As I write, supermarket shelves sit empty. People are stockpiling toilet paper, hand sanitiser and other household goods in preparation for a lockdown: in my former home, Australia, and in my current home, the UK. Elsewhere, too. Self-isolation will become one of the defining practices of 2020. But, just weeks ago, I was sat in packed auditoriums in Rotterdam, with cinephiles from all over the world, experiencing, reflecting on and marvelling at the power of the collective, both on and off screen.
From collective practices of filmmaking, including the extraordinary work presented by Karrabing Collective, to the power of a collective movement in shaping political mobility – as explored through a mix of bold new documentaries and resonant repertory screenings in a curated strand by Shelly Kraicer, Ordinary Heroes: Made in Hong Kong – IFFR 2020 felt like a much-needed beacon of solidarity and togetherness.
IFFR presented the world premiere of Karrabing Film Collective’s Day in the Life, in conversation with three of the collective’s members, Angelina Lewis and her two sons, Kieran and Aiden Sing. Also present was their director and editor Elizabeth Povinelli, who Aiden calls “my grandma through respect”. They then re-screened the work in a two-part program with some of the collective’s earlier films, Practices of Memory in Possible Futures and Overlapping Realities. I watched Day in the Life twice and, if there’d been a third or fourth screening, I’d have turned up for those, too. The work is, as its title suggests, a day in the life of their community. Segmented into cadenced attempts, the day has clear beats that echo the constant rhythm of its hip-hop track, and breaks down thus: Break. Fast, Break. Feast / Play Break / Lunch Run / Cocktail Hour / Takeout Dinner. There is a constant and simmering dichotomy at play in this work; between stricture and fluidity, of past and present, of white and black, of cultures and authority, of suffered injustice and of neoliberal oppression, and even of film form, as the more experimental elements of the collective’s storytelling and Povinelli’s editing splinters an otherwise clear, linear narrative.
In this way, the work agitated something in me, too; a chasm of fear and anger, built on the pain of true humanity and the horrors of historical fact. Like a running tap, my eyes opened and Karrabing filled me with the truth of their lived experiences, and those of their ancestors. These stories, many untold across several (stolen) generations, will always be urgent, because their impact is always immediate; the atrocities of Australia’s past don’t only persist but continue, and sometimes start anew.
The film draws on a great wealth of archive audio, from Australian television and radio broadcasts to speeches from past Prime Ministers. Some of the soundbites felt heavy, the weight of having heard them before; John Howard famously not apologising and Kevin Rudd saying sorry but not much more. Others felt like fresh attacks, tearing through flesh and bone; the likes of right-wing radio broadcaster Alan Jones and others whose voices I don’t recognise since moving to the UK but who call for abhorrent and inhumane practices like a new stolen generation and, as heard in the film, to “dope the water up so they’re sterile and bread themselves out.”
At one point in the film, the mothers talk about hiding their children. Just writing this sentence once again opens my salty eyes. The film addresses these past and present practices of dividing families and the complex intersection of issues facing their community; stolen generations, contemporary practices of poisoning their land (fracking, clearing, lithium dumping), alcohol fines (they are a “dry community”) that add up and can be paid by jail time served – jails that, for Indigenous Australians, have high mortality rates.
What struck me most was how the actual feeling of endlessly spiralling injustices are held by the film’s form. Within the narrative, which is itself an active part of the making of the film, members of the community play around with clap sticks and beer cans, trying to find a beat. This is driven by Kieran Sing, a member of the collective who is thirteen years old. This is the first of Karrabing’s work set to a hip-hop track. Much like the spirit of the collective, the beat never breaks, despite the constant aural interjections of white Australia through archive audio. Their own lyrics, in verse and repeated intermittently throughout the film, are statements and questions that run through their community, cyclically, just like the cultural storytelling of their past, present and future, which are simultaneously alive, and active, “No one interferes. No one cares. Someone’s making money here.”
In this way, Day in the Life is so much more than a film, it is also an activation, of social and cultural history and of the collective – theirs and ours as industry, audience and advocates for the dissemination of film culture, truth, beauty, history, humanity. Povinelli’s visual editing style, with beautiful, rich layers of superimposition, works in harmony with the storytelling to ensure the audience connect aesthetically as well as aurally with this notion of collective historiography as a living palimpsest.
Accompanying this exceptional work, the three family members of Karrabing Collective who were present were also very generous in sharing their experiences and stories with us as a live dialogue. Angelina Lewis talked about the practice of their collective filmmaking as a form of caretaking for their cultural identities and histories, “We get to keep our stories,” she said, “Looking back, we felt like we were losing our story – it was sort of fading.”
Screened with Day in the Life, Night Time Go (2017) tells the previously unknown history of Aboriginal people sent to internment camps in Katherine in 1943. There is no written account of it because there were no records kept of how many Indigenous peoples were forced into war camps, or indeed any official records kept about Indigenous peoples in Australia until 1967. But Angelina knows the story, because it happened in her family.
Again, the story alone is astonishing, but the storytelling meets its content with sophistication. The initially black and white re-enactment soon bleeds into colour and the 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio (or 1.33:1 (4:3) television aspect ratio) expands to bring us into present day. A small bush fire rages onscreen and, again, my eyes flood open as the film speaks directly to the Australia of today.
In Rotterdam, it is cold and grey. But Australia burns. And just as the successive governments represented by soundbites or stock footage used in Karrabing Collective’s films always have, today’s administration refuses to take responsibility, make reparations or even just stop and start doing the right thing. Prime Minister Scott Morrison all but laughs in the face of climate change, and mining on sacred grounds continues. I grew up in Australia and I learnt about White Australia Policy, the History Wars and other embedded racist practices as part of a school syllabus, but I am still somehow devastated to learn that the Native Affairs Department would report any time a white child picked up an Aboriginal word.
In between screenings, I check the news and learn that in addition to the bush fires raging across my former homeland, so too is a new chapter in the History Wars. Aboriginal Australian writer, Bruce Pascoe, is at the heart of a discreditation campaign. Author of Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident (2014), Pascoe has re-examined letters and journal entries of colonists to re-frame the interpretation of Indigenous society. And not everyone in Australia is happy about it.1 It’s painful to know that in this very moment as I learn more about the history of systemic and strategic oppression of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, they are being silenced and wronged. Among my own collective of film friends in the audience there is a shared sense of astonishment; at the memories, practices and realities we have just paid witness to, but also of the ones we know are yet to come.
Walking between screenings I reflect on how the concept of histories being “written” suddenly seems absurd to me; how can something that has multiple perspectives and therefore truths and experiences ever be presented as if final, as a record or account? Karrabing “keep their stories” by telling, living and activating them through moving images.
I soon stomp into another darkened room and another living history; the world premiere of Evans Chan’s We Have Boots (2020). At the time of its premiere, protests in Hong Kong have been ongoing for seven months. Though I am of course aware of the protests, I have missed the finer points and key figures; I have a seven month-old son. We Have Boots is one hell of a way to catch up.
Chan masterfully captures both the frontline of the protests, including interviews with its key proponents, and the online aesthetic of a story that has played out in a mediated and perhaps even unreal way for the rest of the world. Using a range of colours and fonts, but most notably bright red and lurid green, the written text of the film is always a noticeably present and artificial addition to the onscreen action. In this way, Chan simultaneously participates in and comments on the lens through which we receive such information. The footage itself is a veritable mixed bag; professionally captured for the project, news reports, social media posts, comments and camera phone footage.
The film is filled with impassioned individuals of the Umbrella Movement, many of whom were incarcerated for their efforts, including: Student Leader Alex Chow Yong-kang, Associate Professor of Law Benny Tai, and social worker and activist Shiu Ka-chun, who says “To be in prison can be performing a duty.” Along with the rise of the movement and its key figures, the perception of their motivations and their own reflections – both as they unfold and with small windows of retrospect – and popular and media coverage, the film also looks at the impact of youth alienation, conflict with mainland China, HK as the ninth most unequal place in the world (the most expensive home in the world is a four bed house in HK, marketed at $446 million) and the mental health implications of social and political righteousness – at any cost.
