In last year’s festival report of Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen I lamented a number of programs that were postponed, including the theme program, Solidarity as Disruption. This year, a selection of that program was adapted for the 67th edition, which was hosted online again. In the period between postponement and adaptation, mutual aid networks and redistribution campaigns proliferated in tandem with a maelstrom of calls for, and answers from, cultural institutions and corporations to issue expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and Free Palestine, to cite only two movements.
Solidarity is elemental in the empowerment and unification of people to accomplish collective goals and exercise political agency. However, it has also emerged as a necessary piece in the maintenance of public relations for businesses, public organisations and figures to dispatch statements of solidarity under the duress of a mass political reckoning. As we anticipate solidarity statements within movements of urgent appearances of liberatory political values, the theme program curators Branka Benčić and Aleksandra Sekulić situate Solidary as Disruption against the political backdrop of a neoconservative counter-revolution.
In their program notes, solidarity is formulated as “one of the central concepts of change”, however, they have also prescribed that change as a horizon that is “reduced to a spectacle of difference that does not disturb the reproduction of inequality.” Within this formulation, the disruptive quality of solidarity is also contingent on a pre-existing system of normalised oppression, “Solidarity is disruptive in a system where inequality, exploitation and oppression are normalised.” Therefore disruptive solidarity is a force that resists the “reduction of human perspective.” Three central antagonisms are identified; an obstinate spectacle of difference, a system of normalised oppression, and the reduction of perspectives. Against these terms of engagement, solidarity is not the scurry to appear, nor is it the practical unification of people in struggle. Instead, solidarity is presented as a form of social intellect that is against reductionism.
Recent formulations in curatorial work and artistic programming seem to carry an urgent political tone, but who issues this call but often the professional managerial class, or the indebted, educated but underclassed precariat? Who answers? How urgent, how audible? Was that disruptive? I lingered on the notion of a “spectacle of difference” that reproduces “inequality” and solidarity as a disruptive force hinged upon the context of “normalised oppression” in resistance to the “reduction of human perspective” (I am dropping the awkward anthropocentrism now) because, objectively, Solidarity as Disruption is a short film program, so to broach the question of political and liberatory materialism, we must encounter it as such. Not only against the foil of neoconservativism or liberal reductionism, but as within the context of an international film festival. It occurred to me that, typically, most film festivals can also operate as normalised sites of exploitation in order to adhere to or placate the public private partnerships it contracts with the state and industry to host its spectacle.1 Festivals gravely strive for and need its operations to go smoothly so, naturally, it’s a context that psychically invites disruption. Within this context, the format of the short film program also offers an armature to host a kind of “spectacle of difference” complacent with the “reproduction of inequality”.
With the theme of solidarity as disruption, the program’s hypothesis is film program as a vehicle for non-normative perspectives. It deploys moving images as material to grapple with the fluctuating integrity of consensus and difference in varying political contexts. Beyond hosting the contradictions that surface in the process of recognising, accepting and tending to difference, what opportunities for political materialism does this specific format prefigure? If a disruptive force of solidarity can result in a diversity of perspective, then that spectacle of difference would not necessarily be replaced with but recalibrated or profaned — in other words, a “spectacle of difference” would become a set of plain facts of difference, critical material that informs the social intellect of solidarity.
Benčić and Sekulić’s perspectives are grounded in the cinema and art practices of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and several works specific to this context are peppered throughout the five main programs, and the works culled for for Solidarity as Disruption offers a historical fulcrum for the overall program. The pairing of Salvatore Insana’s lo ho fissato il fuoco per sempre (I stared at fire forever, 2020) followed by Vlatko Gilić’s Ljubav (Love, 1972) introduces the program with two moods. lo ho fissato il fuoco per sempre begins as a nihilistic flow of black and white images and a droning soundtrack which are interrupted by a child’s yawn. The second half of the film incorporates footage with vocal elements. Allen Ginsberg appears promenading down the street opining modernity with reference to Futurism. Close-ups on individuals excerpt portraits from shots of crowds, yet lingering on their expressions, dampened by the realities of toil, they remain members of what can’t be distinguished between vigil or parade. Something about the edit makes you feel like something is about to explode with boredom or resentment for the aggressively mediocre, and the sense that something must be rendered into material — footage, sound — and disturbed or cut up.
