Chicago SCALE Roundtable

November 5, 2007

Two weeks ago, we held a summit on the organizing and distribution possibilities of my documentary, SCALE, generously sponsored by a Chicago feminist media and arts organization and attended by a stellar group of hand-picked women activists, scholars, and organizers. I haven’t been able to write about it until this late date because this was a difficult meeting for me. This is not to say that the participants were un-supportive; they were not. But it is clear that SCALE was, for this group at least, not the “activist film” I had imagined or they had desired. The women in the room expressed that they need from documentary just what my sister has wanted throughout this process (and what she has insisted “activists” would want as well): either an in-depth portrait of the activist, Antonia (how she got there, how she stays there, what she fights for, how she does it), or an illustrated version of her book: a film as easier-to-understand condensation of her critically important ideas, first articulated in words, now in images and with emotion. I will attest that this activist film, the one mine is not, is important, and needed, just not the one I set out to, or even am capable to make. This would be a film that would feed and sustain people who are already working against the war and the Bush Agenda and who need more information, already working and need a pep-talk, already activists and need to see more like themselves on the screen for self-sustaining purposes.

The women in the room were uncomfortable with, or uninterested in the film’s sister-tension (the personal nature of the drama) and self-reflection (its focus on the media rather than Antonia’s ideas as expressed through the media). My departures from Antonia’s ideas were understood to be overly “theoretical,” “abstract,” or “obscure.” Complicatedly, however, it is the documentary’s self-reflexive quality about the state of the left, in relation to media, activism, organizing, and the relations between the personal and the political, which most seems to impress those who are moved by the film. This satisfied viewership understands the film as “activist” in how it allows us to see and talk about the left, activism, and the media with a new formal and verbal vocabulary (that of SCALE).
Which is all to say, that the workshop, although of course personally painful for me, was incredibly illuminating both about the film (how and for who it functions), and about a deep, abiding and defining split within the left about the best form and function of information, action, images and ideas in our media age. If you hate the film, you probably believe that direct action and organizing are what matters if we are ever going to make a change in this society; and if you love the film you are probably less convinced that such actions continue to matter, as you are also self-consciously debating where power lies in a society where individual action seems to have been subsumed by corporate control and media, and what that leaves as a possibility for you to do… Is the left best served by simply doing more stuff, louder, more effectively or does the left need to re-group, re-consider, and talk amongst ourselves about what has and has not worked, and what will and will not work as the conditions of power continue to change?

Are pep-talks, feeling good, and getting smarter the only way to inspire activism, or could activism come from self-scrutiny and uncertainty? Does navel-gazing waste our precious time? What do we gain and lose when we don’t speak directly, supplying much-needed information, but rather talk about the state of information itself? What is the use for formal and intellectual complexity about our current state when the current state is itself so bad?

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#1 SCALE screening

October 11, 2007

On Thursday, October 4, we had our first work-in-progress screening of SCALE fro a friendly audience at the Claremont Colleges, where I teach. Antonia made it, as did representatives of various local anti-war groups, who spoke about their efforts before the screening began.

The most interesting aspect of the Q and A at this screening mirrors a theme of the documentary: its interest in divisions within the left about the form and function of education or information in relation to social change. Many in the audience were there (understandably) to hear Antonia speak truth, facts, and analysis to power, something she does very well, and for which she has a following. While this does happen, in small parts, in the documentary, it is, in fact, not really a documentary about Antonia’s book and its ideas, as much as it is about the concept of scale, and how Antonia’s book, ideas, and experiences trying to sell and impart them demonstrate the contradictions of ramping up numbers, attention, and exposure. Thus, some in the audience were pleased to see a self-reflexive documentary raising questions of tactics, effectivity, organizing strategies, and the role of the media and celebrity in contemporary politics, just as Antonia’s fans thought this was a diversion from the real stuff.

Discussion centered around whether the left should be educating itself with facts, or whether we have already heard these facts; or should we be navel-gazing, and re-thinking strategies, as well as our flaws and strengths?

Finally, the highly personal nature of the questions asked to Antonia and I (rather than political) threw Antonia, and it is seems good she has some practice before the show really goes on the road. People asked her questions she has never heard before: abo0ut her spiritual beliefs or our family. And afterwards, we talked together about how my feminism, and a commitment to the personal, is fundamentally different from her more straightforward commitment to the “political.” This is really another vocabulary to think about the differences in knowledge production, and political strategy raised above, and I am certain that these tensions will define the life and reception of the film.

Editing SCALE 3

September 27, 2007

August 8, 2007

Back home after a month in Columbus OH defined, in the end, by the concerns addressed in my earlier posts: what it means to be an artist-on-my-own and how I can be true to my own uncertainties and also my sister’s fortitude. Home again in Pasadena with one-hour documentary in hand, I hope that I may have succeeded. I want to believe that SCALE accomplishes multiple, self-nourishing goals:

SCALE ricoches and reflects between the power and limitations of the small and large. My muddy and sloppy camera reveals complexity and feeling while the smooth operations of Robbie’s camera give the world a gloss that is convincing and familiar. Both have power. And that’s not even going to Oprah.

SCALE links the personal and the political, insisting that what happens between people (emotions, ideas, trust, betrayal, power, kindness) mirrors and combats the largest operations of dominance and control in our world (war, wealth, politics).

SCALE believes that small things, the things regular people do in the space of their own lives and through the reach of their own actions, do have effect. Although the doc would never presume to be able to measure such effect.

SCALE believes that groups of people magnify the power explained above. Although, again, the doc would never deign to calculate the scale of such power.

I hope the documentary can be used for organizing, both naming for people through the awesome words of my sister some of the crimes of the Bush regime, and pointing them towards avenues of action including writing, speaking, demonstrating, and making media. I hope the documentary will challenge people to think about the role of their own activism and action in the media age.

Editing SCALE 2

September 17, 2007

July 16, 2007. It has been a really great first week. I have been editing with concentration and fervor helped and abetted by the Wexner’s master editor, Paul Hill. We’ve made huge headway, primarily humanizing the piece by adding more of me. And letting me take some of the emotional slack. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put in more of Antonia’s amazing optimism and energy, as the story had become more and more about how she was captured by the intrigue of the limelight, and less and less about how she continued to do the hard work of being smart and on and present and committed even for that short while when she also though the book might become a bestseller.

While I am certain I will finish the film, and assured that it will be better then when I came, and close to all I want to say, my real fear at this stage is that I am not a powerful enough artist to kick it up to that final stage that this work deserves. And, of course, this is linked to SCALE because while I have always chosen for my work to remain small, primarily out of theoretical and political and artistic commitments to what happens when real people make small work about and within communities they belong, I have also not expanded my scale because I gave up on the endless exhaustion and humiliation of fund-raising, pitching, and altering my work and self to fill other’s agendas. And then, frankly, as much as I have resisted this waste of time, pulling me from the issue at hand and the pleasure of working, I’ve never been that good or capable at the pitch, the schmoozing. I get self-conscious and embarrassed. I’d rather be aloof, outside this humiliating economy. Finally, there’s always the strong possibility that I can’t get funding—slogging away at grant apps, floundering at meetings with commissioning officers—because I’m just not really good enough.

While my world view—that everyone can and should be able to express their ideas about themselves and their world—supports that everyone, including me, deserves the grace of self-expression, I do also believe in innate talent. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Self-trained in video; never a “real” artist; I hit against a wall that is my innate creativity (or lack thereof), often. Also, of course, I’m too intellectual to be a good artist. And probably too dogmatic, and out of touch with regular Americans, not to mention disdainful of the media traditions that make most people comfortable. I’ve sat here in the small mostly because it’s where I should be: reaching the audience to whom I can speak, a limited crowd interested in the ideas and values that concern me which include

-the relevance of small, personal work and activism and the real voices of real people not pundits

-the fact that getting bigger corrupts, exhausts, and punishes and that staying small allows for an attention to inter-personal ethics

-and the fact that these ideas seem hopelessly out-dated, some kind of nostalgic homage to a ’60s that was never this good anyways, and are downright ineffective against the new kinds of fast, huge, networks of corporate power that rule us.

On SCALE

September 14, 2007

“SCALE: Ending the BUSH AGENDA in the Media Age”
A documentary video by Alexandra Juhasz featuring Antonia Juhasz; 60 mins, 2007

In a time of illicit war, unchecked corporate greed, and a presidential regime that supports such indecencies, two sisters take the media into their own hands seeking change. Antonia writes a potential anti-Bush bestseller for a mainstream publisher and goes on a corporate book tour. Alex documents her sister’s “scale-shift,” following Antonia’s ups and downs on the road. Divisions and connections between the sisters mirror those within the left itself, as the sisters experience the power of individual action, media attention, and grassroots movements for social justice.

What is SCALE?

The SCALE distinctions of our time are not merely an effect of ready access to capital, but of the linked availability of celebrity, media, mobility of information, immensity of attention, capacity to network, and access to others with similar power.

