This month started with a memorable couple of days racing around Glasgow to try and catch glimpses of the Radical Film Network festival and unconference. There was a lot on, and incredible variety, as many local groups and individuals organised screenings and events autonomously. We will be talking about it for months, but I wanted to try and start organising some thoughts emerging from some of the conversations that took place that weekend at the unconference, and from the unconference itself as a form of organising.
Many of the people who came to the unconference from outside Glasgow show films in places that are not cinemas (and some have started their own cinemas). Most of the screenings during the festival also took place in spaces that are not normally used for film exhibition. Although the RFN Scotland organising group deliberately avoided policing definitions of what’s radical (a point that keeps coming up for discussion in the broader context of the Network), a tacit alignment to the left was evident. The RFN’s website talks of “film culture for a fair, just and sustainable society”, which is obviously a pretty broad church. In practice, in the context of film exhibition at this particular juncture, this meant mainly non-commercial and/or underground practices.
The events throughout the May Day weekend, like with most socially-engaged forms of film exhibition, had something in common: they used film to bring people to a place, in the hopes that a meaningful engagement would happen, that conversations would start. But just as often, it was the place itself that was an attraction, and the film screening was an opportunity to be in a space. Under the pretence of watching films we get to sit in a shop in the Barras market, the ruin of a church, a women’s housing co-op, or under the railway arches. Entering these temporary venues while thinking politically left me with some questions regarding film exhibition as a radical tactic.
Popular struggles have a long history of using physical presence in and control of a space as an effective form of pressure, but most importantly as a form of direct action (such as in factory work-ins and free universities). The college sit-in and the landless farmers‘ unauthorised tilling are both forms of reclaiming a space and transforming it into the kind of space that is needed. Doreen Massey said of Occupy London that it was “a real creation of a space of the kind that we need a lot more of. A space that brings us together to talk and to argue about the kind of future world we want”. At one of the unconference panels someone mentioned Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a “free enclave […], a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” I will park the question of whether Occupy camps or other specific occupations are to be considered TAZs or not; it is the notion of ‘liberating an area’ that matters. In their reflection on film and resistance against the capitalist appropriation of urban space, Geraldine Pratt and Rose Marie San Juan argue that cinema can work as “a temporary suspension from everyday life, in which new relations can come into being” (2014, p. 176)
So in what ways is the event of cinema like an occupation?
There might be similar logistics: a need to provide creature comforts, whether that means central heating or open fire, plush seats or stacked pallets, a cocktail bar or a communal pot of soup. Conditions must be created that allow people to stay – and these obviously depend on how long people are planning to stay. This is particularly the case when the place under occupation is not one meant for living/for cinema: a factory, a city square, a university lobby. But just as important as the material conditions, the space has to be reinvented socially; it acquires new function and new meaning, and therefore new ways of behaving in it need to emerge. In a screening, the film is the backbone that makes the event understandable from the outside, imaginable, legitimate, even fundable. Getting together to watch a film makes sense to a lot of people; going to an odd place to meet with strangers and have an unplanned conversation, not so much (although if you frame it as an unconference it might even work!).
Moving Parts and Revolutions
One of the challenges of inventing new spaces, especially liberated spaces or spaces for liberation, is that of finding ways to be together that are not mediated by institutional law and policing. The topic of safer spaces came up during the Community Cinemas roundtable towards the end of the festival. Do temporary cinema spaces need safer spaces policies to be upheld for their duration, alongside or replacing the tacit or explicit rules of the venue? With or without such policies, can organisers contribute to make these spaces more accessible and more radical than ‘standard’ cinemas by communicating a kind of ‘vibe’? An interesting idea that came up (from Liverpool’s Small Cinema, if I remember correctly) was to tell the story of the cinema, perhaps in the form of a short trailer before the movie, helping build the trust and sense of investment that can make the audience feel like a fleeting community.
But often the cinema isn’t at all like an occupation. To begin with, its presence in space is, for the most part, not oppositional in itself; it is allowed by the usual controllers of the space, often invited, in celebration rather than protest. (I need to write much more about Cinema Up‘s endlessly thought-provoking Radical Home Cinema programme, but that’s for later.) It is also important not to lose sight of the distinctiveness of cinema as aesthetic experience. It is still at a remove from life, and so it opens up opportunities for introspection and wonder that are often missing in the collective busyness of activism. In foregrounding film’s ability to congregate people, it is easy to forget the power of individual experience (especially when it takes place in public). As Pratt and San Juan hope, cinema can create “an actual concrete space.
Not just as a space to gather information but as a space of fantasy, imagination, affect, and bodily reverberation and resonance. Not just as a space of individual reflection but as a space of sociality and discussion.” (p. 176)
At the same time, the non-committed relationship that is established in the temporary community of the viewing audience is very different to the long-term solidarity required to sustain radical social action, or simply to survive oppression. So perhaps the parallels don’t stretch too far – but they might still offer useful sightlines to bring the political back into thinking the cinema space.
Pratt, Geraldine and Rose Marie San Juan (2014) Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.