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Early Cinema, between Factory and Stillness

In 1895, the Lumière brothers, deemed the inventors of cinema, placed their rudimentary camera in front of the women workers leaving their factory in the suburbs of Lyon. The short film, La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière (Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon), was screened with others on December 28th, 1895, during the first ever public film screening in history. A year later, in the United States, W.K.L. Dickson—another film pioneer, less known but equally important—filmed men leaving the Winchester factory in New Haven, Connecticut. The beginning of film as we know it took place at the encounter between two highly representative apparatuses of modernity: the film camera and the factory. But the images of the apparently calm walking bodies of the factory workers remind us that the filmic image can conceal as much as it reveals: instead of modern labor exploitation, we see happy modern citizens. At the end of the nineteenth century, cinema was one of the several inventions during an era of profound technological transformations. And yet the practitioners of the new medium were already interested in the factories, which were among the main subjects of early cinema together with those coopted from the nineteenth century visual imaginary: family scenes, landscapes and ruins, notable men such as kings, presidents, and the Pope, who was filmed by Dickson in 1899.

This myth of origins of film shows that the relation between cinema and social conflicts is far more complex than the title of this issue might initially suggest. There are many ways in which we can imagine, research, and theorize the theme of cinema and social conflict. If the early days of cinema imagined a peaceful modern world of work and leisure, it is possible to state that the medium started its official life as an ideological machine whose political pressure point lay on the border of its visible frame—a fact that Harun Farocki’s film Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers Leaving the Factory, 1995) has shown us through montage. In this sense, the inaugural relation between cinema and social conflicts raises questions at the very center of representation. Strikes, protests, colonial warfare and territorial invasions may not appear directly, but in many early films they nevertheless haunt the image from outside the frame. Think, for example, of the vast archive of documentary images of colonial spaces produced for the consumption of Europeans and North Americans as curiosities, which may have reached its most ironic form in the fake Africa portrayed in the Nordisk company’s short The Lion Hunt (Viggo Larsen, 1907).

However, when it comes to the realm of representation, there is almost no space in the actualities (as the short films of the time were called) for the important political struggles of the time, from large protests to anarchist attacks. Cinema, at the time searching for its own voice, still could not speak the language of social conflict. In fact, in the first moving images we largely see a world which seems calm, harmonious, and lacking in friction. We can also see the traces of far and exotic worlds. People go to the cinema, as they went to an array of other kinds of presentations and shows (most notably, the magic lantern) to see parts of the world they could not visit in person. At the turn of the century, that included the sites of colonial conflict: as an apparatus of Eurocentric curiosity, from the beginning the cinema is wielded as a tool of control of the non-European subject. Early spectators could bear witness to the Italian invasion of Libya, one of the first armed conflicts to be filmed, while every Western country with an overseas empire had its own colonial imaginary composed of dark/mysterious/stormy Africa, Latin America, or the Orient. In fact, the association between weapons and photographic machines precedes the invention of the cinema: as early as 1882 Étienne-Jules Marey invented a device he called the chronophotographic gun. This bellicose relationship has left its traces in the English language, of course, with the double meaning of the verb “to shoot.”

In the realm of classical cinema, it seems, all origins are embedded in social conflict. If the supposed birth of classical narrative cinema happens with D. W. Griffith’s racist depiction of the United States’ civil war in The Birth of a Nation (1915), the beginning of synchronized recorded sound would have taken place with The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), which featured Al Jolson as a Jewish musician performing in blackface. The fascination with the beginnings of such a modern technology as cinema, not surprisingly, evinces the very violent world-system upon which modernity was built. So often, then, the cinema has related to social conflicts by reinforcing, repressing, and reproducing them.


Revolution and Resistance

Naturally, maybe the most visible facet of the relation between the two terms of the title of this issue is embodied by the long and international tradition of militant political cinema. Although the cinema was established as an apparatus of control, its meanings and uses have constantly been under dispute by groups on the Left, globally, in order to build in the cinema a tool for resistance. Usually located in the realm of the avant-garde, but exceeding this somewhat limited definition, the counter-hegemonic cinematic practices and theories have been important agents in exposing the power dynamics that animate the codes and uses of so-called classical cinema, and in finding alternatives to it.

Soviet cinema was arguably the first one to represent real revolutionary practices, creating a new cinematographic language, which is still studied and analyzed today. Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov recounted the revolution and the first years of the Soviet Union, employing a language based on real life, a dialectical and non-explicative montage, and providing a multiplication of points of view. Theory and practice, language and discourse, go hand in hand. These directors in fact accompanied their films with important theoretical texts, immediately translated into several languages and appearing in unlikely places such as fascist Italy. It is of course an institutional cinema, financed and sponsored by the government, albeit in a revolutionary context.

Outside the USSR, from 1929 to 1934, the Proletarian Film League of Japan (Prokino) used cinema for the political organization of Japanese workers and to confront the imperialist state, making it an important moment of global militant cinema of the prewar years. Under the spirit of Sasa Genju’s famous essay “Camera – Toy/Weapon,” published in the journal Senki (1928), the movement weaponized small gauge cameras—toys for the bourgeoisie—to record demonstrations and events related to the lives of the workers, and screening those images for raising awareness. Prokino brought together names such as Iwasaki Akira, Murayama Tomoyoshi, and Mizoguchi Kenji, becoming a short but intense laboratory for the future of film in Japan.

Leaving aside some additional isolated episodes (including Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe and other films produced by Germany’s Prometheus company, or the Jean Renoir projects La vie est à nous and La Marseillaise), it is only in the aftermath of World War II that we see the consistent emergence of an authentically alternative cinema, free of commercial spirit, or interested in questioning this spirit. 1944 may be considered a particularly symbolic moment, when Roberto Rossellini and his collaborators began working on Rome, Open City. Italian Neorealism would have, and still has, a fundamental importance for the cinema of revolutionary movements. It is not a coincidence that Saadi Yacef, a member of the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale and author of the subject of The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) went to Italy to look for funding and for a director for the film he wanted to make on topic of the liberation of his country. Similar to the way in which Soviet filmmakers created a new way of talking about the revolution and of the changes taking place in their country, neorealism tries to tell stories in a different way: long takes, filming on location (partly due to the damage suffered by the Cinécittà studios during the war), non-professional actors, a style close to documentaries, “reconstructed reportage,” as the father of film criticism André Bazin called it. It entailed a complete reinvention of film language, a new form for a new type of content, faithful to postwar changes, which travelled beyond Italy’s borders and was readapted by in a variety of different national and intellectual contexts. A number of notable revolutionary and Third World directors have declared their debt to Neorealism, such as Ritwik Ghatak in India, Nelson Pereira dos Santos in Brazil, and Ousmane Sembene in Senegal. It is not yet the militant cinema which will be so important and pivotal in the decades to come, but we can see here the first attempts to seize the means of production—which in Western cinema has mostly meant the creation of alternative systems of production and distribution.


Third Cinema

The Battle of Algiers is an interesting case of a co-production between a Western independent production company and the government of a Third World country, Algeria. Like other films of the time, Pontecorvo—a director who worked within the capitalist system trying to exploit its contradictions—uses a documentary style, non-professional actors (and some of them are real protagonists of the struggles he is portraying), and on location filming in the streets of Algiers. In the 1960s and 70s important filmic institutions which challenged both the Hollywood mainstream and the European auteur cinema became protagonists. In Cuba, cinema was one of the first aspects where the new government, following the revolution in 1959, decided to intervene, creating the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). In the second half of the 1960s, three important manifestos helped to theoretically frame this new cinema. They were all written by Third World filmmakers: “The Aesthetics of Hunger” by the leading figure of Brazilian Cinema Novo Glauber Rocha (1965) and the two landmark texts of the movement that came to be known as Third Cinema, both from 1969, “Towards a Third Cinema,” written by the Argentines Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, and “For an Imperfect Cinema,” by the Cuban Julio García Espinosa (MacKenzie 2014). Other less famous but still important texts followed, including “Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema” by the Bolivian Jorge Sanjinés and the resolutions of the Assembly of Third World Filmmakers held in 1973 in Algiers. Theory and practice, once again. Unlike in Hollywood cinema, the camera and the apparatus are not invisible; Third Cinema uses them in a militant and critical way. The Hollywood axiom “All I want is a story. If you have a message, send it by Western Union” is completely overturned. This means inventing new ways of telling stories, refusing—as we can see in Humberto Solas’ Lucia (1968), one of the masterpieces of Cuban cinema—a single conventional narrative in favor of complex structures and a mix of different visual styles, as discussed in Ella Shoat’s and Robert Stam’s pivotal book Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. Although the usual canon of first generation Third Cinema directors is predominantly male, female directors were fundamental to the project of a filmic praxis of liberation, despite the usual process of historical erasure: Helena Solberg in Brazil, Sarah Maldoror in Mozambique, Sara Gómez in Cuba, to name just a few usually forgotten but important figures.