Off the heels of this misanthropic collaging, an affectionate sequence unfurls against a rail bridge construction site. In Love, Steva Kosmajic’s name rings out over the loudspeaker at the site, because his wife has come to visit. A variety of shots survey the construction zone with almost lyrical zooming in and out as Steva descends the skeletal infrastructure to meet his love below. This gentle camerawork presents the laboured environment, but also performs a formal “putting in one’s place” of the couple, who fumble towards each other across scaffolding and uneven terrain. They eat the provisions Steva’s wife has brought on a makeshift dining area from planks of stray wood. They don’t talk, but instead fuss over utensils, vessels and servings while stealing glimpses of the other drinking or eating, as if to store them away. Then, the growling echoes of clang like a heart wrenching recess bell. Steva has to go back to work. This audacious contrast cast two of many markers in the range of aesthetic and documentary occupations to come.
Much of what underlies the untransmitted dinner conversation in Ljubav surfaces in Program 3, Kinepolitic. Kinepolitics refers to the politics of movement as they pertain to the control and management of populations. In the context of Yugoslavia, trains trace the disintegration of a socialist vision. Krsto Papić’s Special Trains (1972) interviews soon-to-be foreign workers on the train from Zagreb to Munich. The sense of impending separation between Gilić lovers is scaled up to this caravan of people who have left their home to become numbered employees in West Germany. Nika Autor’s Newsreel 63: The Train of Shadows (2018) is a film essay produced within the framework of Newsreel Front. In contrast to lo ho fissato il fuoco per sempre, it offers a more structured collaging of fragments, specifically of trains in cinema, treating it as historical material. This include dutiful citations of Lumière and Chaplin, and excerpts from the Yugoslav documentary tradition, the Soviet Union’s Cinetrain experiment, and centres on what is referred to as an “orphaned shot”, viral cellphone footage of a group journey from Belgrade to Ljbuljana captured from between the wheels of a moving train. The narration notes that “stowaway” in Slovenian translates literally to “blind passenger”, although stowaways have conventionally banked on being unseen, rather than externalising their vision. In the social margins of the train, where no one but mechanics and slapstick comedians think to look, the meaning of stowaway is defied by this footage and the agency it contains.
Straub–Huillet converge cinema history and class realities to recognise how the untimely death of young men traverse cultural and political consciousness. In Europa 2005, 27 Octobre (2006) their cine-tract’s title starts by referencing Ingrid Bergman’s character in Roberto Rosselini’s Europa ‘51 (1951),2 the wife of an Industrialist whose son commits suicide, then pivots to the first day of the 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois when two teenagers were electrocuted while hiding from the police in a transformer. In the presence of this program, the built environment resonates with the works that attend to the role that infrastructure plays in the negotiation of refuge.
Beyond discrete programs, broader curatorial strokes, such as placing Želimir Žilnik’s Nezaposleni ljudi (The Unemployed, 1968) from the Kinepolitic program in dialogue with Zheng Yuan’s Dream Delivery (2018) in a sidecar program, draw a historical line of social abandonment from the mass unemployment in Yugoslavia that triggered labour migration to the overworked class that Chinese delivery workers belong.3 In Nezaposleni ljudi, Yugoslavia has already distanced itself from the Soviet Union after the Tito-Stalin split, and established the Non-Alignment Movement in 1961. We meet men who cannot find work and enter their shared living quarters provided by the government employment exchange. This is where they pass the time singing and reading personals. Some are veterans and have been unemployed for years. While Dream Delivery can be said to depict food delivery workers, it actually portrays them in states of non-work — in the interstitial refuge between work, that of sleep and dreams. One sequence includes a group of delivery riders lounging on a sand knoll in a shanzhai (counterfeit) park in the filmmaker’s hometown, Lanzhou. They are styled for this shot in cohorts of three wearing blue, yellow and red windbreakers. Despite how remote these subjects are from opulence, the camera and music converge on this scene in a manner much like that of a music video or designer perfume commercial. Later, this image must be reconciled alongside the inclusion of CCTV footage depicting a rather violent traffic collision. “[Food] Delivery riders experience intense labour on a daily basis, and therefore there are huge numbers of traffic accidents in the metropolises. “Often, companies do not compensate enough or at all for their workers’ injuries – one example being a Beijing rider who experienced sudden death on his shift, and was merely paid 2000 yuan (300 USD) by Ele.me, the company which de facto hired him but which claimed to have no labour relation with him. This job has no advantages over factory work in terms of either wages, labour intensity, or labour rights.” 4 Nezaposleni ljudi appears as if a humble social document relative to this juxtaposition of forms that seems to reflect the corresponding visual mania of hypercapitalism. In this pairing, the unemployed and the overworked have distinct imperatives to partake in the labour force in industrial and post-industrial societies, while both refract the experiences of Yugoslavia and China’s uneven economic developments after the fallout of Socialist regimes and capitalist restoration.
