Vertigo is grateful to the BBC and Patrick Wright for permission to print the following interview with Marc Karlin, which was broadcast in the Radio 3 series Outriders on Tuesday, 2 February 1999.
Patrick Wright: The conversation in tonight’s programme is just as we recorded it a few weeks ago, and yet everything has changed by the fact that Marc Karlin died suddenly last month, aged only fifty-five. At a time when many seem to be abandoning all critical perspective in the rush to keep up with the market, Marc Karlin stuck to higher ground, insisting that truth mattered as much as hope, and that the role of film was often to cut through received or manipulated appearances. I met him at the offices of his company Lusia Films in London’s Goodge Place, and I began by asking him what exactly he did.
Marc Karlin: Like all artists – artisans – I spend most of my time staring out the window. Apart from that, I make films. Lusia is an independent company in the sense that it affords its facilities to independent filmmakers, at very low rates, with the best equipment you can possibly have. And it publishes a magazine called Vertigo, which is an independent film magazine, to defend the notion and nature of independence as we see it. Independence doesn’t simply mean a plc after your name, but there’s an ethic behind it, and an aesthetic.
There are people who use the facilities, the equipment, to make their films. The way of editing films now is on digital equipment, and there is this terrible piece of equipment called the Avid. And the Avid is really a producer’s tool now, not a director’s tool, because the producer can come and crunch numbers. And in fact, in some Avids, there’s almost like a taxi-meter, registering how many hours the editor has been there, and how many cuts he or she has made. And of course everybody can number crunch, that’s one. Two, the Avid is used to disguise a lot of narrative holes that most filmmakers now make because they are ill-trained – a lot of people are not trained, they don’t know how to narrate a film, or construct one, or whatever. But, with the Avid, you can make lots of tricks, and you can see Avid edited films now on television…
PW: Even if you miss out a vital sequence you can…
MK: You can dodge it, you can slow it, you can reframe it, you can make it black and white, you can go upside down and sideways. It’s editing by tricks. The reverse side of that coin is that actually the Avid gives the creative person an enormous possibility of making the film in the editing, and, if it’s used creatively, it’s incredible. I mean an example of that was Chris Petit’s and Iain Sinclair’s film The Falconer. And you can really work on the image, on the text of the image, on the quality of it, on the feeling of it, and it really is like a painter’s tool, and, if it’s done with a sensibility, as opposed to a trickery, it’s an incredible piece of equipment.
PW: So, in a way you are winning over the new possibilities – or contrary possibilities, perhaps, of the new technology?
MK: Yes. But the problem is, it’s used by – let’s say television – as a replacement for the human being.
PW: Marc, you’ve been working in independent film for thirty years or something like that. I remember, in the seventies, you made a film called Nightcleaners with the Berwick Street Collective. This was a black and white film about the women who used to go out at night to clean the offices of the financial palaces in the City of London… many of them immigrants, many of them without correct papers, all of them very poorly paid and invisible. That was a film that came out of a very clear left wing avant-garde aesthetic. What’s changed for you since then?
MK: Well, the direct answer to that is that the nightcleaners haven’t changed, and it always comes back to this idea, you know, of 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…
PW: And what about the politics?
MK: The film was about the distance between the women who organise – the Women’s Liberation movement, who were there to leaflet on behalf of the trade union and try to get nightcleaners involved, and so on. The film was about distances. 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.
PW: Another preoccupation of yours, which I think you’ve carried with you and worked over for thirty or so years – this is in your own film-making – is memory… You made a film, which I believe the BBC broadcast… was this For Memory?
MK: For Memory, yes.
PW: Now, you opened this film with interviews, long interviews, very still, and no movement of the camera – just these men talking about having gone into Belsen. You move through old peoples’ homes, where Alzheimer’s sufferers were revealing themselves to have a kind of memory, although not quite the one that anyone would expect – I mean extraordinary moments of lucidity. You had the National Trust Theatre, with children, reviving or re-enacting, life on a Tudor ship. Memory seems to be a centrally important issue for you?
MK: Well 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. Well, that’s not true. There is an enormous amount of historical production…
PW: Production of memory…?
