Space Oddity

Kaleem Hawa on Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death (1987)

Peter Wollen, Friendship’s Death, 1987, 16 mm, color, sound, 78 minutes. Friendship (Tilda Swinton).

AN ANDROID NAMED FRIENDSHIP is sent to Earth on a peace mission from the faraway galaxy of Procyon, but something goes wrong upon atmospheric entry: Instead of landing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she finds herself in Jordan during Black September, the 1970 military conflict between the Jordanian army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that followed in the wake of Israel’s mass Palestinian depopulations of 1967. Stranded in Amman, the android, designed by computers to arrive with a “fully axiomatized system of ethics” and a penchant for Charlie Parker, is captured by the PLO and entrusted to the care of Sullivan, an alcoholic British war correspondent stationed in the city who has the respect of the Palestinians.

The rest of Friendship’s Death (1987)—a strange and breathless feature written and directed by British cinema theorist Peter Wollen and recently remastered for Cannes Classics—unfolds almost entirely in the duo’s hotel room, as Friendship (Tilda Swinton) experiences a world she previously understood only in theory. She helps Sullivan (Bill Paterson) with his journalism while he holds court about current affairs; the two grow closer, and she begins to identify with the Palestinian cause. Sullivan is an effective foil for his companion: “Politics has got absolutely nothing to do with people. People are just the raw material. It has all to do with maps,” he tells her. “Who are the Palestinians? Victims of a map.” Friendship finds Sullivan’s pragmatism curious, her programmed humanism at odds with his blustery pronouncements on statecraft. Later, while watching Arsenal play Tottenham Hotspur on television, she expresses surprise at the camera’s fascination with the ball, to her the least interesting aspect of the game. She prefers to watch the players.

Swinton, who met Wollen as a graduate student, began work on Friendship’s Death having previously appeared only in one feature film—Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), in which she plays a muse who falls under the titular painter’s fatal spell. Wollen’s film is less interested in Jarman’s brand of campy punk splendor—as Friendship looks out at Amman from the hotel balcony, the viewer is only shown the room’s staid decor. Indeed, interiority is the film’s ultimate concern: How might someone new to life on Earth understand colonialism, and how ought those subject to its depredations resist? With time, Friendship arrives at a rejection of the ordering logics of an imperial capitalism that requires the subjugation of another, and in so doing is radicalized—“I cannot accept subhuman status simply because I am a machine,” she says. Friendship’s discovery of the world, then, is concomitant with her discovery of the injustice of the Palestinian condition. After the Palestinians take over a British VC10 airplane refueling in Beirut, Friendship identifies with the hijackers: “They have no home, they have no hope. The most powerful empire in the world arms and sponsors and finances their oppressors.”

Friendship’s Death is Wollen’s only solo feature; the rest of his films were codirected with Laura Mulvey, the British feminist film theorist and his then wife. Much of their work together reimagines old stories through their female characters: Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons; the pilot Amy Johnson. Perhaps Mulvey and Wollen’s best-known film is the mesmerizing Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), which revisits the winged guardian of Oedipal legend through the life of a mother navigating child care and union organizing in contemporary Britain. In confronting Oedipus, the Sphinx is not a voice of truth, not the answering voice, but rather the questioning one, a role able to repel and subvert male power. Near the end of Riddles, Mulvey plays a recording: “To the patriarchy, the Sphinx as woman is a riddle and a threat. . . . The Sphinx can only speak with a voice apart.”

Peter Wollen, Friendship’s Death, 1987, 16 mm, color, sound, 78 minutes. Friendship and Sullivan (Tilda Swinton and Bill Paterson).

This voice would remain central to Wollen’s work, and Friendship’s Death is no exception, even if it is structurally and tonally very different from his earlier collaborations with Mulvey (Wollen happily described it as a “B-movie”). In the case of Friendship’s Death, the heroine’s feminism emerges from her line of inquiry into the conquest of stateless and vulnerable peoples around the world. At one point in their exchanges, Sullivan asks Friendship why her designers made her a woman. The answer is clear: Friendship is created in the implicitly gendered form of the machine, subordinate to the society in which it finds itself. This relation, long common to speculative fiction, can grant perspective: Unfamiliar with the indurated narratives around Palestine, Friendship is able to instinctively understand the occupation and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people as a crime against the soul of humanity. Interestingly, Wollen had written Friendship as male in the original 1976 short story that led to the film. The gender swap feels meaningful, evoking the courage of the women of Palestine, who serve as workers in its union committees, protest leaders in its cities, and fighters on its popular fronts.

