An old chestnut—no less true for being old, nor a chestnut—has it that an effective political cinema cannot merely represent radical political movements, issues, or events, but must render them through forms that are themselves radically political. Anthology Film Archives’ three-day, three-program series “Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power” contains proficient demonstrations of such formal gambits as well as work that seems to eschew formal exploration altogether. In drawing material from the three-volume Facets DVD collection they produced last year, filmmakers Sherry Millner and Ernest Larsen challenge expectations about what political cinema is and can be, and at its extremes “Disruptive Film” enlists the viewer’s understanding of social reality to complete the political cinematic experience. But does a reliance on the viewer’s presumed knowledge and sympathies negate political cinema in the very attempt at fostering it?
I’ll return to that question at the end of this piece, but for now I’ll credit “Disruptive Film” for its wide range of offerings. On one hand, the program features shorts such as Aryan Kaganof’s Threnody for the Victims of Marikana (2014), which juxtaposes documentary footage of striking miners confronting South African police with a voiceover narration of a Marxist text as well as footage of a flutist’s performance and interviews with Daniel Grimley, a University of Oxford music professor and “Principal Investigator of the Hearing Landscape Critically Network.” In the tradition of Godard and Marker, Kaganof places the onus on the viewer to understand the political connections among these disparate strands. On the other hand, “Disruptive Film” also features work that, while equally stylized, is more directly emotional. Olga Poliakoff & Yann Le Masson’s I Am Eight Years Old (1961) uses voiceover narration and hand-drawn illustrations by children to represent their harrowing experiences during the Algerian War. Similarly, Rene Vautier’s The Death Knell (1964) delivers an impassioned anti-imperialist cry against images of African art.
As should be evident by now, a “Disruptive Film” may possess a single idea passionately if unsubtly stated, the cinematic equivalent of the Dead Kennedy’s “Kill the Poor” or M.D.C.’s “John Wayne Was a Nazi.” Not only can this be exhilarating in the purely emotive sense, it can also be necessary for revisiting issues we might think resolved or obsolete. Such is the case with Graven Images (2008), a five-minute film by Millner and Larsen that consists solely of images of burning American flags, accompanied by ironically recontextualized dialogue from the 1967 Audrey Hepburn film Wait Until Dark. The final moments of Graven Images allow us to reconsider the literally and figuratively incendiary footage as something other than simply, malevolently “anti-American,” but, more than that, the film as a whole remains timely considering President Trump’s interest in jailing or stripping citizenship from people engaging in a constitutionally protected act. Graven Images proves that as silly as it may seem, flag burning is still so symbolically violent that even the most powerful person in the world considers it a threat.
“Disruptive Film” is sectioned off into programs titled “Radical Visions of Resistance to Police Violence,” “10 Escape Routes in 90 Minutes,” and “Polished Scum.” The third, named after would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas’s infamous “SCUM Manifesto,” is devoted to women’s issues and features only women filmmakers. The first film in this program, Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement, Year Zero (1979), looks at the Iranian Revolution from a female perspective that has been minimized or erased from Western understandings of that historical moment. Credited to “Iranian Women & Women of the Political & Psychoanalytical Group” (the last phrase is indicative of the particular intermingling of academia and politics during this era), Year Zero documents the protests that erupted after the overthrow of the Shah, when Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that all women must don headscarves. Everyday Iranian women express concern over their marginalization from the Revolution due to the ascendance of a fundamentalist patriarchy—through the film one witnesses the realization among Iranians that the Revolution has ushered another oppressive regime in place of the old one.
It’s worth noting that, in “Disruptive Film,” political issues—especially in the context of history—are voiced, discussed, and debated to a fairly minimal degree, with the series representing agit-prop more than investigative and comprehensive documentary filmmaking. In this regard, entries in the “Radical Visions” program like Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison (1973), as produced by The People’s Communication Network, can’t be fully understood outside of a larger understanding of the Attica prison riot and the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. Queen Mother Moore’s speech extolling Black pride and denouncing America’s racist policing and incarceration policies makes for a rousing historical document—and, again, especially in light of the fact that this issue remains as urgent as ever. The video itself, however, is something of an artifact from a time when revolutionary records and communications relied on a hard-fought underground political media network that were created to aid an unfolding, immediately lived struggle. For such networks, providing context for outsiders, or even posterity, may not have been a major priority.
Not that films about political resistance can’t also be about historical memory and the legacy of that history on film. In Conakry (2013), Filipa Cesar uses a single tracking shot to survey Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, moving from a woman recording a voiceover about the Guinean film archive stored there to Portuguese writer Grada Kilomba’s verbalized thoughts about the archival footage projected behind her. The silent footage documents Guinean liberation leader Amílcar Cabral’s efforts in founding and curating a film laboratory in Conakry to document the war against Portuguese rule, and so Cesar’s film becomes a testament to those efforts as well as a completion of the archival footage itself, a sort of feedback loop that is evoked and enacted by the tracking shot. Other meta-statements against oppression can also be simply, hilariously human: German filmmaker Birgit Hein’s Jack Smith: Cologne, 1974 (1974) provides a few minutes of background information about the legendary American underground filmmaker and then turns the spotlight over to Smith himself, who rails against institutional art while wearing his patented rags-as-exotic-garb. In a sense, Smith makes Hein’s documentary portrait his own creation.
While it’s safe to say that the films in Millner and Larsen’s series would have been spared Smith’s mirthful wrath, the question at the beginning of this piece persists: does a political cinema that relies on the presumed like-mindedness of its audience inevitably negate that cinema’s purpose? Depends on the purpose: beyond serving as time-capsules, the documents of figures like Queen Mother Moore and Jack Smith are meant to inspire more than educate or even enlighten. But that often isn’t enough. If anything should be learned from the past eight years it’s that inspiration without critical inquiry is tantamount to self-satisfied, blind faith—a less than incisive, or effective, political position. Ironically, the entries in “Disruptive Film” that most fervently depict resistance to power are the least disruptive of all, mollifying and reassuring their audiences rather than holding their feet to the fire. Perhaps the lesson is that just as truly political films shouldn’t depend on a lemming-like audience to justify their existence, neither should an audience rely on films to justify its radical politics.
“Disruptive Film” runs from February 15 – 17 at Anthology Film Archives. For more info, visit anthologyfilmarchives.org.
ContributorMichael Joshua Rowin
MICHAEL JOSHUA ROWIN has written for Film Comment, among other publications.