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DIRECTORS IN FOCUS
Uncomfortable Truths: The Cinema of Peter Watkins

There is a strong case to be made that Peter Watkins is the most neglected major filmmaker at work today. Over the course of forty years the British-born director has managed, against trying and often adversarial circumstances, to produce a highly original and powerful body of work that engages the worlds of politics, art, history, and literature. That these films remain obscure is a function of such factors as suppression by producers or weak-kneed film distributors, surprisingly unsympathetic—at times hostile—critics, and the filmmaker’s own legendary iconoclasm. Watkins has spent the bulk of his professional career in self-imposed exile from his homeland, a result of the BBC’s banning his 1966 film The War Game and the critics’ drubbing of Privilege the next year. By 1980, with so many of his projects aborted, Watkins publicly announced his retirement from directing and began to devote himself to studying and speaking on the effects of the overly centralized role of the mass media. While he eventually returned to active filmmaking, he has continued to publish and lecture extensively on the pervasive use in both film and television news of what he calls the "Monoform": a visual language comprised of rapid, "seamless" edits and an incessant bombardment of movement and sound. This research has culminated most recently in the launching of his own Web site.

There is a strong case to be made that Peter Watkins is the most neglected major filmmaker at work today. Over the course of forty years the British-born director has managed, against trying and often adversarial circumstances, to produce a highly original and powerful body of work that engages the worlds of politics, art, history, and literature. That these films remain obscure is a function of such factors as suppression by producers or weak-kneed film distributors, surprisingly unsympathetic—at times hostile—critics, and the filmmaker’s own legendary iconoclasm. Watkins has spent the bulk of his professional career in self-imposed exile from his homeland, a result of the BBC’s banning his 1966 film The War Game and the critics’ drubbing of Privilege the next year. By 1980, with so many of his projects aborted, Watkins publicly announced his retirement from directing and began to devote himself to studying and speaking on the effects of the overly centralized role of the mass media. While he eventually returned to active filmmaking, he has continued to publish and lecture extensively on the pervasive use in both film and television news of what he calls the "Monoform": a visual language comprised of rapid, "seamless" edits and an incessant bombardment of movement and sound. This research has culminated most recently in the launching of his own Web site.


January 11 (Thursday) 7 pm
January 14 (Sunday) 7 pm

The War Game

Directed by Peter Watkins
Great Britain 1966, 35mm, b/w, 47 min.
With Michael Aspel, Peter Graham

In this highly controversial dramati-zation of the aftereffects of a nuclear attack on England, Watkins claims to have used "mathematical logic" to estimate the likely experience—both logistic and personal—of nuclear war, basing his visualization on the British government’s contingency plans and scientific research into the effects of radiation on the human body. The BBC considered the film to be excessively graphic and disturbing and refused to air it. Only reluctantly, after Watkins resigned from the BBC in protest, did the network agree to a theatrical release, although the broadcasting ban remained in place for twenty years. In an odd testament to its striking realism, the film went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary. Filmed in what would become the director’s trademark "semidocumentary" style, The War Game interrogates the clash between "subjective" and "objective" forms and refuses to allow the viewer a safe distance from the issues it presents.

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January 11 (Thursday) 7 pm with "The War Game" (above)
January 14 (Sunday) 7 pm with "The War Game" (above)

Culloden

Directed by Peter Watkins
Great Britain 1964, 16mm, b/w, 75 min.

Watkins’s first film for the BBC, Culloden is an historical reconstruction of the last battle fought on British soil and the ensuing destruction of the Scottish highland clans after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Praised by critics for its graphic realism and cinéma-vérité style (it uses hand-held cameras, interviews with soldiers and warriors on the battlefield, nonprofessional actors), the film has even been employed by the U.S. Army for a course in military history. For Watkins, however, the film’s acute realism is a weakness, allowing viewers a comfortable distance from the truly disturbing issues being raised: an underlying commentary on Vietnam, imperialism, and so-called "documentary" journalistic practices.

