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
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!
From over two years ago now – as part of the Iniva’s Keywords exhibition and programmed by The Otolith Collective – the Militant Image presents Penny Stempel’s rarely screened film In the National Interest? (1986). (16/05/2013)
Penny Stempel’s seminal film, co-directed by Chris Rushton, looks at those sections of British society targeted by the government, the judicial system and the police in the name of the national interest in Britain in the 1980s. The film assesses the legitimation crisis of the British state by exploring the connections between trade union struggles, racial attacks and processes of criminalisation.
In the National Interest? was produced by Cardiff based Chapter Video Workshop, co-founded by Stempel and Rushton, a franchised workshop under the ACTT Workshop Declaration – an act that facilitated the funding of film and video workshops to produce work for television. This allowed the groups, already working on directly politically and socially engaged film-making, to consolidate their activities. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, Stempel had worked closely with Wales’ mining community, recording testimonies that contributed to the widely distributed Miners Campaign Tapes. Upon viewing this, Alan Fountain, the Commissioning Editor of Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department (IFVD), approached Chapter to make a film for Channel 4’s People to People strand.
In the National Interest? was made in a unique and unprecedented cooperation with other independent film and video workshops including ABSC Film and Video, Activision Studios, Albany Video, Another View, Belfast Independent Video, Biased Tapes, Black Audio Film Collective, Derry Film & Video Collective, Faction Films, Films at Work,Open Eye, Sankofa, Sheffield Asian Film and Video, Trade Films, TUTV and Women in Sync. Seemingly galvanised by the Miner’s Strike, these workshops donated film and video material from their own campaigns to Chapter for integration within In the National Interest?
In the discussion that follows, Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar of The Otolith Collective, remark on this ‘cinema of coalition’ that links up other struggles within Britain’s ‘geography of resistance’ at the time. The discussion also explores the complex and controversial production history of In the National Interest?, the formation of the workshop movement in 1980s Britain, the struggles of the workshops to invent a new language for television, the role played by the Independent Film and Television Department at Channel 4 and the legacies of oppositional film in Britain in the present.
This was a Militant Image event, an ongoing programme in which Iniva investigates radical film practice in association with the Otolith Group and with the support of the Department of Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London.