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
Marc Karlin Archive with Open City Docs, supported by University College London’s Institute of the Americas, presents:
RETURN TO NICARAGUA
The process of revolution through Marc Karlin’s remarkable documentary series
Free screenings, panels and dialogues
Fri 21 – Sun 23 November 2014
UCL, Darwin Building, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT
Nearest tube: Euston Square/Russell Square
35 years on from the Sandinista revolution, a very rare opportunity to view one of the most committed documentary projects of the late twentieth century in its entirety – Marc Karlin’s Nicaragua series (1985/1991).
International guests, including world-renowned photographer Susan Meiselas, and Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, offer first hand testimony together with Karlin’s film-making team:cinematographer Jonathan Bloom, former Channel 4 Commissioning Editor, Alan Fountain, researcher Hermione Harris and editor Monica
19.00 Welcome – Hermione Harris
Nicaragua Part 1: Voyages (1985)
20.15- 21.00 Q&A with Susan Meiselas
09.30 Tea and Coffee
10.00 Introduction by Andy Robson
10.15 Nicaragua Part 2: The Making of a Nation (1985) (80mins)
11.45 Q&A with Jonathan Bloom.
13.30 Nicaragua Part 3: In Their Time (1985) (70mins)
14.40 Nicaragua Part 4: Changes (1985) (89mins)
17.00-18.30 Platform 1: Revolution and Memory. Chaired by Holly Aylett,
with Jonathan Bloom, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Alan Fountain, Hermione
Harris, Monica Henriquez and Susan Meiselas.
10.00 Scenes For A Revolution (1991) (110mins)
12.00–13.30 Platform 2: Open discussion. Chaired by Holly Aylett
with guest speakers.
Marc Karlin (1943-1999)
On his death in 1999, Marc Karlin was described as Britain’s most significant, unknown film-maker. For three decades, he had been a key figure within Britain’s independent film community; he was a founding member of the influential seventies collective, the Berwick Street Film Collective; a leading player in the Independent Filmmakers Association, which played a critical role in opening up television through Channel 4, and a founding member of the group that published the independent film journal, Vertigo, (1993 – 2010).
Marc Karlin: Look Again, focusing on Karlin’s twelve essay documentaries between 1980 –1999, will be published by Liverpool University Press in Spring 2015. This is one of the outputs of The Marc Karlin Archive, set up by Holly Aylett, fellow documentarist and founder member of Vertigo; anthropologist, Hermione Harris, partner of Marc Karlin, and film archivist, Andy Robson. Since 2011, the Archive has organised and preserved Marc Karlin’s film and paper archive, and introduced new audiences to his work through events and screenings.
Please contact Andy Robson, Film Archivist at the Marc Karlin Archive
for more details.
Utopias’ Treatment ©The Marc Karlin Archive
(Music) Edward Elgar-Cello Concerto in E minor
V/O (Archive) Socialism is a very attractive idea and could remain a very attractive idea so long as there were not many,at best none, socialist governments.
V/O (Archive) If you begin to tamper with economic freedom, you find it doesn’t work very well, therefore you have to go further and impose further controls on the economic activities in order to get the result you want. And in doing that you run up against increasing resistance from ordinary people and in order to beat down that resistance you have to limit their political freedoms too.
V/O (Archive) It is hard to access the damage the welfare state has done in Britain to the spirit of independence and social conventions that impel people to overcome their own poverty.
V/O (Marc Karlin) The one crisis Socialists were not able to predict was their own. Socialism once thought of being inevitable is now replaced as a socialism that is remote, at best half remembered. Unable to state confidently a vision of the future, yet in the name of renewal and adaptation, impatient to shed its past.
V/O (Marc Karlin) Everyone speaks about socialism as if we all know what it is – for it or against it. When people are saying farewell to socialism, this is a film about what it is they are saying farewell to, a series of portraits of individuals and their ideas one might encounter on a journey through the life of socialism in Britain today.
V/O (Marc Karlin) The film is not about definitions it is more an invitation to see whether there is still a place for the word us in the current political vocabulary.
Channel 4 broadcast ‘Utopias’ on Monday 1st May 1989 at 10.45pm.
Voyages (1985), the first part in Marc Karlin’s extraordinary Nicaraguan series, comprises of stills by the American photographer Susan Meiselas. Between 1978 and 1979, Meiselas captured the two revolutionary insurrections which brought the FSLN to power in Nicaragua, overthrowing the fifty year dictatorship of the Somoza family. The film is in the form of a letter, written by Meiselas to Karlin. 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.
The film is composed of five tracking shots, each approximately ten minutes in length. Shot in a studio by Karlin’s cinematographer, Jonathan Bloom, the camera glides slowly over Meiselas’ blown up stills, shifting focus between images in the background and foreground, allowing the editing to be achieved in camera. The mediative camera movement accompanying Meiselas’ words, creates a distance for the audience, reflecting the photographer’s own separation from the events she witnessed. The studio space was a form Karlin used repeatedly, layering his films with structured, contemplative intervals in between segments of exterior, vérité investigation. Inside the ‘dark chamber’ objects, figures and monitors bearing images are caught in a single shot, gradually revealed by the meandering camera movement. The studio acts as a immersive space of thought and pre-empts the installations and large scale multi-screen projections within the gallery space today.
A new cut of Voyages is now being shown at Iniva in a film programme curated by The Otolith Collective. When broadcast by Channel 4 in October 1985, the film drew criticism due to the fact that Meiselas’ words were narrated by a British actress, whose RP delivery lends the film an unwanted class distinction. A letter from the archive explains Karlin’s decision. Originally, Karlin wanted to narrate the film. This was strongly objected to by Alan Fountain, the commissioning editor of Channel 4’s The Eleventh Hour, on the grounds of feminist politics – it was a women’s experience therefore a woman should read it. Karlin disagreed, feeling that after the popular revolution, men and women should be able to work together, and not be seen as appropriating a women’s experience. Already having reservations about the possibility of sustaining a British audience’s attention at 10pm with 45 minutes of stills, Karlin’s own doubt unfortunately kicked in – would his voice bore the audience?
Karlin went back to the drawing board and produced three choices, 1. to get Meiselas to read the letter out herself. 2. To get an American to play Meiselas. 3. To get an English woman to read the letter. Karlin adamantly stated the original intention of the film was that the letter would be read out by the receiver, rather than the writer. If he used Meiselas’ voice, it would be the sender’s voice addressing the images rendering the film one-dimensional. If he used an American voice, the same objections regarding the sender/receiver objections would come into play. So, Karlin opted for a female, English voice; albeit one that connoted privilege, running contrary to progressive politics at the time and the new found pluralism of Channel 4.
Recently in the archive, a recorded voiceover by Marc Karlin was discovered on a umatic, and after a discussion between Susan Meiselas and Hermione Harris, Karlin’s partner, it was decided Karlin’s voice would narrate the film. Voyages is being screened at Iniva until the 18 May.
The Serpent (1997) is a drama-documentary about Rupert Murdoch. Borrowing from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Karlin
tells the tale of commuter Michael Deakin (Nicholas Farrell), self appointed archangel, who falls asleep on his train and dreams of ridding Britain of the Dark Prince (Rupert Murdoch). The Voice of Reason stops him and not only exposes the futility of Deakin’s quest but confronts us, the silent majority, with our complicity in Murdoch’s rise to power.
Karlin guides us through the labyrinth of Murdoch’s psyche. Firstly ‘The Museum of the Fall’, a fable-like archive containing artefacts of Murdoch’s empire, where human sculptures display tabloid headlines that alter with the public mood, and where page three girls reveal the industrialisation of sex. Secondly, the telling silence that greets Murdoch’s 1989 address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, where he calls for increased deregulation of television in the face of censorship. The Voice of Reason indicates to Deakin, “this is the silence of democrats … and the Dark Prince could bathe in that silence”
Karlin’s film is a stinging indictment on the Left’s failure to counter Murdoch’s increasing influence in the British media since the late 1960s, and consequently reveals the Left’s tendency to create their own monsters (Murdoch) in order to conceal their guilt. As Karlin remarks in an interview before his death, “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.” Fifteen years later, over to you Lord Justice Leveson…
The Q&A is chaired by Picture This’ Dan Kidner, with Holly Aylett and Karlin’s cinematographer Jonathan Bloom.