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January 12 (Friday) 7 pm
January 14 (Sunday) 9:15 pm

Privilege

Directed by Peter Watkins
Great Britain 1967, 35mm, color, 103 min.
With Paul Jones, Jean Shrimpton, Mark London

With Privilege, Watkins merged documentary style with metaphor to expand his interrogation of media and politics. The film was a product of Universal’s late 1960s European production program, which invited young European directors such as Watkins and François Truffaut to create low-budget features for the studio. More conventional than the director’s debut efforts, it nonetheless retains his trademark first-person interviews and pseudodocumentary style. The story concerns Steven Shorter (Jones), a successful pop singer who is convinced by the government to perform violent theatrical rock that will distract youth from politics and social problems and lull them into a "fruitful conformity" with church and state. When Shorter withdraws after realizing he is being manipulated to control the public, his fans turn against him and he becomes an enemy of the state.


January 12 (Friday) 9 pm
January 13 (Saturday) 7 pm

Punishment Park

Directed by Peter Watkins
US 1971, 35mm, color, 88 min.
With Mark Keats, Kent Foreman, Carmen Argenziano

Watkins’s study of social turmoil in the United States during the Vietnam era finds the Nixon administration establishing detention camps to curb protests from pacifists, students, black militants, and other disruptive elements of society. Invoking powers contained in the 1950 McCarran Act, the government offers convicted offenders the chance to avoid lengthy prison sentences with the option of a three-day stay in a Punishment Park, where prisoners must trek fifty-three miles across the California desert with no food or water while being chased by armed National Guardsmen authorized to shoot them on sight. The film was wholly improvised on location by the actors—nonprofessionals who actually held the political views they express in the film. The resulting climate became so realistic and tension-filled that at one point Watkins feared the actors playing Guardsmen had loaded their weapons with live ammunition to shoot real bullets at the protesters.

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January 13 (Saturday) 9 pm
January 16 (Tuesday) 9 pm

The Gladiators

Directed by Peter Watkins
Sweden 1969, 35mm, color, 105 min.
With Keith Bradfield, Richard Friday, Pik-Sen Lim

In the near future, various governments have collaborated to harness aggression and boost nationalism by sponsoring a televised series of lethal, corporate-sponsored, computer-controlled war games between teams from different countries. Originally released under the title The Peace Game, the film again addresses the misuse of media to divert the public, especially youth, from dissent and resistance. The film’s semidocumentary style is more static than in his previous films, partly because of the production’s bulky 35mm equipment. But the stillness, Watkins claims, is a stylistic gain that allows the audience the necessary space for critical contemplation. In the end, the film is a warning to revolutionary movements that would try to fight the establishment on terms it understands, for they are in danger of being absorbed by the very system they are trying to destroy.

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January 17 (Wednesday) 7 pm
January 19 (Friday) 7 pm

Edvard Munch

Directed by Peter Watkins
Norway 1976, 35mm, color, 167 min.
With Geir Westby, Gro Fraas, Kjersti Allum
Norwegian with English subtitles

This intensely personal biographical recreation of the early years of struggle endured by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is considered by many to be the most successful portrayal of the artistic process ever depicted on film. Munch, crucified by critics and public alike in the late nineteenth century, is seen here as a young man in battle with puritanical Norwegian society and beset with various family tragedies and resultant depressions, all the while wrestling to give expression to his own artistic voice. Hailed by Ingmar Bergman as "a work of genius," Watkins’s portrait speaks not only to a specific creator and his milieu but to the filmmaker’s own artistic enterprise and to intricate issues of contemporary life.

