Oppositional media practices
Review of Breaking the spell: a history of anarchist filmmakers, videotape guerrillas, and digital ninjas by Chris Robé (Oakland, California: PM Press, 2017).
Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas focuses on oppositional media organizations as they intervene, intersect, and engage moments of unresolved political and social conflicts provoked by neoliberal onslaughts.
This book offers an important reminder for media scholarship to move beyond the text to larger institutional frameworks and contexts. And it forcefully presents an argument that documentary work done in the spheres beyond festivals and public television deserves some attention. It’s hard to think of another book analyzing radical, alternative, or political media that covers so many organizations and interviews so many practitioners who share their conflicts, critiques, and problems so openly.
The book traces linkages between groups often considered separately in the scholarly literature on radical media and insurgent documentary. It brings new important emerging 21st century organizations to the fore such as the Media Mobilizing Project, VozMob, and Outta Your Backpack Media. It is one of the few books on radical or political media practices to interweave environmentally-oriented media organizations into the histories of oppositional media practices. Impressively, Robé conducted over ninety interviews with media practitioners working within different organizations, an important ethnography that moves beyond textual analysis into institutional history. Their voices crack open the continuing problems and challenges of race, gender, class, sexualities, identity rippling through these organizations, a significant and valuable contribution that grounds this book in the continuing struggles confronting these groups..
The book’s writing style and analytical approach display a very accessible and even urgent pedagogical feel, where chapters read as though they emerged from teaching these works and needing to explain their urgency and their rough aesthetics to students. Robé argues for understanding oppositional media practices through the nexus of politics, technology, political movements, organizations, and media works. He offers a roadmap to faculty and community media groups who want to devise courses introducing students and the next generation to these important legacies and political struggles. It also provides a way in to a somewhat complex and often ignored landscape of political media groups across a fifty-year time span.
At conferences and in most journals (Jump Cut being the exception), film, screen, and documentary studies often sideline nonprofit and political media art organizations. These fields seem to prefer analysis of a single film with textual and structural complexities that circulates within and is validated by the international festival circuit. A de facto auteurism—or perhaps latent neoliberal individualism if we adopt Robé’s argument—renders collectives, collaborative projects, and political groups making media almost invisible. In equal measure, much scholarship in these fields has also not fully embraced community media, activist projects, or advocacy documentary with its more on-the-ground, driven-by-political-struggle rough-hewn approach and style. These works rarely surface in museum and festival programming. [open endnotes in new window]
Breaking the Spell offers a welcome shift in the scholarly ecology outlined in broad strokes above. It tracks and unpacks a fifty-year plus history of what Robé categorizes as “anarchist-inflected” radical media organizations and projects working in video. He defines anarchism as direct action, participatory democracy, and consensus decision-making (6). He identifies these as salient operating principles across a range of media organizations across many different historical periods. The book steers clear of community-based video, collaborative video projects, and advocacy work in organizations such as Scribe Video or WITNESS. Instead, it sets its course on projects produced during moments of political uprisings mostly in the United States, with a few projects from Canada.
The notion of anarchism deployed in this book feels somewhat forced. It reads like a top-down abstract theorization attached to very different kinds of practices from a scholar looking for a unifying model to understand a diverse range of organizations rather than a set of complex processes emerging from the organizations themselves. Although anarchist thought has a long history and trajectory, the book never makes explicit the connection between the political work of these media organizations and this history except to argue their consensual and non-hierarchical practices resonate with and evoke this tradition.
Breaking the Spell launches a very ambitious intellectual undertaking. It splices together a critique of neoliberalism, many different critical theorists such as Stanley Aronowitz, Walter Benjamin, Manual Castells, Julia Garcia Espinosa, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Marx, Slavoj Zizek, various political movements, a wide swathe of documentary and communication scholars, histories of neoliberalism, and anarchist philosophy. Robé adroitly maneuvers between all these different scholarly registers as he moves through the decades. His fluency with so many bodies of knowledge in documentary, communications, political theory, history, and philosophy helps the reader to understand why these organizations matter as forces against neoliberalism.
However, the force of the book’s argument about anarchist-inflected video is often weighed down with an overemphasis on reviews of the existing literature, excessively long quotes, and sweeping explications of neoliberalism, corporatization, and radical politics. At times, the book reads like a clever remix of all these ideas rather than a compelling argument that justifies the significance of why the uninitiated reader should pay attention to anarchist-inflected video produced over the last fifty years.
A key theme throughout the book centers on the intersections between race, class, gender, identities, and technologies. This strategy provides a way to understand fifty years of activist video as marked by struggle, debate, and conflict rather than as an utopian, conflict-free, steady advance towards better and better activist practices. It spans film and video activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, guerrilla video, AIDS activism, the first war in Iraq in the early 1990s, eco-video in the Pacific Northwest, the rise of Indymedia in the late 1990s, meme creation, projects using cellphones to chronicle Latino/a workers, and the work of Canadian media activist Franklin Lopez. The book argues that anarchist tendencies and political actions connect these various practices across different historical periods.
With such a large time frame, questions of historiography arise: these movements and periods need to be positioned and their significance explained. Breaking the Spell : A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas presents a sweeping, epic historical recovery project that works hard to make links between the rise of neoliberalism and the emergence of resistance to it by political groups and media organizations in the United States and Canada. Robé explains neoliberalism as a new economy based on flexible accumulation, fragmentation, precarity the service economy, information, and networks (8-11). The book traverses through a large historical evolution of accessible media technologies from 16mm to PortaPaks to camcorders to cable television to public access to satellite to cellphones, each discussed as presenting opportunities for radical interventions into discourse and practice. These technologies aid in the construction of new social imaginaries within the specific interventionist politics of the anti-war, ecology, AIDS, working class, immigrant, indigenous, and anti-globalization movements. Robé contends that each of these movements pushed against and protested the effects of the neoliberal project of late capitalism.
As it travels through the decades, organizations, people, politics, movements, and media projects, the book combines the close textual analysis strategies of film studies with cultural studies and ethnographic methodologies. The book provides an institutional and organizational analysis of these various entities. This strategy combining three different methodologies situates the organizations and their films/videos within questions of infrastructure and engagement with larger political struggles. With so much research in documentary studies often obscuring questions of organizational infrastructure and sustainability, Breaking the Spell offers useful information grounded in day-to-day operations of various groups, aligning itself with scholarship on institutional histories of media beyond commercial sectors.
To dig into how these groups actually operate and how people involved in them consider their own work within them, Robé interviewed ninety people involved in these organizations. The quotes pulled from the interviews reveal ongoing political strategy debates as well as continuing unresolved conflicts with race, class, gender, and identities. The interviewees insights counter the naïve utopianism that often obfuscates analysis of political media. The book is particularly strong on following the administration, operations, and tactics of these organizations from production to distribution to exhibition, elaborated in detail by the interviewees. These interviews expose a cauldron of debates at the ever-changing nexus of technologies, politics, and identities.
Beyond these useful oral histories, each chapter includes close textual analysis of a representative video from each organization. Early on in the book, Roble contends that these videos are often not “considered the most important part of the process” (13). Instead, distribution, reception, and use value become more salient and pressing, ways of mobilizing people, arguments, and evidence. He argues.
“activist video does not simply represent collective actions and events but also serves as a form of activist practice in and of itself” (14).
The book begs a big perennial question lurking underneath any analysis of activist media: is this kind of media production simply a gateway to work in mainstream media and a media career, or does it actually work in tandem with the harder, less glamorous, long-time frame of on-the-ground political organizing? Some interviewees in the book criticize those who move from activists to freelancers for larger media corporations. Breaking the Spell prefers to stay within the domains of media production as either a practice of direct action in and of itself or a documentation of direct action.
The textual analyses of various films and videos are the weakest and least interesting parts of the book. Sometimes, the analysis spans many pages, offering detailed description but insufficient analysis. At other times, it is not clear as to the significance of why a certain show or film was selected and how the analysis advances the argument. Rather than looking at patterns across a range of works produced by an organization and then arguing for a video as representative of major trends or developments, the individual analysis of videos read as overly elaborated singular examples.
