In the early years of the silent era, it was proposed that films, not requiring literacy and able to cross national borders with ease, would become the people’s art form. Sound and the capitalist mode of production soon put paid to that. But something of that hope still exists in the film festival, when it is not merely a boutique shopping experience for the aesthete. For films can still take revealing snapshots of the world.
I recently viewed two movies which fit this framing. Notes to Eternity thankfully made its way to Greymouth/Mawhera, probably because cinematographer, Alun Bollinger, who worked on the film, lives locally. It is a puzzle of a film, beginning with its title, which I don’t fathom, yet in its failure, tells more than most successes. In fact, in a world of well-made product, those that don’t quite make it aesthetically, let some truth in through the cracks.
The director, Sarah Cordery spent ten years making the movie and I imagine gathered a lot of material which had to be edited into some sort of shape. Starting off as a film about Palestine, it becomes a film about US Jewish intellectuals’ response to Palestine, which in turn becomes a response to being Jewish and the current contradictions of being Jewish, contradictions which reverberate back into history and the puzzling inability of a people to learn from their history, for example, to repeat the persecutor/victim/rescuer pattern, even while trying to escape it. How can a people with intimate knowledge of the Warsaw ghetto, create Gaza? How can people with intimate knowledge of fascism create a state which, if not classically fascist, acts like a fascist state? And does the role of activist intellectual assuage guilt or is it a career in itself, with the spin offs of career?
Chomsky, Finkelstein and Roy let Cordery into their homes and family lives (to an extent) and the glimpses are tantalising, as are the glimpses of young Jewish Americans with their passionate confusion. For behind the Jewish question lies the US using of Israel as a security guard to protect its oil interests in the Middle East
Palestine becomes then the ruined backdrop, a disaster tourism destination, a wall to be graffitied, with a traumatised people behind it. But the people still find gaps in the wall, and remain dignified as they ponder their own existential question: should we recognise Israel? It is a question which remains fundamentally problematic – even Chomsky fudged this one. If you recognise Israel there’s no right of return. If you don’t, Israel has the right not to negotiate. How can you negotiate if your negotiating partner doesn’t recognise your existence (even if evidentially, your possession of a large military force and nuclear arsenal and the backing of the US means you certainly do exist)?
The documentary circles these issues, searching for a form. The scene titles and animation are a valiant effort, but don’t ultimately do the job, so Cordery ends up free associating around interviews and recordings of lectures and public meetings, which are repetitious, for that is the nature of advocacy. And then the problem of how to finish, for there is no finish to this in the forseeable future. Meanwhile there is the Robert Fisk Lebanon material which doesn’t really fit, but is good material so has to be used. But it is a great failure of a documentary, one which the viewer will remember long past slicker pieces.
And then I watched Straight Outta Compton, which I had missed and intuitively wanted to see, that drama doco about the gangsta rap boys from LA who were swept up by market forces, got to say their piece, before falling apart because of naivety, greed, thuggery and police brutality. Here is the underbelly of the system played out in almost Shakespearian fashion, a lumpen proletariat, traumatised and brutalised, but still cheeky, even with occasional dignity, pondering their own existential question: niggers with attitude? Twenty years later, they have morphed into the Black Lives Matter movement.
So, two snapshots from the centre of the Empire, a filmic crossing of borders with ease.