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#special issue: Make Film Politically

Peter Watkins /// From “The public alternative process and practices”

film_11.jpg
Published at http://www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins/public.htm

Analysis and knowledge > Direct political action > Creating alternative media

If we can somehow develop the idea that individuals and community groups – i.e., the public – can and should play a greater role in deciding and creating what they (we) see on the mass audiovisual media (MAVM), then we will have taken a major step forward.
Central to this proposal is the concept that the ideas and initiatives of the public, if absorbed into the creation of the mass audiovisual media, would help break down many of the existing hierarchical forms and practices.

film_11.jpg
Published at https://www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins/public.htm

Analysis and knowledge > Direct political action > Creating alternative media

If we can somehow develop the idea that individuals and community groups – i.e., the public – can and should play a greater role in deciding and creating what they (we) see on the mass audiovisual media (MAVM), then we will have taken a major step forward.
Central to this proposal is the concept that the ideas and initiatives of the public, if absorbed into the creation of the mass audiovisual media, would help break down many of the existing hierarchical forms and practices.

As I have outlined in this statement, the mass audiovisual media have systematically withheld from the public essential information relating to the forms and practices of the media, as well as the basis of decisions underlying broadcasting policies. Education systems have also deprived the public of analytical ideas, processes, and alternative practices which could have paved the way to reform. Society urgently needs alternative media community groups seeking to reclaim this vital information and analysis.
The project as described works best with at least a dozen participants. It is made up of 3 parts:

PART A: The participants divide into groups of 3 or 4: each group analyzes a different story from the same current TV newsbroadcast, or from newsbroadcasts on the same day. The analysis includes several tasks:• breaking down the story into its basic elements; producing a ‘scoreboard’ pictorially clarifying every aspect of the Monoform – each cut, zoom, pan, frame, bit of dialogue, sound and visual effect; so that the juxtaposition of each is visually apparent, enabling the students to examine the effects of each element in relation to the others • researching the story to compare the ‘facts’ as discovered, with the ‘facts’ as presented • showing and discussing the news item with an audience • locating either the original subjects (including the people interviewed), or finding a representative group, in order to ascertain whether the news item showed what actually happened (was said), or presented the information accurately w taking those questions which arise in these first stages to the media professionals – journalist, editor, senior producer – who created and produced the item.

PART B: Each group presents its analysis and findings to the other groups, detailing the possible contradictions, dubious ‘facts’, misrepresentations, effects of language-form, etc., and any possible resistance from TV professionals. Each presentation is followed by a discussion. Key issues which can arise include: • centralization of power • fallacy of the myths of ‘objectivity’ and ‘professionalism’ • manipulation via the Monoform hierarchical relationship between media and audience.

PART C: optional – but preferable. This part involves practical work with video (or film) equipment. Simple versions of this project can be carried out using a few basic video cameras; editing equipment, though preferable, is not essential. The participants need to consider what they have learned in Parts A and B – including about the hierarchical relationship between media and audience – and use their equipment as communication tools in order to address the same or similar issues which were covered in the TV news item. This means that the participants have to find their own alternative to the Monoform, and other ways to interview people on video. Which in turn means reviewing how conventional TV uses TIME, SPACE, RHYTHM, and the PROCESS of manipulating both interview subjects and the audience – and then finding alternative, less hierarchical forms. This is an example of what I would call a holistic media exercise, combining critical thinking, analysis, and practical work. The interaction between the groups and the people they interview, and their discourse with the audience in Part A, will help students to find their own ways to use video. Editing equipment enables students to continue examining the pitfalls of the Monoform, and to find gentler and more open-ended editing forms of their own. So – how might these alternative projects be achieved? Once a community group has decided on a video project, it has two courses of action: 1) to produce it themselves, with no professional input; 2) to produce it with the co-operation of a local film or video maker. Since my idea is to involve filmmakers in these proposals for change, I will take the second option, and hereby offer some broad alternative principles:

•The filmmaker and community need to work together as colleagues – not as ‘expert’ showing ‘lay people’ how to do things. The filmmaker needs to be prepared to make a COLLECTIVE film – WITH, not ON a subject or person. Therein lies one major difference.
• The filmmaker needs to be prepared not only to spend time with the community, and with the individual who is the subject of the film, but also to share decisions with the community/individual regarding the central focus of the film, and the methods used to achieve it. (Too often filmmakers decide on the focus of a film, and then impose it on the subject.) It is vital that the group ensure that the filmmaker is amenable to this method of collaboration.

The entire group – filmmaker(s), community, subject(s) – must be prepared to discuss various aspects of the media crisis – if they have not already done so – to collectively ascertain from the subjects their feelings about the Monoform, the regulation of time (Universal Clock), etc., and then decide to what degree they are prepared to work with a film that is seeking alternative usages of time, space and rhythm. Ascertain if the subject(s) of the film have alternative ideas for form and process.

This is extremely important. Too often a filmmaker-group can undertake an alternative project only to have the subjects of the film be disappointed in the result, because they anticipated and believed that the film would look like television. In other words, holistic change can occur only if everyone involved has reached a collective understanding of what alternative means.•

Everyone, including the subject(s), should be involved in researching the project. This is an excellent way to enrich and decentralize the information presented in the film. Again, it is important to see if ideas for form and process develop from the nature of the subject, the character or personality of the community/individual, the nature of the problem under investigation, or from information that comes to light during the collective research.

