Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975 at Cinema Politica

Black Power Mix Tape
Angela Davis interviewed by Swedish Television. ( SVT)

Last week I went to another excellent screening at Cinema Politica’s home base at Concordia University, now only one of their 75 chapters on campuses across this continent and in Europe. I saw a terrific film, The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-75 which screened last year at Sundance and Hot Docs. And I had a different experience from all the other 600 people in the audience.

The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975 is made with archives from Swedish Television’s reports from the United States from 1967 to 1975. At the time, Sweden was a very progressive country. The Social Democrats were in power, Olof Palme was prime minister. Sweden officially opposed the war in Vietnam and supported justice for the Palestinians. Swedish television’s reporting from the U.S. was focused on poverty, the movement against the war and the emergence of the Black Power movement – to such an extent that U.S. some U.S. media spokesmen denounced the coverage as ‘anti-american.’ The reporters investigated the Black Power movement, obtaining behind-the-scenes footage with larger-than-life characters like Elridge Cleaver and Angela Davis, as well as rare footage of internal activities in the movement.

For the fist three years that these stories were broadcast, I was living in Stockholm. I was active in the mobilisations against the Vietnam war and generally involved with the student movement. Seeing the footage and hearing the voices of the Swedish reporters the other night was like a time travel experience for me, rediscovering something I experienced 45 years ago. The names of the journalists wouldn’t mean anything to people outside Sweden, but to me they were household items.

The filmmaker, Hugo Göran Olsson, made a very interesting choice – which justifies the ‘mixtape’ part of the title. He asked some current-day hip hop artists and song writers and a few other cultural activists to comment on the footage, the Black Power experience and its relevance to black people and others in the U.S. today. You don’t see them, you only hear their voices. The choice of interviewees was not obvious – he could have asked university professors or journalists – but it adds a very interesting layer to the film, bringing it up to date in a socially critical way while letting the archives remain the main attraction. Excellent !

Thank you to Sally Rylett for helping with this blog.

The Grannies and the Cuban Hat

Four Montreal Grannies
The four Montreal grannies who helped shoot our pitch

Documentary film funding is not what it used to be. With broadcast windows few and far between and cutbacks everywhere, we doc-makers are turning to other sources, using other methods. And one of the new ways is web-based participatory, or crowd funding. This week I am participating in the Cuban Hat on-line pitch in the framework of the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal.

GRANNY POWER, the project I am pitching (see the video pitch here on Vimeo) together with my colleagues, is a feature length English-language film on the Raging Grannies. This film has been in the works for eight years – and it might as well be crowd funded, because no English-language broadcaster will support it. Could it be that politicized elderly ladies are not the flavour of the month?

The Grannies form a very original protest movement, singing for social justice, peace and environment. They will celebrate their 25th anniversary next summer. The film portrays the movement, but also opens a window on the challenges of remaining active as a citizen as you grow older. Our main characters are between 65 and 80.

Checking out the projects and pitches presented at Cuban Hat is interesting, and the more people vote, the greater the chance that the best projects will become finalists and have a chance to win post production services. Hope you can find the time!

Tobi Elliott, who helps with this blog, is one of the producers of the Granny Film. It was her idea to pitch Granny Power to the Cuban Hat.

The Interrupters at Cinema Politica

Ameena Matthews in "The Interrupters" by Kartemquin Films

The other night I went to see The Interrupters at another full-house Cinema Politica screening at Concordia University in Montreal, with the filmmaker in attendance. Cinema Politica regularly gets hundreds of people out to see socially and politically relevant documentaries – in this case 650 people on a Monday night! Kudos to organizers Ezra Winton and Svetla Turnin.

The Interrupters is a terrific film by veteran filmmaker Steve James. Initiated thanks to an article by Alex Kotlowitz, it tells the story of three ‘violence interrupters’ who intervene in violence-ridden, mainly black neighbourhoods in Chicago – the ones which became a national symbol of urban violence in the U.S. a couple of years ago.

It’s a classical ‘vérité’ film, tracking the main characters in many tense and emotionally raw encounters with both victims and perpetrators. The director is also the DOP, and the film is beautifully shot – and has excellent sound recorded in often difficult situations. James’ views on documentary making and the relationship between filmmaker and subject are very close to my own. For example, he spoke about the impact of the camera on the subjects as being sometimes negative, sometimes positive.

Svetla Turin, Steve James and Ezra Winton

Steve James directed Hoop Dreams, a truly impressive and inspiring film. There was a controversy about Hoop Dreams not being nominated for an Oscar, something it definitely deserved. Hopefully that mistake will be made up for by an Oscar nomination for Interrupters.

At IDFA in Amsterdam Steve was given a carte blanche to show his top list of documentaries, see here.

The Interrupters was produced by a truly excellent company called Kartemquin Films. Last year I met Gordon Quinn, one of the founders. I remember asking him whether he felt that the new digital environment had any negative implications for filmmaking ethics.

Quinn said: ‘It’s true that the context is changing, but I think the underlying sets of responsibilities are still there. You owe ethical consideration to your subject and to the intended viewer, and these things can be in contradiction. We spend months or years with our subjects, and so our concerns for them have to be greater than if we were just parachuted in for an hour, or worse just grabbed something from the net. I do worry that pieces of our films could be used out of context and portray our subjects in a dishonest light.”

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

The Yes Men bring the house down

This week I went to a sensational Cinema Politica screening at Concordia University here in Montreal.

Cinema Politica is now, according to programmer Ezra Winton, the biggest community- and campus-based documentary screening network in the world! And Concordia, its home base and launching pad, continues to be the scene of weekly screenings often attended by more than 500 people – quite an achievement!

This time, after several years of efforts, Winton and CP Director Svetla Turnin had succeeded in bringing the Yes-Men to Montreal. Do you know who they are? They are surely the world’s leading impostors of the serious-humorous kind. They have pulled off some incredible hoaxes, and always at the expense of governments and corporations who should have reasons to be ashamed of their doings.

The Yes-Men modus operandi is to create false websites which lead people to invite them to conferences as representatives of the ‘bad guys.’ Once there, they push the envelope, taking corporate and government strategies to absurd levels, announcing outrageous schemes. The most incredible thing about their stunts is that people usually take them seriously, even when they propose, for example, human remains as a new energy source or human waste as a protein source for the poor.

On behalf of Dow chemicals, they apologized for the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal and promised compensation for the victims. They got terrific coverage on BBC news around the globe, forcing DOW (the new owner of the UC assets) to strenuously deny that they had done something good! The Concordia crowd saw these feats in the film The Yes Men Fix the World, produced by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano themselves, as a follow-up to the 2003 film The Yes Men.

I found the film a little uneven but full of brilliant ideas. For example, some arch-conservative U.S. climate-change deniers and free-market apostles are shot against a blue screen and are asked what they would like to see as a background for themselves. They then take the interviewees’ suggestions to heart, in their own humorous fashion, and use the backdrops as an ironic backdrop to their comments. Talk about giving people the rope to hang themselves. And most of all, the footage of the Yes Men’s stunts is priceless.

The Yes Men

In the discussion afterward, Andy and Mike (actually Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos) explained that they are anti-capitalist, that they take advantage of opportunities to expose fraud and ill-doing, that they haven’t generally had problems with lawsuits, and that they encourage people everywhere to follow their example.

In response to the many activists who inevitably wanted to know if they had done something on their pet issue, they gave the sound advice: why don’t you do it yourselves!

Congrats to Cinema Politica for an exceptional last-screening-of-the-year!

Cinema Politica crowd at Concordia

With thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog. Photo credit: Thanh Pham

“You Don’t Like The Truth”

Interrogation Number 4
CSIS interrogation of Omar Khadr

The director of programming of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Claude Chamberlan, had a question for the programmers of the Toronto and Vancouver film festivals: “Why did they turn down the amazing and crucial film You Don’t Like the Truth – Four Days Inside Guantanamo ?”

“I know them well,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have cared if they had shown the film first. I just want them to give me an answer.” He then introduced the directors of the opening film of this year’s Focus Québec-Canada section, my friends Patricio Henriquez and Luc Côté.

Omar Khadr at age
Omar Khadr at age 21.
Omar Khadr at age 15 (above) and 21.

The film is about the shocking case of the young Omar Khadr, the 24-year old accused of terrorism and killing an American soldier, who has been imprisoned for seven years, most of that time in Guantanamo. I will not summarize the case and describe this moving and incisive film in any detail, because I would not do as good a job as Cinema Politica’s Ezra Winton – read his article on the Art Threat blog.

Suffice it to say that the film is a deconstruction and analysis of the surveillance camera video of the seven-hour, truly revolting –Orwellian more than Kafkaesque– interrogation of Khadr by representatives of CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Ezra is right in pointing out that we all have a share of responsibility for what the Canadian government is doing to this young man, a child soldier at the time of the events. You can only leave this film with a sense that something has to be done, even though Khadr’s lawyer explained at the launch that he is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Indeed, it seems – in the bargaining going on right now – that he will have to choose between pleading guilty to a crime he didn’t commit and continue serving time in prison, or rot in his cell in Guantanamo (the facility Obama promised to close!) forever. Amnesty petition here.

The film will screen at the Royal Cinema in Toronto and at the Cinema Parallèle in Montreal starting Oct. 29th.

Since the film premiered, Patricio and Luc have been caught up in a whirlwind of activities, including a repeat screening of the film at the 700-seat Imperial Cinema where it premiered, and an upcoming screening on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. They nonetheless took the time to answer a couple of questions:

When we watch the film, the concept comes across so clearly and the structure seems so simple, so obvious. But during your process of creation…?

PATRICIO: The chronology in the shooting of a documentary doesn’t always provide an interesting dramatic structure. Often in the editing room you need to betray this chronology to give meaning to the images. Of course, in this case, we weren’t the ones who filmed the interrogation of Omar Khadr at Guantanamo by the Canadian secret police. Nevertheless, the seven hours of video recorded over four days in February 2003 (accessible to the public thanks to a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2008) had a progression that we kept in our film.

Luc, our editor, Andrea and I, we watched these seven hours – of very poor technical quality – several times. We quickly discovered that each day had its own specific, separate nature. So we decided to identify each day as a journey: Day 1: Hope. Day 2: Fallout. Day 3: Blackmail, Day 4: Failure. Also, we understood we would need some context for these four days. So we directed our research toward eyewitnesses, people who had seen Omar, experts (scientific and legal), objective observers such as the Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard, and politicians. All these people had to help us better understand what played out during this four-day interrogation.

Andrea first edited together the interrogation in this order, and then we showed all the participants the passages they could appropriately illuminate for us in interviews. Then, we inserted these new elements into the structure of the interrogation. And voila, it wasn’t a very complex creative device.

Patricio Henriquez
Patricio Henriquez

Having followed this story for several years, how do you evaluate the media’s coverage of Khadr’s case?

PATRICIO: In Quebec, the coverage was particularly lacking. To my knowledge, the first print media to send a journalist to Guantanamo was Rue Frontenac, the website of the locked-out journalists of the Journal de Montreal. That’s totally to their credit.

Elsewhere, they trafficked in misinformation. One example: in a report aired Nov. 13, 2009, a Téléjournal correspondent in Washington said this of Omar Khadr: “He has already spent over seven years in Guantanamo, waiting for his trial for the murder of an American MILITARY DOCTOR.”

There are two grave errors in this communication. The 1st Class Sergeant Christopher Speer, in whose death Omar Khadr is allegedly implicated, had never been a military doctor. At the start of the proceedings against Khadr, the Pentagon stated (perhaps not innocently) that the victim had been a medic (‘un infirmier’ or ‘un brancardier’ in French.) The Radio-Canada reporter translated badly, calling him a “doctor.”

But even worse: Omar Khadr’s lawyers have proven since 2004 that the Pentagon has held back the fact that, in reality, Sergeant Speer was in Afghanistan as a member of the special forces known as Delta Force. And although he had been trained at one point as a medic, his primary role in Afghanistan was not to heal, but to kill.

This difference is doubly loaded with consequences for Khadr, because, according to the laws of war, killing a duly identified nurse or medic is a war crime. Therefore, probably more by negligence than in bad faith, Téléjournal reinforced all the same this idea that Omar had committed a war crime in killing a medical doctor. It’s not a shock then that public opinion, having fallen victim to similar misinformation, is still largely indifferent to the fate of Omar Khadr.

Then, we realized that practically every media in Quebec and in Canada has been content to merely reproduce the most emotional part of these seven hours of recorded video, the moment where, yielding to the psychological pressure of the Canadian secret agents, Omar cracks and falls into a depressed state, crying uncontrollably. No one seems to have taken pains to listen to the tapes in their entirety.

omar distressed

We do understand that journalists, working constantly under pressure, haven’t had the time to decode the material. This is where, sometimes, the documentary can be useful in supplementing, more calmly and later on, the picture of a certain reality.

How did you manage to finance the film?

Luc Cote
Luc Cote

LUC: Financing this film hasn’t been very easy. After being refused by broadcasters and public institutions, we went to Jean-Pierre Laurendeau and Sylvie de Bellefeuille at Canal D. Without hesitation they agreed to give us a license. With this license, we had access to tax credits. But there still remained an immense hole in the budget of 50 per cent. One of my best friends, Kevin Kraus, who closely follows our work, offered to lend us money. So we went ahead by investing our salaries, our equipment, etc. For lack of resources, all of the filming – camera, sound and interviews – was done by Patricio and myself alone.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.