Sep 10

Direct Action

Course Union Organisers’ Handbook [download] (1973) produced by the Ontario Federation of Students

Advice on producing pamphlets: “Don’t write an essay”.

This handbook is a methodical guide from the early 1970s to organizing course unions – committees formed by students on the basis of their academic courses (i.e. Political Science, History, Chemistry) to take action on the quality of education and their lack of involvement in decision-making. Activities include holding regular general meetings, appointing class representatives, organizing course evaluations, alternative educational events, and social events. They also develop demands and apply pressure for their adoption through a combination of public activism and lobbying.

Even though the approach of the handbook is a little too prescriptive for my liking, the framework definitely resonated with my own experiences with student organizing. The section on mass actions also reminded me of how some of my thinking has evolved over time.

“As a last resort, mass actions can be an effective weapon against an unyielding department or university.”

This view of mass or direct action as a “last resort” is rooted in a reformist approach of making small changes while leaving the overall system intact.  It has to be proven (often each time, so ahistorically) that the token measures made available for participation don’t work. Administrators must be shown to be unresponsive and undemocratic. The possibility of goodwill must extinguished, often through betrayal. There are even pessimists who advise going through the motions of each step in order to provide political cover, or a more broadly acceptable rationale, for taking direct action that disrupts day to day business and gets to the heart of the matter.

It reminds me of a joyous scene in The Trotsky (2009) where Jay Baruchel’s character, Leon Bronstein, who believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, goes to the school board as part of his campaign to unionize his high school. Some of his companions are dejected when the school board delivers a negative opinion, but Bronstein is unaffected. I can’t remember the exact quote, but he basically says, we only asked you as a formality, so that we can now begin to rain hellfire down upon you!

In a totally different approach, the folks who organized a Free UofT were not trying to lobby anyone to make reforms, they were actively producing their own vision of free and accessible education, and invited everyone to join them. So in this case, direct action was not a last resort, but desirable and a necessity.

“RTS does not see Direct Action as a last resort, but a preferred way of doing things … a way for individuals to take control of their own lives and environments … If global capitalism does not manage to destroy the ecosphere and human civilization … and a new culture of social and ecological justice is developed, RTS would hope that direct action would not stop but continue to be a central part of a direct democratic system.” (Jordan 1997)

In Richard F. Day, Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (2005)

Strength in numbers little fish vs. big fish graphic

Aug 10

No One Knows About Persian Cats / La Commune

It’s unusual to come across a movie where the director encourages you to download and seed their feature length film for free, as Bahman Ghobadi does with his film No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009). Ghobadi asks two things of his audience: 1) to watch the film on as big a screen as possible with nice speakers and 2) to support underground artists in Iran.

Shot guerilla-style without permission from Iranian authorities, Persian Cats is an enthralling combination of docudrama and genuine documentary. The film portrays the struggles of underground musicians in Tehran with actors who live the struggle in their daily lives. The male lead in the film was previously imprisoned 21 days for performing in a rock concert and the main band featured in the film has since moved to London, their intended destination in the film.

Although the film’s plot is driven by the desires of artists to leave the country, I appreciated the scene that features real-life Farsi rapper Hichkas, which acts as a counter-weight to the exodus. When asked to join, Hichkas states that he can’t leave because his music is about Iran and cannot be separated from it.

The full version of the film is viewable here (as well as on a number of torrent websites) and was recently released on DVD:


Updated link: http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/0pJ0UiFXwt0

In Peter Watkins’ La Commune (2000), the actors are not playing themselves – they play people during the 1871 Paris Commune – but the director asks his cast of mostly non-professional actors to imagine what they would say and do.

An accompany documentary on Watkins and the filmmaking process, The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (2001), shows how actors are affected personally, socially and politically by their participation in this historical reenactment.

One actor draws on his experience as an undocumented migrant as a source of inspiration for his speech before a firing squad, wanting to communicate “the horror they’re putting us through” and his preference to die fighting for freedom than to live dying quietly within.

“At some point, we will be facing a firing squad / I’d rather die by firing squad / in the exaltation of a revolt against injustice / than die the small death / that we experience daily as individuals in society: dying quietly within / Dying of despair, depression, a nagging anxiety in the gut.”

Another actor talks about his respect for an uncle who died in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. He says that if you respect someone like him who fought for his convictions, then you have a responsibility in the present to fight for justice, for your own convictions. The example of the Paris Commune presents a similar challenge to actors and the film’s audience.

“He was a Communist / He was 27 years old / He had no reason to fight other than his convictions / I respect him very much / If you love someone like him / you have to be worthy / To be worthy, you must fight / If I may claim to be inspired by that, I must / in our times / find my own way of fighting / as hard as he did for those he loved / For his idea of what it is to be human.”

Movies like La Commune and Persian Cats challenge the passive model of filmmaking and viewing. More than simple stereotypes and entertainment, these films represent the possibility of film as a conduit for social change.


La Commune

The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins

Aug 10

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993). Infuriating. Illuminating. Essential. Watch here or here.

Jul 10

La Haine

La Haine (1995) [Hate]. Dope film. You can see it on YouTube.