On the occasion of Peter Watkins rarely seen cult classic La Commune screening at Doc/Fest we are sharing a guest Doc/Comment piece from the filmmaker. Seek out his films if you are new to Watkins work, Culloden, The War Game and Edvard Munch are all available on DVD in the UK.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON and LA COMMUNE, by Peter Watkins
Before discussing the screening of La Commune at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, I would first like to give a brief background to the history and nature of my film work, and its relationship to the media practice which I refer to as the ‘Monoform’.
After an enjoyable period of making amateur films, beginning in 1956 with the acquisition of an 8mm camera, and the support of ‘Playcraft’, a local dramatic society in Canterbury, Kent, UK, I went on to train, in the early 1960s, first at a documentary film company, then at the BBC. There we were taught that professional ‘’objectivity” was the absolute sine qua non of TV broadcasting. We were informed that if we did not apply this standard, but allowed subjectivity to influence our work, we would have to leave the BBC and “make our name in some other field” (!) The problems accruing from the standardised forms of the mass audiovisual media were never discussed – neither was the professional myth that there is a ‘neutral’ and ‘impartial’ way of presenting audiovisual information.
Although I was unaware, before my time at Columbia University in the mid-1970s, of the problems of the Monoform, and despite the fact that I used this language form to structure my own early work, I did try from the outset to subvert the concept of media ‘reality’ and infallibility. I used what I hoped was a visible warning sign (a fake documentary style), and I did express subjective feelings in my work (regarding the consequences of nuclear war in THE WAR GAME, the conformist effects of the media popular culture in PRIVILEGE, the treatment of political dissidents in PUNISHMENT PARK, the personal sentiments expressed in EDVARD MUNCH, etc.).
What I discovered with students at Columbia University in New York City during the summer of 1977, were the characteristics of a uniform, Hollywood-style time-and-space structure that is clamped down indiscriminately over the output of the mass audiovisual media in general – be it TV news broadcasting and documentaries, cinema films, and the media popular culture in general, such as TV soap-operas, as well as the new generation of Netflix series dramas such ‘The House of Cards’ etc. This tightly constructed grid promotes a rapid flow of changing images or scenes, constant camera movement, and dense layers of sound.
Following the experience at Columbia, I tried in various ways in my later films, THE JOURNEY, THE FREETHINKER, LA COMMUNE, to escape from – and to challenge - the Monoform (though to what degree of success I cannot say).
A principal characteristic of the Monoform is its rapid and agitated editing, with constant changes in audiovisual information that do not allow time or space for the viewer to reflect on, or to query, what he or she is watching. The term Monoform also stands for the deliberate ideology that drives this language form to virtually eliminate all other possible language forms for cinema and TV.
Many other ‘standard practices’ that are entirely Monoform-related, are taught in most universities and media training schools, and even - such is the global acceptance of the Monoform throughout education systems - at the secondary school level to students who have no intention of working in the mass media. Standardised media practices include not only the ways of editing, filming, script-writing, and working with actors, but – for TV and cinema professionals – they include such hierarchical practices as ‘pitching’, where filmmakers seek funding for their projects by standing before media executives and proposing their programme idea within a time frame of approximately six minutes. Another standardised TV scheduling practice, known as the ‘universal clock’, enforces a programme hour of 52 minutes (or less), in order to allow time for commercial advertising – a temporal formating which completely disregards the individual demands of the programme or film.
A global explosion in audiovisual stimuli is accompanied by an ever increasing number of global film festivals. Under normal circumstances, I would encourage the dissemination of films and video projects. The problem today is that many festivals show up to 200 or 300 mostly Monoform films, while allowing little or any space or time for the public to discuss what they have seen, let alone developing a critical discussion about the development of the Monoform.
I realise that many media professionals would disagree with my analysis. Here I wish to add that I am not pressing for the elimination of the Monoform (which would be futile anyway, since the standardised audio-visual media are clearly here to stay). As I write on my website (in The Dark Side of the Moon), the Monoform is but one of many different forms and processes of media presentation. The crucial problem is that the professional media world gives credence only to the Monoform, and thereby virtually disallows any other.
On my website I also discuss the long-running marginalisation, since the 1960s, of my own work. I know that – to one degree or another – certain other filmmakers have met this fate as well. But the majority of filmmakers and documentarists are, understandably, caught up in the passion, challenge and excitement of carrying out their craft. They love the ‘buzz’ and the competitiveness of film festivals, AND they are aware of the cruelties and isolation that come with criticising the role of their profession. For these and other reasons I understand why many filmmakers shun the Monoform debate (such as it exists) and take a position of avoidance. This is a great pity, as is the fact that educators avoid taking a critical position towards the Monoform – instead, they trap media students by introducing them to alternative films, and then inferring that only the Monoform will lead them to work as media professionals.
The film La Commune has had a checkered career. Its co-producer, ARTE (the Franco-German TV channel), refused to screen the film during normal viewing hours, or to release a VHS copy. To counter this situation, a support group of actors and crew members, Rebond pour la Commune, agreed in 2000 to organize their own screenings and discussions in France and abroad, thus ensuring the survival of the film. In conjunction with the new management of 13 Productions in Paris, we have since produced a shorter version of the film in order to facilitate cinema screenings.
As I wrote earlier, I have always tried, via my films, to expose the myth of documentary ‘reality’ - and nowhere is this more true than in La Commune. “So what is real?”, you may ask. In this film, for me, it is the words and sentiments of the ‘actors’ with whom we worked for 13 summer days within the stifling interior of a theatrical set designed to represent the 11th arrondissement of Paris in 1871. Prior to the filming, these actors spent time with the research team studying the conditions and the people of Paris at that time, in order to develop the ‘role’ they had undertaken (or been chosen) to ‘play’. It is in their willingness, ability, and commitment to blend past and present, to give it personal and spontaneous expression, that I feel the strength of this film lies.
To conclude, I believe that La Commune exhibits one direction that can challenge the Monoform, including by its use of non-standardised forms and processes to directly involve the public – both as ‘actors’ and ‘viewers’ - in a pluralistic experience.
Peter Watkins, France, May 2018