The Cost of Thinking: Open City Documentary Festival 2024

by Arta Barzanji

Having missed the festival’s opening film, the first event I attended was one not dedicated to films per se, but to publications about them. “Printed Forms: Publishing and Experimental Moving Image” brought together several independent publishers, including Another Gaze, DOWSER, Éditions Atlas, Em—Dash, FIELDNOTE, and Sabzian, in a conversation moderated by the editor of Open City Texts, Huda Awan. Appropriately for a dialogue on cinema dealing with “independence,” money was a recurrent theme, with the speakers reflecting on their respective funding avenues: institutional (universities), state (arts councils), and subscriptions (paying customers). The struggle is twofold and somewhat contradictory: seeking to maintain independence over the contents of the publication while not slashing readership by becoming wholly dependent on paywalls. DOWSER’s Marcus Jack described his approach as “Robin Hooding institutional money,” allowing him to leverage his position as a university lecturer to pay writers and maintain relative independence in published materials. Jack also extended the conversation about funding from publications to films discussed within these publications. On a welcome and rare materialist note, he spoke of how the varying material infrastructures, funding schemes, workshops, educational opportunities, and other resources available in one context (his specific example was London-based experimental films) result in certain kinds of films and cinematic traditions quite different from those produced in other material conditions (in this case, experimental works from other parts of the UK, especially Scotland). 

Another theme was commissioning. As an editor, thinking through a piece with a specific writer can allow for more control and a clearer direction over a collection of texts that will complement one another. But commissioning has its own risks, too. As one panelist noted, if the resulting piece doesn’t work out as well as you’d imagined, you’re bound to feel that much more responsible, and it wouldn’t always be easy to walk back from the piece or re-commission, especially for independent publications operating on a very limited budget. Abiba Coulibaly of Éditions Atlas and Brixton Community Cinema identified a different risk related to the specifics of selecting writers: who gets to write about what? Do commissions need to prioritize correspondence between the background/identity of the writer and the subject matter (arguably the dominant approach to writing about arts/culture at the moment)?  In considering such questions, Coulibaly pointed out that she’s become more aware of her own biases in commissioning pieces. Continuing this line of thought, I would add the following questions: Are there non-identity considerations to be taken into account? Would the identity-based approach not result in a limited procedure that mechanically matches the identities of objects and writers? And could this not, in fact, overlook much consideration of the content of a writer’s weaknesses and strengths? Would this automatic boxing of certain writers into limited categories that correspond to their identities not exclude them from what doesn’t fall within that?

Palestinian Women (Saab, 1973)


Creating archives is the political act of making history: what to include, how to frame what’s to be included, etc. The destruction and looting of archives, then, is an attempt at destroying the possibility of nationhood, of peoplehood. That is, erasing continuity: making a chain of culture that defines a history and a people disappear. In this sense, it’s also a tool of dehumanization. Seven different archives of Palestinian cinema “disappeared” in 1982, with no one ever admitting to having looted them. While the archives at home were stolen, prints of most of the films within them existed, scattered around the world, since their makers had the habit of creating multiple copies of each film and sending them abroad for screenings. Over the past decades, figures such as Khadijeh Habashneh (coordinator of the Old Palestinian Films Preservation Project and author of the book Knights of Cinema: The Story of the Palestine Film Unit) have succeeded in reassembling an estimated 80 percent of these archives, in a feat of active cultural resistance to the erasure of Palestinian history. The screening of films in the program Of the People, For the People: Militant Palestinian Cinema (1968-1982) was made possible precisely due to these efforts at recreating the archives, a theme that also ran through the films of the New Militants program as a connecting tissue, with most of them emphasizing their preoccupation not just with history but also archives through their use of footage from the militant films of the old. 

Formed in 1968, the Palestinian Film Unit’s attitude to filmmaking parallels Latin American Third Cinema traditions of an “imperfect cinema.” The members of the PFU didn’t view films as finished products but as living, evolving objects, subject to change through the course of screenings and discussions. These filmmakers weren’t ‘artists’ in the common (bourgeois) sense of the word but militants. For them, art and life, observation and intervention, were not separate but inherently interlinked. The measure of militancy is not using radical phraseology from behind a desk but an active engagement in both theory and practice. For Marx, “Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” (“Theses On Feuerbach”). As such, militant films are not ones that simply adopt an irreverent or critical attitude but actively propel their audience to debate, think, and act while taking part in that ensuing activity and being changed by it. Marx again: “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” That is, in changing the material circumstances around them, humans also change themselves. In the case of PFU’s films, in affecting and changing their audiences’ ideas about the world, the films are also changed by the new conclusions reached by this audience. 

