Marc Karlin: Fragment d’une oevure

Lussas, France

There are stories and then there is history. But how often in criticism do we encounter this obvious and crucial distinction? Furthermore, the relationship between these two fields is fragile and indirect. As an artist, a reader or a viewer, one needs to find strategies to comprehend how a dialogue between these fields is possible today, which means finding good examples of such a dialogue. One such example is the work of British filmmaker Marc Karlin (1943-1999), subject of a very interesting retrospective programme curated by Italian film historian Federico Rossin at États généraux du film documentaire de Lussas last year.

Berwick Street Collective: Nightcleaners (Part 1) (1972 1975). 16 mm film. 90 minutes. Film still. Image courtesy of Berwick Street Film Collective (Humphry Trevelyan, Mary Kelly, James Scott, Marc Karlin) and LUX, London
Berwick Street Collective: Nightcleaners (Part 1) (1972 1975). 16 mm film. 90 minutes. Film still. Image courtesy of Berwick Street Film Collective (Humphry Trevelyan, Mary Kelly, James Scott, Marc Karlin) and LUX, London

In Rossin’s words,


Karlin belongs to that generation of filmmakers who, after having gone through the militant experience of the sixties and seventies, developed a new political filmmaking praxis in the eighties […] by rethinking and moving beyond the Marxist tradition,

and who is now seen


as an important missing figure in documentary film history, the lost-and-found link between militant and experimental cinema.

A significant factor in the recent rediscovery of Karlin’s achievement has been the appearance of the first volume dedicated to his work: Marc Karlin: Look Again, edited by Holly Aylett.

Prior to all of this, if one had searched for information about Karlin on the internet, the obituary in The Independent would probably be one of the first links to appear. Its opening description of Karlin as ‘the most significant unknown film-maker working in Britain in the past three decades’ might already suggest placing him within a particular cinematic ‘geneaology’ by reminding us of another filmmaker’s career: that of the French artist Chris Marker. They were friends and Marker’s oeuvre was indeed decisive in Karlin’s education, including the formation of his idea of cinema. The set of thoughts at stake in Karlin’s films is undoubtedly Markerian in many ways and yet Karlin is probably one of the few under Marker’s influence who proved able to create a personal and radical language comparable to Marker’s, and the French artist admired him for that.

In almost all of his films, Karlin put historical situations under his critical view, and in one of his first and most remarkable works, Nightcleaners Part 1 (1972-75), made collaboratively when Karlin was part of the Berwick Street Film Collective, one already finds an idea of history as a sort of sleepless / endless night, in which even a political struggle appears in the form of hallucination. The action takes place in the UK, and, to use Rossin’s words once again, the subject is ‘the campaign to unionize the women who cleaned office blocks at night and who were being victimized and underpaid’. Now, this is the framework where individual portraits of these women are displayed, and one cannot but notice how peculiar this ‘portraiture’ is, as the camera ‘enters’ the image – their faces, their skins – and literally grasps the materiality of their existences, the living and silent part of their stories.

This dialectic between stories (personal experiences) and history (politics as broader framework) continues in later works such as A Dream from the Bath (1985) and Between Times (1993), essay films in which, respectively, Karlin questions the role of cinema in British identity and the future of the British Left in that period. In discussing A Dream from the Bath, it is important to point out that the context of its making was the Film Act of 1985, which resulted in the withdrawal of state support for cinema in the UK. This starting point helped Karlin to create a film in which his take on British cinema, intimate as a story, becomes premise / promise of an idea of cinema as agent of history. In Between Times, the stories are those of the two major then-current tendencies of the British Left on the verge of changing its shape with the appearance of New Labour. The film offers an endless dialogue, provocative as well as brilliant, between two offscreen characters, A and Z. The interplay of their voices takes the form of an in-depth debate ‘between a socialist who believes in the possibility of workingclass self-activity and a postmodernist for whom the effort to resist is pointless’ (Rossin). In the end Karlin suggests how necessary and yet difficult it is draw any political map, as the history of that present might be blown away like the sand of a mandala just when the whole picture seems complete.

In some of Karlin’s other works, history and stories are in dialogue because they share a common factor: the role of memory. More specifically, films such as For Memory (1982) and Utopias (1989) appear as attempts to deal with social memory, therefore with a form of relationship between subjects. For Memory does this through the metaphor of a futuristic city where the life of stories and the trace of events lies beyond its walls; Utopias through portraits of different people as faces and forces for an idea of socialism in Britain.

Karlin’s other major work is the series about Nicaragua and its revolution: Nicaragua Part 1: Voyages (1985); Nicaragua Part 2: The Making of a Nation (1985); Nicaragua Part 3: In Their Time (1985); Nicaragua Part 4: Changes (1985); Scenes for a Revolution (1991). These films are headlines which speak volumes about their specific themes, but it is with Nicaragua Part 1: Voyages that he created what was probably his finest achievement. In 1978-79, Susan Meiselas photographed the two insurrections that led to the revolution. Karlin’s film is composed of five unedited tracking shots which move across elaborate arrangements of these photographs, whilst his voice reads Meiselas’ ‘reflections on her relationship to the history she witnessed’ (Rossin). The film can be seen as a gesture of appropriation of Meiselas’ work and here, more than anywhere, the meditation on history in images makes clear Karlin’s extraordinary qualities as observer in complex situations, his oeuvre a watchtower for this present, this endless night.

États généraux du film documentaire de Lussas ran from 17-18 August 2015.