Kino-Pravda Docs #6: Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


Titicut Follies (1967, Dir. Frederick Wiseman) is a buried secret of a film. Once it’s uncovered, brought back to the living world every single time it’s viewed with new eyes, all of its life comes hurtling back through time with all the force of a fucking hurricane.

The film itself, is direct and simple to comprehend. Wiseman with a minimal crew (2-3) and a single camera, followed the goings on of a state penitentiary for the mentally insane for an extended period of time (29 days to be exact). After shooting a considerable amount of film, he extracted key sequences from his celluloid stock and placed them next to each other, fragments connected without regard for conventional notions of narrative, time or chronology beyond his own personal rhythms. And that covers what is in the film.

But of course, if that was all, I wouldn’t be writing this. Because much in the same way describing a film doesn’t really describe what’s in the film, the sights, the sounds, the emotions and thoughts it gives rise to, neither does my distant summation of Titicut Follies explain what awaits anyone who watches it. Because inside Wiseman’s rhythms and fragments, lays the most direct and brutal confrontation regarding the mentally insane I’ve ever seen. Not against them per se, but against the very nature of what it means to be insane and what it means to be someone who deals with them. There is a reason our asylums are places we build like prisons, to lock out and keep out of view and to be removed, isolated from the larger societal world. Because quite simply, we don’t want to see.

The rhythms of Titicut Follies contain in them many different movements and motions, and it’s people who were captured by its lens are ones which perform and unconsciously dance for us. Sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes disturbing in their engagement and sometimes mind-numbingly dull. If I’m talking about this film in opaque terms, it’s because the film confronts you with that idea. Wiseman offers no constructions to hang onto, no place to pin your tail on the donkey. The film is bookended and interjected by the performance of a musical put on by the inmates, and beyond that the film is a slate for you to inscribe your meaning on. Wiseman’s editing rhythms push the ideas he wants to communicate, but you may not always get them, you may miss them or they may go over your head. But your experience of the film and what you draw from it, this intense and visceral confrontation of those who hover between sanity and insanity, is still one which simultaneously pulls you in and pushes you away.

I’ve gone over the waterfall on this film. It’s rooted itself so intensely into my mind, through personal reasons and filmic ones that I’m struggling to talk about it in more conventional terms. Partially because it’s construction is so subtle, sound blurring and separating between images to keep you from becoming completely disoriented, or camerawork by John Marshall which simply refuses to turn away, which completely focuses on its subject and never cuts away from the gruesome realities of reality.

It’s a relic of its time, but the fury Titicut Follies still provokes is that deep knowledge around you, that injustices and cruelties are perpetrated and accepted not even necessarily because people are evil, but just because people get used to things, people don’t want to confront difficult subjects, and people are often afraid. It’s a film whose power hasn’t degraded, simply because there’s about as little pretense as you can find in the medium of film, one which is so interested in fantasies. It’s a film which goes beyond that petty issue of “who’s really the mad ones, those inside or those outside?”, and becomes a film which is nearly punishing in its ability to crystallise the horrors of going mad, and the dangers of those who are ideally meant to take care of them. In any system of power, there are chances for its abuse. Very rarely have they been captured so honestly, power’s use and its’ misuse.

This film holds a truth, one which suppressed and held hostage by the United States government, one which they tried their best to bury. But it still lives, and every time it’s seen by another person, it’s a testament to the hope that one day things will get better. And since the release of it, the treatment of the mentally ill has improved and been raised considerably. It’s just important to remember what we could lose if we slipped backwards.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

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Kino-Pravda Docs #6: Titicut Follies

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

Author: The JT Leroy Story – A Tale Of Two (Three, Four, Five…) Truths

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Disclaimer: Before watching this film, I had never heard of anything pertaining to the JT Leroy Saga. I have never read any of JT Leroy’s works, nor any of the literature surrounding this literary scandal.

So with that out-of-the-way, and all attempts at establishing any credibility in being an expert on this matter scribbled out, let’s move on as to just what the hell is going on here.

I shall not reveal the whole eclectic saga, that was director Jeff Feuerzeig’s job in making this film. In short, Laura Albert, a woman, invented or channeled a persona into her being, that of one Jeremy ‘Terminator’ LeRoy, an abused boy who had endured prostitution, drug addiction, AIDS, a sex change (which is explained later) and vagrancy.She then wrote from this persona’s perspective, and became wildly well-known, courting fame and time in the spotlight for the searing, brutally honest fiction that was being written.