When Wollen died in 2019, he left behind a remarkable body of writing on cinema, politics, and art. Simon Hammond remembered Wollen as a “heroic figure of the intellectual counterculture in Britain” in an obituary of sorts for the New Left Review, a journal Wollen wrote for regularly (and often pseudonymously). In 1969, Wollen would publish the landmark book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, which revitalized film studies with its semiotic framework. While writing was in some ways Wollen’s first love, he remained unillusioned about its limitations, leading him to also explore his ideas through the moving image. During their final meeting, Friendship leaves Sullivan a futuristic disk drive that contains a series of pictures that Sullivan’s daughter, Catherine (Ruby Parker), will help him play back years later. After the film’s hourlong maelstrom of words, we are presented with the visual montage of Friendship’s consciousness, we see hieroglyphs and synapses and arteries, and then we see black: What Friendship experienced is largely indecipherable to the humans.

Peter Wollen, Friendship’s Death, 1987, 16 mm, color, sound, 78 minutes.

Friendship’s Death, then, is less about Palestine than it is about Friendship’s mind, which, empathic yet ultimately unknowable, becomes a proving ground where the relations of alterity and solidarity collide and recombine. Wollen believed in the importance of a politics of the cinema, a belief that led him to imbue his art with accounts of antimilitarism and workers’ control, not to mention subversive comedy. Far from a sentimental tribute to the Palestinian cause by a white filmmaker, Friendship’s Death is part of a historical lineage of “Palestinian films” made in solidarity by non-Palestinians that includes Manfred Vosz’s Palestine and Carole Roussopoulos’s Je brûlerai cette ville (both released in 1971, in Germany and France respectively). Wollen’s commitments are clearest in the concluding scenes of Friendship’s Death. As the fighting between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Palestinians reaches a fever pitch, Sullivan implores Friendship to return with him to the West, but Friendship has come to understand its dangers. “If I go to the United States, I will just be frog-marched off to some safe house in Virginia,” she says. “I will be stripped down, cut up, and submitted to every kind of sadistic test they can devise.” (To Sullivan’s rejoinder—“Come to England?”—she replies, “You guys will do exactly the same thing, only slower.”) Finally, after Sullivan procures travel documents for her, Friendship announces in an astonishing conversation that she is staying:

“I have every reason to identify with the Palestinians.”
          “You want to become a martyr. The first machine martyr. . . . I don’t doubt the Palestinians have been wronged. I admire their struggle. But it is not your struggle, whoever you may be.”
          “I can make it mine.”

A final scene set during that fateful autumn of 1970 shows Friendship having joined the PLO, bearing a gun and dressed in Army fatigues. The irony is, perhaps, too much: We learn through a voice-over that this envoy for peace will be martyred in military service to the Palestinian cause. Speaking in Arabic for the first time, Friendship says, “When I am killed, in my pockets you will find travel tickets, to peace, to the fields and the rain, to people’s conscience. Don’t waste the tickets, killer. . . . I beg you to travel.” Years later, Sullivan, back in England, will reflect on the events of Black September with a friend. The friend observes that Sullivan had “sought out death, not in order to die, but to look at it, to watch.” But that watching had its limits; Sullivan never went back to the Arab world, and I wonder if Wollen ever did. Had Sullivan returned, he might have seen the cataclysms of Amman, and Beirut, and Tunis, and Gaza—the Palestinian lives disfigured by Anglo-American empire and its outposts. Friendship’s gifts to Sullivan—the disk drive, their relationship—subvert his Western-witness voyeurism, forcing him to confront the beauty of what Friendship saw in her abortive anti-imperial mission, the “strange music that flowed from death’s domain.”