For Memory (originally TV and Memory) was a co-production between the BFI and the BBC. Marc Karlin started writing it in 1975, shot it between 1977 and 1978 and concluded editing in 1982. Ironically, a film about TV and Memory was forgotten. It remained neglected until the BBC finally broadcast the film in a sleepy afternoon slot in March 1986.
For Memory is a contemplation on cultural amnesia. Karlin, with his cinematographer Jonathan Bloom, built a model city in a studio. The camera snakes around the imagery city, seeking out fragile testimonies from voices that fail to conform to a collective history. It is an essay on a city that forgets and remembers, and how it forgets and how it remembers. Historians E.P Thompson and Cliff Williams, anti-fascist activist Charlie Goodman and Alzheimer sufferers deliver banished memories from outside the city’s bounds.
The film opens with an emotional interview with the members of the British Army Film Unit recalling the images they recorded after the liberation of the Belsen Concentration Camp. Karlin wrote For Memory as a reaction to Holocaust, Hollywood’s serialisation of the genocide. He asks: how could a documentary photograph die so soon and be taken over by a fiction?
The Q&A is chaired by Holly Aylett, documentary filmmaker, lecturer and cultural sector director, Luke Fowler, a Glasgow based artist and filmmaker, and Sheila Rowbotham, Writer in Residence at the Eccles Centre for American studies in the British Library.
The Serpent (1997) was originally entitled The Cancer in tribute to Dennis Potter, who named his pancreatic tumour “Rupert” in his famous interview with Melvyn Bragg. Potter, in a parting shot, stated he would love to shoot Rupert Murdoch, who not only lowered the standards of British journalism but had contributed to the wholesale pollution of British political discourse. The Serpent, Marc Karlin’s film broadcast on Channel 4 in 1997, is a fantasy drama-documentary told through Milton’s Paradise Lost. Rupert Murdoch is cast as the dark prince and Michael Deakin, played by Nicholas Farrell, a liberal, London based architect, sets out to destroy the mogul who has made England, “a hard, sniggering, resentful, hard shoulder of a place”.
What stops Deakin in this quest is his Voice of Reason, “Could it really be the devil that has given you 5,000 channels – soaps, sport, sci-fi, music, games, arts, education, videos on demand, data services? Free will on this earth has been restored and, according to you it is the devil that has done it”. Karlin’s film is an indictment on the liberal establishment’s failure to do anything about Murdoch’s increasing influence in British media. He reveals how readily the Left of the 1980s and 90s have created their own demons in order to conceal their own stagnation.
Karlin integrates footage of Murdoch’s 1989 address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival to illustrate the sheer lack of any oppostion. The camera zooms in on the audience of British TV executives, who listen in respectful silence as this self-styled champion of liberty mounts a pulpit to accuse them of waging the same sort of thought control as the established church before the invention of the printing press. The Voice of Reason indicates to Deakin, “this is the silence of democrats … and the Dark Prince could bathe in that silence”
Here is an excerpt from a Radio 4 interview broadcast in February 1999. Marc is being interviewed by Patrick Wright on his Outriders programme.
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!
The Serpent is a pertinent reminder of our own culpability surrounding Murdoch’s rise to power, like a cancer being very much part of us and not a foreign body however strongly we deny its existence. The film succeeds in offering a passionate and multifaceted argument to the present debate, overshadowed by the relationship between the press and politicians, and one that perhaps is being neglected by the Leveson Inquiry.
The film was recently screen at the Arnolfini at the Mark Karlin weekend with Picture This. A Q&A with Jonathan Bloom, The Serpent’s cinemathagrapher, Holly Aylett, former editor of Vertigo Magazine, and Picture This‘ Dan Kidner will go up shortly.