The Carnival of Protest

from The Student Journals


In his study “Rabelais and His World,” literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes of carnival as a “temporary suspension… of hierarchical rank [which creates] a special type of communication impossible in everyday life.” Bahktin’s influential theory of the carnivalesque seems to leave traces all over the very public demonstrations against cuts to government spending, as painstakingly catalogued in this film by Michael Chanan, which took place throughout late 2010 and early 2011. The overturning of the established order and the cry for democracy that spurred these protests, as well as utopian demands for a just society manifested in the realism of ordered chaos inflicted on urban centres, seems to be a replay of the same ideas a Russian thinker was writing about some sixty years ago.

In its own carnivalesque way, “Chronicle of Protest” too eschews some of the expectations of a documentary film. The finished project has no voice-over narrator: instead it is essentially a montage of newsreel, police footage, activist home video and vox-pops, all strung together with words that occasionally flash across the screen. The narrative, at once disjointed and yet unified by the sung refrain of “Society is too big to fail” (a mockingly ironical reworking of the now-clichéd phrase applied to bloated banks), suggests the simultaneous unity and disunity that characterised the protests: all those involved shared a common message, but there were distinct ways of communicating that message. Clips of the few students who tarnished the image of millions of peaceful protestors through their actions, and who yet came to symbolise the apparent degeneracy of the entirety of modern British youth, are an eerie precursor to the much more magnified destruction that would occur in the same city a few months later. Indeed, the vociferous but coolly measured way that the vast majority of the people captured in this film address their concerns is in striking contrast to the relentless annihilation of communities, both socially and physically, this August. One student, who will forever remain anonymous, declaims: “Protest is saying that I disagree with something; resistance is saying that I will not let this happen.” Equally arresting is the colourful multitude of non-violent protest methods: a young woman’s stand-up routine in a Barclays bank; the call-and-response chants of a group on the street; the beating of drums on the civilian warpath.

Chanan’s real achievement in this film, though, is to situate these students’ era of discontent within wider contexts, both past and present. Another literary academic, Terry Eagleton, draws parallels to the unrest in the 1960s when “the academia became the catalyst for a much wider social movement,” while other connections are made to the credit crisis, Egypt, Bahrain and Bristol, and from the rather triumphantly named University of Strategic Optimism to an ordinary library on the fringes of London. Through a collection of interviews, you get the sense that right-wing politics as symbolised in this country by the Conservative Party is increasingly being associated with “ignorance of the reality of the situation [the electorate] is in,” and that the Liberal Democrat contingent, far from being a moderating force, have simply accepted the new status quo: students who voted Lib Dem in the last election constantly speak of being “betrayed” by the party. One older woman complains about the “dishonesty” of the government’s commissioned research into people’s happiness when “the sort of things that make people happy [are merely] being able to go to your library and get some books and CDs.” Though ostensibly Chanan tries to include a variety of voices, I did notice when I watched the film that most of the interviewees were white: besides some black singers, only the impassioned Mehdi Hasan stands out as an important commentator of ethnic origin. Hasan, to his credit, shows thought and restraint for a man whose unnecessarily violent assault on Michael Heseltine on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ infuriated this viewer.

From a technical standpoint, the soundtrack is a bit iffy at times, and the lack of subtitles is occasionally frustrating. But judging the film alone, as a catalogue of the various schemes that took place to combat the threats to higher education in the coming decades, it largely works. Where it fails, however, is to say anything really new or challenging: Chanan does not develop his thesis to include meaningful debate around its implications. How can we really reconcile the threat of sovereign debt default and the need to balance our budgets with the imperative to preserve a system of higher education that is equitable, accessible and – above all – adequately fulfilling? Have the demonstrations – in the context of a wider post-credit crunch culture where economics has become a political football – achieved anything at all? Maybe I’m expecting too much from a “chronicle of protest,” not an “essay on protest.”

Regardless, the ultimate power of “Chronicle of Protest” lies at its climax, when the images of millions of chanting, waving, placard-holding citizens that throng the capital resemble a gigantic literal carnival. The mostly silent crowd come to speak for themselves, so much so that you really do want to stand up and join them. Unfettered by narrative intrusion, the film perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its period. At that ‘Question Time’ debate shortly after the new coalition government was elected, Michael Heseltine warned the incumbent administration would be “deeply unpopular”. Chanan’s timely work reaffirms how wrong I wish he could have been.

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