What’s Left? A Century in Revolution
Sunday, 21 January 2018 10:35

What’s Left? A Century in Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

What’s Left? A Century in Revolution

By Andy Byford, Anoush Ehteshami, Abir Hamdar, Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián & Dušan Radunović

Between 29 September and 8 October 2017, Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle and Durham University staged a special programme of screenings and talks to mark the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution. The programme explored major revolutionary events of the 20th and 21st centuries to tease out some of the meanings of revolution today. By examining cinematic engagements with, and reflections on, revolutions across the former Soviet space, Latin America, China, the Middle East, North Africa and, finally, Europe, the ambition was to highlight both the global interconnectedness and the local specificity of the revolution as a phenomenon.

2. Tyneside

Tyneside Cinema, where the events took place, is one of the UK’s leading independent film and media venues. This year it celebrates its 80th anniversary, having started its life in 1937 as Newcastle’s News Theatre. Housed in a spectacular Grade II listed building in the heart of the city, the cinema is famous as a screen heritage attraction and represents the main regional venue for screening special programmes of world cinema and media arts, both classic and avant-garde.

3. Team

The What’s Left? programme was co-curated in partnership with Tyneside Cinema by a team of scholars based at Durham University’s Schools of Modern Languages and Cultures (MLAC) and Government and International Affairs (SGIA). From left to right: Dušan Radunović, Abir Hamdar, Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián, Anoush Ehteshami and Andy Byford.

The team are part of an interdisciplinary programme of research that explores the dynamics of political, social and cultural interaction across communities which share a single language, but are dispersed across multiple states and cultures. They have particular interest in Russian-, Arabic-, Spanish- and Chinese-speaking transnational communities. Their project is funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of its Open World Research Initiative (OWRI). The main goal of this initiative is to demonstrate the strategic need that the UK has for the systematic study and knowledge of languages and language-based cultures in global perspective.

October: A World Shaken

4. October

Oktiabr’. Desiat’ dnei kotorye potriasli mir. Dir. Sergei Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov. USSR, 1928.

The programme opened with a special 35mm screening of Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s silent classic October (1928). The film was shot and edited during 1927-28 for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Its premiere coincided with major political changes in the Soviet Union – the beginning of Stalinisation, including the revision of the legacies of 1917. In that context, the auteurism of Eisenstein’s masterpiece and its exalted vision of revolutionary revolt resulted in a mixed reception and led to the film being discreetly shelved in 1933.

5. Snijders

The musical accompaniment for the screening was created specially for this event and performed by John Snijders of Durham University’s Music Department. The score was made up of early 20th-century Russian avant-garde pieces for the piano by well-known as well as now largely forgotten composers, including: Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962), Alexander Mossolov (1900-1973), Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950), Nikolai Obukhov (1892-1954), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Sergei Protopopov (1893-1954), Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Memories of Underdevelopment: Beyond Remembering

While the occasion for producing the programme was the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the curators’ goal was to go beyond commemoration and to pursue a non-nostalgic, critically reflective approach to the contemporary significance of revolution. This entailed, crucially, an interrogation of the relationship between the revolutionary past, present and future – a question that the programme began to explore first in the case of Cuba. The programme featured the UK premiere of the recently remastered version of the classic of Latin American and Caribbean cinema, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). Through its exploration, at the height of the Cold War, of the contradictions and aspirations of the Cuban Revolution, the film challenges us to consider how in revolutions tensions between perceived underdevelopment, colonial interdependence, individual freedoms and political compromise continue to shape the uncertainties of our contemporary world.

6. Memorias

Memorias del subdesarrollo. Dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Cuba, 1968. The screening of the film was followed by a lively discussion with the audience, chaired by Durham University’s Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián. The guest speakers were Michael Chanan, documentary filmmaker and influential historian of Cuban cinema, and two leading Caribbeanists from Newcastle University, Dunja Fehimović and Jorge Catalá Carrasco.

Esto es lo que hay: Take It or Leave It!

