“We were also humans once.” – Homeless Interviewee in Tehran is The Capital of Iran
Ernest Larsen and Shelley Milner’s Disruptive Film project seeks to contribute to an alternative history of political experimental short film, with a focus on the forgotten or under-explored. In this second volume of Disruptive Film, Larsen and Milner have put together a powerful collection of 16 works, spanning 11 countries and 50 years of film history. The collection has been released as a 2-disc box set arranged as two distinct “programs” – Refuse and Refusal and Excavated Histories. These themes work well to tie this diverse set of film together – not quite making connections between a disparate set of works but rather revealing commonalities in struggle that already exists. All of these films illustrate the potential of the moving image to not only speak truth to power, but to exist as radical actions in themselves, in form and content.
The first program of films, Refuse and Refusal uses the very modern idea of “garbage” as a prism for understanding how capitalist societies categorise what is desirable and what isn’t – who has value and who doesn’t? This also extends to concepts of belonging and difference – who is “refused” in society and what are the implications for our humanity? The opening film of this section is Jorge Furtado’s exuberant Ilha Das Flores (Isle of Flowers),a film with the unenviable task of explaining to extraterrestrials the pathology of human beings with regards to the industrialisation of food production – and how the rural poor eat worse than the pigs that are consumed by the urban middle class. This 1989 film is both humorous and sobering (bordering on the depressing when it comes to documentary imagery of human beings scavenging for food on a pig farm) and leaves one wondering what could be done in order to restore a sense of humanity to the way we feed ourselves in a late capitalist world.
Discarded humanity comes to the fore in the Yugoslavian Black Film by Zelimir Zilnik, in which the filmmaker invites 10 homeless men who are “ignored by the socialist government” to sleep in his apartment for two to three days while he attempts to “solve the homeless problem.” Needless to say, Zilnik is unable to do so and comes up with no solutions, despite approaching police officials and everyday citizens on the street for pearls of wisdom. The film highlights the inefficacy of quick fixes and individual philanthropy with regards to structural issues in society, and deeply questions the power of filmmakers to effect any meaningful change.
The theme of human dignity and the state’s refusal thereof continues in Kamran Shidel’s Tehran is the Capital of Iran (1971) which documents everyday hardship in the poorest areas of pre-revolution Iran; and Sylvain George’s Don’t Go Gentle into the Night (2005) the first French film to highlight police raids on undocumented migrants, and a features a spontaneous protest against this police action. Five Dots (2005)by Tomas Ochoa & Andriana Meyer features juvenile inmates in Mendoza, Argentina who perform improvised songs that speak to a sense of freedom and escape, intertwined with recitations of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
Some of the films in the first program deal more literally with refuse as garbage, such as Nicki Hewitt’s In Between (1992) which animates (via stop motion) piles of discarded objects found on the streets of Zagreb, Croatia. The result is a poetic reflection on “private vs. public space, bourgeois taboos of cleanliness, and confrontation with scavengers.” Garbage Newsreel (1968) documents The Lower East Side Anarchist Group’s solidarity with a New York City Sanitation Workers strike by dumping their uncollected garbage at the steps of the then-pristine Lincoln Center. In 1972’s Sweeping Up (Ausfegen) Jurgen Boch documents Joseph Beuys’ “sweeping” performance where he and two students sweep up the mess left behind by demonstrators at a May Day rally on Karl Marx Platz, Berlin. The trash from the streets is then dumped on the floor of Beuys’ gallery. Beuys takes an ambivalent and theoretical stance to the protestors but asserts that ‘the only revolutionary force is art.’
The second set of films, Excavated Histories, seeks to dig beneath the familiar: “Instead of smoothly reconciling us to the way things are, they bring us closer to the risky terrain of unfinished political struggles.” Leandro Katz’s The Day You Will Love Me (1997) is a stirring film that revisits the death of Ernesto Che Guevara by tracking down the Bolivian photographer Freddy Alborta, who photographed Che’s corpse after he was assassinated. Alborta’s striking photographs were distributed around the world and seemed to depict life and beauty in a moment of death and brutal finality. The film is a deep contemplation on myth, death and the power of the still image.
Death is a recurring theme in this collection, and rears itself many times as propped up by state actors. South African agent provocateur Aryan Kaganof’s Threnody for The Victims of Marikana (2014) uses the Marikana massacre (where 34 striking mine workers were brutally killed by South African police) as a lens through which to theorise about South African society, “past and future.” Kaganof intercuts music, academic lectures (which serve as “interruptions”), found footage and news footage of the massacre itself to create a damning indictment of a liberation movement that in transition to government has “internalised terror” and turned on its own people. Kaganof’s incongruent sound editing of gun fire to seemingly banal events provides a deliberately jarring viewing experience, calling us to remember Marikana.
The curators Shelley Milner and Ernest Larsen also have their own film in this collection that deals with police violence on black bodies, this time in the United States. 41 Shots (2000) retells the story of Amadou Diallo, a black immigrant in New York who was shot and killed in vestibule of the Bronx apartment block where he lived. The video essay films 41 vestibules (for every shot fired on Diallo by police) in the “safe” areas of Lower Manhattan where white residents never have to worry about being attacked by the NYPD. Watching this film nearly 20 years after its creation, in the Black Lives Matter era, it’s shocking how little has changed.
What Forocki Taught (1997) by Jill Godmilow is a remake of Harun Farocki’s 1969 film Inextiguishable Fire, which investigates Dow Chemical’s involvement in creating the devastating Napalm B which was used during the Vietnam war. The film is a clear illustration of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” where the production of this chemical warfare is so fragmented that the scientists creating Napalm B are unable to see how their day to day mundanities at the Dow lab are contributing to the horror unfolding on their television screens. Arendt’s conception of banality was birthed in theorising about the Nazi state, and Leslie Thornton’s Minus 6 (2008) showcases unearthed images of Hitler working with a drama coach while listening to one of his speeches. This very short film reminds us that evil is not only banal, it is also rehearsed, and often a well orchestrated performance.
Some of the films in the collection incorporate animation and experimental aesthetic form. Supremist Kapital (2007) by James T. Hong & Yin-Ju Chen frames this collection with a music video style editing of symbols which provide us with “a symbolic history of capital—a symbolic history of the West.” Xochimilco 1914 by Los Viumasters uses the stenographic record of the meeting between Mexican revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata just before they took control over Mexico city. This playful and exuberant film uses a combination of archival photography, drawings as well as cartoon-like animation to highlight this turning point in Mexican history. Lastly, Satyagraha (2009) by Jacques Perconte questions what has become of non-violent protest in a world without Gandhi. Perconte uses the aesthetic of “glitch” and heavily pixelated transitions on top of archival material to present an obfuscation of Gandhian principles today. Unfortunately the film doesn’t seek to complicate Gandhi’s legacy (he was notoriously uncaring towards the needs of subjugated black people in South Africa) but rather reinscribes the familiar saintly narrative of a complicated man.
All of these films, while equally powerful in their own right, work even more strongly as a curated program. Larsen and Milner have excavated gems from both our recent and more distant filmic past so that we may stay awake in our impoverished present, where “Every Resistance To Power” is as necessary as it’s ever been. This collection should serve as strong inspiration to filmmakers and activists who feel alienated and despondent in our late capitalist and neoliberal societies. There is work to be done.