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At one moment in Yolande du Luart’s 1971 documentary Angela – Portrait of a Revolutionary, Angela Davis cites the feature film La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers). The 1966 historical drama directed by Gillo Pontecorvo tells the story of the Liberation Movement in Algeria and the struggle to overthrow the French colonial government in the mid 1950s (Algeria won its independence in 1962). In expressing the challenge of sustaining revolutionary struggle, Davis cites the film’s actors. The fictional script in Pontecorvo's film becomes part of Davis’ speech and in so doing, enters documentary and another fiction of truth and authenticity. Davis legitimises the filmic record by citing it to corroborate her own train of thought. This moment of citation and consolidation demonstrates how revolutionary struggles travel, grow and inform through cinemas. La battaglia di Algeri, a fictional representation of revolution (banned in France for five years after its release), provides a source of sustenance for the Black Panther movement through the labour it performs of exchanging the affects and emotions of grassroots, armed struggle. This is an example of the decolonial affective labour of revolutionary films.

A film does not need to be counterculture to be decolonial. Any film can perform political labour. Popular film can be revolutionary in the hands and minds of politicised people. The desire to look back at the films of the 1971 Forum programme shows that the centre is always shifting. It is precisely this transition from counterculture to popular culture and back again that Stuart Hall dissects in his essay “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular” (1981). Hall critiques the idea that an “authentic, autonomous popular culture” can exist outside relations of power. He rebukes definitions of “popular” that refer to legions of quantitative support; and opposes the term being used as a euphemism for “the masses”. Instead, Hall forms a new understanding of “popular” (and by extension, what has the potential to be counterculture). The “popular” is always in shift: “This year’s radical symbol or slogan will be neutralized into next year’s fashion; the year after, it will be the subject of profound cultural nostalgia.” This essay is an exercise in critical hindsight. It takes up the question of how political cinema works, or rather, what work political cinema can perform. Post-WWII American culture was often appropriated in German culture to symbolise a kind of impotent, positive rebellion and alternative masculinity.

The 1971 Forum programme features three films about the Black Panther Party or Panther-associated revolutionaries: Angela – Portrait of a Revolutionary (1971), Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther(William Klein, 1970) and The Murder of Fred Hampton (Howard Alk, 1971). Do these films resonate with two of the contemporary films in the Forum programme, Ouvertures (The Living and the Dead Ensemble) andAnunciaron tormenta (A Storm Was Coming, Javier Fernández Vázquez, 2020), which are concerned with the Haitian Revolution and a rebellion in Equatorial Guinea against the Spanish colonial rule respectively? Similar to Hall, my interest is the labour of cinema – what these films do to our affective understanding of decolonial movements through their form and distribution.

Transnational Blackness and Distribution

American Blackness was complex in the 1970s – this is what made it such a threat to the status quo of white supremacy. The factions after the murders of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and other leaders in the Black communities had a multitude of different approaches: the Marxist Black Panther Movement, the animal rights and Black liberation movement MOVE (founded by John Africa in Philadelphia in 1972), the militant Black Liberation Army and the separatist Republic of New Afrika, among others. Each was unique in its understanding and approach to Black revolution. The Black Panther films in the 1971 Forum programme show a transatlantic scope. It is impossible to look at the Civil Rights movement of the United States without looking at the independence of Ghana in 1957. It is instructive that Guyanese historian Walter Rodney wrote one of the most influential books on African colonialism in 1972, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, from the Caribbean. The first Panther organisation founded outside the United States was in the UK in 1968. By 1971, the Black Panthers were already in Germany. The “Voice of the Lumpen” was an underground newspaper written by disgruntled American GIs who supported the Panther Party and an end to the Vietnam War. Klein’s film depicts Cleaver in exile in Algeria. He is an invited guest of the 1st Pan-African Cultural Festival (the second festival was held on its nostalgic forty-year anniversary in 2009). Over thirty nations were represented; in the film we see that the guests include South Africa's ANC, the Mozambique Liberation Front, South Rhodesia’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), representatives from Haiti and many more. The anti-colonial struggle is a diasporic, transatlantic struggle and the films’ distribution, content and context reflect this. Through festival circuits and the press surrounding them, information about revolutionary films crossed borders and languages. Film prints were kept in festival archives, one of the reasons the Arsenal often has the only known prints of many films such as these in the programme. Distribution of revolutionary cinemas fuels transnational alliances, global awareness and action. Film can travel in ways that people can’t – in the 1970s this was recognized by the filmmakers themselves. The fictionalised representation of these struggles provides sustenance to the movements of revolutionary spectators.

Films about revolutions, produced in revolutionary ways can still reproduce neocolonial structures in their dissemination practices. Med Hondo’s 1979 manifesto “What is Cinema for Us?” warns how film distribution and viewing practices can model colonial enterprise. According to Hondo (who has two of his own films in the 1971 Forum programme: Soleil Ô (1967) and Mes voisins (1971)), African spectators were supporting a type of colonial extraction: “Each year, millions of dollars are ‘harvested’ from our continents, taken back to the original countries, and then used to produce new films which again come to our screens.” He refers to a system that labours for a specific exclusion through perpetuating a set of “cultural codes” that make African film-goers complicit in projecting the African and Arab as “other”. Hondo demanded a revolution in the mode of production of film. Spectatorship is labour; films move and move us. The white authorship of Black stories archives political intentions in affective form. Notwithstanding, the colonial gaze can be interrupted by Black performance.

