6 Grim Truths Revealed in The Act Of Killing
Apr27

6 Grim Truths Revealed in The Act Of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing has been generating increasing fear and bewilderment amongst the previously ignorant of late, bringing farcical performances of horrific murders from grinning, cha-cha-ing killers to our shocked and appalled senses. Acclaimed documentarist, actor, and executive producer Werner Herzog describes the film as “powerful, surreal and terrifying” and “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” The fact that his contract requires him to repeat this to each interviewer is irrelevant; he is correct every time. Once the film finishes and the impotent rage and shaking have subsided, you may find that to stop the repetitions in your mind’s eye, you need to coax your denial back. Tell yourself ‘it could be worse’. And you’d be correct every time! Admitting there’s a complex, systemic problem is the first step to really understanding and making futile attempts to rectify it. To truly move past the trauma of seeing The Act of Killing, we need to untangle and face all truths hidden beneath the now welcome distraction of pantomime homicide. The golden age of Hollywood improved the killers’ methods. Stories thrive on cultural tropes, and Hollywood’s particular brand does comedy duos, underdog narratives and representations of gloriously vicious gang killings to a numbingly high standard. The classical Hollywood era is generally remembered in the collective Western consciousness as timeless, glib, interestingly-lit fantasies; glittery outfits gurning and flailing their way through songs about rain, safe in the knowledge that if ever a Wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz was almost certainly one. Their capacity to be read as a series of PSAs for a thrifty, efficient genocide went over our heads. But this was not lost on The Act of Killing’s very own Laurel and Hardy, Anwar and Herman, who reveal that prior to the genocide they were just regular blue-collar gangsters (read: fateful underdogs), working in a black-market cinema which showed then-banned Hollywood films. They loved the good-ol days of industrialised ‘Merican cultural output as much as the next…average joe, from the latest Elvis vehicle to the many variations by which each genre depicted their protagonists committing efficacious murders. Mob films were especially beloved by the gangsters, as they saw their lives reflected in the consequence-free narratives of their American brothers-in-arms. Anwar confesses that seeing those wily Americans performing that old ‘strangulation with wire’ act (classic!) in Hollywood gangster films gave them their preferred method for ending the lives of their many opponents. In an interview given on Indonesian public television, the show’s host trills enthusiastically at the “amazing” revelation that they were inspired by films, to create  “a system more humane, less sadistic and without excessive force”. And she’s on to...

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Robocop, Robocop & The Politics of Emancipation
Feb09

Robocop, Robocop & The Politics of Emancipation

The 2014 Robocop remake has arrived! Revamping, updating and down-camping the 1987 original for the viewing pleasure of the global mass market! Boo corporations, post-90s technology, human emotion and/or error… Yay Robocop!   While the new story has been adapted accordingly for our newer, shinier and digital-er time, the influence of the original Verhoeven film is evident throughout, with direct references to OCP (now “the parent company of Omnicorp”) and lines such as “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar…” Eyyy! See what they did?! They WOULDN’T buy it for a dollar, AND there were zero gratuitous boobs. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Robocop 2.0 (Robocop 2 already happened) marks the point at which Hollywood has officially surpassed adolescence. Robocop 2.0 is subverting 1987’s surprisingly Reaganite narrative, which, according to Steven Best “neatly coalesces with rightwing fantasies of social subversion” and becomes “a front for increased surveillance and the rollback of constitutional rights”. Ha! Reagan.   I can accept that Paul Verhoeven was an unwitting accomplice to the cultural landscape that produced an acceptance of Ronald Reagan, and later Arnold Schwartzenegger, as the actual political leaders of genuine geographical places, but it is slightly harder to accept of director José Padilha. It interests me to understand the dynamics and effects of, and between, these two films that both appear to satirize and criticize corporate corruption, right-wing media bias and the military industrial complex. Robocop 2.0 certainly tries to break with the pantomimic sci-fi camp of the original, to situate itself within a contemporary political landscape where melding man with machine is not only possible, but something you can pay to have done for a laugh. So what are the issues and limits remaining in 2.0?   Robo2.0 is destined to be filed, as with the majority of films I see at multiplexes, under ‘Films I Sort of Enjoyed at a Surface Level and Made Me Well Up at Times, Containing the Obvious, Ubiquitous Tropes I’m Tired Of’, cross referenced with ‘Completely Lacking Subtlety and Self-Awareness’. The problem with Robocop 2.0 is painfully obvious. It’s a film produced by MGM & Columbia, distributed by Columbia, Sony, Universal, Disney and 20th Century Fox, that attempts to critique corporate culture. What more can it do than have a slapdash chew on the hand that feeds it? The original touched on Evil Corporatism only to the extent that it needed to to drive the plot (it is unable “to locate the real sources of alienation and reification. At no moment does Robocop suggest that the numerous serious social issues it raises — from nuclear disaster to monopoly control — are inherent in or fundamentally related to the...

