In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Walter Benjamin, one of the greatest gleaners and interpreters of the historical detritus that constituted the 20th century, envisioned the politically engaged historian like the angel in a Paul Klee painting, Angelus Novus. In crude form, the painting shows an angel with eyes staring, mouth agape, and wings spread. Benjamin conjures the following interpretation:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storms is what we call progress.
(“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations 257-58).
Faced with the mounting catastrophe of history, the politically-committed chronicler must reassemble its fragments not like a “sequence of events like the beads of a rosary”, but instead as a “constellation which his own era formed with a definite earlier one” (“Theses” 263). Our present concerns indelibly imprint themselves upon how we reconstruct the past. We do not re-construct the past as it was, but instead thread its scraps through the warp and woof of the present to imagine something new.
This desire to create a constellation of fragments where each of its pieces resonate with one another and also speak to present concerns constitutes one of the central impulses of Disruptive Film, Volume One, curated by Ernie Larsen and Sherry Millner. According to Larsen, “We are interested in how apparently disparate films (films made in different countries, at differing historical conjunctures) comment and speak to each other. Therefore in a single [film] program of around 90 minutes we must choose a number (five to eight) of films that we hope, in their unexpected range of connections, will create for audience/participants the texture of an event” (Ernest Larsen, “Flying Under the Radar: Notes on a Decade of Media Agitation”, Jump Cut).
The same impulse underlies their most recent DVD by compiling 26 short-form experimental non-fiction films into a volatile and provocative constellation of images and sounds that totals near four hours worth of footage. Even more impressive, they intend on releasing an additional three volumes in the upcoming years.
Many of the films constituting the collection directly address the ways in which various politically-engaged filmmakers glean the fragments of the past to reflect on the present and perhaps pry open new routes to the future. In 14.3 Seconds acclaimed Canadian filmmaker John Greyson creates a speculative fiction film based upon the eight scraps of 14.3 seconds of surviving film footage from the Iraqi Film Archive after the bombing of Baghdad in 2003. The film asserts that the Iraqi Coalition Archives Project, a fictitious project, will use these mere slivers of footage to reconstruct the entire destroyed collection.
This footage is then manipulated to approximate in telescoped form six lost film classics. The quixotic nature behind the project becomes readily apparent as the films’ meanings are molested to fit within the surviving and extremely limited archival footage: a close-up of a face, a series of shots of men sitting on a couch, standing together, and holding hands, two men fighting in historical garb with swords, someone holding a film clapboard, and finally, a donkey’s face in close-up.
Ridiculous scenarios proceed that have little-to-no relation to the missing films, such as providing a scenario where the two men holding hands is interpreted as a feat of strength whereby the winner inherits the kingdom and the loser receives a donkey. As the footage is slowed down to create tension, it periodically cuts to the donkey looking on curiously to see who will be the winner.
This is the Kuleshov effect, where the cutting together of images creates entirely new meanings altogether, taking on preposterous proportions where history and accuracy is jettisoned for the semblance of coherence. In the films’ re-assemblages, the hubris of the present is revealed as the past is remade wholesale.
At one moment we are informed that Viacom is interested in partnering in the rebuilding of the National Film Archives, revealing how their decimation becomes yet one more opportunity for capitalism. This speaks to one of the guiding impulses for US Intervention into Iraq: to raze the country entirely so that multinational corporations could profit through outsourcing and cheap labor in rebuilding its infrastructure anew. The film becomes an allegory for disaster capitalism, as Naomi Klein deems it, whereby capital thrives under and at times incites crisis situations.
Ominous music plays throughout much of 14.3 Seconds, emphasizing the dubious nature of the project. Furthermore, as the films proceed, more and more information is redacted from the subtitles describing the sequences and the core details identifying the film. One of the final film’s title and director information are redacted entirely. This leads one to question who is conducting such censorship. If the Hussein regime has fallen, is it the occupying forces issuing such censorship practices, not unlike what the Allies did in Japan after World War II? Has a new despot overtaken the older one?
