Many filmmakers I have spoken with throughout the years and at this conference are in agreement with such a critique, but they are often reluctant to publicly state their objections since they would be critiquing the source of much of their funding. So Story’s impassioned criticism was welcome. Here, Liz Canner, a documentary filmmaker spoke about her problems during a panel on radical media making, community organizing, and institution building, which I hosted. She rejected $250,000 funding from ITVS because they quarantined her film Orgasm Inc. (2009) in production limbo due to their discomfort with its systemic critique of the pharmaceutical industry.
When it came to offering solutions, Story remained vague. WellRed Films wants to create “an international collaborative fund for transformative arts” based upon donations from liberals, trade unions, and rich individuals. He never said how exactly to shake these funds loose from such people and institutions and not be beholden to them. The goal would be to pool such funds to “create an artistic controlled hub and support the films with the proper political attitude.” When delving into what defines the “proper political attitude,” Story exclaimed, “I’m sorry. I’m a Marxist: get rid of racism. Eliminate capitalism.” So it remains unclear if only Marxist films, or Marxist films according to a certain political line would be supported or if this group would offer broader support to a variety of political outlooks. Also, this scheme begs the question of what type of politics the “artistic controlled hub” would embody. Additionally, film form also remained undiscussed. Where would experimental film stand in terms of support? WellRed Films’ solution seems more a theoretical fantasy at the moment than a realistic alternative.
The final two speakers had worked within the industry. Deborah Wallace had produced Gasland (2010) and Blood on the Mountain (2016). John T. Trigonis was a walking advertisement for the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Wallace reflected upon the unlikely way in which Gasland became a feature film. Although it was originally conceived as a ten minute short to support the people of the Delaware Valley against hydraulic fracking, the film picked up support as the fight against fracking gained momentum. As Wallace notes, “Sometimes your project strikes lightening.” But she realized that such moments are indeed rare. During the question and answer, she reflected, “Things have aligned in some ways that benefited me. I’ve also had some things that go nowhere.” But, ultimately, she stressed that one had to put one’s full effort into a project regardless of its popularity or support—something that most participants in the conference were already well aware of.
Wallace provided more of a pep talk than any kind of analysis. If anything, the unpredictable way in which some of her films received financial and industry support punctuated that support’s unpredictability and unreliability. Furthermore, unquestioned were the ways in which her films that received funding tended to rely on formal conventions that many media makers in the audience rejected. For example, Gasland’s reliance upon a central white, male protagonist who chronicles the plight of working-class families falls into a certain paternalistic vein of liberal filmmaking that has been critiqued by many radical media makers and critics. Furthermore, the film’s form suggests that it is not just a strike of luck that earned Gasland support, but also its reliance on paternalistic conventions that undergird much liberal documentary filmmaking and that many wealthy funders find appealing. [open endnotes in new window]
Contrasting dramatically with Wallace’s reflections was Trigonis’s bluster. Donning a porkpie hat and wielding a host of tech clichés, Trigonis materialized directly from the entrepreneurial id of Silicon Valley. Why someone so mismatched with the overall conference’s gestalt would be invited perplexed many participants. But, if anything, his hackneyed presentation of the elixir of crowdfunding exposed the chasm of opposing assumptions that define ‘good projects’ according to industry-based funding sources and those of radical media makers. After leading off with the preposterous claim that “I’ve been behind the most successful campaigns [to crowdfund film]” and that “crowdfunding is a privilege,” he followed with a series of bromides like “give investors an experience. Show them that they are a part of this film,” “Make sure that shit is made well,” and make films that are “innovative.”
Needless to say, the criteria used to determine a well-made and innovative film remained unarticulated. One audience member questioned if avant-garde work under a crowdfunded model will simply be seen as “non-communicative” by funders, so far outside their artistic frame of reference and the realms of the conventional filmmaking that it would be unfundable. She questioned if “this crowdfunding model flattens out aesthetics into a certain limited style.” Another audience member questioned the sustainability of crowdfunding. The people who support the type of politically committed, community-based documentary filmmaking that she makes are often very small, economically disenfranchised rural communities. She cannot repeatedly draw financial support from these people since they do not possess the resources to continually support the projects that she makes.
Trigonis had no response, which is not surprising since the type of crowdfunded filmmaking he advocated was diametrically opposed to the ethics of many of the radical media makers in the audience. Crowdfunding treats people as investors and potential audience members. Much radical media making fosters more sustained and intimate relationships with viewers. Crowdfunding treats the film primarily as entertainment. Radical media making emphasizes the politics of the film and video with a strong desire to mobilize people. Crowdfunding has a limited notion of “innovation” as operating within well-wrought commercial conventions and clichés, ones that often implicitly relate a reactionary political position whether it be paternalistic, reformist, colonialist, etc. in outlook. Radical media making wants to push formal conventions along different and unexpected lines that challenge narrative, character-driven commercial media making. Or at least radical media making is aware of the inherent political limitations of certain formal conventions.
The crowdfunding model also mainly applies only to people who self-define as artists and media makers. It cannot address a growing number of people who do not call themselves media makers at all but simply employ media making as one element of their activism and community organizing. As technology increasingly converges into more portable devices and becomes more affordable (at least for those in the West and other privileged geographical sectors of the world), it will increasingly be integrated into on-the-ground organizing, as the recent rise of copwatching groups across the United States bears witness to.
Many conference participants emphasized how media making had been integrated into collective organizing and political resistance campaigns. Oliver Ressler worked in conjunction with Dario Azzellini to produce a series of short films and installation pieces that show workers discussing their takeover of various factories in Italy and Greece. Influenced by the Argentinean factory takeovers that occurred during the early 2000s (and were captured in the film The Take (2004)), factory workers in Europe pursued similar strategies and tactics after the decimating effects of the 2008 Great Recession. These videos initially appeared as a three-channel installation (http://www.ressler.at/occupy_resist/) in 2014-2015 that screened the successful factory takeovers in Europe to provide models for other workers to do the same. According to Ressler’s artist statement:
“The 3-channel video installation ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce’ consists of three films on occupied factories in Milan, Rome and Thessaloniki. In these cases the workers did find ways to organize labor under their own control. Each film is based on discussion with the workers. The workers’ assemblies – always the main decision-making bodies – were recorded. It is fundamental to recognize the differences between the situations, contexts and practices of the three worker-controlled companies, but it is also important to understand workers’ control or recuperation of workplaces as a socio-political action rather than a merely economic procedure.”
The videos are shot in a simple but elegant style that primarily emphasizes the workers’ voices and their discussion. Officine Zero (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiU6pCKj2MQ)
shows the results when twenty workers occupied their factory after refusing its closure. In 2013, they deemed it an eco-social factory that specialized in the repairing and recycling of domestic appliances, computers, and furniture. The workers speak articulately about their conditions of work and their vision of the future. Their testimonies provide a sense of agency and authority on their own part. One woman, for example, speaks about how she originally became involved with the factory for its recycling program. But as she grew more familiar with its environment, she
“discovered a new project: the possibilities and bringing together workers who are normally obliged to work alone due to what they do in life.”
As she speaks, the video cuts to another woman working alone, hunched over and sanding a piece of material in a long shot. Her isolation emphasizes the very condition that the former woman speaks about thus suggesting a unity between her observations and another person’s working conditions. There is a brief silence so that we simply hear the woman sanding material and atmospheric noises, thus further punctuating her isolation.
Another female voice continues by saying, “You create a network and soon learn that we’re all in the same boat … There’s a lack of rights at every level.” The sequence cuts to reveal the woman speaking as the very same one who was just sanding in the earlier sequence, suggesting how her isolation has in part been overcome through such dialogue. By carefully juxtaposing workers’ observations with carefully placed editing, the video accents how discussions among workers allow such networks of solidarity to bloom. Similarly, the video itself becomes a chain in this network building so that in addition to its production fostering workers’ sharing stories within one another, its distribution and exhibition at other locations and online can also be used to inspire other factory workers who have initiated self-management at other locations. The Italian workers even mention how they plan on traveling to Argentina to discuss their occupations with those who took over factories there.
It is worth emphasizing that we rarely hear workers discuss their struggles within commercial media. With the exception of the cinema of Ken Loach, it is rare for films to pause long enough to take into account the range of debates that inform all political struggles, grassroots organizing, and community building. Effective political action is deeply dependent upon reflection and theorization. Therefore, the privileging of workers’ discussions in these short videos compensates for their lack of voice in most other commercial forms of media or even worse, their demonization within them.
Other groups like the Workers Art Coalition integrate art into blue collar workers’ struggles. As Barry Cline noted, by using art for social change and in workers’ daily struggles, their projects began to “convince unions to address arts and culture more.” This became particularly apparent during their “Fight for 15” actions in raising the minimum wage. The artistic signs that workers designed for their actions went viral over the web (http://www.theworkersartcoalition.com/
fight-for-15.html), providing the project with wide media coverage and an easily reproducible meme to assist in galvanizing solidarity.
Similarly, Teresa Basilo Gaztambide of Third World Newsreel and Deputy Director for New America’s Resilient Communities Program emphasized,
“I consider myself as an organizer more than a filmmaker. I make films for political consciousness and to help people organize.”
For example, she made a film about Puerto Rican communities dealing with gentrification in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, ground zero of hipsterism. She screened the film in Chicago before a youth summit of around 100 organizers who belonged to mostly immigrant communities. By showing how the conditions of gentrification occurring in New York were similar to those invading Chicago, the local Chicago organizers observed systemic forces at work and learned from other people’s resistances against those forces.
Perhaps most inspiring is the way that everyday people’s artistic talents have bloomed within community organizations. Paolo Davanzo, a vivacious member of Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles, explained how his organization engaged youth in various media activities whether through screenings and discussions, renting out gear at affordable prices for production, or film classes. The results of this engagement can be witnessed in Walter Vargas’ poignant super 8 experimental film Mis Manos (2010) (https://player.vimeo.com/video/64771639), showing an intimate portrait of his mother who worked at manual labor all her life. Vargas had been a member of Echo Park Film Center when he made the film.
The film opens with a close-up of a woman rubbing her pained hands, already establishing how work dominates Vargas’ mother’s life. A series of rapidly cut facial close-ups follow of his mother as she states,
“My name is Maria Antonia Hernandez. I’m 50 years old. I came from Mexico to Los Angeles at 17.”
She speaks slowly, her exhaustion filling the pauses between her words. She lists her innumerable jobs like working in restaurants, sewing, cleaning houses, and selling purses at swap meets. While she recounts them, we see a split screen of her lying down staring tiredly to the camera as an U.S. flag flaps wildly in a breeze beneath her image. The juxtaposition of her stasis and the flag’s waving, the darkness of her room and the brightness of the flag in broad daylight, her exhaustion and endless drudgery against the flag’s patriotic symbolism and representations of the American Dream reveals the hidden costs that pursing such a dream entails. She continues, “I work five or six days of the week.”
Her interview takes place as she is lying down in the near dark. At one moment she pleads with her son, “Turn that [camera] off already.” He replies, “No.” “What do you want to know?” “Everything,” he replies. She can’t help but smile.
Her fractured thoughts are emphasized by the screen frequently cutting to black. They become episodic memories of trauma and work. She states matter-of-factly,
“My hands are dark and calloused. They hurt so much at night. They’re hands that worked their whole life for fifty years.”
Her word choice is revealing. They are not “her” hands, but hands that worked “their” whole life, as if a separate entity from her, her very body alienated from itself through an endless amount of work. The film stresses this exploitation and alienation by ending with her hands rubbing each other in close-up. Bookended between her hands, we learn of her life, a life’s history that has been mostly compressed and contained within the pain of her hands, defined by work, drudgery and exploitation. One exception is the intimate relationship we witness between mother and son on film, nurtured through the filmmaking process itself, and conjuring art and love from her misery.
Vargas’s work accentuates a deeply personal yet politicized type of filmmaking, whereby an amateur filmmaker learns the skills that will propel him into a professional filmmaking career. It is one of the many roads that community-based filmmaking can lead to and exemplifies the potentialities that can be reached when media making is made accessible to community members at an early age. Such a film cannot help but be inspirational to those who make, organize around, write about, and discuss radical media.
By the conference’s end, participants established a few outcomes they would like to pursue within the Radical Film Network. A central one is to further promote the network. Anyone interested in it can join the
- mailing list (http://radicalfilmnetwork.com/mailing-list/) ,
- Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/radicalfilmnetwork/), and
- Twitter (https://twitter.com/radfilmnet?lang=en).
The Network has recently created a Vimeo page where anyone with a Vimeo account can post his/her/their videos: https://vimeo.com/groups/463726. The page will be moderated, according to one document,
“to ensure comments and discussions remain constructive, maintain a certain standard of quality and remove any posts from the radical right. We also need to guard against the page becoming the ‘not-so-radical, progressive-liberal’ Vimeo group.”
Many who attended the conference intend to approach the various social movements we are a part of to see if there might be a media liaison from that group who wants to belong to the Radical Film Network. After all, if the Network is to support radical media making, it needs to align with the grassroots movements enacting progressive social change and utilizing digital technology and legacy media in their struggles. We also established some Radical Film Network stewards in various geographical locations to field questions about the network.
The list is:
Argentina: Violeta Bruck, Contraimagen (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Brazil: Elson Menegazzo, Mostra CineTrabalho/Brazilian International Labour Film Festival (email@example.com).
- East coast (New York): Vagabond Beaumont, independent filmmaker (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- West coast (Los Angeles): Paulo Danvanzo, Echo Park Film Center (email@example.com).
- Mid-west (Ohio): Rooney Hassan, SVLLYwood Magazine (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- South (Florida): Chris Robé, Florida Atlantic University (email@example.com).
If you have any questions, you can direct them to the steward nearest you.
We hope this steward system will free up the central organizers to pursue other tasks such as funding, which was also spoken about extensively, in order to make the Radical Film Network a more sustainable endeavour and not as dependent upon the vagaries of grant funding. Although we don’t know where the Radical Film Network will ultimately lead, those of us interested in developing it should begin speaking about it not only online but also when we come across each other during conferences, screenings, protests, world social forums and other events. As one speaker mentioned during the conference, in the light of the surge of radical right-wing media like the Breitbart News Network and PureFlix, a Christian streaming company that has produced such religious films like The Case for Christ (2017) and God’s Not Dead (2014), there has never been a stronger need for a Left-based Radical Film Network. The conference in Manhattan indicated some of the more productive avenues it might take if only we dedicate some of our time and resources to pursuing them.
During the July 2017 conference in Tolpuddle, which I did not attend, it was decided to hold the next RFN conference in Dublin July 27-29, 2018 (https://
radicalfilmnetwork.com/conferences/). So if interested, please contact one of the RFN stewards for more information. Furthermore, the network is organizing a global festival in honor of the 50 year anniversary of 1968 that will begin in May 2018 and continue throughout the year. The purpose of the festival, according to an internal memo, is to:
“encourage collective contemplation and reflection upon the events of 1968 and consideration of their resonance and influence now, in the popular imagination, while also allowing us to imagine how things might look 50 years from now.”
“The working model of the festival is devolved, decentred and autonomous, not completely non-hierarchical, in that there will be some central co-ordination involved, but it will invite the huge number of different individuals, organisations, political and activist groups to respond in their own way to the 50th anniversary of this potent political 'moment' in the popular imagination, by creating their own events under the banner of the RFN.”
Again, if you are interested in establishing your own 1968-related event, let one of the RFN stewards know so we can put you in touch with the central organizers. As one can see, 2018 promises to be a significant year for the RFN’s growth as it pursues such global ambitions and many of its members plan to meet in Dublin in the near future. We hope to see some of you there.