Today (like most days), Leshu Torchin is thinking about revolution.
Over a week after the murder of African American man George Floyd in police custody, protests against racism across the U.S. continue, with satellite demonstrations taking place across the world. The justifiable outrage at a violent, oppressive, and white supremacist system has resulted in scores of rallies, marches, and conferences—just about all met with police violence, and now threats from the US President to send in the military.
The subject of oppression and resistance is on my mind. What will happen next is on my mind. Revolution is on my mind.
And with that, I present a list of films and media about revolution. Each offers a way of thinking about what revolution is and how the political change is aided and represented by the media we use. It is by no means comprehensive, but it’s here to get us started.
In this documentary style drama, a British film crew follows a group of counter-culture radicals who have opted for three days in ‘Punishment Park’ in the place of incarceration. Here, they must navigate miles of desert terrain to reach an American Flag whilst also avoiding police, military, and National Guard trainees in pursuit. The film moves between this brutal obstacle course and a courtroom, where the defendants give speeches decrying racism, colonialism, capitalism, war, and misogyny, creates a visceral and harsh rendition of law and order. It is of its time, to be sure, as whiteness, maleness, and straightness are, even in this radical piece, privileged and Watkins seems to allow for a British complacency in seeing what’s on screen as an American problem. Nevertheless, it is powerful, angry, and timely.
It appears to be on YouTube for now:
L.A. Rebellion, Bush Mama (Haile Gerima, 1975/1979)
This is most definitely a time to watch (or get to know more about) the work of the L.A. Rebellion, the film movement of African and Black American filmmakers at UCLA who, from the 1960s-1980s worked to create a radical and black alternative to Classical Hollywood. Among them are some recognisable names including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Alile Sharon Larkin. It is no easy task to pick just one and for that I guide all readers to UCLA’s L.A. Rebellion Initiative which includes a DVD set of early work and the fantastic L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema edited by Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. And if you can find it, I highly recommend Zeinabu irene Davis’s Spirits of Rebellion (2015), which recalls the origins of the movement (Davis having taken part herself) and explores what it means to make and to have a Black cinema.
Although hard to find, Bush Mama (Haile Gerima) is the film on my mind right now. Beginning with footage of police harassment that is actual footage of the LAPD approaching Gerima’s crew, the film blends narrative, documentary, and the experimental in a dramatization of systemic racism. Dorothy (Barbara O Jones) is pregnant and her partner incarcerated. Following her in the daily encounters of attempted survival, mundanity underscoring the normalcy of disenfranchisement and oppression, the film also chronicles her transformation and radicalisation. It’s hard to find, but if you can get the DVD, it is well worth it.
It’s 1961 and Maria is searching for her husband, a militant in the anti-colonial fight for Angola independence. In attending to Maria’s arduous and exhausting journey as well as the torture and being of her husband and other prisoners, Maldoror introduces the woman’s perspective—the wife’s perspective—into a larger picture of revolution, which would educate Westerners on what was happening in Angola.
If you do not know of Sarah Maldoror (who sadly passed from Covid-19 on 13th April), you should. This revolutionary woman was an extraordinary filmmaker, activist, and anti-colonial feminist. And for additional revolutionary appeal: Maldoror participated in the making of The Battle of Algiers.
For the time being, Sambizanga is available to watch here:
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1985) / Year of the Woman (Sandra Hochman, 1974)
I included Born in Flames on the Female Gaze list, and it belongs here too, as it remains as relevant as ever. This science-fiction film takes place in a New York City where revolution has led to a socialist government. However, as would be little surprise to some of us, this is by no means the end of sexism, racism, and homophobia. This feminist classic shows a range of revolutionary practices and coalitions, with media and destruction as part of blowing up the systems of oppression. A restoration is available for rental or purchase on Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/borninflames
Sandra Hochman’s 1973 documentary, Year of the Woman, on the other hand, is providing frustratingly elusive following its long-awaited release in 2018. This glorious film combines fantasy, animation, poetry, and theatrical public disruptions at the 1972 Democratic Convention which saw the first meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus and the nomination of Shirley Chisholm as the first female candidate for President. Like Born in Flames, this film features the human perfection that is Flo Kennedy. Any revolution that takes place must include her spirit.
Videograms of a Revolution (Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, 1992)/ A fost sau n-a fost?/12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006)
Both of these films take on the Romanian revolution through the prism of television and mediation. In Videograms of a Revolution, Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica worked with over 125 hours of found footage—including amateur recordings and the broadcasts from a television station occupied by demonstrators— to produce an account of the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime. In doing so they ask us to think how video both records and participates in revolution and change. The film can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-gybMgRxNs
Meanwhile, 12:08 East of Bucharest (original title translating as ‘Was it or was it not?’) takes on the subject of memory and memorialisation. On the set of a talk show designed to commemorate the revolution and its local heroes, the host, the guest, and a series of callers end up debating what actually happened, and if the revolution ever did come to their town. It is bleakly hilarious like so many films of the Romanian New Wave and particularly those of Corneliu Porumboiu. The film is available for streaming on Eastern European Movies: https://easterneuropeanmovies.com/comedy/1208-east-of-bucharest
Yellowing (Chan Tze-Woon, 2016)/ Raise the Umbrellas (Evans Chan, 2016)
I confess to having not seen these yet but posting them both to remind myself I need to seek these out and to encourage any readers with tips on how to see them. These documentaries centre on the activity taking place during Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. Evans Chan’s film focusses on three high-profile activists: Martin Lee, founder of the Hong Kong Democratic party; Benny Tai, Occupy Central initiator; and Joshua Wong, a student leader who is also the subject of the Netflix documentary, Joshua: Teenager versus Superpower (Joe Piscatella, 2017). Yellowing, on the other hand, tends to the ordinary and working class protestors taking part. Producers ended up adopting revolutionary or guerrilla screening tactics when it was denied a theatrical release. [Disclosure: I might also be partial to Yellowing knowing that the lovely Cheung Tit-Leung z”l was a producer on it.]
Freedom Fields (Naziha Arebi, 2018)
I had planned a screening of this film for April, which was obviously, and very sadly cancelled. I hope there is another chance to show it as it remains as important as ever. Filmed over the course of five years, this visually arresting film follows three women and their football team in post-revolution Libya, as the country descends into civil war and the utopian hopes of the Arab Spring begin to fade. In this intimate film, personal stories of love and aspiration collide with history and politics, offering a powerful reflection on hope after revolution. It’s not yet available online, but once it is, you’re all likely to hear from me.
Filming Revolution (Alisa Lebow, 2018)
This extraordinary project is the result of Alisa Lebow’s inspired decision to go to Egypt in the aftermath of the revolution to speak with filmmakers, as well as artists, activists, and historians to explore what it is to make films during and after revolution. What are the practices that emerge and what can they tell us? Visit here to learn more: https://www.filmingrevolution.org/
And a necessary addition: Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah and Black Audio Film Collective, 1986)
This is an essential part of any list on revoution, both for the topic of the 1985 Handsworth Riots and the experience of BAME people in Britain and for its provenance: The Black Audio Film Collective, a group of Black British artists committed to producing a Black British Cinema in topic and in form. Like the L.A. Rebellion, they sought to chronicle the BAME experience and culture whilst challenging and reworking cinematic expression.
Many thanks to Luke Robinson for pointing out its current availability (however ephemeral that may be) here:
And added on 24 September 2020, a bit of satisfying viewing:
About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/