Q&A with Editor and Author Richard Porton
Published on December 13th, 2011 | by Ryan Wells0
Cinespect recently spoke with Richard Porton, who is an editor at Cineaste Magazine and author of “Film and the Anarchist Imagination” and “Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals.” He is also an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast and Moving Image Source.
Tell us a little about shifts within anarchist cinema—both fiction and non-fiction— in recent years. What is the driving force behind this?
Before answering this question, it’s important to note that defining “anarchist cinema” is not an easy task. The term is used quite loosely and often refers to historical films dealing with events such as the Paris Commune or the Spanish Revolution, or biopics and documentaries dealing with luminaries such as Buenaventura Durruti or Errico Malatesta. On the other hand, the term can also refer to films that have some sort of anti-authoritarian impetus, even though they might not be labeled as specifically “anarchist” by their directors or screenwriters. Examples might include some of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classics (despite the fact that Buñuel’s own politics were explicitly anti-anarchist for most of his life—he embraced the more mainstream leftism of the Spanish Communists) or some aspects of the work of Alain Tanner or Dušan Makavejev. Jean Vigo is of course beloved by the anarchist community since his films fuse an anti-authoritarian aesthetic with a political stance he inherited from his anarchist father, Miguel Almereyda.
That being said, the last decade, while not rife with distinguished examples of “anarchist cinema,” generated certain key films that reflect recent anti-authoritarian currents and are unquestionably influenced by the impact of two seminal events: the confrontations of anti-corporate globalization protestors at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization in 1999 and the political fallout from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. To cite some examples: Stuart Townsend’s well-intentioned, if quite mediocre, “Battle in Seattle” (2007) attempted to mold the complexities of the WTO demonstrations into a docudrama that, unfortunately, fell prey to numerous dramatic clichés. And an equally compromised commercial film, James McTeigue’s “V for Vendetta” (2006), is a fairly straightforward denunciation of the erosion of civil liberties that has been one of the byproducts of the U.S. “war on terror.” And, as we all know, the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the film became a favorite of the denizens of Occupy Wall Street.
Considering the surge in populist rage in recent years (and months), do you see this interest reflected in films of the last decade—whether mainstream, indie or experimental— that touch upon topics or themes pertaining to anarchistic topics?
Since state socialism was pretty much discredited after the fall of Communism, the anarchist tradition has been rediscovered in Eastern Europe. Several films in the series reflect that trend: Maple Razsa and Pacho Velez’s “Bastards of Utopia” is a documentary about a group of young Croatian anarchists who live communally and attempt to provide an antidote to both neoliberalism and the tradition of authoritarian socialism. Also, Zelimir Zilnik’s recent “The Old School of Capitalism” is an intriguing meld of fiction and documentary, deals with working class disaffection in the new capitalist Serbia and a group of young anarchist activists determined to subvert the established economic order.
Have filmmakers been more preoccupied with representing anarchist history instead of addressing contemporary issues from an anarchist perspective?
As I mentioned previously, films dealing with key events in anarchist history (as well as tributes to heroes and martyrs such as Emma Goldman and Sacco and Vanzetti) have always constituted a large percentage of the work categorized as “anarchist cinema.” Although I wouldn’t say that filmmakers necessarily shy away from depicting “contemporary issues,” a retrospective glance at the past often yields insights into current political quandaries. The Spanish Revolution of the 1930s has inspired the lion’s share of historical films on anarchism, primarily because this period marked the most extended political success of the anarchist movement and the only real moment when anarchists were close to seizing power. There are of course some critics and audience members who complain that historical films promote a debilitating “revolutionary nostalgia.” But, as Peter Watkins’ “La Commune” (Paris 1871) ably demonstrates, it is completely feasible to link revolutionary eruptions of the past to present-day political ferment.
Tell us a bit about your involvement in programming the Anarchist Films series at Anthology.
