Imagined Community V: Cameras for All!

Date: 01.06.2021 — 30.06.2021

The screening took place on June 10.

Online stream 14. 6.  — 21. 6.

 

Cameras for All!

The unequal relationship between those depicted and those depicting has plagued the moving image since it was first invented. However much the nature of the means of (re)production changes – and our approach to it – can we ever achieve justice of representation in conditions of social inequality? “Our solutions, and we do have solutions, weren’t discussed at all,”[1] protests a disillusioned labourer at the Rhodiacéta textile factory in the eastern French city of Besançon following a public screening of À bientôt, j’espère (Be Seeing You). This documentary by Chris Marker and Mario Marret follows the rabble-rousing before a December 1967 strike in solidarity with labourers in Lyon. Marker came to Besançon in March 1967, during a strike at the Rhodiacéta factory that was the first reminder in years of the famous uprising at the Renault factory in 1947. The strike garnered considerable media attention thanks to the importance that the labourers placed on art. Links between the working class and culture had a long tradition in Besançon, and the workers included access to art among their basic rights. After the irritation the workers experienced following the media coverage of the spring strike, they were in for another disappointment, this time from the Parisian film-makers. The factory workers were unhappy with the film-makers’ representation of the working-class experience, which emphasised failure and took on an unnecessarily resigned, depressed air. After a joint screening, Marker accepted their critique constructively and invited the workers to establish an art group, Medvedkine. The name was a tribute to Aleksandr Medvedkin, a Soviet film-maker who aimed to make his protagonists the co-creators of his films.

The Medvedkine collective wasn’t only created as a response to rousing meetings between activist film-makers and disgruntled militant labourers; most importantly, it was the work of the local artistic community, which also included the workers. A cultural centre, the CCPPO, had been established on the outskirts of Besançon in 1959, bringing art closer to the local inhabitants. Members of the CCPPO later formed a majority of the Medvedkine group. Apart from being the birthplace of the anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the utopian socialist Charles Fourier, Besançon was also the birthplace of the Lumière Brothers. Using the example of the film La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon), theorist and film-maker Isidora Ilić[2] demonstrates the problematic relationship between the production process and the film. The labourers work in a Lumière Brothers factory; it is thanks to their labour that the industrialists can afford to make some of the earliest films in history. The workers are not the ones creating their self-representation. Films, which are by their nature collective works, hide the processes that lead to their creation. The labourers leave their workplace while the representation of their labour remains hidden. Also hidden is their revolutionary potential, as fear of a workers’ revolution was still alive with the memory of the 1871 Paris Commune. The industrialists’ means of production merge with cinematic equipment, ensuring a privileged right to representation. The work of the Medvedkine group consisted in uncovering the exploitative relationships that have plagued the history of cinematography since its earliest days. The formal methods used by their contemporaries in the 1960s were also applied by the group on a social level. As film theorist Paul Douglas Grant notes, “Les groupes Medvedkine practised détournement as the reclamation of the forbidden dominant cultural practice (in this case, filmmaking) from the (mis)use of bourgeois culture.”[3]

The first collective film by the Medvedkine Group was the medium-length Classe de lutte (Class of Struggle), completed in 1969. The film begins with a shot of a pensive Suzanne Zedet, labourer and activist, which the group borrowed from À bientôt, j’espère. In the opening section, the Medvedkine group demonstrates an editing process through which they revise Marker and Marret’s film. The next section features unused shots of Suzanne speaking in the same film. Just as in À bientôt, j’espère, her words are used to confirm the words of her husband. Marker and Marret use the voices of the labourers to legitimise their own position, which formally frames the entire film through non-diegetic commentary. The silent figure becomes the main protagonist of the film, organising a strike in the Yema watch factory. Where the Parisian artists failed to escape the compassionate ethnographic position, the Medvedkine Group demanded self-representation on the basis of a collective subject. From the historical perspective, the group is also important in pointing to the important role of factory workers in the strikes of May 1968; labourers were essentially excluded from the simplified perspective of these events as student protests.

