The resistance politics of art through an honest lens

A meditation on radical forms of filmmaking and its provocative doctrines

Kareem Abuali, Opinion Editor

In my first year at McGill, I took ENGL 279, an intro to Film History course. We started with what is widely recognized as the first film in history, Man Riding Jumping Horse, explored slapstick comedies by Buster Keaton, and traversed the advent of sound in motion pictures until arriving at post-war Italy’s neorealist movement in the 1940s. This is when I was first introduced to the wonders of neorealist cinema—initially a conscious move away from Hollywood filmmaking and towards a distrust of government and large institutions. The form is characterized by the use of non-actors, on-location shooting, heavy dialogue, and ultra-realistic depictions of everyday situations. The movement brought the medium of film into the hands of everyday people, providing a domain to portray the struggles of the working class and placing a critical lens on the role of the ‘actors’ and filmmakers. This introduction to the movement would later open the door for me, as an amateur filmmaker, to discover different forms of self-reflexive media that completely redefine the conventional roles of the camera, cast, and audience.

With my past projects, I had always felt like I was striving toward a message that was somewhat inauthentic and contrived. As I’ve started to take filmmaking more seriously, I’ve realized that my politics would always be inextricable from any story I hoped to tell. Exploring the techniques of self-referential and neorealist media has made me realize the extent to which radical and anti-oppressive doctrines can bear on a film project.

Later in the film history class, we visited the Iranian New Wave, a movement influenced in part by Italian neorealism and pioneered in the years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Filmmaking in Iran, fettered by heavy state censorship post-revolution, required creative mediums to critique the government, often resulting in self-reflexivity, if not total political transgression. Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker barred from making films in 2010 and placed under house arrest for making “anti-system” propaganda without a permit, documents his life under confinement in This Is Not A Film. He films illegally on his iPhone, forbidden by the government to even speak the words “action” or “cut.” Upon completion, the film was smuggled on a USB stick hidden inside a cake sent to France, where it was screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Panahi’s story exemplifies the perpetual risk of exile for filmmakers in Iran. Under the Islamic regime, where the political ramifications of consuming and producing anti-government content can be life-threatening, the producers and audiences of films are hyper-aware of the fact that they are watching films. The real threat of violence makes it ever more necessary for Iranian filmmakers to probe the intention behind their films. What makes a film worth risking a prison sentence? This underlying question shapes self-reflexive media and its provocative techniques at large.

Reenactment, one remarkable filmmaking tool of the neorealist tradition, requires real people to recreate scenes from their lives. The technique can help its participants process trauma, explore radical degrees of honesty, and challenge institutional oppression. It levels the playing field of everyone involved in filmmaking and its consumption, giving its subjects and audience greater agency over each narrative and its real-life implications.

Despite the space that reenactment gives people to process their trauma and challenge higher powers, the ethics of this technique are highly debated.

In Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, for instance, Fielder guides real-life people as they rehearse elaborate re-creations of their regular lives to prepare for stressful moments in the future. In one episode, Fielder helps a man, Patrick, prepare to confront his brother about the will of their late grandfather. He and Fielder exhaustively rehearse every possible scenario of the conversation for days. After Patrick erupts into tears during one rehearsal, embracing the paid actor playing his brother and wishing they could leave the matter behind them, he leaves the set and never returns. In another episode, where Fielder creates an orchestrated simulation of a family, he hires a child actor to play his son. Without a real-life father figure, the child becomes attached to Fielder and starts calling him “daddy” outside the simulation.

Jonathan Liu, U3 Arts and creator of McGill’s Facebook film group, sees the blurring of boundaries between real and fake as a productive method for managing personal hardships.

“When you consider The Rehearsal, you might want to consider what’s real and what’s fictional, or whether or not this question still matters,” Liu said. “In a way, the person who immerses himself in a constructed rehearsal of trauma is experiencing a fake reality. But it is precisely such fake reality that facilitates his reconciliation with his reality.”

Ned Schantz, a professor of cultural studies and cinema at McGill, notes that as projects like The Rehearsal progress, they develop an intimate relationship with failure.

