Film In Conversation
MAPLE RAZSA with Duncan Ranslem
Maple Razsa is Professor of Global Studies at Colby College. He has studied and participated in alter-globalization movements across Europe, paying particular attention to how video is produced, distributed, and consumed in activist practice. Video, he has written, enables activists to better engage the bodily, sensory, and affective dimensions of politics. This helps give the act of protest an affirmative character, not merely a negative one, as video becomes a means of producing new political subjects.
His latest work, co-directed with Milton Guillén, is set during a wave of uprisings that took place in the winter of 2012–13 in Maribor, Slovenia. The uprisings unfolded after years of deindustrialization, encroaching austerity, and rising inequality, and were catalyzed by a public-private partnership to enforce traffic violations via an automated system. After tens of thousands of speeding tickets were issued in the program’s inaugural week, the news that a private contractor with ties to the mayor would receive ninety percent of the receipts, touched off mass demonstrations.
The U.S. premiere of The Maribor Uprisings (2017) took place on an unseasonably chilly July evening in a plaza in downtown Brooklyn as part of Rooftop Films. Drawing an explicit connection between the criminalization of dissent in the film and in the contemporary United States, Razsa invited defendants in the J20 inauguration-day protest (that has left 230 protestors each facing felony charges) to participate in the screening. Before the movie started, Razsa and Guillén prompted filmgoers to partner with strangers and share experiences they’d had of a protest. Many of those in attendance had experience with Black Lives Matter protests or with Occupy Wall Street, although many in attendance had little experience taking to the streets. With these connections made, the filmmakers directed everyone’s attention back to the stage to explain what would transpire at the screening and lay out some rules.
The film would follow one of several different paths, they explained, and it would be up to the audience to decide which one. Some decisions would be made by the audience as a whole, others would hinge on one or a few filmgoers. As in life and in protest, there would be no going back. Audience members were instructed to “make space” if it’s something they were generally afforded, and to “take space” if their voices were traditionally unheard. Razsa and I met after the screening and continued our interview over the following weeks.
Duncan Ranslem (Rail): The screening itself creates a space complementary to that of the film. What potential do you see in these spaces?
Maple Razsa: Observers sometimes think these conflicts over public space are distractions from the “real issues,” but holding public space is in itself a profound and important political act. In my experience, it is only in such spaces, seized from the fabric of urban landscape and repurposed, that we are able to begin to ask one another what we might like our world to look like—a question we are never asked in the other institutions of our lives. In these spaces, political commons of sorts, we can begin to develop new forms of political imagination collectively. That’s why, for me, the fight to hold public space is not some trivial, or merely tactical, question for movements. The live participatory screenings of Uprisings have often provoked similar conversations about other potential political futures—as well as reproducing some of the political divisions that often fracture movements.
Rail: The film’s form invites the audience to participate in the creation of the space represented. There are several junctions in the film. The images stop and the audience decides which edit to make, which story to follow, which spaces to occupy or abandon. But is there a danger in bringing the audience back to language like this? Does it break the “spell of cinema?”
Razsa: Yes, you’re absolutely right: this is at once what is most formally innovative about Uprisings and what is most potentially disruptive of being submerged in the sensory and sensuous experience of cinema. To be sure, this grabs some viewers more than others, and there have been a few viewers who’ve responded critically on these grounds. But we’ve consistently found that this act of choosing—and choosing on the spot with others through discussion during the screening—also has the opposite effect: of tying people more closely to the material than they might otherwise be.
Indeed, one of the more remarkable and largely unexpected results of these choices is that people keep asking themselves questions about the relationship between their own lives and the documented events, questions about how they would respond in similar situations. This is on one hand reflexive and distancing, but on the other profoundly about identifying with events, projecting oneself into them in an unusual and self-aware way.
It’s maybe also worth noting that the film is also an unusual hybrid of a highly experiential form—one that tries to accentuate the embodied and sensory qualities of video footage, especially footage shot in the midst of an unpredictable and violent event like a popular uprising, an event in which the act of filming is physically dangerous, and on the other hand an essayistic film that reflects on the ambivalent yet potent conditions and character of collective power. In the latter we were inspired by work like Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat (1977) and Göran Olsson’s Concerning Violence (2014).
Rail: The film’s title seems straightforward. Maribor is the second-largest city in Slovenia, but I want to ask about the second part: What’s an uprising? How is it different from a demonstration, a riot, a revolt?
Razsa: In naming the film, The Maribor Uprisings, we’re following the local naming of these events as uprisings (vstaje). The uprisings form a numbered series, actually, with the film centering on the third and largest of the uprisings, which brought nearly one in four residents of the city onto the street.
But you open a whole set of important questions—questions of what we recognize as properly political, questions raised with renewed urgency by each new iteration of what have been called global uprisings (such as those events tied together by the video series at globaluprisings.org), but also perennial questions, seen in the struggles over the naming of historic events like the L.A. Riots versus L.A. Uprising (twenty-five years ago this year), or the Detroit Riots versus the Detroit Uprising (fifty years ago this year).
In common sense understandings, these terms gloss the difference between apolitical, undirected, and inarticulate rage as opposed to political, coordinated, and articulate collective action, so it’s not surprising that people have often insisted on calling their struggles “uprisings.” Of course, there are also efforts to recuperate the political character of riots and their historic importance. Riots are responses to specific relations of force at given historical moments—including increasingly our own, as described by Joshua Clover in Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016).
