Activist video is providing a corrective to the mainstream media – but nothing beats the power of a cinema screen.
One of the qualities I love about cinema is its assertiveness: it’s so much harder to overrule or ignore a film when it’s on a cinema screen, whether that screen is in the Grand Palais in Cannes or the Slough Cineworld, than when it’s on television, laptop or iPod. I was impressed when I watchedChronicle of Protest, the omnibus edition of Michael Chanan’s attentivevideo blogs for the NS, on DVD this week. But its real power will become apparent, I suspect, only when it is screened in a cinema, as it will be this Saturday as part of the East End Film Festival.
Chanan’s blogs have already contributed to the democratising of the media by drawing heavily on amateur videos, shot by activists on the various protests and sit-ins which have engulfed and energised the country since the coalition government came to power. Moving that material to a cinema screen provides a kind of ratification that is pleasantly at odds with the film’s urgent, snapshot feel.
The idea behind the commission, if I understand it correctly, was to provide a coherent picture of the mood of protest. Mainstream media can only fragment and dissipate such a groundswell, filtering each separate demonstration through its own agenda. (One example highlighted by some of the film’s interviewees is the bizarre way in which the unhappy travel experiences of two members of the Royal Family became the focal point of the protest against the hoisting of tuition fees.) Chronicle of Protest goes some way toward being a corrective to this.
Through some nifty editing and lucid rhetoric, the connections between the actions of the coalition and the hardships imposed on communities become transparent. A level-headedness emerges in the judicious cutting of scenes which another documentary might have played straight; I especially liked the way Chanan cuts back and forth between the temperate oratory of Terry Eagleton and the incendiary scenes of protestors storming Jeremy Hunt’s appearance at the LSE. Laurie Penny of the NS reflects that the government is rather like a spider, in that it is more scared of us than we are of it, and Chanan helpfully replays in slow-motion close-up a shot of Hunt looking mortified as the room is besieged.
I also liked the material showing another of this magazine’s writers, Mehdi Hasan, imagining at the podium what he would do to attack the government if he were Ed Miliband. I express no favouritism to Mehdi, whom I have met only once (I believed we discussed Terminator-related matters), when I say that his address gives the film an extra jolt of fiery energy. (Later, Chanan films an interview with him from a suspiciously low angle, as though Mehdi is being stung in a Panorama exposé, perhaps on a cash-for-guest-editorships scandal.)
One thing I didn’t like about this otherwise involving film was its framing device of performances by the First of May Band, whose compositions (“Hey there, Mr Banker Man/ You don’t look so great/ Someone ought to tell you/ You’re past your sell-by date”) seem too simplistic to provide more than a cosmetic reflection of the woes documented on screen.