by Allan Fish
(Canada/Sweden 1987 873m) DVD2 (France only)
To comment on the process of the film
p/d/w Peter Watkins ph/ed various
Peter Watkins’ monumental study of life in the nuclear age had, for over 25 years, become a thing of myth. Glimpsed as frequently as the village of Brigadoon, barely seen even when it was released. It had been financed by various European organisations and Watkins intended it to be seen in schools, with each episode between 30 and 50 minutes, the length of a single class or period in a classroom. After shooting for several years, over a hundred hours of footage were edited down to 19 episodes. At its centre there was a summit between Ronald Reagan and Canadian leader Brian Mulroney, but also visits to Japan, Norway, Finland, West Germany, the US, Scotland (including the Isle of Lewis), Mozambique, Tahiti and the Soviet Union.
Historical context must be taken into account; this was the world pre Glasnost, pre the Reagan-Gorbachev thaw, pre Berlin Wall, pre Tiananmen Square, pre Mandela. These were the death throes of the Cold War. Even Watkins would have been amazed at how much could change in a few short years. Did the changes then make The Journey seem redundant? Here was a plea to end the arms race, and only a few years later the two super powers did just that. The Journey seems now best taken as a time capsule, when hope was dwindling and the way ahead seemed to indicate disaster, the seemingly endless militarisation of the planet with its diaspora of troops overseas, whose leaders spend countless millions on armaments while letting individuals’ basic needs suffer.
From the get go Watkins informs us that “the presentation is biased due to our very strong feelings on the subject.” We’re given not just the facts about nuclear expenditure and the extent of desolation and destruction that such weapons bring, but also the impact on the world’s environment. There are numerous moving sequences, visits to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial, like an ancient burial mound, and to Bangor submarine base in the US. Here a chilling analogy can easily be made, between the slow tracking shot down the railway tracks on which the nuclear warheads are brought and the tracks that took the doomed millions to Auschwitz. The difference here, of course, is that the Nazis’ form of murder was still personal, face to face. The world has since advanced, or rather degenerated, into murdering countless millions by proxy at the flick of a switch.
Cinematically, however, Watkins presents us with a paradox. As well as looking at the effects of nuclear arms race, he also takes time to discuss the disintegration of the global community, the failure to provide sufficient infrastructure in former colonial countries in Africa and the manipulation of the media, how they concentrate on the sensational and use rapid editing to disfigure and make the audience see the world as they want them to. The paradox being that Watkins himself uses a manipulative editing technique, having dialogue from one scene overlap with visuals for the next, captions come up for what may be the next scene but may be the scene after. It’s disorienting, at times needlessly so, but Watkins sets out to challenge us. The Journey cannot be watched in long sittings, it’s made too uncomfortable to do so, with its endless repetition and occasional sledgehammer editing. One cannot escape the feeling that The War Game, which was only 45 minutes long, was more impactful, that The Journey is self-indulgent and as much a monstrosity as a masterpiece. Yet it can be both, and its most powerful moments will stay with you, such as the exchange of video welcomes between a family in Scotland and another in Leningrad, and it’s in this attempt to forcibly glue together a sense of community for which Watkins is to be most applauded. But the most moving scene of all is surely that in the penultimate episode, with an elderly German woman, visibly shaking as she talks about her terror of where the world is heading mixed with memories of where her country had been. In a mere few minutes she speaks more sense than you’ll find in a yearly record of Hansard. As a state of the planet, for all its flaws, it’s an astonishing achievement.