To address the critical question ‘How are Cubans today living and leaving the historical project of the Cuban Revolution?’ the curators invited the French documentary filmmaker Léa Rinaldi to showcase her 2015 documentary Esto es le que hay, which focuses on the censorship of and political controversy surrounding Los Aldeanos – one of the most prominent Cuban rap bands, famous for their active engagement with sensitive issues affecting contemporary Cuban society.

7. Esto

Esto es lo que hay, chronique d’une poésie cubaine. Dir. Léa Rinaldi. France, 2015. After the screening, the film’s director, Léa Rinaldi, was interviewed via Skype by Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián and the Cuban culture critic and activist Parvathi Kumaraswami (University of Reading). Rinaldi discussed with the audience her interest in the new generation of Cuban cultural and social actors who are today consciously reshaping the present-future dimensions of the Cuban revolution. The discussion brought to the fore the intensity, uncertainty, and pain of political participation and censorship, masculinity and exile, not only in the Cuban or Caribbean contexts, but also globally.

Once Upon a Time Proletarian: In History’s Limbo

Revolutions change the course of history, but they ultimately acquire meaning in and through the lives of ordinary people caught up in them. By looking at the legacies of the Chinese communist revolution, the programme examined the intimate interlocking of personal and historical time in the documentary Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) by UK-based Chinese filmmaker and novelist Xiaolu Guo. The film is composed of ad hoc interviews with representatives of China’s contemporary ‘proletariat’ as they try to make sense of their place in a rapidly changing social, political and economic landscape. Guo subtly interweaves fragments of her protagonists’ reflections on the meaning of their lives with poetic – roughly shot, but carefully edited – visual sequences, to produce an understated but powerful image of a ‘prison house’. ‘The prison’ serves here as a metaphor not for China itself, but for the limbo of historical time in which present-day Chinese ‘proletarians’ seem to be caught up – an uncertain place between a past figured by narrations of revolution and an undefined future that has no shape other than the immensely attractive, but still largely symbolic, image of the child.

 8. Once Upon

Women ceng jing de wuchanzhe. Dir. Xiaolu Guo. China & UK, 2009. The film was followed by a discussion with the audience, chaired by Andy Byford (Durham University), in which sociologist Sophia Woodman (Edinburgh University) placed the subject in the framework of social change in contemporary China, while film studies scholar Sabrina Yu (Newcastle University) situated the film in the context of Chinese independent documentary filmmaking.

Videograms of a Revolution: The TV Is with Us!

In contrast to both Cuba and China, whose socialist regimes, forged in revolution, persist to this day (albeit in significantly reshaped forms), Eastern Europe experienced, between 1989 and 1991, a revolutionary overturn of socialism itself. The What’s Left? programme featured Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992) – a documentary that focuses on the five days in December 1989 which brought down the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. As demonstrators occupied the state television station in Bucharest and broadcast continuously for 120 hours, television became an instrument of revolution, while the television studio was turned into a site in which history was made.

9. Videograms

Videogramme einer Revolution. Dir. Harun Farocki & Andrei Ujică. Germany & Romania, 1992.

The Event: Do Not Let Them Deceive You!

The immediacy and visual potency of television does not mean, however, that the revolutionary downfall of communist rule in the countries of the Eastern bloc, including the USSR itself, was necessarily rooted in transparency. A quarter of a century on, documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa is still trying to piece together what lay behind the supposed ‘birth of democracy’ in Russia in 1991. In August of that year, a failed coup d’état was staged in Moscow by a group of Communist Party hardliners who sought to thwart the political and economic reforms of the Soviet Union instigated by Mikhail Gorbachev. What became known as The Putsch was overturned in part thanks to thousands of liberal-minded citizens of Moscow and Leningrad who came out onto the streets in protest. In his documentary The Event (2015), Loznitsa revisits extant documentary footage of the 1991 public demonstrations kept in the Leningrad archives and casts his own interpretation of these world-changing political events.

10. Event

Sobytie. Dir. Sergei Loznitsa. Netherlands & Belgium, 2015. The screening was followed by a Skype interview with the director and discussion with the audience, chaired by Dušan Radunović. Loznitsa spoke about the background to the making of this film (which he dubbed a ‘found-footage’ documentary) and about his interest in Russia’s short-lived experience of political liberalism. He placed the events of 1991 in the wider context of Russian history, which, in his view, is shaped by cyclical returns of totalitarian models. One of these models, he argued, is ‘revolution’ itself.

Krisis: The Return of the Repressed

Krisis (2016), by artist Dmitry Venkov, is a theatrical re-enactment of a Facebook discussion between Russian and Ukrainian artists after the toppling of Lenin’s statue in Kiev during the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14. It shows that the revolutionary symbols of the Soviet era are still alive in post-Soviet societies – societies that are still, over a quarter of a century since the dissolution of the USSR, as deeply connected as they are divided by history, politics, and aesthetics.

11. Krisis

Krisis. Dir. Dmitri Venkov. Russia, 2016. After the screening, Dušan Radunović chaired live Q&As with the author. Venkov discussed both some of the formal aspects of his filmmaking (such as what happens when one turns a Facebook exchange into a scenario) and the major ideological issues that his film raises. The discussion revolved especially around the symbolic meanings of monuments and how political ideas morph over time and start to mean something else – key questions that the What’s Left? programme sought to bring to the fore around the topic of ‘revolution’. Members of the audience drew important parallels with related issues in very different cultural and political settings, including, for instance, contemporary Italy.

Pussy vs Putin: Weaponising Gender

As should be clear in the example of Pussy vs. Putin (2013) – an eyewitness chronicle of Russia’s anarchic feminist rock performance group, Pussy Riot, before and after the 2013 arrest and imprisonment of three of their members – Russia remains fertile ground for revolutionary, anti-authoritarian activism. It is a place, moreover, where a new aesthetic of political radicalism is being developed – one in which gender is, it would seem, deployed as a particularly powerful weapon.

12. Pussy vs Putin

Pussy protiv Putina. Dir. Gogol’s Wives. Russia, 2013.

What Is to Be Done? The Summer School

A related form of cultural-political activism in Russia was showcased through the brand-new art film of the Russian avant-garde collective Chto Delat? (What Is to Be Done?). Titled New Dead End #17: Summer School of Orientation in Zapatism, the film was co-commissioned by Tyneside Cinema and premiered in Newcastle as part of the What’s Left? programme. Inspired by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a leftist political and militant group based in southern Mexico, the film explores the idea of the so-called ‘Zapatista Embassy’ – ‘horizontal meetings’ designed to encourage others to walk with the Zapatista and deliver their message. The film documents the goings on at a ‘summer school’ in a village outside St Petersburg, where participants engage in self-reflection and improvised experimental performances as part of a tongue-in-cheek ‘Zapatista Embassy’ transposed to Putin’s Russia one hundred years after the October Revolution.

13. Chto delat

New Dead End #17: Summer School of Orientation in Zapatism. Dir. Chto Delat? Russia, 2017. Chto Delat? is an art collective, founded in St Petersburg in 2003, whose work merges experimental and performative art with political activism. The group’s name derives from the 1860s’ novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky and brings to mind some of Russia’s earliest revolutionaries. The same title was borrowed by Lenin for his 1902 pamphlet in which he argued for the formation of a revolutionary vanguard, which not long after materialised as the Bolshevik Party.

The Uprising: Narrating Pan-Arab Mobilisation

The most visible and prolifically documented revolutions of the present moment are, no-doubt, the uprisings that spread across the Arab world in 2011 and whose aftermaths still haunt the region in the shape of a succession of ferocious civil wars, with Syria at the forefront. The What’s Left? programme’s look at the 21st-century Arab revolutions provided an opportunity to reflect on how mobilisation for change has been framed around the idea of the ‘Arab Spring’. In the 20th century, notions of pan-Arabism, Arabness as a singular form of identity, and a struggle for Arab unity under the banner of such pan-Arabist leaders as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, provided the context for the emergence of the Arab state. In his docufilm The Uprising, Peter Snowdon imagines a new – 21st-century, ‘post-modern’, bottom up, technologically mediated – form of pan-Arabism in action. He forges a narrative in which ‘the Arab people’, from the rural corners of Tunisia to cosmopolitan Cairo, rise up and set off on the march for justice, freedom and dignity.

 14. Uprising

The Uprising. Dir. Peter Snowdon. UK, Belgium, Yemen, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Egypt & Bahrain, 2013. The lively panel discussion that followed the screening (chaired by Anoush Ehteshami and featuring the film’s director Peter Snowdon and Durham University’s Middle East expert Emma Murphy) focused on the role of technology, or rather ‘digital action’, in mass mobilisations in the region, on the importance of youth as a social category in political mobilisation, and, finally, on what the consequences are of viewing distinct uprisings through the lens of a single ‘camera’ – that is to say, a single narrative.

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait: What Does It Mean?

15. Silvered Water

Ma'a al-Fidda. Dir. Wiam Bedirxan & Ossama Mohammed. France, Syria, USA & Lebanon, 2014. A collaboration between exiled Syrian filmmaker and young Syrian-Kurdish schoolteacher, the film is composed of footage from thousands of authentic videos sent through directly to the authors by those caught up in the war. The result is a harrowing on-the-ground documentary chronicle of the ordeal undergone by Syrians today. The screening of the film was a charged event on all levels – both cinematically and emotionally – as the audience included a group of around thirty Syrian refugees resettled in Durham County, who shared their experiences of the war and the impact of the film on them.

What does it mean to screen a film on the horrors of the Syrian revolution and the ensuing civil war while having the very people who took part in it there, watching their homes and their streets destroyed on screen, and their family, friends and compatriots undergo suffering and death? What meanings did these people assign to the struggle and pain that was shown, and how did they relate it to their own narratives of their own hardship and loss? As everyone present mediated between languages, cultures and contexts, the panel chair, Abir Hamdar, and invited panellists –  Syrian writer Robin-Yassin Kassab, activist Leila al-Shami, journalist and novelist Malu Halasa, and Head of the Middle East section at Chatham House Lina Khatib – addressed the multiple issues at stake, both in the film and in Syria itself. Malu Halasa spoke for all those present when he later wrote in an email: ‘I'll always remember last night. The refugee women were so special and amazing. I've not met a group like that before. I woke up this morning thinking I don't know if I can watch Silvered Water again, but then I thought it is my duty to watch it.’

The Trials of Spring: Revolution is a Woman

Revolution – al-Thawra – has feminine connotations in Arabic and Arab women have always been at the forefront of revolutions in the region. Egypt’s Arab Spring was no exception. Women were in the heart of Tahrir Square during the protests; but they also became a prominent subject of terror and attacks for their involvement.

16. Trials of Spring

The Trials of Spring. Dir. Gini Reticker. USA & Egypt, 2015. When a young Egyptian woman travels from her village to Cairo to add her voice to the tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding an end to sixty years of military rule, she is arrested, beaten, and tortured by security forces, and later punished and imprisoned by her family for daring to speak out. Unbreakable, she sets out in search of freedom and social justice in a country in the grips of a power struggle, where there is little tolerance for the likes of her.

The screening of The Trials of Spring by Gini Reticker addressed the question of women in Egypt’s revolution of 2011, while the panellists – Abir Hamdar (Durham University), Zahia Salhi (University of Manchester) and Maria Holt (University of Westminster) – provided powerful interventions on the significance of women’s participation in political activism in the region. Al-Thawra mustamirra – ‘The Revolution Continues’ – is a slogan that was chanted again and again by Egypt’s revolutionaries. Reticker’s film and the ensuing discussion underscored another layer and meaning to this slogan: can women continue to participate in revolutions in the region; how, at what cost, and with what consequences?

A Grin Without a Cat: As One Event Sweeps Another

17. Grin

Le fond de l'air est rouge. Dir. Chris Marker. France, 1977.

