Reflections on a Committed Cinema

An e-mail dialogue between John Gianvito, Paul Chan and Pablo de Ocampo

Coming up on its 50th year, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar has established itself as a unique institution in the film community. Every June, more than 100 filmmakers, curators, critics, librarians and students come together for seven days of viewing and discussing contemporary and historical film and video work. The selection of John Gianvito as this year's curator gave me an especially good reason to attend for the first time. His program, "Witnessing the World," addressed this question: In the face of the grave social, environmental and political challenges that beset the world, "what is a filmmaker to do?" Works included ranged from Robert Flaherty's The Land (1942), a film essay commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to Now Let Us Praise American Leftists, a new media work by Paul Chan that uses FACE, a computer application that creates composite pictures of criminals and suspects for wanted posters, to address the homogeneity of radical movements in America.

When I returned from the seminar, the question of what to do receded before the more perplexing question of how to do it. Is it possible for filmmakers to effect real change? I asked John and Paul if they would discuss this question with me via e-mail.

–Pablo de Ocampo

DE OCAMPO: In many ways, the Flaherty Seminar left me feeling I need to reevaluate how I define art and politics, so as to better understand how the two work together. At the same time, I'm struck with Paul Chan's oft-cited statement from early that week that politics and art have nothing to do with each other.

GIANVITO: My recollection is that Paul was referring to his personal choice to split his direct political activity from his art practice. In any event, I know that I greeted folks on the first evening sporting Brecht's quote on my lapel: "Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it," clearly laying out my own conviction that art can indeed have a direct and tangible impact on the world around us. Of course, the difficulty sets in when one seeks to quantify this impact.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum cited a few examples, including Rosetta, by Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, which inspired a law that raised the minimum wage for teenagers in Belgium, specifically known as the Rosetta law. I can also mention Jorge Sanjines' explosive The Blood of the Condor, which effectively prompted the removal of the Peace Corps from Bolivia, or Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, which led to the acquittal of Randall Adams for murder. Certainly many other instances exist.

Less quantifiable are those works of art that "plough and harrow the soul" as Tarkovsky put it and under whose influence change unfolds. The profound humanism in the work of this year's senior guest filmmakers, Tran Van Thuy and Noriaki Tsuchimoto, affects me practically on a molecular level. The unique sensitivity with which these directors approached their subjects succeeded in breaking through my own layers of defense, reawakening an appreciation for people's capacity to retain their humanity in the face of indescribable injustice.

Obviously, art and politics can maintain separate tracks, with separate agendas. But art can be imbued with a political dimension, with a desire to be of service to one's neighbors. And within the arena of politics, forms of artistic expression can be entwined. Wasn't Abbie Hoffman often as inspiring as a theatrical performer as he was a political instigator? And, as Robert Flaherty marveled, what is Picasso's Guernica if not an expression of confronting the harshest realities of one's time with the piercing weaponry of art?

DE OCAMPO: Yes, Paul's comment was the point of much misinterpretation (myself included!), but I felt it was very well said, and much like his two videos screened at the seminar, RE:THE_OPERATION and Now Let Us Praise American Leftists ,that statement pushes me to ask questions just as much as it answers them. Paul describes his own work as having "excessive form" and perhaps that is why, as a filmmaker working in the avant-garde tradition, I am drawn to it. Noriaki Tsuchimoto's films have that same appeal in his simple and elegant camera-work but also in this sense of humanity that you mentioned–he holds it so close and treats it so delicately. His interactions with subjects struck me as some of the most profound and memorable moments of filmmaking that I saw at the seminar. His sheer commitment to the subject of Minamata disease, 16 films made over 35 years, spoke of his dedication both as an artist and an activist.

The question that I come up against is the case of the filmmaker having a lack of form, where the camera becomes only a tool and the maker gives little regard to the way in which s/he uses it. For me, this work inevitably suffers and the message is frequently lost. As much as I greatly admire the idea of Indymedia and Free Speech TV, a good deal of the work that comes out of it leaves me with very little. But does that make it ineffective?

CHAN: Two quick things:

1. We have to be careful about the idea of tools and transparent form. There is no media(ated) form that does not posit a "particular" reality. Indymedia and Free Speech TV practice a particular form that has to do with the history and aesthetic (I think) of testimony. This binds their form (whether it's video, audio or Web) to a kind of "literality," which, if practiced correctly, would reveal a kind of truth through its fidelity to the telling of history. But, as we all know, in Adorno's words "the literal is barbaric."

