Shooting images of "La Commune" by Peter Watkins, 2001
Session: 2 eur 8-session ticket: 12 eur. Friends of MACBA: free MACBA Auditorium. Limited seating
The British filmmaker Peter Watkins (Norbiton, United Kingdom, 1935) is the subject of a retrospective that reviews his contribution to contemporary cinematography and, in particular, his condition as a pioneer of docudrama and false documentaries. Active in cinema and television from the fifties to the end of the nineties, Watkins's main concern throughout his career was to rethink the role of the public and to free it of the authoritarian structures of what he calls the ‘monoform', i.e., the supra-system constructed by the media around social reality. This concern manifests itself in his recreations of historical events starring non-professional actors; in his transpositions of the visual style of TV journalism that expose the mythical nature of its alleged objectivity; or in his futuristic fictions – stylistic researches that implicate the public in issues that are crucial to the future of mankind, such as war, freedom of expression or the continuance of social inequality. For that reason, a concern for education is central to his trajectory, either in projects specifically designed for the classroom – such as the episodes of The Journey (1983–85) –, or in the conception of the process of filming itself as an exercise in collective learning – for instance, in the case of The Freethinker (1992–94) –, or in his determination to turn the projections of his own films into opportunities for public debate. Ultimately, Watkins aims at subverting the role of cinema and television as the safeguards of the established order, by turning them into instruments of revolt. The cycle is curated by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevicius, who interviewed Watkins for his piece The Role of a Lifetime (2003), which is part of the MACBA Collection and is included in the latest presentation of the Collection, Time as Matter (2009).
I was very lucky to meet and talk to Peter Watkins, one of the more brilliant filmmakers of all time (and I'm not exaggerating). He is a director who, in my opinion at least, has altered the perception of the art of cinema itself, of cinema as an – inevitably – social activity. A cinema created in a collective manner for individuals who are committed and sensitive, and who are conscious of the political motivations in his work.
The cinema of Peter Watkins is full of humanist objectives. As a director, he deals with people's actions – not necessarily professional people – at every stage in the creation of a film, with liberating their creativity and inducing a change in their consciences while remaining totally subjective. This constant recurrence of the creative process cannot leave the viewer indifferent when faced with what the director has achieved, and the manner in which he has achieved it, in every one of his films, always in a different form.
The blog "Peter Watkins en el MACBA" (Peter Watkins at the MACBA, http://blogs.macba.cat/peterwatkins) aims to provide a space to discuss the films included in this series, and it brings together some texts written or updated by the filmmaker for the occasion. The objective is to pick up his invitation to encourage the public's participation in a type of activity (film screenings) that normally develops in silence but which should not lead to it.
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Wednesdays, 14 April to 9 June, 7 pm
WEDNESDAY 14 APRIL, 7 PM
Privilege, 1966, 1 h 30 min
This is the only narrative work by Watkins, with elements of rock documentary and false documentary. The singer Steven Shorter is the most successful pop star ever: young people consider him their role model, the United Kingdom is full of entertainment places called ‘Steven Dream Palace', and a mighty corporation administers his brand. The star reaches his zenith with his Theatre of Cruelty stage act, which provokes a cathartic reaction among the public, but the government has orchestrated the whole thing in an attempt to channel young people's aggressiveness and keep it off the streets where it represents a potential political challenge. Having bought public opinion with the image of Steven as a rebel, the authorities try to use his ‘conversion' to lure the masses to the faith and make them conform to social norms: ‘We will conform!'
Watkins creates a satirical and hyperbolic cinematic allegory of the media, pop culture and consumerism as instruments used by government to commercialise and control opposition to war and other protest movements. Surprisingly, the director managed to convince some of the more emblematic characters of London in the Swinging Sixties – the model Jean Shrimpton and the singer Paul Jones – to star in such a highly critical film, thus subverting their own image. Both public and critics at the time dismissed this mixture of theatricality, satire and provocation as too sour.
WEDNESDAY 21 APRIL, 7 PM
The Diary of an Unknown Soldier, 1959, 17 min
in the presence of the curator of the cycle, Deimantas Narkevicius
In his amateur short film The Diary of an Unknown Soldier, for the first time Watkins used the cinematic style that would characterise him throughout his career. The work reflects the psychological experiences of a young soldier who awaits his first (and last) battle. The shortage of funding made synchronised sound impossible, so the silent images were accompanied by a voice-over, belonging to Watkins himself, reading from the diary of the soldier. Of special interest are the close-up shots that direct the viewer toward the protagonist's eyes, while the camera, moving slowly, reproduces in a thoroughly convincing manner the feeling of being trapped in the chaos of the battle. These are the characteristics that, in time, would become Watkins's stylistic traits.
Culloden, 1964, 1 h 15 min
This is Watkins's first full-length film and the first film in the history of cinema that represents a historical event in the style of a TV news programme. The work recreates the Battle of Culloden in 1746 between the Jacobite army, formed by Scot Highlanders who supported Prince Charles Edward Stuart's claim to the British throne, and another much larger army formed by Protestant Scot Lowlanders and several Highland clans loyal to King George II. The Jacobite army, hungry, exhausted, torn by internal conflict and badly led was defeated in one hour, and the victors initiated a cruel repression campaign: a cleansing of the Highlands that destroyed the culture of the Gaelic clans.
Using the language of TV news programmes, Watkins draws a parallel between the Battle of Culloden and the Vietnam War. The news-coverage style is achieved with a dynamic camera that reacts to the events and makes the distant past contemporary; as if the images were being broadcast live from the scene of the action. The genre of interviews, also used in the film, allows not only the commanders from both sides, but also the foot soldiers, to express their points of view, motivations, fears and state of health. After this film, interviews became one of the more important elements in Watkins's work. The amateur actors share an emotive relationship with the filmed events, since most of them are direct descendants of the Highlanders that were exterminated, and are therefore representing their own history.
WEDNESDAY 28 APRIL, 7 PM
The Freethinker, 1992–94, 4 h 30 min
After several fruitless attempts to obtain funding for a film about the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, The Freethinker became an exceptional educational and artistic endeavour. Watkins produced the film for two years, together with twenty-four students who researched the material, suggested scenes, directed, filmed, edited, designed the costumes and even organised the production and funding.
The history of the famous playwright's traumatic and poverty-stricken childhood, his matrimonial failures, his lack of professional recognition and lonely old age, is constructed in the form of a multi-layered collage. The narration alternates a few main chronological facts and incorporates a variety of cinematic devices: archive photography, written texts, the relation between certain facts in Strindberg's biography and the historical facts in the political and social life of Sweden, documentary-style interviews and the dramatisation of episodes in the playwright's life, the reading of letters, dialogues from Strindberg's plays and debates with the film's audience. This variety of forms in one cinematic work is very rare. The film not only deals with August Strindberg's life, but with the creation of the film itself: it is concerned not only with the destiny of the characters, but also of the amateur actors who play them, allowing them to express their points of view during the debates.
WEDNESDAY 5 MAY, 7 PM
The Forgotten Faces, 1960, 18 min
In this amateur work, Watkins recreates some episodes from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and continues to advance the techniques already employed in The Diary of an Unknown Soldier. As the director himself claims, he studied several photographic images of this historic event, something that, in all likelihood, had an effect on the number of characters who stare directly into the camera, a trait that would eventually become one of the more memorable elements of Watkins's cinematic language. In this way, one of the more traditional conventions of cinema is broken: the fiction that actors are not aware of the camera. Paradoxically, it is precisely the reaction of the characters in front of the camera that emphasises the act of filming and destroys the illusion of the film as being faithful to reality, and produces the impression that the nature of the events is authentic, documentary. The camera shakes in the moments of violence and the image is out of focus, adopting the aesthetics of TV news documentaries. This aesthetic approach would become very influential in Watkins's later works.
The War Game, 1965, 47 min
This film belongs to the category of Watkins's imaginary documentaries that represent the possible course of events in a near future. To prepare a film on nuclear war and its consequences, the filmmaker interviewed doctors and scientists and studied all the available information on the subject, as well as documents and accounts of the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hamburg, Dresden and Darmstadt. The film shows the preparations for a nuclear attack, the massive evacuation, the devastating explosion, the inconceivable suffering of the people affected by the explosion and the effects of radiation, and the widespread social disintegration that follows. Together with devastating images of great realism, the film presents interviews with passers-by that proved that society was unaware of the possible consequences of a nuclear attack, and with people in high positions whose arguments in favour of nuclear weapons sit in sharp contrast with the horrifying images of war. The explicit criticism of government policy, and of the media, as well as the stark veracity of the scenes, prompted the BBC, who had commissioned the work in the first instance, to immediately ban its transmission, a proscription that lasted twenty years. And yet, when permission was finally given for the film to go on general release, it won several awards, including an Oscar for Best Documentary. It also had a very significant influence on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
WEDNESDAY 12 MAY, 7 PM
La Commune (Paris 1871), 1999, 3 h 30 min
Watkins's last film is a six-hour recreation (shown in a shorter version adapted to cinema) of the history of the Commune in Paris. Following the defeat of the army of Napoleon III in the war against Prussia, the French people are suffering the ravages of war and the general shortage of jobs. Society is fragmented; a group of Communards seizes power and founds the Paris Commune. The new government professes Marxist ideas and promotes the separation of the Church from the State, secular education, economic aid for single mothers, professional education for all women, etc. However, government forces known as the Versaillais manage to gather an army of three hundred thousand soldiers and begin a ‘bloody week' that sees between twenty to thirty thousand men, women and children killed.
