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Disruptive Films and Political Turmoil

Facet's Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Volume Two documents the multiple approaches a variety of filmmakers take in wielding video and celluloid for social change.

Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Volume Two
Ernie Larsen, Sherry Millner
22 May 2018

“All images that separate us alienate us,” warns the unnamed narrator from Night Is Coming: Threnody for the Victims of Marikana (Aryan Kaganof, 2014), one of the many stellar short films found on the second volume of the Disruptive Film series, curated by Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner. Grainy, slow motion handheld video advances painfully frame-by-frame showing police raising their rifles against striking platinum workers in the South African desert. A maelstrom of sand threatens to obscure their line of sight. We stand uncomfortably on the side of the police as we watch them load and aim their weapons. Plaintive jazz plays over the sequence as the narrator states: “There is a fierce irony here: at a liberation movement internalizing terror and turning on its own population.” Ultimately, 34 workers will be killed and another 78 will be injured.

The sequence’s imagery succinctly reveals the stark consequences that a limited field of vision yields. A visual gulf separates the police from those whom they are about to murder. Visual disconnection aligns itself with emotional disconnection, a requirement for any execution or practice that treats another person like an object. If anything, many of the short form films from Disruptive Film, Vol. 2 attempt to repair and renew the image’s relationship to the viewer. They assert that only through a radically transformed vision can new ways of being and acting take root in the world and lead to more just futures.

The search for new aesthetic forms baldly guides many of the films. Filmmaker Jill Godmilow explains in What Farocki Taught (1997), which is in part a literal re-enactment of Harun Farocki’s film, Indistinguishable Fire (1969), that she was attracted to Farocki’s film because “we don’t have a name for this kind of film.” Mainly comprised of minimalist sets—often a couple of chairs and table standing before a sterile white background, the film takes place in the corporate headquarters of Dow Chemical as executives and scientists speak in monotone about developing napalm and other weapons. Their discussions take on an increasingly abstract and alienating quality as their lack of inflection gradually suggests a humanity drained of life, mere extensions of war and profit where only human shells remain.

Godmilow stresses she appreciates Farocki’s film because it jettisons “the pornography of the real” that often defines anti-war films that focus on tragedy and uses victim’s bodies and suffering to elicit sympathy. Instead, the film claustrophobically locks us into the matrices of power where the weapons of war are assembled in meticulous and painful detail. What Farocki Taughtreplaces the typical site of critique for anti-war films—the battleground— with that of the boardroom and laboratory.

Like volume one, the second volume holds many rare gems from the past like Garbage Newsreel, a 1968 Newsreel film that chronicles the anarchist group “Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers” transferring trash accruing in low-income neighborhoods from a garbage strike to Lincoln Center. Typical of many Newsreel films of the time, grainy, rough-cut footage of the protest unfurls across the screen while a panoply of voices reflects upon the action. Alarmed subways riders witness the Motherfuckers handing out leaflets, playing flutes, and joyously carting trash across the city. One male voice says in a thick Brooklyn accent: “It’s a cultural exchange: garbage for garbage. America turns the world into garbage, it turns real people into garbage.”

The film humorously portrays the action, yet the constant barrage of male voices explaining, intellectualizing, and joking over their action becomes overbearing and provides evidence of why many women would eventually revolt against the New Left’s chauvinist ways. Garbage Newsreel remains blithely unaware of its own privilege and becomes particularly grating as the Motherfuckers explain to the audience motives of the Puerto Rican community: “There’s a lot of Puerto Ricans in that neighborhood that we can relate to on a revolutionary level.”

Interestingly, the only female voice of the film questions his stance: “How come we have racism?” He responds by yelling: “Because you have never tried, man. These two Puerto Rican kids came by and the first thing they said was ‘Viva Che,’ you understand?” This friction and male defensiveness anticipates the growing gender and racial tensions circulating within the collective, which would cause it to fray by the late 1960s and reconstitute itself as Third World Newsreel by the early 1970s. As sexism and white chauvinism would be challenged within the organization, many of its white male filmmakers who supplied the group with equipment would eventually leave, taking their equipment with them and leaving the collective in dire straits for a few years.

Black Film, a 1971 Yugoslavian film, more critically interrogates its filmmaker’s privileged position. In a show of liberal ostentation, filmmaker Zelimir Zilnik roams the streets, scooping up homeless men and inviting them to stay at his two room flat with his wife and children, unbeknownst to his family. The homeless men’s introduction to the family provides one of the funniest moments of the entire collection. We trail behind a flood of homeless bodies flowing through the front door of a narrow apartment.

The filmmaker tells them to make themselves at home and explains to his wife: “Ivana, it’s not fair—we got this flat from the state. Those people don’t have anything.” She looks on in disbelief as homeless men squat throughout the living room griping about the difficulties of collecting welfare and being harassed by the police. The couple’s dumbfounded kids cautiously observe the men from a distance behind their bedroom door. Bourgeois normalcy gets upended for superficial solutions to the homeless problem. The men loiter around as Ivana dresses the kids for school while a playful guitar-based song plays over the soundtrack. Family life attempts to continue unabated despite hard realities literally staring them down.

Peppered throughout Black Film are scenes of the director in the streets conducting interviews with random men about what he is to do with the homeless men in his flat. He receives a series of disturbing responses. One man comments: “Those people are bums, have no homes, nothing.” Another man suggests stuffing them in a cellar because they don’t deserve better accommodations. The film’s title suggests its pervasive nihilism. It exposes a cruel society through people’s indifference towards the homeless, the homeless men’s indifference to disrupting a family’s life, and a self-righteous filmmaker’s obliviousness in treating his family and the homeless as pawns in his paternalistic game. The film is a satire, and like all good satires, it takes no prisoners by indicting society as a whole as morally bankrupt.

Tehran Is the Capital of Iran (Kamran Shirdel, 1966-1980) serves as an antidote to the two earlier films. The film was originally commissioned by the Organization of The Iranian Women in 1966 but was banned soon after by the censors. Twelve years later, the Iranian Revolution made it possible to recover the footage and re-edit the film. It’s worth noting here that volume one of the Disruptive Film collection also provides a compelling video from 1979 that documents the Iranian women’s liberation movement. So Tehran Is the Capital of Iran adds to the historical record of how women prior to the revolution were already organizing and focusing on systemic problems of joblessness and homeless that consumed Iran.

Unlike the two earlier films, numerous female voice-overs enumerate upon the problems of Iran. Over a panning shot of a dilapidated city, a woman comments, “When we went to this place we notice many problems… As regards unemployment, the situation was grave. Out of each household, six or seven were without work.” The shot not only documents the living conditions the woman speaks about, but it also asserts her authority: an all-seeing and all-knowing eye that can rattle off statistics at will. Her feminist vision aligns itself with the country’s poor. The film in general assumes gender equality as a natural foundation for pursuing economic justice.

img-4686Teheran, payetakht-e Iran ast (1966) (IMDB)

In another sequence, we see a schoolroom crowded with girls and women of all ages wearing hijabs and learning how to read and write. One woman has a baby uncomfortably perched on her lap as she attempts to write on a piece of paper the teacher’s recitation. The camera tracks the students crowded around desks and sitting on benches. One cannot help but notice the many children hanging on their mothers’ shoulders revealing the women’s fortitude at pursuing an education while also maintaining childcare duties.

One of the female teachers recounts: “When we first arrived here, they welcomed us with stones and melon rinds.” Tehran Is the Capital of Iran serves as a fascinating document that shows women’s liberation percolating long before the Iranian revolution and exposes exactly why a patriarchal, autocratic government would want the film suppressed since it reveals a growing women’s movement where a feminist stance is taken as a matter of course, not some exotic political position.

One of the most notable aspects of the collection is that it refreshingly views political documentary and experimental films as located on the same continuum. Larsen and Millner write in the collection’s introductory booklet that all of the films they curated for the collection “look for and discover new, under-explored or forgotten ways to prepare for an uncertain future in both theory and practice.”

Some of the films fall heavily on the experimental side of things like Jacques Perconte’s Satyagraha (2009) that explores the mixed inheritances of Gandhi’s belief in non-violent civil disobedience. Pixilated and distorted images of crowds morph across the screen. Sickly green and red hues trail across crowd movements like an acid trip. Random voices forcefully assert beliefs counter to Gandhi’s; “Today Gandhi would carry a weapon” and “We can no longer believe in the truth.” A low hum stitches together the soundbites. As the imagery becomes more violent, such as historic footage of British colonialists whipping Indian crowds, the distortion rises across the soundtrack, a malevolent fever dream of a colonial past resurrecting itself in the present.

