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Peter Watkins on the Media Crisis -- from Culloden to America's Pravda

Culloden (1964)
For people of my generation you still may require a long memory to draw into its awareness Peter Watkins.

Inasmuch as Watkins registers in a broader consciousness it is because of his video docudramas made in the 1960s  especially    Culloden  which was shown by the BBC in 1964 - and The War Game (1965) which wasn't. In fact the BBC pulled it from showing on British tubes.

The film nonetheless went on  to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Watkins has been in exile from Britain since The War Game was banned but has continued to make his own style of film often in Scandinavia.

 I saw The War Game and Culloden decades ago and can vouch that,  as was the film maker's intention, they infest your mind well after the end titles have run.

Having just watched Culloden again I am a bit taken aback by the fact I have neglected this great film for so very long. But since copies are rare, I suspect I am not alone.
Culloden was Watkins' first full-length film. It was also his first use of his docudrama style in which actors portray historical characters being interviewed by filmmakers on the scene, "as though it was happening in front of news cameras".Watkins also "wanted to break through the conventional use of professional actors in historical melodramas, with the comfortable avoidance of reality that these provide, and to use amateurs - ordinary people - in a reconstruction of their own history." He accordingly used an all-amateur cast from London and the Scottish Lowlands for the royalist forces, and people from Inverness for the clan army. This later became a central technique of Watkins' filmmaking.
According to an estimate by the cinematographer for the film, 
Dick Bush, about 85% of all camerawork in Culloden was hand-held. This newsreel style shooting gave an already gritty reality a sense of present action. Culloden looked like a documentary of an event which occurred before the camera was invented. From this the film illustrates the recognizable documentary style of ‘cinema verite’. (reference)
I am in no position to rule on Watkins style -- much as it impresses , indeed, overwhelms me. I am also yet to catch up with The War Game  and his more recent films like La Commune (Paris, 1871)  -- made in 2000 -- and  Edvard Munch (1976). 

I guess over the decades I have seen  many documentary films. To be honest I don't always take to the form as they can be a very mixed bag of good intention and moralism seeded with factoring. To be honest I often enough prefer my documentation in audio format rather than being lulled into a manufactured belief by film. Outrage can come easily to film making. That may seem to make me out as a bit of a Luddite...  but -- to be honest -- I don't always trust film.
Here's an exercise: go edit a video and than try and say you did not manipulate the message to your personal preference/your POV spin doctoring. It's easy. Video is so plastic.
We could get into a McLuhanist discussion -- and I've spent a lot of time there -- mulling over media form and media message -- but in my followup on Watkins I came upon a essay of his -- The Media Crisis -- that is standout fascinating and very much to the point.

I suggest  you go read Watkin's essay which challenges the existing rigid and hierarchical processes of the mass audiovisual media (MAVM) , because it may make you engage in a rethink about what you watch...or, at least, how you watch it.

I'm thinking this through while I study the essay and work my way through whatever Watkins films I can access. But this segment from the revised introduction  to the essay captures substantial part of his argument:
Is documentary filmmaking being compromised as a result of the media crisis? Of course it is! Most documentary films - especially those made for TV - are now so uniformly formatted that it's difficult to tell them apart. One of the most striking aspects of the Monoform - along with the sheer mass of audiovisual material flooding out from cinema, TV, computer and mobile phone screens - is its ability to blur a/v messages, to meld individual subjects and concerns into one amorphous mass. It is this effect that undermines our sense of priority and personal involvement with global issues, and our ability to place events within a meaningful and holistic context. The fact that the greatest potential disaster of our lifetime has developed under our very noses, as we've sat on our couches being ‘served’ by the MAVM, is a indication of the efficacy of this system. We sat there losing the ability to tell the difference...
In an attempt to differentiate their work, a number of filmmakers are even elevating their own assault on the audience. A study of recent documentaries (The Corporation, Supersize Me, Michael Moore's films, others critical of George Bush and the Iraq War, etc.) reveals a style and pattern wherein the personality of the filmmaker is often as important as the subject of the film itself. And once again, the audience encounters a tornado of rapid editing; fragmented talking heads; twisting and cork-screwing camera work; clever digitized animation; and a theatrical in-your-face disrespect for the nearest corporate figures. All of which is heralded as cutting edge, radical and relevant - but which in fact barely masks a disingenuous and authoritarian relationship to the audience. Some of these films even claim to be critical of the media - but not only is their own language form centralised and hierarchical (a double-irony in the case of Manufacturing Consent, which features Naom Chomsky), they also never actually critique the form and process of the MAVM (including in their own films).
Oops! This seems like heresy does it not? Our beloved docoes

A little later, no doubt in frustration, Watkins asks, "Why does alternative journalism think that simply changing the agenda and the media-makers - leaving form, process, and relationship to the audience untouched - will solve the media crisis? "

This makes for radical reading delivered with  urgency...

But for all its intensity, I think Watkins drives home a salient point.  We may seemingly be delivered night after night exposés a'plenty in video form but all  that is expected of us is a heartfelt tut tut as though the world on screen  is foreign to the one we inhabit and could actively do something about.

Peter Watkin's Statement

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