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Bristol Radical Film Festival 2012
Jan18

Bristol Radical Film Festival 2012

Organised by students and lecturers at the University of the West of England, Bristol, the first Bristol Radical Film Festival showed that explicitly political cinema – and audience demand for it – is alive and kicking. Held in a variety of venues over the course of a week, the festival showcased some of the most politically and socially engaged documentary films from around the world, with a particular focus on work in the UK. From classics of radical film history to some of the finest contemporary oppositional documentary, the festival culminated in a packed weekend of screenings, talks and debates at the volunteer-run and not-for-profit cinema, The Cube. Though the festival proper ran for seven days, the organisers held three promotional events from January until the start of the festival at the end of February. Entitled ‘Not Gay as in Happy but Queer as in F**k You’, the first of these set the festival trend of combining shorts with feature presentations which, in the tradition of political cinema screenings around the world, lead into lively audience debate. Combining Kenneth Angers’ classic Fireworks (1947) with Melvyn Briggs’ remarkable queer documentary, Tongues Untied (1989), this opening event set another trend that was to continue throughout the festival – large, lively and diverse audiences. The festival itself began with an evening celebrating the anti-roads protests of the 1990s. Held at Bristol’s radical bookshop, Hydra Books, the event began with a presentation by photographer Adrian Arbib, who spent time covering the demonstration at Solsbury Hill in 1994. Jogging more than a few memories of those members of the audience old enough to have first hand experiences of this period of protest, the lively discussion was followed by a screening of Neil Goodwin and Mayassa al-Malawi’s documentary Life in the Fast Lane (1995). One of the few feature documentaries to cover the roads protests, the film details the fifteen month campaign against the M11 Link road in East London. Made by activists who lived on the proposed site of the road, the film is not only an important document one of the most vibrant forms of direct action in the twentieth century, but also a key instance of the new forms of radical filmmaking that also emerged at that time. Coinciding with the destructive environmental policies of Major’s Conservative government were developments in camcorder technology, wildly increasing activists’ access to the means of representation. Indeed, it was on the M11 protest that Undercurrents was born, the radical newsreel that would go on to become one of the most successful radical newsreels ever seen in the UK (see below). The second night of the festival was in such high demand that many were...

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Soul Power (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, 2008, USA)
Jan13

Soul Power (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, 2008, USA)

In 1974, as a warm-up to the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ heavy-weight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), a music festival took place that brought together some of the finest African and African-American artists of the 1970s. Soul Power is a record of this event, and the sheer scale of musical talent showcased within it – from B. B. King, Miriam Makeba and Bill Withers to Tabu Ley Rochereaux and James Brown  – is enough to demand one’s immediate attention. For fans of black music, this film is essential viewing. For those unfortunate, aurally impoverished people not already familiar with these musicians, Soul Power is about the best audio-visual introduction available (along with Wattstax (1973), Mel Stuart’s film of the ‘black Woodstock’ festival the year before). And yet this film was very nearly not available at all. Every second of footage in Soul Power was shot thirty-six years ago by Leon Gast’s crew for what was to become When We Were Kings (1996), the academy-award winning documentary of the Ali-Foreman bout. Tragically, the images of the festival were dropped in order to maintain the King’s focus on the fight and its socio-cultural and political significance. In rescuing the images that constitute Soul Power, then, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and co. do a service to the history of black music on film.  This was no light undertaking. ‘Zaire ‘74’, as the festival was named, took place over three days. Recordings of the performances themselves totalled over 12 hours, not to mention the extensive behind-the-scenes footage of the organisation of the event, all of which had to be cleaned, transferred and digitised from the raw 16mm negative. The reconstitution of this source material into a fascinating 93 minute narrative thus constitutes a worthy editing feat.  Eschewing the expositional mode of Kings, in which contemporary talking-heads guide the viewer authoritatively through the archive footage, Soul Power exploits the textured grain of the 16mm film and kinetic quality of the shoulder mounted cameras to create an archetypal verité style. Such a formal strategy brings the film’s content to the fore, an adroit choice given the compelling nature of the personalities on display. Indeed, the representations of the off-stage personas are some of Soul Power’s most precious. Celia Cruz leads an impromptu jam session on the stars’ flight to Kinshasa, for example, drumming her shoe heels against the luggage compartment, accompanied by B. B. King’s guitar and somebody else playing a soft-drink can with a paracetamol packet. Other memorable scenes include B. B. King casually putting together his set-list back-stage, Muhammad Ali’s amiable reaction when...

