Making connections: report on Radical Film Network Conference
New York City, May 3-5, 2017
by Chris Robé
The early 2000s mark the last time media makers, critics, and activists joined in a concerted attempt to weave an international radical media network.. The most notable example, Indymedia, emerged out of the waves of organizing and activism produced by the alter-globalization movement. It served as a bunker of media activism in 1999 to report on the protests against the World Trade Organization occurring on the streets of Seattle and forced commercial media to report on police violence since amateurs with video cameras and notepads were scooping veteran reporters. Independent Media Centers (IMC) arose with each subsequent counter-summit protest and provided inspiration for countless others to join the movement, to “be the media”—as Indymedia people championed at the time.
Despite all its faults—such as the lack of infrastructure to make most IMCs sustainable, an inability to adequately address the socio-economic privilege needed to produce media without pay or adequate support, and a naïve faith in Internet technology to operate in a democratic fashion—Indymedia represented a utopian moment where anybody with access to a computer and the Internet could post content. Significantly, this happened five years before the advent of social media made such Internet activism a commonplace function. [open endnotes in new window] Furthermore, Indymedia’s refusal to track users’ ISP address on its webpages provided vital security protection against government surveillance. This is a key element that’s sorely missed in the present climate. Now most activists rely upon commercial social media platforms to relay information about events and ideas, and these platforms then are endlessly data-mined by corporations and remain vulnerable to government surveillance.
But as the alter-globalization movement lost momentum and the war on terror escalated, further increasing repression against socially engaged communities; as commercial services like social media far outstripped the increasingly antiquated software developed by Indymedia; as a generation of activists burnt out or simply eased into middle age where family and other responsibilities took precedence—Indymedia receded into the background, serving as a footnote to an earlier, more optimistic time where technological growth and a booming economy seemed to go hand-in-hand.
Within the last couple of years, there has been talk about revitalizing a radical global communications network. At the Fifth World Forum of Free Media held in Montreal in early August 2016, a series of panels gathered together veteran Indymedia people who contemplated a reboot of the network. Attitudes varied on the plausibility of resurrecting such an enterprise, which ran from nostalgic to the deeply skeptical. Tellingly, there was a noticeable absence of younger media activists attending the panels, suggesting perhaps that Indymedia had too much baggage from the past to interest them. Likewise, a roundtable on video distribution in the era of Facebook, which I participated in, also occurred at the same event. We wrestled with the complications of having to post videos on commercial platforms. For example, we had concerns about censorship and also about losing one’s material when a commercial site suddenly folds due to a variety of reasons. Government surveillance and corporate data-mining also worried many participants.
The main problem, however, in creating an independent video distribution platform is not mostly a technological one. In that regard, many of the techies who attended the roundtable assured us that such a platform could be created at an affordable price. The bigger issues were strategic. What type of content would be distributed? What type of videos? What kind of politics would be represented? How would such distribution tie into the communities using it? These primary concerns confront those attempting to create an international media network.
Similar concerns occupied those who attended the Radical Film Network (RFN) conference hosted at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education & Labor Studies in Manhattan from May 3-6, 2017. The RFN was established in 2013 by two British scholars, Mike Wayne and Steve Presence. After receiving funding from an Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2015, they decided to hold a series of conferences. The first two occurred at Birmingham in 2015 and Glasgow in 2016. After NYC, they held another conference at Tolpuddle in mid-July 2017, which will be discussed at the end of this report.
During his opening remarks, Presence emphasized the three main goals of the network and its conferences: 1) raise awareness of the work participants are doing; 2) facilitate communication within the Radical Film Network community; and 3) provide outreach beyond the Radical Film Network. The term “radical,” he explained, intentionally remains broad to incorporate a wide array of cultural practices that identify a significant commitment to a Left outlook. “Film,” on the other hand, signifies more of a shorthand for film and video work.
Throughout the three days of the conference, the first goal of raising awareness was most definitely met. We were introduced to a spectrum of work and groups creating radical media within the United States, Canada, and Latin America. No panels overlapped so participants did not have to juggle conflicting interests.
The conference was intimate but informative. Overall attendance was around 100 people. This somewhat frustrated the organizers as they mentioned how they had printed 200 programs. The low attendance is somewhat surprising given that the conference was located in Manhattan, one of the media making hubs of the United States. Although the organizers attempted to engage more local alternative media making organizations, this did not come to fruition. One cause for the low numbers might also revolve around the fact that the conference was not well publicized in the United States. The event remained unannounced on list-serves like The D Word, the Caucus on Class of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and the Union for Democratic Communications; these groups would generate interest in such an event. In fact, I only heard about it through word of mouth.
But regardless of the low overall attendance numbers, around 25-35 people attended each panel—with new people constantly rotating into the mix. The value for the participants’ becoming aware of each other’s work should not be underestimated. As Steve Presence emphasized during his opening remarks, many radical film organizations operate under fairly precarious conditions, particularly in light of austerity measures where federal and state funding has been drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether; this leaves radical media organizations scrambling for donations or increasingly appealing to a sustainer base. With the global rise of reactionary populism, the outlook remains bleak. Such reduced finances not only leave organizations with relatively little capital to sustain their efforts, but scarce resources also cause them to compete with one another over the scraps of funding that remain. Such competition jeopardizes coalition building and weakens the sense of community that should exist between these progressive organizations.