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January 18 (Thursday) 8:30 pm
January 21 (Sunday) 8 pm

The Journey (Resan)

Directed by Peter Watkins
Sweden 1988, 16mm, b/w and color, 134 min.
Multilingual with English subtitles

Years in the making, this monumental film dedicated to peace was a pioneering attempt at a fully international cinema. Watkins worked with groups around the world, raising money and assembling casts and crews in the U.S., Canada, Norway, Scotland, France, West Germany, Mozambique, Japan, Australia, Tahiti, and Mexico. The Journey consists of Watkins’s extended conversations with families and nongovernmental organizations about the arms race and its relationship to world hunger, gender politics, and the functioning of the mass media; gripping personal recollections of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Hamburg during World War II; and the dramatization of evacuation scenarios by community groups. Structured intricately into nineteen separate chapters (of which we present three), the film weaves carefully composed juxta-positions of visual and sound motifs into a powerfully wrought experience.

Special note: The Journey runs 873 minutes (14 1/2 hours) in its entirety. With the director’s permission we are screening Sections 1, 2, and 8 of the film’s 19 sections. From January 11–30, audience members may visit the video library at Harvard Film Archive to view all episodes of The Journey on video, free of charge. For viewing hours, call (617) 495-4700.

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January 21 (Sunday) 6 pm
January 30 (Tuesday) 9 pm

Evening Land (Aftenlandet)

Directed by Peter Watkins
Denmark 1977, film on video, color, 110 min.
With Jon Bang Carlsen, Claus Bolling, Jorgen Esping
Danish with English subtitles

Perhaps the least seen of Watkins’s many near-invisible films, Evening Land examines the ways in which Denmark’s "model" social democracy might come to be affected by contemporary societal ills: unemployment, growing defense ties among European Common Market countries, terrorist kidnappings, and nationwide strikes. Assembling a cast of 192 nonprofessional actors, Watkins constructs the intricate story of a strike in a Copenhagen shipyard, prompted by the management’s acceptance of a contract to build the hulls for four nuclear missile submarines for the French navy. Although different in style from much of Watkins’s other work, the film’s dialectic structure again attempts to force the audience to reevaluate the forms of film and television by extending them beyond their conventional "response-oriented" uses.

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January 24 (Wednesday) 7 pm
January 29 (Monday) 7 pm

The Freethinker (Fritänkaren)

Directed by Peter Watkins
Sweden 1994, video, color, 276 min.
With Yasmine Garbi, Anders Mattsson, Lena Settervall
Swedish with English subtitles

This examination of the life and art of August Strindberg depicts the Swedish dramatist as an outsider, an iconoclast who flouted rules and railed against convention and hypocrisy to change the social, political, and economic mores of nineteenth-century society. In addition to examining key episodes in Strindberg’s life, the film deploys a complex structure that reflects Watkins’s deepening concern with the powers of mass audiovisual media. Produced as part of a full-length video production course for Swedish Folk High School, the project took Watkins and twenty-four students two years to complete. The students raised funds, sewed costumes, learned to operate equipment, and carried out all of the functions involved in a major theatrical video production. The film’s layered, spiral structure attempts to decentralize its own authority and suggest ways in which the media of the future might share its power with the public. The film has been boycotted by Swedish television.

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American Premiere
January 26 (Friday) 6 pm
January 27 (Saturday) 6 pm

La Commune (Paris, 1871)

Directed by Peter Watkins
France 2000, video, b/w, 345 min.
French with English subtitles

In March 1871 civil war rages in Paris. A journalist on Versailles TV issues a soothing, truncated report on the events that are tearing apart the French Republic, while a community access channel is set up by the insurgents. Inside a theater (the Armand Gatti workshop in Montreuil), some 220 actors, predominantly amateurs, impersonate the workers of the Popincourt quarter of the 11th Arrondissement and reenact the social and political debates that racked the Paris Commune. Despite the period costumes, the discussions are as often as not about contemporary problems—unemployment and racism—and many of the criticisms are aimed not at Versailles but at current government and society. Watkins made this film in response to what he perceives as a postmodern cynicism, "where ethics, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered ‘old-fashioned.’" To portray the possibility for such commitment, he has created this masterfully photographed, powerfully enacted, and thoroughly engrossing "revolutionary" work.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700