In the opening scenes of Classe de lutte, we see a worker with a camera in hand, and hear the sound of a ricocheting bullet. The Medvedkine Group understood its activities within the context of cultural revolution, with the medium of film becoming a weapon in the hands of the labourers. We can approach in a similar manner the activities of the Rojava Film Commune, established in 2015 in the city of Qamishlo. The work of this film commune, which is formed by film-makers and teachers, represents an indelible component of the liberation struggle in the region. Rojava – the Democratic Federation of Northern and Eastern Syria, in Western Kurdistan – was established in 2012 through an autonomous coalition of Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians during the Syrian civil war. The Rojava revolution put into practice the ideas of the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, a political prisoner in Turkey. Under the influence of critique from the women’s movement inside the PKK, Öcalan interpreted the nation-state as an oppressive politico-social arrangement that reproduces patriarchal oppression and creates inequality. Instead of continuing in his efforts to establish a Kurdish nation-state, Öcalan proposed an autonomous and decentralised arrangement based on the ideas of democratic confederalism. The revolution during which Rojava was established consisted in reorganising societal infrastructure through stateless democracy on the principles of ecological sustainability, equality, and common ownership. The Rojava autonomous government established gender quotas for the participation of women in political life, dual male-female co-leadership of all political representation, and the recognition of many languages and religions in a secular system of self-organised communes.

Just as the CCPPO in Besançon attempted to bring art closer to the working class, Rojava has established a number of cultural centres known as Tev-Çand, which provide access to music, theatre, and visual art. Art is an important part of the Rojava revolution, as it can help create a common history that has long been suppressed and erased. It is particularly in songs – transmitted in secret – that Kurdish history, struggle, and language are contained. The documentary Darên Bi Tenê (Lonely Trees, 2018) introduces the strong relationships the inhabitants of this ethnically diverse region have with music. Derwêş, a film about wandering musicians, emphasises accessibility in art, which the region’s inhabitants consider the common property of the whole society. The film is the work of students at the film academy established by the community to foster a new generation of film-makers. An important moment for the film is the tragic 1960 cinema fire in the neighbouring city of Amûdê. After a day-long screening of a film about the Algerian liberation struggle, a fire broke out in the cinema, killing more than two hundred children. The Syrian government later banned any public reminders of the memory of the victims of the fire. The activities of the Rojava Film Commune aim to rehabilitate the medium of the moving image, which still carries the burden of the massacre, and it was on the anniversary of this tragic event that the commune established a film festival. The Rojava revolution, based as it is on the emancipation of women, has included women in the craft of film, which had previously been considered shameful. Kêra Koh (Unsharp Knife, 2016) and Mako Sare (Mako is Cold, 2016) focus on the importance of the women’s movement in the Rojava revolution. While Kêra Koh is an observational film about the everyday life of two older women, who collect and sell vegetables and spend time together, Mako Sare reminds us of external conditions full of violence. The picturesque life of the commune contrasts with the brutality of war and the martyrdom of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), who stand on the front lines to defend the culture of Rojava.

The estrangement effect, usually used to create a distance with the aim of a critical reconsideration of what might seem socially and politically definite and inevitable, is used by the commune in Mako Sare as a means of inviting the viewer into the reality of Rojava. The fourth wall, which is broken in the opening scene, no longer reveals a social and political construct but rather realises the avant-garde merging of life and art. This is only possible thanks to the different ideological system, based on principles of stateless democracy, in which the artwork is realised and distributed. Connections between life and art can also be observed in the feature-length production of the film commune, in which the fighters of the Rojava commune become actors playing themselves –
they may well die as martyrs in future conflicts.

The commune believes that the power of the moving image rests in its capacity to transform ideas about society into reality. Just as the Medvedkine Group grasped a popular cultural practice to liberate it from abuse by bourgeois society, the film commune takes a stand against the dominant mode of film production, which reproduces – as does the state – the inequality of the system in which it operates. It is therefore logical for the commune to reject the traditional production regime, and to replace it with a collective production process. Collaboration is conducted on the meta level beyond the confines of the film commune: entire villages or cities participate in the making of a film. Distribution is approached in a similar manner, including screening tours through the cities and villages of Rojava. According to a statement by the commune, “the squares of our villages will become our culture and art centres. Our factories and our restaurants will become cinema halls.”[4]

The Rojava revolution has been the subject of a number of reports and art films by artists who have appropriated this revolution for themselves. The image created by the international subjects, however, is often insensitive to the values and ideals for which the locals are fighting. The superficial narrative of liberal society depicts Kurdish fighters as uneducated but beautiful faces fighting against the awful terrorists of the so-called Islamic State, utterly ignoring the radical nature of the Rojava revolution and reducing the identity of the inhabitants of Rojava to simple fighters. The right to representation is closely related to the availability of cultural means of production. The film commune not only applies itself to disseminating tools for self-presentation but has also come up with a proposal for avoiding appropriation: the commune invites artists and film-makers from abroad to collaborate with them on creating a film, with feedback on the script. The commune then gets the finished product for regional screenings.

