What are you looking at?
A review of The Chicago Conspiracy
“We believe that the most honest position we can take is to reject any notion that a camera presents a detached and passive view of our world.”
Subversive Action Films
In Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, one of the characters, an ex-hippy revolutionary who has dropped out of the struggle and into the Fed’s witness protection program, reminisces about her radical film collective in the ’60s, that naïvely presumed to use the camera as a weapon, turning it upon the ugly face of Authority, as though this ignition of consciousness would be enough to demobilize Power and encourage rebellion.
In their newly released documentary, The Chicago Conspiracy, the folks at Subversive Action Films have set themselves the project of surmounting the resident limitations and illusions of their medium. The Chicago Conspiracy tells of anticapitalist struggles in Chile in the years since the dictatorship, focusing on the students, battling neoliberal educational reforms; the residents of the poblaciones, struggling for the autonomy of their neighborhoods against the exclusions of capitalism and the incursions of police; and the Mapuche, fighting for their land and integrity against the continuing colonialism of the Chilean state and multinational timber corporations. The title of the film refers to the Chilean economists who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and who utilized the brutal Pinochet dictatorship to implement their neoliberal theories on Chilean society.
With a skillful mixture of personal interviews, archival or media footage, and shots of riots, protests, festivals, and other events, the film gives the viewer an emotive and thoughtful impression of these struggles rather than an informational explanation. The filmmakers describe the situation through the contradictory words of students, parents, fugitives, combatants, youth, elders, news anchors, politicans, and economists, presenting a multifaceted range of analysis that includes the progressive, the Marxist, the anarchist, and the neoliberal. It is interesting that in a documentary that from the very beginning attacks the notion of objectivity, a narrator figure would be so minor of a character. The political voice of the film is neither hidden nor explicit. Much of the analysis is conveyed implicitly, through the juxtaposition of these interviews.
For example, the Chilean economists who provoke the film’s name are described only minimally, yet scenes of repression and street fighting are periodically interrupted by shots of a grandfatherly Milton Friedman, sitting in a comfortable room as an orchestra plays, using this civilized setting and a patronizing smile to construct a didactic and simplistic metaphor to justify the heartless mechanics of the Free Market. His arguments are never directly confronted, but they do not need to be; the rest of the film shows how the putatively natural and fair market mechanisms are imposed. The social war does not need to be justified or explained; it is unarguable. Here the filmmakers find an instance when filming is revolutionary, when the camera can illuminate, in the way a burning church illuminates.
Without fetishizing the abandonment of research and reason, we must still somehow dismiss the debates of Authority with the contempt they deserve. Friedman’s facile words of gifted children inheriting talent as property do not need to be debated because the words themselves are not the point; any argument would do. Capitalism expands itself not on the basis of considered reasons but on the basis of internal imperatives. The rest of us are meant to contemplate the discourses Capital’s technicians offer us to give an alibi to what already is, which is the continuous forceful rearrangement of our lives. Thus, not by picking apart his sophomoric syllogism but by showing the police forces that stand behind it, the rage provoked by it, do the filmmakers show that Friedman has a corpse in his mouth.
In The Chicago Conspiracy the filmmakers rarely speak in their own words, but rather in where they choose to look. Their anti-objective subjectivity is conveyed not in arguments but in sympathies. Solidarity spreads, after all, not through agreement but through the communalization of the lived experiences of struggle. One couldn’t agree, simultaneously, with both the student talking about rights and better education, and the anarchist talking about subversion, but one can sympathize with both, sympathize with the struggle, and choose one’s place in it.
Because the filmmakers choose less to inform and more to invoke, or so it seems to me, they evade some of the illusive traps that pervade the medium of film, especially in leftist usages thereof. They recognize that what we need to hold up to power is, to paraphrase Brecht, not a mirror, but a hammer. But is the tool itself adequate?
Some would argue that film itself is inherently spectacular. While I personally could not conceive of being in a riot and choosing to occupy my hands with a camera, I also acknowledge that in calmer moments I love to watch footage of social tempests occurring elsewhere.
It seems that a sort of wordplay has come to be the current interpretation of the spectacle; that any activity which includes the role of spectators is in and of itself spectacular, a manifestation of the spectacle. Before dismissing this hypersensitivity towards ever being a spectator of anything, I want to mention that the filmmakers frequently use narrative interruptions to subvert the narcotic effect of film and repeatedly resituate both themselves and the audience in the act of making and viewing the documentary, so that The Chicago Conspiracy functions as a sort of meeting rather than another displacement. They accomplish this by starting the film with the words “What are you looking at?” and a scene of a clash between a corporate photographer and their own subversive film crew; by calling attention, via interruptions at the beginning of each of the film’s three chapters, to the borders of the medium; by framing shots so that the shadows of the camera person and interviewer often appear on the ground next to the interviewee.
But clever tricks aside, is film inherently spectacular? While I disagree with Debord’s, and all other Marxists’, belief in the totality of their own ideas, and I would argue that the totality is in fact incomplete, I find it worthwhile to come back to the first chapter of Society of the Spectacle: the spectacle is “a means of unification […] the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation […] The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images […] The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies.”
When social conflict reaches a level that is undeniable, it is the function of the media to turn their cameras there, in order to unify the rupture with the common stream of the spectacle. How are these cameras different from the cameras of the activists and combatants? Often, as we have too often seen, they are not. But to argue that the problem lies in the camera itself seems akin to the perplexing argument that the master’s tools cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house, a turn of phrase so sloppy that it does not even make sense in its metaphorical clothes. By bringing weapons to a riot, are anarchists performing the same job as the police, who also bring weapons to riots? Be gone, pacifists, clinging to the cupboards of our mind like cobwebs!
The camera in the hands of a combatant can attack the spectacle if it is a means of separation that achieves a subversive language of unification. What does this mean, if I am not simply playing at opposite day? It means using juxtaposition as detournement, placing the narrative of the spectacle next to the images of its ruptures, its exclusions. It means using their words of social peace to explain our world of social war. In the spectacle, images of rupture are fragmented from their emotional reality and tailored into a unified narrative of senselessness and fear which calls for more order, more of the same thing that lies behind the rupture.
Attacking the spectacle with images means exposing social relations as they exist and moving towards social relations of solidarity and mutual aid, towards communalization. This documentary clearly comes out of relationships of solidarity developed between anarchists and filmmakers in Chile and the US, and audibly calls on the viewer to sympathize with those in struggle in Chile and to include them in our community of insurrection. It is a first step towards widening our struggle by becoming aware of other manifestations of that struggle. Awareness and sympathy—consciousness and emotional ties—are prerequisites for solidarity.
The film itself accomplishes nothing unless those who view it get up from their seats afterwards and build those relationships of solidarity. Whereas the spectacle is “the result and the project of the dominant mode of production,” a radical documentary is not a completed object but an invitation, whose project lies outside of itself, in the streets to which it beckons us. The effect of a film, the question of whether we are locked in permanent contemplation, it turns out, will be decided by us. The Chicago Conspiracy is well made not only as a film but also as a framing of exactly this choice. It seems most fitting that in the end we turn our critique not on the film, but on what we do with it.
Websites with information and anarchist news from Chile (learn Spanish, US anarchists!)