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Various Artists: The Revenge of the Robots [DVD]

Dave Heaton

Various Artists

The Revenge of the Robots [DVD]

Label: WEA Corp.
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"As long as it's rooted on some boom-bap shit, as long as it's rooted in the hardcore drums and that energy and feeling of the classic rap idea, then I can go anywhere."
-- El-P to an interviewer

One of the most successful and critically favored independent hip-hop labels of today, Definitive Jux has put out a solid batch of albums that are too edgy for MTV or radio yet among some circles are already considered classics. Chief among them are El-P's Fantastic Damage, Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, Aesop Rock's Labor Days, Rjd2's Deadringer, and Mr. Lif's I, Phantom. It isn't uncommon for some of these albums to be described as "avant garde" or "groundbreaking", but it's clear from the tour documentary The Revenge of the Robots that label-head El-P and his artists think of themselves as a gang of friends making music they love, following in the steps of their favorite hip-hop artists of the past.

In a segment where El-P is being interviewed by a journalist, when asked if he thinks of his music as punk rock, he replies that it's punk rock like Boogie Down Productions was punk rock, like Public Enemy was punk, like Run DMC was punk. The artists on Def Jux manage to be fresh and innovative merely by doing what feels right to them, by being as uncompromising about hip-hop as PE and BDP were and by trying to stay out of the money and fashion games played by the mega-corporations that run the music industry. As a DVD/CD package (with one DVD and one CD), The Revenge of the Robots stands as a portrait of a label and its musicians that feels as complete as you could expect any such document to be. It showcases the music and the people behind it, in ways both serious and humorous.

The film that gives the set its title is an hour-long documentary, directed by Jason Goldwach and Amaechi Uziogwe, about the Revenge of the Robots tour in Fall of 2002, showcasing Def Jux artists and some of their friends. The tour was headlined by El-P, Mr Lif, and Rjd2, and the three are therefore at the center of the film. Yet the other musicians on the tour are also often around: Fakts One, Cage, and Copywrite. On one level, the film is an informal portrait of life on a tour bus. From images like Rjd2 filling out his taxes against the side of the bus or shaving by looking at his reflection in the microwave to longer scenes of the musicians playing video games, joking about life on the road (for example, laughing about having to shake hands with fans whose hands are sweaty), giving each other a hard time (El-P continually kids RJ about how he's always being compared to DJ Shadow: "How are you gonna keep up with Shadow?"), and just hanging out, drinking and smoking. The film is first and foremost entertaining: filled with humor, interesting anecdotes from the road (El-P recounting an incident where he smacked a heckler mid-song, for instance), and snippets of concert footage. There's glimpses throughout of the dark undertone beneath much of Def Jux's music -- the apocalypse, gun violence, etc. -- yet the film mainly highlights the joys and the tedium of touring, while portraying these musicians as everyday people who like to have a good time and hang out with each other.

The DVD offers a complementary portrait of Def Jux via a half-hour Lola de Musica documentary about the label, put together by Dutch filmmakers. As a work of film, this is the more serious of the two, in terms of production values, aesthetic quality, and tone. The bulk of the film shows Definitive Jux musicians -- here chiefly El-P, Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and C Rayz Walz -- hanging out in El-P's apartment, which is also the Definitive Jux office. The film begins with El-P taking viewers into his home. "This is where I hide from the apocalypse, basically," he says, only half-joking, as echoed through the film's partial focus on the setting of post-9/11 New York City.

El-P's home/office is filled with his friends/labelmates day in and day out. He mentions at one point that it's been a few months since there was even a minute when he was there alone. There's always someone there working on a song, playing video games, or just sitting around. In this film, Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox and Jestone of Atoms Family are working on a song, taking breaks for Vast to show off his book of drawings and rhymes to the filmmakers, talk about music and life with them, and freestyle with Aesop Rock and C Rayz Walz. Images of the wall along Ground Zero and conversations about how tough and confusing the world is today help give the impression that these musicians are hiding out, that creating music is a response to the ugliness of the world around them. A touching moment comes when El-P and Aesop Rock talk about Aesop's battle with depression, hinting that music is a reaction to inner struggles as much as those going on in the world outside. "My goal was to produce something that had elements of beauty and at the same time elements of sorrow," El-P says about the music he created for Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein album. The Lola De Musica documentary is a riveting look at the way Def Jux's music comes from confusion, hardship, and pain as much as the joy of making music, and helps illuminate the complex feelings going into the songs.

The Revenge of the Robots DVD includes other footage that is both a gift for fans and a solid introduction to the label's music for newcomers. There's 5 music videos: the dark animated video for El-P's "Stepfather Factory," El-P's eerie "Deep Space 9mm" video, Mr. Lif's more jovial, stylishly animated video for "The Return of the B-Boy, Pt II", the goofy house-party video for "Risky Business" by Murs featuring Shock G/Humpty Hump, and Rjd2's "The Horror", which has a spooky/cheesy sci-fi-horror movie vibe that's given a serious edge via a quick image of the Twin Towers burning in the background. There's also footage of 5 songs performed live (two by El-P, two by Mr Lif, one by Rjd2), and a short "making of the video" about Murs' "Risky Business" video. Along with the DVD is a CD that includes 4 audio tracks. Three are live performances by El-P, Rjd2 and Mr Lif. The fourth is the most attractive, Rjd2's 15-minute "DJX Mega Mix" ,where he takes a handful of Definitive Jux tracks, including songs by Mr. Lif, El-P and Murs, and mixes them up with the same classic-soul-meets-the-future technique that he used for his great Deadringer album and his other releases.

In case you didn't learn from all of those films, videos and songs that these musicians live and breathe hip-hop, the CD includes as an "enhanced" feature a computer game created by Mr. Lif. Devolution is a trivia game filled with not only hip-hop factoids but trivia from other areas; its inclusion is logical considering how video-game-obsessed all of the musicians seem to be from the documentaries. While a lot of fun, it's obviously the least essential feature of the set. At the same time, it's one more indication, as if you needed it, of where the Definitive Jux artists are coming from. These are hip-hop fans to the core, who are trying to build something that will get today's fans as excited about music as they got when they first heard hip-hop. As a visual and audio hip-hop extravaganza, The Revenge of the Robots is not only about Definitive Jux, it's one more step forward in their battle to take over hip-hop, to win it back from the fakes and the sell-outs.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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