I recently finished my first feature documentary, and became a co-director of nascent media co-operative The Bristol Cable. This obviously calls for a welded celebration in the form of an article-shaped, self-aggrandizing plug.
I recently finished my first feature documentary, and became a co-director of nascent media co-operative The Bristol Cable. This obviously calls for a welded celebration in the form of an article-shaped, self-aggrandizing plug.
(Cross posted from Dialectical Films, with thanks.)
As research for a panel on the subject of ‘audiences’ at the Radical Film Network‘s inaugural conference earlier this year, I spoke to a number of media organisers and radical filmmakers about their work and how they survive while doing it. This is one of two interviews I will publish, with the intention of inspiring, comforting and galvanising those making political work and no money.
Franklin Lopez is an anarchist video maker based in North America (though, as he noted early on in our conversation, he considers himself stateless) and creator of the video site subMedia.tv. He has been producing quality political videos (from feature length documentaries to collaborations with poets and mash-ups) for over a decade, all of which can be watched for free at the site, and he produces a monthly radical newsreel vlog that can be found there and on YouTube.
Franklin kindly took time to answer my questions, and thankfully gave some encouraging answers about the contact he has with his audiences, being fairly compensated for his work, and refusing to give up his political values in the name of ‘expansion’.
How did subMedia.tv and The Stimulator come about?
Well, subMedia and the stimulator are two different things. subMedia.tv is a website that published anarchist films me and my friends produce as well as other videos, and The Stimulator is the character of a web-vlog we produce called “It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine” or as we call it “The Fuckin Show”.
subMedia.tv was created as an independent venture, owned and funded outside of corporate media with the goal of broadcasting radical and anarchist films. The Fuckin Show was created to provide radical news and analysis on a monthly basis to an audience of radicals and anarchists, and those who are curious about radical and anarchist ideas. The Fuckin Show is supposed to be funny and provide much needed comic relief to the stuffy real of radical and anarchist discourse.
subMedia wasn’t always radical; we made political films with a liberal left sensibility, but it evolved over the years to be the rabble rousing agit prop propaganda media production house that it is today. So in 2001 while the US beat the drums of war, we felt a need to aid the anti-war movement, came into contact with anarchists and thus began this process that radicalized how and why we make films.
Are you completely independently funded?
150 per cent!
How the hell do you fund this operation?
Mostly small donations from viewers, some from DVD sales and some from screenings.
Is there one activity/source that provides the majority of your funding?
Viewers of our videos.
Do you have another job or source of income aside subMedia?
Once or twice a year I’ll do a gig, usually because it falls in my lap but not out of necessity. Last year I did one video for AJ+, the year before some TV channels bought some of our footage and films. Other people who collaborate with us have freelance gigs or are on welfare.
How many people work for and with subMedia?
Right now it’s three of us. Me on a full-time basis and two others on a part-time basis. We also have about 5 volunteers that dedicate a few hours helping us out with media production – in return, they learn video skills.
You are clearly politically radical. Do you consider your work aesthetically radical?
Sure, but I don’t think we’re breaking new ground artistically. We “steal” most of the footage and music we use, blatantly script in our politics no holds barred, use the language we fuckin want, try new things every chance we get.
Do you consider your way of organising and producing work radical?
Sure, one of the things we do that most people don’t notice is to be connected with movements, so a lot of the media that we produce is done with the hope to aid movements. For example, we take some direction from indigenous groups in so called “Canada” to create videos that will help them further their struggle.
What is your definition of ‘radical’, if you have one?
To get to the root of the matter, to not “sugar coat” or dumb down things, to tell it how it is.
Radical is antonymous to Liberal. Radical is antonymous to reformist.
Do you find any conflict between the work you do and earning money from it?
I’m not sure I understand the question. subMedia has been crowd funding since 2008, and we have never bent our politics in the hopes to generate more income. Sometimes our opinions have cost us viewers, but that’s the price you pay for being honest.