Anarchist film festivals and series have long proliferated in other cities in both Europe and the United States. For many years, Portland sponsored an anarchist film festival and similar events have occurred in, among other places, Chicago, Melbourne and Newcastle-on-Tyne. Jared Rapfogel of Anthology Film Archives is one of the most daring and innovative programmers around and he seemed to think that the moment was ripe for an anarchist film series in New York. Although this was in the planning stages long before Occupy Wall Street (OWS) became a news story, the agenda of most of the films in the series are certainly congruent with the aims of OWS. So, even though this series doesn’t seem to be getting much mainstream press coverage, it couldn’t be much more pertinent to recent spurts of insurrectionary fervor.
How has digital technology affected the way anarchist activities or leaders are captured on film?
There’s certainly been an impact. Much of what is now termed anarchist cinema consists of alternative reportage captured with digital video on various websites. Andrew Hedden’s extremely useful article, “Videotaping a New World in the Shell of the Old,” chronicles the rise of video activism as alternative journalism in the anarchist community.
Most of these sites are not particularly interested in creating artful documentaries and are instead merely focused on capturing the immediacy of protests or uprisings. There’s a provisional, ad hoc quality shared by much of this work. But, despite an overall lack of artistry, this sort of reportage is often quite successful in conveying the vicissitudes of everyday political struggle.
Are you seeing particular regions of the world churning out more anarchist-related cinema than others? Or is this “as usual” based on the cultural and political atmosphere? (i.e., perhaps there’s more anarchist cinema in countries where those activities are seen as more frequent?)
Countries with strong anarchist traditions such as Spain and France have traditionally produced a number of films, whether militant documentaries or nuanced examples of art cinema, that could be termed “anarchist related.” That trend continues to this day, even though most of the films in question are documentaries that enjoy rather limited distribution. Although Greece boasts some of the world’s most militant anarchists and has produced a powerful document of the insurrections of 2008 and 2009—“The Potentiality of Storming Heaven”— I’m not aware of any recent Greek fiction films addressing the anti-authoritarian zeitgeist of recent years. But I have no doubt that fiction films on this topic will eventually be made in Greece.
Generally speaking, what has been the impact of these films? Do they move particular political needles? Or rather considered “fringe” affairs?
It’s difficult to speak of any films, whether anarchist or non-anarchist, having a tangible impact on flesh and blood individuals. Militant documentaries, or anti-authoritarian art cinema, can either rile or profoundly move audiences. But it’s obviously hard to speak of a one-to-one correspondence between art and specific political events. When I taught some of these films at NYU in the past, most of my students with anarchist sympathies told me they became politically committed through punk rock. But, you never know. It’s possible that a kid who’s excited by Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct” or a documentary on the Spanish Civil War might become an activist. We just don’t have the empirical evidence.
It’s hard not to mention social media when talking about the amount of anarchy and protests captured globally and disseminated. Do you see it usurping some of traditional (non-fiction/fiction) cinema’s power to some degree? Or aiding it?
I’d say that social media is an organizing tool that has very little to do with the role of cinema in our society, however you might define that. Frankly, I’m a little skeptical about many of the claims made for Facebook and Twitter. While I haven’t studied the matter comprehensively, I tend to favor Malcolm Gladwell’s view that social media relies on “weak ties” and is somewhat overrated as a radical modus operandi. While it’s possible that some participants in social movements such as OWS responded to information found on, say, Facebook, those who remained probably stayed because of what they experienced on the ground with live human beings.
Who are some contemporary filmmakers who are consistently focused on capturing anarchist activities?
You don’t have to be a self-proclaimed “anarchist” to make “anarchistic” or anti-authoritarian films. Although Adam Curtis doesn’t chronicle “anarchist activities,” some of the superb documentary essays he’s produced for the BBC certainly deal with some of the same concerns that obsess contemporary anarchists, particularly the insidiousness of social control and the perils of neoliberalism. For those unacquainted with Curtis’s work, I’d particularly recommend “The Trap: What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom” and “It Felt Like a Kiss.”