On Spectacle Theater’s Collaborations with Icarus Films

By Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer

This month, Spectacle Theater selected 10 Icarus titles they’ve presented over the years to celebrate their relationship with the film distributor in the form of a special collection currently available via Ovid.tv.

Spectacle Theater has acted as an outpost for lost and forgotten films, as well as formally daring and provocative contemporary cinema, since its founding in 2011. As a volunteer-run microcinema that finds political common-ground with the Left, representing overlooked histories of marginalization, labor organization, and solidarity practices, is key to our programming. These interests, insofar as early programmer and founder Troy Swain can remember, is what led us to initially collaborate with Icarus Films, a leading distributor of innovative documentary films whose catalog includes works by the legendary artist Chris Marker and powerhouse documentarian Wang Bing, among other radical heavies.

Recently, Spectacle received an invitation from Ovid.tv –– Icarus’ streaming platform –– to assemble an online program. The collaboration engaged Spectacle’s volunteers in a process of remembrance. And, as a young volunteer, it involved me in a process of parsing out how the films we programmed represented our interests and values. The following Icarus titles were determined as the most representative of Spectacle by a poll voted upon by its members: Ice (1970), The Pirates of Babuan (1972), Grin Without a Cat (1977), From the East (1993), Metal & Melancholy (1994), The Last Angel of History (1996), La Commune (2000), Oxhide II (2009), Three Sisters (2012) and Lemebel (2019).

Assembled together, those films form a historical portrait of the political Left in the wake of ’68. More importantly, their interaction and understanding of the moments they capture, advance the imagining of a new political mission. To quote theorist Donna Haraway, “the open future rests on a new past.” I believe that the historical lessons contained in these films hold the key to a new future. Although Spectacle’s collective mission is not as lofty as that of creating a new future, the films that form part of Ovid.tv’s Spectacle Theater’s Top Films typify a manner of thinking I hope our patrons share: The ability to address forgotten memories in order to forge ahead in the face of adverse political action.

Robert Kramer’s Ice follows an underground guerilla’s attempts to overthrow a future fascist America. Previous to Ice, Kramer directed In the Country (1967) and The Edge (1968). The former concerns a young cynical revolutionary and the latter, in many ways a companion to Ice, follows an activist’s plan to assassinate the President of the United States. Kramer was a staunch leftist throughout his life, even though some of his later films reflect a growing disillusionment with politics. In fact, doubt in radical action haunts his films from the start. But that’s only because the characters in his films are always aiming for dramatic change, reflecting the idealist attitude of the ’60s that grew corroded with time. And so, by showing an exemplary drive toward change that often ends nowhere, Kramer simultaneously shows the value and despair that accompanies revolutionary struggle.

There are many lessons to be learned from viewing Ice, many of which are highlighted by Barbara Kruger-type cutaways containing aphorisms about the nature of direct action. But, aside from the didactic messaging, it is Kramer’s representation of in-fighting and snobbishness within the film’s main group that resonates most. Herein lies a perennial problem among radical organizers who often find themselves undercut by self-criticism or lack thereof. For all its revolutionary zeal, Ice is acutely aware of the Left’s self-destructive tendencies and makes a point of laying them bare. By the time the film reaches its end and its central group’s attempts at rebelling against fascist America fall flat, what’s made itself evident is not a call-to-arms or a plan-of-attack; rather, a note of caution for future organizers.

This belittling of counter-hegemonic forces is of critical interest for anyone trying to imagine a world beyond our own. Shōhei Imamura’s The Pirates of Bubuan is ostensibly about a group of dangerous pirates wreaking havoc across the Philippines. At least, that’s the headline Imamura claims to be chasing on behalf of his producers, but on his travels to Bubuan and its surrounding islands, he only finds destitute seafarers and marginalized indigenous communities, all of which are ostracized for affiliating with or being pirates.

In his investigation into the most remote corners of the Philippines, Imamura finds a forsaken lot of the population. Unattended by their government, these communities have had to take care of themselves. And, for doing so, they are frowned upon. Holding onto old customs and working within tight-knight solidarity networks, the distant inhabitants of these islands are considered pariahs by the general population. Their self-sufficiency, barely imaginable, thus takes on a mythical malignity, as Imamura finds most people find it easier to believe such stranded people can only live through thievery and not mutual support. Imamura’s film retaliates against this shared myth, identifying a common disbelief in alternative living under a despotic regime.

Disbelief with alternative living, which we can understand as leftist practices in a capitalist order, are central to Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat. The filmmaker’s four-hour epic detailing the rise and fall of the New Left exposes the political struggles undercutting the development of global capitalism. Consisting of footage belonging to the many members of the camera collective SLON-ISKRA depicting political battles in Bolivia, Chile, Czechoslovakia, France, Vietnam, and many other sites of resistance against capitalist and imperialist action, A Grin Without a Cat is astounding because it is proof of a history that remains classified and unacknowledged by its main perpetrators. It is cliché that history privileges its champions, but the perdurance of Marker’s work exists in constant counter-offensive, testifying to the many attempts made to shift the world to the left.

As a counter-document of world history, Marker’s film deals with the constant denigration the Left was subject to by right-wing players. Often subject to insults and violence, the people that made up the resistance against the United States-led push for global capitalism are pictured candidly in A Grin Without a Cat. They are immeasurably brave, but they are also frail, stupid and dispirited at times. Fighting exclusively through passion most of the time, their heroism registers as distinctly human, and thus adheres to an arc that inspires admiration despite being destined toward defeat.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later. In the time since Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat was made, the nation that came to represent its ideology (at least according to most) fell into disrepair. According to political theorist Francis Fukuyama, history was over; the Left was dead and capitalist values were to be the norm worldwide. It is from this context that Chantal Akerman’s solemn From the East comes into being. Charting her travels from East Germany to Moscow, Akerman’s documentary about the collapsed soviet bloc is a revealing portrait of a world undone.

From the other side of the globe, Heddy Honigmann’s Metal & Melancholy paints a similar picture of Perú as it deals with an economic and political crisis. Filmed in the early ’90s, Honigmann captures Perú in the midst of an inflationary crisis wherein many members of its population have turned to cab driving in order to eke out a living. What begins as a straightforward investigation into a strange economic phenomenon soon transforms into a warm study of financially impoverished, yet spiritually strong people. As in Honigmann’s other documentaries such as The Underground Orchestra (1998) and El Olvido (2008), she calls attention to humanity’s resilience in the face of neoliberal policies and their fallout — migration crises, corruption scandals, broken economies.

Though much has happened since the ’90s, life continues to operate in this fallout. Our present is haunted by failed futures and only in pursuing their traces can we begin to articulate new directions. John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective took this as their labor. Their experimental films and artwork positioned itself in opposition to the mainstream political and aesthetic representation of Black culture in Britain.

In Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, he maps out a vision of Black culture tied to interstellar travel and computer technologies. Mixing interviews with the likes of funkmaster George Clinton, author Ishmael Reed, DJ Spooky, and other Black theorists and artists, Akomfrah sets up parallels between Black life and science-fiction, with all its horrors, otherworldliness, and utopian dimensions. The Last Angel of History posits an escape from this world, a remix of history that uses blips from the past to arrive at a new possible way of life.

Peter Watkins’s La Commune remixes history in a different way. The six-hour dramatic reenactment of the short-lived people’s government established in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War is a monumental work. Presented as a news report from 1870’s Paris in faux-verité style, La Commune uses its premise to present how revolutionary anxieties play out in the midst of social dramatic change. Watkins’s use of documentary techniques renders an impossible report real, creating a tremendous historical document fraught with fiction in its every frame. The move in turn becomes a critique of the fiction that exists in the biased objective reporting of today, arguing in favor of developing a new relationship toward news that is transparent about biases and motivated by an existing political trust.

The observational approach employed by Liu Jayin in Oxhide II and Wang Bing in Three Sisters provides an example of this sort of truth-filming. Although Oxhide II dramatizes the events and conversations of Liu’s family, its closeness to reality presents a novel way of digesting life’s struggles through art. Filmed in her own cramped apartment with her own parents, Liu’s film demonstrates a radical act of transparency from its main cast who willingly lay bare their daily rituals, arguments, grievances, and selves to produce an emblematic picture of a Chinese middle-class family during the early aughts.

Similarly, Wang Bing’s patient documentary about three sisters aged four, six and ten, living in the high mountains of China’s Yunnan province shows how a compassionate cameraman can unlock deep insights into the lives of those often shunned from the limelight. Not only does Wang ceaselessly film this mountainside community, but he also partakes in their lifestyle, joining them for trips and meals. Wang developed such trust among those he filmed that he returned to film another documentary in the same town a few years later. The attention that Liu and Wang award the mundane and its captives is admirable. Their total immersion in it advances a popular form of storytelling that is never above its subjects, a united front intent on revealing every facet of humanity, however boring or wonderful it may be.

This union between cameraperson and subject is also evident in Joanna Reposi’s Lemebel, wherein the unity manifests itself in the body of the film itself. The recent documentary about the Chilean LGBTQ+ activist-artist Pedro Lemebel mixes interviews with Lemebel as he nears death with a treasure trove of old clips from his days as a performance artist during Pinochet’s dictatorship. The media contained in the film is heavily pixelated and indecipherable at times, matching the fragile state of its battered subject. Having filmed Lemebel for years, Reposi understood that his art was always personal and overwhelming; thus, it only made sense for a film about him to hold on to the whole of his body and spirit.

Lemebel’s invocations of the past also piece together a history of resistance in the face of political repression. Recreated from scraps, a discarded version of Chile’s history is articulated in the film. A new past is recovered, setting the stage for those inspired by Lemebel to take up art and action with the same bravery as he did. As with all of the films included in this program, Reposi appeals to forsaken images in order to envision an alternative future.

Much of moviegoing is caught up in escapism. For the longest time, this involved surrendering to grandiose fictional narratives. Today’s swamp of content means you can escape life through the observance of anything, from severe documentaries to seconds-long internet clips. Although the films in Spectacle’s online collection privilege material reality, and many times show a supreme allegiance to it, to call them portals of sheer escapism would be insulting. Instead, by complicating their relationship to material reality in overblowing it or sneaking in fiction into its composition, these films do not stand in for escape. What these films open is a space to contemplate escape from the hurtful traditions of today’s economic and political pressures. A small and precarious venue, Spectacle lives out a similar fate: to provide space for outsider thinking. Similar to these films’ recovery of discarded histories and formal experimentation in their presentation, our venue is committed to showing that which is lost, forgotten, and formally baffling in order to interrogate what is expected from movies and society.

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