What contact do you have with your audience?
Lots. Emails, Facebook / Twitter / website comments, but my favourite is face to face during or after screenings.
Which social media do you find to be most useful in terms of creating an audience or community?
Unfortunately Facebook. We’ve had some success on Twitter, but we find more engagement on Facebook. It was a bit of struggle coming to terms with it, in terms of FB being a capitalist project with little regard to privacy, but our audience are not purists and I think most of them have fake profiles anyway.
Was there one piece of work or event that led your audience to grow, or has it been mostly gradual/organic?
The 2008 Democrat and Republican conventions. subMedia teamed up with a video collective out of Seattle called “Pepper Spray Productions”, and we cranked out 10 shows in 10 days bringing daily reports from the street protests. People at those convergences would gather to see what was accomplished and laugh a little before the following day of action. Same is true of our coverage of the G20 protests in Toronto.
Do you dedicate time specifically to building your audience, or have you let it happen organically?
We have never had the time or foresight to do a marketing plan, so things have happened organically.
Is it important to you to measure/follow this, or do you just sit back and let it grow?
I think it’s interesting to see where your audience is coming from and yes we would like to grow our audience, but not out of the desire to make more money, or just for the sake of reaching more people. We are more interested in reaching the right people, i.e. people who are most likely to engage and get involved with a movement. We’re not that interested in reaching pensioners who sit at home and watch TV, for example. What we have found is that our audience has shifted over the years, and while we have some hardcore fans, we also have fans that outgrow our content and new fans who are excited to engage with radical ideas. I think it’s a bit dangerous to try to appeal to a certain group based on metrics in order to get more viewers, because you run the danger of bending or softening your discourse in the name of getting more people, instead of staying true to your “raison d’etre” – ours being to disseminate anarchist and anti-authoritarian ideas and to aid social movements.
Do you have any particular skills or advice to pass on to others starting their own radical media organisations?
Mainly to be consistent, to be true to your ideals, to honor your audience and not short change them, to the make the best fuckin media you can with the resources available to you.
Off the Page, The Guardian’s series of ‘microplays’, are all under ten minutes long, each focusing on a topical or political, though sometimes ill-defined, British socio-economic issue. The framing of them under the banner of theatre seems both unnecessary – they are, after all, simply short-form video – and novel; one presumes that this format-merging was as much for accessibility as for a Brechtian impulse to detach the viewer from their ‘suspension of disbelief’ to provoke a verfremdungseffekt.
My impression has been mixed. While each is well made and relevant in its way, some of these videos immediately evoke the stereotype of the “Guardian-reader’s delight”.
School Gate, for example, plonks two middle-class white Mums in front of neighbouring school signage reading Magna Carta Primary (NB: it’s the English school) and Wisdom Primary. The latter is of course the Muslim school, in which the enlightened Mum is totally cool with her white British daughter wearing the hijab as a school uniform, and staying behind for after-school prayer, even though we are to assume that their family aren’t Muslim…
Similarly, PPE’s performative ‘politicians’ repeating humanoid gestures rings true but obvious, and ends with a sweet, innocent child (read: not politician) running around to incredibly annoying music. These reductions just don’t have the nuance to speak at the volumes they believe they are.
Saying that, Britain Isn’t Eating and Death of England fare much better at brief but telling exploration of a single issue (food poverty and national identity, respectively). Not only due to performances by the ever-watchable Katherine Parkinson and Rafe Spall, but also because their monologues and characters leave much more to the imagination. The chaos and unresolved pain that follows Spall’s tirade and Parkinson’s ignorance rang far truer for me than any of the other ‘messages’ in the series.
Although many mass media texts and channels are more overtly political than others, it can be argued that all media is intrinsically political. Each media creator, text and channel chooses a form and method for the tone and representation of its content, and thus defines its political significance; even a renouncing of political position makes clear the creator’s political stance: that they deem politics irrelevant or inappropriate in the given context. With this in mind, the increase of mass media’s reach around the globe has profound implications for the influence of ideas and ideologies that affect our global governance in real terms. It is unsurprising, then, that the debate over whether we shape the media, or whether the media shapes us, rages on – and it is interesting in this context to note the dynamics between media that concerns politics as its primary topic, and media that contains implicit political ideas.
Alongside the developments in technology that have allowed mass media to be almost instantly and globally accessible, has been a commoditisation of the vast majority of mass media (i.e. media outlets are run as a business; texts and channels are bought by an owner and sold to a consumer), the implications of which on the political economy of the media are many and significant with regards to the dissemination of political ideas, and the integrity of mass media to function as a tool in favour of the majority. News’ valued objectivity is compromised and a lack of accountability arises when an individual (or small groups of individuals) hold so much power over the communication of ideas throughout the global village. Certain political ideas are favoured, and some are suppressed, depending on the political ideologies of the owners of mass media outlets – not only in news, but in entertainment.
Interestingly, as the global reach of mass media has increased, political engagement and awareness has not necessarily been impacted positively. Of late, there have been record lows of voter turnout, a general distrust of the integrity of politicians and the democratic process, and a cynicism around the integrity of political media reporting itself. This has gone hand in hand with huge cuts to the journalism industry and public arts funding bodies that have rendered investigative journalism and media almost non-existent in the mass market, and an increase in 24 hour news media and information on demand that has left fewer workers with far more work than previously.
Arguably the most significant debates around political news media of late have been the ethical implications of ownership of vast numbers of news outlets by media conglomerates, and the challenge to them by grassroots organizations and social media. On one hand, the news landscape is dominated by corporate news organizations, and on the other many believe sites such as Twitter propose a significant challenge via alternative means (for many, Twitter’s user-generated front end obscures its corporate status.) With the introduction of 24-hour news channels that bring a constant stream of global political news to television and computer screens, and the rise in popularity of the Internet as a news aggregation tool, there is also a dominance of competing information and competition to be the first to break political stories. There is a contradiction in the depth and intensity of these non-stop media feeds, in that while the speed and coverage with which citizens are introduced to political information technically increases, an intensity of competition and insecurity is created that prevents lucidity of information, and attention to a full spectrum of occurrences. Alistair Campbell argued that during his tenure in Blair’s cabinet, this directly increased the perceived need for political spin within the government, for which he was responsible, since the demand for political information from journalists became incessant. As a result of the new political news climate, Campbell and his team would have to go into overdrive, further obscuring any organic insight into Britain’s political workings.
The ethical arguments concern the relationships between politicians and media barons, the financial framework of news corporations, and the culture of journalistic methods. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns hundreds of news outlets on all continents, ranging from television news channels to magazines to newspapers. The global political influence of what is communicated by his outlets, then, is huge. Murdoch publicly maintains that he dictates no editorial line in his papers, yet he is long reported to have had private business meetings with numerous political leaders, and all but one of his newspapers maintained a pro-war line before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Murdoch is the most well known example of this media monopolisation, but he is simply one example of the people who have created these ethical issues in the contemporary landscape of media ownership.
Long commoditised, entertainment media has always had a myopic but inextricable relationship with political content. Mass entertainment media could be said to exist on a spectrum of political engagement, ranging from biting satire at one end to fantastical escapism at the other. Again, it must be noted that all stories, representations, and methods of creation contain political values even, and especially when, they efface overt political discussion or engagement.
Mass entertainment media on television, in film, in print and now online most traditionally concerns the individual narrative at its core, with a backdrop of spectacle, comedy, romance, violence, or all of the above, to increase its impact. It has also traditionally been, and continues to be, seen as an escape from ‘reality’ and thus a rejection of engagement in favour of respite, though the moralistic values of self-governance and choice ethics of many individual narratives in fact impart some powerful political messages on unsuspecting audiences. (Indeed, were mass entertainment media not so instructive and meaningful, there may be less mass consumption of it.)
Documentaries are perhaps the most overt, and recently massively popular, form of politically engaged and campaigning media. Since Michael Moore’s overtly political Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, and his previous film Bowling for Columbine (2002) won critical acclaim and wide distribution, political documentaries have been climbing for the same heights of box office success as features. Bowling for Columbine and Alex Gibney’s Inside Job (2010), concerning America’s fatal relationship to gun ownership and the individual perpetrators of the economic crisis of 2008 respectively, were both awarded the Best Documentary Oscar, and grossed millions of dollars. Neither shyed away from confrontation, and while lacking an explicit call to arms for specific political action, they certainly made their values towards these political disasters clear. Backed by large companies in the mainstream film industry, both received global distribution and engaged audiences en masse.
Some of these films have affected real political change – since the exhibition of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013), a feature documentary about the violent behaviour of captured orcas at theme parks such as SeaWorld, stocks in SeaWorld have dropped dramatically and animal-rights campaigners have heavily promoted and employed the film as a tool in their fight for change in the industry. This has been dubbed ‘the Blackfish effect.’
That said, many of these documentaries specifically refrain from laying down an explicit political objective or trajectory that they would like to see post-theatre (in fact, Blackfish did not call explicitly, only implicitly, for the closure of or withdrawal of funds from SeaWorld by investors.) Many campaigning films that do designate explicit political objectives highlight the individual choices of the consumer as a way to affect change (see The End of the Line (2009). In this way, many documentaries can be seen as manifestations of the liberal political contexts from which they come, commoditizing their political messages in the same way that they themselves are bought and sold to survive in the industry, rather than arguing for fundamental or radical political change to the crises or abuses with which they are concerned.
However, due to the rise of the internet, standardised and portable media equipment, and advanced user-centred technology, many grassroots media organizations have thrived in the climate of peer-to-peer connection that have been afforded them. In particular, film collectives and co-ops can organize to produce various screen media, then distribute and exhibit them through sites such as YouTube and Vimeo at little to no cost. The labour issues involved are still difficult to navigate since film production is highly time-intensive and funding is sparse, so many radical filmmakers who cannot find a voice or recognition within the industry have pursued creative ventures outside of regular paid work (as has been the artists’ tradition).
Similarly, the rise of blogging platforms and self-publishing networks, not to mention social media, has allowed for independent journalism by all, and thus mass media can be brought to the masses by the masses. The drawback of this, of course, is that the tools and means of media creation are now so accessible that the volume of mass media content that is available is dense, nebulous and unregulated; being heard amongst the cacophony is increasingly difficult. The surfacing of quality journalism and filmmaking is in constant rotation and whether it will ever become financially sustainable for individual creators is yet to be seen. However, the aesthetic of online media has changed alongside developments, so that a rougher aesthetic will be accepted where it wouldn’t in mainstream mass media industries, if its content touches on a popular or relavant topic, or has a particularly appealing style.
Currently, the Internet and the new media associated with it (such as social media networks, user-generated media, creative development tools, online software subscription, media on demand, etc.) is changing at such a rapid rate, it defies definition. What is true at the time of writing is unlikely to remain timely. What is certain is that the future of media, political mass media, and the politics of, and within, the mass media is potentially radically transformative for society. There is vast opportunity in this new technology and culture of media for increased transparency of information, political behaviour, and political organisation, especially in the context of investigative political journalism around the world. Corporations who currently own and control the mass media, who have an interest in disallowing political upheaval and social change, however, also have an opportunity to colonise cyberspace in the same way they have done the traditional mass media industries.
The vastness of the current sphere of both traditional vertically-integrated and burgeoning horizontally-integrated mass media perhaps dilutes its political implications. The nebulous nature of human societies across the global village prevents one accessible and agreeable message from touching everyone, even before it is impacted by the dominance of huge media corporations and their relationships to political and financial elites. If we can engage with new media aggressively and purposefully, rather than passively, we might well see a new politics emerge, and soon.
