How can political cinema continue to advance the aims of activists today while avoiding assimilation into the spectacle? An interview with Michael Chanan.
Michael Chanan, renowned academic and filmmaker, sits in his office next to a ‘Soy Cuba’ film poster. “Yes I am an old Marxist,” he says letting out a chuckle, “and have no compunction in saying so.” A born and bred Londoner he fell in love with the culture and cinema of Latin America in his 20s. Over his career he’s published a range of books on politics, film and music. As a documentary filmmaker his work dates back to the early 70s where he started making films for the BBC. Later he worked for Channel 4 directing films on Latin America.
Yet it was the coming of the digital age which opened up the ability for him to take control of the means of production. This meant that he could film and edit inexpensively as well as utilising the visual archive that the Internet has become. What appears from this process are rough edged, oppositional films full of voices rarely heard in the mainstream media. There is a vitality to this DIY aesthetic that defies the polished and perfectionist nature of a filmic culture which all too often fetishizes style over content.
His films often aim to provide a platform for those who have been marginalised by the present socio-economic system and global order. For example in Detroit, Ruin of a City, he gives a people’s history of this once prosperous metropolis. In Chronicle of Protest, he follows the growing movement of activists fighting government-imposed austerity measures in the UK. Whereas in Interrupted Memory Argentinians and Chileans describe their lived experience of political repression through answering the question: ‘what is your first political memory?’
Chanan’s method is greatly influenced by the idea of ‘imperfect cinema’, a concept put forward in 1969 by Cuban essayist and director Julio García Espinosa. Chanan cites For an Imperfect Cinema as one of the key manifestos of new Latin American Cinema and equates its importance to that of Toward a Third Cinema by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas. As Chanan explains to me, “like Third Cinema, it’s oppositional which also means very clearly political and anti imperialist. It is directed against Hollywood, what Getino and Solanas, in their essay, call First Cinema; industrial cinema, blockbuster cinema.”
In his book Cuban Cinema (2004) Chanan describes how the themes within García Espinosa’s essay inspired a generation of avant-garde Cuban filmmakers from the late 60s and 70s onwards. For proponents of ‘imperfect cinema’ the drive towards a perfect aesthetic form was seen as highly problematic. As Chanan writes in The Oxford History of World Cinema (1997), “not only is the attempt to match the production values of the big commercial movie a waste of resources […] but there is more to be gained by engaging the audience directly and with a sense of urgency, roughness included. The aim is what Umberto Eco, in another context, calls the open work, which refuses to fix its meanings and thus invites the active participation of the audience.” Imperfect cinema attempts to harness an aesthetic that cannot be assimilated into what Guy Debord termed ‘the spectacle’.
Imperfect cinema attempts to harness an aesthetic that cannot be assimilated into what Guy Debord termed ‘the spectacle’. These works radically shift from the pristine and accepted formulation of visual content to avoid what many saw as an effort to distract people from their actual surroundings. The rawness of imperfect cinema negates the glamour of technical perfection and instead focuses on the gritty reality that exists in everyday life. Though of course as Chanan states in Cuban Cinema, it would be absurd to consider this thesis as meaning that perfection via technical means necessarily prevents a film’s political effectiveness. It is more that the single-minded pursuit of such an aim, especially at the time in Cuba, plays into the hands of imperialism.
Behind the concept of ‘imperfect cinema’, was the visionary idea that filmmaking will stop being the privilege of a select few. As García Espinosa writes in his 1969 essay, the future holds “the possibility for everyone to make films” in part because video technology, which was just starting to develop, might make “possible as never before the active presence of the masses in social life.”
This is something that became more fully realised over the 1990s. As video analogue cassettes became mass-produced and without the need to process celluloid film, costs lowered. Furthermore, the sensitivity range of video meant that filmmakers using it could work with less lighting if need be. With video technology moving from cumbersome portapac to the all-in-one camcorder, this new mobility also added to the ease of use.
Video, as Chanan tells me, additionally became used in a Chilean context because during the dictatorship it could avoid the surveillance innate in the processing of film. As Chanan says “Film on film and it has to go to a laboratory. Video doesn’t.” This new medium then freed up filmmakers to secretly document the treatment of citizens under Pinochet.
In García Espinosa’s essay he hopes that imperfect cinema will “enable spectators to transform themselves into agents — not merely more active spectators, but genuine co-authors.” In this way, archives of film, TV and now the Internet can also be seen as crucial to overcoming spectatorship. This is because digital technology can allow one to radically utilise works of the spectacle against itself. Using elements of perfect cinema or the spectacle to show up contradictions is a technique Chanan uses a great deal.