An even more poignant film that addresses censorship and the ways in which the present interweaves with the past is Conakry (Filipa Cesar 2012). In 1967, Amilcar Cabral, the Guinea-Bissauan nationalist thinker, sent four young aspiring filmmakers — José Bolama Cobumba, Josafina Crato, Flora Gomes, and Sana na N’Hada — to Cuba for film training. The film presents never before seen footage that they shot in Guinea-Bissau between 1972 and 1980, during the struggle for independence and nation-building.
The radio activist Diana McCarty describes the films’ and filmmakers’ backgrounds as a camera snakes in one shot through the House of World Culture in Berlin where the films are being preserved. Grada Kilomba, a young Portuguese writer, alternatively speaks about her experience witnessing this never-before-seen footage. Tellingly, the images are projected onto her, transforming her body into a screen where the past and present collide, where the images of yesteryear fuse with her words and movements. She reflects at one moment, “The name Amilcar Cabral was never revealed to me in my history books, not mentioned in my classroom in Lisbon where other black children and I sat in the back … My memories were not sweet though they could have been if these images were shown to me earlier before.”
Footage of Cabral meeting with others like Stokley Carmichael, Andree Toure (Guinea’s First Lady), and others during events where the future of the country was being forged play behind and on her. She turns towards them and states, “They do not come late. They come on time.”
The arrival of such imagery allows Kilomba to reflect upon the neo-colonialism of her childhood, how it invisibly ran through her education by erasing anti-colonial struggle from the pages of history, as well as measure her own artistic and political development as a writer against those four filmmakers who came before her.
The blurring of time is emphasized at Conakry‘s end as McCarty notes, “These images are so far away yet so near. Are they lost memories? Or found ones?” We watch footage play of someone scratching the back of his head, a woman in dashiki looking at art, a child standing by a plant. The images halt and then start again, emphasizing both their distance and presence.
In this volume, film becomes a perfect metaphor where the past is simultaneously both too far and too near. It’s always beyond one’s reach, nothing more than the flickers of light and shadow, yet it’s also so immediate as it unfolds before us like a fevered dream, tempting us into its movement and ephemeral images.
Anti-colonial struggle runs like a deep vein throughout Disruptive Film. We see footage of the Iranian Women’s movement, the Zapatistas, and Palestinian resistance to occupation. Larsen and Millner take particular care in resurrecting footage that has long been forgotten. I Am Eight Years Old (Olga Poliakoff and Yann Le Masson, 1961) was secretly filmed in a Tunisian refugee camp for those who escaped from the fighting of the Algerian war. It was banned in France for 12 years, a common censorship practice for any film alluding to, no matter how obliquely, the Algerian War. Such notable films like The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) and Le Petit Soldat (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) suffered such a fate.
Nine boys recount their experiences during the war while we watch their drawings that translate their experiences. The children recount the horrors of war. One boy states: “They caught my father and then they put him in hot water and then in cold water. Then they took him to our farm and they told me, ‘Here’s your father. We’re going to kill him.’ They killed him with a submachine gun. They told my mother, ‘Are you happy or not?’”
Graphic childlike imagery plays beneath such accounts of soldiers killing civilians. Red crayon lines approximate spurting blood. Dotted lines trace the trajectory of bullets smacking into bodies. We repeatedly see images of people with their hands raised being shot. The filmmakers use close-ups, tracking moves, and rapid editing of the drawings to further emphasize their vitality and insight. The immense psychological impact of the traumas of war pervade the drawings as we see soldiers drawn as large as the houses they invade, revealing the oppressive psychological presence such occupation held for the children.
By the film’s end, the children recount their escape and relative safety in the refugee camp. As they do so, their drawings become less violent and more sanguine. A child notes, “We arrived to hope.” We see the image of a sun setting behind mountains as an Algerian flag wages proudly on one of its peaks. Other drawings show farmers plowing fields and colorful large houses with hot air balloons rising around them. The shackles of war and violence are cast aside for more mundane activities and colorful sentiments.
I Am Eight Years Old ends with the sound of a chanting crowd: “We want peace in Algeria!” We see a colorful image of people with upraised hands, some holding hands, with flowers and trees surrounding them. The figures swarm over the entire page, spilling out of the film’s frame, unable to be contained just like the chanting voices we hear. Resistance and hope are unified where the chants of the adults align themselves with the children’s desire for a better future.
