Puffed-Up Politics: Experimenta at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival
At this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018), Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018), and Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 (2018) were all applauded for raising important issues surrounding unfair working practices and political upheaval. However, all three films screened in Picturehouse’s flagship cinema, Picturehouse Central, where a long-running dispute between management and staff over pay and conditions rumbles on. Last year, workers protested outside of the festival’s closing night gala screening of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), and this year they called for critics to boycott the theater entirely. Their urgings were largely ignored, but why? It could be argued that the intimacy of modern political cinema, with its investment in character development and reliance on emotional attachments, has made it increasingly difficult for audiences to draw parallels between fiction and reality. This raises the uncomfortable question of whether or not films with political themes and motivations are really able to make a difference in the real world. The Experimenta sidebar at this year’s event seemed to offer some answers in its showcase of moving image works that disrupt this intimacy in search of new ways of seeing.
We often think of technology as gender neutral, but it’s usually a woman voicing our devices — from our phone’s virtual assistant to the smart speakers in our homes. Scottish multi-media artist Rachel Maclean addresses this in her visually striking debut, Make Me Up (2018), a digital twist on the Suffragettes movement that asks why, 100 years after winning the right to vote, women are still portrayed as subservient. Set in a richly seductive world, where surveillance and submission are normalized, the film follows Siri (Christina Gordon), a young woman trapped in a surreal game show in which she’s forced to compete against other women. A hyper-surreal attempt to dismantle the gilded prison of female beauty, Maclean uses innovative green-screen technology and archival audio to analyze how the female nudes of the Western art world have become the template for contemporary models of female beauty, with Siri and her fellow contestants lectured repeatedly by a robotic instructor (voiced by historian Kenneth Clark) on the role of women in art history.
Maclean’s film continues where John Berger left off in 1972 with his book and television series, Ways of Seeing. Berger highlighted how women in classical art were used to feed the appetite of male sexual desire, but Maclean argues that his analysis is just as relevant in today’s image-obsessed culture. She does this by mimicking the aesthetics of pop music videos and YouTube make-up tutorials to highlight how society continues to oppress women by imposing unrealistic and dangerous standards of beauty. When discussing art and the media’s role in warping our perception of femininity, it’s also worth considering class and racial dimensions too, especially how the freedom to express oneself in this new digital landscape is based on an ability to access it. This is the central premise of Keith Piper’s “Mic Drop” (2017), which takes as its starting point President Obama’s use of the “mic drop” in his final address to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2016.
Alluding to this theatrical act as the point where language and reason became obsolete, Piper unpacks the political significance of this moment by positioning it against the racial anxiety surrounding the subsequent Brexit referendum and election of Donald Trump. Exploring how technology like the microphone allows black voices to contaminate white noise, Mic Drop suggests that society’s wistful evocations of the past could merely be a way of repackaging and reselling the fear of the Other as a patriotic act.
By combining animation, spoken word poetry, and archival footage, Piper illustrates how enabling devices like the microphone have helped discontented voices be heard by angry ears, but in some countries, the very act of speaking out can be enough to get you killed. That’s the problem faced by Colectivo Los Ingravidos, an audio-visual collective of Mexican activists attempting to subvert the grammar of television and film propaganda to articulate the fears of a nation. Their latest project, The Sun Quartet (2017), is a gesture towards a new kind of political cinema, one based on action and momentum rather than state-sponsored narratives. A barrage of dislocated sounds and hallucinatory visuals, the collective repeatedly record over the same reel of expired film stock in an act of solidarity with the 43 students detained by the police and handed over to a local drug cartel in 2014.
Recorded during a demonstration demanding justice for the victims, this process of re-filming over the same film stock not only speaks to the scarcity of filmmaking in Mexico, it also reflects the current political climate as a capricious one, where dissenting voices are quickly silenced and violence is ubiquitous. It is later revealed that the students were tortured and killed, their bodies dismembered and incinerated in a pit. This layered portrait of anger spilling onto the streets concludes with the reading of “Ayotzinapa,” a poem by David Huerta. Written in reaction to the disappearances, the poem is translated and repeated by multiple poets from across the globe. By immersing the audience in the demonstration, then uniting them with this chorus of disenfranchised voices, Colectivo Los Ingravidos have managed to capture the energy, spontaneity, and propulsion of direct political action.
We’re often not aware of the ways the media mediate our perception of the world. For example, news stories about immigration are often spun so the focus is switched from the lived experiences of those fleeing war and persecution to an alleged strain on national resources and housing. In an attempt to subvert this narrative, German director Sebastian Buerkner has created “Aykan” (2018), a mind-melting example of 3D filmmaking that uses advances in stereoscopic technology to replicate the longing, dislocation, and alienation of the migrant experience. Shot in Vienna, as Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for the formation of an anti-migration “axis of the willing,” Aykan juxtaposes different 3D images to mystify and renew the cityscape. At first, the results are oppressive and disorienting, with the eye unable to comprehend what it is seeing, but as the effect takes hold, it becomes clear the city is being experienced from an entirely new perspective. Political cinema might be losing its edge, but as long as there are directors like Buerkner embracing the endless possibilities of the cinematic apparatus, there’ll always be cause for optimism.
The 2018 BFI London Film Festival’s Experimenta sidebar took place between October 10 and October 21.