Activism and new UK Film: How The Underground Recreated The Hero

[as written for Filmmaker Magazine NYC and Shooting People]

In Emily James’ Just Do It, we watch news packages from major news outlets interlaced with POV footage from protestors scaling the giant cooler chimneys at the Ratcliffe Power Station. For a UK audience, a film like Just Do It is particularly subversive – even controversial. The protests were decade-defining – it was the first time we saw a domestic conflict of interests play out in new and old media – with audiences truly divided. Were the news outlets biased? Who’s the hero, who’s the villain? And crucially, did we agree?

As any filmmaker will know, this is when it’s time to make a documentary.

Just Do It. No Dress Rehearsal. And here’s some titles from more shorts and features: Your State of Emergency. Young Hearts Run Free. Sound It Out.

Every title has an urgency – each stamping a precedent, a protest; striving and independence. Or, if that’s a bit too high-flown, maybe at there’s at least a deliberate link between the present tense and activism. In the US, it’s caught the attention of the Academy this year via Marshall Curry’s brave documentary ‘If A Tree Falls’.

And in the UK (through crowdfunding and hey – the rather traditional own-funding,) the entire scene has found itself leaning towards political realism for reasons that affect our lives in the most obvious ways. With documentary and documentary-drama (see: Jason Wingard’s ‘Louise’ (2010) for example) taking precedent in screenings across the UK’s major cities every single month, are directors losing sight of fiction film as a vehicle for change? Are audiences no longer wanting escapist routes from which heroes soar?

Or, are directors, amid government-enforced arts cuts and increased taxes discovering that the only way to tell the story about any modern hero is to, actually, tell the tales that are closest to home?

Case Study 1– Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-Day Outlaws (2010)

In Emily James’ Just Do It, we’re invited merrily into a world of social discord and disenfranchisement with capitalism. Emily James’ captures this in her film, following our 6 activist heroes-of-the-story as they protest with campaign groups Climate Camp, Plane Stupid, and finally to the headline-stealing Ratcliffe Power Station protests – as well as featuring shocking, unflinching footage from the Copenhagen Summit in 2009.

The film’s tone is more exuberant than darkly political, and avoids the pitfalls of being overly solemn or weighty. A good thing really, when the typical representation of protestors in the mainstream media is one of violent ‘extremists’. A bright soundtrack, which provides the backdrop for friendly narration, animations, maps and crucially – unedited details on the nuts and bolts of staging a protest – are all freely portrayed in the film. Just Do It follows James, Lily, Sophie, Marina and we even get a glimpse of Emily – as they resist arrest, blockade the Royal Bank of Scotland and take action. Perhaps in this case, the heroes of the story have been saved from anti-hero ‘terrorist’ status – and are real people.


Case Study 2 – Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal


Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal by Naomi Smyth, documents a four-year labour of love and subversive artsquat and performance group that take over abandoned properties across Bristol – a city renowned for street art, and unfortunately for the group, large property developers. The hero of the tale is Doug Francis, the assumed lead of the circus – even though he would probably deny such a title. (Eitherway, he is the go-to man throughout the feature.)  The documentary movie tells an underdog story of guerilla art performers; a collective of travelling performers who turn something empty and abandoned, into a work of circus and burlesque art. There’s footage of audiences queuing around the block who heard from each other via text or word about an underground show – as well as messy footage of the stars of the show fighting city councils, landlords – and putting in hard graft to reclaim derelict, dirty spaces and transform them in the name of art for all. We learn that during Naomi’s four year journey, her role moves form being the documentarian to being part of an art and essentially, political movement which rejects the business-gentrification of cities.