2. On the other hand, the value of political use in groups like Indymedia and FSTV does not come from the exploration of form. It's in education and organizing. So it's a bit unfair (but well-founded) to ask them to be more like artists and less like activists. Having been in the trenches of Indymedia NYC for two years, I know what I thought about wasn't whether or not our videos and Web sites could complicate the views on globalization or racism so the forms themselves would embody the paradoxes and tensions and in doing so give people space to think about them. It was to get the message out about this demo or that workshop–empowering people to use media to communicate, consolidate constituencies and forge social power. Again, to quote Adorno, "Just as art cannot be, and never was, a language of pure feeling, not a language of the affirmation of the soul, neither is it for art to pursue the results of ordinary knowledge, as, for instance, in the form of social documentaries that are to function as down payments on empirical research yet to be done." Art's role is not the messenger for social movements. Art is the dream (or the nightmare) that haunts those movements. And if it is any good, it is both.

GIANVITO: Does disinterest in form, in camerawork, in "artistry," make political film less effective? Among the work screened at the Flaherty were two works by British filmmaker Franny Armstrong, McLibel: Two Worlds Collide and Drowned Out. While each piece no doubt had its admirers, I heard critical comments in regards to Franny's conventionality of form, to which she responded, "It is not what happens during a film that matters but what happens after it's over." She spoke of the enormous exposure McLibel has had (still available freely streaming on the Web) and felt it played its own humble role in the worldwide efforts to curb McDonald's business practices, citing the news that this was the first year in their history that their profit share declined. She said she aimed to have her work reach as wide an audience as possible and stated, with regard to the style of Drowned Out , that given the gravity of the situation, the limited time she had to shoot and this overarching aim to get the word out, she did not feel comfortable playing around with the form.

While it's easier for me perhaps to imagine a different aesthetic approach to the subject of the Narmada Dam project, I myself was struggling to envision an approach to the telling of the McLibel trial that might raise the film to the level of art. I thought as well about Joseph Strick's powerful and straightforward Interviews with My Lai Veterans. Could there be subject matter that does not lend itself to the approach of the artist? Would the mere presence of the aesthetic take something away from the power (political and otherwise) of such noble acts of bearing witness (an intention and a question confronted by every Indymedia documentarian as they record each rally, speech, riot)? As I pondered these questions, the answer came to me from out of the work itself, in the figure of Arundahti Roy (who appears intermittently in Drowned Out). In recent years Roy has emerged as one of the most eloquent and impassioned critics of globalization and of the abuses of power. Through her writings and her talks, her distinct voice gives ample evidence that journalistic prose (just as journalistic filmmaking) can aspire to and attain the level of poetry and, what's more, that such poetry can reach and resonate within the spirits of thousands of people throughout the world. I love Paul's statement that art is no messenger but rather a disquieting and inspiring dream to prod and pummel us, to shoulder and embolden us, that we may keep our heads up on the struggle forward. Such accomplishment is, to my thinking, art at its most utilitarian.

DE OCAMPO: I think the point I find myself more concerned with is, does interest in form, camera-work and "artistry" make a film and video politically ineffective? Travis Wilkerson's An Injury to One creates a historical analysis of unions, labor, corporate mining and environmental catastrophe; Wilkerson takes this material and puts it into a carefully thought-out and artfully executed form. My general perception of the piece among Flaherty participants was quite positive. On the other hand, in screening this piece to a Portland audience of activists (as opposed to film enthusiasts), I overheard more than a few grumblings on the way out of the theatre about it being too stuffy and "arty." The age-old question of the audience is one that will never go away, I suppose.

GIANVITO: Personally, I always say that there is no such thing as an audience. For me it's an abstraction. It always comes down to a room full of people with their individual likes and dislikes. And the moment filmmakers make a move in the direction of an imagined audience response, they misstep, and are apt to get lost. I believe the only reliable guide is to attempt to make the kind of film that you yourself would like to sit down and view. And the very nature of that process demands that you "speak" in a way that is natural to you alone. Robert Bresson could no more frame like Glauber Rocha than James Joyce could pen a phrase like Lou Reed.

One is given a voice. One can modulate it. If one chooses, one can coach aspects of its effectiveness. It remains one's voice. One might pitch it differently to one's friends, an audience, a constituency. The grain and character of the voice cannot be escaped. One can, however, lose–sometimes even consciously choose to lose–the connection between the sound that speaks and one's proper self. Regardless, whether disembodied or soulful, calculating or inchoate, there are severe limits on one's capacity to control how one's voice is received. It would appear that no one has the power to reach everyone. In the pursuit of making a difference it seems to me that one's best and only hope is to encourage the continual discovering/uncovering of each unique and solitary voice, allowing them to be the conductors of all that must out. I'm convinced most listeners can hear the difference.

John Gianvito is a filmmaker, teacher and curator based in Boston. Paul Chan is a media artist based in New York City. Pablo de Ocampo is director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center and a member of the Cinema Project in Portland. Pablo would like to extend special thanks to the Cultural Economy Initiative and WorkSystems Inc., who supported his attendance at the Flaherty Seminar.

About This Story


  • Author: Pablo de Ocampo
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012