The What’s Left? programme ended with the screening of Chris Marker’s remarkable two-part documentary A Grin Without a Cat (1977). The film weaves an array of archival historical footage, ingeniously edited to retrace the issues, events and debates that had provoked the upsurge of worldwide political activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s following the rise of right-wing oppression and the crisis of the traditional left. In Marker’s own words, the film was pitched against what he saw as the historical amnesia caused by the television treatment of global events, where ‘one event is swept away by another […] and it all finally descends into collective oblivion’ – something still acute today, forty years on.   

What’s Left? Rethinking Revolution through Visual Art and Cinema

 18. Final Panel

The programme closed with a discussion titled What’s Left? Rethinking Revolution through Visual Art and Cinema, led by the Durham curatorial team (from left to right): Anoush Ehteshami, Abir Hamdar, Dušan Radunović, Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián, and Andy Byford. The panellists engaged the audience on the question of what makes the visual media and the cinematic form so relevant a lens through which to reflect on the phenomenon of revolution. From their different perspectives, the team discussed in what ways cinema and visual culture have been such an important part of revolutionary processes, and how, thanks to distinctive forms of communication, modes of narration and aesthetic devices, they perform a major role in endowing ‘revolution’ with an existence that cuts across historical time and geopolitical space, across the personal, the culturally specific, and the universal.

Tyneside Shipyards, 1943
Sunday, 21 January 2018 10:35

Tyneside Story

Published in Fiction

They were gathered together in the rehearsal room - actors, directors, backstage workers for an out of the ordinary meeting.

Alf Simpson was there, in his 40s now, not leading man material, but he had been with the People's Theatre for ten years or more. He had a moustache - not so fashionable at that time, but it suited him, and he had a strong handsome face. He had played many roles and contributed in many ways to the company. Because of this he was someone whose opinion mattered. Like many others, Alf had married because it seemed what was expected after a courtship, and only later found th at his wife and he had little in common. There was a son, and people made the best of things, but the camaraderie and shared efforts in the theatre were highlights in his life.

There was also Mary, also part of the theatre company, she was now such an important part of his life. Mary was an educated woman, a teacher and with her he could share ideas and discuss things. Jean, his wife, hadn't had the benefit of higher education . Mary was unmarried, more or less the same age, and they made the most of what they had, knowing that Jean would never agree to divorce, at that time just as shameful for the "wronged" party.

The People's Theatre amateur company was already by 1940 an established part of the Newcastle arts scene, and having moved away from the overtly political focus of its early years, provided a home to a variety of Tyneside folk, many of whom continued to embrace a socialist philosophy. Several were involved in other enterprises, such as the Bensham Settlement in Gateshead, over the river, where talents for drawing, painting and sculpture were developed. Though some were middle class professionals, many were working people who had had to leave formal education in their teens.

It was now the second year of the war, but many men were in reserved occupations, and of course some were too old for active service. Morale at home was important, so the company did not see as frivolous the continuation of their performances.

Some months earlier their Director had broken the news which lay behind the suppressed excitement which they all felt. The Ministry of Information had commissioned them to produce a short film aiming to convince ex-shipyard workers of the need to return to their trade, as vessels of all types were needed for the war. Tyneside had long been shorthand for shipbuilding, but a downturn five years earlier meant layoffs and men had either picked up new work or remained on the dole.

Filmmaking was a new venture, but they had discussed how they could plot a simple story with some of them taking acting roles, and combine this with documentary footage of shipyards at work.

The story was to begin with two lads weeding some waste ground with scythes . Their work is interrupted by a smartly dressed man - they have just turned over a rectangular board about a yard long with the numbers 1066 on it. He explains that this has nothing to do with William the Conqueror. He is the shipyard manager, and tells them the board is the number of the last ship to be built in the yard. When it re-opens, they'll start again with number 1. The next scene he is in his office bemoaning the difficulty of getting workers back into the shipyards. One of his clerks who is listening, immediately volunteers. Next, other brief scenes show a window cleaner, a mechanic, a driver, all former ship builders working in their new trades, and then film sections showing the yard back at work with the men seen earlier back at their old trades.

Not any outstanding parts, but this would be a new challenge. Luckily, one of the directors was friendly with Jack Common, a writer who had published a series of essays about the lives of everyday workers - not to outstanding success, but his CV would impress the Ministry of Information, and more to the point, he was an ordinary Geordie from a similar background to many of the company members. Most were also familiar with the name of George Orwell, a friend of Jack's. And he was interested in going into film script writing - he needed to, as his other writing wasn't making any money.

Jack was a slight figure - his right forefingers already yellowed with constant cigarettes, one lit seemingly before the previous one's expiry. Alf had heard him talking to the director before the meeting started.

"He just looks like an y one of us " whispered Alf to Mary. " And talks the same way, not posh by a long shot"

"Well, Jack", the director asked, " Can you tell us how the script's coming along?"

"I've got a draft here - ah've got to say it deviates a bit from what you suggested, not the basic outline mind, that's there, but ah've taken the liberty of putting a bit of a message in."

"What d'you mean, Jack - the Ministry want a propaganda film, that's what we have to deliver".

"Ah just think it'd be a shame to waste the opportunity to spell out what a working life on Tyneside can be like- not exactly a bed of roses."

There was some muttering as the company tried to fathom what he was on about.

"Let me explain", said Jack," and I can read through the script so you can hear what it's like and mebbe see yourselves in a part."

He pulled the draft out of a faded briefcase and started reading the typed lines.

The first pages stuck to the brief they all were familiar with:- the boys weeding, the shipyard manager, the window cleaner, driver and mechanic answering the patriotic call. But then:

"Now we have something different", said Jack," the scenes up to now show the former workers from the yards wanting to return and do their bit, but the next scene is a man beside a cement mixer, obviously now a builder, and he's being told by his employer that he'll have to go along with the call to return to shipbuilding:- these are his lines:-

"To hell with the shipyards. They've no right to play fast and loose with men like us. Not so long ago they threw us out of the yards to starve or scrounge. Skilled men, mind you, brought up to a trade, and nobody cared. Now they want us back - there's a war on - next thing you know, the war'll be over and out again you go, you mugs. Ah well, not for me, ah've got a good job here and the missus has got a nice little home together. What - go back to the shipyards? Ah'll see them in hell first!"

" Why, those are sentiments we all agree with" Alf called out to chuckles and nods of agreement.

"Right, good, well like your outline, next there's film of back to work, men riveting, cranes lifting heavy ship sections and so on, all just what the Government wants, back in full production."

"The End?!" a voice suggested,

"Why no, ah've got another good bit. The same chap from earlier speaking direct to camera:

"Tyneside's busy enough today,auld and young uns making good ships. But just remember what the yards were like 5 years ago; idle , empty, some derelict,and the skilled men who worked in them forgotten..........Will it be the same for them 5 years from now? that's what we on Tyneside want to know."

" Now that's the end." Jack said.

The men in the group could all see themselves in this plum role.The director knew he would have only one satisfied actor - the one declaiming this plea to camera for the ord nary working man .

" D'y think that last speech 'll be allowed in? The film's supposed to be persuading men to do their bit for the war effort, not a recruitment ad for the Communist Party" asked Alf.

"Well, the main message is clear enough," replied the director, " and y'know, the Ministry might not be that bothered, after all the film's just being shown up here, in News theatres."

Some weeks later the cast list went up - Alf was to be the shipyard manager! Not exactly contributing to his working class credentials, still, he looked the part in his smart overcoat and trilby.

The film was made, it is called Tyneside Story. Jack Common wrote two book about Tyneside, semi autobiographical, but never achieved much success. However, sculptor Lawrence Bradshaw used Common's brow as a model for his bust of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, saying that he found there a similar patience and understanding. Mary went to teach at a college in Durham where women were doing teacher training. When Jean died, Alf and Mary married. The People's Theatre, lauded in its heyday by George Bernard Shaw continues to entertain. To view the 13 minute film, search for Tyneside Story in the North East Film Archive:- Film number 19637