And why not? When political paradoxes leave individuals behind, any cost is all there is. It might be said that it’s “One country, two systems” but the truth is that the UK Government doesn’t help if you’re imprisoned in China. Similarly, a certain type of Hong Kong cinema has become popular overseas – from the Shaw Brothers to John Woo, who’s now been co-opted by Hollywood – but some topics are left more than well alone. Introducing the film, Chan talked about the many “Umbrella films” that have been made since 2015 and how they have not been deemed important in an international arena, specifically that, “American festivals haven’t touched them yet.”
Democracy, Chan tells us, is a shield against corruption, and not much else. The people “fight pragmatically for the impossible” as the film forces us to contemplate what constitutes acceptable or tolerable inequality. Chan finds fatalism depressing but, in the face of an always asymmetrical power relationship, “by any means necessary” is at least an understandable position.
One masked and audio-distorted individual tells us that he doesn’t ever expect to have money or children, “Despair has haunted me for years.” For him, an opportunity to fight, revolt, just to attempt something, is more like living that continuing in a country where the future promises nothing more than neoliberal oppression. The question then, that Chan poses, shifts from understanding acceptable inequality into determining what constitutes violence. If the status quo is quietly violent, is that more, less or equal to the physical conflict between protestors and authorities?
Though I can’t recall which of the figures in the film said it, the words loll about in my head as I pull myself up and out of my seat by my western, capitalist bootstraps, “It’s painful being a non-violent militant.” Chan said he asks himself, “Is it just armchair activism?” But I can’t help thinking it must be more, for its brave aesthetic – sometimes ugly, garish and unpolished – “real”, I think. “Justice has no homeland, remember that,” he muses, “You are just looking at a situation.” Looking, I wonder, “Am I just an audience to activism?”
James Leong and Lynn Lee’s “work in progress” documentary, If We Burn, gave me pause for thought; festival audiences for films like these might be thought of as “activists in progress”. Introducing the film, they accepted the potentially never quite finished nature of their project, “We’re still filming – there’s a lot more to explore.” Similarly, there is more work to be done in converting cinephilic to civic activism.
Focusing mainly on the student-led siege of the Government Headquarters on 12th June, Leong and Lee bring us directly into the conflict, literally putting us in the room where it happened. In addition to their two cameras, they had one other cameraperson and, having worked as journalists in Hong Kong for almost seven years, were able to ask for footage from former contacts to “fill in” what they’d missed. Much like their admittance that filming an event as it happens is precarious because, “You don’t really know where to be at what time,” the film’s narrative causality follows protagonists without a script, who have no idea what their next action will be. A unique insight into how a movement gathers momentum, self-organises and negotiates the motivations and power dynamics between individuals, If We Burn looks at the way a collective manages itself under pressure and in a sustained crisis. Hongkongers took their protest, which became physical, to the Legal Council precisely because their activity was unlawful. Undemocratic elections led the protestors to their inevitable conclusion, “It was you who taught us legal protest is futile.” Though Leong and Lee try to show a balance of protestors who believe in using violence as a means of revolution with those who don’t, the questions they ask echo Chan’s: what is acceptable or tolerable inequality and what constitutes violence?
What’s missing in both docs, however, is the unattainable counterpoint. It is almost impossible as an “activist in progress” member of the audience to empathise with or even to comprehend the violent and often brutal participation of the Hong Kong police. Who are the voiceless, nameless and blameless uniformed enforcers? How do they answer Chan, Leong and Lee’s questions about tolerable inequality and acceptable violence? As a collective they are Law and Order, they have power. As individuals they are human, but they are also in the wrong.
As I write, self-isolation and social distancing is already taking place and my inbox is filling with news of film festival cancellations, move to digital only or postponements: SXSW, FIFF, CPH:DOX, GSFF, Courtisane, TriBeCa, and a list of countries that have fully closed their cinemas: China, France, Spain, Italy, Dubai, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Lebanon, Kuwait – with many more to come. Like many universities, some of the festivals will offer an element of what they do online and, just weeks after Greta Thunberg visited my current hometown of Bristol to encourage others to take action on our global climate emergency, staying put and plugging in to an online portal doesn’t sound so terrible. But while this will surely help reduce carbon emissions, I can’t help but wonder how it will impact our understanding of and, more urgently, our participation in collective activity.
International Film Festival Rotterdam
23 January – 2 February, 2020
Festival website: https://iffr.com/en