Members of the film community are coming out of the woodwork to band together and push back on the repression that is anticipated to come out of the incoming Trump administration. From documentarians reaffirming their commitment to exposing hidden truths to narrative filmmakers pledging to combat racism with their work, many are planning a strong response to the 2016 presidential election.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center assembled some of those voices Wednesday by convening an “urgent conversation” with Film Quarterly entitled “Film & Media in a Time of Repression.” Moderated by Film Quarterly editor and UC Santa Cruz professor Ruby Rich, the event featured speakers including “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon, blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein and Portugese documentary filmmaker Susana de Sousa Dias. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion, which outlined some key points for anyone expecting a hard road ahead.
Find the Right Groups
Though most of the panelists spoke on the topic of using film and media as a tool against forces like fascism and dictatorship, Willimon talked about his experience traveling around the country during the past four weeks to launch the Action Group Network, a progressive political organization determined to “motivate and facilitate a culture of action through a network of Action Groups.” Starting the day after the presidential election, Willimon put his writing work on hold to help organize groups of between 10 and 50 people to work on things like local elections and launching phone-banking campaigns.
“It’s something that the left has failed at in the past three decades, which is organizing room by room on the ground,” Willimon said during the panel Wednesday. “You cannot start a grassroots movement from the top down.” Before co-writing the 2011 political drama “The Ides of March,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar, Willimon worked as a press aide for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for president.
Don’t Confuse Words and Actions
For the 97-year-old Bernstein, being blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950’s on suspicions of communist leanings left him with some important strategies for survival in times of repression. “In today’s period, it’s mandatory to find groups to be together,” Bernstein said, adding that the only way he was able to sustain himself after being banned from the movie industry was by relying on the help of others. “I can’t stress that enough — the need to come together and collect victories.”
One point Bernstein and Willimon both made had to do with the power of even small actions to create a shared responsibility among groups of people. “You cannot confuse words with actions,” Bernstein said. “It’s the action — the doing of whatever it is — that counts, and it doesn’t have to be big. It can be very small, but if it’s there, you’ll survive and you’ll survive well.”
Expose Fascism With Filmmaking
Based in Lisbon, Portugal, de Sousa Dias’ documentaries have focused primarily on the dictatorship of former Portugal Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar that lasted from 1926 to 1974. Her 2005 film “Still Life” juxtaposes official propaganda with footage of real-life citizens, while her 2010 film “48” focuses on government oppression by showing photos of imprisoned dissidents.
“It’s a film that deals with oppression and torture, things that are absolutely present in our times,” de Sousa Dias said during the panel. “If torture returned with the war in Iraq, it becomes very relevant now because of Trump’s trying to bring it back again.”
de Sousa Dias also noted that the word “fascism” has largely been put aside by historians who associate it only with past figures like former Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. “Now [the word] is returning, and this is a very good thing, because we need this concept to think about the present,” de Sousa Dias said. “Trump is a figure of a new kind of fascism, a fascism of democratic times. Everyone should resist and create something…We have to resist.”
Watch the Right Movies
Among the movies mentioned during the panel as examples of cinematic resistance is Arthur Jafa’s 2014 film “Dreams Are Colder Than Death,” an experimental documentary that focuses on the meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech 50 years later and whether the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.
“It is visual historiography of black thought, as the film sees with a productively agnostic impression the idea of black history in progressive terms,” said panelist Michael Boyce Gillespie, an associate professor of film at the City College of New York. “It’s a film that richly demonstrates cinema’s capacity to enact blackness, particularly blackness with regards to its magnitude and its potential.”
Other films cited by panelists include Euzhan Palcy’s 1983 film “Sugar Cane Alley,” about life under French colonial rule in 1930’s Martinique, and Jie Hu’s 2006 documentary “Though I am Gone,” about a photographer who used photographs to document the murder of his wife, a vice principal of a prestigious secondary school in Beijing who was beaten to death by her students during the Cultural Revolution in 1960’s China, becoming one of the first victims of the country’s revolutionary violence.
“The wonderful thing about Hu’s work is that the making of it creates its own network of enlivened engagement,” said Angela Zito, associate professor of anthropology and religious studies at New York University and co-curator of the Reel China Film Biennial. “The people he interviews, the ones who provide him with documents, the friends who encourage, the friends who archive for him, the other filmmakers with whom he collaborates — all of these are moments of necessary liveness.”
Use Your Camera Like a Weapon
Laura Poitras’ Field of Vision is one company that is already working to expose threats to U.S. democracy. On Thursday, Field of Vision and Firelight Media announced “Our 100 Days,” a new initiative that will produce and distribute 10 short films to be released in 2017. The shorts will focus on stories from some of the most vulnerable communities in today’s political climate, with the filmmakers and subjects chosen by Poitras, and Field of Vision executive producers AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook, as well as Firelight Media executive producer’s Loira Limbal, Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith.
Members of the documentary community had previously voiced their collective determination to stand up to Trump at the DOC NYC annual Visionaries Tribute awards lunch in New York on November 10. Rather than bask in the glow of accolades, the winners of the seized their time in the spotlight to address the urgent need to expose the truth now more than ever as the start of Trump’s presidency draws near.
“This is not the time to compromise or shy away from the truths that we see, because there’s going to be a lot of pressure to not tell those stories and to not get them on air,” said filmmaker Dawn Porter, adding that in some southern U.S. states, PBS did not air her 2016 documentary “Trapped,” about regulations that restrict access to abortion in America. “I’m very concerned about public broadcasting. If PBS does not show ‘Trapped’ under the Obama administration, tell me how we’re going to get a film critical of people who suppress race shown now.”
Narrative filmmaker Pablo Larrain also spoke out against Trump during an interview with the Guardian last month, saying, “Trump has the nuclear codes and the U.S. army. What do we have? A camera. And I’m going to use it.” Larrain’s comments came during a conversation about his film “Neruda,” about the Chilean government’s search for Pablo Neruda, the poet and communist senator who was forced to go into hiding after World War II.