Since he began making films, Peter Watkins has been searching for ways to actively engage both actors and viewers in the narrativity of film. Throughout the late 1950s, in his early amateur films, Watkins developed his practice of working closely with actors, wanting to generate an effect of immediacy. In ’The Diary of An Unknown Soldier’ (1959) and ’The Forgotten Faces’ (1961) (following the now lost or incomplete films ’The Web’ (1956) and ’Field of Red’ (1958)) he used handheld cameras and tight framing to achieve this. In the 1960s he was briefly engaged by the BBC. It led to the authorities’ controversial refusal to broadcast Watkins’s ’The War Game’ (1966), a film about the possible consequences of a nuclear strike on Britain. It was released to cinemas instead, and went on to win an Oscar. ’The War Game’ prefigured several of the docudrama techniques that were later used in Ken Loach’s influential ’Cathy Come Home’ (1966), including the film’s innovative cross-framing of fact and fiction. It was in his 1960s works that Peter Watkins firmly established his pioneering role in making docudrama. In the 1970s he began increasingly to work abroad, making films in the US – ’Privilege’ (1967) and ’The Gladiators’ (1969) – and in Scandinavian countries, where he further focussed on the importance of camera movement and the role of collaborators in the film process – inviting the cameramen to improvise, for example. Throughout his films, there is a strong focus on social and political themes, combined with a quest for allowing a greater role and greater autonomy to the various roles whose collaboration enable film production. The central theme of ’The Seventies People’ (’70-Tallets Människor’, 1975) was suicide, whereas ’The Trap’ (’Fällan’, 1975) centred on a fictional story of a family reunion in underground living quarters close to a nuclear waste station. Peter Watkins described ’Edvard Munch’ (1974) as the most personal film he has ever made. In this work, he made use of highly sophisticated editing techniques in an attempt to involve the audience more fully. The work is a biopic of the Norwegian Symbolist painter, best known for his 1910 work ’The Scream’, presenting the artist’s vivid art works and his traumatic life in an interwoven, fragmentary way to suggest the connection between them. Watkins’s personal presence in the video, through his camera work and narration, prompt questioning about his own life and memories, and how they influence his work. In the late 1970s and 80s, Peter Watkins returned again to threats to contemporary society and its future. His 1977 work ’Evening Land’ was produced in Denmark and envisions a sequence of fictional but possible events in contemporary Europe. It begins with a strike at a Copenhagen shipyard over submarines being built for the French navy – submarines which are capable of firing nuclear weapons. Watkins avoids framing the work with a narration, instead including more dialogue than in many of his other works. Stylistically it is something of a deviation from the overall trend in his work, but thematically it targets the political and social issues of the day, including the use and misuse of the media, which form the backbone of his oeuvre. His work on the nuclear threat reached its apotheosis in ’The Journey’ (1983-7), an epic 14h30 work (which has been divided into 45 minute chapters) picking up where his ’The War Game’ left off. For this work, Watkins travelled around the world interviewing families. His goal was to establish how much they knew and though about the arms race and the impact of nuclear warfare, and from that to explore the role of public education and mass media in shaping public awareness and attitudes. From Japan to USA, from USSR to Mozambique, from Mexico to Tahiti, this work forms an indirect dialogue covering geographical and ideological distance. Watkins introduces the label ’Monoform’, which he uses to refer to limited, heavily edited and controlled version of events presented in mainstream media. The 1994 work ’The Free Thinker’ grew out of an aborted project on the life of August Strindberg begun in the 1970s for Swedish television. In the 1190s, Watkins involved a group of high school students, who developed his original script as well as researching their own additions. They staged, costumed, directed, performed, filmed and edited the piece collectively. Scenes from Strindberg’s life are interwoven with carefully researched representations of political and social life in Sweden in the 1870s. The film has an unusual structure, organised as a spiral around the central point(s) of the beginning and end, and multiple layers of meaning invite each audience member to actively participate in the piece rather than receiving it passively. Each viewer will ’read’ this ’text’ differently according to their memories and dreams. In this work, again elements of the real are fused with the fictional or imagined, abandoning orthodox filmic language and continuing the trend of docudrama and work enabling varying interpretations. One of Watkins’s main goals with this piece was to demonstrate an alternative method of production, one not bound by the rigid formalities, hierarchies and patterns governing mainstream television production, and his involvement of the group of students exemplifies this eloquently. In his ’La Commune (Paris, 1871)’ (2000) Peter Watkins (1935) tried to recreate the atmosphere in the 11th District of Paris during the Paris Commune, a key event in the history of Paris and France, and that of the European working class. Shot in 13 days, the film’s cast consisted mainly of non-professionals, including many migrants from North Africa. Set up as a documentary made by ’’la télévision communale’’, the film also reflects on contemporary media strategies – Peter Watkins has proved to be deeply engaged with the political structures of media delivery. Again the blurring of factual and fictional representation conventions, and the use of amateur actors, gives the work a very ’real’ feeling and acutely penetrates the biases and motivations of characters in such a situation. The work strives to offer a vision of the drive to a Utopian future, which the artist considers contemporary society to have lost. In all his work, Peter Watkins encourages amateur actors, interviewees and cameramen to express themselves naturally and to improvise, which when combined with his personal narration generates a highly organic and complex style, incorporating many nuances and subtleties. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred, as well as boundaries between different media and genres. Conventions governing the presentation and manipulation of information and ideas are undermined, challenging contemporary society and its subjection to the media. He speaks to significant concerns and issues of the day, at a personal, national and international level simultaneously. As a result of his selection of and approach to challenging and controversial topics, Watkins often faces difficulties, censorship and hostile receptions, which has led him from country to country in search of a more supportive and open-minded attitude. His unorthodox style, blurring the border between what is real and what is not and incorporating the input of "ordinary people" sits uncomfortably alongside broadcasting organisations with well-greased mechanisms for controlling their output. His work is an essential means of moving beyond the narrow definitions and practices of mass media and authorised cultural productions, aside from constituting a creative, effecting and compelling oeuvre.
- ° 1935 Norbiton (United States). Lives and works in Lithuania.
At view in the media library