CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 16. . . . April 11, 2003
Director Geoff Bowie sets out to explore the film making of Peter Watkins, a documentary rebel who refuses to submit to the structures of television programs which would make his work more appealing to private stations (such as Discovery and A&E:History) but would also subject his art to the marketing vagaries of the television business. Bowie asks the questions: Is the system oppressive? Is Watkins partly responsible for his exclusion? Ultimately, the answers he reveals in this documentary are both affirmative. The critical observer can see, however, that Bowie's shaping of his documentary, his manipulation of us as his audience, also reveals that "All media are constructions" (Pungente, Media Literacy, 1989, Ontario Ministry of Education). We would be naive to presume that it is possible to create a documentary without a persuasive rhetoric. The Universal Clock is a superb example of the many layers of debate which surround the analysis, appreciation, evaluation and creation of images, especially those on television's private stations.
Bowie's documentary is framed by Watkins' activities while making his twelfth film, La Commune, which concerns the events and the people who staged an uprising in Paris, 1871 and were slaughtered in large numbers (over 30,000) by the French military. Other elements of Bowie's documentary include interviews with a few of the 200 amateur actors who participated in the making of La Commune and with a professional actress. They all praise Watkins' approach and ideology. Bowie also includes interviews with Watkins as he describes his problems with the television documentary format of five to eight second images which is cut to fit a pre-determined length and message. A balance is offered by presenting other interviews with executives from stations such as Discovery, and Arts and Entertainment: History which give the opposite view: the universal clock of 47 minutes, 30 seconds for a one hour time slot is a structure adopted by stations to aid in programming. Those who flout it (Watkins' La Commune was a six hour documentary) would find themselves on the fringes at best (only one network, Arte in France, sponsored La Commune and showed it late on a Friday night lasting until early Saturday morning with the climactic events at 3:30 a.m.) These executives, attending a marketing convention in Cannes to buy and sell "infotainment," compared the universal clock of the documentary with the rules of writing a sonnet or the lines on a tennis court--structures which demand highly polished talent in order to use successfully. Watkins, and presumably Bowie, given that The Universal Clock is 76 minutes and does not conform to the prescribed length, call such a format a "monoform" which seeks to aid the forces of globalization and homogeneity. It gives stations a tool to present and re-present a limited number of views of the world to as many countries as possible: "What the audience is to feel at the end is already decided at the beginning." (Watkins) Bowie and Watkins both resist the documentary as a consumable product, seeking instead to offer audiences an exploration of a topic, one which features long sequences of action to allow thought and participation by the viewer.
The other section of the film of special interest to teachers are the reactions of the actors in La Commune. Watkins' directing style was to set a loose outline of events and then to encourage the actors themselves to discuss and decide on the spoken lines and actions which would advance the story. They also talked about their characters as ancestors who were dealing with issues still of concern in present times: anti-government demonstrations, rich versus poor, the fate of immigrants. One actor comments about the power of involvement in creating a story to the understanding of history: "When [students] see what happens on tv, do they feel what they learned in school relates to that?" Clearly those involved in the making of La Commune (from adults to primary age children) were very involved and speak persuasively about their new understanding.
What will be our stance as educators on the images which abound in our society, not only on television but also on web sites, billboards, buses and t-shirts? For high school students, a critical viewing of The Universal Clock would be a valuable place to begin. The director gives us questions and both sides of the argument, but we can see also that his answer is suggested by his own shaping of documentary. For example, the image of sand reappears in the film, beautifully shaped by winds and water, but also fixed in sandstone buildings and disturbed by earthmoving equipment. The director is indeed directing our response. To what extent are we free to resist his vision? His answer, I suspect, would be that the rather leisurely pace of The Universal Clock allows the time to formulate one's own opinion. The question is nevertheless an interesting one--and this film is a rich source both of answers and further questions.
Deborah L. Begoray is an Associate Professor and Graduate Advisor in the areas of Language and Literacy at the Faculty of Education, the University of Victoria, Victoria, BC.
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