Film is never innocent

The dimming of the lights in the cinema before a film begins is a moment in which I take indulgence. It’s the suspension – the split second when a swimmer hangs in the air between springing off the board and their fingers breaking the water. The whispering simmers into silence and I ease back into the plush red chair, guaranteed of two hours without responsibility or obligation.

During these few seconds, the power of film is captured. Film’s ability to quiet a room of up to a few hundred people is a skill many speakers would envy. In these seconds, film becomes a powerful platform to communicate the filmmakers’ intentions to an audience.

‘Film is never innocent.’

Hérbert Peck, producer of the film I am Not Your Negro, cast out this remark during a Q&A session after a screening of the documentary at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Cinema is not so much an objective reflection of society, but rather the mainstream values it cherishes. In this case, Peck was referring to American cinema, especially during the decades leading up to and during the civil rights movement, and its barbaric representations of the African-American as the ‘other’.

Cinema not only reflects but creates societal norms, regardless of whether it possesses self-awareness of doing so. Harnessing this power, many films have been released over the past twelve months that are very self-aware of their role. Whether it’s the unveiling of the parallels between the American civil rights movement of the 60s and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, or portraying the legal battle against Holocaust denial, a struggle for marginalised agents to affirm their political voice is taking place on film.

Film is not only art. Film is protest.

I Am Not Your Negro surges forward with force, raw and unashamed. The unpublished, thirty-page packet of letters of James Baldwin, a black rights activist whose name is often uttered alongside Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr, sprawls across the majority of the reel. Juxtaposed between archival footage of Baldwin and the civil rights movement, and scenes of white-washed Hollywood blockbusters, are visual snatches of BLM protests. These latter scenes are un-narrated. By placing them side-by-side with the protests of the 60s, enough has been said. In this way, I Am Not Your Negro reflects the style of Baldwin’s speeches, excerpts of which are included intermittently throughout the documentary. It is simultaneously beautiful and witty, and also delivers a punch to the gut. As Nayuka Gorrie declared in her own response to the film, ‘I want to remind you that you are not imagining it. [White Supremacy] is real.’ My gut hurts because the film is as true in Australia as it is in the States.

Modern day demonstrations rely significantly on visual media to get their message across. Occupy Wall Street, BLM, Stop Adani – these movements have reached out across countries and the world through their capturing of the gaze of media. In this era, the life of a protest relies on its portrayal onscreen.

Protest is not always a march or a demonstration. It is sometimes a song or a poem. In My Own Words is an Australian documentary following the course of an adults’ Indigenous literacy program in Brewarrina. While students come and go, the program sees significant gains made by its participants. The documentary doesn’t try to gloss over problems in the community, but its narrative is resolute in its optimism, explains the director, ­­­­­­­­­Erica Glynn. And fairly so, as the Literacy for Life Foundation has effectively rolled out similar programs across the country, and a second running of the program has just finished up in Brewarrina. I left I Am Not Your Negro with tear-slicked make-up; I left In My Own Words laughing at the humour of the students; I left both films in awe.

Within a year, we have watched what happened in Charlottesville, Clinton Pryor walk across Australia, and seen Elijah Doughty’s killer found ‘not guilty’ of manslaughter. I have also watched The Promise, a historical-fiction telling of the Armenian genocide, and Denial, which addresses Holocaust denial in depicting the Irving V Penguin Books Ltd. court case. If our political institutions and leaders are delivered to us en masse via the screen, then it is only fit that our political reaction is to fight fire with fire, and to film the public’s actions, interests and passions. I was angry the night Trump was elected. Yet the mixture of fury and shock I felt in response to In My Own Words had me bawling as the credits began rolling.

Grievances can be attempted to be dealt with through diplomacy and problem-solving behind the scenes, but unfortunately this conformation of the system will always be counter-productive, and these films are acutely aware of this dichotomy. Even when confrontation through protest can’t achieve success, protest is a duty, and film is a uniquely powerful vehicle. Once the lights dim, you have already become a part of the screen beyond the screen onto which film projects its story.

Emma Hartley

Emma Hartley is an undergraduate student studying international relations and human rights at the ANU.

More by Emma Hartley ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays