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
Nicaragua Part 1: Voyages is available to download and stream.
Broadcast 14 October 1985 Channel 4 (ELEVENTH HOUR) (42 mins)
In 1978–79 American photographer Susan Meiselas documented the two insurrections that led to the overthrow of fifty years of dictatorship by the Somoza family in Nicaragua. Through an epistolary exchange over five unedited tracking shots across Meiselas’ photographs, the film articulates her relationship to the history she witnessed.
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.