Heroism

November 27, 2007

I recently attended the festival screening of my friend, Ellen Spiro’s amazing documentary, “Body of War,” which she shot and directed with Phil Donahue (yes that Phil Donahue). It was a beautifully made, inspiring, and tear-provoking portrait of one man seriously injured in the Iraq war who returned home to the country he served to become a vocal activist against the war. It is also, explicitly, a film about Heroism, as this young man’s efforts are paralleled across the film by those of Senator Robert Byrd, one of the few politicians in Washington who had the courage (or heroism) to speak up, and vote against this illicit War.

Ellen and I come from the same school of political documentary: we both began in AIDS activist video, and moved into “queer” media quickly thereafter. Although, outside my participation in “The Watermelon Woman,” it would be important to note that Ellen has had a much more successful career, at least if you note the prestigious venues, awards, and airings of her documentaries (all of which have ended on PBS or HBO, I think).

Thus, when I sat in a theater, moved by her filmmaking, and the man’s story it so clearly told, while surrounded by a diverse audience equally aroused, I thought a lot about political filmmaking tactics, and what her film is doing, mine (SCALE) is not, and what that means for documentary and (anti-war) activism.

Baldly stated: her film uses heroism to its greatest advantage while mine deconstructs it. And please do understand me. I LIKE her film; more than that, I’d warrant her film is ultimately more effective for activism–or at least that’s what I’d like to consider here–because it uses tried and true structures, narratives, and feelings to move people. The film is melodramatic (it relies on issues turned into big emotions), simple (it reduces large and complex politics issues to the lived experiences of one person), and believes in the hero (the regular or regal man whose courage creates change). Meanwhile, by comparison, SCALE is distancing (its focus on the media and its own processes as media remind you that the characters are constructions of the filmmaker, also a character), complex (it refuses to come down on what it believes are the correct tactics for the left and instead considers the range of tactics and disagreements about tactics evidenced along Antonia’s tour), and is uncertain about the effects of heroism (or celebrity) on the individual or the movement. Ellen’s film leaves you weeping and inspired, while I imagine, mine leaves you thinking and riled.

And here I am, yet again on these pages, looking at tactics and individuals (on the left; of activism) that are in seeming opposition to each other, even as the cause remains the same, and the goals, and even the analysis. Yet we can not agree, at this time, on what is to be done. Should our films be didactic and emotional, or erudite and intellectual? What is the happy medium, or should we be making them all, letting them speak to each other, and speaking our opposition in the many languages we speak, and the many structures that can hold it?

Slogan Nine

September 28, 2007

“The more we assert our own identities as historically marginalized groups, the more we expose the tyranny of a so-called center.”
Pratibha Parmar

YouTube serves the de-centering mandate of post-identity politics by creating a logic of dispersal and network. Yet it fails to re-link these fragments in any rational or sustaining way. There is no possibility to make collectives through its architecture. Information can not become knowledge without a map, a structure, and an ethics.

Slogan Eight

September 24, 2007

“What is in question is not the expression of some lost origin or some uncontaminated essence in black film-language but the adoption of a critical voice that promotes consciousness of the collision of cultures and histories that constitute our very conditions of existence.”
Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer

On-line media presentation should promote critical reading practices as well as liberated voices explicating the conditions, including media practices, that are necessary to engender this freedom. YouTube is defined by empty and endless collisions unlinked from culture, history, context, author, or intention. Collision without consciousness.

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.

Slogan Five

September 10, 2007

“The cinema of revolution is at the same time one of destruction and construction: destruction of the image that neo-colonialization has created of itself and us, and construction of a throbbing, living reality which recaptures truth in its expression.”Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas

If presented with paltry, ludicrous, distracting uses of a medium as its norm, we must model its life-affirming, idea-stimulating, community-enabling applications. YouTube documentaries primarily replay, refer to, de-construct and re-construct mainstream media or other distractions or parentheses from daily life: kittens, comedians, clips-already-aired. YouTube registers a state of media post-colonialization where many of technology’s new makers won’t think past the society’s quieting confections. “Just as they are not masters of the land upon which they walk, the neo-colonized people are not masters of the ideas that envelop them,” Getino and Solanas theorize about Third Cinema in terms of haunting similarity to those which might describe the images of our place and time.

Slogan Four

September 5, 2007

“Q: How do you explain the camera as a gun? A: Well, ideas are guns. A lot of people are dying from ideas and dying for ideas. A gun is a practical idea.
An idea is a theoretical gun.” Jean Luc Godard

The construction and dissemination of ideas, even “theory,” are critical to a project of cultural transformation. Non-specialists must contribute theory for transformation to be tenable. The comments application on YouTube radically opens access for the sharing of words but currently limits theorizing’s gun-potential through downsizing and dumbing-down, i.e. “hahahahaha.” An idea is a ludicrous pun.

Slogan three

September 3, 2007

“I will give you my definition of art: art is ‘making.'”
Jean Renoir

YouTube creates a platform for non-professional, democratic media production. Open the floodgates, and it’s true, everyone is an artist, people make in numbers unprecedented in cinema’s history.