Sunday, January 4, 2009

Two political documentaries

By synchronicity a couple of films about 70s political groups that existed at almost the exact same time.

The weakest is Cine Manifest (Judy Irola 2007), a look at a filmmaking collective of the same name from the early 70s. It existed for a few years and included probably about seven people (the number according to the film but an article in Jump Cut states there were nine). Cine Manifest produced two features and apparently nothing else - like so many other things the film isn’t specific about this - but based on clips these look like two features worth reviving. The problem with Cine Manifest is that it mostly ignores the politics while trying to add “interest” by cutesy tricks. For instance when one talking head says that they were lower-c communists we get a shot of a typewriting writing a capital “C” which is then x-ed out and lower-case communist typed. Memos from the group are presented with a voice over while showing faux torn-paper clips which are sometimes crumpled.

Cine Manifest was directed by a member of the original group and it mainly feels like something of a reunion (though most members are interviewed separately) and without any strong drive to it. This does result in an inside look at how a collective actually operated but only in bits and pieces (and certainly nothing as spectacular as the fiction film Kichiku which covered similar ground). The political motivations are mentioned in passing but if you don’t already know the arguments for collective action then you won’t know why that’s what they did - but then again would you even be watching this film? Most of the discussion is about getting the films made and how they negotiated that but little about the political implications. The numerous script conferences, for instance - they bring this up but no details are given. What were the problems with non-professional actors or on locations? Who distributed the films? Who owns the copyrights? There’s an interesting story about trying to kick Nicholas Ray out of their studio where he was crashing while helping students on a project - the opportunity that offers for seeing a different political approach isn’t taken. It’s interesting that nearly all of the Cine Manifest group stayed in the film industry though with the exception of Irola most don’t appear to be working on political projects. I don’t mean to say they sold out because they sound just as aware today and I’d guess their experiences made them more conscious within the industry - in the end that may be where change is more important than low-distribution political films.

By contrast Baader-Meinhof: In Love With Terror (Ben Lewis 2002) is both formally more mature and politically more substantial. Made for the BBC and running a tad over an hour, the film traces the development of the RAF from 1968 student protests until its final dissolution in 1998 (though the final decade is covered in about a minute). Lewis uses repeated clips of pigs being processed at a meat factory and a dense, collage-based sound mix (including Krautrock) that results in a nearly industrial feel to the entire film. (Perhaps not entirely accidental: Throbbing Gristle’s first album came out the same year as the RAF’s most visible activity and deaths of its two leaders, while of course SPK named themselves after a militant patients’ group that fed into the RAF.) Lewis also uses audio of communiques and news reports but these are frequently the originals and with no printed text. Irola is careful that a viewer be pointed out every single element but Lewis is far more allusive and open-ended, frequently overlapping sound and images. In fact, by allowing so many options and criss-crossing commentary a viewer could see the film as sympathetic to the RAF, as one response to a history of fascism, not easily perhaps but that’s possible. One point that I wish was made clear is the status of the former RAF members interviewed - are they in prison or free?