As he says: “The point is that the evidence of the political world, let’s say, or the economic world, is not just there in what you find when you go out and film. It’s also there all the time on the web. And I use it.”
Pulling open the Secret City
Chanan has an approach to filmmaking which often offers interviews and shots filmed on location and punctuated by footage from YouTube or online; what Chanan calls “memory traces”. Utilising the web as an archive Chanan places these found images over various coloured backgrounds giving a cut and paste feel that often feels more aesthetically aligned to a punk DIY motif than a Marxist professor. “You’re pulling in material from that parallel world which is the Internet.” He tells me, “I do it in Secret City a lot. In fact, the City of London is only there when it speaks for itself through its own corporate video.”
Secret City (2012), directed by Chanan and co-produced with Lee Salter, was made over the time of the Occupy London Stock Exchange protests. It's a film that strikes at the heart of neo-liberalism, uncovering key truths about the City of London Corporation and its role in the economic crisis. In order to do this it draws out the clandestine nature of the City’s activities via interviews, found footage and through engagement with the Occupy movement itself. It provides a history of the City’s development, its archaic laws and how these became utilised by the financial elite.
Like many of his other films, Secret City begins by questioning a basic assumption. In its opening shots, by the Houses of Parliament, passers-by are asked how one can get to the City of London. The response is of course rather confused. Are we not in London, many question. This initial sequence acts as an entry point to a number of interviews, which give the history of this quasi city-state, its relationship to the beginnings of capitalism and its current workings as a key node in the global economic structure.
During the film we become enmeshed in the world of those who are protesting against the City. An Occupy London Stock Exchange activist gives a guided tour which is interspersed throughout the film. We hear from Rev. William Taylor, a left wing priest who was elected to represent a city ward in order to promote change from the inside. Both Natalie Bennett and John McDonnell appear in the film. The fact that, in the years after this film came out, one became leader of the Green party and the other the Shadow Chancellor is a testament to how Secret City caught something about the political mood few could see. The fact that... one became leader of the Green party and the other the Shadow Chancellor is a testament to how Secret City caught something about the political mood few could see.
Chanan uses archive footage to draw out the faceless and secretive nature of the City of London, giving space for his contributors to hold the Corporation to account. Yet rather than provide closure through glib solutions, Secret City works to highlight current power relations and the attempts people have made to disrupt these. In essence it asks its audience to take political ownership of this knowledge and use it to inform future radical engagements.
Owning the means of distribution?
Like a Mobius strip, Chanan is aware of how his films themselves will become part of the same digital archive they utilise. On one hand they infiltrate this space, providing a place for narratives which are left behind. In this way his films are a radical intervention into online public discourse. And yet, on the other hand, Chanan’s work becomes entangled in something that is itself part of a new kind of spectacle. The idea that future technology would provide the key to a space for revolutionary cinema has problems, not least because of the platforms that have developed on the web.
As Chanan states: “the problem isn’t production, its distribution.” Online, within spaces such as Youtube, Chanan’s work sits alongside videos of people’s pets, teenage consumer vloggers and music videos full of product placement. “It’s uncontrollable,” Chanan says, “so where does political film fit into that?”
For Chanan the pressures to fit the criteria of what circulates via social media can stop some online film from becoming what he calls “a more articulated form of political discourse.” He continues, “on the Internet you are competing against a minute of a cat doing something funny and all sorts of other stuff which reaches millions of people. And it certainly pulls documentary in a certain direction as well. So if everything is reduced to 50 seconds of video then it also runs the risk of becomes stereotyped and clichéd.”
Chanan sees a refusal to conform to the aesthetic form imposed by social media as incredibly important. After all, platform such as YouTube and Facebook are still owned by private transnational corporations even if they can be used as spaces of public debate. This oppositional and sometimes contradictory interaction with these video distribution portals is one that most political filmmakers have had to come to terms with. It is not that short and snappy video can't, or should try to, have an impact. The point is how far these forms attempt to incorporate filmmakers into a dialogue which works for the benefit of corporate online business models, rather than what is genuinely in the public interest.
One can think of numerous examples in the last few years where images have spawned public engagement from Occupy through to #blacklivesmatter and the Syrian refugee crisis. The short and sometimes even still images that helped to spark further real world action are, of course, of great use in a political struggle. What Chanan is considering is where cinema might be able to play its role, and how it can use aspects of the online to aid resistance while negating the parts that add to the spectacle.