This “self-change” was also the subject of some of the films, including Jocelyne Saab’s Palestinian Women (1973). The titular women come from various backgrounds: university students, young militants, old villagers, and kindergarten teachers, depicted in military training and talking head interviews, armed with rifles and books by Lenin alike. This is the dialectic of revolution: it creates new types of human beings, new subjectivities, who are themselves changed through their struggle to create a new objectivity. 

They Do Not Exit (Abu Ali, 1974)

While films like They Do Not Exit (1974) and Scenes of the Occupation of Gaza (1973) present more familiar examples, The Visit (1970) demonstrated that what defined this tradition was not a strictly unified cinematic language; rather, a medley of expressions existed side by side. Expressionistic, high-contrast cinematography and sound design create a Kafkaesque expanse within which we find the nameless protagonist of The Visit, whom soldiers stop at a traffic check. He stands for a people with no autonomy over their lives: “If I’m not home, it’s not my fault; they’ve stopped me.” In a manner reminiscent of Maya Deren’s films, The Visit moves between actual and abstract spaces, further adding to the man’s nightmarish escape attempt as he runs away from the soldiers. One sentence from the film sums up the program’s spirit: “We do not flicker briefly; we burn perpetually like pagan fires.” 

A debate that took place following the New Militants program: what is militant cinema today? What are images and sounds contributing to the radicalizing of people with regard to Palestine? Cinema doesn’t drive us to action anymore, and images that do propel us to action are not cinema. We are faced with a contradiction: if it’s militant, it’s not really cinema, and if it’s cinema, it’s not genuinely militant. Is this just a result of technological advances that have made militant cinema redundant, as accessible phone cameras have replaced cinema apparatus that requires certain know-how? Has the internet supplanted the need for a cinematic distribution model and in-person discussions? But this proliferation of images has also led to a distrust of images. As such, the new films in the program were more concerned with how images are presented, simultaneously displaying and questioning them. These images and sounds, captured widely and distributed openly by many, provide the facts and reveal the events, thus pushing cinema more towards interpretation and commentary.

On the other hand, national cinemas as such have become almost nonexistent, as funding from the state has dried up worldwide compared to a few decades ago. With the changes in funding structures, the types of films made also change, as do the traditions of filmmaking that develop, and thus, the types of filmmakers we see. Further, middle-class artists may be convinced to join revolutionary causes in practice in times of heightened struggle if revolutionary ideas prevail in word and deed alike. Given the present state of the world, it’s not out of the question that a new tradition of militant cinema could emerge in the foreseeable future. 

Scenes from the Occupation of Gaza (Abu Ali, 1973)

The World Viewed:

A young man is released from prison. An older woman is making a film about Vietnam. Two hippies chat about moving to Detroit with the purpose of radicalizing their majority black colleagues. A blind potter gives the ex-prisoner a place to stay. A couple debate whether their child should be raised within a commune. These are a few of the situations and characters inhabiting the world of Milestones (1975), a film that lives by a distinct cinematic ethos. There is no central character but a web of loosely connected individuals who drift in and out of the film; no clear-cut storyline but a succession of events with small, often undramatic stories within them; no clearly defined relationships but unfolding dynamics; no singular theme but a series of political, social, familial, historical, and moral topics that flow around throughout the film, becoming organically (hence messily) entangled. 

But the candidness with which Milestones communicates should not be mistaken for sloppiness. A perfectly timed cut to a close-up during a conversation breaks the continuity of the film’s usually long observational takes. It both belies the appearance of spontaneity (since the single-camera production would’ve had to recreate the gesture carefully to achieve the match on action in editing) while bolstering the intimacy of reactions and relations. Scenes feel simultaneously too immaculate not to have been rehearsed and too spontaneous to have been fully choreographed. The intimacy of the technique bleeds into the sincerity of the narrative, while the organic quality of the on-screen relations imbues the style with an effortless immediacy. The balance of artifice and reality is enviable. One feels a similar communal vitality visible on the screen also existed behind the camera, in the making of the film. A baby is born (into the world),  prisoners are released (back into the world), a man is released (from the world through death), children get adjusted, and ex-prisoners are re-adjusted (to the world). At its core, Milestones is concerned with the various relationships we form and reform with society and the world: accepting/rejecting, seeing/not seeing, believing in/changing it, etc. The extended birth scene is a fitting way to end the film: the intense pain, the herculean endeavor, the communal gathering, and the miraculous sight of a little human emerging from another all make up the messiness of life: giving it, receiving it, and observing it. The birthing mom’s own mother misses this moment, for she is giving birth to her film.

Arta Barzanji is a London-based Iranian filmmaker, critic, and lecturer. He has written for publications including MUBI Notebook, photogėnie and Documentary Magazine. His current film project is the documentary Unfinished: Kamran Shirdel

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