MK: Production of memory… And, you can be an amnesiac as long as you can either pull yourself, or you can be pulled at the moment of danger, to a historical site. So, you can walk around freely, not remembering anything, but suddenly the leash will come and you’ll be asked to remember. So I was interested in this memory production, which by and large took place in this imaginary city that I built out of architects’ models… Which is now, of course, if you look at For Memory, it’s exactly what’s happening in Docklands.
PW: The imaginary city which comes between all these interludes…?
MK: So it was a way of trying to think how, in the future, this imaginary city would remember. And it would remember because, at all hours of the night, at any given time, you could have a memory shown – you could have Queen Elizabeth, you could have Queen Victoria, you could have the dockers, and so on. So, people would glide on that memory, could touch it. And, then the third part of the film was to do with those who were outside the city walls, who were busily, continuously, producing historical memory. This is the left. We all know the left is fantastically good at orations, funerals, memories… all that. I really had to come to grips with how such a dishonest, vulgar, horrible series as Holocaust could be so efficient, and how could I… so pristine, wonderful, imaginative, a poet!… be so inefficient. So, I had to meet that head on, and that was the reason for the film.
PW: I wonder if there wasn’t another dimension to this? As someone who comes out of the tradition of the cultural left, you have over the last twenty years or so, seen, as we all have, the disintegration of apparently most of the institutions, or the expectations, of that movement. Memory becomes a form of mourning in that connection, doesn’t it?
MK: I have never been keen on this mourning department of the left. I get hugely irritated by it actually. I find it totally unbearable. You can swim around in this kind of amniotic fluid of memories, and just go to sleep like a wonderful baby, like Tilda Swinton’s baby. So, I don’t belong to the mourning department.
PW: But you’re not talking about the sentimentality of being attached to a sort of inadequate, probably half-Stalinist past, which… I understand what you are saying, but at the same time you are looking at a century which has these hideously traumatic truths in it, which tend to be forgotten. I mean, you’re making a film now about a teenage girl who has to be struggled against if she is to understand that history has anything to teach her.
MK: I think history is, in that sense, in deep crisis. You know… what are we to remember? What are we to forget? Why remember? I mean there’s always this wonderful rhetoric about if you don’t remember you’re condemned to repeat, and all this kind of stuff. And, it kind of free flows, that rhetoric, and you have to really examine it… Why? I mean why? Why would somebody who’s totally not interested in history repeat mistakes? I think that’s much more interesting. For me. And you have to persuade this little girl that history is important because this little girl really does think that history is boring… It’s full of huge books, it’s dusty and it’s slow, and she has to live in slow-time! Whereas she loves living in fast-time. In fact, most of us have to live in slow-time, mid-time, and fast-time, and they all conflict. But this little girl has got one time and it’s pretty difficult, if you think about it, to be very moralistic.
I think that’s why I agree with Benjamin, that it is the dead on whose behalf you work half the time. You feel them, they’re with you. It depends upon what your attitude to death, mortality and so on is, and how you’re still recovering for the dead, how you’re still fighting for the dead. I think that’s, for me, very important. It would be my lack of humanity… it’s very difficult to describe to a twelve-year-old girl that she should be fighting on behalf of the dead but, you know, you have to present the idea that we’re not eternal, we are mortal, and that people have handed things to you. Actually the film I am doing now is on Milton. Poets have those secrets hidden within them, and you have to reveal those secrets.
PW: You’ve been making films successively… I mean, you’ve stayed alive, you’ve stayed in work… You may have had moments where it’s been pretty difficult to keep it going… It could fold, presumably, most days of the week… What is it that keeps you on the independent side? Why is it that you haven’t followed many of the people you’ve known in the past, and disappeared into senior echelons of the BBC? What is it that keeps you in Goodge Place?
MK: The idea of me disappearing into the echelons of the BBC is wonderful! I think the obsession is … there is one, again, coming back to Auden. I had this strange encounter with Auden in Bond Street tube station. It was at a time when I was making a film, or wanted to make a film, on the Thirties, because I thought the Thirties was like this ghostly presence, and they had to be re-examined and… I was very innocent and I didn’t know Auden was gay, and I went up to his seat and I said: “Look, Mr Auden, I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, blah, blah, blah, but I really want to make this film so could I meet you?” And he said: “Oh, dear boy, yes. Manchester Square” where he was staying in a flat. And I went up there and he opened the door and as he turned round I could see he had this huge hole in his trousers, revealing his polka dot pants, and I thought, it’s a grand poet – polka dot pants!? – grey flannel trousers with a hole!? In any case, we sat down and I started off, of course, asking him about his poem “Spain”. Why had he changed it? “Oh, dear boy,” he said, “you are not going to get at me for this, I am really bored with the Thirties and I’m bored with “Spain”, and being bored with why I should be political. Let me tell you… and please switch off that tape recorder…” He says: “The only thing a poet can do is protect the English language.” And, I thought, there’s a hell of a lot more I can think of a poet can do! But then, on thinking about it, the idea of that sort of passion for language is really what I think a filmmaker has to be, which is a passion for images and to protect them, to have a feeling for them. In no way to shoot a dishonest image or a dishonest edit or… Those cinematic values, you know, because everything now is so trickery and trickery.
You know, the first person who will film a face in ordinary light… To see how a hand moves – an image must actually take out what we all take for granted. The problem is that there are two kinds of film, if you like. There’s one film that I would call illustrative, whereby you go into cinema or television and you see – you don’t see, you recognise – it’s “heimat” or “at home”, it’s a feeling of pleasure at seeing life as we recognise it… under control. And then, there would be what I would call illuminations cinema, which is really what I’m after, whereby something that you have not seen or you’ve taken for granted or you’ve forgotten or whatever, is seen in such a way that it actually pierces that “I take it for granted – I’m at home.” It makes it strange. But it is actually about the relationship between images and the sounds, and what reality can be created, and protecting that. Deeply… deeply… deeply.
PW: One of your most recent films is called The Serpent, which went out on Channel Four last August. This is your film about Murdoch. It starts with a man on a train who is arrested because the train stops and he decides to think his way through Murdoch, to resist Murdoch as much as he can. It then moves into an account of what Murdoch has done to the television world, particularly in this country. You’ve got a thorough-going, rather fable-like museum of Murdoch’s imagination, which is full of models of Page 3 girls vulgarising beauty, and all the rest of it. A strong film, but also quite different from your early work, I thought, in that it’s actually very funny as well. You’ve got a new tone in these more recent pieces.
MK: Yes, it was about a man railing – I mean it was Don Quixote… Sort of – he will fight and he is single-handedly going to defeat Murdoch. It’s his ambition. But, we all do, you know… Walking along the street: Yes, I’m going to get rid of Blair tomorrow by twelve noon, or I’m going to revolutionise this or I’m going to transform that! He’s a daydreamer, he’s a liberal daydreamer, which of course makes him totally inefficient. So, in that sense he is a strange funny person with these children he can’t quite get around – twins who are totally awful. He’s continuously bemused.
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!
PW: Your character in The Serpent, he ends up basically in a loop. He ends up confronting the fact that he’s participated in the invention of this thing called Murdoch to such a point that he’s got nowhere to go but off in a taxi, where Murdoch seems to be driving. So his revolt is a form of ultimate consent.
MK: Yes, and there’s these Edinburgh people sitting there saying: “`Yeah, kill me, there’s nothing I can do, kill me!” Or when John Birt says, I’m going to give a thousand documents, none of which you will understand, but they all sum up to the fact that you’ll have short-term contracts, and that you will be limited in your creativity, or whatever… “Yeah, kill me!”
PW: Now Marc, many independent filmmakers, including people you’ve known for years I’m sure, have not survived. A lot of people have gone out of business, a lot of people have disappeared into a rather despairing sort of political separation. You, meanwhile, have stayed very closely engaged. I mean, you’re out there arguing, you run a magazine, you’re out there knocking on the doors of commissioning editors, you stamp the halls…?
MK: I like that: “Stamping the halls!” I got lost in the BBC, now I’m stamping ’em! That’s good! Yeah!
I think, really, what has informed the last fourteen years, and still does very much so, is fear. And I understand people who are fearful. You see, I’m lucky! I mean, what do I lose? I lose this, right? But I’ve always been losing this, every day I’ve been losing, but I think the idea of recovering centres whereby democratic dialogue can start again, and people can rise and say: “You cannot treat me this way… You cannot talk to me this way!” that, I think, is what is being slowly restored. The idea… You know, it’s not Habermas’ kind of rational communication, but it is something whereby you engage the opposition on a respectable level – that they have to respect you. That they can stop treating people like they have done. And, I think that may end with Birt going, thank God, because I think you cannot address people that way.
PW: Marc Karlin, thank you very much.
Marc Karlin (1943-1999) is widely regarded as Britain’s most important but least known director of the last half century. His far-reaching essay films deal with working-class and feminist politics, international leftism, historical amnesia and the struggle for collective memory, about the difficulty but also the necessity of political idealism in a darkening world.
Chris Marker hailed him as a key filmmaker, and his work has inspired or been saluted by moving-image artists and historians such as Sally Potter, Sheila Rowbotham, John Akomfrah, Luke Fowler and The Otolith Group. Yet, in large part because his passionate, ideas-rich, formally adventurous films were made for television, until recently they were lost to history.
Memory And Illumination: The Films of Marc Karlin, the first US retrospective of his work, offers a broad survey of what the latest issue of Film Comment calls “the most daring docu-essays the public at large has yet to appreciate”. They include explorations of the emergent women’s liberation movement he made as part of his early membership of the Berwick Street Film Collective, his chronicles of the 1980s aftermath of the Nicaraguan Revolution, and his enduringly resonant meditations on post-1989 politics.
FRIDAY 30 OCTOBER 2015
King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, 53 Washington Square South
6:30pm: NICARAGUA: VOYAGES (1985)
Voyages 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.
8pm: SCENES FOR A REVOLUTION (1991)
A film about aftermaths and reckonings. Revisiting material for his earlier four-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. (Sponsored by King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center)
SATURDAY 31 OCTOBER 2015
Room 674, 721 Broadway (at Waverley Place)
12pm: THE SERPENT (dir. Marc Karlin, 1997), 40 min
The Serpent, loosely based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, is a blackly funny drama-documentary about media magnate and fanatical scourge of the Left Rupert Murdoch. A mild-mannered architect dreams of destroying this Dark Prince, but is assailed by his Voice of Reason which reminds him of the complicity of the liberal establishment in allowing Murdoch to dominate public discourse.
2pm: BETWEEN TIMES (dir. Marc Karlin, 1993), 50 min
Room 674, 721 Broadway (at Waverley Place)
A strikingly resonant work, not least in the wake of the recent re-election of the Conservative party in Britain, this is a probing and sometimes agonised essay – partially framed as a debate between socialism and postmodernism – about the paralysis of the Left and the need to locate new energies, spaces and forms of being that speak to emergent realities.
3:30pm: THE OUTRAGE (dir. Marc Karlin, 1995), 50 min
Room 674, 721 Broadway (at Waverley Place)
Echoes abound of Mike Dibb and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) in this hugely compelling film about Cy Twombly, about art, about television itself. According to director Steve Sprung it’s a film not about “the art of the marketplace, but the art that most of us leave behind somewhere in childhood, in the process of being socialized into the so-called world. The art which still yearns within us.”
5-6:30pm: Roundtable – TBA
7:30pm: FOR MEMORY (dir. Marc Karlin, 1986), 104 min
Room 674, 721 Broadway (at Waverley Place)
Beginning with a powerful interview with members of the British Army Film Unit who recall the images they recorded after the liberation of Belsen concentration camp, and conceived as an antidote to the wildly successful TV series Holocaust, For Memory is a multi-layered exploration – pensive and haunted – of cultural amnesia in the era of late capitalism that features historian E.P. Thompson, anti-fascist activist Charlie Goodman and Alzheimers patients.
SUNDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2015
Room 674, 721 Broadway (at Waverley Place)
2pm: NIGHTCLEANERS (dir. Berwick Street Film Collective, 1975)
Made over three years by the Berwick Street Film Collective (Karlin, Mary Kelly, James Scott, Humphrey Trevelyan), Nightcleaners is a landmark documentary that follows the efforts of the women’s movement to unionize female night workers in London. It eschewed social realism and agit prop in favour of a ghostly, ambient and sonically complex fragmentage that elicited both hostile and ecstatic responses. Screen journal declared it the most “important political film to have been made in this country”, while Jump Cut claimed it was “redefining the struggle for revolutionary cinema”. (Sponsored by Gender and Sexuality Studies)
3:45pm: 36 TO 77 (dir. Berwick Street Film Collective, 1978)
Room 674, 721 Broadway (at Waverley Place)
Very rarely screened since its original release, this film was originally conceived as Nightcleaners Part 2. A portrait of Grenada-born Myrtle Wardally (b.1936), a leader of the Cleaners’ Action Group Strike in 1972, it features her discussing the partial success of that campaign and also her childhood in the Caribbean. It’s also an experiment – as probing as it is rapturous – in the politics of film form, and a fascinating deconstruction of the idea of Myrtle as a “symbol of struggle, the nightcleaners, working women, immigrants, mothers, blacks”.
