Peter Watkins

Here’s a rambling but great and prescient statement made by director Peter Watkins for the dvd release of La Commune in 2001.
The interview takes place in a Lithuanian theme park to Communism, and he starts by imagining what might be found in a theme park dedicated to Globalisation twenty years in the future.

As well as La Commune 1999, Watkins directed Culloden 1964, War Game 1965, and Punishment Park 1970.

He writes on his website about the development, and thought behind, his style of filmmaking…

Even when I began making films as an amateur, I remember thinking that much of the commercial cinema in the 1950s and early 1960s, and television in general, felt extremely stilted and conventional, holding the public locked into set and authoritarian agendas.

I can recall, in the later 1950s – when I was developing the ‘newsreel style’ in my early films – that one of my primary aims was to substitute the artificiality of Hollywood and its high-key lighting, with the faces and feelings of real people. One step in that direction was The Forgotten Faces 1960, in which I used ‘ordinary people’ to recreate the events of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, as though they were happening in front of newsreel cameras. In reality, we were filming in the back streets of Canterbury, Kent.

Another dimension to my work, introduced in the ‘Hungarian’ film and developed in the 1960s, was to offer a way of countering the effects of soap-opera historical reconstructions and TV newsbroadcasts, by sharing with the public an alternative exploration and presentation of history – especially their own history – be it past or present.

It seemed, even back then, that the MAVM (mass audio-visual media*) had come to represent a kind of supra-system encircling the visible social process – and having an immense role in shaping (and distorting) it. The role of TV in imposing silence during this period regarding the developing nuclear arms race, is a salutary case in point. Thus another emerging goal in my work was to find forms which might help the public to break away from this repressive system, to distance themselves from the media-cultivated myths of ‘objectivity’, ‘reality’, and ‘truth’, and to seek alternative information and audiovisual processes for themselves.

These various premises – or at least their early stages – underlay the making of Culloden 1964, and The War Game 1965. In the first, I employed the style used in Vietnam War newsbroadcasts in order to bring a sense of familiarity to scenes from an 18th century battle, in the hope that this anachronism would also function to subvert the authority of the very genre I was using.

The second film was the first of my works to deliberately mix opposing cinematic forms (in this case, a series of static, high-key lit, recreated interviews with establishment figures, colliding with jerky scenes of a simulated nuclear attack). Which – if either – was ‘reality’ ? – the fake interviews in which people quoted actual statements made by existing public figures, or the newsreel-like scenes of a war which had never taken place?

* Peter Watkins has given up film making (calling it an “impossible project… [it’s] fossilized”) to focus on writing a critique of what he calls the Mass Audio Visual Media.

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