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?
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?
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.
October 1, 2007
“The boundaries between the subject, if not the body, and the ‘rest of the world’ are undergoing a radical refiguration, brought about in part through the mediation of technology. ”
Allucquere Rosanne Stone
On-line documentary presentation on YouTube disturbs the public/private binary, like that of the self/other, opening things up to produce combinations inconceivable without the technology. Yet YouTube forecloses the construction of coherent communities and returns production, consumption, and meaning-making to the individual, re-establishing the reign of the self.
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.”
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.
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.
September 20, 2007
“By empowering ordinary people to speak as experts, they question a basic assumption of dominant ideology, that only those already in power, those who have a stake in defending the status quo, are entitled to speak as if they know something.”
Barbara Halpern Martineau
YouTube allows everyone and anyone (with access to the technologies) to speak about everything and anything they please. Alone in a room, caught at a lectern, the much-maligned (confessional) talking-head proves to be the entitlement devise of choice. I speak, you listen, but without context, so who cares, and more critically, then what?