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'Disruptive Film' Creates a Constellation Where the Past and Present Meet

I Am Eight Years Old (1961)

One should approach this collection not unlike how Walter Benjamin approached collecting books: ".... not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole..."

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.

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