The only thing I’m sure about post-my viewing of chick flick woman’s film film-about-women-and-their-lives The Congress at my local arthouse cinema was that The Lady From Shanghai looks like a damned travesty. Not only is it one of those old, slow, black and white jobs I resented studying during my undergraduate, in which Orson Welles walks around being portly and grumpy while earning more than the majority of surgeons, but as this trailer ran and I waited for the definitely-awesome-feminist-epic The Congress to start, the eponymous and conspicuously caucasian Lady in question, Rita Hayworth, said literally nothing, AND was slapped three times.
Three! And they’re all at once, so one was a backhand. It was really gross. Old, conventional films suck. Yay for the breaking of new barriers in genre, narrative and equality!
Focusing on my sweary outburst at the Watershed following the Lady From Shanghai trailer allows me to ignore my ambivalence and disappointment regarding The Congress, about whose representation of the success of women in the film industry I am far more unsure. I was totally promised an aging-woman-is-unacceptable-so-they-clone-and-utilise-her-to-make-money-i.e.-LITERAL-OBJECTIFICATION-and-subsequent-feminist-win narrative, but was given only the first half of it.
As you can tell from my serene, offhand use of punctuation, The Congress had seemed a feminist and neoclassic industrial critique; deeply layered, achingly painful and consistently toeing the line between real and surreal, the first act was a near perfect imagining of the ever-changing yet ever-thus entertainment industries, the people who populate them, and their possible futures, through the eyes of the human, mother, and actress Robin Wright (played by actual human, mother and actress Robin Wright, who is far better respected and hopefully happier than the film’s Robin Wright, who is consistently referred to as ‘Robin Wright’, being that she is a thing rather than a person, of course.) The pain of Robin Wright’s difficult parenthood and exploitation by her agent perfectly balances the very overt satire of the film’s own industry, and sets up a story which could, at this point, potentially either excel or eat itself.
The film has incredible, rich and relevant themes. Pathways I couldn’t wait to travel to find out how Robin Wright (and her various manifestations) would reach their end point on The Journey. Unfortunately those many substantial themes (industrial oppression and exploitation, human agency, parenthood, the duplicity and fragility of relationships, woman as object, man as villain, etc.) become in-credible, and almost redundant in the second act amongst the gurning flying-fish, horizon-spanning rainbow-streaked roads, and butler-robots that constitute ‘The Animated Zone.’ There seems to be no fathomable purpose for the film’s ‘animated zone’, other than director Ari Folman’s notoriety for expert use of animation in his previous genre-mixing documentary Waltz With Bashir, and the fact that it allows for experimentation with reality and meaning, and the audience’s expectations (and their time.)
Look, I appreciate genre-bending cultural hybridity as much as the next quasi-intellectual former arts student who reviews films in their spare time (read: lonesome hipster wannabe), if only for the fact that they provide refreshment and, hopefully, challenging stories and ideas. But 45 minutes in, as an intertitle informs us that it’s ’20 Years Later’ and Robin Wright literally drives down the road from the ‘old world’ into the ‘new’ one, the sudden diversion from dystopian thriller to indecipherable blend of Mario Kart and The Justin Bieber Show is, rather than the very awesome product it ought to be, kinda distracting.
Once in the inexplicable land known as both the Animated Zone and Abrahamia (and act two), the narrative is only loosely relevant, now an ambiguous stream-of-consciousness venture relying on random phrases and (undeniably beautiful) animation to create connections and meaning. The only lynchpin holding this together is Wright, who we’ve become attached to, but who is then bumped from the position of protagonist to femme fatale, rendering a film about protagonist Robin Wright being cloned and owned into a confused literal manifestation of that with little reprieve.