During the filming process, try as much as possible to remove the barriers between those making and those appearing in the film. This is more difficult than it sounds, due to the deeply embedded hierarchy in conventional filmmaking practices, and in the traditional relationship between media producer and audience. But it is possible. Invent ways to achieve this. •Similarly, during the editing stage, try to involve the feelings and opinions of everyone involved – particularly the subject(s) of the film. This is not easy – multiple and conflicting opinions arise at the editing stage, and if not handled carefully, can create chaos instead of consensus. Once again, be prepared to discuss, if necessary, the workings (and problems) of the Monoform – to demonstrate how it can curtail and alter audience perception of something stated or shown on film – and then demonstrate the difference between the Monoform method (and psychology) and a more open language-form.

•Be prepared to show the film to as many participants as possible while the editing phase is still open to change. Invite comments, and listen especially to those who appear in the film – they may have completely different ideas regarding their presentation, or may be critical of the way their statements are reduced, taken out of context, or juxtaposed with other scenes.
• Screen the project for the wider community, and organize discussions around the work. Follow-up discussions are crucial (and require much more than the ritual 20 minutes), for they can help to prepare the way for the community to see these project(s) as being a viable and necessary alternative to the standard TV fare. Be prepared to have the work go onto DVD or VHS for accessible local screenings. Initial screenings are only part of a sustained PROCESS of change and development.

The community group must be prepared to share the struggle of getting their work onto TV, should it decide to take that route. Although a TV screening is not the primary purpose of producing such a film, the act of proposing it to local or national TV could be a useful learning process for the community. Basically be prepared to accept that a community project might have an audience of several hundred, not countless millions. A holistic relationship with a few people is vastly preferable to a manipulative, enforced contact with many people. This is part of the process in changing the relationship between media and public.
• Discuss with audiences – communities – the need for the media to become local, more participatory, and process-oriented.
This means that we have to open up the possibilities to the public – to local communities – to create their own forms of audiovisual media, which simultaneously become pedagogical and popular culture processes.

“How has YOUR work – Peter Watkins – achieved any of this?”

If I reply by detailing all the ways in which I have tried to create alternative media projects, it may seem that I am implying that being alternative means following the ‘Peter Watkins method of filmmaking’. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The principles underlying my attempts owe a lot to the work of Berthold Brecht and others, and my methods – to the work of the Italian neo-realist filmmakers, and to certain specific films (e.g., François Truffaut’s FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS). My own filmmaking methods emerged along the way, and are quite different on many levels from that of the aforementioned artists. My own principles and concepts developed in the process, and in turn prompted further innovations. The point here is that these very same principles could have led to the development of entirely different methods. I happen to have evolved certain principles of ‘documentary reconstruction’. Another filmmaker could have taken the same principles of public participation and self-reflexive filmmaking, and emerged with another style and process. Scott MacDonald and alternative American cinema offers examples of filmmakers who share many of my concerns and principles regarding public/audience participation, but have chosen completely different formulas and processes in their filmic journeys.

It is important to see references to my own work as being simply a guide on a journey of exploration which will likely result in completely different filmic formula and language forms for achieving the same principles: public participation in the creation of the mass (or local) audiovisual media. Another catch to the question, “How has YOUR work achieved any of this?”, is that it implies that I have succeeded in creating a genuinely pluralistic form of cinema. I haven’t. My work has certainly tried to over the years – and should be recognized, rather than be scorned and marginalized, for such.

In summary, I would like to outline certain factors and ideas which I believe are essential to keep in mind when forging a new relationship between the media and the public:

• That to communicate indicates a two-way process of sharing and dialogue between parties, and that this meaning should apply equally to the process known as ‘mass communications’.•That the meaning of what we show on film or video is shaped by the filmic language forms that we use.• That time, space, rhythm, and process all play an essential role in determining whether ours is a democratic, or a hierarchical relationship with the audiovisual material. That the executives who run TV and the commercial cinema, and the filmmakers and producers who supply them and the MAVM with material, have not been elected to their position. That the concept of objectivity does not, and should never claim to exist in the mass audiovisual media. All we can strive for is responsible subjectivity.• That media violence is not only images portrayed on a screen – it also exists in the editing process, in the use (misuse) of space, time, rhythm, sound, etc.• That history is our life-blood. It is what we choose to call the ‘past,’ ‘present’, and ‘future’. The way we perceive these phases in the affairs of mankind now depends almost entirely on the role of the MAVM. That ethics, morality, and spirituality play a vital role in our development and very being, and thus need to have a place in the process of the MAVM. That filmmakers should have the freedom to proceed with caution vis-à-vis any of the above elements, as well as the right to practice any of the above alternatives, without repression or marginalization. That teachers should have the right to teach alternative, critical media education, without hindrance or marginalization. That every man, woman and child has a basic right to alternative forms of non-violent, non-commercial, non-hierarchical mass or local audiovisual media. And should they so desire – to create such.

 

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