Don’t Go Gentle into the Night (Sylvian George, 2005) most brilliantly fuses an experimental outlook with documentary footage. The film chronicles a protest against police harassing undocumented workers in October 2005. As the liner notes rightfully stress, “This is also one of the rare films that documents a direct street action from beginning to end.” From its very beginning, the film announces its experimental intentions. A mournful woman’s voice sings as sparse drums play beneath it, stark and alert. High contrast black-and-white video blurs over the screen frame-by-frame panning over the streets. A snare drum begins to roll as the side of a police van enters the screen. An emotion builds between sound and vision that suggests both resistance and pain.

Initially, the video seems to simply document the daily harassment by the cops. A young black man looks down into the camera and recounts how his friend’s shop has been closed due to the raids. He comments, “I spoke with a lot of people who work here, and they think there is something like racism in it.” It’s interesting the tentative way in which he suggest racism. He doesn’t call the police’s action as out-and-out racist but instead “something like racism in it.” It’s the voice of the marginalized and precarious, someone who wants to critique the system but at a distance.

But as we watch the police rounding up residents and interrogating locals, we hear off screen someone shouting, “No! No! No!” Suddenly a wave of protesters enter the street, linking arms and stopping traffic. The locals join the protesters as their voices grow louder, their actions more assertive. We become embedded in the protest as the camera at times wildly shakes and is tussled as protesters resist the police.

A slow motion shot catches a protester taking a rock and throwing it at the police huddled around their van. One feels that this is not a critique of the protester’s action but instead supporting it, showing it as a gesture of liberation. More people flood the streets and yell, “Go Africa! Go Africa! Go Africa!” The high contrast black-and-white footage gives the whole action a poetic feel, a stark realism where there are no moral ambiguities: the cops are wrong. The protesters are right. Plain and simple.

A man grips the camera, yelling into it, “No! No! No!” This moment implicates the filmmaker into the action. His camera is not a neutral instrument but a weapon to be seized by the protesters at will. The filmmaker no longer remains an individual agent but becomes a part of the crowd as its energy and resistance builds on the streets. Anger and joy intermingle as people chant, dance, and protest. A sea of bodies undulate until finally becoming tired of the cops’ presence and chasing them back into their van. But as the cops reappear in riot gear, the crowd surges, throwing newsstands and rocks at them, causing them to immediately fall back and swarm into the van, which screeches off as people cheer wildly.

At this point, I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from Chris Marker’s brilliant film A Grin Without a Cat (1977). As the film displays footage of the multiple student rebellions igniting across the globe where waves of protesters press back against the police, forcing them off screen, the narrator reflects: “In extreme cases, someone has the power to decide which side of the street you can walk on. And if you pick the wrong side: to kick you back in line. So the thing that prevents you crossing the street is the State. But if you do cross it, and you force the thing to step back, it’s the State that steps back.”

Do Not Go Gentle into the Night reveals once again the power that arises when pushing the State back, the surge of energy that ensues and reveals that resistance to the police accrues exponential symbolic weight during a protest as the very oppression of the state apparatus manifests itself magically before you like a vision that you can finally target and punish in response. All your resentments and anger can be channeled through this moment at a concrete enemy. To underestimate the power of people resisting the police during a protest is to fundamentally misunderstand how State repression entangles itself daily within so many people’s lives.

Disruptive Film, Volume 2 presents an invaluable swath of films from a wide geographical and historic terrain that documents the multiple approaches a variety of filmmakers take in wielding video and celluloid for social change. No one singular style suffices. Instead, the collection provides testimony of the need for multiple aesthetic approaches determined in part by the film’s subject, the filmmaker’s proclivities, and the needs of the historical moment.

Not all are successful. Nevertheless, one can appreciate the effort of a collection ambitiously attempting to chart the terrain of radical film and video over the last 40 years. The only issue I have with the new collection is that Facets has invested less into its production quality than the first volume. There’s no longer an accompanying glossy pamphlet with the set. Instead, one must download it from the Facets site. Furthermore, there are some sloppy inaccuracies in the program notes like ascribing Tehran is the Capital of Iran to Yugoslavia and giving it the wrong production date. Such problems don’t indelibly mar the collection, but they do suggest that Facets is not giving the care it should to such an important and rare set of films. One can only hope that volume three will be appearing soon and in a pristine manner.