All this without a body, and without being real. Because JT Leroy didn’t exist, at least not as a physical presence on this earth. So Laura Albert recruited her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop to play JT Leroy. And it worked, from 1998 to 2005, JT Leroy was a real construct who swooshed around the celebrity and publishing world, accompanied by Albert in another persona she had created alongside the real Terminator story, a British woman named Speedie, and her boyfriend Astor (who was really her husband, Geoffrey Knoop).

So the labyrinth was pretty complex, and the labyrinth was pretty well embraced. Her books sold, and she was the toast of the cutting edge, with Savannah even engaging in a passionate affair with Asia Argento. But all good things come to an end, and an exposé in 2006 by one Warren St. John in The New York Times collapsed the house of cards.

Make no mistake though, the house of cards is not truly laid out here. That’s not to denigrate the film, it’s just that the film is doing a very different kind of thing that a regular documentary might angle for. This is not an investigation, this is Laura Albert’s confession, her account of it all. It is a serious unraveling of her perspective of how it all went down, the puppet master behind the board locked into an unceasing performance. The supporting cast of this film circle tangentially at best, only their to provide light context and not much more. And that’s okay, the film is delving into the mind of Laura Albert, a mind which spawned JT LeRoy.

And there’s a lot to it. Drama and betrayals, affairs and desperation, the truth and the lies becoming so indistinct that you should be riveted by it. But of course, that depends on your point of view. If that seems vague, I’ll put it another way. Half of the importance of the story is simply because she’s not just deceiving regular people, but because she’s deceiving celebrities. Laura actually tells us at one point, that she knows she’s made it when she illustrates the ‘Bono’ talk that Savannah as JT got from you guessed it, Kings Of Cool, Bono from U2.

Cool is always nebulous, and always notorious to pin down, very subjective. But the anti-U2 sentiment is fierce among people my age, and I can’t ever remember a time when anyone even remotely discussed Bono as cool who wasn’t over 30. Bono, for anyone who even vaguely pays attention, represents the shallowest of cools. He’s probably a top bloke, but U2 have never been anywhere near the cutting edge of cool, and belong somewhere along the great “Stadium Fillers” genre.

I mean, U2 diatribe aside, the credence given to Laura’s story rests on the fact that the elite incestuous celebrity circles welcomed her, and the fact that she suffered great trauma in her life. The second bit is very valuable, but the first bit is basically a very indulgent walk with all these famous people who really like JT LeRoy, and how cool it was that all these cool people liked her. And the deception runs deep. Albert would make (and record) all calls she made as JT, so she’d live vicariously through Savannah, as Savannah would have these experiences with the cool-illuminati, an affair with Asia Argento, chatting with Gus Van Sant, ambiguous happenings with actor Michael Pitt, and much more, Laura would chat as JT to them.

And you know…cool I guess? Like it just doesn’t really move me much. It’s like her actions are meant to be far more grandiose because she’s deceiving celebrities. And that only works if you buy into celebrities being better than other people. Which I do not. We’d all like to live that fantasy, of well-known, very successful people telling us that they love us, our work, our personality, ourselves, I understand it, and I understand what drives that. But her actually getting to live out her fantasy is not something that can really be enjoyed, maybe only by her and the conspirators involved. Because you can’t live vicariously through Laura Albert, because you know she’s lying. It’s so far removed that all you can do is watch the journey slowly unfold passively.

I’m rambling here but bear with me. The title talks about the ‘Truths’ in this film. Camus says in his seminal work The Myth Of Sisyphus “In psychology as well as logic, there are truths but no truth.” He’s referring to the inability to perceive the whole world from all sides, so we can’t really know the details we’re working with. The same can be applied here. We can never really know the whole story, because the whole story depends on multiple people, with internal dialogues and psychologies, that we can never really draw the boundaries in it between what’s true and what isn’t. Albert specifically denies that it was a fake, because LeRoy is real to her. In fact she states that she suffers from DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder.

