History in the present tense

I’ve written in the past on this site of my rewarding experiences at the Flaherty Film Seminar. This intense week of experimental media art and documentary film reliably delivers on its promise of thought-provoking and hotly debated film programming. In 2013, the seminar was programmed by Pablo de Ocampo, currently Exhibitions Curator at Vancouver’s Western Front. It was a fantastic week of film and video, and I wrote an extensive review of it for volume 3 issue 1 of MIRAJ, the Moving Image Review & Art Journal. An excerpt here:

A film still from the finale of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was the Seminar’s leitmotif, featuring prominently in publicity materials as a representation of the conceptual work to be accomplished at the gathering. In the wild joy of mutinous seamen greeting another battleship in solidarity with their uprising, de Ocampo indicated his intentions for the kind of history and the kind of happenings on which the week would focus. It was a history that film was continually heralding, retrieving and revising; a history of collectivities both utopian (insurgent groups and jazz collectives) and dystopian (occupied territories and people’s militias); a history of ecstatic or transgressive affect; and a history of films that struggle on two fronts, politicizing the form in which they convey political subject matter.

Queen Mother Moore’s Speech at Greenhaven Prison, a video made in 1973 by the community collective, the People’s
Communication Network opened and closed the Flaherty. It operated in the Seminar as a conceptual reverse shot to Eisenstein’s seamen, a response across the decades to their call of brotherhood and revolution. In it, civil rights activist Queen Mother Moore stands at a microphone set up outside of the walls of the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Connecticut. She recounts a moment of armed resistance from her youth, in which a black audience who had gathered to hear Marcus Garvey in New Orleans successfully forced white officials to rescind their ban on his scheduled speech.

Moore asks, ‘How do you go, determined to keep the powers
that be from preventing your leader from speaking to you?’. In Moore’s Jim Crow-era South, the answer was to arrive at the lecture with guns and satchels of ammunition. Her question lingers throughout the seventeen-minute address, posed to the unseen men in the prison behind her, the group of fellow activists assembled in front of her, and to the contemporary viewers who encounter this video.

In her question is embedded the belief that the act of speaking and securing speech may be the only retribution possible in a society that does not see its own systemic crime in the histories of its individual criminals. Thieves like the ones that both Queen Mother Moore and the seamen on the Battleship Potemkin call ‘brothers’ are the product of centuries of social, political and economic theft. Speech, de Ocampo’s programming suggested, is symbolic reparation. It cannot promise actual reparation, but it is the only thing that actualizes its potential.

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