The Film That Fell to Earth

The recently re-released 'Friendship's Death' is an ambitious 1980s Channel 4 film in which left-wing director Peter Wollen brings radical science fiction together with the Palestinian freedom struggle.

Tilda Swinton in 'Friendship's Death', 1987. (Credit: Channel 4 / BFI)

When extremely bored—there’s no other possible reason—you might find yourself watching Film 4 on digital television. You will get a daily dose of recent-ish blockbuster films, except with ad breaks between; the day I write this, lucky viewers can have X Men: Days of Future Past followed by Pitch Perfect 3. As Channel 4, its parent company, faces possible imminent privatisation, the main question for most of 4’s output is ‘how will anybody notice the difference?’

That’s what makes rediscovering something like Friendship’s Death, a 1987 film largely funded by Film 4’s precursor Channel Four Film, so extraordinary; not to mention the shock of realising that the institution now serving up reheated, third-rate Hollywood pap is pretty much the same one that used to consider its main function to be funding films like this.

The only film solely directed by the theorist, director, and regular New Left Review contributor Peter Wollen, it’s a heady, unashamedly intellectual tall tale that weaves together science fiction and abstraction with a setting during the ‘Black September’ of 1970, when Palestinian militants were brutally routed by the Jordanian army. It’s not just hard to imagine it getting made now, it’s hard to imagine how it got made at all; the familiar faces of Bill Paterson and Tilda Swinton in the leads make it all the more odd.

Wollen, who died in 2019, was a prolific writer on film and art, probably best known for his books Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1972), and Raiding the Icebox (1993), a remarkable collection of essays on 20th century modernism; but he was also a film-maker, usually in collaboration with his then-partner, the well-known feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey; works like Riddles of the Sphinx gradually moved from extreme fragmentation and experiment towards recognisable stories and characters. Friendship’s Death‘s combination of already well-known character actors forced to deal with deeply non-realist situations owes something to these.

The story is roughly as follows. We’re in Amman in 1970, with fighting between the Jordanian army and the PLO raging around the hotel room of a jaded Scottish war correspondent. As if by magic, a young woman appears, claiming to be robotic emissary from space. The journalist initially regards her story as an elaborate joke – stone-faced, she tells him that she intended to arrive at MIT, but that she landed by pure accident in this warzone instead.

This is useful, given that her mission, reflected in her given name, Friendship, is to try and stop human beings from destroying themselves in military conflict. Changing costume in every scene, usually into ever more outrageous Orientalist outfits, our robot from space gradually convinces the scoffing journalist that she’s telling the truth, via the various pieces of advanced technology she has brought with her (in an obvious borrowing from Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth).

Regularly, Palestinian guerillas use their hotel room as a base for operations, and implore the duo to leave the increasingly dangerous city; the journalist acquires the alien a passport, which she refuses – identifying ever more strongly with the stateless Palestinians, and now quite sure that (as in Roeg’s film) making her way to the USA would mean being experimented upon or killed. The film ends with a broadcast from Friendship, several minutes of wholly abstract, pulsating, colourful computer graphics, without any obvious message or meaning; in the credits there is a particularly unexpected thanks to Alan Sugar’s Amstrad computer corporation.

This is risky stuff. Throwing what sometimes feels like a deeply uneasy 1980s British sitcom into the grim events of Black September practically invites accusations of radical chic, though Friendship’s unambiguous solidarity with the Palestinians contrasts rather sympathetically with more bitter and introverted works by European avant-garde filmmakers about the same events, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville’s 1976 documentary Here and Elsewhere.

But what is most striking about Friendship’s Death now is how relaxed and—as the title implies—friendly the film is. You are thrown in at the deep end, to be sure, but it’s also consistently funny, surprising, and unpredictable, using its personable leads to draw you into its political dilemmas. This isn’t just there to be drifted past in an art gallery or museum, but expects you to watch it intently, making up your own mind.

The DVD, published by the film’s original co-sponsor with Channel 4, the British Film Institute—whose continued commitment to non-moronic cinema now seems all the more impressive—also includes one of Wollen and Mulvey’s documentaries, the 1982 short Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, a highly formal but accessible account of these two socialist women artists who crossed paths in Mexico, and how they took very different approaches to expressing the experiences of the Mexican revolution, international Communism, fascism, and colonialism, without ever relying on simple biography or easy divides between activism and self-exploration. The absence of any sort of talking head is probably the biggest gap from what is now familiar, with everything told through text, images, and Miriam Margolyes’ precisely enunciated voiceover.

Together these two films show an entirely other way of doing cinema and documentary, not just to the carelessness and condescension of contemporary BBC or Channel 4, but also to what is most common in left media, a combination of realist cinema in the arthouses and talking head documentaries or rapid-response chat on YouTube. We can do so much better than coming up with better versions of the news. There are entire worlds out there – and rather than just being an opportunity for nostalgia and lament, these films show some of what is still possible.