But even during better economic times, establishing an environment of mutual support and validation has been invaluable. For example, a summary of the 1979 Alternative Cinema Conference at Bard College could equally apply to the present conference:
“Just getting together with other people who understood what you were doing as well as what difficulties you faced doing it, and who could offer supportive criticism was a powerful experience. Knowing that there is a radical film and video community and seeing what fine, talented, concerned, and serious people are involved, and knowing that there are still others who didn’t attend, made the conference an energizing experience.”
The current conference did a good job of balancing the interests of those who predominantly self-identify as media makers with those who see media making as only one aspect of their activism. In regards to the former, many pragmatic concerns were raised concerning core issues of distribution, funding, sustainability, and the like. Chuck Kleinhans provided a sobering observation during his keynote presentation about media making, which is printed in full at the beginning of this Jump Cut section on radical activism. He said that we need to study failed projects, ones that were not completed either due to a lack of adequate funding and/or changing political circumstances that have rendered the project’s topic irrelevant:
“I want to emphasize this because to focus too much on the individual film and filmmaker can lead to failing to plan for and account for the difficulties of the process … I say this not to scold, but to ask us, all of us, to wisely manage our projects. Dreams and good intentions are not enough. Hard shell realism needs to balance the hopes. So, we need to think of the whole process, to take the wide view of radical film projects.”
If anything, the conference as a whole attempted to consider this wide view. For example, a panel on exhibition accentuated that screenings must be conceived as a part of a broader practice. Elson Menegazzo of the Brazilian International Labour Film Festival noted, “Exhibition is not the last step of the process; it’s the place where radical seeds are spread.” Discussion and collective organizing after screenings are key, which is not a new idea but instead an extension of radical exhibition practices that lead back to the anticolonial organizing of Third Cinema of the 1960s and the revolutionary upheaval of the arts that took place in the Soviet Union during the 1920s as cine-trains engaged populations in remote geographical areas.
Along similar lines, Svetla Turnin of Cinema Politica, a radical exhibition network originating from Montreal, stated that their screenings have “the aim of coalition building and movement building.” For example, when screening the film Migrant Dreams (2016) that concerns female migrant farm labor, Cinema Politica worked with immigrant worker centers, No One Is Illegal, and other organizations to raise awareness and aim at changing Canadian federal laws to improve working conditions for farm workers.
Cinema Politica has many active, semi-autonomous chapters located mainly on university campuses. They pay a nominal fee to the head organization and must clear screenings with it also. Additional funding comes from student fees at Concordia University, some funding from the Canadian Council for the Arts, and member sustainers. Cinema Politica particularly emphasizes exhibiting films that come from inside marginalized communities, not from an outsider parachuting into a community who does not possess cultural knowledge of the community to adequately represent it. This is particularly important in regards to indigenous communities where there is a long history of (neo)colonial relationships between white filmmakers and First Nation peoples. As Turnin stated, “We try to find work that relates a deep relation of ethics of the filmmakers to the subjects.”
Funding, as one could imagine, was an issue frequently raised throughout the sessions. The difficulty in conceptualizing successful funding models was unintentionally punctuated in a schizophrenic panel on the topic that occurred on Thursday. It was comprised of a motley assembly of people from the commercial industry, who worked with government funding, and who possessed little experience with funding at all. The panelists spoke more over one another than with one another.
Perhaps the most grounded was Thomas Barlow, a co-founder of Real Media. The U.K.-based organization is comprised of twenty one media organizations and is concerned with creating an alternative media network in “a long and sustainable fashion.” Since the organization was only founded in October 2016, results remain to be seen. But Real Media plans on fundraising from small and large donors as well as trying to tap into reserve money from the BBC that is dedicated to independent media. Their efforts don’t sound unlike the work of the Film Fund, which originated in the 1970s in the United States with a very similar mission: to centralize money available to independent media makers and simplify the fundraising effort. But that organization didn’t last long since most of the revenue generated went to its high overhead. Furthermore, its progressive rhetoric didn’t align with its practices as it distanced itself from Left communities and exhibited murky political principles. So hopefully Real Media can avoid such pitfalls as it engages on its mission to serve as a hub where various independent media organizations can cooperate with one another and receive funding.
Alan Story, of WellRed Films, founded in January 2015, launched into a succinct attack regarding the limits of foundation funding of documentary films. He enumerated a series of problems that arise from such funding:
- The rote formulas of problem-solution type story structure that relies upon a main protagonist that often forecloses any sense of systemic critique of capitalism, colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
- Those who control the funds are often not creative personnel but instead lawyers and managers who possess little to no understanding of creative work and documentary filmmaking in particular.
- The limited funding available, which normally never fully supports filmmaking expenses, creates a hostile competitive environment between filmmakers and organizations—the exact antithesis of fostering community among Left artists.