Channel 4’s weekly press packs (1982-2002) ‘were the most comprehensive digest of programme information that any UK broadcaster supplied to the press’ and they offer an unique insight into Marc Karlin’s creative approach towards his ‘Nicaragua’ series. The films were broadcast on consecutive Monday nights at 10pm from 14th October 1985, in Channel 4’s The Eleventh Hour slot. Early promotion of Nicaragua lists working titles to each of the films and from these titles its clear that Karlin purposefully staggered the mode of address for the television audience. Karlin’s believed that for a new and foreign audience to discover post-revolutionary Nicaragua in 1985, they would have to sift through the existing filters imposed by mainstream broadcasters that had left Nicaragua and its history entirely obscured.
First on the production schedule was Voyages From Far Away. It was a studio shoot, filmed in London. Displays bearing blown stills of Susan Meiselas’ photography depicting the two insurrections in Nicaragua 1978/79 were erected to allow Jonathan Bloom’s (the cinematographer on the series) camerawork to glide around them. Karlin believed that before geographically going to Nicaragua you had to interrogate the images coming out of the country first. This rule applied not just to the audience, but also to the film crew who would then travel to Nicaragua after the studio shot. From then on, with each segment, the camera and the audience would get closer to Nicaragua. The second film is an ‘establishing shot’ concentrating on the wide-ranging efforts of Sandinistas to recover their buried history. Then, there is ‘medium close up’ documenting the daily process of a Nicaragua newspaper. Finally, ‘a close up’, with a portrait of farmers in one of the most reactionary regions of Nicaragua, voicing their memories and their future fears.
The first film, Voyages From Far Away, this programme captures the inherent contradictions which inevitably result from being an outside in the middle of somebody else’s political struggle.
The second film, Nearer – The Making of a Nation examines how the Nicaraguans are recovering a sense of their own history, and through that a sense of their own nationhood, after half a century of being ruled as if they were a private limited company owned by the Somoza family.
The third film, Medium Close Up – In Their Time documents the way the Sandinsita newspaper, Barricada represents Nicaragua to its readers through several different reports on the war, the economy, the prison system and the political process leading up to the elections.
The final film, Portrait of a Region, is a more ethnographic film on the daily life of a village during the elections.
A booklet, New Independents on Four, produced by the Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department in 1983, comments,
…Karlin goes behind familiar Third World imagery to explore the deeper hidden feeling of what is at stake in a country like Nicaragua, developing for itself a new identity, nationhood and memory. What tensions and strains twist and contort that process in a country that builds itself between the conflicting claims of the USA (the heroic socialist struggle) and the Catholic church (the divine hand of God). Marc Karlin’s work through films like The Nightcleaners and 36 to 77 has been crucial to the development of new documentary forms adequate to the complexities of contemporary reality; in an invaluable combination of analysis, reflexivity and feeling his work points towards a truly politically responsive cinema…
Indeed, Karlin had received criticism from some quarters, notably The Nicaragua Solidarity Committee, for not producing a tubthumping portrayal of this new socialist utopia. But as Karlin’s partner Hermione Harris, who was in Nicaragua at the time of the revolution, points out Karlin’s films are not triumphalist works,
…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… 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… This focus on real lives leaves space for contradiction and opposition…
It is for this reason that Karlin stated his frustration of the scheduling of Werner Herzog’s film Ballad of the Little Soldier in a letter to Alan Fountain, the commissioning editor of the Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department. Herzog’s film focuses on the Miskito Indians, a group located in north Nicaragua who had formed anti-Sandinista guerrilla style organisations. The channel broadcast the film in between Karlin’s Nicaragua series on the basis of ‘bringing balance’ to the debate, something that Karlin thought he had already delivered upon.
Fountain, Alan. (1982) New Independents On Four. London: Channel Four.
Sandino Vive – Marc Karlin’s Nicaragua Series By Hermione Harris, Vertigo Volume 2 | Issue 7 | Autumn-Winter 2004
Marc Karlin – Look Again. Edited by Holly Aylett. Available here
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
Friday, October 30th 6:30pm
With SUSAN MEISELAS and HERMIONE HARRIS
VOYAGES (1985), 42 min.
SCENES FOR A REVOLUTION (1991), 110 min.
MARK KARLIN (1943-1999), one of the greatest British filmmakers of his generation, created an outstanding body of philosophically rich, formally bold work that explored themes of history, memory, labour, and political agency in a time of neoliberal despair.
Foremost among his achievements are the five films he made on the Nicaraguan revolution: spanning the Sandinista decade, focussing on rural and urban grassroots movements, attentive to the sadness and disappointments of the revolutionary process, they are a remarkable chronicle of a remarkable era.
MEMORY AND ILLUMINATION: THE FILMS OF MARC KARLIN, the first US retrospective of his work, begins with two works from this period. VOYAGES (1985) is composed of stills by renowned Magnum photographer SUSAN MEISELAS taken in 1978 and 1979 during the overthrow of the fifty-year dictatorship of the Somoza family. Written in the form of a letter from Meiselas to Karlin, it is a ruminative and often profound exploration of the ethics of witnessing, the responsibilities of war photography and the politics of the still image,
SCENES FOR A REVOLUTION (1991) is a film about aftermaths and reckonings. Revisiting material for his earlier 4-part series (1985), Karlin returns to Nicaragua to examine the history of the Sandinista government, consider its achievements, and assess the prospects for democracy following its defeat in the general election of 1990.
Post screening discussion with:
Susan Meiselas, Magnum photographer since 1980 and 1992 MacArthur Fellow.
Hermione Harris, Marc Karlin Archive.
Jonathan Buchsbaum, author of Cinema Sandinista: Filmmaking in Revolutionary Nicaragua, 1979-1990.
Susie Linfield, author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence.
Organized by Sukhdev Sandhu. QUERIES: firstname.lastname@example.org
Presented by THE COLLOQUIUM FOR UNPOPULAR CULTURE and KING JUAN CARLOS I OF SPAIN CENTER.
Carlos Fernando Chamorro invites Hermione Harris and Holly Aylett to discuss the cinema of Marc Karlin on his chat show Esta Noche. Thanks to Confidencial. (Sorry no English subs).
Hermione Harris and Holly Aylett have returned to Nicaragua this week to screen Marc Karlin’s Nicaragua Series (1985/1991), the first time the series has been seen in Nicaragua. Here is the trailer presented by Carlos Fernando Chamorro’s company Confidencial.