Peter Watkins

PERHAPS I can best begin by describing my own increasing awareness of the media crisis, and my initial attempts to challenge it.

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 mass audiovisual media (MAVM) 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 (UK, 1964), and The War Game (UK, 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?

Punishment Park (USA, 1970) attempted to bring some of the methods used in Culloden into a contemporary setting - and added dimensions of allegory to the hoped-for 'distancing effect'. How could a film as 'real' as this 'documentary' looked, be 'real', if its environment (a 'punishment park' in America) did not exist?

Edvard munch (Norway, 1973) added strongly personal and subjective elements to the presentation, and to the editing methods of a biographical film.

It was not until the mid-1970s that I began to understand the problematic structure and role of the Monoform (which I also had used). Most of my subsequent work - The Journey (a global peace film, 1983-86), The Freethinker (Sweden, 1992-94), La Commune (France, 1999) - has been a series of attempts to break away from that formula.

In summary, my work with (mainly) non-professional actors has always been driven by a desire to add a dimension and a process to television, which it still lacks today: that of the public directly, seriously, and in depth participating in the expressive use of the medium to examine history - past, present and future.

Inherent in this has been my constant attempt to broaden and make more complex the relationship between the audience and the MAVM (including in my own films), and to have the audience - the public - share in this work. I have tried to find processes which would enable me - and the audience - to somehow burst out of the constraints of the frame, or of the traditional hierarchical documentary format. This has entailed experimenting with various alienation or distancing methods, coupled with an intense and demanding process for the 'actor', wherein history - past and present - become intertwined.

Peter Watkins,
Vilnius, Lithuania, 2016

(from Watkins' personal website: