- In the Wake of Militant Cinema:Challenges for Film Studies
We look for images that make us feelless alone when we are journeying toward thatthing that has not yet been.—Audre Lorde, Conversations with Audre Lorde (2004)
This essay examines the concept of militant cinema with a focus on an enduring tendency within film theory to identify the militant tradition with both its failures and its dissolution by the mid-1970s. I aim to show that as a term that is as summarily invoked as it is dismissed, "militant cinema" remains a deeply incoherent concept, fraught with internal contradictions. The first half of the essay explores the ways in which militant cinema has been situated within a diverse body of theory, observing how the term has become synonymous with the related yet opposing categories of "political modernism" and "parallel cinema." As the militant tradition has come to embody the critical impasses of both categories, its theorization is often accompanied by sentiments of melancholia and [End Page 68] nostalgia for the fallen Marxisms of the 1960s. The latter half of the essay, however, draws from a recently renewed investment in the militant image and explores how the very tension between political modernism and parallel cinema worked in a dynamic exchange throughout the 1970s and 1980s, unfolding onto the related tensions between "first world" theory and "third world" practice as well as class- and identity-based critique. In analyzing one of the period's key debates between Julianne Burton-Carvajal and Teshome Gabriel as well as the aesthetic innovations of Haile Gerima, my goal is to move beyond the discourse of the end and reopen the militant tradition's complex orientation toward questions of global solidarity, methodology, and psychic liberation.
The Discourse of the End
Within film studies, the term "militant cinema" invokes a set of aesthetic tactics as well as a particular historical lineage. Its genealogy is conventionally understood to emanate from the Great International Revolutionary Style of the Soviet cinemas of the 1920s and to gradually intersect with concepts, motifs, and institutions throughout the New Wave cinemas of the developed world and the third-world cinemas of the Global South.1 While each of these traditions was conditioned by particular national determinations, the debates and discourses surrounding militant cinema, as worked through in manifestos, pamphlets, and international conferences, tended to return to similar pragmatic and formal ideals. At the level of production, militant cinema aimed to proletarianize the labor process by breaking down the intellectual hierarchy between artists and technicians and by ensuring that each member of the crew could engage holistically with the craft.2 The desire to "weaken the individual personality of the filmmaker," in Carlos Alvarez's terms, was further tied to utopian speculations about the affordances of 8mm and 16mm film as cheap and effective media that could be put in the hands of the people.3 At the level of distribution, militant cinema aimed to destroy the hermetic structures of the Hollywood movie palace and the European art house theater by generating an extrainstitutional matrix of exhibition sites. Taking inspiration from Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin's ciné-train experiments of the 1920s, the militant cinemas of the 1960s and 1970s were screened in factories, dormitories, and churches, often in an atmosphere of drinking and debate and alongside intellectual lectures and works of theater.4 Accordingly, at the level of reception, militant cinema aimed to transform the text into a "pre-text for [End Page 69] dialogue" by inciting spectators to take the next step in the fight against both situated sites of struggle and broader structural forms of oppression.5 Resolutely anticapitalist and anti-imperialist, militant cinema consistently conceptualized its image production in insurrectional terms as working on the intellectual-cultural front of the collective struggle, like a worker's picket sign in a strike or a Molotov cocktail against the police.6 Over the course of the 1970s, militant cinema's fate would become increasingly entwined with the related yet distinct category of "political modernism," with the works of such figures as Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, and Nagisa Oshima and with the...