Docutopia: Deconstructing Protest

“How do you film a revolution?” That was the question that Docutopia asked in its 2nd ever column on June 6, 2012. Now, more than 18 months later, we’ve seen dozens of answers, from last fall’s 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Movie to the recent Sundance entrant We Are the Giant to Jehane Noujiam’s Oscar nominee The Square.

But two new documentaries, Demonstration and The Uprising, both screening in the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight program, depict revolutionary protests in a significantly different way from those predecessors. They decontextualize conflict, sidelining specific social and/or economic struggles in order to make broader points about the nature of protest in general.

Such projects would probably have never been made without the detached perspective and emotional distance that time provides. These are not activist films; they are art films. Indeed, the men at the helms of both projects are outsiders in relation to the movements they depict: Victor Kossakovsky, who made Demonstration, which chronicles protests in Barcelona, is Russian; Peter Snowdon, who made The Uprising, which depicts the events of the Arab Spring, is British. If Demonstration or The Uprising were released within the early days of global political unrest, some viewers may have felt these found footage compilations insensitive or, at worst, irresponsible. But given the sheer amount of media images documenting political demonstrations over the last few years, it’s refreshing to see filmmakers trying something new.

Made with the help of 32 documentary Masters’ students from Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, Kossakovsky’s Demonstration is comprised of three distinct elements: images of mass strikes and the armed police response, which took place in the city in March 2012; music from Ludwig Minkus’s ballet Don Quixote, which was staged at the Barcelona Opera House on the same day as the unrest; and scenes of two protestors who took park in the demonstrations, watching Kossakovsky’s footage.

Dubbed a “film ballet,” Kossakovsky and his team are far more interested in the look and feel of the demonstrations than their cause. While we hear occasional words from the angry crowds such as “Strike!” the soundtrack is dominated by the lyrical passages of the classical music. This juxtaposition produces a depoliticized urban performance piece, in which the dissonant combination of melodious sounds and images of violence produces a darkly ironic, sometimes even funny effect, as if the protestors were in an orchestrated duet with the riot police.

But the most powerful moments in Demonstration come when this clever conceit falls away, when the Don Quixote score cuts out entirely and we finally hear people screaming, “Where is the ambulance?” or “Four hit by bullets”—when artistry is suddenly intruded by “the real.”

Likewise, the film also gains an intimacy and humanity that it otherwise lacks when we finally get to know the protestors who have been watching the spectacle: an old man, whose commitment to the cause borders on the self-destructive—“kill me,” he shouts to the police, as he sits in front of oncoming SWAT vehicles—and a woman, who lost an eye during an earlier demonstration. When, at the end of the film, these two people look directly at the camera and are framed in close-up, they become not just pawns in the filmmakers’ visual dance, but fragile, feeling individuals.

The same can’t exactly be said for The Uprising, Peter Snowdon’s experimental documentary that follows an imagined single revolution, spliced together from amateur videos from throughout the various territories comprising the “Arab Spring.” While The Uprising’s montage doesn’t depoliticize events in the same way as Demonstration’s ballet-film, it neutralizes the specificities and complexities of each of these country’s internal conflicts. Is the anger against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who we see in a poster set aflame, the same as the grievances against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali?

Though it’s fascinating to see similar hectic handheld images of street warfare and newly liberated people across the Arab region—so similar that Snowdon and his team could smoothly edit them together—it ‘s problematic to see these people represented as a singular Arab body politic.

In a way, it’s the antithesis of Noujiam’s The Square, which had representative protagonists of Egypt’s revolution (the innocent revolutionary who comes of age, the Islamic family man at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.). Here, there is little to distinguish between Syrian or Libyan revolutionaries, Egyptian or Yemeni activists or regular folks from Tunisia or Bahrain, who have been swept up in the spirit of protest. Though most of the footage comes from the first-person handheld perspective of citizens in the throes of violence and chaos, we never see who is behind the camera.

There is a visceral power to images of people torn apart by gunfire, their limp bodies carried away by groups of bystanders, but it’s also a bit of a sensationalistic horror show. We’re given little context for what we are seeing, how it happened, and what will happen to these individuals after the camera stops rolling.

Of course, Snowdon isn’t realistically depicting the Arab Spring protests; the film even posits its chronicle as a kind of fictional reimagining. Like the famous city-symphony films of the early 20th Century (The Man With a Movie Camera, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City), these films explore formal, rhythmic, and thematic relationships between images as much as they make any strong political arguments.

But when the lives of real individuals who cried, and fought and died, are re-contextualized for an art piece, it’s frustrating to be kept at such a distance. Kossakovsky and his students seem to have intuited this, which makes the two characters they single out—who are both spectators, like us, and participants—such a necessary addition to their project. Without them, it’s just a bunch of clever editing.

Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.

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