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BRFF + The Condition of the Working Class
Jun11

BRFF + The Condition of the Working Class

Last night (3rd June) Bristol Radical Film Festival teamed up with Bristol Indymedia to conduct a screening/discussion of Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’ Neill’s latest film The Condition of the Working Class. Based on Friedrich Engels’ book of the same name, the film documents a newly formed theatre production company made up of working class people with a common interest in igniting revolutionary sentiment through the arts, as they construct a stage production of Engels’ 1844 text. Written in Salford, Manchester, “The Condition of the Working Class in England” offers a critique of industrialisation under capitalism, compiling Engels’ own observations and detailed reports to highlight the affects of the industrial revolution on the very population whose labour made it possible. Predictably, that population ended up with the stale end of the deal while the moneyed class could enhance both their wealth, as well as the social order that today allows them to continue their attack on working people. “Everything changes, and everything stays the same”, reads the tagline of the film. While some members of the audience found that this offered little hope for the future, it of course depends on your outlook. Maybe this entails the level of change in the face of an oppressive “sameness” that a person imagines is possible. Perhaps it involves a desire to retain certain elements of society that are slipping through our fingers (the NHS, for example). In any case, it is important (though increasingly difficult, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK) to maintain positivity. For that reason I’ll take the statement to mean that there will always be struggle, and that, by definition, this gives rise to both hope and despair. This film is overwhelmed with neither. Instead, it initially uses the play as a catalyst to display the continuities between the conditions identified by Engels and those lived by the working class today. As it continues, however, the film identifies not only the continuities inflicted by a top-down social order, but the continuities of solidarity, community and resistance that involve the preservation of working class culture in the face of a stupefying and de-politicised mass media, to name just one eroding factor. Ultimately, it is the activity of the people constructing the stage play that provides the most solid continuity across history. This is how both Engels 1844 book and the 2013 stage production/film act as catalysts for working class consciousness, as well as preservers of working class culture. This message produces hope over despair, and insofar as we continue to act to bring about social change and do some good in the world this balance is...

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Bristol Radical Film Festival 2013
Mar22

Bristol Radical Film Festival 2013

The success of the 2012 Bristol Radical Film Festival proved how the demand for socially and politically engaged film hasn’t dwindled, despite attempts by those in power to abstract politics away from the day-to-day lives of the public. The festival showed how film is one of the most powerful tools for education and consciousness raising. Combining screenings with events, talks, workshops and discussions over the course of one week, the main aim in 2012 was to contribute to the establishment of an alternative film network, one that sees film not only as an entertainment medium, but one that that has the ability to transform society through the act of exploring it. After another year of privatisation of healthcare, education and public services in the UK, Bristol Radical Film Festival returned in 2013 to continue this remit. By pooling the collective knowledge and resources of students, university lecturers, activist groups and community projects, the festival expanded in length as well spatially, holding promotional nights at various venues throughout January and February. This culminated in a headline week of events, the climax of which was a weekend that included a workshop on the making of radical film followed by a session of radical shorts, which took place at Bristol’s non-profit cinema, The Cube. Lee Salter introduces Growing Change at Cafe Kino From the end of January until the beginning of the headline week, promotional nights saw a diverse range of films, connecting seemingly disparate issues while showcasing a history of contemporary radical cinema. From Menelik Shabazz’s 1981 drama, Burning an Illusion, the first British film to feature a black female protagonist, to Australian Simon Cunich’s 2012 documentary, Growing Change, a film about independent food production in Venezuela, the festival gained momentum through navigating across various spaces of dissent. These included café basements, community centres, even the backroom of a local bowling alley, all of which became cinemas for an evening. Bristol’s Southbank Centre hosted the first night of the headline week, which saw the British premier of Muchedumbre 30S (Rodolpho Munez, 2012), a fast-paced documentary about the attempted coup that took place in Ecuador in 2010. The film looks at how confusion and chaos are sown by the agents of dominant power to stifle democracy and social change. This theme proved to be recurrent, when on Tuesday the festival returned to women’s refuge, the One25 Project, a community based charity that provides support for sex workers in the city. A packed screening of The Shape of Water (Kum Kum Bhavani, 2006), a documentary on the innovative forms of protest practiced by women in Third World countries, led to a discussion on...

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