This is the stuff I find much more interesting. The reveal of JT LeRoy’s ‘hoax’ is really interested, because the reaction to it was so damning. People implicitly believe that what they see or read or listen to is true. You have to, its logically ruinous to assume everything is a lie. There could be no truth if everyone was lying. And people took it for granted, but they were also so willing to believe the story, so desperate to accept her truth, because even though the books are published as fiction, we always assume that fiction is molded from the human channeling the world around them, and when stories are told with such uncompromising brutality, when they involve such hard times of human suffering, when those trapped in ivory towers see such earnest hardship, they marvel at it. They marvel at the human audacity to take good from the bad no matter how rough it might get. Especially those who are protected from it.

I feel like the film is both too long and too short. Or maybe its just focused on the thing I don’t find interesting. The film seems to wrestle with two tracks, the track of recounting the whole sordid affair, as a train of well-known faces walk through, their intimate conversations of real life played in voyeuristic scenes where tapes roll, and the other track which revolves around authenticity, authorship, and the blurred lines between fiction and fact, and truth and lies. because the best lies are inspired by the truth, but the truth does its best to expose lies. Laura Albert suffered, and she channeled it, however indirectly into her writing. And even if she didn’t suffer, she had the capability to imagine and create it. But the thing people seem to get upset about is her creation spilled over into reality, and somehow people were deceived by that. Well art influences life and vice versa, and Laura just took it to an extreme. Her whole life became a performance.

Which is both brilliant and horrible. Because I don’t think she can stop. And with a film of the whole story in the works, it looks like the sharks desperately seeking salacious stories won’t either. A maddening cycle of trash. Waiting for someone honest to come along.

The only thing for me to do is to just shrug and move on. It’s not all that interesting anyways. It kind of fucked me off if I’m honest.

-Alex

 

Author: The JT Leroy Story – A Tale Of Two (Three, Four, Five…) Truths

Kino Pravda Docs: #3 – Dreamcatcher

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Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?

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“SURVIVOR FOUNDED • SURVIVOR FOCUSED • SURVIVOR LED”

(The Dreamcatcher Foundation’s Motto on their website, which can be found here http://thedreamcatcherfoundation.org/).

Dreamcatcher is a 2015 documentary by Kim Longinotto, about former prostitute Brenda Myers-Powell, who runs the Dreamcatcher Foundation. The aim of the charity is as follows (citing their website)

“The Dreamcatcher Foundation fights to end human trafficking in Chicago. Our not-for-profit organization works to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth and helps current prostitutes find confidence and stability beyond the limitations of their current lifestyle. The Dreamcatcher Foundation fosters confidence, courage, independence, and inner strength within young people in disadvantaged areas. Our harm reduction approach allows Chicago’s most disenfranchised young women take advantage of all of the mentoring services we offer and improve their lives through education, empowerment, and prevention.”

It’s very easy to read that paragraph and assume you understand exactly what the foundation is about. But lying behind it, is a timeless abyss of pain, sadness, degradation of the body and the spirit, and suffering. Everyone who appears in the documentary has been touched by this dark blanket, which coats and envelops their experiences since birth (some before). Babies born with crack in their system, abusive parents raised by abusive parents, sexual coercion and rape, abandonment of everyone and everything near and dear to you, including your children. The kind of stuff people not on the bottom rungs of society could only have nightmares about. The kind of stories that would make you wake up in the night in fear of your well fed, well-loved children falling prey to the “beasts of society”.

But as the film crystallizes, it becomes evidently clear that stories are the product of a much sadder fate, a lack of support, a lack of compassion, and a lack of care. The real catalyst of this comes, during an interview with a reformed/retired pimp, Homer who used to be best friends with Brenda’s pimp. As he muses on the trials that he endured as a kid which led to his distorted view of the world, he sums it all up by saying (paraphrasing) “No child is ever born a pimp.”

This is the real tragedy that lays at the heart of everyone’s story in this film, that somewhere along the line in their lives, they were failed by those who were supposed to protect them. The brutal waves of poor nurturing tumble from generation to generation, as we listen to young girls who explain they’ve been raped and molested and their parents did nothing or didn’t believe them, only to talk to those very same mothers and listen to the same stories come out of their mouths. Physical abuse which descends like a waterfall through families, filtering down from grandfather, to father to son, a son who becomes numb to abuse and sees it as the normal way of the world. The kids are not alright, and the adults are nowhere to be seen.

