a satirical fantasy that promoted the benefits of collectivisation. The American writer Jay Leyda, who wrote Kino: A History Of The Russian And Soviet Film, introduced Marker to Medvedkin at the Leizig Film Festival in November 1967. This meeting resulted in Marker’s next film, Le Train en marche (1971) an attempt to explain the myth of Medvedkin’s kino-poezd/cine train, the impact it had on cinema and the practices it could inspire in democratic film-making.
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 political film-making. In London, Karlin and other kindred spirits 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”.
Marc recalls being asked to shoot the English version of Marker’s The Train Rolls On in the mid-1970s. “If Chris asked you to do something you did it: There was no question”. Marker instructed Marc to film at Peugeot car factory, where Marker wanted to make a film on car workers. He couldn’t go in person as he was known to the officials as an agitator. Working under the pretense he was making a film for the Common Market, Peugeot responsed by putting Marc and his crew in a luxury hotel in Paris.
Choosing not to approach filming the monotonous labour of the workers in a Godardian way, Marc found inspiration in how the workers for a few seconds would cease work,
“all they did was boom, boom, boom. Then I noticed that the workers on the assembly line would come up like fish for air. They would not touch, and they would open their mouths. The Peugeot people were so canny, because they would put together a Moroccan, Portuguese, French and an Italian, so no one could actually speak to each other because on one knew each other’s lanuguage. That was why an excessive amount of touching was going on. I said to the cameraman, ‘Look, that’s how we film. We don’t film the work, because we can show that in twenty or thirty seconds. But we can film these people gasping for air. Or touching, whatever’. That is what we filmed. And then the audience had to imagine. What does it take for somebody to come up for air like that? Or touch? Those are the questions; when you talk about images of labour, how do you film labour?”
In the mid 1970s, Marker contacted left-wing filmmakers and groups to send him their offcuts. As Marker was ‘le maitre’, Marc agreed. Here Marc describes Marker’s studio upon a visit, “Chris had a garage, a huge studio with drainpipes all across it. It was vast, and he put these little rolls of films all along the drainpipes, and then divided it onto countries, so you had Columbia, Peru, Cuba, Africa and so on. I entered this garage to find all these films from all these countries: the whole world was there. Right at the end there was Chris Marker on a platform with his editing table, and he looked like God. You had to walk past these films to reach him and sit down”.
The film became Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977). It focused on the doomed optimism of left-wing activism from the second half of the 20th century. The ‘red in the air’ implying the socialist project only existed in the air, communicated only by a dream language. Again, Marc did the English version, A Grin without a Cat (1988) for Channel 4. Running shorter than Marker’s film and adding a new voice cast including Jim Broadbent and Cyril Cusack.
A Grin Without A Cat Channel 4 Contract. © The Marc Karlin Archive
Around this time, Marc, in need of political inspiration, wanted to make a film about Chris Marker that would use Marker’s images, entitled, I Am Writing To You From A Distant Country… In keeping with Marker’s style, it begins with a letter followed by a montage of stills and sequences from Letters From Siberia (1957), Le joli mai (1963), La jetée (1962) and Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) . From the treatment, we see the intention – to locate a time-travelling Marker. Marc asks, who is this letter writer and traveller? How do we recognise him?.. What does he declare at customs? There are no photographs of him, no evidence other than his letters. He is a Martian, an astronaut, an 18th century time-traveller, a descendant of Vikings, a Marxist, a subversive, an old man of letters… There are traces but no apparition, we have the grin but no cat. But we know where he lives: in a house in Neuilly, painted outside with owls whose eyes glint in the dark…
Here is a rather faded, time travelling letter from Marc to the Monk, informing him of the project. It comes at a time where Marc is creatively and politically jaded – in ‘Thatcher’s trough’.
Letter to Chris Marker. © The Marc Karlin Archive
The film never materialised, undoubtedly sucked into a black hole. Undettered, Marc ploughed into his next project, Between Times (1993). Possessing dialectic discsussive voice-overs, Between Times is a clear nod to Marker. The film’s main focus is on the Thurcroft miners failed attempt to buy their colliery from British Coal and the search for fresh alternatives after the devisive general election defeat for the left in 1992. This new perspective draws optimism from the educational ethos at Northern College, a residential college dedicated to the education and training of men and women who are without formal qualifications. The film observes a key moment in the shifting attitudes and aspirations among the working class in Britain at the time and recalls a May ’68 slogan,
le pain pour tous mais aussi / bread for all but
The slogan is actually taken from a strike in March 1967 at the Rhodiaceta textile factory in Bresancon, France. The workers were not merely demanding higher wages but challenging the core oppression within capitalist society; wages yes, but what about education and cultural life? Chris Marker entered the strike on March 8 1967, resulting in the documentary À bientôt, j’espère (1967) (see below, sorry no Eng Subs) filmed by Marker between March 1967 and January 1968 with the Communist filmmaker Mario Marret and the SLON team.
As Trevor Stark points out in his excellent essay, “Cinema in the Hands of the people”; Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant film, the film À bientôt, j’espère emphasises the liberating experience of laying claim to sectors of life inaccessible to the worker: to creativity, to culture, to communication. Forty-two minutes into the documentary we see Pol Cébé, a factory worker from the working class district of Palente-les-Orchamps who had established a cultural programme for the local community and had regenerated the factory’s library with classic Marxist and Communist texts, in close-up state,
For us culture is a struggle, a claim. Just as with the right to have bread and lodgings, we claim the right to culture – it’s the same fight for culture as for union or in the political field.
À bientôt, j’espère is left purposley open-ended with little resolution, marked tellingly by Pol Cébé reciting the documentary’s title À bientôt, j’espère – ‘Hope To See You Soon’. The strike at Rhodiaceta achieved nothing but the broadening of class concsiousness that consequently lit the test paper for the events in Paris the following May. These concerns are resuscitated in Between Times. The miners are halted in their plan to buy their colliery and are pointed to the development of technology for optimism. Sadly, Marc Karlin observes the irony that before, a dream language could still be spoken, now the dreams are possible we no longer know how to speak it. Like À bientôt, j’espère, Between Times ends without a dialectical antithesis, leaving all but tension.
So he decided to keep his voices, make them argue, merge, split again. Be on high and on the ground. Anything to keep that sleepy logic at bay. But then there were those who were doing this all along…
These words are spoken over a slow tracking shot of a wildlife garden revealing in the foreground, a golden egg – Marker’s owl.
Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film, L, Rascaroli, (Columbia University Press:2009)
Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, C, Lupton, (Reaktion Books:2004)
Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, J, Leyda (Princeton University Press:1983)
“Cinema in the Hands of the people”; Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant film, T, Stark, (mitpressjournals:2012)
In an interview with Sheila Rowbotham, published in her book Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain written with Huw Beynon, Marc Karlin recalls his early films of the late 1960s before he entered into collective film-making with Cinema Action and the Berwick Street Collective . Sadly, no prints or negatives have been found in the Karlin’s film and video archive. This tantalising interview is the only lead so far.
Marc spent most of his childhood in Paris, Le Perreux. After being schooled in England, he later returned and became embroiled in the events of May 1968. A few years earlier, Marc filmed a conversation with an American deserter from the Vietnam War, Philip Wagner, who had landed in London on behalf of the Stop It Committee. By 1968, Wagner was in Paris. Marc, having been dissatisfied with the first film, decided to film Wagner again, this time with a French deserter from the Algeria War.
The film was called American Choice ’68. When he began to edit the film May 68 exploded. There was a strike of editors, who promptly sent Marc to a railway depot to ‘shoot reels for the revolution’. He struck up a friendship with a train driver and began filming him. The film was called Dead Man’s Wheel and focuses on the driver’s incredibly repetitive work routine. The film ends with the driver explaining this to students at the Sorbonne.