In The Maribor Uprisings, which I wrote with Slovene political theorist and radical activist Andrej Kurnik, we raise these issues obliquely, in the form of provocative questions more than theoretical arguments. We chose to expose and reflect upon the fraught, and all-too-common divide in uprisings between good and bad, violent and nonviolent protesters, divisions that all-too-often disguise not only political differences, but also differences of class and race. I think one of the central thrusts of the film is that unruly protest—and the threat of further civil disturbances they carried within it—is an important form of collective power, a power than can be wielded to great effect in uprisings/riots.
Rail: I want to change directions and ask how you became interested in film.
Razsa: I made my first film, Partisan (2001), while doing preliminary research for a Ph.D. project in anthropology at Harvard. It was about the historical memory and public struggles over the antifascist tradition in the former Yugoslavia. But it was my second project that really pulled me into film, and especially radical political documentary. I took a camera into a secretly planned student sit-in of the Harvard President’s office for what became a three-week occupation for living wages for service workers on campus. We used the film Occupation: A Film about the Harvard Living Wage Sit-in (2002), with the support of the Service Employees International Union, to do a national organizing tour, bringing together similar coalitions of workers and students on other campuses around the country for screenings and discussions.
I was a graduate student in anthropology at the time, and the department was the only one in the university that endorsed and openly supported the sit-in. I was also fortunate to be in a cohort of students interested in the ethnographic film tradition and ways of pushing that tradition into new forms of filmmaking and fieldwork. We pressed the department—and were lucky to have some creative and open faculty—toward more media anthropology and we were one of the constituencies calling for the hiring of Lucien Castaing-Taylor. We were then so fortunate to be at Harvard as he and Ernst Karel developed the Sensory Ethnography Lab.
Beyond this one quirky trajectory, I’m committed to bringing film into the practice of anthropology. I’d also have to add, however, that I also see this work as politically engaged research and as a chance to use the resources I have as a professor to create forms of representation that are publicly accessible and that make contributions, in whatever modest way, to the expansion of our political horizons, of our political imaginations.
Rail: After Occupation, you embarked on Bastards of Utopia (2010–2015), which was eventually published in several interlinking forms: a book, a theatrical film, an online interactive documentary. What did building this project as a series of works in different formats allow you to accomplish?
Razsa: After completing Occupation, and in the heady days of the alter-globalization movement, I wasn’t satisfied to work on historic, WWII-era activists. I wanted to do doctoral fieldwork that was embedded in the contemporary struggles of the period, so I sought out activists in Croatia and Slovenia, where I’d been working earlier with anti-nationalist activists. I finally met some of my most important collaborators at the G8 protests in Genoa in 2001.
At the simplest level, I began to work in video with activist collaborators because that was a useful skill I could share during my fieldwork. Editing the feature was a way of making my research available to a wider audience than is usually the case with academic publishing, not least by making it accessible to activist collaborators. In any case, this led to an ethnographic triptych, as you mention, with the feature documentary, the book, and an online archival documentary that includes all the scenes from the documentary, as well as another thirty scenes that were cut from the original film. Throughout the book there are references to scenes in the online documentary. This means the scenes from the interactive version can be viewed alongside the book, allowing readers to actually get to see and hear portions of the fieldwork, and to interpret some of the interactions and events described in the book in their own ways. But thanks to Lucien’s mentorship, I always understood my documentary work to be on equal footing with my written representations, i.e. not as a supplement or a mere illustration of the written ethnography as anthropologists often dismissively see film. Bastards, in both documentary forms, offers an experience of the particularity of the people I worked with, refusing generalization and abstraction. And it offers a sensory and bodily experience of what it was like to be in the field spending time with these remarkable activists over years.
Rail: You actually appear as a character the film.
Razsa: Yes, it was made in collaboration with Pacho Velez, whose presence also allowed us to make a film particularly interesting from an anthropological perspective. He filmed me in many of the scenes, so fieldwork itself is opened to observation. The complexities and ethical dilemmas of this work are on display.
Rail: Aside from Partisan, most of your projects are co-directed. What’s at stake in collaboration for you?
Razsa: I’ve made a couple of films with Pacho, including Occupation and Bastards. The first developed because we both borrowed cameras from the university, without saying where we were going, and took them into the sit-in. He was a student and I was a graduate student and neither of us knew that would balloon into a large project, with a narration by Ben Affleck and a national organizing tour. We worked well together, with complementary skills, so when I headed out to do my fieldwork with anarchist collectives in Zagreb, I invited him to join me there toward the end of my research. He studied Croatian in preparation for the shoot and came to live with some of my collaborators for six months while we shot. Of course, he’s gone on to make some remarkable films, including Manakamana (2013) and The Reagan Show (2017).
Uprisings was co-directed with Milton Guillén, which is a bit of a different story. He was one of my students at Colby College—one of those rare students I trusted enough to send into the field without me, even introducing him to research collaborators in Slovenia. He had already developed strong film skills of his own through independent film projects and the film program at FAMU in Prague. So what started initially as an honors project in anthropology grew, and we began to work together on something more ambitious, which took us a couple of intense years of collaboration to produce! He poured so much of his creativity and effort into this project—and I never could have done this without him. The other major collaborator for The Maribor Uprisings was our editor, Mary Lampson. Personally, it was such an honor to work with her because it was her work that first inspired me to want to make films—and she’s been making radical documentaries for nearly five decades, from Millhouse (1971), Underground (1976), and Harlan County, USA (1976) to This Changes Everything (2015).
But more generally I’m committed to making intellectually and artistically ambitious films that embody the radical political imagination of contemporary social movements. This means they are preposterously labor intensive and will never make money. I need comrades to produce this kind of work and friends to work through the endless challenges, otherwise this would be such lonely work—and I’ve been lucky to work with such wonderful collaborators!