Front-line reports

review by Victor Wallis

Chris Robé and Stephen Charbonneau, eds., Insurgent Media from the Front: A Media Activism Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020)

This is a book of front-line reports. As such it offers an indispensable follow-up to the arguments of those – myself among them – who repeatedly call for a tectonic cultural shift but whose efforts in pursuit of that goal rely primarily on already-established channels of communication. By contrast, in the essays collected here by Robé and Charbonneau, we find reports of media-channels being literally created – in tune with the lives and hardships of the varied constituencies that organizers are working with.

The essence of “insurgent media” is that its producers integrate themselves into the communities whose voices they seek to project. The book’s editors stress at the outset the urgency of this mission, using the qualifier “insUrgent” to evoke (a) the depth of all the anti-oppression struggles that they take up and (b) the extraordinary challenge, in this high-tech era, of achieving “rapid distribution” of counter-hegemonic expressions.

The chapters cover a wide range of cases, focusing notably on issues of colonization, class, culture, sexuality, and healthcare. Special attention is paid to matters of media technology and to the working relationships between producers and their human subjects. There are chapter-length treatments of projects in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, and the United States. Forms of media activism include filmmaking, festival organizing, a radio station, super-short videos (for Facebook posting), WhatsApp Messaging, and flash mobs.

A major focus of the accounts is difficulties faced by media activists in challenging the dominant narrative (in whatever sphere). One aspect is of course economic: the huge costs entailed in penetrating monopoly-controlled platforms, and doing so quickly enough (in some cases) for the message still to grab people’s attention. The other aspect is cultural, and arises in relation to both production and reception. A common concern, especially regarding indigenous subjects, is the need to avoid replicating familiar colonial-type relationships. With all topics, insurgent media activism sets a premium on shared life-experiences between the oppressed and those who seek to give them voice. Ezra Winton, in the chapter on film festivals, gives apt expression to the ethic shared by all the book’s contributors: “Imagine festivals whose actions match their purported values” (145).

Throughout the book, we find an effort to remold established genres in order to subvert assumptions fostered by the commercial culture. This is illustrated in an interview with the Ojibway filmmakers Adam and Zack Khalil, who, viewing the typical documentary as misrepresenting indigenous people, suggest that the Ojibway epistemology “has to do with blurring those lines between when you’re telling a story and when you’re presenting facts, turning things upside down in order to make them clearer in some way” (199). Further, “Creating narratives puts us in a position of autonomy and agency and control” (200).

Not being acquainted with the film of theirs that they’re discussing – Empty Metal, which they describe as a fantasy – I cannot comment on the effectiveness of their approach in this particular case. In a larger sense, though, I would question the assumption that presenting facts does not in itself constitute telling a story. What matters about the facts is not their mere presence but rather how authentic they are, how effectively they are depicted, and how persuasively they are put together. While the selection and sequencing of the facts reflects the filmmaker’s intervention, the further insertion of clearly fictional ingredients – the “blurring” referred to by Khalil – may end up reducing rather than enhancing the film’s impact.

This question is closely tied to another issue discussed in the book, namely, that of the various intended audiences. Is any given work intended more to bolster the commitment of its existing constituency, or to reach out to new people? Of course, both types of communication have their place, but activists still must decide whether the outreach function requires a watering down of their central message. One place this comes up here is in an interview with transgender filmmaker Sam Feder, who argues that in view of the still widespread stigmatization of trans people, they are “not yet authorized to set the terms of [their] own visibility” (71).

A longer-standing history of challenging received assumptions has arisen in struggles over abortion rights. A chapter by film studies professor Angela Aguayo entitled “Subjugated Histories as Affective Resistance” offers an interesting comparison of two 2005 documentaries, I Had an Abortion and The Abortion Diaries. The discussion is framed by a distinction between “mobility feminist” and “intersectional feminist” approaches, the former referring to the neoliberal model grounded in careerist aspirations, and the latter, to the more universal experience of those women who can’t expect to become high social achievers. I Had an Abortion, reflecting the mobility approach, includes the testimony of prominent public figures who express satisfaction at not having their careers interrupted. The Abortion Diaries, by contrast, based on deeper interaction by the filmmaker (Penny Lane) with her subjects, “allowed for a complex map of emotions to emerge” (60), with the potential for greater resonance.

Insurgent Media from the Front is replete with valuable reports and discussions of the politics of radical media production. The prevailing perspective is well expressed in a chapter on “collaboration across cultures,” co-authored by five Australian media activists. As they put it, the attitude of all the human subjects they work with is, “if you have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time, but if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then we can work together” (119).

The political work reflected in this book is integral to the revolutionary transformation on which our species’ survival has come to depend. I only wish that the same level of skill, dedication, and sensibility could extend itself toward gathering the protagonists of all these separate struggles into a single all-embracing movement that, while not forgetting the various constituent loyalties, would have the combined power to overwhelm the hegemony of capital.