The reach of Third Cinema eventually became global. The wave of militant cinema that was initiated in the 1960s, in both the First World and the Third World, continued on into the 70s and witnessed the emergence of feminist cinema in many countries, as well as militant filmmaking that related to struggles for LGBTQI+ and Black liberation, the rights of immigrants and refugees, and other intersectional interests. The paradigm of a militant filmic praxis combined with a theoretical collaboration was followed by intellectuals and artists engaged in different struggles in many geopolitical configurations and survived through the 1970s: from anti-imperialist film in East Asia (such as the Okinawan director Takamine Gō), Black cinema in the Americas (Julie Dash, Charles Burnett and the L.A. Rebellion in the United States, or Zózimo Bulbul, Raquel Gerber, and Black cinema in Brazil), to Asian diasporic cinema (a central example being Trinh T. Minh-ha’s work). Many of these films continued the struggle for a new cinematic language to match their political content, and the challenge posed to mainstream cinema by feminist theorists and practitioners of film was a particularly vital contribution. From the perspective of the present day, however, a defensive posture can already be detected in the militant films from this period, and many of the collectives and other institutions associated with this movement were wiped out in the conservative atmosphere of the 1980s, while individual filmmakers working within this framework found themselves even further marginalized. Postmodernist claims about the end of grand narratives and the supremacy of the simulacrum, furthermore, forestalled endeavors to use the cinema as a tool for achieving emancipatory social change.


The Politically Engaged Auteur

With the collapse of “really existing socialism” in Eastern Europe in 1989, capitalist triumphalism had reached its zenith. Neoliberal orthodoxy became an all-powerful orthodoxy, and a cinema predicated on social struggle seemed at best hopelessly naïve and out of date. The rise of the global justice movement at the turn of the millennium, with major protests in Seattle (US), Washington DC (US), Prague (Czech Republic) Gothenburg (Sweden) and Genoa (Italy), provided a boost to grassroots audiovisual production linked to political movements that opposed capitalist globalization, many of which were organized through online channels such as Indymedia. Indeed, this has set the tone for much of what, in the twenty-first century, can be considered the heir to the militant cinema tradition of the 1960s and 70s: small-scale documentary work produced using digital tools, mainly disseminated through the Internet, and powered by events such as the War on Terror, the Pink Tide in Latin America, the 2008 economic crisis, Occupy Wall Street and the uprisings of 2011-12, and the rise of far left electoral forces in countries such as Greece, Spain, the UK and the US.

On the other side of the ledger, a realist narrative tradition remains present within auteurist cinema, as in the politically engaged cinema of figures such as Ken Loach or Abderrahmane Sissako, or more observational filmmaking such as that made by Pedro Costa or Wang Bing. Elder statesmen of a more experimental approach to political cinema—including Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard and Ken Jacobs—also continued to create stimulating work well into the twenty-first century. What has changed, however, is that these different filmmakers do not seem to be pursuing a kind of unified, contestatory cinematic movement that marked the militant cinema produced during the twentieth century, from Soviet montage to Italian neorealism and Third Cinema. In the present day, the cinema of social struggle is vast but amorphous, accessible but underground, connected but atomized. Everyone can make political films, but effectively achieving an articulation of politics and cinema seems as far away as ever. Perhaps, the mobilizing power of the moving image has moved to the new forms of networked digital platforms, with their new temporality and increasingly molecular forms of articulation.

In this issue of Zapruder World, therefore, we examine this articulation between cinema and social conflict in both the historical and contemporary contexts. Our articles stretch as far back as the early days of the cinema, with Daniel Lawrence Aufmann’s essay which discusses the relationship between popular cinema and the suffragist movement in the United States during the 1910s, which by 1920 helped US American women win the right to vote on a national level. Cynthia Porter explores the resonances between a key film from 1930s Hollywood, Fury by the German émigré Fritz Lang, and one of the major political struggles of the present day, the Black Lives Matter movement. Moving forward into the post-WWII era, Alessia Lombardini’s essay focuses on the role played by newsreel films in Italian politics in the 1960s, a nation marked by the sharp divide between the conservative right and the communist left, while Daniel Fairfax analyzes the failed project to create a “Revolutionary Cultural Front” by Cahiers du cinéma in France in the early 1970s. Renzo Sgolacchia looks at the long history of media activism in the squatting scene in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. For more contemporary themes, Dom Holdaway and Dalila Missero provide an overview of queer and feminist spaces in recent Italian cinema, while Fabio Andrade accounts for the younger generation of directors in Brazilian cinema which emerged in the interstitial space between the ousting of the left, with Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, and the rise of the far-right with the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, unearthing their politics of suspended time. Finally, Ekin Erkan rounds out this issue with his take on the political and philosophical ramifications of the activities of Redhack, a collective of radical hacktivists based out of Turkey.


* Volume 6 of Zapruder World was produced via a double blind peer review process. All volumes after Volume 6 will be produced via an open peer review process.