So. Wright goes to Abrahamia to see Jeff, the executive who organised her cloning and who is now a police officer, in the big hotel-ship Miramount (the future manifestation of Miramount Studios and now a corporation, Miramount Nagasaki, which bottles small vials of chemicals allowing people’s likenesses in to be consumed.) Wright addresses an audience of Miramount Nagasaki workers who have come to see her speak, and shouts that she is their “prophet of doom.” An assassin initially guns for her but kills the emcee of the proceedings, then blows up the building. Dylan, the love interest, appears and becomes the agent of the story, dragging Wright around to show us the trippy scenery, and partially explaining his life to us, but not really what’s going on or why we should care. Then Wright travels about in time to little purpose, then they have sex in front of a massive fireball, and then, thankfully, Dylan gives her the means to get out of the Animated Zone. The barriers to a clear narrative purpose distract us from any of the original themes – which by then are only felt via snapshots of thematic coherence in phrases:
“Everything is in our mind. If you see the dark, then you chose the dark.”
“Don’t give up. Don’t fall asleep…”
“I’ll sign! Just stop fucking with my head…”
And with these resonances, I’m wondering whether, in fact, the film is a piece of Lynchian genius, from which we are actually poorly prepared for by the traditional setup of act one… It made me think of Mulholland Drive – you never really know what’s going on, though you are kept fascinated by the drip of tiny, frustrating clues. One of the biggest keys came in the form of Dylan’s animated-bull-man sequence. Miramount Nagasaki’s chemical substance allows you to create yourself in whatever animated likeness you want – Dylan imagines himself as a bull; he is shown stampeding a young girl, whom he throws onto his back and then up into the stars, where she evaporates. What seems to be a referral to aggressive but ultimately benign masculinity ends with the phrase “it’s about feeling…” If The Congress is about simply feeling the feels of this strange potential virtual world of ‘the future’ in which little makes sense, and we are so detached from ‘reality’ that we can’t even work ourselves out, then it could be argued that it is going someway to a radical reflection of the current status and trajectory of the dynamics of western public and private life.
Particular phrases and archetypal characters did resonate with some very general concepts about love, pain, agency etc., but without the robust story within which to fully brew those themes, they remained as abstract as they are. I felt them, but they did not make any more sense to me than they do at work in my own life, only in my own life I tend not to wonder why Tom Cruise has just appeared or Michael Jackson is serving me dinner. Octopuses also do not talk, in the main.
Ultimately, The Congress seems to be two films; the long-ish first act containing the power play between Robin Wright and the industry was fantastic, and felt frustratingly unfinished. As soon as it became an addled exploration into the psyche of someone under the influence of an unknown drug, in an uncertain and abstract representation of a place, with unrecognisable characters, it lost me. I spent more time trying to decipher what and why than feeling and understanding them. But I still felt enough of it that I wanted it to work.
Saying all this, I did see the film on a day I was feeling particularly lonely, and I dashed out of the cinema, and straight into the loos for a right old cry – the catharsis was far greater than that of any other film I have seen lately, as I had expected. For its lack of grip on a narrative, its pinballing themes and creation of meaning was only frustrating in the shadow of how fascinating I feel it should have been considering the rich emotion and desperation that were consistently. If the message of the film is to pay more attention to ourselves, our lives, and what is ‘real’ for us – our relationships, our values, our agency – all of that meaning was there, we just need to work harder (or less hard?) to make sense of it. I just don’t think that the Yellow SubmaTitanic was the ship to float these ideas on; it would have worked better had it been a predictable Hero’s Journey, minus all the rainbows and flying and maypole dancing and poppers that turned people into White Jesus and British Ronald Reagan (even B-Ro could not redeem this for me.)
The film made me feel weaker rather than stronger in my understanding of its consciousness about consciousness, in refusing to shape its transmission of meaning and values. As Kermode has noted (most famously regarding Blue Velvet, of which a repeat watching transformed his cynical experience to one of being “vibrantly thrilled”) sometimes you need to watch a film twice or more to fully absorb and ‘get’ it. I will likely do this – but I wouldn’t pay to see it again. The Congress made me feel, but what it made me feel was a bit angry, confused, and sad.