The Cadence of Black Protest on Film

The mise-en-scène of revolutionary cinema is felt and heard in the dialogue and delivery of the protagonists. In the polyglot space of protest, revolutionaries talk in expectation of their own translation. Before taking up the professorship in California (her release from the position is portrayed in Angela – Portrait of a Revolutionary), Davis had just spent time studying in Germany – at the University of Frankfurt and doing her dissertation at the Humboldt University. The cadence of Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Fred Hampton’s voices evokes an ideology of internationalism in rhythm. The lyrical play is paired with staccato timing. Pauses in speech speak as much as the words in between. Davis, Cleaver and Hampton make time and space in their soliloquies for transnational interpretations. Diegetic simultaneous translation experienced by Cleaver in Algeria has the same rhythm as protest chants. It has resonance in the call and response of Fred Hampton speaking to rapturous crowds in Howard Alk and Mike Gray’s film. The sing-song tempo creates time for reparatory imaginings; time for the reverb on the loudspeaker; time for the diverse audience to whisper-translate off-camera. In du Luart’s film, Angela Davis speaks of the performance of protest. The performance of protest speech is felt in its delivery. The cadence, heard in the inflection of the Black voice, is paired with a revolutionary documentation of practice.

Black performance of revolution is instructive. In Klein’s film, Cleaver observes that white people protesting against the Vietnam War were treated just as badly as Black people protesting for civil rights. Stock footage adds black and white visual testimony to the violence of which Cleaver speaks. These protest films facilitate the appropriation of Black tactics. The documentary subjects are acutely aware of the presence of the camera and their record for the archive. Encounters between filmmaker and subject, at first aggressive, later seemingly friendly, bookend Klein’s film. Cleaver directly addresses the camera many times in the documentary. Lounging in bed, he turns to the lens and says, “Boo!”. The spectre of the camera’s unblinking eye judges light and dark. The film starts with Cleaver questioning the power dynamic of the film situation. On camera, he lays bare the process that holds him in the non-dominant position. Power is held by the people behind the camera, but performance can interrupt the structure if the editor allows. Hampton’s fast-paced, jive talking politics has its place too, in coding and subverting messages within Black slang. Editing is integral to affect. Klein’s film ends with Cleaver asking him for his opinion. In actuality, we have been privy to the director’s point of view the entire film. The scripting and editing was Klein’s all along (Cleaver is credited as a collaborator, along with journalist Robert Scheer). All film is a type of fiction. To analyse the content of documentary as an unbiased source of information would lead to false pretences.

Cleaver’s revolution is directed by Klein, Davis’ protest is directed by du Luart, the moving speeches of Fred Hampton are woven together to represent a Black leader in way the way Black leadership is felt by Alk and Gray. The cadence of Black protest is aided by the editing choices of the directors. This pacing of speech is part of the cinematic language of Black revolution on film, a quality that is heard in contemporary works about political decolonial struggles.

Resonances in Today’s Cinema

The oral histories in Anunciaron tormenta challenge the Spanish record of colonial persecution of the revolutionary Bubi people in Equatorial Guinea. The authors of these testimonies are “allergic to images” and refuse to be filmed; the cadence of their voices in patient protest of the written record is palpable in the measured soundscape. Midway through Ouvertures, Haitian actors perform an irresistible cadence of careful patois, embedded with pregnant pauses and philosophical reflection. The film documents the translation of Édouard Glissant’s play “Monsieur Toussaint” into Haitian Creole for the Ghetto Biennale in 2017. Written by The Living and the Dead Ensemble, a collective composed of the Haitian actors portrayed in the film, as well as director/producers Louis Henderson and Oliver Marboeuf, the European auteur film makes good use of the aesthetics of Third Cinema.

The archive is a dominant motif in both films. In Anunciaron tormenta, it has its own font (courier new), soundtrack (white noise) and voice (performed by actors citing the archival record on camera in a studio setting). The visual trope of a slow fade to white is cinematic care work; a careful way to document violence without showing and therefore repeating it. In Ouvertures, a Black actor pantomimes the tedious labour of archival work while a ghost figure whispers excerpts of text found in that space. The archive is an awkward filmic site of contemporary, de-colonial warfare. The battleground for reparations is fought over a desk, on the internet and through the ricochet of emails, not bullets. This is the key difference between the contemporary films about revolution in the current Forum programme and the films from 1971. The older revolutionary films articulated protest in practice. They demonstrated the lived experience of fighting institutionalised discriminations, and they share a feeling of actuality and urgency, a presentness that seems to stand the test of time. Both Anunciaron tormenta and Ouvertures are looking back on revolutions that took place centuries ago, and time is key to our affective responses to history. What the films contribute are new testimonies, visual tropes and production methods that represent revolution in contemporary practice. These films demonstrate one way to bring power to the people – through an exchange of information and an affective retelling of revolutionary histories that has the potential through festivals to become popular.

Karina Griffith is an artist, curator and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute where her research on Black authorship in German cinema interacts with theories of affect, intersectionality and creolisation. Since 2018 she holds a lecturer position in the Institute for Art in Context at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK).

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