Originally produced for Danish TV, The Seventies People / 70'ernes folk might best be seen as an experiment wherein writer/director Peter Watkins applied the storytelling tools of his strongest work – the multiple narratives; a fly-on-the-wall docu camera unit; narration; and a blurring of script, improvised dialogue and personal thoughts by the actors in films like Culloden and Edvard Munch – towards the core subject of a high suicide rate among Danish youths.
As Watkins explains on his website (see link at end), the project stemmed from his interest in investigating “the stresses of life in a modern industrialized society,” and their manifestations through a high level of suicides in Denmark – the fifth highest for a country at the time – of which thirty percent were youths.
Why were young people in particular trying to kill themselves? What was the disconnect that had an otherwise outwardly happy population unaware that their most valuable assets – their youth, and the country's future – seethed with depression?
With his collaborators, Watkins placed ads in papers, and after sifting through suitable candidates, had not only a cast, but a living research pool who contributed to the script. Much of Watkins' gleaned data also paid off in crafting realistic scenes of familial discord between a well-to-do family and lower class families whose daughters, in particular, were stewing in malaise.
As the filmmakers discovered (and incorporated into the film), many of their 'subjects' had never been asked how they felt about themselves as people; in the film, this is a significant point Watkins labours upon, but for current viewers, it probably seems quaint, if only because the concerns, needs, and conflicts of youths and society are revisited today in text, film, and TV formats. The proliferation of self-help books and incessant talk show examinations has pretty much rendered youth suicide as a dull and formulaic topic.
Watkins' also presents the generation gap as an ill-growing seed rather than just two worlds sharing the typical troubles before age and experience realign things, and it's primarily the women who are presented as agents of change. Anne, the 17 year old from a middle class family, has a working mother (a full-time editor) who supports her daughter's wishes for more lenient curfew times, whereas the father – far older in age than the mother – is convinced any changes would lead to pre-marital sex.
The lower class household is more affected by the father's utter disinterest than creaky sexism. Mother and daughter share the same anger towards the stepfather, and when they confront him with their unhappiness, he tosses asise their request for discussion. Watkins' most disturbing image of simmering rage has the women seated on a couch, while the stepfather watches TV with a bored visage, and cold blue light from the TV flickers across the room, and their chilly faces.
Most of the family scenes feel realistic (particularly the breakfast scenes, which are equally pivotal to Edvard Munch); the only real giveaway of performances at play comes from on-camera confessions, as well as Watkins' regular use of close-ups that frequently have the other actors glancing at the camera and being annoyed but unresponsive towards its intrusive presence. There's also some highly intimate questions – contraception, sex talk – posed to Anne's mother than would probably have resulted in the interviewer being smacked in the head.
Intercut between the two families are fragmented but ongoing interview threads that include a ride with a Copenhagen ambulance team who dredge a body from the river and later stop a teen from jumping from a window; paramedics taking a fresh patient to hospital for a barbiturate dry-out; and Q&As with clinic patients recovering from suicide attempts.
Each of these streams show people under some form of stress, whether from work, emotional or familial, and the clinic patients are equally open about being emotionally neglected; in the case of two young men, they make it clear they want nothing to do with a regular day job and its endemic monotony.
Also spliced into the mix is a thread involving the staging of a raid where a special team called the URO Patrol (Unrest and Commotion) are sent into an abandoned military academy to rout out a teen runaway, while waves of squatters and addicts try and foil the extraction.
There's also an interesting montage concerning a new planned housing development - an idyllic community where the recreational and social needs of youths have been given severe short-shrift by city planners. What's most impressionable isn't the statistics Watkins provides on the sporadic English narration track, but images of a bleak and barren housing tract peppered with Brutalist architecture.
The reason Seventies People fails to work today – and perhaps why it failed to affect Danish TV executives at the time – is Watkins' need to include some shock material (archival stills of suicide victims, unless they too were staged), footage of starving Saharan children, and news footage of Henry Kissinger about to embark on nuclear treaty talks between the U.S., Russia, and China.
Also blendered into the film is an interview with an Ethiopian minister regarding freedom of the press, and a TV executive who speaks rather indifferently about an occasional radio show where Danish youths could call in and discuss problem issues that was recently cancelled.
Seventies People is also too long, and Watkins really labours scenes illustrating 'wandering disenfranchised youths' with repetitive montages of a pouting Anne, and a painfully repetitive use of music from The Jolson Story. “Sonny Boy” and other Al Jolson tunes are chopped up and replayed ad nauseum throughout the film, and the choice of using Jolson is very, very odd. At times satirical, the extracts have been snipped to match words with visuals, but the re-use of three particular songs over two hours is frankly deadly.
Should the film ever make it to DVD, the prospective label would be wise to include as many supportive extras as possible, as well as a third party critical overview that places this film, alongside Watkins' subsequent TV productions – including The Trap / Fällan (1975), Evening Land / Aftenlandet (1977), and the epic The Journey / Resan (1987) – in a reasonable critical light as they relate to the evolution of the director's' style, thematic and political obsessions.
For more information on the film, it's worth checking out Watkins' website for his thoughts on the film's production and his views on the negative reaction from Danish critics.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan