Artist Andres Serrano, best known for his provocative photographs, has long had an interest in Donald Trump. He photographed Trump, at the time a businessman–turned–reality TV star associated with the show The Apprentice, for his 2004 “America” series. Then, during the real estate heir’s presidency, Serrano amassed a trove of Trump-related memorabilia numbering over 1,000 items, which he showed in 2019 at a former nightclub in New York for an exhibition titled “The Game: All Things Trump.”
Now, Serrano is debuting his latest Trump-related work, a new film called Insurrection (2022). It was released on January 6, exactly one year after the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters looking to halt the certification of the 2020 election. The film, Serrano’s first, is about that infamous day. It brings together live footage mined from social media and public platforms intercut with archival stock videos—ranging from dancing flappers and Depression-era riots to footage of Malcolm X and Fidel Castro—in the span of a very chaotic 75 minutes.
Like “The Game,” this new piece continues Serrano’s explorations of Trump’s branding machine and the displays of devotion from his fans and supporters. In an interview with ARTnews ahead of the film’s debut at Washington D.C.’s arts nonprofit CulturalDC on Thursday, Serrano described the film as a “comedy and tragedy.”
Serrano said that, while collecting footage of the Capitol riots last year, he gleaned from it a wide visual survey of Trump-era material culture and the people who traffic in it. After mounting “The Game,” he said, “I thought I was done with Trump, but the insurrection compelled me to make this film because now this too was part of ‘All Things Trump.’”
Serrano went on to describe his aim in showing an exhaustive multitude of angles from that day, including the particularly haunting images of rioters perched overheard in trees. “When Leni Riefenstahl made Triumph of The Will, she had a crew of 150 and 30 cameras,” Serrano said, referring to the director who made Nazi propaganda films in the 1930s and ’40s. “I was lucky enough to have a lot more than 30 cameras. Some of the videos that were shot that day showed a remarkable ability not only to capture what happened but to create striking images.”
The film contains varying points of views. In one early scene, a viral clip of President Joe Biden tripping up the steps to Air Force 1 is set against audio of Trump declaring his successor incompetent. At another moment, as the film escalates, Serrano pulls together unedited bodycam, TV, and cell phone footage for a 25-minute-long stretch showing a deadlocked confrontation between Capitol Police officers and rioters trying to access the building.
Eventually the film descends into the day’s darker corners. One particularly gruesome section focuses on the killing of rioter Ashli Babbitt. An Air Force veteran who embraced far-right politics, Babbitt was fatally shot by a Capitol security officer while climbing a locked entry. Footage of her stunned on the ground, with blood pooling from her mouth, has been widely seen, but in Serrano’s film, the five-minute-long sequence engages the viewer’s disgust and disorientation. It ends with a shaky shot from a high vantage point, the camera pointed down as three capitol police officers carry Babbitt’s body down a flight of stairs, as rioters remind them: “She’s fucking dead.”
Viewers of Serrano’s first film are likely to find themselves exhausted. The project’s score and audio provide some interludes in a mostly uninterrupted display of havoc. The movie opens with Bob Dylan’s 1971 folksy song “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”—an introduction that Serrano described as “deceptively simple and sweet.” That sets the stage for sobering ballads like “Battle Hymn of the Republic (Glory, Glory Hallelujah),” which is overlaid on clips of rioters preparing to break into the Capitol’s entryway. A bluesy 1947 recording of a jailed Mississippi inmate singing, “I’m going home, big boy. Ha,” plays somberly as footage of the day’s aftermath, arrests and damage unfold on the screen.
Serrano pointed to mock title cards that he modeled after D. W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which deals with the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The credits list Serrano’s movie as being adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, the source material for Birth of a Nation, and the artist has gone so far as listing Insurrection as a “Donald J. Trump Production.” Serrano said he sees parallels between Griffith’s film, which tapped into white Southerns’ nostalgia for the antebellum South, and Donald Trump’s messaging, which contained similar forms of veiled racism in slogans such as “Make America Great Again.” Serrano added, “Trump seized on the anger and discontent of the Red States—and used it to his advantage.”