MORE ON KARLIN:
Holly Aylett, Marc Karlin: Look Again (2015) http://liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/products/60519
Presented by the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture with the support of the Department of Cinema Studies, New York University
Here is a festival report from Ma Ran, reviewing the DMZ Documentary festival from September last year. Via Senses of Cinema
To visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea might be a thrilling touristic option for Seoul’s visitors if they feel bored by the repetitive shopping and gourmet options in this vibrant Asian metropolis. Yet the DMZ as a buffer zone, evidence of division and Cold War remnant has also lent its symbolic weight to an emerging film festival – DMZ International Documentary Film Festival (DMZ Docs), launched in 2009. Taking Seoul subway line number three to its final stop, we find ourselves in the city of Goyang, which hosted all the DMZ Docs events this year, although the nearby city of Paju co-organised and co-funded the festival.
I want to approach DMZ Docs here as a “projective” film festival (to borrow a concept from Claire Bishop), based on a neo-liberal logic that foregrounds “projects” designed to foster connections, from three angles (1). Firstly, the idea suggests how we can think of film festivals as part of a series of arrangements made by the festival organisers in connecting with the urban setting and the national/regional cultural industries. Secondly, the idea also reinforces our understanding of film festivals as never isolated from global “networking,” both spatially and temporally. A network-based, projective film festival is capable of generating new visions and trends in both content and structure via programming and other events. Thirdly, a project-cantered logic is embodied in and through project markets and pitching sessions.
The relationship between a film festival and its hosting city is always intriguing in the Asian context. As the tenth largest city in Korea, Goyang impresses as a well-planned satellite city, with blocks of modern exhibition centres and shopping malls. Actually, the festival’s main multiplex theatre is located in a mall surrounded by sparse residential quarters and expansive undeveloped land. For sure, the entanglement and tension of the DMZ could be faintly sensed in this modern new town. But what was more strongly felt was Goyang and Paju’s joint official efforts to boost the local cultural industries via the film festival, especially given that Goyang aspires to become “a mecca for broadcasting and visual media in the northeast in the near future,” according to the vice chairman of the film festival Mr Choi, who is also the mayor of Goyang.
Indeed, DMZ Docs’ timing in late September is revealing about the interconnections and competitions between this festival and two other major documentary film festivals in East Asia – namely theTaiwan International Film Festival (TIDF, established 1998 and held annually held since 2014, this event takes place just after DMZ Docs in early October) and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan (YIDFF, established in 1989, this biennial event takes place in mid-October). Kicking off on September 17, DMZ Docs’ sixth edition boasted a line-up of 111 documentary films and three major competitive sections: the International Competition (twelve films), the Korean Competition (nine films) and Youth Competition (Korean short films by students), besides themed sidebars. Although the festival promoted a too generalized value of “peace, communication and life” in its booklet this year, its highly diversified programme incorporated some of the most exciting 2013-14 productions from around the world, to highlight refreshing methodologies, daring experiments and pressing issues in documentary cinema. It seemed as if the programmers were trying to bombard festivalgoers with as heterogeneous a selection as possible, in order to leave “what counts as a documentary” an open question.
At the same time, the retrospectives on Marc Karlin and Italian documentaries (from filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Cecilia Mangini) were simply too valuable to be ignored this year. The festival paid tribute to Karlin (1943-1999) in its “Masters” section, with a body of work that was introduced to the Asian world for the first time. The screenings also anticipated two major publications in the UK on this highly significant, yet little known British filmmaker.
Karlin carefully constructed his politically charged cinematic essays with hybridized materials from reenactments, found footage, interviews and even installations. Karlin’s filmmaking sets out to carve a space for what the director calls a “dream state,” full of the tension “between a world that is being illustrated and a world that is being illuminated” (2). While you might find in films such as Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Collection, 1975), For Memory (1982) and Utopias (1989) the Marker-esque traces of insightful contemplations and debates upon memory, history and the agency of people, we also notice that Karlin’s obsession with a cinema which reasons and thinks is also rooted in the sociohistorical undercurrents of his time. Instead of didactically addressing issues of class, gender, ideology and so forth, Karlin’s pursuit actually ventures into effectively engaging with the spectators via formal/structural experimentations.