Karlin describes the scene, ‘He started explaining his work to the students, miming what he did in the train. Every fifteen seconds he had to clasp and unclasp the wheel, otherwise the train would stop. It was to stop him falling asleep and was called ‘dead man’s wheel’: he explained how ill the drivers were, because of this every fifteen seconds. It just tortured them. As he explains this, you can see the camera going round the students: they are completely bog-eyed about the worker, May 1968, the possibilities, the world that he came from. It was a hell of an introduction for me, that moment. A moment that you try to expand for years and years – but obviously you can’t‘.
In Marc’s obituary John Wyver writes the film ‘combines a deep respect for one human being with an analysis of one political, social and cultural moment’. Marc states he was very proud of the film and reveals it was shown at the NFT and remained popular in France. The hunt continues.
Sources – Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
The Berwick Street Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975) was filmed to support an attempt by the women’s movement to unionise London’s night cleaners. Shot in black and white, and punctuated with sections of black leader, Nightcleaners fuses political documentary with a rigorous reflection on the materiality of film and the problems of representing struggle. Here is a short scene.
The collective was founded by Marc Karlin, Humphry Treveleyan, Richard Mordaunt and James Scott. During the filming of Nightcleaners they were joined by artist Mary Kelly. Here is a bio from the early 1970s out of the archive.
Humphry Treveleyan and Marc Karlin were both members of Cinema Action, the left-wing film collective, in the late 1960s but both left dissatisfied with the group’s formal commitment to film-making. With Nightcleaners, those expecting a didactic film, found one that was nuanced and exploratory, both in terms of form and working class representation. The film used black spacing which slowly draws contemplation from the viewer and the fragmented soundtrack, together with time lapse sequences, applied pressure on the image, questioning its ability to record actuality. At the time, Screen journal declared it undoubtedly the most ‘important political film to have been made in this country’ and predicted it ‘to provide a basis for a new direction in British film-making’ . Claire Johnston’s Jump Cut review proclaimed Nightcleaners was ‘redefining the struggle for revolutionary cinema’.
The revolution failed to materialise and Nightcleaners remained firmly underground. Naturally being a collective project, Nightcleaners seeps many histories and it remains a complicated assignment to gain an exact understanding of the creative intentions of the film from those involved. To this day tensions linger, as you can witness from the exchanges between feminist writer Sheila Rowbotham, a campaigner with the Cleaners Action Group at the time, and Humphry Teveleyan in the Q&A.
That is not to say Nightcleaners ever went away. Indeed, Mike Sperlinger, LUX’s Assistant Director, states from 2002 onwards the film had regular screenings with many different audiences, striking a political chord particularly in a time where the erosion of the trade unions of the 1980s has noticeably come home to roost. Mike also observes a renewed interest in materialist film practises in oppositional film over the past ten years and Humphry Trevelyan adds the film has been adopted recently by the Occupy movement with a screening at UCL.
Nightcleaners (1974) and it’s ‘sequel’ 36′ to 77′ (1978) will soon be released by LUX on DVD.
This Q&A is chaired by Picture This director Dan Kidner with Mike Sperlinger and Humphry Treveleyan and poses the question; does a film need to explore form as well as content to be political?
A research project focusing on the work of British Filmmaker Marc Karlin (1943-99).
In the Spirit of Marc Karlin was set up by Holly Aylett, fellow documentarist and founder member of Vertigo, Hermione Harris, anthropologist, collaborator on Nicaraguan project and partner of Marc Karlin, and film archivist Andy Robson. It aims to secure Marc’s film and paper archive, to facilitate research and publication, and to build a platform for future generations to have access to Marc’s work.
Marc Karlin is an important but neglected figure within the British film avant-garde of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. He was a founder member of the film collectives Cinema Action and the Berwick Street Film Collective, an active member of the film union ACTT and the Independent Filmmakers Association, and he established the journal of independent film, Vertigo, in 1993.
His groundbreaking films for television in the 80s and 90s combined documentary and fiction film tropes to explore the themes of memory, history and political agency. Karlin was, resolutely, a political filmmaker, but his dense, yet subtle films are also rich meditations on the nature of filmmaking, the formation and collapse of ideologies, and the endurance of the human spirit.
This project aims to secure Marc’s film and paper archive, to facilitate research and publication, and to build a platform for future generations to have access to Marc’s work.