Curating Radical Films
Even more straightforward documentaries like Queen Mother Moore’s Speech at Green Haven Prison (The People’s Communication Network, 1973) relate the immense power of anti-colonial thought and the power of video to relate it. As the liner notes relate, the video was made possible by the conjunction of two unique developments. One: the rise of more affordable videotape technology and the fight over public access allowed such footage to be taped and broadcast live over cable television. Two: the rebellions within the Attica state prison gained prisoners more rights in New York state as a whole such as community visiting day, the day when 75 year old Queen Mother Moore spoke at Green Haven.
Queen Mother Moore’s Speech at Green Haven Prison
The crude black-and-white footage shuttles between Moore speaking and reaction shots of the prisoners, a common technique at the time for those using Portapak technology in taping speeches. Yet Moore’s lace dress and neatly poised hair do not adequately prepare the prisoners and viewers for the firebrand speech she is about to deliver. In many ways, the rudimentary film style does not detract from the event since Moore is such a skilled orator that her delivery (and the reactions to it) become compelling unto themselves.
She mildly begins that Marcus Garvey “taught us its beautiful to be black”. People listen politely but do not seem particularly engaged. But she then builds to how her grandfather was lynched, dragged down a road by a horse and shot. She ties this event to slavery and how black bodies were stolen from their native land and families, how their labor was stolen from them. She comments, “You can’t steal from a white man. You can only take back!” People begin to clap and smile. More footage of those listening follows as she casts them within her spell, catching those watching off-guard as she incites rebellion in the prison yard.
She relates an episode when the police tried to prevent Garvey from speaking at a church in New Orleans many decades ago. All those attending Garvey’s event were armed with satchels full of bullets. She says in a strangely endearing way, “I had one [gun] in my bosom and one in my pocketbook. Little 38 special. Pearl handle. I’ll never forget my pearl handled gun.” She recalls that as Garvey begins to speak and insult the mayor, a police officer climbs the stage to arrest Garvey. But before he can do so, Moore recalls, “Everybody stood on the benches. All of the Smith and Wesson, the blue steels, the 34s came out. Everybody’s gun came out and this is what they said, ‘Speak, Garvey, speak! Speak, Garvey, speak! And Garvey said, ‘As I was saying.’”
The crowd erupts in laughter and applause as Moore commands the stage, giving a sense of her power as she overlooks the podium. She emphasizes with outstretched arm and finger pointing to the audience: “I know you. You think that everything over 30 is old.” But Moore, like many of the films I have already discussed, reveals how the past molds the present, how the Black Power movement had older linkages to the Garvey movement. Just as Malcolm X’s father who had been a Garveyite preacher whose influence could not help but rub off on his son, Moore reminds her audience that their resistance and anti-colonial thought has deeper connections to a much older black radical tradition.
These earlier anti-colonial struggles in Algeria, the United States, and Iran that Disruptive Film documents cannot help but resonate with more recent ones like the Egyptian revolution found in the collection. Prayer of Fear (2013) was made by the Mosireen Collective, which supports citizen media after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. A woman recites a poem by Mahmoud Ezzat, a lament for those who have fallen during the revolution. Various found footage is juxtaposed against someone in a gas mask and dressed in a black hoodie. The sound of a strained breath under the gas mask dominates the audio track as the poem is read, as if the environment still remains suffocating.
The video encapsulates the mixed emotions of the revolution, as many students in my radical media class drew attention to when I recently screened it. The black hooded person is framed tightly, creating a sense of claustrophobia and intensity. Footage of a child raising an Egyptian flag among a crowd precedes the imagery of battle-ravaged streets with crumbling concrete and sporadic fires as tanks guard them. The narrator states matter-of-factly: “The battle is terrifying … Are we winning? Or in line for slaughter?”
Imagery of jets rising across a blue sky and spreading out jostle against a shot of black sludge flowing down gray stairs. The narrator states, “Shall we build a wall to pride or a fountain of blood?” The mixed imagery of the poem is mirrored visually with the openness of the blue sky tethered to a wall to pride and the enclosed gray space of sludge with that of a fountain of blood.