In Nightcleaners, for example, Karlin and his colleagues approached the issue of unionizing underpaid women office cleaners in the 1970s by turning away from the conventions of observational documentary filmmaking of the time. That the film is a work being directed and constructed is revealed at the very beginning, as it “contains within itself a reflection of its own involvement in the history of the events being filmed” (3).
Even images of the interviewed subjects prove to be an unorthodox study of physiognomy, as the camera zooms in and out, adjusting its distance from the interviewee, while the spectators are confronted with partial facial expressions, movements of eyes and sometimes mismatching voice tracks which disrupt any authoritatively imposed meaning of the images. The filmmakers’ manipulation of images and sound therefore not only throw up questions about documentary truth and photographic images, it also positions the night cleaners’ fight and their campaign in a multi-layered, historically complex space in which tensions exist between the cleaners, the Cleaner’s Action Group and the unions.
DMZ Docs might be one of the contact points, no matter how limited the scope of reception, for spectators to trace the genealogy of global political filmmaking. Thus we may want to rethink the significance of a retrospective such as the one on Karlin. If films like Nightcleaners “could provide the basis for a new direction in British political filmmaking” in 1975 (festival catalogue), is a Karlin retrospective in 2014 simply about the rediscovery and redefinition of a lesser-known filmmaker vis-à-vis film history? Or could it also be a programming gesture of broader social significance? The retrospective may also offer documentary filmmakers and the like working with socially engaged methods and topics a certain framework of reference in speaking from a geopolitical perspective, as democracy protests and civil campaigns are renewed across East Asia in locales such as Okinawa, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, and even some Mainland Chinese cities.
Read the rest of Ma Ran’s article here.
Senses of Cinema – Festival Report – Dec 2014 – Issue 73
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
This month Picture This, in association with the research project “In the Spirit of Marc Karlin”, held an exhibition and screening programme focusing on the work of British filmmaker Marc Karlin (1943-99). Marc Karlin is an important but neglected figure within the British film avant-garde of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Arnolfini, hosted a weekend of screenings and talks which began with the seminal, Nightcleaners (1974). 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. The programme continued with three films that Karlin made for television in the 1980s and 90s. For Memory (1986), features E.P. Thompson, and explores historical memory, Between Times (1993) looks at the fate of the British Left in the wake of Thatcherism, and The Serpent (1997) is a drama-documentary about Rupert Murdoch told through the lens of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Each film brilliantly captures the mood of the left in Britain through the 80s and 90s, whilst the aesthetic and political issues, and questions, they raise remain relevant and urgent.
The weekend ended with a round table discussion with contributors Holly Aylett, Jonathan Bloom, Kodwo Eshun, Luke Fowler, Andy Robson, Sheila Rowbotham, Steve Sprung and hosted by Dan Kidner.Picture This presents Marc Karlin, Roundtable discussion.
The audio from the weekend’s Q&As will soon be up.
Picture This, in association with the research project “In the Spirit of Marc Karlin”, is pleased to present an exhibition and screening programme focusing on the work of British Filmmaker Marc Karlin (1943-99). The Video Shop at Picture This hosts a presentation of photographs, documents and journals, whilst at Arnolfini, Picture This will present a weekend of screenings and talks (see below for full programme).
The screening programme at Arnolfini (13 – 15 April) begins with the seminal, Nightcleaners (1974). Initially commissioned as a campaign film in support of an attempt by the women’s movement to unionise London’s night cleaners, the film soon became something else entirely. 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. For Memory (1986), featuring E.P. Thomson, explores historical memory, Between Times (1993) looks at the fate of the British Left in the wake of Thatcherism, and The Serpent (1997) is a drama-documentary that portrays Rupert Murdoch as the Satan of Paradise Lost.
Each screening at Arnolfini is followed by a Q&A with one of the filmmaker’s former colleagues, and the weekend concludes with a roundtable discussion featuring all the contributors.
The project is generously supported by Arts Council England. With special thanks to Arnolfini, BFI, LUX, and In the Spirit of Marc Karlin (Holly Aylett, Hermione Harris and Andy Robson).