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.
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!
AV FESTIVAL 2016: MEANWHILE, WHAT ABOUT SOCIALISM?
Sat 27 February – Sun 27 March 2016
This weekend includes screenings of eleven films by Marc Karlin including talks and discussions in collaboration with the Marc Karlin Archive.
In the 1980s–90s Karlin’s work was persistent in its questioning of the future of the British Left. It takes us on journeys through socialism, political change and cinema itself, critiquing both Thatcherism and Blair’s New Labour. Undeterred by these fundamental societal shifts and the crippling confusion affecting the Left, Karlin invested himself in the continued exploration of socialist themes.
On his death in 1999, Karlin was described as Britain’s most significant, unknown filmmaker. Present in Paris around the events of May 1968 and inspired by the work of Chris Marker, Karlin submerged himself into London’s newly formed independent film collectives. Although informed by an international perspective, most of Karlin’s work focuses on the UK. An exception was the remarkable series of five films on the Nicaraguan revolution, presented in full here on Sun 6 March.
A Film Pass is available with special discounted tickets for all the weekend screenings. AV Festival
In the recent Q&A on Marc Karlin’s Between Times (1993), the film’s editor and voice of ‘A’, Steve Sprung, declared Marc was both ‘A’ and ‘Z’. That is to say, Marc occupied the two opposing left wing positions simultaneously in the film, thereby allowing us to gain an intriguing insight into Marc’s paradoxical political outlook at the time.
Here is a fascinating transcript from the archive, that runs contrary to this claim. It is a conversation between Marc and Marxist writer, John Mepham that forms the foundations of the dialectic in Between Times. Marc and Mepham discuss the parallels between the fall of the British Left and the rise of Thatcherism since May 1968. Both seem to form the idea that all the questions and intentions at the heart of Thatcherism were made by the New Left after May 68. The New Left simply never organised their response into a coherent political project and as a consequence stagnated.
It is a very candid and engaging conversation that not only mirrors our search for fresh alternatives but also reveals our tendency to create our own political demons to disguise our complicity when things run adrift.
Between Times (1993) looks at the fate of the British Left in the wake of Thatcherism. Over a cup of tea, A, the socialist, and Z, the post-modernist, investigate what now constitutes the men and women, individuals or collectives, who saw themselves as being the agency of change, i.e. until then the working class.
After the 1992 General Election defeat, the British Left were in a state of paralysis. Like today, the Left, swamped by the loudly proclaimed ‘end of history’ so often twinned with the death of Socialism, were searching for a viable alternative to the entrenched neo-liberal ideology.
In light of this, the film reveals the tension that existed between the ‘working class’ and the ‘political class’ in the early 1990s after a decade of shifting class perceptions and individual aspirations. From his notebooks at the time Karlin writes, ‘the subjects feel ill at ease in the political class’ tightly constructed corset or straight-jacket. Political language and culture does not correspond to the subject’s intimate and intuitive understanding of itself and its circumstances’.
Between Times explores the need for alternatives, new spaces and new realities that socialism, particularly the British bureaucratic variant, tended to exclude and abandon. ‘A’ notes, ‘we are taking a second breath’ and inhales fresh optimism from the Thurcroft miners attempt to buy their colliery from British Coal. To ‘Z’, however, this is just temporary turbulence. ‘Z’ used to believe these incidents added up to an organised, articulated political project, that each image was part of a continuing narrative, but now, he has come to distrust the Left’s history and its propensity to cling to, what he now believes to be, disparate imagery.
Between Times Fax © The Marc Karlin Archive
The Q&A includes Kodwo Eshun, artist, theorist and co-founder of the Otolith Group, Steve Sprung, filmmaker and editor of Between Times, and Picture This’ director Dan Kidner.
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).