Prayer of Fear seizes upon an emotional complexity that the earlier anti-colonial films do not: the mixed feelings and results that accompany any politically significant overthrow. The video clearly does not regret the Egyptian revolution despite all its sordid results such as installing a military dictatorship and the Muslim Brotherhood. The narrator notes the hope that guides the revolution: “A lot of kids walking. Not scared of anyone.” We watch the hooded figure climb a wall.
The footage then cuts to found footage of young people on a wall in the daytime. The individuality of the hooded figure is linked to the collective effort of others. Darkness, which surrounds the hooded figure as he/she walks through Egypt at night, turns into light as the kids sit on the wall during daytime.
Yet the narrator repetitively intones at the end, “Spare us this trial. The battle is terrifying,” as the screen fades to black and we hear the labored breath behind the gas mask. The images of hope are accompanied by those of fear and dread, neither canceling each other out but instead wildly spinning against one another.
Shoplifting: It’s a Crime?
Yet like any good collection, Disruptive Film also speaks to films outside its scope. For example, Sherry Millner’s humorous Shoplifting: It’s a Crime? (1979) speaks to Franklin López’s short film, Steal Something from Work Day (2010), not included on the set. Millner re-purposes the educational documentary and how-to-video to make a convincing case for theft. In its “Training” section, the narrator states woodenly: “Practice your quick grab technique.” A shady looking guy in sunglasses and pinstripe top, the exact type of person you probably would suspect of shoplifting, reaches out dramatically and stiffly with his arm to the camera and draws it in over and over again.
The narrator states, “Let’s have a closer analysis of that movement. Remember: not too jerky or self-conscious.” The guy is now naked from the top, a close-up of him pulling his arm to his chest in repetitive motion, reminiscent of a late 19th century Edward Muybridge motion study where naked men and women pour pitchers of water, throw discuses, and like-minded activities under the auspices of science.
This tongue-and-cheek humor is also found in López’s, Steal Something From Work Day. The video pilfers from other commercial media by employing a culture jamming approach. We see shots from Trading Places and Caddyshack, films that somewhat implicitly critique wealth but not as directly as the anarchist scene López belongs to. Nonetheless, such copyright theft reveals how certain elements of popular culture might already contain potential anti-capitalist potentialities that can be harnessed into a more critical configuration if only assembled in a more radical context.
Steal Something From Work Day
As the video encourages the viewer to pilfer things from work that might “have practical uses for your community such as groceries, camping equipment, computers, color printers, photocopiers, cash, or whatever else you find lying around,” its form exposes how culture jamming can become an art form unto itself by re-purposing fragments of popular culture into original and engaging new forms.
Just as Millner re-purposes the educational documentary and how-to-video to advocate for theft, López lifts sequences from commercial media to do the same 40 years later. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s maxim that all property is theft runs through both of these productions and reveals how an anarchist spirit and humor unites them together.
These are only a few of the ways Disruptive Film, Volume One creates a constellation where the past and present meet. Larsen and Millner offer their own suggested constellations by grouping the films under one of four headings: Globalized Resistances; Like a Refugee: Borders, Visible & Invisible; Over the Edge: Cultural Displacements; and Performance Provocations. I have chosen to ignore them since they strike me as more of suggestions than definitive guidelines. If this collection is to have any significant meaning to the viewer, he/she will do the same by linking the shorts as however he/she sees fit to create his/her own texture of an event just as Larsen and Millner do during their film programs.
One should approach this collection not unlike how Walter Benjamin similarly approached collecting books. He writes in “Unpacking my Library”: “All these details [about a book] must tell him something — not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole; from the quality and intensity of this harmony he must be able to recognize whether a book is for him or not” (Illuminations 63-64). We have to thank Larsen and Millner for giving us a wide array of engaging short films for us to rearrange into our own harmonious whole.
One suspects as later volumes are released that they will cause us to reshuffle our ordering not just of the films belonging to the Disruptive Film series, but also their relationship to the other radical films that we know and cherish. Disruptive Film does not just refer to the style of each film alone, but also the way in which we re-conceptualize each radical film’s relationship with each other and ourselves. It accents how our own personal curating of radical films — whether it be in the order we watch them alone at home or present them to our classes or screen them at community events — has as much impact upon their meaning and relevancy as what they alone have to say.