“So what seems to happen is that the projects keep evolving,” Schantz said. “Because you can't get what you thought you wanted, so you change what you want a little bit, and that changes the project. And then that fails. So there's something about reenactment as a mechanism of spiralling failure that is worth looking into.”

Schantz reminded me that with reenactment, it’s not uncommon for deceit, exploitation, and manipulation to coil around each other in dynamic patterns.

“There’s always a question of: When could something tip over into exploitation? When could [the director] essentially be stealing their meaning and conscripting it for his own ends?” Schantz reminded me.

film reel No show exemplifies this ethical tension better than The Show About the Show by Caveh Zahedi. Zahedi, an independent filmmaker and professor of screen studies at The New School in New York City, is the mastermind behind the first and only show about its own making. The first episode outlines how he came up with the idea for the show, and how he pitched it to a Brooklyn cable network. Each subsequent episode is about the making of the previous episode, featuring reenactments of events behind the scenes. If his wife is upset that he’s divulging too much in the show, he’ll ask her to reenact their argument with him so that he can include it in the following episode. Throughout his career, Zahedi has employed radical honesty He expresses exactly how he feels about everything, even if it makes others angry or upset. Zahedi gives his complete and unsuspecting trust in the story, expecting it to write itself.

“The word on the street about my work, is that it like, ruined my life, destroyed my marriage,” Zahedi told me one morning on FaceTime. “You know, some kind of like, I don't know, Kamikaze? And my work has definitely created fault lines that have pushed things in a certain direction. But I think those things would have happened anyway. And it just sort of sped up a process. I mean, the thing about honesty is it speeds up the process of growth, right?”

Albeit sometimes self-destructive, Zahedi’s philosophy is certainly freeing. Stylistically, we often see the director working on the project, silently puppeteering and engaging with the actors and subjects. For Fielder and Zahedi, they’re confronted about their intentions. Understandably so: Why would they subject people to uncomfortable, seemingly gratuitous, and even personally traumatic situations? To what degree is this kind of filming exploitative? Some friends of mine that I’ve shown Fielder or Zahedi’s work are appalled, ethically stumped, but mostly uncomfortable. The self-righteous neorealist in me begs to challenge them by asking how they’d react differently if what they’d seen was entirely fictitious. These directors decided to include their confrontations in the final product. They are honest about the problems that arise. Fielder breaks down, and Zahedi files for divorce. But they never try to absolve themselves from wrongdoing, and they never shy away from moral condemnation.

Most of the films I’ve seen that offer social and political commentary tend to replicate, within their own production, the same systems of oppression and exploitation that they critique. I feel a deep disappointment when monolithic Hollywood production houses spoon-feed us anti-capitalism on their own terms. And the worst part is, people buy it. Take Don’t Look Up, whose A-list cast gets to critique climate inaction on screen and then cruise the world by private jet, or Nomadland, Hollywood’s attempt at realism, which enlisted a well-endowed award-winning actor to try her hand at acting ‘poor.’ Many self-reflexive works, however, are challenging the bureaucratic structures and dehumanizing institutions that dominate our lives. I see them as authentic, politically revolutionary responses against grave social injustices and frameworks of oppression.

In my second semester at McGill, I enrolled in ENGL 382, International Cinema 1: Arab Cinema at 3475 Peel. Each Friday at noon, we would watch a film. One of these films—a 2015 Egyptian experimental documentary entitled Out on the Street—stuck with me. Filmmakers Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk deploy reenactment and enactment to expose the exploitation faced by nine factory workers in the context of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, the uprising against Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. These men begin by constructing their set, painting white outlines marking the factory’s different rooms and offices on the floor of an abandoned building. They then proceed to reenact lived interactions with corrupt police officers who harass and detain them, as well as factory superiors who constantly threaten to fire them. The workers function as writers, directors, and characters, drawing upon collective and individual experiences of their exploitation at the hands of both the public and private sector.

“On one hand, it gave the actors more agency,” Rizk told me in an interview. “They weren’t following a script but were writing the script as they were speaking.”

