Considering Tilda Swinton, The Activist

A photo has hit the web and has become a viral phenomenon within 24 hours. It went from Facebook to Twitter and back, quickly popped up in gay interest news sites, and has by now been featured by the sites of The Independent, The Huffington Post, Le Figaro and Der Standard.

The picture shows a woman holding a rainbow flag in front of an orthodox church in Russia while a manned police car is parked in the background. The image, taken by Sandro Kopp, is perfectly composed and its symbolism couldn’t be clearer. Religion, state power, gay liberation – these three things seem to become more and more impossible to reconcile in a country that has just launched laws to forbid any kind of pro-gay demonstrations and that has put any circulation of news in favour of the LGBT community under the law of gay propaganda. The church is the St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square by the Kremlin. The woman who is holding the flag is Tilda Swinton, activist.

I met Tilda five years ago when she and filmmaker/writer Mark Cousins put up a small film festival in an abandoned ballroom in Nairn, Scotland called The Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams. For 8 ½ days, they would show films ranging from Fassbinder to Mohammad-Ali Talebi and ask for an entrance fee of 3 pounds or a self-made cake. I was sent there by Salzgeber’s, a German film distributor who made Derek Jarman’s work accessible to German audiences and was founded by the gay film activist Manfred Salzgeber who, like Jarman, died of AIDS in the 1990s. From the minute I arrived at the festival, I was part of what felt like the best birthday party of my life and what looked like George Méliès on acid – the old music venue was affectionately painted and decorated with stars and colourful festoons, silver balloons, equipped with donated chair cushions, and beach chairs.

What Swinton and Cousins had organised was a sort of anti-film festival with no current films, no red carpet, no need for media support. Instead, they left markers on the toilets to encourage graffiti, climbed on a ladder before every screening to hold up an improvised curtain that read “State of Cinema,” and let everyone in for free who would attend a Sunday matinee of Miss Marples in their pyjamas. The sense of solidarity and community during these 8 ½ days was something I had never experienced before – elderly town people mixed with international artists and enthusiasts and everyone was in the same fun boat to enjoy the magic of film. I realized then that this was in fact activism. It was a statement – it brought people together with film instead of making the film festival an exclusive event, as they are nowadays. It was a statement for world cinema, for children’s films, and for bringing the cinematic experience of togetherness back to a place where it had died long ago.

Like the Cinema of Dreams film festival in 2008, the photo in Russia is a statement. It is unambiguous and accompanied by the words, “In solidarity. From Russia with love.” I asked Tilda and Sandro for a little backstory of how it was taken, but they say that the photo in itself is a message enough and Tilda has since not made any comments apart from the brief testimony. Although the journalist in me wants to dig a little deeper, I quickly appreciate that a photograph is more powerful without further explanations and that it is already well understood.

READ MORE: Cinephile Summer Camp: A Dispatch from Tilda & Mark’s Magical “Pilgrimage”

Interestingly enough though, in this week’s print issue of German Spiegel magazine, a small article features only a detail of the photograph and not the entire image. The police car was cropped out which reduces the original picture to a face shot of a celebrity with a rainbow flag, a relatively innocuous and certainly less complex image. That the German magazine Männer published the picture unedited and called it civil courage is more accurate: that a gesture of simple fellowship might need to be contextualised thus tells its own tale.
The fact that the passionate ‘Thank Yous’ in the comment sections of the various social media outlets are in the thousands by now and headlines like “Swinton challenges Putin” were followed by the first Twitter posts of the original photo are proof of what seems to be guideline of Tilda’s work: prioritising images over words.
It has only been a few months since Tilda Swinton re-enacted a performance that came without an instructions manual and linked the politics of now to a yesterday of activism. When Tilda became a performative sculpture, lying asleep in a glass box for The Maybe at MoMa, the deliberate lack of explanation left the art piece open for interpretation and analysis that Tilda was wise enough not to provide herself. The Maybe was originally performed at the London Serpentine Gallery in 1995 and can be read as a form of eulogy for Derek Jarman and the many others who died of AIDS at a time when the lethargic neoliberal governments under Reagan and Thatcher decided to ignore the AIDS crisis instead of taking action. “Silence is Death” was one of the most powerful slogans of AIDS activist groups like ACT UP! at that time; the associations in The Maybe of a human being, a Sleeping Beauty, silent and immobile in a glass coffin for the world to watch, is one of the many possible approaches to the piece.  “The Maybe was not a protest as such,“ Tilda tells me. She says that it was “’partly’ created in the spirit of a response to the deaths of Derek and so many others in proceeding years.“ It came to being at a time when Tilda had attended 43 funerals in one year and when, as she had explained in a beautiful, posthumous „Letter to Derek“, British politicians were openly thinking about creating camps for HIV-positive people.
The consistency with which Tilda has managed to avoid labels as a performer and a person in film and in real life is unparalleled and has been utterly inspirational to many over the years. It brings along the challenge of falling into the trap of labelling her in writing. Words are often trickier than images and when I use terms like activist in this article, I want it to be understood that this is my reading, my awkward attempt to paraphrase and find words to express my deep appreciation and affection towards someone who brings solidarity and love into a world of intolerance and ignorance.
The systematic deconstruction of labels in my view is an act of political activism in itself. It creates uncertainty and destabilises common notions of truth, consensus, and often power. It implies that any kind of reading is already an act of giving something a definite meaning and thereby closing doors to a multitude of different, unusual, or unorthodox approaches. Tilda charmingly rejected the label of “actress” in an interview and claims that she “plays” instead, just like kids do. The word career also seems unfit. It makes more sense –regarding the politics of filmmaking – if you understand the 60 films she has worked on (since her debut in Jarman’s Caravaggio, 1986) as a series of collaborations. To collaborate is to work together, and it denotes the sense of community and togetherness as opposed to the notion of the capitalist division of labour that film productions are seen as since the rise of the Hollywood studio system – “in solidarity”, not in solitude. Unlike Thatcher’s infamous quote, there is such a thing as society because society comes from the social, without which we would all just be the cogs in the big wheel that Charlie Chaplin gets stuck in in Modern Times.

Most of the films Tilda made with Derek Jarman were collaborative efforts and stand for a form of social filmmaking in an anti-social, deeply homophobic climate. Edward II, including a clash of OutRage! activists with the police and generally rewriting history by re-interpreting and queering it, is maybe the most explicit and specific form of activist film protest. Other collaborations include the 12-year making of Orlando with Sally Potter, the nine years it took to make I am Love and the producing of Derek, a personal memory of Jarman that was directed by another collaborator and friend, Isaac Julien.

Almost twenty years after Derek Jarman’s death, the global human rights situation is still dramatic in many places and sometimes small gestures of concern make a big difference. It’s the t-shirt that Mark Cousins and Tilda wore in Bejing that said in Chinese, “I want to watch gay films.” Or that one photograph with a rainbow flag that, thanks to the rapid virtual distribution –unthinkable in the 1990s- can be shared and forwarded and downloaded and discussed and commented. It sends out the simple, but powerful message from a person that answers hatred with love: “In solidarity.”

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.