SCALE is about the rampant and seemingly uncheckable expansion of dimension for those who have power—be they corporations, this nation, the corporate media, or the elites who run and profit from them—and whether there is an associated diminishment of scale for the rest of us.

What is the worth of local action in this system that values global attention?
What is the meaning of small-scale decency in the face of international greed?
How do we map and calculate the might, reach and effect of collective work for change? How must the nature of social action and political organizing transform to meet the awesome enormity of global corporate media might?

Can we end the BUSH AGENDA?

THE BUSH AGENDA, by Antonia Juhasz for ReganBooks, HarperCollins Publishers, exposes the Bush Administration’s use of corporate globalization policy as a weapon of war in Iraq, the Middle East—through the U.S. Middle East Free Trade Area and the Iraq Oil Law—and across the world as it builds a Pax Americana. Tracing 25 years of corporate globalization policy, it reveals the history and key role of U.S. corporations in the creation of the Bush Agenda, focusing on Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, Chevron, and Halliburton. It concludes with specific achievable alternatives for a more peaceful and sustainable course.More info on antonia’s site: http://www.thebushagenda.net and mine: http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/~ajuhasz/

On editing SCALE 1

September 13, 2007

July 8, 2007.

Arrived this afternoon, a Sunday, to my new residential digs: a sweet, slightly dilapidated two-bedroom apartment in an aging brick complex in a slightly funky but very livable part of Columbus Ohio, two miles from the University, or so I’ve been told.

I’ve not been alone in this way, as a grown up woman, as an artist, as a single person, since 1997, when my ex and I spent our summer apart—she in London, me in NY—deciding if we should be a couple; if we should have a baby. Our first child was born 7 months later, another following 16 months after that. As I said, I’ve been in a couple, or a Mom—in a group, servicing others—ever since. I do my art on the side. In the crevices. I know myself and my thoughts through other’s needs and schedules. No complaints. This makes life more complex, and really, takes one off the hook.

But here I am, eating alone: so hard to choose what to eat if one’s tastes and not one’s seven year old’s organize the meal… SO much time, too: to read, write, run, swim, write this first blog, concentrate on the work.

And that this is: a blog on the completion of “SCALE: Ending the BUSH AGENDA in the Media Age,” a documentary I‘ve been working on for two years, and intend to complete during my month here, by hell or high water.

And while the preamble about my children may seem off base from the political documentary I’m hoping to finish, it is in fact, a huge part of the story (of the making of the doc, and of the doc itself), because it at once highlights the real conditions of my attempts at self- and political expression, the daily and mundane constraints on real women like me, as it also marks one of the profound links and breaking points (one of many) between myself and my sister Antonia: and these are what the documentary is about. Antonia has no children (although she wants them and is amazing with them) and hence she can be a full-time activist, making too-little money, working and living too-hard, putting herself on the line. I am more bourgois, even as our political leanings are pretty close: found on America’s far-far left. Because I have a kid to raise, a mortgage to pay, my actions in the world and in my art are limited; my desires are organized for me. I am much more like regular Americans, I think, in my self-satisfied relations to home, stuff, kids and family, then Antonia could ever be. Of course, this lady-leftist sometimes-lesbian, decidedly feminist, probably socialist professor and artist that I am established me as pretty little like most Americans, but I’m closer to the heart beat than my sister.

Which explains some of my pain and uncertainty at this late and final stage of my documentary. My reticence. My certainty that the old ways have failed us as the new world order quiets and contains us, with all its yummy and easy to acquire stuff, the pay off for the bad things that produce it and the bad people who get rich from it. So that we find ourself in a bargain of their construction and our acquiescence: protest don’t seem to end things, real people don’t seem to make significant change, the forces we fight are bigger and meaner then ever. And still I march.

But Antonia. Well. She has the room and the time and the heart to believe. And given that her attention is in the right place—not stuck on all those creature comforts, TVs and SUVs—her biggest indulgence is endless lattes and too much beer. She thinks people can still do it: stop wars, speak to and be heard by global corporations, change things to become like we want and know them to be. She’s living a romantic off-beat life; and maybe she’s right.

My documentary is about this battle between us (among other things). And over the next month I will try to see if I can express the ways we both know this war is wrong, but are less sure about what to do with that knowledge. All the while, saying what I feel without alienating her, or exposing too much about her, and with the sensitivity that close relations demand.

My greatest fear and concern is that she will not like, or even worse, sign off on the documentary. I have a month to make it speak my story about activism in the media age, without betraying her trust, and being true to what she also believes and experiences.