The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) and The Forgotten Faces (1961) are the two first films of Peter Watkins. These two short films might appear as less ambitious as The War Game (1965), Punishment Park (1970) and La Commune (1999); however, they already carry the essence of Watkins’ cinema both in their form and in their content.
The Diary of an Unknown Soldier is an internal monologue of a first world war British soldier deployed on the front in Eastern France. The spectator is a witness of his thoughts and fears before combat. Image and sound are not synchronized and the successive and fast series of shots participate to express the anguished wait of the soldier. The way the body is filmed and described in the script is remarkable as it heavily insists on the fact that war for soldiers — in opposition to high rank officers — is essentially a matter of bodies: their movement, their combination with the bullets and bombs trajectories and their relationship to the ground — in that case, the mud. The body is what the soldier is asked to supply to his or her army to accomplish the strategies thought about “from above.” In that matter, Watkins makes his soldier think the following while filming close-ups of parts of his body along with other soldiers’ (see the series of screenshots above):
That’s how I will probably die, left like a poor old rag on the battlefield. When you know this is going to happen to you, your body suddenly becomes something terribly precious to you. This flesh, soft and warm is yours; a personal belonging not to be discarded like an awful piece of meat. You find yourself thinking about this, realizing what a wonderful thing your body is, and what an awful and wrong thing it is to maltreat it.
I got the chance last week, to curate a small cine-club session organized by Danielle Willems (see her essay for the Funambulist) who was kind enough to ask me so. I chose two movies that I was not necessarily associating but whose connection will have to be made in an upcoming article about what Deleuze calls the Power of the False (La puissance du Faux). Those two films were Punishment Park (1971) by Peter Watkins (see the previous articles about it) and A Walk Through H. (1978) by Peter Greenaway about which I already wrote but I would like to reiterate in order to open a new category in the archives that I will elaborate about in the coming weeks. This category concerns Maps, their subjectivity and their power. I already archived in it previous articles that are related to this topic and more will come.
I still need to research more information in order to write something about the subjectivity of maps as a mean of representation of space, but of course that is the main topic of A Walk Through H. whose narrator is so obsessed with maps that he ends up seeing them on every piece of paper that gets in his way and the film is registered in a slow process of abstractization of those maps that create new spaces rather than representing them.
The following text is what Peter Greenaway says about this film, immediately followed by thirteen of the ninety two maps painted by P.Greenaway himself that constitutes the movie. I don’t know if there has ever been an exhibition about them but I would be amazed to see one being organized :
Like most people, I suspect, I am interested in maps, cartography, plans and diagrams. The map is an extraordinary palimpsest to tell you where you have been, where you are at this present moment, and where you could be, and even in subjective tenses, where you might have been, where you could have been. It’s a total consideration in the sense of temporality as well as spatiality. I have this fascination that I often utilize for making many paintings which had maps and cartography as their basis.Read more
picture: The Void by R&Sie(n) 2005
In 2009, the South African film District 9 popularized a type of cinema that is interesting to question and put in relation with architecture: the docu-fiction. In order to please a broader audience, District 9 unfortunately gave up the technique in the middle of the narrative to come back to a more Hollywood-like type of movie, but the effect remains interesting in what it manages to communicate.
The two masters of this practice are French director Chris Marker (see previous article) and English director Peter Watkins (see two previous articles 1 & 2) who, in the 1960-70’s developed several movies entirely built up as docu-fictions. The War Game (1965) and Punishment Park (1971) by Peter Watkins are particularly illustrative of such a process. When the first one depicts the United Kingdom being under nuclear attack in an uprising of antagonism in the Cold War (three years after the Cuban missiles crisis), the second one introduced a police program that allows illegal dissidents to choose to participate to a Police force exercise in the middle of the desert in exchange of a lighter sentence. Once a policeman get killed, the documentary team films the vengeance of his colleagues who transform this exercise into a murderous human hunt. Both of those films are shot to appear as documentaries; in L’Ambassade (1973), Chris Marker pushes this process even further by pretending that his film has been found in an embassy which is understood to be in Santiago (Chile) after Pinochet’s coup d’etat.
More recently this style has been explored in a pretty well built-up pseudo-documentary by Gabriel Range. Entitled, Death of a President (2006), this film uses the same language and means of American TV documentaries to in fact describes in detail the assassination of Georges Bush when he was still President of the USA.
Of course, none of those movies’ goal is to deceive their spectators by making them rationally believed that what they are seeing on the screen is reality. This is the role of the hoax, not of the docu-fiction. In fact, this type of films manages both to trigger viewers’ imagination to understand what is seen as a potential reality and to allow an association between this fictitious reality with the one they are embedded in. In other words, at the end of Punishment Park, nobody really believed that a group of political activists has been murdered by the Police in the Californian desert; nevertheless, many would understand the dangers of the Police State and might react against it.
Docu-fictions elaborate new norms that are mixed with the one already existing in order for the viewer to react both to the new, and the existing ones. Just like many science fiction narratives, by introducing an elsewhere in time (docu-fiction are somehow similar to what is known as uchronia) or in space, the latter are metaphor for the current situation. That is how, District 9 describes (fairly unsubtly) the conditions of the South African Apartheid by replacing Black people by aliens in order for everybody to understand what “otherness” really is, and how Death of a President drives an fictitious historical (nice oxymoron!) event in order to illustrate how the state of emergency is being implemented as permanent law.