Essays

Unearthing Filmmaker Marc Karlin, an Oft-Overlooked Pioneer of Documentary Film

Largely relegated to broadcast television, the British filmmaker's highly visual work explored memory and social history, and pushed for stylistic innovations.

The sets and dioramas that populate Karlin’s films borrow from a dramatic tradition, stretching from Punch and Judy to German Expressionism. His films are literary, with chapters, text and references to Milton and Blake; they contain narrators who problematise authorship, refracting the story through multiple perspectives. But above all, Karlin’s work is cinematic. He was a master of superimposition, and brought drama to still images (long before Asif Kapadia was winning Oscars for it). And, like the French New Wave directors he idolized, Karlin was a pioneer of the tracking shot. 

Sam Thompson, Little White Lies, March 11, 2016

Part and parcel of the current boom in documentary film is the revival of a discussion about documentary form begun in the earliest years of cinema history. Filmmakers including Dziga Vertov, Chris Marker, Jean Rouch, Robert Flaherty, Joris Ivens, Basil Wright, Pare Lorentz worked in diverse styles and subjects in the first half of the last century. Later, filmmakers like Drew Associates, Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, and Frederick Wiseman, among many others continued the tradition, re-inventing the form as they went along. And yet there are still treasures of documentary history to unearth.

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Filmmaker Marc Karlin. Image courtesy Marc Karlin Archive.

Surely one of these is the extraordinary and far too little known body of work by Marc Karlin produced in Great Britain between the 1970s and ’90s, primarily for television broadcast. Karlin’s mentor was Chris Marker, and he augmented Marker’s exploration of the “essay” in a truly radical body of work from the 1970s to 1999—the year of his untimely death at 56. A committed leftist in post-war Britain, Karlin was also a tireless advocate for the efforts of other filmmakers and played a key role in the establishment of Channel 4 TV in 1982.

It is no surprise that the impressive book Marc Karlin: Look Again was published as recently as 2015, and a colloquium at NYU in November of that same year was held to reconsider his life and work. Not only does Look Again offer extensive material from the Karlin archive, it also has intriguing essays by pioneers of the British independent film world, including Michael Chanan; celebrated filmmakers John Akomfrah (MBE) and Sally Potter (MBE) and an introduction by NYU scholar, Sukhdev Sandhu. 

Creating progressive media in 1980s Britain

The period in which Karlin worked was one of rapid growth for the independent film sector in Britain, and got a huge step up with the aforementioned establishment of Channel 4 TV in 1982 (after a decade of lobbying from the independent sector, IFA et al). Its explicit purpose was to expand the established media discourse limited at the time to BBC and ITV. (There was as yet very little cable TV in Britain or Europe, or indeed the United States at the time.) To that end, C4 proceeded to commission a huge amount of film from independent producers on every topic, and enthusiastically encouraged formal experimentation. 

The early 1980s also saw the establishment of several film workshops (supported by the Greater London Council and the new broadcaster Channel 4). Those included Sankofa Film and Video Collective, Retake Film and Video Collective, Black Audio Film Collective, and Ceddo, all with a remit to introduce new perspectives on British culture to television and film audiences, specifically the Black and Asian experiences.

By 1986, the broadcast of Handsworth Songs (1986) and Passion of Remembrance (1986) made it crystal clear new voices were coming to the fore. Handsworth Songs was filmed during the deeply disturbing riots of the early ’80s—telling the stories of everyday people through interviews, live and archival footage in a poetic style with a now famous soundtrack collaging voice loops, electronic sounds, and music by Trevor Mathison. The riots were seen as a response to the socio-economic severity of Thatcherism, then at its height, combined with deep-seated racism and police violence against black communities. Passion of Remembrance combined fictional drama, scripted drama, and documentary to address the women’s movement, sexuality, black history, and issues of identity. All this woven through its presentation of the story of the working class black Baptiste family from the 1950s to ’80s. Both films offered a far larger and more complex historical context for the experience of Black communities than any other coverage of the time.

At the same time the work of filmmakers like Derek Jarman, Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal, and Sally Potter was heralding the arrival of new, distinctly avant-garde approaches to film, TV, and the visual arts. These films blurred many of the lines between documentary, experimental, and narrative modes.

Karlin’s contribution to the era

Karlin’s lively cinematic visual imagination, his penchant for literary structures, and love of superimposition and camera tracking allied to a deeply committed political consciousness was well suited to this innovative environment. His best known film of that time was a four-part series on the revolution in Nicaragua, all of which was commissioned and broadcast on Channel 4. Working with the American photographer Susan Meiselas, Karlin developed an essay film, Voyages, made entirely of stills from her book, Nicaragua made in 1978-79.

Still groundbreaking 40 years later and truly a tour de force, Voyages portrays Nicaragua in the midst of a revolution and simultaneously interrogates the entire process of making images (still or moving) of this event and its people.

Andy Robson of In the Spirit of Marc Karlin best sums up the filmmaker’s approach.

“The film is composed of five tracking shots, each approximately ten minutes in length. Shot in a studio by Karlin’s cinematographer, Jonathan Bloom, the camera glides slowly over Meiselas’ blown up stills, shifting focus between images in the background and foreground, allowing the editing to be achieved in camera. The meditative camera movement accompanying Meiselas’ words, creates a distance for the audience, reflecting the photographer’s own separation from the events she witnessed.”

Visually sumptuous, the film consists of long tracking shots which glide in and out of the Mesielas’ photographs, accompanied by the narrator’s highly personal meditation written as a letter from the photographer to the narrator (filmmaker). Throughout, Karlin probes the relationship and responsibility of the photographer/filmmaker towards his or her subjects as well the events being represented.

Karlin also structures miniature narratives about the people on screen to create characters with whom we can identify, thus humanizing the evolving historical events. As the narrator journeys through Nicaragua making photos, he continually questions what he is doing and how. Will any of these photo images be helpful—or damaging? As an outsider American with a passport, he can leave the country at any moment. Why should people trust him at all? How should he tell this story without being just another observer who does nothing?

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A scene from filmmaker Marc Karlin’s “Nicaragua.” Image courtesy Marc Karlin Archive.

As we listen to this constantly questioning voice, we see the camera slowly reveal scenes of crowds at funerals holding placards with portraits of the dead, a woman carrying her baby as she flees aerial bombing. Meiselas (and later Karlin and his film crew) somehow manage to make these photos amidst the constant terror of the paramilitaries randomly arresting and shooting men, women, and children, as entire villages flee to the mountains.

The subsequent three hours of the series are stylistically more familiar, combining live footage shot by Karlin’s team, and archival materials, although no less radical in approach. With Making of a Nation (1985), In Their Time (1985) and finally Changes (1985), Karlin explores in detail the Sandinista state’s development, the previously suppressed history of the Sandinista movement, and the ghastly contra war. Always attuned to the experience of individuals In Their Time followed the journalists and photographers of Sandinista newspaper Barricada, portraying the ongoing social change via their published stories. Changes documents the effects on the lives of Nicaragua’s campesinos, or peasant farmers, from both the activities of the radical wing of the Catholic Church and their own participation in events. Committed to exploring the slow and difficult process of making social change, specifically its effect on the everyday lives of people, the Nicaragua series manages to consistently portray multiple voices, and multiple viewpoints. 

Another important film of Karlin’s is For Memory (1986), which was made in part as a reaction to his dislike and disapproval of the TV mini-series Holocaust (1978). According to Robson, Karlin uses the documentary to pose the question, “How could a documentary photograph die so soon and be taken over by a fiction?” Tellingly For Memory begins with members of the British Army film unit painfully recalling the images they recorded after the liberation of the Belsen Concentration Camp. With his cinematographer Jonathan Bloom (who created the set for Voyages) a model city was built in a studio and Karlin’s camera prowls through this city as we hear historians, activists, and Alzheimer’s sufferers “deliver banished memories from outside the city’s bounds.” Robson describes For Memory as a “…contemplation on cultural amnesia,” and “an essay on a city that forgets and remembers, and how it forgets and how it remembers.”

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A scene from “Outrage.” Image courtesy Marc Karlin Archive.

Karlin’s fascination with memory, social history, and stylistic innovation continued in his later films like Outrage (1995) and Serpent (1997). For Outrage, he took a kind of shaggy dog story approach to a film about the arts. Also made for Channel 4 TV, Karlin invents the story of a Mr. M who is bewildered by a Cy Twombly painting. A narrator tells us the story as Mr. M tries to decipher the meaning of the painting. Throughout, Karlin’s camera pans, floats, and zooms over many paintings (historical, modern, including more Twombly canvases) creating an eloquent art historical tour. Inserting bits of story with text and image along the way, in addition to clips from several art critics, the film concludes that art is a way of marking one’s passage through the world. Outrage is so contemporary it could have been made last year.

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A scene from “The Serpent.” Image courtesy Marc Karlin Archive.

The Serpent is structured as a kind of hallucinatory dream experienced by train commuter, Michael Deakin, who detests Rupert Murdoch’s influence. The film plays out as a dialogue in voice and image between Deakin’s vision of Murdoch as Satan, a brief appearance by Lenin, and a voice of reason (female) arguing that we the viewers and readers are entirely complicit in the success of this tabloid culture. Deakin’s hallucination is a visual collage of images including stock footage of Murdoch, a visit to a bizarre, imagined Murdoch museum, and a wonderful sequence with the Devil’s head leering out of the screen. Full of film historical references, The Serpent is both serious and witty, and for this viewer, reminiscent of the work of Derek Jarman.

Many commentators have noted that Karlin’s lack of reputation has had everything to do with the fact that he worked largely for TV, and was thus left out of accounts of documentary film in Britain. In his review of the book, Marc Karlin: Look Again, Giovanni Vimercati remarks that “Long before the small screen became a site for quality serial content and the video essay became a fashionable trend, Karlin shot for British TV some of the most daring docu-essays the public at large has yet to appreciate.”

It is definitely time to look again.

The author would like to Holly Aylett and Andrew Robson for support and photos. Information about Karlin’s work is available at In the Spirit of Marc Karlin. Select films can be seen on the site as well.

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