Yuan has remarked that artists in formerly socialist countries often grapple with materials that mark pre- or post-socialist conditions and that he has been criticised for romanticising labour exploitation in the aforementioned sequence in his film.5 This criticism is presented with concern for the ethical representation of socially vulnerable communities or groups, however, it can be also be a vehicle carrying the paternalistic and classist assumption that oppressed or working classes lack the intellectual consciousness to collaborate and consent to the proliferation of their image, and are therefore intrinsically vulnerable to exploitation in the production of the cultural value.6 The nefarious interjection that petit bourgeois sensibilities contain is the lack of social intelligence to recognise whether they are paternalizing or redistributing, whether it is taking offense to how oppressed classes are depicted on screen, or exploiting the working class as subjects in the seizure of woke cultural capital.
In Shard Cinema, Evan Calder Williams observes that given how the majority of the world’s labour forces were affected by mechanised industry, “In the majority of influential and compelling histories of the emergence of mechanical moving images, the factory goes just as markedly missing.”7 This omission sets the precedent for a privileging of perspectives tantamount to a reduction, if you will. Williams continues, “This signifies something major: that accounts of what cinema might have meant, or might come to mean still, will turn their backs again and again on a form of intelligence, awareness, and contestation that did not come from bourgeois crises about the character of the human.” In the long view of history, the petit bourgeois sensibility has arranged the conditions to either render working subjects out of view, or evacuate revolutionary potential from images of working subjects completely.
With greater and greater access to and research into images of workers struggle and geopolitical injustice, Williams’ point of omission is not so much about absence, but presence. The production of solidarity as social intellect was always underway in their specific contexts long before recognition in the coliseum of contemporary art. Films depicting labour conflicts have historically been produced very quickly in order to be screened for workers at factories in a neighbouring town who are on the verge of striking or unionising. Such a strategy falls under the mode of production cited as “radical amateurism” by Benčić and Sekulić, and such a film would be akin to Yugantar Film Collective’s Tambaku chaakila oob ali (Tobacco Embers, 1982), a documentary about women workers organising to bargain for improved working conditions at a tobacco processing plant in Bangalore. Often, these materials end up in the care of cultural institutions and archives, but their status as art remains unsettled by how activists and workers handled this material to wage class war with the ruling and managerial classes.8 Ciril Oberstar writes in Notes on the Class Struggle in Newsreel how the treatment of the newsreel became a precedent for the cine-tract, whereby the “extra-filmic reality of social struggles” instrumentalised media that no longer performed efficiently in the bourgeois mediascape. The re-capturing of these extra-filmic qualities now offer contemporary formats, like a short film program, to build on such epistemologies of solidarity that moving images have forged within specific political and historical contexts. As Williams states, these forms of intelligence, “came from the experiences of those who worked in the factories and were forced to learn to become inhuman — to experience the concrete shattering and reconstitution of their gestures, to live through the difficult necessity of trying to make sense and sight of this new order and its distributed violence that their labour animated.”
Cultural institutions seize on this social intelligence, as the dominant apparatus for the appearance, however, remain, or appear to be, poised at a critical distance from class struggle. It is important to acknowledge that some of the films have been presented in contexts that replicate or serve the social social stratification these works may hope to abolish; in 2017, Nika Autor’s Newsreel 63: The Train of Shadows represented Slovenia at the Venice Biennial; Tobacco Embers was recently restored and digitised so it was able to be screened at major festivals including the Forum Expanded section of Berlinale in 2019. These acknowledgements are not to incite a moral panic about the authority or validity of presenting images of struggle, nor do I advocate for the stringent re-compartmentalisation of class subjectivities within their historically familiar venues. I write them to recognise how the professional class and the cultural elite are stalled on, or at ease with, the tactic of loaning visibility to the social intellect of workers and refugees. We require more imaginative ways to amplify class conflict and manoeuvre out of the trap of conflating solidarity with mere recognition that obscures the line in the sand that needs to be crossed, over and over, in order to co-sign on disruption as the non-normative ideal. As Stuart Hall writes, “We have to draw the line of fire within the culture.”9
Williams prescribes fragmentation as the prefigurative force that shatters oppressive regimes, where “gesture” or agency has fomented in the cracks of labour and empire. To think of the inherent form of social intellect as the fragments that capitalist modernity creates then “the concrete shattering and reconstitution of [workers] gestures” has been a method of renewing the worker’s sense of violence — the violence of technology, which is the engineering of labour production, and thereby the violence of work, the work of image-making that must be renewed/shattered again, and again, on revolutionary terms.
The spatial character inherent to disruptive forces of change — disruptive solidarity, in this case — shares the same formal quality produced in the aftermath of capitalist modernity, that of pieces. The distinction between these sets of shrapnel and those of capitalist modernity is a matter of the cohesive agency of that destructive/productive force, and the subsequent sense-making of those pieces that solidarity can make and provide. Elite recognition prescribes our fragments as obscure, mystifying the histories of disintegration as catastrophic differences or merely special events to be recalled on this special occasion. Solidarity as disruption then must perform the epistemological labour of parsing difference as evident, therefore mundane, so mundane that crossing and shattering becomes as necessary and reflexive as eating and drinking.
Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen online
1-10 May 2021
Festival website: https://www.kurzfilmtage.de/de/
- I have unpacked in texts elsewhere how film festivals host multi-faceted marketplaces and a planned economy of social currency within, or as, cultural and public serving events. See Thresholds of Work and Non-Work in Tulapop Saenjaroen’s People on Sunday and Infinity Factory: On Isiah Medina’s Inventing the Future (2020). ↩
- Europa 2005-27 Octobre was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Roberto Rossellini. ↩
- A work system that demands a 9am to 9pm shift, six days a week. ↩
- Dao Feixiang, “Mingongs and the Radicalisation of the Chinese Working Class”, In Defense of Marxism website, 11 May 2021. ↩
- Interview with Yang Beichen, “Artist Cinemas presents Zheng Yuan, Dream Delivery | Crashing into the Future: Week #6”, e-flux website. ↩
- Dao Feixiang, Ibid. Over the last few decades, a large majority of China’s rural population has migrated into the urban cities seeking work and often settle in cities, comprising a new legal category of citizenry, mingongs, who are workers in urban cities whose households are registered in rural areas. Mingongs consider themselves as part of the urban working class rather than as migrant peasant labourers in the city. A 2019 report points out that the younger generation of mingongs are driven to develop and access modern skills and education. “Unlike the older generation of workers, who remember the equal wages and some benefits that were provided by the state, the new working class has been forming in the soil of privatised property relation, free-market competition, and authoritarian repression. As a result, a massive awakening of class consciousness has begun among the most educated and advanced workers in recent years.” ↩
- See Evan Calder Williams, Shard Cinema, Repeater Books, London, 2017, p. 66. ↩
- Karen Knights, La Commune 2021: EN GRÈVE!: 1970s French Labour Activisms on Screen, May 20, 2021. Hosted by Unit/Pitt Projects, UNIT/PITT, and the Crista Dahl Media Library and Archive at VIVO Media Arts Centre. ↩
- See Stuart Hall, “Culturalism”, Cultural Studies: 1983: A Theoretical History, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2016, p. 41 ↩