Techniques of enactment venture to democratize filmmaking by accurately representing its subjects, holding the audience accountable, and reducing the camera to a passive observer—refuting the sensationalist lens Western media imposes on narratives of Egyptian resistance and Arab struggles more generally.

mirror I recently watched Gost Hunting, a Palestinian film by Raed Andoni. To me, the film revealed the potential of reenactment to offer methods of processing trauma, both collective and individual, and resistance against oppression. Andoni starts by asking a group of Palestinian men to rebuild the interiors of the Al-Moskobiya, the infamous Israeli prison in occupied Jerusalem used to incarcerate and abuse Palestinians. From memory and by hand, the men reconstruct the interrogation rooms and extremely small solitary cells where they were once incarcerated. As the prison begins to take form, the former inmates call upon fragmented—in some cases, repressed and guilt-ridden—memories of the humiliating torture the Israeli occupation forces subjected them to.

One participant, incarcerated at the same time as his brother, who committed suicide in his cell, breaks down as he recollects his memories from the prison. Another describes how, handcuffed and with a bag over his head, he hallucinated his mother uncovering his head and feeding him water. Together, the men reflect, comfort each other, and reenact their experiences to better process their trauma. Since 1967, the Zionist regime has detained over 700,000 Palestinians, and Palestinian men, women, and children are still regularly incarcerated in Maskobiya and elsewhere.

Both Ghost Hunting and Out on the Street depict a collective experience of processing severe mistreatment—the resistant and confrontational purpose they serve requires the films to transcend the traditional hierarchy of director and directed subjects. Andoni has made it clear that the men in Ghost Hunting are not actors, but protagonists who are in charge of what they decide to portray. Despite intense, emotional interactions with the past, both films are forward-facing and look to envision the future. Ghost Hunting ends with a celebration of the upcoming marriage of one of the men, while the workers from Out on the Street imagine a future where they take ownership of the factory and run it as a cooperative.

“[Enactment] opens the power of the imaginary because you’re not engaging with a past event and so you’re not restricted by how events occurred,” Rizk explained. “[It] instead opens up a large number of possibilities and scenarios that are not tied to the political deadlock of the moment when we were shooting Out on the Street.”

These films taught me the potential that radical filmmaking has to renegotiate conventional power dynamics. The potential to be revolutionary in nature.

McGill is an institution that holds its own boardrooms of concentrated power and heavy-handed indifference. We have lost multiple leaders fighting for a more just campus. Dr. Greg Mikkelson resigned in 2020 due to the university’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels, and Dr. Charmaine Nelson in the same year, due to its failure to redress how slavery structured James McGill’s rise to power and their lack of commitment to Black and Indigenous faculty and Black Canadian Studies. This past May, SSMU slashed the democratically passed Palestine Solidarity Policy. It’s easy to see how its countless failures to recognize student demands demoralizes the student body. It’s even easier to feel as a student that you’re fighting with brutalist buildings, documents, and statues, all of which are absurd, arbitrary, and remarkably unresponsive to real-life human needs. I don’t doubt that any of the filmmakers I spoke with would think of what a challenging and fascinating exercise it would be to overcome and harness this absurdity.

Earlier this year, I saw someone freak out when their laptop got stolen after he left it unattended on the fifth floor of McLennan. I found the building deserving of a bureaucratic-nightmare story and wrote a short screenplay about a student whose laptop gets stolen at the library. I imagined how this student might spend the next hour lamenting to the library staff at the front desk. I then imagined that he might spend the following hour arguing with the head of security because they told him they weren’t responsible for it, that he hadn’t read the signs saying not to leave his property unattended. He might ask to view the security footage, and they might say they aren’t authorized to review it until an investigation is opened.

He might give up, wait it out, or use the desktops on the McLennan main floor to search in the “Low to High” price range of Best Buy’s laptop listings. He might not, though, and instead swim upriver, thrusting against the currents of statements from aloof employees like “there’s nothing I can do” and “this office might be able to help you.” Ultimately, the emails he sends might get lost in the void, and the people he chooses to confront at their offices might be on their lunch breaks. Such a sequence might seem hardly worth capturing. But envision this real person, boxed within the soulless, artificially lit, lime-green painted walls of the back offices of McLennan main, beaming with tremendous frustration and bitterness.

Illustrations by Mika Drygas, Design Editor