The inaccessibility of the right to representation has been the starting point for the Czech collective Prádelna (Laundromat Collective), created in 2020 following a joint art residency by artist Magdalena Natalia Kwiatkowska and a number of women in social distress. From its inception, the group has addressed means of subversively approaching artistic privileges and the problems of non-hierarchical groups operating in an ideological system that makes the creation of a collective subject difficult. The artists who make up the group consider the need to ascribe identities based on their social status as problematic. Women, who are more often present in contemporary art as the objects of the artistic process, take hold of the camera themselves in order to hybridise their identity. They become art critics discussing participative art that speaks of social inequality in their name. They become actresses who play artists and come up with an idea for a film together. They become women experiencing homelessness and learn to survive on the street. Their video project, Jak vydělat na umělcích (How to Make Money on Artists) transfers the difficulties of joint decision-making onto the formal layer of the work. In a collective that seeks to be a safe space for all, there is a constant process of sharing feelings and determining the relationships between the individual members. Within the moving image, the collective has addressed this problem by layering their films with additional scenes that depict, for example, group discussions about already completed sections. They thus attempt to avoid a linear perception of the work, directing the viewer’s experience vertically, as if the artists were refusing to accept simplifying stereotypes about themselves. Since its establishment, Prádelna has challenged the notion of art as something existing at a distance from the conditions of its production. Their very activity calls into question the availability of opportunities for artistic activity and, by extension, the right to representation. In addition to social and cultural exclusion, they must also face the increased material demands of artistic labour.

These collectives show us that it is possible to find alternatives for means of artistic practice – alternatives that aim to disrupt the reproduction of inequalities by changing the conditions of their production and distribution. While Aleksandr Medvedkin literally made the image move in his cinema train, bringing cameras to factory workers, it was only the Medvedkine Group that took the camera into their own hands, assuming responsibility for creating their own representation. The links between art and the ideological frame within which it is created, and which necessarily led to a conflict with the collective subject, ended the short lifespan of the Medvedkine Group. The Rojava Film Commune continues this tradition of collective work, only this time realised in a transformed social arrangement. Art is not in conflict with the social ideology – quite the opposite, it creates a synergetic combination. The affirmative function of art should no longer sustain the current state of inequality; it should confirm a society based on the principles of non-state democracy. The Prádelna collective instead chooses to subversively use the system in which it operates. It remains to be seen how successful their subversive activities will be.

Tomáš Kajánek

 

[1] Statement from Le Chartier (1968), created as an audio recording of a discussion between the makers of À bientôt, j’espère and the workers after the screening.

[2] I. Ilić, “Film as a Means: From Representation to Participation”, Zidne novine, April 2015, http://www.zidne.udruzenjekurs.org/en/brojevi/film-kao-sredstvo/, accessed 1 June 2021.

[3] P. D. Grant, Cinéma Militant: Political Filmmaking & May 1968, Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 122.

[4] J. Staal, Propaganda Art in the 21st Century, The MIT Press, 2019, p. 175.

 

The Medvedkine Group from Besançon (Groupe Medvedkine de Besançon) was composed of activist labourers who were also active as film-makers. It was active between 1968 and 1971, during which time the group created several medium-length and short films. The Medvedkine Group from Sochaux later followed in their footsteps.

The Rojava Film Commune is a collective of film-makers active in the Rojava Autonomous Region. It was established in 2015 and has produced many short, medium-length, and feature-length films.

The Laundromat Collective is a Czech art group established in 2020 that focuses on participative projects and moving image. Their works challenge stereotypical depictions of people experiencing social distress.

 

CURATOR:  Tomáš Kajánek

PRODUCTION: Anna Davidová, Markéta Jonášová

IT: Ondřej Roztočil

DESIGN: Nela Klímová

TRANSLATION: Ian Mikyska

PROOFREADING: Alfred LeMaitre

 

THE PROJECT IS FINANCIALLY SUPPORTED BY GRANTS FROM THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE OF THE CZECH REPUBLIC & PRAGUE CITY HALL.