The way I’m writing it sounds like the film is very moralistic, but it is completely the opposite, it doesn’t demonise anyone. I am not familiar at all with Kim Longinotto’s previous work, but the film goes to great lengths to listen, in true cinema verité style, rather than dictate or present a certain case or understanding of the events. It is compassionate filmmaking, giving a voice to those voiceless, those trapped in silence for so long, because no one wants to listen, no one cares, or actively wants them to keep shtum. The camera floats in the world, no awkward air as people pretend to ignore the camera in regular documentary style, we are instead given a portrait, a window of honesty. These people do not perform for the camera, the camera is merely recording events in the most honest way it can. There’s no right or wrong way to solve the problem, the film and Brenda don’t have time to posture on what is the morally right stance on prostitution, because they’re too busy dealing with just acknowledging the silent pain these people carry with them. You’ve got to deal with the most serious injuries first.

Luckily, nothing is incurable, and Brenda  puts her entire being into promoting something these vulnerable girls and women lack, self-love, and self security. Girls who blame themselves for their rapes, who loathe themselves for being coerced into an untenable rock and hard place of poverty and slightly less poverty by being a prostitute. These women who pass through the frame are so broken, many not more than children. It comes as a shock to them, when they have taken on so much, far beyond what they should have, to relinquish their guilt and self-loathing, simply put, to be allowed to love themselves, to understand that it really isn’t their fault. It isn’t their fault that broken homes and poor social care damage the ones we seek to instinctively protect, the children. And those children grow up, and create more broken homes, like the tide coming in.

But this tide isn’t inevitable. Because what it takes to stem or change the flow of that tide is things we often take for granted. People who care for us, the basic human rights of shelter and food, a little self-love, and the expectation to not suffer violent abuses from those around us. Because the abusers often have experiences of abuse themselves, victims and perpetrators at the same time. Brenda recalls this in discussion with Homer, as she explains how she used to bring girls in to her pimp at times simply out of spite, just so he could fuck them instead of her. It’s easy to be cruel, but it takes so much effort to be kind. To be open, to be vulnerable and forgiving of life’s harshest, unjust realities.

It would also be a glaring omission to skim over the fact that almost everyone she deals with is Black. Inequality in America is still inexorably linked to race (as it is here in the UK) and the film opens up the world to someone who might have no direct experience of the black and/or female experience in this way, which is nothing short of a great social service, because anything that allows racial boundaries to be breached, crossed and simply dissolved is doing good, especially as the film goes to great lengths to show how the suffering, and the joy these women can experience is universal.

Brenda had two daughters by the time she was 16. She now helps other girl’s try not to land in the same position she was in. A girl she cares for Tameka, who is 15, becomes pregnant. The cycle continues, but it is not the same cycle, because there is Brenda, a vulnerable strong woman who cares, a woman who is strong because she is vulnerable and thus relatable. She truly has been through what these girls are going through, and so her words, her feelings are lent the authenticity and respect that most social workers could only dream of. Because when we suffer,  we look for support from people who we think have been through the same thing.

She helps to heal the part of us we often ignore, the spirit. Maybe she’s not catching dreams yet, but she’s taking the edge off of the living nightmares.

You must care and love before you can initiate positive change. She’s helping build a better future. Which I also noted in my “Black Panthers: Vanguards Of The Revolution” essay. I’ll leave you with this video essay which might help to explain this link.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino Pravda Docs: #3 – Dreamcatcher

Kino Pravda Docs: #2 – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

the-black-panthers-vanguard-of-the-revolution

 

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?

The word vanguard itself is a curiosity. It’s etymological root lies in “Old French” (9th – 14th Century), in the words avant = before and garde =guard. The before guard.  A cursory search of synonyms of for the word “guard” conjures up these examples.

protect, watch over, look after, keep an eye on, take care of, cover, patrol, police, defend, shield, safeguard, preserve, save, keep safe, secure, screen, shelter;fortify, garrison, barricade; man, occupy.

Now these words, these synonyms are words which we might think of as conflicting. The words “police” and “keep safe” might take on a cruel irony in light of both this doc, and the way in which the left spectrum views police forces. The words “look after” might seem distant from “occupy” even if they are two sides of the same coin.

If this seems dense, it’s because it is. The word vanguard is an incredibly loaded word. The vanguard comes before, to guard and protect what will come after. But just where are they coming from, and what are they planning to guard?

In October 1966, six black men created the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. By 1970 it had 65 chapters and thousands of members. By 1982 its membership had dwindled to 27 members, its leader was involved in embezzlement and was shot dead by a drug dealer. The history of the party, is absolutely brimming and overflowing throughout this piece, so I’ll waste no time sitting here recounting it to you. If you want to know the events which transpired in the Panther Party, than look no further for a piece which re-contextualizes our history by talking to the people involved, from those right in the heat of the fire to those circling its edges, snapping pictures and jotting the history down. The music snaps and bends throughout, the exhaustive footage chronicling many different facets of Panther life. It’s a damn good doc.

But underneath it all, runs a curious river of thought. The Black Panthers are something of a historical oddity, a loose collective bordering on a militia, committing both social care and terrorist acts whilst advocating the love of Black People, freedom from oppression, basic human rights seemingly denied to them, hounded and assassinated by the FBI, loved, hated, demonized, fetishised and all of this in a 1st World Country. We can often fall into the trap now of only seeing revolutionaries in a third world context, always overthrowing militaristic despots or corrupt inefficient third world plutocracies. But no, here we are, smack bang in the middle of America, one year after the assassination of Malcolm X, two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Well it’s a melting pot. The river then, is essentially this; Were the Black Panthers a force for good, and did they bring about change? When the revolutionaries lose, was their impact worth it?

I went to school in England, and we studied the Civil Rights Movement from 14-15/16 years of age, as a historical period. The Panthers showed up for all of one or two paragraphs in our history textbooks. Beside some cursory reading I’d done on them,  watching The Boondocks and reading Assata, I knew little of them. To see this egg prised open, in the most visceral way, watching Panthers recount their stories alongside real historical evidence and photographs and footage from all sides, media interviews, filming they did themselves, news clips and so on. In fact, in its most mind punching move, reads out and displays documents relating to the Panthers from the COINTELPRO FBI operation, specifically designed to dismantle and “put down” ideas of a Black revolution.

We have become incredibly saturated with general artistic content which reinforces our cynicism. We don’t trust our governments, or rather we don’t believe they have our best interests at heart any more. We see them exposed, in the media and in real life, in bed with corporations, corrupt and selling bribes to each other, only going up and up and increasing in scale. But we also consider them abstract, because, since they happen so often, we’ve come to expect them as second nature. When you see these figures, real life revolutionaries, admit that they had underestimated how insidious the FBI were, it shows just how far we’ve come, in a post-Snowden era, when we have an almost total lack of faith that our government ever wanted to help us in the first place.

The film also largely stays silent on any impact the Panthers might have on today’s social justice movements, the #BlackLivesMatter, the recent resurgence in socially conscious hip hop, the continued police killings. In fact there’s so much disentanglement needed just to work out exactly what happened to the Panthers, that it probably would have been overwhelming, and even unnecessary to try and establish links. After all, the film invokes a different era, and perhaps it might even be wrong to look back too closely to try and pull links into the present. The Panthers existed in a radically different landscape. They had endured no Ronald Reagan, no true collapse of the Soviet style Communism, no 9-11, no Iraq and Bin Laden. Instead they faced Vietnam, easily the country’s first truly demoralising conflict, and Nixon.

I mean, can we even compare ourselves in our paradoxical times to the counter-culture movements of back then? Now our marches are tweeted, our personal politics an everyday factor of life, not a bitter battleground, we see our activism in a negotiating sense, of trying to get more BME or LGBT accepted into the world, we’ve mostly completely dropped the fight for left wing Marxism that the Panthers originally held up. We have vague notions of disdain and distrust for “the government” or “big business” but a social revolution seems a bit dreamy in the state we’re in.  Sure we can draw lines, and see how they impact us now, but you can draw lines from anywhere. Their revolution can speak for itself, and that’s what the speakers do, they recount their experiences fighting for political and humanitarian justice, at the expense of everything else.

I mean it’s so tough to make any kind of headway into the group, for every right there seems to be a counter balancing wrong. They provided free breakfasts for the poor community, but they also held shootouts and were guilty of orchestrating assassination attempts. They were untied for their love of Black People, but were unsure how to proceed beyond their manifesto, and later the egos of its leaders bitterly divided the party. They were responsible for their own actions, but were also mercilessly sabotaged, harassed and dismantled by the covert forces of the United States Government. Every move they made was always under scrutiny, and like any radical, they were never particularly liked, only curiously watched or viciously hated, from the media by the former, and by the institutional racism on the latter.

If anything, the Panthers help to represent how curious a phenomenon it is to be morally steadfast in a world seemingly governed by moral relativism. The Panthers did not want to compromise, and many would ask how could they in the face of such insanity. Of the vicious, terrifying beatings, the physical beatings by the police, or when they were constrained in the courts by racist judges, of the beatings to the black psyche, the feelings of inferiority and worthlessness seemingly inflicted from the (white) on high. The Panthers is anything, were an expression of pure rage, an outlet of historical vengeance provoked by at least three centuries of Black humiliation and subjugation.

The Panthers have come before, to guard what will come after? Have they succeeded? Is the Black populations arguably less oppressed than they were 50-40 years ago? It seems so,and you can look around the world you live in for numerous examples of this.But the fight against capitalism has only become more diffuse and fragmented as time has gone on, and so has the fight the Panther’s picked up way back when. Now the infighting is everywhere, and identity politics runs so rampant because no one can trust their fellow-man or woman to ever properly support them, since it all seems to be predicated on unstable or potentially unconsciously discriminatory logic.Which is why the film takes on an oddly poignant tone. We watch in slow motion, only a small compression of the time the actual Panthers must have felt, how a revolution dies and fades. How when your very right to fight is compromised and undermined, how a revolutionary force can very quickly spiral downwards into an abyss. In that sense, it’s a cautionary tale. It says that real change can’t be achieved without harmony and unity in the cause, whether its violent or non-violent.

If anything, watching this helps to put the nail in the coffin of the existential manifesto of being responsible for your actions. It shows that even being responsible in the choices you make, the meaning you create for yourself, as the Panthers did by trying to be the vanguard of radical Black change, that there are forces at work which can be constructed to dismantle you, and actively crush and suppress you, channel you into streams you made no intention of going down.The joke being that we already believe in government conspiracy’s, find it far more trite than the Panthers would have done, as the extensive manipulation of a government intent on racial and social suppression was exposed to their horror.

My attempts to wrestle with this subject matter have not been particularly lucid, and for that I apologise. This film can be interpreted in many ways, a cautionary tale, a poignant memory, a historical time capsule, a curious peek into a radical movement, a deep psychological exploration of the black psyche in that time. The point is the film is there, and their story is here. The losers on history’s side do not disappear, they are just scrubbed out, pigeonholed and forgotten by the general flow of history. So to see this, to see people inspired into radical belief and action, not just a  curious way to think about the world. The Black Panthers believed in what they did, it was the right thing, not the relative thing at the time. There’s something incredibly admirable in that, even if their actions are ones you may find it difficult accepting. The lines are almost impossible to draw.

Seeing it gives me hope, for the future it may inspire, and fear, that history may repeat itself. But that is for the future, and this film is that of a past, so we’d do well to celebrate its memory. Celebrate the vanguard, for what they represent. Hope for a better future.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

 

 

Kino Pravda Docs: #2 – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Kino Pravda Docs: #1 – The Golden Age Of The Circus: The Show of Shows

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Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?

 

I love the circus. In fact watching it as a small child is one of my earliest memories. But this is not a film about the circus I saw. Or in fact, the circuses (circuii?) of the recent years. No this documentary is a striking recollection of the circuses of old, a time when circuses were one of the primary sources of entertainment and film was still in its birthing phases. Although there is more modern footage smattered in, coloured home videos and the like so it’s not entirely stuck in the timeless ‘old’ period of cinema.

The Show of Shows is presented as just that, an arrangement of the most astonishing clips in a parallel re-enactment of a circus show, where a ringleader in his time introduced the show to the crowd, he now introduces it to us, decades, perhaps even centuries after his original announcement. And what a show it becomes. Humans are excellent at two things, those things being forgetting and risk taking. We are excellent at forgetting just how our viciousness and penchant for cruelty could express itself before hand, and we are excellent at taking unnecessary risks, that no animal driven by its instinct of self-preservation would ever dare to take.

