Close Up

5 - 28 September 2018: Close-Up on Peter Watkins


“There is a strong case to be made that Peter Watkins is the most neglected major filmmaker [...]. Over the course of forty years the British-born director has managed, against trying and often adversarial circumstances, to produce a highly original and powerful body of work that engages the worlds of politics, art, history, and literature. That these films remain obscure is a function of such factors as suppression by producers or weak-kneed film distributors, surprisingly unsympathetic – at times hostile – critics, and the filmmaker’s own legendary iconoclasm. Watkins has spent the bulk of his professional career in self-imposed exile from his homeland, a result of the BBC’s banning his 1966 film The War Game and the critics’ drubbing of Privilege the next year. By 1980, with so many of his projects aborted, Watkins publicly announced his retirement from directing and began to devote himself to studying and speaking on the effects of the overly centralized role of the mass media. While he eventually returned to active filmmaking, he has continued to publish and lecture extensively on the pervasive use in both film and television news of what he calls the "Monoform": a visual language comprised of rapid, "seamless" edits and an incessant bombardment of movement and sound.” – Harvard Film

Covering the breadth of Peter Watkins extraordinary body of work this programme presents the radical filmmaker’s most well known films. As the centrepiece to the programme, we're thrilled to welcome Watkins to Close-Up to introduce the rarely screened theatrical cut of his masterpiece, La commune.

On the occasion of this programme we have re-published Peter Watkins most recent statement on “The Global Media Crisis”:

“This statement is Part I of two parts. Part II, which should be available later this year (2018), will expand on the issues covered here, and include the role of the print media in the media crisis. It will also discuss alternative measures, and, as a balance to the information given here in Part I, will present a number of the important sources of support for my work over the past 50 years." read more

The Diary of an Unknown Soldier
Peter Watkins
1959 | 17 min | B/W | Digital

The diary of a soldier at the front, during the First World War, describing his brothers in arms. He watches many of them losing their lives to take a few yards of muddy ground from the enemy, and ultimately he becomes one of the glorified by the achievement. read more

The Forgotten Faces
Peter Watkins
1961 | 19 mins | B/W | Digital

A gripping, expertly crafted newsreel style account of the 1956 peoples' uprising in Hungary directed by celebrated innovator of the docudrama form, Peter Watkins. A low-budget, amateur production, The Forgotten Faces convincingly and meticulously reconstructs the events from Budapest on nothing more than the backstreets of Canterbury. read more

Peter Watkins
1964 | 75 min | B/W | Digital

“Watkins’s first film for the BBC, Culloden is an historical reconstruction of the last battle fought on British soil and the ensuing destruction of the Scottish highland clans after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Praised by critics for its graphic realism and cinéma-vérité style, the film has even been employed by the U.S. Army for a course in military history. read more

The War Game
Peter Watkins
1966 | 47 min | B/W | Digital

In this highly controversial dramatisation of the after effects of a nuclear attack on England, Watkins claims to have used "mathematical logic" to estimate the likely experience – both logistic and personal – of nuclear war, basing his visualization on the British government’s contingency plans and scientific research into the effects of radiation on the human body. Filmed in what would become the director’s trademark "semidocumentary" style, The War Game interrogates the clash between "subjective" and "objective" forms and refuses to allow the viewer a safe distance from the issues it presents. read more

Peter Watkins
1967 | 103 min | Colour | Digital
Introduced by Gareth Evans*

With Privilege, Watkins merged documentary style with metaphor to expand his interrogation of media and politics. More conventional than the director’s debut efforts, it nonetheless retains his trademark first-person interviews and pseudo documentary style. The story concerns Steven Shorter (Jones), a successful pop singer who is convinced by the government to perform violent theatrical rock that will distract youth from politics and social problems and lull them into a "fruitful conformity" with church and state. read more

*8 September screening only – coincides with UK launch of Wolf Kino’s book Future Revolutions: New Perspectives on Peter Watkins.

Punishment Park
Peter Watkins
1971 | 88 min | Colour | Digital

Watkins’s study of social turmoil in the United States during the Vietnam era finds the Nixon administration establishing detention camps to curb protests from pacifists, students, black militants, and other disruptive elements of society. Invoking powers contained in the 1950 McCarran Act, the government offers convicted offenders the chance to avoid lengthy prison sentences with the option of a three-day stay in a Punishment Park, where prisoners must trek fifty-three miles across the California desert with no food or water while being chased by armed National Guardsmen authorized to shoot them on sight. read more

Edvard Munch
Peter Watkins
1976 | 221 min | Colour | Digital
Norwegian with English subtitles

This intensely personal biographical recreation of the early years of struggle endured by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is considered by many to be the most successful portrayal of the artistic process ever depicted on film. Munch, crucified by critics and public alike in the late nineteenth century, is seen here as a young man in battle with puritanical Norwegian society and beset with various family tragedies and resultant depressions, all the while wrestling to give expression to his own artistic voice. read more

La Commune (Paris, 1871)
Peter Watkins
2000 / 2005 | 207 min | B/W | Digital
French with English subtitles
Theatrical cut. Introduced by Peter Watkins

In March 1871 civil war rages in Paris. A journalist on Versailles TV issues a soothing, truncated report on the events that are tearing apart the French Republic, while a community access channel is set up by the insurgents. Inside a theater (the Armand Gatti workshop in Montreuil), some 220 actors, predominantly amateurs, impersonate the workers of the Popincourt quarter of the 11th Arrondissement and reenact the social and political debates that racked the Paris Commune. Despite the period costumes, the discussions are as often as not about contemporary problems – unemployment and racism – and many of the criticisms are aimed not at Versailles but at current government and society. read more

Many thanks to Peter Watkins, 13 Productions and Gareth Evans for making this programme possible