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Some notes from Peter Watkins on Aftenlandet
(Denmark 1976)

I recently read Jakob Jakobsen’s 2007 essay on my film Aftenlandet, and realized that my memory of the circumstances behind the making of this film is now quite clouded.  It is, after all, a long time since I tried to settle and work in Scandinavia, and 35 years since I filmed Aftenlandet in Denmark.  Of all my films, the two that I made in Denmark (Aftenlandet and the earlier 70s People) have probably been the most attacked and certainly the least shown.  Therefore I have had no opportunity to either show these films or to discuss the issues that they deal with.  As a consequence they remain quite blurred relative to fresher memories of larger projects since then. Hence I am very pleased that Jakob has decided to show Aftenlandet, to draw it out from the shadows for the first time since 1977.  I am also very happy that three of the people who helped to develop and produce Aftenlandet - Poul Martinsen (co-writer and interviewer), Carsten Clante (co-writer and journalist Martin), and Ebbe Preisler (producer) - will be present at the screening in København.  I’m sure that their own memories and perspectives of the way the film developed, the opposition from local authorities, and resistance from the local media when the film was shown, will add a great deal to what I write below.

As Jakob writes, the film was originally entitled “Coup d’etat”, and I recall that after producing the 70s People in 1974 I had become aware of Denmark’s fragility as a democracy.  But if I remember correctly - doubtless Poul and Carsten can help here - we realized that the existing order in Denmark was less likely to be changed by a formal coup d’etat (especially involving the Danish army) than by events taking place in other quarters and sectors of the society.   This did not, however, mean that the Danish army and police would not play a significant role - indeed, it was clear by that time that the Danish police had already become a powerful player in the drama of Danish politics.  

I don’t recall what was specifically happening in Denmark in 1976, but undoubtedly events at that time made us hit upon the idea of the strike and the “terrorist” group.  I do vaguely remember situations involving the Danish police - including their over-reaction to various demonstrations - which would certainly have influenced the way they were portrayed in Aftenlandet. 

In 1976, the issue of nuclear weapons was prevalent on a global level, with tactical nuclear weapons approaching a topical zenith a few years later during the crisis with the U.S. cruise missile which the Americans were planning to install on mobile launchers in the U.K. - leading to massive protests, the establishment of Women’s’ Peace Camps, etc.

In his essay, Jakob noted that inflation and unemployment did not exist in Denmark in 2007, that the nuclear arms race had been superseded by the global war on terror (with the EU army as a minor player), and that therefore Aftenlandet was somewhat outdated.  I would say that, to the contrary, the film’s broader, longterm implications had/have become more relevant than ever.

Unemployment has become a very serious issue since the development of globalisation and the ensuing financial crisis that now affects millions of people throughout the world.  As for inflation, even if it is still momentarily being held in check in Denmark, there is no guarantee that it will not emerge in this country as it has elsewhere in Europe, where millions of people are suffering from economic and social deprivation.  The EU army may not (yet) function as predicted in the film, but a related factor in the current climate of deprivation is the escalating world arms race, with its expenditure of over a trillion dollars a year.  The growth of nuclear-weapons nations means that the nuclear arms race has taken on a more dangerous profile than ever. Within this scenario, it is quite possible that France and Germany could back a new European military force to replace NATO.  The cold-war era of “Mutually Assured Destruction” has led to a whole new raft of ever more insane possibilities and risks.

Shoulder to shoulder with these issues is the collapse of democracy, brought about by the increasing inequalities and misuse of power within the capitalist, neo-liberal (call it what you will) system.   Indeed, Europeans/Scandinavians appear to live under political systems that proclaim to be progressive social-democracies, but which - when their power-structure and system of privileges are threatened - resort to the tactics of the police state. 

"We'll give the police almost anything they ask for. We need extraordinary steps. We won't give the gangs a moment's rest. We want these criminals off the streets."  This could be a statement from Aftenlandet.  In fact it comes from the Danish minister of justice in his recent response to street violence allegedly related to gangs of immigrants.  

Aftenlandet depicts all these forces (actual and latent) at work, and in my own opinion should be seen primarily as a political metaphor for the state of global society, reaching far beyond the borders of Denmark. Police violence in relation to issues of immigration is increasingly accompanying official violence in relation to protests against globalisation, and will inevitably escalate as protests grow against state-sponsored consumerism and the environmental disaster it is spawning.

Two other issues need to be addressed here: the reaction to Aftenlandet, and the (related) role of the MAVM (mass audiovisual media).  The reaction to this film in 1977 in many ways mirrored the reaction in 1974 to the 70s People, which focused on acts of suicide by young people in Denmark.  The Danish press attacked both films quite violently, and my impression was that the “right” and “left” reacted in the same way - for the most part, both were very narrow and insular, determined to dismiss the film (partly because it was made by a foreigner) rather than to discuss the issues that it raised.

Aftenlandet was attacked for “lacking a political base”.  Some on the left disliked the film because it supposedly sympathized more with “terrorists” than with workers.  “When will Peter Watkins learn to stop frightening the public?” - echoes the sentiments in most of the conservative papers at the time.  In fact (as with most of my other films), the circumstances depicted in Aftenlandet have to a great degree been reflected in actual events since that time.

A key aspect of my two Danish films that was completely ignored by the local press was the way in which they challenged the form and processes of the mass audiovisual media.  In the same period that I was producing Aftenlandet, I was also running courses in critical media education in various parts of the world.  Two of these courses (at Columbia University, NYC, 1975, 1977) analysed the standardised TV language-form, which I subsequently dubbed ‘The Monoform’. 

The Monoform is the highly-formatted, repetitive TV language-form of rapidly edited images, accompanied by dense layers of sound, threaded together by the classical Hollywood narrative structure of the commercial cinema in the post First World War years, and designed to elicit specific responses from the audience.  It was disturbing to discover in the 1970s the extent to which this fragmented and manipulative language-form was used in virtually all contemporary TV programming, from soap operas to news broadcasts.  The problem of this standardisation of the audiovisual media - and the imperatives behind it - has worsened in the last decades.  The Monoform now embraces virtually all “professional” film and TV production, including “reality TV”, sports broadcasting, documentary films, etc.   

As I had not yet fully grasped the implications of the Monoform when I made Aftenlandet, the film also contains many characteristics of this language-form: relatively rapid editing, statements cut into sound-bites, etc.  But in fairness to it and my earlier films, on other levels I had already, in the early 1960s, started to challenge the role of the mass audio-visual media, by using a sort of pseudo-‘documentary’ to demonstrate that there was no ultimate media ‘reality’ or ‘objectivity’ - only various forms of subjective construction.  

Thematically, Aftenlandet also attempts not to impose a hierarchical relationship on the audience. As the American writer and film scholar Joseph Gomez has detailed in his book on my work, the editing of Aftenlandet attempts to re-evaluate film and television structures by extending them beyond their existing “response-oriented” uses. 

Aftenlandet has a complex dialectical structure - sustained throughout the film - wherein nuances within scenes shift and change, in order to alter not only their own possible meanings, but their relationship with subsequent scenes as well.  For example, the strike committee does not voice a consistent position at any one time, for it embraces numerous, constantly changing points of view.  Similarly, the young people who kidnap the minister claim to take a non-violent position, and yet they discuss where to place a time-bomb inside the Danish broadcasting house.

My aim here was to prevent generalisations, and to offer an understanding both of the complexity of the events that face us, and of the need to challenge the highly structured and hierarchical manner in which the mass audiovisual media represent these events to us, and, via the Monoform, constantly try to anticipate and organize our responses.   

As it happened, I never used the filmic language-form of Aftenlandet again.  The few films that I have been able to produce since working in Denmark (The Journey, 1986; The Freethinker, 1994; La Commune de Paris, 1999) develop the notions of space and time in a much more complex manner, and in their construction even more consciously attempt to pose alternatives to the Monoform.  When evaluating where Aftenlandet lies in the development of my work, it is important to note that the film directly confronts the theme of the mass media (in this case the press). The role of Martin the journalist, and the scenes in the editorial offices of his newspaper, challenge important ambiguities and contradictions within the role of the mass media today.  The fact that such themes are largely ignored by the media when they critique my work only serves to re-validate their presence in these films.


(C) Peter Watkins, France
February 2010