You find all of this and more, in The Show of Shows. Any preconceived notions of this being a quaint, delightful little curio quickly fall to bits, as the relatively perfunctory opening gives way to stranger and seedier delights, a view from a window closed long ago. Because very soon, the film shows which has been long abolished. Humans as a collective are not bad at remembering, but individually, when our experience comes forth, we consistently fail to remember past transgressions, how deplorable they were or how those affected suffered, and how much of an impact they had. This film very much brings that to light again, in quite a visceral way, as for the first time in my life, I’ve seen real footage of animals kept in cages, made to dance, to ride motorcycles, to eat at a table dressed in human clothes and more.

Perhaps, since I am young, this might not be new to many of you. But to anyone of my age who hasn’t sifted through disorganised troves of both public domain and private collection film material, as the director  Benedikt Erlingsson has done, this film is a genuine startling and haunting introduction to the role that a circus played. Because I too am guilty of said forgetfulness. I knew about the issue of animal cruelty, one still being fought today in areas of England at least, but I can never say I knew it as I do now, watching elephants be whipped and polar bears made to stand on pyramids, and monkeys and bears riding bicycles and motorcycles. And for me it is eye-opening, both in its cultural dissonance (I after all have been raised to care for animals and treat them as independent, equal partners in the ecosystem of life, except of course when I want some chicken) and the raw fascination and exhilaration that must have been experienced by those crowds so long ago of watching a man, or Man himself, dominate the animal kingdom in such a total way. To watch a man actually fight a lion, to wrangle a bull with his bare hands.

These disturbing vignettes are more than just factual reporting. Accompanied by an absolutely haunting soundtrack done by Icelandic band Sigur Rós, the film opens a portal into a world inaccessible to our current world. It is a legitimate transportation vehicle, as it shows the past in a supercut of what it really was, a neo-documentary if you could venture that far, in its essence of constructing an informative and emotional piece of film out of previously disparate unconnected elements. There’s clips from dozens of circuses, all throughout time and location, different cities and people and acts.

And yet they share common elements. Each section is marked by a reel changing, and the ‘reel’ on woman helps to show the slowly ever-increasing open sexualisation of women, as they go from stilted conservative beauty pageants to risqué strip teases to full-blown erotic nudity. The reel on animals helps to show the commonality of it all, that bears on bicycles was normal, or interesting then, but is absolutely shocking now. Usually the march of progress works the other way round, as we build more and more upon the foundations laid before us, we grow out of their trappings, new innovations become old, and we take them increasingly for granted. The digitalisation of cinema for example, ten years ago was a vibrant and hard to grasp debate, whereas now is completely bog standard and its developments are what we are interested in now.

So in this sense, its amazing to be wowed by the old, to be encompassed by it by fusing it with the new (the Sigur Rós soundtrack), as we watch a mother place her babe in front of a knife throwing board, a father throwing his baby around on his hands balancing him with masterful precision, even the acts no longer possible in our society, the bear riding a unicycle, the big cats on see-saws, the monkey’s acrobatic transitions to moving motorcycles. And the magnificence of the skill of the technicians, the acrobats who move so gracefully. The trainers who exhibit complete control over their animals who could easily kill them. The clowns, who’s rubber bodies and practical jokes juxtaposed against their off duty moments. And then finally, as the film ends, we’re shown us. The audience, the crowd, who watch in awe, in fear, in terror or laughter.

Whether the acts are morally sound is irrelevant to the film. They happened, and we watch them, in all their goodness and badness. It’s downright tough to watch at some points, but there’s a reason for it. It shows us acts which were common, the horror we feel out of its time. This is the ‘Golden Age’ of the Circus, and this is all of it. It’s a tribute to the best and worst of human impulses. And its potency lies in its realness and its paradoxes. Humans can be kind, or cruel. Banal or evil or good. But they can be both at the same time, because what can be good in one period is bad the next.I’m not really one for relativism, but it does operate to a certain degree in society. And we need artifacts like this to remind us of it. Otherwise we’ll forget.

At 00:26 of the trailer, a man dives from a water tower.

 

Maybe in 100 years, they’ll include this clip paralleled alongside it.

(The film is located here for the next 28 days in the UK as of writing, the soundtrack can be streamed here worldwide. Any updates will be re-edited as appropriate.)

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino Pravda Docs: #1 – The Golden Age Of The Circus: The Show of Shows