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Les États généraux du film documentaire 2015 Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Marc Karlin

Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Marc Karlin

Marc Karlin (1943-1999) belongs to that generation of filmmakers who, after having gone through the militant experience of the sixties and seventies, developed a new political filmmaking praxis in the eighties (the years of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) by rethinking and moving beyond the Marxist tradition. His political activism expressed itself in a radical approach to documentary aesthetics and a constant attempt to build an alternative film culture in opposition to the media system – he was the editor and publisher of an independent film journal, Vertigo, founded in 1993. From Nightcleaners Part 1 (1972-75), made as a member of the Berwick Street Film Collective, Karlin saw the film form as a mirror of the revolutionary process: aesthetics had to be as radical as politics. All the rushes of the film, too similar to a classical agit-prop documentary, were completely deconstructed using the optical printer and the editing: the result was a complex avant-garde film about the contradictions of militant thinking and the women's struggle for rights and union recognition. The discrepancies of militant cinema were inscribed directly in the film language and its materiality: this was the trademark of Karlin's future work. In the eighties and nineties, Karlin made twelve films: he benefited from the new challenges and openings in television made possible by Channel 4 and he carved out a space that left uncompromised his political vision. The film form that Karlin thought about and refounded is the essay film: a hybrid form, open to political actuality (the revolution in Nicaragua for example), simultaneously turning to the past – considered as an archive of the oppressed – and towards the future – considered as a utopian promise. This hybrid form assembled elements from the archive (making visual metaphors and conceptual short circuit), arguments and quotations (a multi-layered literary voicing and a fragmented narrative), and an elegant visual choreography (camera tracking through space and time). At the beginning of the decade of the ascending neoliberalism, the age of oblivion, Karlin made For Memory (1982), an unorthodox portrait of capitalism, the growing of cultural amnesia and the tyranny of memory: the act of remembering is shown as an interrogation of the future and as a walk through the British revolutionary tradition – John Milton and the Levellers. Disappointed by the times he was living in Europe, Karlin, an internationalist socialist, was immediately interested in the Nicaragua revolution (that began in 1979 with the end of Somoza's regime) and he decided to make a series of films about this challenging process. The starting point was a photobook made by Susan Meiselas: Voyages (1985) was the first of a four parts series that found a coda in 1991 with Scenes for a Revolution. Karlin never made a triumphant portrait of the country and never interviewed the main Sandinista leaders, as he wanted to be with the ordinary Nicaraguan people, filming from the roots and not from the top of the country. For each part of the project he invented and adjusted a dialectical film form in order to reveal all the daily beauty and the hard contradictions of the revolution. The five Nicaraguan films are not effective political or propaganda tools, nor ideological manifestos; they are subtle thinking forms about real struggle and real people. The following part of Karlin's research about revolution was Utopias (1989), a melancholic and pensive essay about the crisis and the heritage of the left. Utopias was Karlin's response to Margaret Thatcher's claim that socialism was dead: the film is structured around an imaginary banquet where six guests, from different factions of the left are invited to debate the relevance of the socialist project for their own life's work. If Utopias was about the past of the left, Between Times (1993) was a kind of a bitter coda made to imagine the future of the revolutionary tradition. After the collapse of the Soviet system and the birth of Tony Blair's New Labour, Karlin was trying to make a film not about definitions, but an invitation to think about the possibility to find a place for the word “us” in the current political vocabulary and to build a possible resistance to barbarity. When Marc Karlin died, in 1999, The Independent wrote that he “was the most significant, unknown filmmaker working in Britain during the past three decades”: his work is now rediscovered, and we see it as an important missing figure in the documentary film history, the lost-and-found link between militant and experimental cinema.

Federico Rossin

Partnered with the Marc Karlin Archive – Hermione Harris, Holly Aylett and Andy Robson.
Debates led by Federico Rossin.