This is Not a “Political” Film
by Kevin Jerome Everson and Greg de Cuir Jr.
When Jafar Panahi made This Is Not a Film (2011) while on house arrest in Iran after being sentenced to six years in prison for his disobedient cinematic work, the satirical polemics of his work’s title spoke to the reductive assumptions that underlie artists who engage with contemporary reality. In Madeline Anderson’s pioneering film document I Am Somebody (1970), the white male director of the hospital engulfed with striking, unionized, black women states that “I don’t think this is a civil rights issue” before laughing at himself in an embarrassment of self-recognition when pressed to qualify that proposition. Jean-Luc Godard famously stated that the key is not to make political films, but to make films politically. Following that fil rouge, this is not a political film program – it is an invitation.
In fact, the oldest film in the program is conceived upon an invitation. Take This Hammer by Richard O. Moore has its starting point in the legendary man of letters, James Baldwin, acting on an invitation to San Francisco in order to take stock of the social and cultural situation in which the African American population finds itself there. There is an urgent necessity in his visit, likewise an urgent necessity to document it. We do not know what can be done for the community, but we do know what should be done, and we do know that something must be done. The film is about listening, about recounting, and ultimately about educating. Baldwin’s political gesture is a simple and humane one, an act of empathy and solidarity. But the necessity and powerful significance of his visit is underlined in the title of the film, which references Bertolt Brecht’s artistic hammer – to shape and construct. The offering and taking of this hammer is another invitation that must be acted upon, and in a communal manner.
The oldest figure explored in this program is Lucy Parsons, the late-19th and early-20th century activist, organizer, polemicist, and essayist. Parsons also had an affinity for the communal, and was concerned with the oppression of women as a function of capitalism. She was an anarchist, and in a lecture on the principles of anarchism, she stated, “Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede any great fundamental change in society, hence they do not believe in vote begging, nor political campaigns, but rather in the development of self-thinking individuals.” By contrast, the hammer that Parsons wielded was viewed as a weapon by the authorities she agitated against. Parsons was famously described as, “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” by the Chicago police department – which is the same title of the short video biography dedicated to her by Kelly Gallagher. Parsons is a stirring example of a history that we must remember, and Gallagher invites us to contemplate and celebrate this woman who was at the forefront of raising consciousness about race and gender and their imbrication with class struggle.
Cauleen Smith’s Three Songs about Liberation is based on monologs selected from the book Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, edited by Gerda Lerner – which by the way, does not contain any of the writings or speeches by Lucy Parsons. Each of the three monologs, or songs, are introduced in on-screen titles and then recited aloud in direct camera address. The acts of writing and reading are considered political here, indeed dangerous in some instances. Here we again deal with black women as self-thinking individuals with revolutionary capacity. Smith was inspired to make this work by the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, particularly his 1934 film Three Songs About Lenin, which glorified the political leader from multiple points of departure and fused his memory and teachings with enlightenment and social progress. The political gesture in Smith’s work is commemorative, honoring the erased presence of women of color and connecting their struggles to international currents. Indeed, the capacity of cinema to consolidate and breathe life into history is writ large in these films. We might remember one of the most famous of all quotes attributed to Lenin: “Of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.”
What to say about Tonsler Park? For one of us it is an attempt at making a flicker film. For the other it is the most significant political film made in recent memory in the United States. If we ascribe to the notion that cinema is like writing history with lightning, then the flicker effect has elemental significance, not unlike the allegory of the cave according to Plato. But are we witnessing people shorn of their chains, or tied to the administrative tables of the democratic process? Is democracy represented in the shadows flickering on the wall of the polling station in Tonsler Park, Virginia, or in the fire that man cannot see behind (the fire next time, as James Baldwin would have it)? Tonsler Park might be read as a rhetorical film, though it does not “speak” in anything other than pure cinematic language, its argument embedded in its form. We might recall the charges of improper practice brought by a certain demagogue against polling stations ex ante during the 2016 campaign trail. Tonsler Park is the rebuttal ex post facto: the institution of democracy is actually protected and preserved by those who have the least to gain from its processes. The film is what documentary theorists would call visible evidence. Lucy Parsons might consider it evidence of the elaborate hoax that voting is. Her endorsement of the film would not be a foregone conclusion – though she might appreciate its revelatory potential, she would certainly much prefer to see bodies on the march à la Madeline Anderson. Dziga Vertov would surely side with the film’s socialist panorama of peoples and nations, its prioritizing of the working class, though he would probably treat with disdain the imperialist impulses conditioning the shadow play of this political practice. James Baldwin might highlight the dignity of black folks and their faithful nature as perceived in this film, though he would surely question their modulated patterns of movement and discern the dance of destruction playing out on the walls of this modern cave. And what would Benjamin Tonsler, the African American pedagogue with a park named after him in Charlottesville, see? His children, his dream, everything he struggled for.
The moving image works assembled here make a way where no path has been cleared, in both aesthetic terms and in terms of civics. These films and videos concern themselves with the human condition and how to hammer it into shape. They are open texts that ask questions that require engaged reader-viewers to complete them. The films and videos are made by a variety of artists of different generations, working in diverse national and social contexts. For them the camera is a weapon, not a white flag. The image is necessary, not right. And for us, the organizers of this screening program, the goal is to enable a ruthless artistic critique of all existing conditions. But such an ideal requires a community to fulfill. As Yasser Arafat once announced to the United Nations General Assembly, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
We say to you: Do not let cinema fall short of its purpose.
Kevin Jerome Everson is an artist based in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Greg de Cuir Jr. is a curator based in Belgrade, Serbia.