This late work develops even further the principal cinematic methods and objectives of the director: historical events recreated in the style of TV news programmes; collaboration with amateur actors who identify themselves totally with the opinions of the characters they play and complement them with contemporary issues; cinematic creation understood as an open process that implicates all the participants; opportunities for the public to take part in the sharing of information and public debates; and a cinematic example of political activism that stimulates active identification with a particular stand rather than passive observation. Not only the actors in the film, but also the viewers, are faced with the question: ‘Would you join the barricades of 1871?'
WEDNESDAY 26 MAY, 7 PM
Edvard Munch, 1973, 2 h 52 min
According to the director, this is his most personal work (and possibly the most emotive). To the narration of the life of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, other principal strands are added: his family, haunted by illness and death; his impossible love for a married woman; his creative research that led him to the origins of Expressionism; and his links with an unconventional group, the Kristiania Bohemians, that aspired to transform Christian bourgeois society, and promoted free love, freedom of expression and women's rights, among other progressive ideals. The painful scenes of the death of the artist's relatives and the scenes of the more romantic moments that keep repeating themselves constantly throughout the film, as well as the poignant contrast between them, provoke an extreme tension and bring an intense emotional background to the work as a whole. The film is marked by an impressionist editing involving the superimposition of several layers of film frames. For instance, image and sound can describe totally different stories and transmit totally different feelings. It seems as though Munch is the one character that says almost nothing in the film – he simply stares straight at us in silence.
WEDNESDAY 2 JUNE, 7 PM
The Journey – Rësan, 1983–85, screening of the first two episodes, 2 h approx.
This pacifist film, lasting fourteen and a half hours, was filmed in the USA, Canada, Norway, Scotland, France, West Germany, Mozambique, Japan, Australia, Tahiti, Mexico and the Soviet Union. It is Watkins's most extensive and ambitious work. The filmmaker interviewed families and communities in various countries to find out what they knew about nuclear weapons in their own country and in the world at large, and about the consequences of a nuclear war. As well as extensive interviews, the film presents a deconstructionist analysis of the media today and ample information on the nuclear race, military expenditure, the ecology, pacifist movements, the disparities between the rich and the poor, and the way governments manipulate their citizens in order to demonise the so-called ‘enemy'. It is the only work by Watkins that can be considered a pure documentary. It is evident that the work is driven by political activism and the educational preoccupations of the director, which sideline the purely formal cinematic issues. Watkins wished for The Journey to be used as an educational resource, so he divided the film into 45-minute ‘episodes', each one ending with a question that serves as a starting point for the following debate. He also elaborated an educational guide that complements the documentary.
WEDNESDAY 9 JUNE, 7 PM
Punishment Park, 1970, 1 h 30 min
Some cinema critics consider this film the most provocative work by Watkins, since its criticism of government is even harsher than in The War Game or The Journey. The film deals with the fictitious events that could ensue as a consequence of the passing in 1950 of the McCarran Act by the USA, a law that would allow the Federal Government to detain anyone suspected of constituting a threat to national security. It is 1970, the Vietnam War is still ongoing and President Nixon has declared a state of national emergency. In the California desert, a civil tribunal is passing sentence on the detainees, mostly students who are passionately in favour of pacifism and social equality, or who are simply accused of lacking civil loyalty. They can choose between long prison sentences or pushing their luck and trying to survive in Punishment Park, a place where they are forced to walk 85 km across a scorching rocky desert, without water or food, pursued by armed and motorised police who see this as a distraction or as target practice. This political fiction, in the style of cinema vérité, uses such convincing language that any viewer who has not been forewarned could be forgiven for thinking that it all happened in reality. Even though its release in the US met with general indignation, in the course of time the film has been vindicated, partly at least, for the way it predicted the secret policies of the Whitehouse. Watkins's objective is to make viewers ask themselves where does reality begin and end, how much do we know, or don't know, about what is really happening, and how will events develop if we continue in our role of passive and apolitical spectators of life (and of the media).
Photos courtesy of Corinna Paltrinieri
The Role of a Lifetime, 2003 work in the MACBA Collection
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