However, to be fair, it should be noted that if one were to teach a course in anarchist radical video history, the list of works analyzed would provide a quite useful pedagogical trajectory for an undergraduate syllabus: Finally Got the News (1970), May Day Realtime (1971), Four More Years (1972), Testing the Limits (1987), Gulf Crisis TV Project (1990), Cascadia Alive (1996), Showdown in Seattle (1999), The Miami Model (2004), Picture the Homeless (2004), Taxi Workers: A New Era (2009), Skary Skool (2009), END:CIV (2011).
To make the case for the connection between neoliberalism and the rise of radical media that confronts it, Robé argues “Chile represents the economic primal scene for global restructuralization” (23). Chapter One starts with the 1973 overthrow of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile and the resulting ascent of neoliberalism. He maintains the importance of theories of third cinema for promoting participation among makers and spectators. The chapter then moves to Newsreel, a filmmaking collective started in the late 1960s to make films about the anti-war and anti-racist movement, and its relationship to New Left politics in the United States in the 1960s. He claims its adoption of a rough aesthetic approach can be understand in relation to Julio Garcia Espoinosa’s imperfect cinema, It should be noted that he is not making a historical claim, as the essay was translated into English after much of Newsreel’s work appeared, but rather using this theoretical model as a way to explain why these films are not polished in terms of style. An extended analysis of Finally Got the News unpacks conflicts between white middle class producers and their working class subjects.
Chapter Two looks at video guerrillas and eco-media projects such as Videofreex, Global Village, Top Value Television, and Ant Farm in late 1960s and early 1970s. It argues that their organizations employed anarchist principles of decentralization, anti-hierarchal structures, anti-bureaucracy, and small communities. Focusing on the Videofreex and their work establishing Lanesville TV, a low-fi station in upstate New York, the chapter points out that this work emphasized process over product, with long takes and intimate interactions (88). The chapter shows how debates opened up between those “who saw video at service to the people and those who saw it as an artistic process simply serving themselves” (93). The chapter touches on how documentarian George Stoney’s stint at Challenge for Change in Canada propelled him upon his return to the United States to found the Alternative Media Center at New York University in 1970 with Red Burns.
Chapter Three focuses on the 1980s, in particular ACT UP and AIDS video activism, Paper Tiger TV, Deep Dish, and the Gulf Crisis TV Project. Robé advances that this period of the 1980s “marks a moment where a more widely accessible, spectacle-based video activism will become a new paradigm for many future forms of direct action video” (123). He observes that ACT UP and AIDS activism, in organizations such as Testing the Limits Collective, DIVA TV, and WAVE constitute the site where “bodies and signification entwined” (124). These groups focused on a narrowcasting to specific marginalized communities and constituencies rather than broadcasting model of reaching a mass audience. The chapter sees Paper Tiger TV as promoting “quick and economical media production” (127), handmade with consumer-grade gear. This period of the 1980s and 1990s also was a time of massive commercial media concentration. In response, Free Speech TV, a twenty-four national television network and multiplatform project for progressive independent news and documentary developed in 1995.
Chapter Four concentrates on the Northwest of the United States during the 1990s and 2000s, an under-researched region for independent media. The chapter discusses Eugene Media, an environmental activist group employing the principles of deep ecology . Although the chapter praises this group, many environmental activists in the Northwest and across the United States see the group as self-righteous, obnoxious, and overly masculinist, critiques Robé does not engage. The chapter offers an interesting point about the “rough form” and “open production process with amateurs and activists in this work”(190). As the face of the neoliberalist agenda, the World Trade Organization formed in 1995, the largest international economic group in the world promoting trade flows between countries. The rise of Indymedia during the Seattle anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) demonstrations in 1999 is analyzed as a convergence between anti-neoliberal organizing and technological breakthroughs in microelectronics and software. The interviews with participants uncover the racial and class privileges of those working in Indymedia, as well the tensions between sharing material or selling it to more commercial outlets. Videos like Showdown in Seattle, The Miami Model, and Breaking the Spell, according to Robé “prioritize activism and urgency over well-honed production and artistic expertise” (228).
The notion of the meme, an idea or concept that circulates and moves, emerges in Chapter Five. Roble contends that meme organizations appear in the 2000s. They construct “narratives that galvanize a wider public to engage in social justice” (263). The chapter also looks at community-based groups who share media making skills with each other and activists experimenting with form. Not an Alternative, a Brooklyn nonprofit, connects the local with the global, especially in a project entitled “Picture the Homeless.” SmartMeme in San Francisco functions as a training collective to amplify messaging of political actions through meme creation.
The Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia deploys radio, the internet, video, and cable “for the working class to mobilize on workers’ rights, affordable and quality education” (291). Their project Taxi Workers: A New Era (2009) shows stories from the ground up emerging from poor people’s organizing movement and DIY media production. Los Angeles-based Mobile Voices, also known at VozMob, marshalls cellphones to counteract anti-immigrant actions so that immigrants can tell their own stories. Flagstaff, Arizona-based Outta Your Backpack is a youth led, indigenous-centered skill sharing group. Works like Skary Skool and Inner Voices elaborate indigenous youth empowerment. All of these groups constitute important forces in the new oppositional media landscape, as they have figured out how to marshall new amateur technologies with scalable and sustainable practices. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Canadian Media Co-op Movement, influenced by the horizontally dispersed structures of Indymedia.
Perhaps the weakest of all the chapters, Chapter Six focuses almost exclusively on Canadian media activist Franklin Lopez in the context of what Roble dubs “video ninjas” anarchist-inflected makers who exemplify the tensions “between freelancers and production outlets” (346). This focus on one auteur seems out of joint in a large volume emphasizing political media groups and organizations rather than individuals. This chapter points out that the 2008 economic meltdown made it difficult for independent media producers to survive. Free Speech TV, often seen as a viable model organization circulating independent media on progressive political issues, enacted massive layoffs in 2009 . The book positions Franklin Lopez, who worked with Indymedia and then SubMedia, as an exemplar of anarchist media practice. Robé argues Lopez’s aggressive videomaking style blends “political hip hop and the avant garde” (395).
The book concludes with the 2011 Occupy Wall Street (OWS) action, analyzing the organization of media around this action. For Robé, OWS offers the concluding example of “anarchist-inflected” media with its emphasis on consensus, direct action, and non-hierarchical structures.
At a hefty 459 pages, Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas covers half a century of video practice outside mainstream broadcast, art cinemas in festivals, and individual documentary auteurs. However, the book suffers from some argumentative and theoretical weaknesses. With more strategic structural editing to reduce the overwriting, over-explaining, and over-quoting, Breaking the Spell might have more potential to move beyond activist circles to influence scholarship in documentary studies as well as festival and museum programming. The imposition of the anarchist model of political organization often gets repetitive and feels forced. The interviewees do not elaborate their anarchist principles; it is more the case that what they say aligns with and implies anarchist principles.
As a result, the diversity of organizations and the specificities of historical periods wafts away because the analysis keeps pushing the issues of neoliberalism and anarchist responses. As a book claiming to recover a lost history, Robé’s insistence on radical anarchist political media pushes historiography to the background: the significance of each of these various organizations and movements is rarely explained except as an example of a battleground against neoliberalism. The periodization is neither justified nor argued, as it is for the most part assumed.
Despite these criticisms about length, scope, and methodology, Breaking the Spell is a book that documentary, mass communications, and social movement scholars will find useful for research and teaching. It crafts a throughline across a variety of oppositional media groups often discussed as separate entities across a sprawling half-century period of political struggles in the United States and Canada. The book shows the connections across these groups as they deploy anti-hierarchical, decentralized, consensual, and direct action tactics that are, as Robé asserts “anarchist-inflected.”
Unlike many discussions of documentary that focus on feature-length films for art cinemas, Breaking the Spell dives into shorter works produced quickly on-the-ground during political actions, pieces designed not only to document actions but to mobilize activists. It concentrates on organizations themselves, tracing their operations and debates, an important contribution to the institutional histories of independent media in the United States that circumvents the auteurism and textual analysis lurking in the fields of documentary and screen studies. Disposing of the utopianism of much research on independent media, the interviews with producers, one of the significant strengths of this volume, reveals the continuing difficult debates about organizational strategies and struggles over race, class, gender, and identities inequalities. Ambitious in scope, urgent in tone, and partisan for oppositional anarchist direct action, Breaking the Spell offers a very necessary project of recovery, reconnection, and reclamation of independent oppositional media.