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Given the times in which we find ourselves, it might be productive to think through the profoundly committed oeuvre of US filmmaker John Gianvito using the analogy of the legal. For more than four decades now, Gianvito has produced a series of hugely distinctive works that serve simultaneously as both addresses from the prosecution and the defence. For the former, they rail against the multiple injustices – ecological, economic, gendered and racial – we are all too besieged by. In the latter case, they stand with those who resist such abuses, individually and collectively. They could, therefore, be termed ‘class actions’ on behalf of those whose voices are marginalised or silenced.

Regularly acclaimed on the festival circuit and featuring in year-end best of lists, his films test cinema’s ability to incarnate a fully realised sense of lived experience – through place, conflict, injustice and protest. This manifested vigorously in his 2001 feature The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein. Self-funded, shot on 16mm and six years in the making, this heartfelt and pantheistic three-hour exploration of American responses to the first Gulf War is effectively unique in its decision to commit this conflict to celluloid. It weaves three fictional strands alongside documentary footage, interviews and a singular concert performance to create a multi-stranded, many-layered text that is fuelled as much by (focused) anger as it is by the prerogatives of aesthetics. In its length, with almost all its parts played by local residents and with many appearing in their own lives (e.g. the peace activists and the soldier), Mad Songs allows the human pulse of the stories to operate believably, with space for genuine exploration of the issues raised.

This commitment to duration would inform Gianvito’s epic nine-hour diptych, For Example, The Philippines. Shown originally in two parts, Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010 – available to watch on YouTube) and Wake (Subic) (2015), this monumental work surveys the catastrophic toxicity – chemical, environmental, social and much else – left following the US military’s abandonment of its two vast Philippine military bases (together over 500 square miles, bigger than Chicago and the largest in the world). These sites stand for globalised colonial, imperial and neo-liberal incursions against the most vulnerable poor and indigenous communities. Gianvito fuses landscape and observational footage with texts, photography and interviews to ground and internationalise such disastrous legacies.

These works, therefore, are documents more than documentaries, testimonials to the world as it is but also as it could be. Gianvito is, inevitably, acutely aware of history, as an educator, advocate and also curator (influentially at Harvard Film Archive for five years). This has led to works like his acclaimed 2007 essay / film poem Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind – a national survey of radical sites, memorials and graves prompted by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States – and his production of the collective project Far from Afghanistan (2012), tracking the longest war in US history and referencing the 1967 portmanteau work Loin du Vietnam.

His most recent film, Her Socialist Smile (2020), continues this engagement by reinstating the life and speeches of the iconic but overlooked radical intellectual Helen Keller. It is not surprising that Gianvito is drawn to her commitment. His own is equally exemplary.

Your body of work to date, while hugely varied in formal approaches and range, has a singular – and perhaps unique – commitment to expressing forms of resistance – whether by activist groups, through memorial marking, layered accumulation of ‘evidence’ and trace, in-transit and concurrent dispatch, or textual and event analysis. All of these are forms of witness. Do you see this as the foundation of your filmmaking intentions and how does it relate to your sense of film’s larger agency and role in affecting change?

The fuel that propels these works is perhaps not so complicated. Much like the sentiments Helen Keller expressed in her first public speech that I cite in my film, “I do not like the world as it is. I am trying to make it a little more as I would like to have it.” To the extent that my films comprise part of that effort, I do see them as constructing a kind of barricade against the various assaults of my time… those everyday assaults upon my senses, upon my intelligence. The political as well as the cultural gaslighting to which we are all subjected. In front of that are always the questions: what do we choose to look at? What do we look away from?

Such concerns were not always the focus of my work. While I attribute it to a combination of factors, the key turning point came in the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War, the protesting against which I had been deeply involved in. Over time I had students entering my classes who’d served in Operation Desert Storm and who revealed much to me about their experiences that differed from the popular media narrative. In fact almost any narrative surrounding that war had already rapidly vanished from the headlines, which only further enraged me, finally spurring the recognition of the need and the responsibility to speak up. As I felt I had the capacity to speak more cogently through my filmmaking than I had through letters to the local papers or in arguments with family and friends, it all poured out into The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein. In short, the scales fell from my eyes.

The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001)

Since that time I keep mindful of the fact that people’s attention is scarce and I try not to abuse it. If I am going to put years of my life, as I do, into the making of a film, I have to believe it holds potential, however modestly, to contribute to the greater good, broadly defined. Having taught for years a course on Cinema and Social Change, I’ve many thoughts about how cinema contributes, in healthy and not so healthy ways, to the world as we find it. No doubt my own filmic strategies emerge out of this research.

You are a committed educator and were an important curator of the Harvard Film Archive. Both roles have dynamic relationships with the past and the future, of course. What do you think about these particular disciplines in relation to your own filmmaking?

Having had the blessing of a few extraordinary teacher/mentors in my life, I was able to see that teaching itself can indeed be its own form of art practice, capable of being just as creatively considered and shaped, as emotionally and intellectually invested. And the same holds true for curating. Certainly [the New York City curator and author of Film as a Subversive Art] Amos Vogel showed me that.

John Gianvito editing in 2008
© Alexis Tioseco

For me, each of these endeavours, along with writing and filmmaking, are simply muscles in the same body that I like to exercise at different times. One activity informing and influencing the other. I suppose in each case there is an element of hoping to offer meaningful nourishment, including food for thought. Although, I should add, with teaching I often have the experience of reciprocally getting as much if not more more sustenance back from the students themselves.

Ultimately, though, it is not only about what I bring to them, but what I don’t take away from them – as individuals, as fellow travellers. In this, perhaps there is an analogy with the ways my films aim to approach the viewer.

Filmmaking is all about navigating space (place) and time, but both dimensions are explicit subject concerns for you, especially as they relate to imperialism and colonialism, and resistance to both. Scale then follows too – durational and geographic.

I think anyone engaged in the struggle to forge a more just, less poisonous, more egalitarian world, freed from needless suffering and immiseration, has to commit to the long game. It’s not that one shouldn’t be demanding solutions now – certainly the urgency of the problems we confront insist upon it – but it can be helpful to have perspective on how change often happens, particularly when facing setbacks. The study of history can provide such perspective. The long view can also provide insight into why things are the way they are.

Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)
Anyone engaged in the struggle to forge a more just, less poisonous world has to commit to the long game.

Take [Gianvito’s diptych] For Example, the Philippines. The relationship in that film between the history of the Philippine-American War at the beginning of the twentieth century and a present-day portrait of Filipino communities impacted by military waste may appear at first a bit forced or tangential. Without my underlining it, however, over time I believe one begins to perceive not only associations between the two narratives, but the idea that history can actually be something embodied, something literally inscribed in flesh and landscape. To follow the historical train of cause and effect takes time to understand and to process, time to ingest.

Personally, I’ve always liked films that afford me space to have my own thoughts while the film is unfolding, not only affording me space but actively encouraging contemplation, films that aren’t constantly tugging my eye every few seconds. Films like Peter Watkins’ The Journey, or Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, or Lav Diaz’s films. Perhaps it’s just a matter of temperament. I don’t argue for any one methodology.

You are committed to poetry on the page and there is a ‘poetic’ (or ‘lyrical’) aspect to parts of your filmmaking. These terms are usually applied in terribly vague ways to the filmic image or edit; what do they mean, if anything, to you?

I’m not so sure I am going to be any less vague in my response. Before ever making films, my principal creative outlet was indeed writing poems and it’s true that I’ve collaborated with a number of poets: Fanny Howe, John Wieners, Jennifer Bartlett, Carolyn Forché.

But how to speak about the poetic impulse when it comes to the forms of the films? W.S. Merwin, who sadly left us not so long ago, once described seeing a photograph in the newspaper of a woman in Iraq taken shortly after witnessing her husband having been blown up: her mouth agape, her likely howl. Ruminating about the attempt to express that which is in fact inexpressible, Merwin maintained that “poetry is really trying to say what can’t be said.” Inadequate but, in some sense, the only means we have.

Her Socialist Smile (2020)

Some viewers of your films might be surprised to discover that you edited the Mississippi Press collection of interviews with Andrei Tarkovsky.

While I might have been inclined to say that Tarkovsky no longer occupies as much of my attention as years ago, it so happens I just finished reading Layla Alexander-Garrett’s exemplary memoir of her time on the set of The Sacrifice, The Collector of Dreams.

There’s no question that Tarkovsky was a complicated chap. In fact, one of the initial motivations in doing the interview book came after first reading his encounter with Swiss psychologist Irena Brezna, a conversation one of my students had been translating for her own edification and shared with me. I was startled to hear how regressive some of Tarkovsky’s ideas were, particularly his views on “women’s role in the universe”, though you can actually find it in the films. It certainly toppled him from whatever pedestal I had him on. And yet I was fascinated by Brezna and Tarkovsky’s efforts to genuinely communicate with one another, and curious about what might be found within the wider spectrum of interviews, though sadly he seems rarely to have encountered as stimulating an interlocutor as Brezna.

Without diminishing certain deficiencies, since we were talking about poetry, I can’t deny still finding Tarkovsky to be one of the greatest of all cinematic poets, hardly a rare opinion. Still, I wouldn’t say that he is one of the filmmakers I feel in dialogue with, at least consciously, when making my own work – as for instance Noriaki Tsuchimoto was throughout the years I was making For Example, the Philippines – though I certainly aspire to be as dedicated and uncompromising in pursuit of my own vision as Tarkovsky was his. That’s somewhat harder when you don’t have the benefit of the same economic infrastructure, but we all face challenges.

US and global politics have never been more polarised; the stakes ecologically and socially have never been higher. Where might sources of progressive possibility lie for you at this time?

For the kinds of radical transformation necessary to tackle the scale and virulence of the crises we face, it’s unimaginable to me without some sort of revolution.

Can I see any signs of it? It depends on the day. Here in the US, last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, following the murder of George Floyd, appear to have been the largest mass movement protests in our history. Impressive not only in terms of numbers, estimated somewhere between 15 to 26 million Americans, but in the movement’s racial and geographic diversity and in the fact that people took to the streets despite a raging pandemic.

Just last November, the world witnessed the largest General Strike in history by some 250 million workers and farmers throughout India – a crucial tactical example. I find hope as well from the continuing Gilets Jaunes protests in France which have inspired similar actions in numerous other parts of the world. Even with the recent brutal crackdowns in Hong Kong and Myanmar, one can’t not be moved by the courage of so many risking their lives, frequently very young lives, in the attempt to preserve and improve upon democratic ideals.

Whether such efforts can be sufficiently allied to overthrow elite power rests upon how each of us elect to engage, or disengage, from the struggle. We’ve all various roles to play. As a filmmaker and a teacher, I was very taken by a comment I read this week from the astute film critic A.S. Hamrah who reminds us that “The fight for justice and really for the future happens on screens as well as in the streets. After all, if NBC had not given Donald Trump a TV show in 2004, we wouldn’t be in a situation half as terrible as the one we’re in now. A too-easy acceptance of entertainment is part of what got us here.” Amen.

Further reading

The owl’s legacy: in memory of Chris Marker

By Thom Andersen

The owl’s legacy: in memory of Chris Marker

Desert of the disappeared: Patricio Guzmán on Nostalgia for the Light

Desert of the disappeared: Patricio Guzmán on Nostalgia for the Light

The essay film

By Ginette Vincendeau

The essay film