The Journey

“The 14½ hours of The Journey are organized into an immense filmic weave that includes candid discussions with ‘ordinary people’ from many countries; community dramatizations; a variety of forms of deconstructive analysis of conventional media practices; presentations of art works by others; portraits of people and places; and a wealth of specific information about the knot of contemporary issues that includes the world arms race and military expenditures in general, world hunger, the environment, gender politics, the relationship of the violent past and the present, and, especially, the role of the media and of modern educational systems with regard to international issues...

The actual filming of the family discussions was extended and private, and I would guess that no one except Watkins understood the depth of his commitment to them. In conventional documentaries, and even more so in standard news coverage, interviews are rigorously edited: the amount of recorded interview that finds its way into a finished film or news item is determined by the director’s assumption about the usefulness or impact of what is said. This is especially the case when the interviewer is not an expert, the subject of the film, or a crucial witness to the actions of an ‘important’ person: interviews with the so-called man-on-the-street are usually little more than decoration. The focus of The Journey, however is the thoughts and experiences of average people, and Watkins’ commitment to the people who agreed to talk with him was nearly absolute. He was determined to provide them with an opportunity to respond to his questions and to treat the responses with respect, not simply in a metaphoric sense, but literally, in the overall allocation of screen time and in his use of continuous, unedited shots...


The more one fully attends to The Journey, the more the coherence of its vision becomes apparent. At first, the film seems to jump abruptly from one place and time to another, but by the end of the film, Watkins has made clear a belief that has been one of the foundations of all his work: that fundamentally, all places are simultaneously distinct and part of one place; all times are special and part of one time; all issues are important for themselves and as parts of a single, interlocking global issue. The Journey creates a cinematic space in which the viewer’s consciousness circles the earth continually, explores particular families and places, and discovers how each detail ultimately suggests the entire context within which it has meaning. Like the other films [described in Avant-Garde Film Motion Studies], but more fully than any of them, Watkins’ film develops in the direction not of narrative climax and resolution, but of an expanded consciousness of the world...”

Scott MacDonald1


“Although The Journey presents itself to an audience largely by invoking documentary codes, it transforms those codes in a variety of ways, calling attention to certain elements of the coding system and recoding certain other elements. The result is a partially transformed reading space for the viewer, which can (and I would argue should) lead to a transformed reading strategy on the part of the viewer. To begin, Watkins re-presents certain traditionally coded items so that we are forced to reconsider what those items mean in the context of this film. For example, though the hibakusha, survivors, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are generally used in films as emblems of victimisation, Watkins uses several devices to make that simple designation more complex. Particularly, he employs the image of Jikkon Li, a Korean who was doing forced labour in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing, to speak of Japanese racism against Koreans at the time of the bombing and after, as well as to point out the singularly aggressive nature of Japanese foreign policy in the first half of the century. By adopting such a strategy, Watkins fixes a more complex and troubling code on subsequent images of Hiroshima in the film. In The Journey, speakers are identified upon initial appearance as in a conventional documentary. Apart from television sequences used in the film, however, none of the participants in the film are identified as particular authorities on anything, and they are typically photographed in their homes, usually in their kitchens gathered around a table (except for the Mexican family and the women and children on a Mozambiquan collective farm, both of which appear to lack such facilities).

Speech from non-experts in such surroundings is much less clearly marked as authoritative than is most speech in most documentaries, and thus it is more easily questioned or criticized. Furthermore, Watkins lets many of his questions to the participants remain in the film. This is particularly true of the first several hours of the film, where he is often clearly ‘leading’ the discussion by showing the participants a collection of photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with a group of charts, graphs, and other visual aids. It is somewhat less true as the film progresses, but the reduced presence of Watkins’ questions later in the film also seems to correspond with the increased comfort and volubility of the participants. During the filming of the three family sequences which I observed, the early stages of the discussion were more halting and limited, and Watkins probed more with questions and aids; by the second day, however, the families had grown more comfortable with the camera and had thought and talked about the issues of peace and global justice enough that they were beginning to speak more spontaneously and for longer periods of time. But Watkins’ strategy here reveals the source and direction of the manipulation which provokes the increasingly comfortable discussion, so that the audience is reminded with some frequency of the presence of a questioner.”

Ken Nolley2


Both excerpts were found on Peter Watkins’ website, where you can read about all his work.

  • 1Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film Motion Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • 2Ken Nolley, “The Journey: A Film in the Global Interest,” Willamette Journal of the Liberal Arts, Supplemental Series 5 (1991).
UPDATED ON 11.10.2017