Are the Directors Heroes? Battling to get distribution

The ultimate struggle, it can be argued, for any filmmaker is getting people to care about the premieres are over. …No Dress Rehearsal’ has managed it – through decidedly independent means: pubs, pop-up venues and indie cinemas. This year, the film is crossing the pond to San Francisco – it’s just won the 2012 award for best film with a New York-based online distribution site, Dynamo. After laying low for a couple of years following it’s release, the film is now reaching brand new audiences throughout the world, working with the UK’s only independent film distributor, Future Artists. Interestingly enough, the distribution of Just Do It followed an equally subversive model. Screened in its near-complete state at Sheffield Documentary Festival in 2010, Emily James made the call for more funds to complete the movie. Then, after some serious crowdfunding, the film premiered, complete, at the following 2011 festival – to a standing ovation. It’s now screened all over the world, at pop-up venues, artsquat venues, indie cinemas and festivals. It even had it’s own “Recycled Red Carpet” event inside a reclaimed building.

Looking at the film this way, perhaps hero of these stories is the film director – the one working on a micro or mid budget, actively promoting a film, raising funds, ensuring cast and crew are looked after at all times – irrespective of numerous failed bids to the now defunct UK Film Council (and similar) due to an unwarranted stream of extremely conservative public funding cuts made over the last two years.

We Could Be Heroes?

Recessions and credit crunches usually (usually is used loosely here, although check your figures from the 80s as to when the most buyouts and new starters came about…) create a surge in entrepreneurialism.

More crucially, for our film community, we could be at the heart of a cultural backlash where lowered arts-funding in essence leads to a more identifiably staunch independent film scene. Weirdly enough, you could say each film already represents this as an entity – where crowdfunding, VOD and subject matter all tackle the threats posed by governments to the feasability of art and free speech in public spaces.

Perhaps appeal of the activist doc extends beyond the often tragic and serious narrative lines that often provide the blueprint for traditional documentary film. The UK’s current trend for social realism has, whether deliberately or not, leaned towards that all-too-familiar hero’s narrative. Albeit, each film provides a rickety, handheld, yet proudly alternative (with a capital Alterative) story arc. There is an insatiable urge created within the audience of these films to wonder where the films’ thundering courses of action will lead to. But these courses of action are only set in motion as a reaction following, we believe, oppression by an assumed authority figure.

In Just Do It, these oppressive baddies are bankers and the police. In Sound it Out (2011, Jeanie Findlay), it’s the major record stores. In Your State of Emergency (2009, Mark Ashmore), it is the police and in …No Dress Rehearsal, it’s bulging property developers and arguably old-fashioned land laws that are guilty of perverting the course of our heroes. And maybe the theme which links three of these films together is the fear of a police state. In Just Do It, there is one rather revealing moment in which the UK’s sensitivity of an increased ‘police state’ shows the group not only turn their phones off – but take their batteries and SIM cards out their mobile phones to ensure they’re not tapped.

The film makes every effort to show that protestors are, after all, human and subject to the same policing threat as any non-activist member of society. It’s this steady, playful tone, which allows the high-octane – and completely real – clashes between protestors and the police in the movie, to be the most memorable.

And yet in all the films, we find the real life captured within them throwing real-life enemies left, right and centre from all over the political spectrum. Many UK directors such as the one metioned have successfully found their reactionary characters. And these characters are also the heroes – the ones who lead themselves and us exactly where we want them to: overcoming and moving beyond a domineering adversity – and often, government and financial corporations.

It’s no longer about unveiling and exposing evil. Turns out, we need our heroes to be human too. Little wonder that the doc is still so popular: both the hero and the villain always end up completely unmasked.

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  1. Lady Luck Productions » Activism and new UK Film: How The Underground Recreated The …

    […] from: Activism and new UK Film: How The Underground Recreated The … Share […]

  2. Dogwoof

    At Dogwoof we distributed If a Tree Falls, Just Do it and Sound it Out in the UK via DVD and Popup Cinema. We distribute most of the social issue documentaries here in the UK and Ireland. Anyone can screen our titles at the same time as cinemas through http://www.PopupCinema.net and film’s can also be watched online at http://www.dogwoof.tv

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