Contraband Cinema: What Makes a Political Film?

06/30/2010 1:05 PM |


Today through July 8th, BAMcinematek is hosting “Contraband Cinema,” one of the most original and unique offerings of political cinema in some time. The eclectic and controversial lineup eschews many of the more obvious choices; instead, it brings together rare classics like Jean Rouch’s 1955 short Les Maitres Fous (The Mad Masters, one of the earliest and most famous ethnographic films, a study of West African Hauka that explores the dynamic between ritual and colonialism), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) (in which the Marquis de Sade’s legendary, controversial text is updated into a sadomasochistic tale of Fascism during World War II), and Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson’s Weather Underground doc Underground (1976); unheard-of rarities like The Animals Film (1981), about man’s inhumanity towards animals; mind-boggling conversation starters like Black Panthers (In Israel) Speak (2002); and even Sylvester Stallone’s late-Cold War snowy classic Rocky IV (1985).

The range, depth, and diversity of the program—to say nothing of its intelligence and excellence—can be attributed to its collectivist mentality (itself a political statement on the art and bureaucracy of curating). Bringing together several organizations and individuals, the series is being presented by Red Channels and the Brecht Forum, and was collectively curated by Jake Perlin, Matt Peterson, Kazembe Balagun, Valeria Mogilevich, Rebecca Cleman, and James Spooner. Together, they pose the question, “What makes a political film?” To help answer this question, and to discuss the process of collaborative curating as well as some of the gems from the program, I recently sat down with two of the series’ presenters: Matt Peterson from Red Channels and Kazembe Balagun from The Brecht Forum.

The L Magazine: What was the impetus for this series?

Kazembe Balagun: A lot of us were already working together over the years. For example, Red Channels did a series at The Brecht Forum last summer called “The Visual Liberation Film Festival.” One interesting thing about cinema is the way it reforms matter. In terms of “Contraband Cinema,” we are not only looking at film history in terms of what makes a political film, but also into the issue of how do these films meld? How can Eldridge Cleaver be in conversation with Pasolini? And how is Pasolini in conversation with Rocky IV? This is more controversial, I think, than a traditional film festival where we know the catalog already—Newsreel, Godard, ’68—whereas this series looks at how we can create an international language of cinema.

Matt Peterson: Not just cinema, but also an international language of opposition and subversion. One of the things behind this idea of “Contraband” is a transhistorical idea of what has been “radical.” A more literal answer to your question is that Kazembe and Jake Perlin have known each other for twenty years and went to summer camp together. They had wanted to do something together, and Red Channels tried to facilitate that. Kazembe, can you talk a little more about the idea of “contraband” and how it relates to cinema?

KB: “Contraband” is a term that is often used in the prison system. Things outside the law, or that are not allowed in. When we were kicking around names for the series, “contraband” kept coming up because the films are so explosive and so controversial. In a way, I kind of feel like we’re smuggling this film series into BAM.

The L: I was struck by the absence of certain “pop” political films that have been prominent in theaters as of late. No Michael Moore, no Inconvenient Truth… Not even more independent documentaries like Iraq in Fragments.

KB: All those films you listed are fine films, very powerful and very necessary. We are focusing on films that have not necessarily been shown as much, but are powerful and need to be seen.

MP: As far as the historical leaning as opposed to a contemporary focus, from a curatorial sense, and as political researchers and historians of opposition, it is more exciting for us (and we hope the audience) to deal with these films and videos that you can’t see in a multiplex, on a traditional festival circuit, on PBS, or even on DVD. To show those films you mention would be redundant. As curators, it is our job to dig a little deeper.

KB: We also live in an opportune time when the actual subjects of the films are still living, which brings another level of dialogue to the screenings. Kathleen Cleaver will be at the second showing of Eldridge Cleaver (1970) (July 4, 6:50PM). We can engage these people from the 1960s in a dialogue today.

MP: William Klein’s Eldridge Cleaver film is one of the films we are most excited to have landed. Red Channels and The Brecht Forum were interested in it, but we didn’t have the network or resources to book it, whereas Jake and BAM did. Aside from that, the program I am most excited about is our Newsreel program (July 7, 6:50PM), which focuses on the early years of the women’s movement. Many of the women who were members of the Newsreel collective, and who made these films, will be coming to the screening, which includes four films: Jeanette Rankin Brigade (1968), Up Against the Wall Miss America (1968), Janie’s Janie (1971), and The Woman’s Film (1971).


The L: One of the films that caught my eye was Chris Marker and Mario Marret’s A bientot, j’espere (1968) (July 6, 6:50PM and July 7, 4:30PM). It’s about a workers’ strike, but the workers didn’t actually like the film. How do you think the form of a political film relates to its subject?

MP: It’s the relationship between ourselves as intellectuals and artists, and the workers, the people, and how do we bridge that gap. I don’t want to speak for Chris Marker, but it seems he was interested in a particular moment of worker strikes in 1967 in France that led, a year later, to May ’68. Whether or not the workers like the film, it is a historical document that is worth looking at and considering—not only in terms of labor history, but also as a way of using cinema to interact with the workers. Even if it is a failure on his part to successfully produce a work that the subjects like, failures are interesting, too—potentially more interesting. In this case, we are juxtaposing it with Harun Farocki’s film Workers Leaving the Factory (1995), which is a media analysis about this question of how workers have been treated as subjects in cinema.

The L: The BAM calendar asks the question, “What makes a political film?” How have your answers to this changed throughout the curatorial process?

MP: The instinctual response is to think in terms of form or genre. I am thinking more about cinema—in a broader sense, the moving image—and how can we politicize the context and use of it. The space of the theater, the space of the series, how do we make that political.

KB: Ultimately, it is a question of democracy. We’re not living in a time where the resources, in terms of the development of film, are controlled by the people. For example, we have a situation where Dreamgirls (2006) cost like, what, $150 million dollars? And that is probably twice the GNP of Botswana. Just the amount of resources that go into the making of a film is deeply political. Also in terms of shaping and defining the values of a community. Those are questions that we have to ask ourselves. When you’re looking at films within the series, you’re seeing this question of, “We don’t have a lot of resources, we don’t have a lot of money, but we have this political vision of what we want to see the world become.” How does that political vision—or the presentation of that political vision—motivate, or inspire, folks to action? Part of the responsibility of curators and filmmakers is asking, “How do we release these films that acknowledge and record the level of people’s struggles, but also how do we create the space in which people feel motivated to act and feel their own sense of agency?”

The L: Lastly, are there any particular screenings you want to draw attention to?


MP: We challenged ourselves to produce some of what we call “wtf” programs. Films that just turn people’s heads a little bit. For us, that is the Black Panthers in Israel program. It includes Jerusalem Tapes: [Israeli] Black Panther on the Street (Videofreex/David Cort, 1973) and The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak (Eli Hamo & Sami Shalom Chetrit, 2002). This connection of what we think we know about the Black Panthers and how that might be applicable in Israel in the early 1970s is something that…I can’t believe they booked this film in the series, and they’re showing it twice! (July 1, 4:30PM and July 2, 2:00PM). Connecting it to Israel/Palestine, the apartheid policies of Israel, the issues around the Flotilla from a few weeks ago. How can we bring that into the screening space? The films are already controversial enough, but how can we push it to an even further level of engagement, challenging ourselves, challenging BAM, and challenging the audience to confront this?

As far as Pasolini’s Salò, this series spans July 4, so we were stuck with the question of what film do you show at 9:15PM during the fireworks? What can we project during that time to compete with it? Salò was the only response. One of the most controversial films of all time was the only appropriate choice.