Brett Gregory

Brett Gregory

Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK).

AI in the Movies
Thursday, 11 July 2024 08:44

AI in the Movies

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr Paula Murphy (Dublin City University) about her new book, ‘AI in the Movies’

Hi, my name is Brett Gregory, and this is a podcast interview for the UK arts, culture and politics website, Culture Matters. What follows is an extremely interesting discussion with the author of a new book called, ‘AI in the Movies’, which has been published by Edinburgh University Press.

Brett: Hello, and welcome. Please, introduce yourself.

Paula: Hello, my name is Dr. Paula Murphy. I lecture in the School of English in Dublin City University, Ireland, and I specialise in Modern Irish Literature and Film, and popular film, especially film representations of artificial intelligence, which is the topic of my book ‘AI in the Movies’.

Brett: And what specifically inspired you to begin writing this particular book, Paula?


Paula: I first started thinking about AI, and how it is represented in film, when I saw the film ‘Her’ in 2013, and it fascinated me. It’s a film directed by Spike Jonze, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. It’s about a lonely man who has separated from his wife, and finds love with an artificially intelligent operating system called Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. He uploads the operating system on his phone, and when Samantha begins to communicate, he is startled by how human she is. She’s clever and witty, she’s supportive and encouraging. And as soon as she comes into being, she begins to change and develop, to have aspirations and longings, an emotional and sexual life. She goes on a journey of coming to terms with herself, her abilities and her limitations, that leads to her finally leaving Theodore. In fact, ultimately, leaving the human, material world, entirely.

Brett: Yeah, I’ve seen it. Very involving, resonant. A key film for understanding the first quarter of the 21st century, I’d argue.

Paula: At one level, it’s a very human story. If I described the trajectory of that romance to you without mentioning that Samantha was an AI, it sounds entirely plausible. But, at another level, there are ominous notes in the film about human relationships with AI. Theodore thinks of her as human: it is her humanness that he falls in love with, but he understands at the end of the film, that she was only showing him a part of herself. He tries and fails to keep up with her intellectually. The speed at which she processes knowledge is far beyond his capability, even his understanding. Human thought and communication are soon frustratingly slow to her, and she excuses herself at one point in the film to communicate ‘post-verbally’ to a dead philosopher whose brain she and other AIs have artificially reconstructed.

Theodore’s humanising of her means that he is genuinely bereft when he discovers that she is having relationships with multiple humans and AIs, many of whom she is romantically involved with. He so easily adapts to her lack of physical presence – her lack of a body – as do his friends. That casting aside of the material world, which is the world that we as humans are irrevocably tethered to, struck me as dangerous. And he happily ignores the access he has given her, or not given her, to his personal data, such that, without his knowledge, she puts together a book comprised of letters he has written and sends it to a publisher, posing as him. So there were lots of aspects of the film ‘Her’ that got me thinking, and it motivated me to start looking at other films where AI had been represented and, eventually, to try and watch and analyse them all, and try to trace the recurring themes and patterns, narrative and visual, across the decades.

Brett: Excellent. Right, now, many people, ill-informed by the mainstream media as usual, generally perceive AI to be this single definitive category which encompasses absolutely everything computer-related and/or computer-generated. But this isn’t the case, is it? For example, in your book you introduce us to ‘affective AI’.

Paula: Affective AI can identify human emotion through, for example, facial expression, gestures, or voice intonation. In the real world, affective AI is used by companies in things like market research, customer service, and the automotive industry, to gauge customers’ emotional reactions. Unlike the real world, in the films analysed in this book, the AIs are usually self-aware, and emotionally complex, capable of not only identifying human emotion, but reciprocating it.

Brett: And what about ‘ambient intelligence’?

Paula: Ambient intelligence is AI that lives in our environment with us; it is there is the background in the form of a smartwatch, a digital assistant, or a robotic vacuum cleaner. Films imagine this type of AI too becoming self-aware and autonomous, like the smart home assistant ‘Tau’ in the Netflix film of the same name.

Brett: I haven’t watched ‘Tau’, but it’s now on the list.

Paula: Humanoid AI robots can be robots that are shaped like humans in the sense that they have a torso, a head, arms and legs. In film these range from utilitarian police droids, like ‘Chappie’, to robots that are indistinguishable from humans, like Rachael in ‘Blade Runner’, for example. In the real world humanoid robots take in a similarly broad range of types, from Boston Dynamic’s Atlas robot to the robots produced by Hanson robotics with an uncanny similarity to humans.

Brett: And there are ‘digital AIs’ as well?

Paula: Digital AIs are AIs that do not have a robot body of any kind. In films they can be housed in a computer, like Edgar in the 1980s movie ‘Electric Dreams’, or on a spaceship, like HAL 9000 in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, or they can exist online, like the Puppet Master in ‘Ghost in the Shell’. We are familiar with digital AIs in the real world too: the voices that speak to us in customer service chatbots, or digital assistants. The important difference between real-world AIs and the ones discussed in the book, is that all the AIs in the book are film representations of strong or human level AI: they are autonomous individuals with their own sense of self, their own desires, ambitions and moral code, and we don’t have that in the real world, not yet anyway.

2001. A Space Odyssey

Brett: Erm, fingers crossed. And what about ‘hybridity’?

Paula: Hybridity is a really interesting feature of artificial intelligence representations in film. This describes entities that are made up part human, part AI components. I don’t think there are real world comparisons to the type of hybridisation we see in film. For example, in ‘Terminator: Salvation’, the character of Marcus is a hybrid figure. He is a human who is selected by the artificial intelligence Skynet for ‘modification’, and is given a cybernetic heart and a machine brain that syncs with Skynet. For me, these hybridised characters are among the most interesting in artificial intelligence film, because they illustrate how complex and entangled the relationship between humans and AI can be.

Brett: Now, couldn’t it be argued that the use of AI technology as a storyline, character or trope is just another Hollywood show business tool used to draw in and spook the audience. For example, aren’t sci-fi thrillers such as ‘Westworld’ from 1973 or ‘Demon Seed’ from 1977 just simply B-Movie ‘creature features’ like ‘Frankenstein’ from 1931 or ‘The Thing from Another World’ from 1951?

Paula: It is absolutely true that film has always harnessed technological innovation to bring its viewers films that are more realistic or entertaining or exciting. In the films analysed in this book, artificial intelligence hasn’t been particularly evident as a technological innovation, like sound, or CGI. But it is there as a trope, in storylines and in characters, and certainly, in the main, it is there as something to be afraid of, something that we don’t fully understand, that is potentially more powerful than us, and which frightens us.

In this sense, many AI films, particularly the older ones from the 50s, 60s and 70s that you’ve mentioned, have a lot in common with B-Movie ‘creature features’. The AIs, like the monsters, are presented as aberrations, and the characteristics that they share with humans makes them more terrifying, not less terrifying, dredging up the horror of the uncanny. Most AI films are anthropocentric: they put the human at the centre. Because of this, the AI often functions as a mirror to distasteful human attributes and emotions: ambition, jealousy, revenge. Just like the B-Movie monsters, AI can represent those parts of human nature that we might wish to remain hidden. AIs share another characteristic with B-Movie monsters, and it is an interest in where the dividing line is between ‘them and us’. A key question that is asked about ‘The Thing from Another World’ is: ‘is it human or inhuman?’ That same question is asked about AIs over and over again in the history of AI film.

Brett: Of course, it could be argued also that using AI to interfere with the physical condition of human beings, or even raising them from the dead, is unnerving, unnatural and unholy, like necromancy or zombification. For instance, movies like ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ from 1973, ‘Robocop’ from 1987 and ‘Upgrade’ from 2018 portray a semi-posthumous protagonist enhanced by an exoskeleton, and they are healthy, empowered, death-defying, and immortal as a consequence.

Paula: Well, ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘Robocop’ wouldn’t fall into the category of an AI movie in terms of the parameters of this study. Those characters are more cyborgs than artificial intelligences.

Brett: I see.

Paula: In terms of ‘Upgrade’, yes, there is an AI there called STEM who inhabits the body of the paralysed man. ‘Upgrade’ is similar to films like ‘Transcendence’ and ‘Chappie’ in which a strong AI is used to extend or augment human life. But you’re perfectly correct about all of the films that you mention presenting technology as a panacea to ill-health, injury and even mortality, and there certainly is something deeply unsettling about that idea.

Brett: Excellent. I’m generally on the right lines then.

Paula: On the flip side of that, there are AI films that present AI immortality as a problematic obstacle to the humanness that the AIs desire. A great example of that is ‘Bicentennial Man’, starring Robin Williams. At the beginning of the film, Robin Williams’ character, Andrew, is a robot, but by the end, he has aesthetically and biologically transformed into a human being. His immortality is the final obstacle to him being legally recognised as human, and this recognition finally comes as he dies; perhaps his death could even be considered the price of humanness that he willingly pays. For the child AI David in Spielberg’s film ‘AI: Artificial Intelligence’, his immortality is also a curse bestowed on him by his human makers, which means that he must outlive his mother, the person he loves more than anyone else, and eventually the entire human race. He spends an agonising 2000 years under the sea childishly waiting and hoping for the Blue Fairy to grant his wish to be a real boy, before finally being found by aliens.

So in AI film AI characters who can transcend human morality are sometimes to be envied, but sometimes they are to be pitied.

Brett: Envy. I’ve been thinking about that a lot just lately. In a similar way that the old envy the young – their health, their energy, their future – do human beings envy their AI creations?

Paula: Looking back over the history of AI film, AI film tends to present ‘us vs. them’ scenarios: the AIs are the ones that are rapidly evolving and extending their abilities and powers, and the humans are generally quite static in terms of their ability to radically change or evolve. Certainly there are lots of films that try to build bridges between human and AI by making reference to a human who contains some kind of artificiality. For example, in ‘I, Robot’, Spooner has had his arm and shoulder reconstructed after injury, and has a cybernetic arm and lung. The film makes use of the irony that the robot-hating Spooner is himself part machine, while demonstrating the robot Sonny’s human characteristics, like his dreaming, his desire for freedom. In ‘Terminator 2’, Sarah Connor has become a ruthless, unemotional killing machine, like the Terminators themselves.

Brett: I’m thinking here of that famous transhumanist scene in ‘The Matrix’ where training manuals are being instantaneously uploaded into Neo’s brain, and he suddenly awakes to announce: ‘I know kung fu.’

Paula: In terms of transhumanist augmentation – using AI  to make humans live longer, be stronger, be smarter – there are only a few AI films that deal with that, such as ‘The Machine’, ‘Transcendence’, ‘Chappie’, and ‘Upgrade’, which have appeared in the last ten years. These films are beginning to explore AI being harnessed for transhumanist ends. Maybe this is becoming a trend in AI film; it’s probably a little too soon to tell for sure.

the machine

Brett: And what are the dangers involved in terms of, say, morality and ethics?

Paula: So the attitudes of these films towards using AI to achieve human augmentation are mixed. For example, ‘The Machine’ is about a scientist who has a daughter with Rett Syndrome. She is going to die, and to save her he uploads her consciousness and hides it within the brain of an artificially intelligent robot: the machine of the film’s title. While on the surface, this seems to present a positive alternative to the death of a daughter, at the end of the film the scientist father finds himself completely side-lined: his daughter, now a digital consciousness, prefers to interact with her ‘mother’, the AI, and the father is left standing literally and figuratively alone. It’s a troubling ending that certainly does not celebrate the transhumanist possibilities of AI.

There is also the question of whether his daughter is the same person at all, now that she is a digital consciousness rather than a biological human being. Post-humanist philosophers like N. Katherine Hayles would argue that, of course, she isn’t, because we are materially embodied as humans and that mind is not separate from the body, or the wider environment.

Brett: Generally speaking, what kind of future is represented in movies which feature AI as their subject matter? Is it a stronger future than now, a darker future, a fairer future?

Paula: When I was researching this book I expected that AI film, being so future-facing, would be inclusive in its representations, but that is absolutely not the case. In terms of race, for example, it is not until 2001 in Steven Spielberg’s ‘AI’ that the first black AI robot appears in film, and then only briefly before he is killed in the Flesh Fair. The first black AI protagonist in a film doesn’t occur until 2021 in ‘Outside the Wire’, which in fact falls outside the timeframe of this book, which goes up to 2020. There have been a few others since then, just as the AI Casca in ‘Atlas’, but there are remarkably few.

In terms of gender, there are fewer female AIs in film than male, and when they appear, they are sexualised and objectified in a way that their male counterparts are not, such as Eva from ‘Ex Machina’, or the replicants from ‘Blade Runner’, Zhora, Pris and Rachael.

Forbidden Planet

There is an opportunity for AI film to present a ‘fairer future’ as you put it. In fact, we can see that opportunity being enacted with one of the first AI characters in a Hollywood film: Robby the Robot. He acts outside of conventional gender norms being a ‘mother figure’ to Altaira in ‘Forbidden Planet’, taking care of her, making her dresses, listening to her. And in ‘The Invisible Boy’ when he appears again, he is a disruptor of patriarchal ideology, intervening in the relationship between the boy Timmy and his disciplinarian father, to stop his father from beating him. That opportunity for AI to act as a positively disruptive force in society, that we see with Robby the Robot in the 1950s, has not been pursued in AI film as it could have been, but there is still time.

Brett: We’re currently living in an age like no other, a truly technological age where smartphones, AI assistants and even AI decision-makers are shaping our everyday domestic and economic lives. And now we have ChatGPT, Dall-E 2 and Deep AI, for example, beginning to shape our imaginary lives also, our music, our literature, our cinema. What’s next? Our love lives?

Paula: There’s certainly a sense of utopianism depicted in some relationships with artificial intelligences, particularly those that concern AI as a romantic partner. Let’s go back to ‘Her’, the film that started all this for me, and the final film in the book. Theodore Twombly finds in Samantha, the AI operating system, a partner who he thinks is ideal: she is caring, kind, funny, and she is always there for him, at any time of the day or night. And yet, the film undercuts that relationship as a fantasy. It is not the special unique connection that he thinks. He discovers that when she is with him, she is also communicating with, and even in love with, countless others.

Brett: Well, I never.

Paula: His ex-wife in the film, Catherine, confronts him about dating Samantha because he is afraid of the messiness and pain of a relationship with a human. It’s true: he is still wounded after their separation from his wife, and has retreated to this place of comfort with Samantha. But Samantha shows him in the end that they are incompatible: she evolves far beyond his intellectual capability, and in the end she becomes an entity that he cannot comprehend. Something post-material, no longer tied to the ‘stuff’ of matter, but transcending that in a way that perhaps depicts ‘The Singularity’.

Brett: I read about ‘The Singularity’. It refers to accelerated technological progress wherein the limits of humanity are transcended by AI networks, interfaces, robotics, augmentation and such like.

Paula: Every film depicts this differently, but certainly in ‘Her’, the relationship with Samantha is a place for Theodore to hide, to lick his wounds, but it is also a place of learning, about himself and about what it means to be in a relationship. What makes the film ‘Her’ so intriguing is that its messaging is ambiguous. In a way the ending might seem to suggest that his relationship with Samantha was never a ‘real’ relationship, and that he was deluding himself all along. On the other hand, there are parallels between his relationship to his ex-wife Catherine and Samantha: both relationships break down because Theodore’s partners have grown away from him, and that comparison may imply that there was plenty that was ‘real’ about his relationship with Samantha after all.

Brett: Narrative parallelism, I think that’s called, and it reminds me of what you mentioned earlier about AI often functioning as an anthropocentric mirror.

Anyway, let’s return to ‘The Singularity’. I’m amazed. We’re actually building and programming artificial entities that will surpass us in all areas as human beings, way beyond our understanding and control, thus making us ultimately ineffectual and obsolete. Is this some sort of long-winded global suicide mission? Like a shared cultural death wish or something?

Paula: Lots of AI films depict this moment of great change – which some call ‘The Singularity’ – whereby artificial intelligences become dominant and humans are marginalised, oppressed, or threatened with extinction. The Netflix movie ‘Atlas’ starring Jennifer Lopez depicts just such a situation with an AI, Harlan, that wants to destroy most of the human race and start again, with a select few who will live under the control of artificial intelligences. You could argue that there is a death wish being presented here in these depictions, but if it is there, it’s something very abstract, because such scenarios are usually met with strong human resistance that overcomes the AI threat, at least temporarily, if not permanently. What we are starting to see is that characters are using AI technology in order to fight AI. To go back to the ‘Atlas’ example, the Lopez character, Atlas, reluctantly agrees to sync with a mecha-suit in order to fight the rogue AI, Harlan. So there is a distinction that emerges between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ AI, and an acceptance that AI technology cannot be rejected entirely, but overall, in AI films, the life instinct rather than the death instinct, I think, is the dominant one.

Brett: Hmm … I’m certain that when Skynet became self-aware at 2:14 a.m. on August 29, 1997, it swiftly wiped out almost the entire human race with coordinated nuclear attacks.

Paula: AI film presents many possibilities for what the future of our relationship with AI might look like, from situations in which we live in harmony with AI to situations where we are engaged in an all-out battle against them. But I think what AI film can tell us about the real world is probably limited by the bias that it has towards humans: AI films tend to put humans, and human-like AIs at the forefront of their stories. It is fascinated with AIs that are our likenesses, that demonstrate human-like emotion, morality, desires and fears. That emphasis anthropocentrism, putting humans at the centre, probably blinkers us to an AI future in which AIs have little in common with us, and we struggle to navigate our human-AI relationship. I think that’s a more likely scenario, but it’s also the reason why fictional accounts of artificial intelligences are culturally important: they are a way of working through the possibilities, and they act as prompts for important conversations about the way things might be, will be or should be when it comes to our relationship with artificial intelligence.

Brett: Well, I certainly agree with that, Paula, and I really hope that we’ve had one of those important conversations today. Many thanks for your insights, your time, and your patience.

‘AI in the Movies’ by Dr. Paula Murphy is available now via the Edinburgh University Press website

Thursday, 06 June 2024 09:00

‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ Brett Gregory interviews Bram Gieben, author of ‘The Darkest Timeline: Living in a World with No Future’

Published in Cultural Commentary

Below is an edited version of the interview.

Brett: Hi. What’s your name, where do you live, and when, and why, did you first become interested in writing?

Bram: Hi, Brett, how you doing? My name is Bram. I live in Glasgow in Scotland. I'm originally from Edinburgh, that's where I grew up. I've been writing since probably a very young age. I was the 2015 Scottish Slam Champion and I've kept on performing and writing poetry for the stage and for the page since then.

Brett: And what specifically inspired you to begin writing this particular book, Bram?

Bram: I've always been interested in theories around dystopias and utopias. I've always been fascinated by stories about the apocalypse and the pre- and post-apocalypse films like Mad Max. I'm also a huge fan of Mark Fisher and even just his prose style, his approach to writing and structuring essays, that was very influential on me as a journalist. He was paraphrasing both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek when he said ‘it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’, and that leads into an analysis of some of the aesthetics of apocalypse fiction, and why those might not be the most useful frame through which to understand our dystopian present.

Brett: Due to my own Scottish roots I’ve always been drawn to the country’s great literary tradition of producing narratives that can be seen to be antagonistic, pessimistic, and even apocalyptic. As a writer who is based in Glasgow, is this a creative heritage which you feel consciously a part of and, if so, why? Is it the weather? The landscape? The economy? The politics? The history?

Bram: That's a good question. Why is Scottish fiction and storytelling apocalyptic? Oh, that that's a really good question. I didn't grow up in Glasgow actually. I mean, I was born in England to Scottish parents. My mum's from the Orkney Islands, my dad grew up in Aberdeen, but his family's originally part Dutch, hence the strange name. Scotland’s got its own very distinct social codes, it's got its very own distinct norms and traditions, and it's got its own incredibly rich history, and it's a rich and bloody history as well. You know, there's a strong argument that you could consider Scotland a colonized people although, you know, obviously that's been the case for so long now that that's very normalised. And there is a strong tradition of class consciousness and political consciousness in Scottish writing.

I think definitely, you know, Irvine Welsh's work is directly political, commenting on, you know, inequality, poverty, prejudice against people of working-class backgrounds or people with drug problems, you know? Ian Banks was a master of crafting science fiction novels which kind of dealt with the human condition, and where humanity might be headed among the stars, and deep philosophical issues about our, you know, in-built tendencies for violence, or even for empathy. So, yeah, I think it lends itself with its tendency to be rainy and gloomy, to maybe some dystopian speculation, you know, ruminating while the storm rages outside.

Brett: In your book you contend that evidence shows that ‘we do not truly care about other people — or rather, people we have ‘othered’. This could be countered however with the observation that millions upon millions of people actually don’t care for themselves either, physically, psychologically, emotionally and/or domestically.

Bram: You know, I think that often if you find yourself in an oppressive low, if you find yourself in a cycle of addiction, if you find yourself unable to escape a cycle of abuse, a lot of that has to do with, or is exacerbated by, a sense of shame, a sense of low self-worth, and a sense of not being able to picture a better world for oneself. And I think a lot of that shame comes from that same process of ‘othering’. You think , ‘Well, I'm not like a normal person. I'm not like a good person. I can't get out of here.’ I mean, I'm just drawing on my own experiences there, my limited experiences with addiction, my kind of extensive experience of suffering from bipolar disorder, going through treatment for other mental health problems.

So, I don't know, I mean I'm somebody who has a regime of self-care, self-analysis, you know? I go to therapy, I exercise and meditate. Those are all things that I have had to learn to do out of necessity to care for myself. Otherwise I would have been, I don't know, dead in jail. All I would say is that for me my recovery has massively involved learning to love structure. I have a very structured life, I structure it for myself, I try and keep busy. I exercise, and I try and eat as healthy as possible – don't always manage it!

Climate Change

Brett: You quote the anthropologist, Jason Hickel: ‘[I]t seems all too clear: our economic system is incompatible with life on this planet.’ However, you also reject the speculative communist solutions put forward by the Swedish author, Andreas Malm. That is, you write: 'By the time we have regulated and campaigned our way to Malm’s functional communist society, everyone will be dead'. What should we do then?

Bram: I think the urgency of the apocalyptic messaging that we've had on climate change and other things for so many years has been quite intense. I think the problem with some of that messaging for me at least has, in fact, been its emphasis that we can do something you know from cycling schemes to, you know, carbon credits, carbon offsetting schemes like that. All of these things seem to me to be very much like distractions that capitalism has come up with to kind of, you know, convince us that something's being done when, in actual fact, the problem isn't being addressed. And I think really if you look at the big polluters those are nearly all corporations and, you know, even if all of the nations of the world reduce the output from people's homes, the output from industry, it's the output from agriculture that really contributes to climate change.

So really, on a fundamental level, there is nothing that we can do to fix climate change, I believe at least, without transforming or getting rid of capitalism in quite a radical way. We've known about the problems of particularly climate collapse, you know, and threats to ecosystems, problems with extracting fossil fuels; we've known about that since the 1960s, that was the time for concerted political action and, in an actual fact, like if humanity had taken collective action at that point we could probably have mitigated a lot of the effects of it. And that really was the ambition of my book: not to propose a different system or, like Andreas Malm does, not to propose necessarily any different solutions, but rather just to draw attention to the ways in which we're not talking about the problems in a very useful way.

Brett: Of course, we can condemn the self-centred, capitalist lifestyle choices of ordinary citizens on the ground, even when they delude themselves into thinking that they’re helping to reverse climate change by recycling regularly and buying fair trade tea bags. However, shouldn’t it be our leaders in politics, business, industry, science etc. who should be publicly and permanently held to account for their myopic, self-serving decision-making, ideally with real-world legal consequences which their peers will genuinely heed and fear?

Bram: You know, no matter how virtuous you are in one area, there's probably something else that you're doing that's harming the planet and, you know, you can you can try and live like an absolute saint but, nonetheless, you still have a carbon footprint. There's a thing called the Five Earths Argument. I mean, basically, what that says is that if everybody in the developing world was able to access, you know, the kind of consumer goods, fast food and all that stuff that we have available to us in the West, we would need the resources of five earths to feed everybody.

As to your point about should it be leaders in politics, business, industry, science who should be publicly held to account, I definitely do think that they should be. I think the likelihood of them being held to account is probably pretty low. You only have to look at things like the investigation into the Post Office Scandal to see how slippery those six figure salary senior executives can be when you put them on the spot. Things like public inquiries can become a ritual: they're meant to reassure us that something is being done, heads are going to roll. Meanwhile, in the background, the next scandal is probably brewing under the same kind of secretive management cultures. Our rights as people in this country to protest are under threat, rights to free speech and freedom of association are under threat. If you don't have power and you want to see change, you have to take power in whatever form that you can.

The Darkest Timeline

‘The Darkest Timeline: Living in a World with No Future’ is published on June 24th 2024, and is available to pre-order now on the Revol Press website.

Sunday, 02 June 2024 12:21

'A House in Jerusalem': Interview with the director, Muayad Alayan

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Palestinian screenwriter/director, Muayad Alayan, in Jerusalem about his latest film.

BG: So where are you right now?

MA: I'm in Jerusalem.

BG: So obviously people in the UK would like to know what's civilian life like in Jerusalem at the moment? What's the atmosphere like? Because we're just getting mainstream news here a lot of the time.

MA: Of course. Jerusalem has always been tense, Jerusalem has always been a place where you're always on edge,  you're always … like something could go wrong any minute any second anywhere. You know I think we have been living in the last few months some of the most tense and stressful, you know, circumstances that I've ever experienced myself as a Jerusalemite and as somebody who grew up here. I think it has been, yeah, some of the most tense. The divide in the city across the eastern side which is dominantly Palestinian and the western side which is dominantly Israeli has never been as, you know, as segregated let's say.

BG: Right, and so what's your view of the future or the near future or the far future?

MA: I mean honestly the situation in Jerusalem and the West Bank for us Palestinians is horrible but we don't dare even complain or even you know talk about it, even though there's hundreds of people who have been killed in the last eight months. Thousands of people have been arrested because of what we're seeing in Gaza and what we witnessing in Gaza. So we cannot we're like … we don't dare complain, you know, because of the massacres we’re witnessing, so we are kind of just praying for an end to all of this.

BG: So I mean it's off topic … are you personally at risk as a filmmaker in terms of … because obviously you communicate to the wider world outside of the region, and obviously from different … forces that would consider to be I don't know whatever … So I don't know are you or are you just considered as another civilian?

MA: I mean since the beginning of the war there has been a lot of arrests among artists, intellectuals, creatives … Even not only for Palestinians who live inside Israel, also for Israelis who are on the kind of left-wing, progressive side you know? There has been a lot of arrests for people who have just denounced the killings that are happening in Gaza or just expressed their opinions or social media or something. There has been house arrests and physical arrests and several other things, so it's yeah it's … Everybody's careful, let's say. It's becoming like a Big Brother kind of police rule you know?

BG: Well, that's never reported on in terms of Israeli resistance to Israeli aggression I suppose …

MA: Yeah, there was a demonstration yesterday in Jerusalem a small one, of course, because the left in Israel shrank significantly over the last 20 years, right, but they were crushed, they were arrested and they were dragged and, you know … Yeah, there was a demonstration by Israeli leftists in Jerusalem demanding an end to the genocide in Gaza, and they were crushed and dragged into police cars.

BG: Right, okay, well that's set the scene. So moving on to the film: in what ways does your latest film ‘A House in Jerusalem’ have semi-autobiographical origins?

MA: I mean it is the most personal story of … The most personal film I've made so far. It's not a one-to-one true events kind of, you know, inspired by our house but it is definitely a story that is inspired by the trauma and the survival of my parents and my grandmother who all became refugees and were forced out of their homes and their territory and their land in 1948 during the Nakba when Israel was established, and they were never allowed to go back to their homes: the Israeli law just simply did not allow it, although they were among the very few lucky Palestinians who became refugees within historic Palestine and did not become refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or what have you.

So it is inspired by their stories, it is inspired by their survival and how they coped with this trauma you know? The seeds go back to our childhood and the oral history and all the stories that they used to narrate. My father used to deliver meat on his bike from my grandfather's butcher store which was in West Jerusalem before 1948, and he basically knew all these neighbourhoods so well, and when we were growing up he used to drive us through these neighbourhoods on our way to school, and he would narrate stories about these neighbourhoods that look completely different today, you know? To him he used to see these ancient Palestinians houses, institutions, football clubs, and to us what we saw as the young generation it was the new McDonalds and Starbucks like cafes and this other kind westernised reality that Israel has established in these neighbourhoods, you know?

MU Muayad with his brother Rami

Muayad with his brother Rami

So to me and to my brother Rami, who co-wrote this with me, we with my father's story, my grandmother's story and my mother's stories, you know, we felt that they were living with a part of them stuck in the past, stuck in these times and in these places, and this is what drove us to kind of come up with the concept of the ghost of the living as opposed to the ghost of the dead, you know? Because we believe that they were living with these ghosts of themselves, stuck in time, in these traumas that they went through.

BG: Yeah, I was thinking actually about do you relate the idea of memory to the notion of haunting? You know, are we haunted, is that are our memories are our ghosts, and also when they say like an older generation walking down a street and in their memories they see a different street but that because they're present that memory is present and the past is now, do you see what I mean?

MA: I think it is a presence that is so powerful that you could touch it even, you know what I mean? It is that powerful on your soul and in your spirit and, unfortunately, a lot of us go through our lives unaware of these ghosts that we've left behind with people that we love or traumas that we went through places that we are attached to, you know?

BG: As a Palestinian director why did you decide to frame the narrative from the perspective of a Jewish settler or the settlers like the father and the daughter?

MA: I chose to narrate the story from the perspective of a child, you know? It just so happens that these houses in West Jerusalem that used to be Palestinian houses are in the particular neighbours that I'm talking about that I my family used to live in and the neighbours that I know so well, most of the immigrants who live in these places are Jewish families who recently moved from the US, the UK ,France or other parts and they like the neighbourhoods, they kind of appreciate the nice architecture of the old Arab house architectures, and the nice greenery around the houses you know? Basically, if you go to any cafe around these neighbourhoods you'll hear all kinds of languages: you know, French, British American and British accents of English, and you know you will hear so many people who come there and who have either recently moved there or their ancestors moved and then they joined them and made Aliyah or whatever.

MU Miley Locke with Johnny Harris

Miley Locke with Johnny Harris

So to me I wanted to make a story about a young girl a child who does this move, who's forced to do this move, and she experiences this place first-hand, she has what she's being told, you know, and there is what she's finding out and what I wanted to do is … I was hoping that the innocence of children both of them, the both lead actors, the both lead characters, the innocence of children gives us the room to raise questions in the face of the adult world that we usually adults don't dare ask, and don't dare confront among ourselves even within the same kind of group, you know what I mean? And I think that the innocence of the children gives them this courage to put a mirror in the face of us the adults with all the corruption of, you know, the politics and all the, you know, ideological baggage that we carry around, children just don't have that, they are not corrupted yet so they can they dare ask the questions, that's what I wanted to do.

BG: Yeah, that was successful in that way. I mean I might be wrong on this but when I was watching the film are there references to the dybbuk from Jewish mythology. You know the doll and the dolls because I was reading up about this and like because the father accused her of like, you know, she like sort of needs therapy, she's not well and that and the dybbuk in Jewish mythology is rumoured to be associated with female hysteria and I'm they going this belief in the doll as a connection to the past …

MA: I have to admit I had no idea. It was purely these dolls were very common in pre-1948 Palestine still. I mean more and more they're vanishing, but these handmade dolls were things that mothers and their daughters used to make, they used to make them for their daughters and then the daughters would learn a little bit of embroidery and that they would do Palestinian embroidery for their dolls …

BG: So it’s a female cultural practice then?

MA: It is. During the research I looked at so many images from an archive; it's also on Facebook: it's called British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library. And if you go to that resource you will find so many pictures of families, Palestinian families from West Jerusalem pre-1948 and in the majority of these pictures you will see that the girls made sure that they take their dolls with them to whatever studio or wherever they were taking the family pictures; this depending if it was on Christmas or Easter or whatever it was they made sure they took their dolls with them. So during the research for the film this was where that came from, that's kind of element of the girls from that era.

BG: Right, yeah, well there is this thing obviously about cultural objects that we own and possess. I mean, because I used to be a lecturer and so with stones you find on the beach and you pick up the stone and walk with the stone, but by the end of the walk the stone is warm and it's your stone it's not just a stone it's your stone. And that's the things with the dolls and the fact is it owned by the Palestinian girl and then it's got human qualities have been invested in it and that's what's communicate that's and obviously that's either a positive or a negative dependent on the person in receipt of the thing.

Anyway, moving on: I'm going to be a bit geeky now in terms of film references in the film so this is what I noticed and I don't know how conscious you were these creative decisions. So previous horror stories and ghost stories and films such as ‘The Exorcist’ I don't know was that in your mind. Not at all? Like the concept of a young girl sort of transitioning sort of thing and then these … Right, okay, I mean a lot of these 70s films I don't know about it's like ‘The Omen’ I had in there and it's about like child possession these film cycles went around in the 70s but then also ‘Don't Look Now’ the British film it was set in Venice there was I'm sure ‘The Sixth Sense’…

MA: I drop ‘Let The Right One In’ and I can explain why … I we never wanted to make a horror film. it was never a horror film for us but we definitely realised there were horror elements in there that we also wanted to capitalize on and we we're aware that there's this room for this use and this cross over to the genre elements in there you know? What I liked about ‘Let The Right One In’ is that you know you start off with this fear of the unknown you know of the vampires and what they could do and then you end with how evil the average people could be, you know, and the evil that is in the everyday man and child and whatever that for sure was something that I can admit was an inspiration to me, you know? What I mean that concept and ‘Let The Right One In’.

BG: Yeah, right, well I mean it wasn't really a horror film there was I mean the thing is there's some kind of peace in terms of narratives with children and ghosts. For instance, I mean there's a film from 1972 called ‘The Amazing Mr Blunden’ by Lionel Jeffries which is about Victorian children haunting 1970s children and there's a connection and I was watching – you need to watch this film – and then you'll see it and you'll go oh there are similarities but of trying to connect and what they're trying to do is save the ghosts from dying. They die in a fire but they want to go back in time to save these children. It got remade just about 5/10 years ago but the original from the 1970s Lionel Jeffries is the director who was a famous British actor.

But like I did get those vibes and I was watching it's that sense of … it's an opportunity for children to be heroes outside of an adult world, and I think that's the same with your film you know, to actually have agency and autonomy and make decisions and then we can see and we're encouraged when watching the film to perceive the child's point of view and not the father who's meant to be an authority figure and sensible and you know using medical support. And then we see that this is all disconnected from being human, you know, it's that like she you know that that the people's experiences are just as valid. Anyway related to the father which I'm personally interested in, here in the UK many of us vividly remember Johnny Harris' performance in Paul Andrew Williams’ ‘London to Brighton’ from 2006. So have you seen that film? I mean he's excellent at merging and communicating masculinity with vulnerability. I mean … you can see he's got very good eyes for that very sadness.

