Peter Wollen and Friendship’s Death

1987’s Friendship’s Death invited Director Peter Wollen to tell the story of an alien robot’s conversations with a journalist – and in turn create a politically charged entry into the science fiction genre. As we gear up to host a Q&A with the film’s iconic Producer Rebecca O’Brien following a rare screening, HOME’s Creative Director of Film and Media Jason Wood reflects on the film and its impact…

Set in Amman, Jordan, during the ‘Black September’ conflict of 1970 in which the Jordanian state crushed the Palestinian revolution, Friendship’s Death tells the story of an extra-terrestrial called Friendship (Tilda Swinton in an early role following her head turning performance in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, 1986), who has been sent to Earth on a mission to persuade human beings to reform in order to prevent their imminent self-extinction. Landing in the war-torn Middle East instead of the campus of MIT, Friendship meets the British journalist Sullivan (Bill Paterson), and the two engage in a witty and intelligent conversation as Sullivan explains to Friendship the civil war that has trapped them in a hotel.

The sole directorial feature of noted film theorist Peter Wollen, this potent and impassioned film interweaves elements of science fiction with powerful political commentary, and combines filmed material with archive footage; most memorably the bombing of three hijacked planes on a remote desert strip near Zarka, Jordan. An articulate and artistic consideration of the plight of Palestinians, and all other ‘victims of a map,’ it’s all too rarely screened and still unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray.

Born on 29th June, 1938, Wollen studied English at Christchurch College, Oxford. Both political journalist and film theorist, Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, first published in 1969, helped to transform the discipline of film studies by incorporating the methodologies of structuralism and semiotics. Wollen’s first film credit was as co-writer of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (Professione: Reporter, 1975) and he made his debut as a director with Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974), the first of six films co-written and co-directed with fellow film theorist Laura Mulvey. The low-budget Penthesilea portrayed women’s language and mythology as silenced by patriarchal structures. Acknowledging the influence of Godard’s Le Gai Savoir (France, 1968), Wollen intended the film to fuse avant-garde and radically political elements. The resultant work is innovative in the context of British cinema history, although unsurprisingly its relentlessly didactic approach did not make for mass appeal.

For Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), their most remarkable collaborative work, Wollen and Mulvey obtained a BFI Production Board grant, which enabled them to work with greater technical resources. Rewriting the Oedipal myth from a female standpoint, they use formal devices, such as their impressively choreographed circular pans, to create an expressionist effect which complicates and enhances the film’s narrative content.

AMY! (1980), commemorating Amy Johnson’s solo flight from Britain to Australia, syntheses themes previously covered by Wollen and Mulvey, but it is deliberately ahistorical. More accessable is Crystal Gazing (1982) in which formal experimentation is muted and narrative concerns emphasised. Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1982), a short film tied to an international art exhibition curated by Wollen. The Bad Sister (1982), a drama based on a novel by Emma Tennant, were the final projects on which Wollen and Mulvey collaborated.

The author of numerous other works on cinema, Wollen has taught film at a number of universities and is currently Professor Emeritus at UCLA.

(With thanks to BFI Screen Online and Eleanor Burke)

Words by Jason Wood, HOME’s Creative Director of Film and Media. 

Friendship’s Death screens on Tuesday 05 March 2019 as part of our Rebecca O’Brien season. Find out more and book tickets here.