For Chanan, the Internet still has a radical potentiality as long as its content and platforms can be used to invert the market logic that created them. “In other words," he says, "what we were talking about in the 60s and 70s remains true. An oppositional cinema - meaning something that the system can’t stomach.” "What we were talking about in the 60s and 70s remains true. An oppositional cinema - meaning something that the system can’t stomach.”
But this oppositional ideal becomes difficult within a business model online that works via the exploitation of users and their data regardless of one's ideological standpoint or that of their content. Google harvests your data regardless of whether your film is pro or anti capitalist. Adverts appear on the side of the screen whether they are for Marx's Kapital or Hayek’s Individualism and Economic Order. Amazon are happy to sell you either. The point for Chanan is to avoid assimilation as far as possible. To create further building blocks of dissent which fracture the narratives that are used by those in power to explain the age of austerity.
Counter narratives on and offline
Important for Chanan is how cinema works both on and offline to build a counter narrative that cannot be easily co-opted. This is encapsulated in the process of distribution used by Chanan for Secret City, one he hopes to replicate for his new film Money Puzzles.
In their article Secret City: A reception diary (2016), Chanan and his collaborator Lee Salter detail how they used an approach to social media and the web which attempted to find an “audience-in-waiting”. For their purposes the Internet, as they put it, “becomes the crucial means for making links with cultural, community and campaign groups and thereby organising the public screenings through which the film finds an audience and enters into dialogue with them around the issues.”
This ability to weave a path though online and offline space is crucial for the kind of dialogue Chanan wanted to have around the film. The film screenings, which took place across the country, were not just seen as the end point of an artistic process where filmmakers show their work to a silent audience, but as the beginning of a conversation around the issues tackled in the film. They were a consciousness-raising exercise intended to inform and inspire its audience. As Chanan and Salter state: “For our part, we followed the old practice of independent film since the 1970s where the filmmaker goes out on the road.” This meant that at almost every screening at least one of the filmmakers attended and led a discussion at the end.
Equally, as they explain, the activists who featured in the film felt invested in it to the extent that, “they saw their involvement as an extension of their own political objectives.” This meant that as quasi co-authors many from the Occupy movement helped to extend the reach of the film through setting up their own screenings and advertising existing ones to their individual networks.
Chanan explains to me that in the past he has been criticised for taking this approach. In the 80s, when he was on the road with a film about the guerrilla war in El Salvador he had an encounter which summed this up. “So somebody came along from local radio and interviewed me and came up with the obvious question – aren’t you just preaching to the converted? And I found myself replying, but the converted also need to be informed.”
Chanan adds: “But what it also means is that the direct relationship you can have with an audience is exactly what you are after. I think what I found mainly as we were taking the film around the country was that it wasn’t just Occupy as such who were engaging with the film. It taught me that the sentiments which had fed into and sustained Occupy were not limited to a small group of activists in London, but could be found all around the country. In that sense the engagement that I found, prepared the ground for not being all that surprised about Momentum, although actually it was indeed a huge surprise.”
His latest film Money Puzzles, attempts to provide a starting point for people to discuss collectivised alternatives to our present monetary system. Much of the film examines the regimes of austerity that have grown across the continent as well as the social protest movements which have faced these off. Those radical movements examined in the film include solidarity volunteers in Greece, anti-eviction activists in Spain, European advocates of a citizens’ debt audit and the proponents of complementary currencies in the UK.
Through Money Puzzles, as well as many of his other films, Chanan attempts to amplify the voice of the disenfranchised and those who dissent. He develops a tacit trust with his contributors that allow him to gain insights and elicit responses that might otherwise be lost. As he discovered:
“People were happy to speak their piece, because they identified that we were not broadcast media or whatever. They could see that we were participants in the action that they were involved in.”
Through this independence Chanan embeds himself within these movements, depicting their struggle and showing a humanity which seems to be lost in mainstream political debate. “When a collectivity takes over a space,” Chanan says with a glint in his eye, “then the dynamic in that space also changes. And you can be there with a camera and you’re being welcomed in as part of that group, as part of that collectivity.”
Chanan has just started a screening tour of Money Puzzles, engaging with people on issues of debt ‘forgiveness’ and the present conception of money. While David Graeber, Keith Hart and others write extremely well about this in the discipline of Anthropology, the visual medium of film is used by Chanan as a kind of hot spot for knowledge transfer. Here, the film screening itself acts as a starting point to discuss routes out of the current political crisis.
Collectivising space doesn’t stop for Chanan when the camera shuts off. That is only the beginning.
For more information about Money Puzzles and for future showings see here.