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Jan. 8, 2017: Peter Watkins's The Journey

I caught about three hours of Peter Watkins's 15-hour documentary The Journey (1987), which screened in full at Light Industry over the course of this weekend. It's a dense, perplexing, and innovative bit of documentary filmmaking; I definitely hope to see more of it at some point, as well as to see Watkins's other movies (fortunately, I believe one's playing at Anthology this month). Even though I didn't see the bulk of the film—and the part I saw was neither the beginning nor end—I learned a shit ton not only about nuclear proliferation and the ideology of disarmament in the mid-'80s, but about... I don't know... I guess, just, ways of presenting and receiving media and information. Three things that, a day later, stick in my head are:

1. Watkins often sets his camera on TVs showing the news. When he does, he has a disruptive beeping sound go off every time the on-screen image changes—a new camera angle, the appearance or disappearance of an infographic, et al. Early on int he segment I saw, he notes that, for instance, Japanese newscasts let their images hold much longer than Iraqi newscasts. I didn't take anything profound away from this, just that it was a cool and funky strategy that will affect how I watch the news moving forward.

2. Watkins focuses on children through much of the film (or, again, at least the part I saw)—on both their perceptions of nuclear annihilation and their experiences in various public education systems throughout the world (and Watkins really travels across pretty much the whole world, moving between footage from different countries rapidly). To me, one of the most powerful effects of highlighting children's perspectives was to set a tone of anxiety and the weight of the unknown: kids at that time didn't remember the atomic bomb droppings, whereas many adults did; their nuclear anxiety was founded solely on what their elders taught them. Knowing this, Watkins asks them questions that reveal the inadequacy of their school educations. The sense of institutional failure at the elementary-school level—not only education, but also in disaster drills at school—sets the stage for the institutional failure we see at adult levels, such as corporations or in a small New York town. By seeing nuclear proliferation through the eyes of children, the reality that the world is totally in the dark about and unprepared for nuclear war becomes much more urgent, not to mention a little absurd.

3. Watkins's interview subjects in this section aren't "experts," like we see in most documentaries, but families—families who, in many cases, lack the experience and education to make them authorities on the subjects about which Watkins asks them. They often reveal themselves to be complicit in the system of rapid nuclear armament even when they're against it, making the stakes reach a palpable, human level. It also makes you think about the "expertise" of people featured in other documentaries. When the subject is something so all-encompassing as war or government or anything like that, what possibly makes someone an "expert"? Is it good or bad (or neither... probably neither) for documentaries to rely on such people?

Anyways, that's what I'm thinking about. Go see the movie if you ever get a chance.

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