Following the premier screening of a new documentary Secret City, I interviewed Michael Chanan, one of the makers of the film. Chanan is a seasoned documentary maker and has created content for the BBC, Channel Four and numerous independent publications. He has been documenting various political issues and media of all kinds for over 40 years and his most recent addition is no less eye-opening. Here’s the interview in full.
HUNOW: Michael, you’ve been creating and commenting on media and society for most of your life, do you ever think about trying your hand at something else?
Chanan: Actually my first love is music, but since I quickly recognised that I wasn’t cut out to be a performer and wasn’t good enough to make it as a composer, the result, when I discovered I had a facility for writing about music, was that I began my professional career as a music critic. On the strength of which, the first films I got to make professionally, and quite quickly, were documentaries on music for BBC2. My interests were focused on the post-war avant garde. I’m especially proud of the second of those BBC films, a portrait of Pierre Boulez, which we called The Politics of Music. I went on to other things, more aligned with politics than music, but later I wrote three books about music.
HUNOW: Being renowned within your field must leave a lot expected of you. Do you ever desire to be a little more anonymous in certain areas or do you enjoy the great following you have?
Chanan: Renowned? It’s all relative.
HUNOW: A large body of your work is centred around protest. What makes protests and politics appeal to you?
Chanan: I was drawn into a political view of things in my late teens. Partly because of my generation – I’m a ’68er, and I think of the 60s, in the title of a book about it edited by Fredric Jameson, ‘without apology’. Also there was a Russian revolutionary in the family who introduced me to Marxism (I made a film about him a few years ago, called ‘The American Who Electrified Russia‘—the title is explained on the film’s website).
In short, I learned that the world is a political place, and that as we used to say (a little glibly), you were either part of the problem or part of the solution. I’ve never lost this conviction, indeed it was strengthened when I first went to Cuba at the end of the 70s, and then spent the 80s filming in Latin America.
Obviously the political world has drastically changed since Communism collapsed, but less than twenty years later it is capitalism that has almost imploded. As we know, this has led to the re-emergence of anti-capitalist politics in a new and still confusing mode, but after twenty years of teaching students with mostly zero political consciousness, how could someone like myself not be not be excited by this?
HUNOW: You’ve recently had the premier of your new documentary Secret City, which was a great success. How does it feel to know your work is being well-received?
Chanan: So far it’s only a succès d’estime. Sometimes that’s enough, but this time we’d like it to go further, and yes, there are some signs of it being taken up.
HUNOW: The content of Secret City is rather controversial. Have you ever faced any significant problems with controversial films? How do you think the Corp will react?
Chanan: The word ‘controversial’ is a euphemism. It’s political, from a position the mainstream media like to call extreme left, because it’s explicitly socialist. You can’t make a film like this within the system. When I was making stuff for Channel Four back in the 80s, you could still do this, but not now. The mainstream of the public sphere has seriously narrowed. Only a few token lefties allowed (John Pilger, Adam Curtis).
How will the Corporation react? Possibly by trying to ignore it, in which case, as Samuel Beckett said, ‘Failed again. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
HUNOW: How far are you looking to take Secret City? Are we going to see further screenings nationally and are you planning a DVD release for the general public?
Chanan: The film is an experiment in making a political film from the margins, from an academic base, with a tiny budget, and no predetermined outlet. The real challenge, however, is not in making it, but getting it seen. We’re working on that now, beginning with screenings in different types of venue, so the film gets talked about. Yes, there will be a DVD in due course.
HUNOW: Do you like to keep up with technology? If so, what are your favourite pieces of kit?
Chanan: I do. Firstly, having left television at the end of the 80s, the arrival of digital video meant the possibility of re-inventing myself as a filmmaker. I’m not primarily a cinematographer, and when I started shooting my own films, I found I was instinctively applying stuff I’d learnt from cinematographers I’d worked with, especially Peter Chappell and Andy Carchrae. But I generally shoot with the LCD screen, not the viewfinder, and always hand held (except for the occasional mini table-top tripod); and I like my camera to be as small as possible, for various reasons (including getting older and being physically stiffer, so a smaller camera makes it easier and less tiring). But you also have to use the best possible microphones—clarity of sound is crucial. As for editing, which is more my metier, I now use Premiere Pro on a Mac with a single big screen, and prefer it to Final Cut.
I adopted what used to be called a PDA in the mid-90s, but for a long time resisted a mobile phone. Now I’m a fully paid up digital citizen, although I never use my mobile devices to listen to music or watch video (I have tinnitus, and dislike using earphones). However, I do take a lot more photos than I ever used to, and sometimes what I call video snapshots.
As my friends know, I’ve always been a bit obsessive about finding a tablet device which accepts handwriting as an input, to which I remain attached as the most fluid and seamless way of recording one’s thoughts. I tried and discarded several Windows devices. I tried the ipad, took a couple of foreign trips with it, but in the end found it too big and unwieldy, so I switched to a smaller Android device which uses a stylus. I have a Kindle which I use when travelling, because of its exceptional battery life, but I could be tempted by the new mini ipad if the battery life is good enough. I’ve spent too much money on all this stuff, but then I don’t run a car.
But I travel quite a lot, and one of my aims is to be able to carry everything with me as hand-held luggage, so I’m pleased with miniaturisation. It’s amusing—and still rather astonishing—to sit in a cafe in Buenos Aires where the wi-fi is free and have an email conversation with a colleague back in his office two doors down the corridor from your own. But it’s a nuisance to fall under the compulsion of staying connected.
HUNOW: I watched a rather humorous video called ‘This is Michael Chanan’, where did this come from?
Chanan: I taught a workshop a few years ago at Curtocircuito, a small documentary film festival in Santiago de Compostela. The participants had to make a three-minute documentary in the space of a week. Two of them broke all the rules agreed with the whole group at the start, and came up with this. It’s wonderfully funny, isn’t it?
HUNOW: Are the three golden rules in that video true? Do you have any other rules?
Chanan: I think they are, but they’re borrowed from other people. I’m afraid I don’t remember who first said ‘you never finish editing a documentary, you just abandon it’, but that’s my experience. There comes a point where you say to yourself, ‘that’s it, I can’t do any more with it, that’ll have to do’.
No.2, as you can see, is borrowed from Paul Simon: ‘It’s four in the morning and the plans have changed’. A song from the 60s. Perfect description of the kind of thing that happens when you’re in the middle of a shoot.
No.3, on the other hand, ‘Don’t worry about today’s disaster, tomorrow’s is going to be worse’, was a maxim of my brother’s, when he was working with me as my producer.
Sure, there are some others, but they’re generally rules of thumb, and those are never unbreakable.
HUNOW: For the readers of holdupnow, do you have any tips or advice that you’ve learnt over your career that you think are paramount for success within the media industry?
Chanan: Why are you asking me? I’m not successful in the media industry.
But look, if you want to work in the industry, you have to recognise the limitations that will be placed on your work, politically and aesthetically. And if you want to keep your self-respect, you’ll also need a keen sense of honesty and ethics. Are you prepared to turn down work because you think it’s dishonest or demeaning to people involved?
You can have a look at Michael Chanan’s websites here:
www.putneydebater.com or www.mchanan.com
Alternatively, you can view the Secret City website here: