On an October night in 2021, viewers at the New York independent cinema venue Light Industry were immersed in scenes of street protests that had taken place in Hong Kong. Two films from the year before by the group known as the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers (HKDF) were projected in the small crowded space: Taking Back the Legislature, which follows the siege of the Hong Kong Legislative Council in the summer of 2019, and Inside the Red Brick Wall, chronicling the 12-day occupation of Polytechnic University that same year. On the screen, demonstrators rammed a makeshift cart into a building’s window, people cowered behind umbrellas that buckled from the force of water cannons, and others writhed on the floor in their underwear as fellow protesters hosed burning teargas off their skin.
These scenes not only document the front lines from the vantage point of the protesters, but movingly convey their agitation and vulnerability. Handheld cameras transported us directly into the fray, where we witnessed the chaotic action while vicariously hyperventilating and running alongside the demonstrators.
The Light Industry program was organized by Tiffany Sia, a New York–based artist and filmmaker whose own work has similarly created records of dissent in Hong Kong in response to state suppression, while interrogating standards of documentary filmmaking and mainstream news reportage. After the screening, Sia moderated a voice-only conversation with members of the HKDF to protect their identities. The group shared that they recorded the films by wearing high-visibility vests that identified them as journalists and granted them permission to film without having their cameras confiscated. They assume the role of journalists on the scene, but when they disseminate their records of it, they are artists.
The films’ disregard for the attention-grabbing edits seen in the news makes them better suited for film and art venues. But there’s another tactical reason to frame their works as art: to evade censorship.
In Hong Kong, the public exhibition of films requires approval from the Office of Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA), whose criteria are set in accordance with National Security Law. Works deemed critical of the government or depicting criminal offenses (which typically include1 protest documentation) receive warnings, are sometimes confiscated, and can result in imprisonment for their creators. In response, some films move underground, to be screened clandestinely in living rooms and unlisted venues. Others are uploaded to open-access Google Drive folders and shared-log-in Plex accounts—where they are shown freely online but only for those who know how to search for them—or smuggled out of the country for international exhibitions and festivals.
Inside the Red Brick Wall has been flagged by the OFNAA as constituting criminal offenses and is therefore dangerous to screen in Hong Kong. But the film has still managed to reach viewers through venues like Light Industry and festivals including the Cinéma du Réel International Festival of Documentary Film and MoMA’s Doc Fortnight in New York.
POLITICAL FILMMAKERS OFTEN USE the subversive tactic of circulating otherwise prohibited materials through film festivals and art venues. Take Jafar Panahi, whose This Is Not a Film (2011) is a video diary the activist filmmaker made while under house arrest on charges of opposing the Iranian government. As the famous story goes, the work was smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake, so that it could premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Stories of the sort suggest reason to hope that art and film institutions aren’t subject solely to the machinations of capital, but can also occasionally serve as safehouses that facilitate radical thought and expression.
“When a national security law makes certain forms of filmmaking illegal,” Sia told me, “filmmaking, particularly, documentary filmmaking, becomes fugitive. And when filmmaking becomes fugitive, then it becomes militant.” Sia’s comment evokes, if indirectly, the lineage of militant cinema, which usefully orients works by groups like HKDF.
Militant cinema is a movement that transposes concepts, arguments, and motifs across historical
eras and national boundaries but derives from 1920s-era Soviet cinema, characterized by Marxist-Leninist archetypes of the proletariat and their working conditions, and montage editing techniques in the tradition of Sergei Eisenstein. Militant cinema would later expand to encompass the “political modernism” of the French New Wave and Third World cinema movements that support anti-colonial liberation struggles.
The genre has been produced by state organizations such as Algeria’s Office National Commerce Industrie Cinéma and the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), established by the Cuban government after the revolution in 1959. In the case of French militant collective SLON-ISKRA, it arose in reaction to reigning political forces (in that instance, the French Communist Party). In discourse brandished by groups ranging from those above to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Liberation Movement of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, the camera has been equated with the rifle, a means of combating imperialism through culture.
The camera was also framed as a weapon by Third Cinema, a movement conceived by Argentine filmmakers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas to give shape to the surge of anti-colonial militant films in the ’60s and ’70s. The duo expanded the idea of militant cinema in their 1973 essay “The Cinema as Political Fact,” where they asked: is militant cinema only that produced by socialist parties, or is it “all cinema in a country in which people have taken power and are constructing their definitions of liberation?”
While different movements are shaped by particular social, political, and national factors, all militant cinema is connected by shared aims: to abolish the individual personality of the filmmaker, to present counter-information against mainstream media and hegemonic cultural productions, and to instrumentalize cinema into an educational tool—one that could incite spectators into taking concrete action.
These ideas live on in many cinematic collectives currently operating in places of authoritarianism and political unrest across the world, not just HKDF but also Abounaddara in Syria, Geocinema in Ukraine, the People’s Film Collective in India, and Myanmar Film Collective. In some cases, such as the Palestinian group Subversive Film and the programming collective Cine Móvil, they reference the traditions of militant cinema while updating the form’s radical methods of production, distribution, exhibition, and pedagogy.
SUBVERSIVE FILM, A RESEARCH AND PRODUCTION COLLECTIVE collective that engages the history of militant cinema directly, was formed in 2011 by artists Mohanad Yaqubi and Reem Shilleh, who are both based in Ramallah and Brussels. The pair has worked with various collaborators―including militant cinema titan Masao Adachi―to create a collective memory of the Palestinian liberation struggle through a process that often involves locating and restoring militant films produced by the PLO between 1968 and 1982, as well as international militant films, and presenting their research in exhibitions, screenings, and publications.
A recent project involved a collection of militant films, belonging to scholar Aoe Tanami, that were created across the world in support of Palestine in the ’60s and ’70s, then dubbed and screened by leftist groups in Japan that sympathized with the Palestinian struggle in the aftermath of World War II. After working on restoration, color-correction, sound enhancement, and captioning for these works, Shilleh and Yaqubi then artistically transformed the footage into three formats presented at Documenta 15 in 2022: a video installation, a five-day festival program called “The Tokyo Palestine Collection,” and the 70-minute film essay R 21 aka Restoring Solidarity (2022).
Each presentation highlighted a unique aspect of Palestinian militant cinema. Set up in the middle of a cavernous exhibition hall, the video installation featured a wall-size projection of these digitized films. Playing all at once, without demarcations between individual films, the projection evoked less a narrative than an impressionistic montage. Among the images was a map of the Middle East, fedayeen walking on a sandy terrain, and the sun cresting through tree branches in a field behind Japanese and English subtitles (added later to the work by Subversive Film) that read “the shed blood will be taken over by those who continue to fight.” R 21 aka Restoring Solidarity’s editing choices nod to the aesthetic tendencies of “political modernism” that militant cinema became entwined with, such as simple juxtapositions between images and imaging technologies in the style of Jean-Luc Godard. We see archival clips—such as civilians filling cars with water bottles full of gasoline after the Israeli army cut off the gas supply to curb the PLO’s Civil Defense Committee—mixed with scenes of the restoration process itself: reel canisters, a frame scanner and digitizer machine, a computer open to color-grading software, the shadowy contours of a diligent archivist.
Subversive Film conducts its restoration work without interacting with the State of Israel, which over the 20th century seized many Palestinian cultural productions and sequestered them in its bureaucratic archives. This restriction is betrayed in the ripped and bootlegged quality of the artists’ copies, which they obtained in anarchist spaces and from the homes of secret confidants. Their works illuminate the original alternative circuits that made these films possible. “When you look at a militant film,” Yaqubi told me on a video call, “you’re not only looking at the struggle itself, but the social and political context reflected through its making and dissemination.” Several film strips bore blemishes of corrosion and emulsion decay.
In a 1991 issue of Third Text devoted to the militant image, filmmaker and theorist Kodwo Eshun and scholar Ros Gray use the term ciné-geography to describe transnational networks of aesthetic and political affiliations that sustain militant cinema. One clear example is visible the opening scene of R 21 aka Restoring Solidarity: A car drives around a Tokyo neighborhood before pulling up to a house. Inside, a woman gives us a tour of her home, with an unlikely archive including Japanese newspaper articles on Palestine and canisters of films by Arab and Japanese filmmakers. The cartographic research approach is likewise evinced in Yaqubi’s older film Off Frame aka Revolution Until Victory (2015), which follows the journey of 30,000 meters of negatives that were smuggled out of Lebanon in the middle of the civil war in 1976 and then moved to Rome, where they were developed by the Italian Communist Party.
Subversive Film’s presentation at Documenta 15 also revealed the limitations of presenting politicized materials in art institutions, which don’t always provide immunity from the schisms and repressions of public life and can, under the wrong circumstances, exacerbate them. In September 2021, an advisory committee named the Scientific Panel—appointed by shareholders in reaction to a maelstrom of accusations of anti-Semitism at the quinquennial—demanded that a screening program titled “The Tokyo Palestine Collection” be canceled. The committee argued in its statement, written in German, that the “pro-Palestinian propaganda films” are “laced with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist set pieces.”
They further levied that “a possible resumption of screenings of the films would be conceivable only if they were contextualized in a way that clarified their propaganda nature.” The committee denounced the work as propagandistic, and saw this as grounds for removal. Several Documenta artists and organizers responded with an open letter, calling their argument “simplistic” for equating a critique of the State of Israel with “hatred of an entire people.”
The Scientific Panel’s statement pinpoints a recurring charge against works and practices classifiable as militant: that they are propagandistic—corrupted by an overt ideological position—and assume that art represents a more benign stance. Subversive Film believes this dichotomy is false, since all art contains an ideological position, whether explicit or implicit. “Spaghetti Westerns—this is propaganda,” Yaqubi told me.
Lara Khaldi, one of Documenta’s artistic directors, echoed the sentiment: “People label things propaganda when they don’t agree with it politically.” Maybe, Khaldi suggested, that which feigns a “neutral” agenda is more pernicious: “At least what the Scientific Panel called propaganda is outright about its position so that you, the audience member, can take a position.”
IT IS PRECISELY THIS TENSION, between cultural venues as both a safe haven for material prohibited elsewhere and places fraught with their own problems, that the New York–based collective Cine Móvil addresses in their programming practice. Made up of students, art administrators, filmmakers, and programmers, Cine Móvil’s operation is not one of production but of exhibition. They organize screenings of leftist and revolutionary films in public parks, bars, abandoned lots, and other unexpected places.
This autonomous disposition was partially shaped by the group’s formation during the 2020 uprisings, when outdoor shows, performances, and events proliferated in public spaces all over the city. Since then, they’ve screened many militant cinema works such as Robert Kramer’s Vietnam War documentary The People’s War (1970) and Mustafa Abu Ali’s They Do Not Exist (1974), both in Central Park. In Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn, they showed Heiny Srour’s The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (1974), a document of the feminist Dhofar Rebellion in Oman. All the screenings were accompanied by a teach-in on protest tactics. Cine Móvil’s exhibition approach, creating itinerant sites, aligns with the militant cinema of the ’60s and ’70s that screened in factories, churches, and community centers (such as SLON-ISKRA’s 1967 premiere of Far from Vietnam at a textile factory in France).
The collective chose the name Cine Móvil after the cine movile programs that the ICAIC sent around Cuba to spread education and entertainment to the masses. Operating without a brick-and-mortar space––but with a modest inventory that includes a projector, a projection screen, and PA speakers––enables the collective to customize each program’s setup, which is as important as the film itself. Sometimes, these arrangements attempt to disrupt the typical code of conduct in theaters, where spatial design, as one member told me, can reinforce a hierarchy between the stage and the audience that isn’t conducive to horizontal exchange. Their programs counter such standards, in the case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Film Festival held at the East River Bar in Williamsburg in October 2022, by arranging chairs and booth seats around the projection screen in an intimate circle.
Cine Móvil invokes militant cinema’s investment in finding direct application between the films’ themes and their audiences. Their approach emphasizes what Getino and Solanas call “the film event,” framing the screening as an intervention and “a tool to convert the spectator into an actor in the political process.”
In May 2022, for instance, the group responded to a run of The Wobblies at the Metrograph theater in Manhattan. The documentary about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and a cross-workforce union founded in 1905 was being screened amid allegations of poor labor practices. In response, Cine Móvil organized a “counter-screening” of the film one block away, at Seward Park. The Metrograph canceled a Q&A scheduled to follow the screening in fear of a dissenting takeover; the Cine Móvil event included a discussion of industry labor issues involving members of the IWW and theater workers. Here, when an art house theater tried to silence conversation, Cine Móvil conducted one of its own beyond the conventional spaces of cinema.
Correction, 3/23/23, 12:20 p.m.: A previous version incorrectly described “The Tokyo Palestine Collection,” and R 21 aka Restoring Solidarity, saying they involved a collaboration with Masao Adachi. It also incorrectly stated that Subversive Film was formed in 2004 rather than 2011.