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Radical Film, New Media, and Social Movements

by Dizzy Moods
Radical Film, New Media, and Social Movements by Dizzy Moods
This was my favorite course at uni during my undergrad. I took it in Spring 2012. Taught by Dr. Chris Robé. This is just the very general overview of the entire course. A summary really. It was a discussion based class so a sizable chunk of more nuanced ideas are lost. I don’t necessarily agree with all the points that Robé or featured theorists/filmmakers made or even the course outline, which is way too US and male centric. But I will say though that there are only a few courses like this I think even at the graduate level in the US. The course was conceived before the popularity of Karagarga and all films screened were on DVD or VHS;… Read more

This was my favorite course at uni during my undergrad. I took it in Spring 2012. Taught by Dr. Chris Robé.

This is just the very general overview of the entire course. A summary really. It was a discussion based class so a sizable chunk of more nuanced ideas are lost. I don’t necessarily agree with all the points that Robé or featured theorists/filmmakers made or even the course outline, which is way too US and male centric. But I will say though that there are only a few courses like this I think even at the graduate level in the US. The course was conceived before the popularity of Karagarga and all films screened were on DVD or VHS; availability definitely played into which films could be screened and which could not. Particular emphasis is on video activists because it is one of Robé’s research interests. In addition, there was at least one reading that was relevant to each film so the availability and quality of the readings were also a determining factor in what was taught. And of course time constraint is a factor too. The point is that though the course did have limitations, it was a success overall. Sadly, there wasn’t a second part of the course in which students could make radical films. But honestly that is probably a good thing, especially since it would have been during the 2012 election.

The major themes of this course were developed in primarily two readings: Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s “Towards a Third Cinema” and Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s “Constituents of a Theory of Media.” The rest of the information presented here is a summary of these two readings in the way they were framed by the class (to the best of my recollection and notes).

From Solanas and Getino, we learn most importantly that the cinema is only a detonator. The underground showings of their seminal film Hour of the Furnaces were more important than the actual film itself. Because, as they argue, the people who went to these often times illegal screenings, were the ones to bring about change, to do work. The film brought them together and possibly inspired them, but the resistance work or revolutionary work can only be done outside of the theater by the people. The film has ended, but the story continues on the streets (with or without the presence of a camera). As they say, “[…]revolutionary cinema is not fundamentally one which illustrates, documents, or passively establishes a situation: rather, it attempts to intervene in the situation as an element providing thrust or rectification. To put it another way, it provides discovery through transformation.” This is, of course, in marked distinction from Hollywood or popular documentaries. After spending an hour and 15 minutes giving a liberal analysis of the environmental problem, Al Gore spends only the last 15 minutes of An Inconvenient Truth telling the audience that if everyone bought CFLs and a Prius the environment would be well on its way to recovery. Of course, let’s not forget that Solanas and Getino were interested in anti-colonial activism and not a general guideline for a cinema of every political cause (Though they do analyze environmental destruction as a result of Imperialism).

Also important to Solanas and Getino is the rejection of Hollywood aesthetics (Hollywood being one of the most effective capitalist institutions and imperialist propaganda tools). Aesthetics goes beyond camera angels, story lines, and themes. A work’s aesthetic is born from the condition within which it was made. Hollywood, or First Cinema, uses certain technologies (35mm, 24fps, specialized technicians, commercial exhibition) that perpetuate its imperialist ideology. Of course just because a film is shot without using the Hollywood model doesn’t mean it fulfills the aforementioned parameter; Hollywood tries to exploit all the filmmaking techniques it can to turn into profit, including docu-reality and overtly political cinema. It is necessary to note that Solanas and Getino did not impose an aesthetic rubric of some kind. The aesthetic of the film is instead determined by the events the film portrays. A film about the assassination of Salvador Allende should look nothing like a film about anti-revisionism in Red China.

In addition to eliminating the imperialist aesthetics during production, so do the imperialist methods of exhibition and distribution must be rejected. Through screenings of The Hour of the Furnaces, Solanas and Getino schematized a new practice of film exhibition, the film act. The space where the film is projected in (A church, a classroom, a theater) becomes a liberated territory for the night. Those in attendance become actors who, in this decolonized space, offers his thoughts and begins the process of politicization. The film, merely a detonator, guides the conversation. Each space is different, each group of spectators is different, the debates will be different so the screening will be different and the filmmakers must be responsive to this.

The last point made by Solanas and Getino (at least in relevance to the class) is the primacy of documentary. The recognize the many manifestations of documentary filmmaking including: pamphlet films, educational films, essay films, etc. Documentary, they argue, “[…] is perhaps the main basis of revolutionary film-making. Every image that documents, bears witness to, refutes or deepens the truth of a situation is something more than a film image or purely artistic fact; it becomes something which the System finds indigestible.” The Third World Newsreel documentaries about The Black Panthers for example, showcase the need for the radical change in the US treatment of black people. Images of dilapidated housing, parks that look more like jails, police brutality subvert the burgeoning race equality bullshit that had been (and still is) continually exaggerated since about 1954. And, what’s more is that these Black Panther documentaries were used, to some extent, as a recruiting method. The primary methods of recruitment at the time of these documentaries was still the Police Watches and community programs but these films did have a recitation of the 10 Point Program.

Out of these points comes their two requirements for Revolutionary, or Third, Cinema: “making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System.” The “System” is not Hollywood. They are talking about capitalism. Capitalism, which finds the burgeoning Third World nations as a threat to it colonial campaign. Capitalism, which uses Hollywood as it’s bugle call.

I’ll mention here that Second Cinema (Auteur, “Art” cinema, the more contemporary “corporate” independent cinema) was rejected by Solanas and Getino because, although it did allow for more freedom of expression for directors, it was too easily co-opted by the system. American film criticism and cinephillia are still plagued by Andrew Sarris’ bastardization of the Cahiers writers and filmmakers. There’s always at least one Sundance indie flick that was funded by some Fox or Sony subsidiary that makes it to the Oscars.

Enzensberger proposed the first socialist theory of new, electronic media. He locates the central contradiction that such a theory must work at: “Monopoly capitalism develops the consciousness-shaping industry more quickly and more extensively than any other sectors of production; it must at the same time fetter it.” It is important to recognize that this piece was written at the dawn of new media. The use of satellites were still being worked out and the internet hadn’t existed yet.

All electronic media, which are the media of communicating, are capable of transmitting and receiving. However, the media corporations prevent reciprocation. And this is the contradiction: Capitalism creates various types of communication devices but only allows its messengers to transmit; no actual communication is occurring because there is no viable way to respond. It is not a question of technicality but of politics and access. For new media, “the contradiction between producers and consumers is not inherent […]; on the contrary, it has to be artificially reinforced by economic and administrative measures.”

And while, yes, there is facile competition between this corporation representing this capitalist ideology and that corporation representing that capitalist ideology, these corporations are telling to the masses the necessity of capitalism. On the Prison Industrial Complex, FOX News might put forth the thinly veiled “going back to the plantation” line of thinking while CNN might offer ideas on how not to look thuggish and dangerous (recalling the historic Christian Missionaries), nevertheless they are calling for POC, and especially black people, to be the play things of white people. There is little room for prison abolitionism on the 6:00 news. Or, if there is, it is framed as dangerous by FOX or re-framed in liberal terms by CNN.

He, like Solanas and Getino, saw the importance of mobilizing the masses through media. His conception is much more broad since it encapsulates not only film, radio, or television but also telephone, fax and copy machines. The socialist theory of media needs to position the masses as transmitters. The new media technically speaking and in operational terms, to a limited extent, does this.

Enzensberger rejects the archaic notion Orwell put forth in 1984. Censorship and surveillance cannot be fully centralized, with these new forms of media something will always slip past; every phone call, for example cannot be monitored but certain samples of information can be monitored. We’ve seen with COINTELPRO, which was around the time new media was burgeoning, that total surveillance isn’t necessary to effectively repressive social movements. More recently with WIKILEAKS and those associated with it, we’ve seen that restricted material can easily be got, replicated, and distributed. The information released by Edward Snowden proved how extensive sample surveillance can be and how effective it can be if used in a targeted manner.

Enzensberger outlines a series of detrimental tendencies the New Left had of new media. Primarily, the New Left saw the new media as manipulative and inherently untrustworthy. It shouldn’t be surprising given the democratic potential of the new media that challenged the bourgeois environment within which many of the New Left activists were raised. This fear lead to a preoccupation of the old media and a distrust of new media. The students of Paris in ’68 went after the Odéon Theatre and not the radio stations. The misunderstanding of new media on the part of the New Left was beneficial only to Capitalism. In the West, the avant-garde artists and pop stars (Warhol, the Beatles) have used media in more interesting and effective ways than Marxists, though obviously not for politicization. Concerts like Woodstock or Hyde Park drew more crowds than any type of media production done by the New Left.

Enzensberger next outline what a socialist use of new media would look like. He re-emphasizes that new media is geared toward action and augments that claim with new media’s attitude toward the present and not the past. New media is ever in the moment and has no time to be preserved as a timeless, eternal classic; it has no want of being auctioned off for its historical or cultural baggage, unlike the bourgeoise’s old media. That doesn’t mean that the existence of a piece of new media is transient. Old media’s value was stuck in the past, how well it has been preserved and hoarded. New media’s value is how easily it can be replicated and shared.

Under the socialist conception of media, the masses become transmitters as well as receivers, producers as well as consumers. Because of this, legitimate communication can occur; new media is therefore social and has a collective structure. Of course we’ve seen with, for example, home movies and even Youtube that the masses can use this technology. However, the works by these individuals are rarely seen or, for those that are widely-enough-seen, they are regulated (ex. licensing or user agreements for Youtube) and isolated cases. The so-called democratic structure has built the acceptable forms of feedback into it, whether it is opinion polling, phoning in to a TV show, or putting something on Soundcloud. Such a structure may give the individual satisfaction, but it has no real material impact and it certainly isn’t social.

The task of a socialist media is not just to have everyone be transmitters and receivers but to organize. To have media making in factories and schools and other places where social conflict exist to document that day-to-day life and to derive lessons from the media that was created there. The media produced becomes a social act and a political learning process. Finally Got the News (co-produced by The Newsreel and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers) is a step in this direction, though the bourgeois Newsreel filmmakers had more control over the production than the factory workers.

Users of new media must not aimless ogle at the reproductive qualities of new media. It needs to be used as part of coherent organizational work. Enzensberger cites actions by the Tupamaros, the Arab guerrillas, and Castro that were specifically designed for their impact on the media. New media is helpful for the revolutionizing of culture as well, as evidenced by Cuba’s re-tooling of books to decrease illiteracy.

The major themes to emerge from the course are: Film (and media in general) is a tool that can be used in a radical way to mobilize people. In order to mobilize the masses, radical film must not utilize the bourgeois aesthetics which focus on contemplation rather than action and which engender repressive ideologies rather than liberating thoughts. For Marxists or anti-colonization national movements, this is the conception of media. As a result of this, the second theme emerges: Radical media making is a process that continues action in the streets or raises the consciousness of the masses. Thirdly, because it is a process that the masses must participate in, media must change the individualist traditional understandings of artist/author, of media works, and of exhibition/distribution to a form that engages the masses through participation and socialization in Marxist and/or anti-colonial/emergent national work.

The secondary readings ranged from historical context (The Popular Front; excerpts from Naomi Klein; writings of Subcomandante Marcos) to first hand accounts of working with the media makers (DeeDee Halleck’s public access TV days; an interview with Leo Hurwitz about Frontier Films; Patricio Guzman writing about his process of making The Battle of Chile) to film criticism (Judith Mayne on representations of gender in early Soviet films) and manifestos (“A User’s Guide to Détournement”). All of these in some way tied back to reinforcing the arguments put forth by Solanas, Getino, and Enzensberger.

In order to better grasp these concepts, where there were materials readily available, we would compare films of the same events that were radical to those that weren’t. I’m not going to get into it here since I feel this is running long, but I will list the radical films vs. non-radical films:

The World Today: Black Legion vs. Black Legion
Battle of Chile/Hour of the Furnaces vs. Battle of Algiers [Not that BoA isn’t radical, just that it was done by a Westerner]
The Chiapas Media works vs. The Other Mexico
Showdown in Seattle vs. Battle in Seattle
Pickaxe vs. If a Tree Falls

Below are the screenings by topic. I’ve listed all the screenings for each section first, in italics, then all of the readings. I don’t have/don’t know where to find all of the screenings, especially the ones not on Mubi. I do have all of the readings for anyone who is interested.

Introduction: Defining radical Social Movements, Film & Media
The Corporation
Television Delivers People*
Fuck the Corporate Media*
Proto Media Primer*

Introduction to The Alternative Media Handbook -Tony Downmunt
Ch. 1-4 of Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements -John Downing

The Russians Are Coming: Soviet Montage and Feminism
Bed and Sofa
Man with a Movie Camera

Ch. 5 of Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements -John Downing
“The Woman Question and Silent Film” -Judith Mayne
Bed and Sofa and the Edge of Domesticity” – Judith Mayne

US Popular Front
The World Today: Black Legion*
Black Legion
The Spanish Earth
Native Land

“Native Land: An Interview with Leo Hurwitz”
To pg 94 of “The Good Fight: The SPanish Civil War and U.S. Left Film Criticism” – Chris Robé
“Spanish Civil War” – Franklin Rosemont

French Popular Front
La Marseillaise

“Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise: The Arc of Revolution” – Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar

Anti-Communism and Radical Hollywood
Salt of the Earth
Point of Order
The Hollywood Ten*

“Hollywood and the Cold War” – John Belton
“Commentary on Salt of the Earth” – Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt
Testimony of Ring Larden, Jr.

Third World Newsreel
Off the Pig*

The Ten Point Program
“Newsreel: Old and New – Towards a Historical Profile” – Michael Renov

Seizing the Cultural Mode of Production: Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement
Finally Got the News*

Finally Got the News: The Making of a Radical Film” – Dan Georgakas
“At the Point of Production”

Third Cinema
The Battle of Chile
Hour of the Furnaces
The Battle of Algiers
Le vent d’est

“Towards a Third Cinema” – Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino
“Filmmakers and the Popular GOvernment”
“Reflections to the Filming of The Battle of Chile” – Patricio Guzman
Excerpts from The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein

Public Access: Guerrilla Television vs. Grassroots
Four More Years*
First Transmission of ACTV*
Healthcare: Your Money of Your Life*
Herb Schiller Reads the New York Times*

Ch. 20 of Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements -John Downing

“Alternative Visions of Television” (from The Alternative Media Handbook) – David Garcia and Lennart van Oldenborgh
pg. 114-123, 211-216 of Handheld Visions: The Impossible Possibilities of Community Media – DeeDee Halleck
“Guerrilla vs Grassroots” – Deirdre Boyle
Four More Years” – Deirdre Boyle

Public Access II: ACT UP and AIDS Activist Video
Like a Prayer*
Be a DIVA*

“On the Make: Activist Video Collectives” – Catherine Saalfield
“Constituents of a Theory of Media” – Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Public Access III: Anti-War Activism
Gulf Crisis TV Project*

pg. 169-186 of Handheld Visions: The Impossible Possibilities of Community Media – DeeDee Halleck

Culture Jamming, Détournement, Copyright, and Neo-Liberalism
Sonic Outlaws
Can Dialectics Break Bricks
Steal Something from Work Day*

excerpts from The Future Active – Graham Meikle
“Culture Jamming the Video Game Way” (From The Alternative Media Handbook) – Sue Scheibler
“Copyright: The Politics of Owning Culture” -Gregor Claude
“New Branded World” (From No Logo) – Naomi Klein
“A User’s Guide to Détournement as Negation and Prelude” – Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman

The Rise of the Zapatistas
The Indigenous Family*
We Are Equal: Zapatista Women Speak*
Tiburón Island, Our Heart*
The Other Campaign: Indigenous Voices of the North*
The Other Mexico*

Ch. 17 of Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements -John Downing
“Outside the Indigenous Lens: Zapatistas and Autonomous Videomaking” – Alexandra Halkin
pg. 333-340 of Handheld Visions: The Impossible Possibilities of Community Media – DeeDee Halleck
“The Fourth World War Has Begun” -Subcomandante Marcos

Eco-Activism, Direct Action, and the Pacific Northwest
If a Tree Falls

“Direct Action and the Heroic Ideal: An Ecofeminist Critique” -Marti Kheel
“From Protest to Resistance” -Jeffrey “Free” Luers

Indymedia, WTO, and the Battle of Seattle
The Miami Model*
Showdown in Seattle: Five Days That Shook the World*
Breaking the Spell*
Battle in Seattle
Terrorizing Dissent*
It’s the End of the World As We Know It*
A New Era*

“ A New Communications Commons” -Dorothy Kidd
pg. 415-431 of Handheld Visions: The Impossible Possibilities of Community Media – DeeDee Halleck
“The Enemy: A Few Good Reasons to Hate the World Trade Organization
“The Struggle: The Revolt of the Globalized” -Luis Hernandez Navarro
“The Story of the Battle of Seattle” -David Solnit
“What to Do When Everybody Gets Arrested: A CRASS Course Providing Arestee Support”
“Be The Media: The Current State of Activist Media and the Work of Franklin López” -Chris Robé
“Rust Belt Visions: The 2011 Allied Media Conference” -Chris Robé

Mentioned in Passing/Extra Credit Screenings
The Plow That Broke the Plains
In the Year of the Pig
Chronicle of a Summer
How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman
The Violin
An Inconvient Truth

*Not in database [About 1/4 of these are Public Access Television docs and shorts so its understandable]

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