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Prisma #51

Resan [The Journey] (Peter Watkins, 1987)

The black screen has long been a generous offering to the audience. Sometimes, it is where the hand of the filmmaker is felt most intimately. In the experimental tradition it can be a muscular tension within the visual (flash frames) or an opening onto the aural (more durational). Often it brings the screening space closer us. It is used to bring on a total political confrontation (e.g., by Guy Debord). There is the responsible approach (of say Straub-Huillet) which uses it to indicate edits within a script or make space around an image, rendering it more monumental, freestanding. Godard does this also, even though he often fills the black with intertitles in his passion for polyphony – see the diagonal meanings he weaves in Hélas pour moi (1993). In The Journey (1987), Peter Watkins alternates between a number of these effects, but for him the black frame is primarily the building block of a space of learning he is offering – sometimes this space is didactic and cerebral, sometimes more meditative and empathetic. In his study guide for the film, he mentions how often the black frame comes “after someone speaks of not knowing, or of being deprived of information, or when silence, or death are mentioned”. The film starts with a black frame supporting a long and personal voice-over which underlines the theme of the film’s subjectivity of perspective, values and responsibility. Often, Watkins’s voice is accompanied by music commemorating those killed by various wars; the music also moves with the fortitude of the survivors and those who work for peace. By the time we have reached the end of part one, the words about money and time, the arms race and starving children find us in a darkness that is intimate and personal but also public and collective. When the lights come up, this darkness is the space from which we speak and act. By letting us rest in a freedom without images, The Journey transforms the public sphere into a space where resistance and responsibility are made possible.

The Prisma section section was originally created in 2017 in collaboration with Filmmagie.