May 26-27, 2021
Film and filmmakers have been instrumental in articulating radical political discourses since the early 20th century. As a tool of representing revolutionary struggles, as a form of activism, or as a means of critique, film is a medium of political praxis which presents diverse images of potential worlds, be they cautionary or aspirational. Reel Politics asks how film can function to galvanize forms of resistance and to build solidarity in audiences by contextualizing important political moments and by making them real.
But we must take care – film is of course not always radically oriented and may often be used contra both radicalism and solidarity. Film, while a means of realizing important progressive or radical political goals, also has a powerful capacity to reinforce the politics of exploitation, hierarchy, and injustice.
Historically, film has functioned more frequently as a tool for oppressive propaganda than as a means of liberation, and its capacity for positive change is often contradicted by the circumstances of its production in political economy – the prominence of The Birth of a Nation relative to that of Salt of the Earth, for example, speaks to this predicament. In the hands of reactionary forces or agents of anti-progressive ideas, film quite readily becomes a celebration of ideologies of domination and violence.
Reel Politics will provide a platform for critiquing the oppressive uses of film, and for exploring its potential as a means of envisioning a more radical and revolutionary political theory.
Wednesday May 26th
("click" a session for the abstract)
University of Guelph In 2017 The FBI released a report titled “Black Identity Extremists,” focused on countermeasures that must be taken against contemporary Black activists who are aggrieved with the recent killings of unarmed Black men and women by police officers. In the report, the FBI linked Black Identity Extremists to the Black Panther Party and argued contemporary Black activists pose a similar threat to the nation’s security as the Black Panthers did in 1980s. During this FBI report, we have seen a proliferation of movies that assess the legacy of State repression against the Black Panthers. While these movies merit consideration in their efforts to understand how the legacy of the Black Panthers can shed led on contemporary Black struggle against police violence, they have failed to uplift the ideological framework the Black Panthers created to reframe police violence as criminal acts that function to make Black people political prisoners with no constitutional rights. As such, this presentation focuses on the legacy of Emory Douglass who was Minister of Culture during his tenure with the Black Panther Party. Douglass’ artwork on police violence was central to the Black Panthers ability to reframe police violence as criminal acts that engendered acts of genocide against Black people. This presentation considers possible lessons we can learn from Douglass’ work for contemporary Black activism against police violence.
University of Graz Enthusiastic about the participatory opportunities free filesharing and cheap cameras offered to political activism, the humiliating and homogenizing potential of these tools is often overlooked. In this paper, I first describe aspects where video-activism intended to promote emancipatory change through information, education, and solidarity, not only fell short on its aims but lead to the contradicting result of compromised activists and uniformed worldviews. Consequently, I delineate the downsides of participatory media practices in their capacity to emotionalize discourses, construct stereotypes and bogeymen, stir the imagination of nationalist or religious collectives, and the reduction of complex realities to simplifying narratives of heroes and victims. Subsequently, I show how these practices are subject to the intervention of political agents, keen on rendering the content as well as the conditions of production, distribution, and presentation, and following both agendas of concealment and the staging of power. In turn, I argue that as a strategy for challenging the corporate colonisation of participatory media practices as well as the unintended employment of media activist as police informers, attacking the enemy is ultimately counterproductive, raising the consumer attention of competitive products, feeding data to surveillance algorithms, beside enqueuing in the multiplication of hate, fear, and uncertainty. The emancipatory potential of media practices might conversely lie in their capacity for self-reflection and self-discipline. In conclusion, I outline guidelines to an ethics of video-activism that responds to the question, how videos are to be made in such a way, that the emancipatory goals of video-activism are achieved and not sabotaged.
Keywords: Ethics of Video-Activism, Citizen-Journalism, Surveillance, Commodification.
Iranian radical cinema should be considered in the context of the warlike relations of the forces, and it is associated with the emergence of a new Iranian subjectivity. The nomadic subjectivity that lived between the borderlands was in fact the product of the spaces of coup d'etat and revolution, and always determined the boundaries of its movement in memory of warlike events. Radical cinema was, in fact, the field for new desiring machines, despite all the ideological apparatus that defined the limits of what could be screened. Some of the new subjectivities have occupied suburban fields or have an ever-passing identity; border identities; border between city and village; non-city and non-village. This is one of the signs of de-formation, as well as ambivalency, of these subjectivities. New subjectivities are the sum of bodies that, by equipping themselves with new forms of knowledge, in conjunction with the culture industry and new technologies of bio-power, build desiring machines without which the new Iranian society cannot be imaginable. The importance of this definition becomes more serious in moments of rebellion; moments when flesh and blood disrupt the hierarchies of consolidation; moments when the élan vital of the population shatters the conatus of absolute sovereignty. The founders of Third Cinema have spoken extensively about the importance of film for social theory and action. In addition to entertaining cinema, which was a part of new entertainment industry, critical or artistic cinema was slowly opening up in the crowd. There is a kind of primacy of resistance. Cinema, both Filmfarsi and New Wave films, was informative in itself.
The so-called New Wave of Iranian cinema films directly shows the new knowledge and the real situation of social forces in Iran. An image of the new middle class, the working class, and the rural character in transition, and the impact of economic growth and social renewal programs on bodies and consciousness, can be seen in each of the New Wave films. We are witnessing the emergence of the Nomadic subjectivity, so dislocated, and wandering/wondering that sometimes coexists with schizophrenia. Cinema, with its final and screened output, reveals steganographies. The final montage revealed a hidden struggle. The story of the pre-production of a film such as South of the City (1958) itself tells the story of the battle of forces and the war for control of space and the narration of the limits of what can be shown and what can be said in the emerging Iranian society of the spectacle. The threads of the radical cinema can be traced from neorealism of Farrokh Ghaffari`s South of the City (1958), to the aesthetics of decay in Houman Seyyedi`s Sheeple (2017) and Saeed Roustayi`s Just 6.5 (2019). In all these films one can see ‘the quiet encroachment’ of nomadic subjectivities that once in a while take the path of revolution if they do not resort to self-destruction.
Girl Rising is a highly celebrated 2013 feature film that tells the story of girls in nine countries (Cambodia, Haiti, Nepal, Ethiopia, India, Peru, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan), and showcases their struggle to overcome cultural barriers and become trailblazers in their communities (Girl Rising 2020). The film is part of a global, Girl Rising campaign, headquartered in the US, which aims to raise awareness of girls’ education in the Global South. Upon its release, the film garnered a lot of media attention, with Huffington Post calling it the “Most Powerful Film You’ll See This Year” (Horansky 2014). The film is divided into nine chapters, with each chapter telling the story of one girl from each of the nine countries. My paper focuses on the Nepal chapter of the film, which tells the story of Suma, a former bonded labour (‘kamlari’). Drawing on postcolonial feminist critiques, I argue that Girl Rising contradicts itself by claiming to prove that “one girl with courage is a revolution” (Girl Rising 2020). Far from it, the film presents Suma as a voiceless victim, whose success and freedom is contingent on her meeting the ideals of Western feminism. Using Suma’s story as an example, I argue that the ‘girl power’ discourse used in humanitarian film narratives does not empower girls and women in the Global South. Instead, it perpetuates the stereotype of the Third World woman who needs Western generosity to save her. I will start by discussing how Girl Rising perpetuates the Western notion of the average Third World woman as a monolithic subject. By presenting Suma as a prototype, Girl Rising represents Third World Girls as a homogenous category with identical lives and overlooks individual differences amongst those girls.
I will discuss how the film constructs the bicycle as a symbol of emancipation, exporting Western ideas of feminism and liberation to the Global South. I will draw on theories of subaltern voice to discuss how the film silences Suma through its use of a Hollywood celebrity to narrate her story. Drawing on critiques of celebrity humanitarianism, I will argue that the use of A-list celebrities in activism stifles alternative voices. I will also use the concept of Re-Orientalisn to discuss how the use of an anglophone Nepali author to write Suma’s story perpetuates the same West-centric and paternalistic discourses, as the use of a Hollywood actor to narrate her story. Finally, I will discuss how girls’ education is a hegemonic ideology that is presented as a one-size-fits-all solution to all problems that girls and women face in the Global South. I will argue that the practice of centering girls’ education in international development and humanitarian filmmaking risks ignoring important issues faced by Global South girls such as poverty, caste, gender-based violence, early marriage, and poor learning environments.
Where do our thoughts come from when we write, how can film help us to understand this, and what the hell does this have to do addressing the ecological, political, and philosophical crises roiling the current human/posthuman condition? I’ll try to tackle these questions by exploring my personal journey with Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, a little movie about a relationship between a spaceship, its crew, and two plucky creatures now known colloquially as Facehugger and Chestburster (it’s complicated!). For me this tale, where an alien creature invades the body of a human host by colluding with the artificial intelligence running the spaceship, is not a just an interesting example of biomimesis on film (viz. the alien’s actions are based on the real-life strategies of parasitic wasps). Beyond just depicting a posthuman parasitic relation, however, the film is a meditation on the host/parasite nexus which has (parasitically) occupied my psyche, urging me to see the wider efficacy of parasitism in the “real” (not just reel) world. My thoughts are colonized by parasitism as metaphor and strategy, but I’m not an unhappy host. Instead I now see parasitism as a robust strategy for intellectual and political change, and have adopted the Alien parasite’s way as a method for reinterpreting the “Western Canon” in order to turn/hack/explode our anthropocentric civilization. Sound crazy? Join me for a little exploration on the para- side of things and let’s see what we find.
Thursday May 27th
("click" time/talk for the abstract)
My talk will consider a range of U.S.-based feminist documentary film practices that placed incarcerated women at the center of struggles against the prison regime in the early neoliberal era. I show how, within these practices, the frameworks of social reproduction and reproductive labor offered key resources both for theorizing the racially gendered logics of incarceration and for imaging and imagining women’s struggles within and against the prison system. On the one hand, I argue that this encounter between feminist documentary film and the prison exerted a transformative pressure on the ways in which social reproduction struggles were conceptualized and visualized within film and media during this era. On the other, I contend that feminist film activism in the 1970s also significantly reframed the very terms through which anti-carceral visual politics were fought and imagined in ways that are instructive for our present moment. The documentaries that I engage in this talk therefore all aimed – albeit differently and unevenly – to reorient given conceptions of the political by resituating carcerality on the quotidian terrain of social reproduction and in relation to everyday struggles against racialized and gendered precarity at the onset of neoliberalism.
This paper is concerned with the anti-democratic effects of cinematic violence, and the possible agency-sapping effects of spectatorship (Dienstag 2019; Green 2010). As director Jean-Luc Godard observed, blood in film is just the color “red.” Still, director Alfred Hitchcock chose to film Psycho in black and white because Janet Leigh’s blood, in color, would have been too “repulsive” (Philippe 2017). Other films, such as Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, are so violating that it feels to the audience as if the violence were done to them. To put this point into the language of the Frankfurt School, “The enjoyment of the violence done to the film character turns into violence against the spectator” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 110).
Green (2010)’s analysis of “ocular democracy” also emphasizes the centrality of spectatorship; here, the focus is on plebiscitary democracy, but the thesis translates well to film. Unlike direct democracy, where “the spectating citizen could easily step forward and become a political actor," Green correctly warns that "today most political spectators are addressed by political messages in ways that make it impossible to respond directly and extremely difficult to respond at all" (4). Following Laura Mulvey’s criticism of the “male gaze” (Mulvey 2009) and Foucault (1975) on hierarchical observation and evaluation, Green describes popular power as something conferred by the surveilling gaze. Dienstag (2019), in contrast, is pessimistic about film's effects on democratic agency. In his view, “Film can be a political narcotic, suppressing rather than expressing the humanity that is supposed to flourish in democracy.” Film may not be “an automatic consciousness-raising tool” (Hutnyk 2008, 117). Hollywood films may conceal or invisibilize the injustice to which violence is supposed to respond. A "culture industry" can produce mass deception (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 94-136), and even cartoon violence can be a vehicle of "organized cruelty" (110).
In the body of my paper, I examine the violent action film through an Arendtian lens (Arendt 1972; Bernstein 2011; Finlay 2009). In an Arendtian reading, violent films should be read as anti-politics that domesticate unreal actions increasingly deeper within a social and domestic sphere (as television), and then finally in the personal space of the laptop or cellphone screen. Below, I call violent action’s retreat within and invasion of personal space the agoraphobic quality of cinematic violence. Agoraphobic theory (literally, the fear of the public square) presents violence as essentially opposed to the collective exchange of speech in the public square, that is, to the life of politics (cf. Deutsche 1996). I apply Arendt’s analysis of violence to American action films to show how they ironically undermine action. In my conclusion, I suggest that violent action films can open a space for transforming violence back into speech and dialogue, and that spectatorship of fictional and non-fictional violent acts can advance social consciousness and social justice in the BLM era, but that the violent American action film should not be the expected vehicle of this transformation.
Providing an auto-ethnographic approach, and Italian Marxist Feminist analysis this presentation will explore the work of Italian screenwriter and director Alice Rochwacher highlighting her three feature films: Corpo Celeste/Heavenly Bodies (2011),Le Meraviglie/The Wonders (2014), Lazzaro Felice/Happy as Lazarro (2018), and her short film, and cinematic action Omelia Contadina (2020). Rochwacher’s films use elements of magical realism to convey the importance of traditional farming methods and the spirituality of Italian rural life, while also exploring feminist reflections on coming- of-age. Rochwacher captures the mundane beauty of the family as workers who value their reciprocal relationship to non-human animals and land, while weaving an anti-corporate and anti-capitalist message in her work that speaks to the impending threat of climate disaster. As a performance artist, and writer of poetry, this presentation will describe my emotional processing of Rochwacher’s work, and how experiencing her films have allowed me to uncover my own painful, yet arcane cultural memory of the sacred. The characters in her feature films are Poor rural farm workers, they are rich in spirit, content with their work and abundant relations to land, animals and spirituality. As for the rich characters, there is an ongoing theme of Poverty of the Soul, since they are superficial and unfulfilled by their capital.
As a queer and non-binary feminist scholar of Italian immigrant decent these films have deepened my understanding of my family lineage’s connections to spirit, manifested as the immaterial by depicting saints and benevolent ancestral spirits, and also through the magnanimity of cyclical growth from tending to land, animals and family. I hope to convey that experiencing Rochwacher’s films has pushed me to deepen my understanding of how the loss of my grandparents is tied to my emotional experience of climate grief. Bio: I am a non-binary trans, neurodivergent, performance artist, gender and disability activist, and third-generation white settler of Southern Italian descent residing in cabbagetown, Tkaronto. I’m working on a PhD in gender studies at York University.