MA: He does the broken man, it is very scary. You know it was amazing. I mean the process with Johnny was like I learned a lot from Johnny honestly and I really think that not only in portraying Michael and really bringing this ability to portray the complexity of the loving father, the broken man and the will to move on, you know, this kind of anger and will to move on just like find a shortcut and move on you know that was causing him this frustration, and his belief that this could be the solution for both of us, you know, why don't you just accept. And, you know, this conflict he really brought amazing things to the screen for me and at the same time because of the nature of the story and the sensitivity of the trauma and, you know, the grief working around children is not easy and that was another thing with Johnny because he was so sensitive and so careful as well, no matter how heavy these scenes were you know emotionally for him and for Miley he was really very sensitive and very supportive and that was that was a blessing honestly.

MU A House in Jersulam

BG: Yeah, I'm a filmmaker I've worked with children as well, and yeah adults can get a bit twitchy like something's gonna go wrong but actually the children are all right. They're all like ‘What are you about? Let's get on with it.’ So ‘A House in Jerusalem’ was shot on location. What was this experience like? I'm thinking of the checkpoint actually and this idea of surveillance, and also the plot point with the police just being allowed to confiscate the phone and just the scan it and stuff, and I'm there going ‘All right this is like a police state’, that you know that's what the feeling, you know, from my British perspective so what was the experience like? I mean obviously you filmed there before …

MA: Yeah, that's so many questions in one but I'll try give it my best. No worries. Filming on location here is always challenging, it's always a nightmare seriously, especially for a Palestinian production or a Palestinian co-production. No matter if you're a UK or a European co-production so usually that really affects how the design of the production, its shape and it affects so many things. I'll give a few example so we shot in Jerusalem east and west and we shot in Bethlehem inside the camp and near the checkpoint, the main checkpoint that leads to Bethlehem right for the Bethlehem part I can tell you the interior is not the real interior of the checkpoint, of course, … there was no chance they would give us permission to film there. We filmed outside and the inside was a garage that was turned into the interior by of a checkpoint by our production design team which you know as a Palestinian production design team checkpoint is something you're forced to unfortunately go through a lot but also build a lot for films so we had to build that on the inside of Aida Camp, was real Aida Camp.

We filmed in the camp with the help of so many artists and friends and filmmakers from the camp. It's a condensed camp, it's one of three refugee camps in Bethlehem that is packed with people and it's a ghetto and we were so lucky and we were welcomed by the people there the minute they know it's a Palestinian film, a co-production, it's a story you know they people open in their houses and their hearts. On the Jerusalem side we had to come up with a plan that basically on one hand we struggled to find a house in West Jerusalem that first the Israeli owners would give us to use, you know, given this is a Palestinian film, you know, all right the other thing is most of these houses these old Palestinian houses in West Jerusalem that are now inhabited by Israelis, they no longer have this massive house structure with a garden outside, they all were turned into duplexes and apartments and the gardens were unfortunately butchered by new villas and what have you, so our only choice was to try to locate similar houses from the same era on the eastern side of the city so the Palestinian part of town and we found two houses and we really had to beg the owners of these houses to let us film there and it was COVID so people were extra kind of sensitive and careful around people coming anywhere around them or into their house. But we really had no choice: it was one of these two houses that really resembled the houses from this era and finally we succeeded in getting this house that is 120+ years old and we had to film the house and the garden in the eastern part of the city.

The minute we step outside we're in the western part of the city so we filmed in the relocations in West Jerusalem outside and inside the house and the garden we in East Jerusalem. And because of this sensitivity of, you know, how do you film in West Jerusalem, you know, on a Palestinian film set and we had to super-micro, we had to look like a documentary crew almost on the western part of the town, we had to scatter, we could not block streets, we could not block any pavements, we had to scatter our base into, you know, part in a nearby hotel and another part, you know, in a restaurant and some of the group the catering in a park nearby. And you know there was only around eight or ten people at each given time where we were filming in the streets and the neighbourhood in West Jerusalem.

Yeah, so that was that and then added to all this mess because of COVID we had to deal with different kinds of, at the time, this feels like ages ago but it was just like a couple years ago where we had to deal with different regulations based on what the UK and the EU had, the Palestinian territories and Israel on their lists, you know, some moment it was amber and other moments it was green, and then we would have to move company because the last 10 days of your production you need to be in a green country otherwise you will have to quarantine the way back up. So that COVID bit was a nightmare that usually when you talk about producing a Palestinian film, you know, we talk about the roadblocks, the checkpoints, the harassment, the occupation but with COVID that was an added layer of kind of complexity.

BG: We were shooting my sort of debut feature in Manchester in northern England during COVID and the whole city was shut down, and then so – I mean have you seen like ‘28 Days Later’? You know, the zombie Danny Boyle film and they shot at London, you know, desolate sort like 5a.m. or something so when no everyone was in bed. But when we were shooting to obviously say about the end of the century or beginning of this century it's all dark, the city was completely empty and all the lights were off in terms of all the office blocks yeah … and there was no police, there was no there was there was some homeless people but we got we actually had the whole city as a set and we just wandered around and filmed what we wanted and there's no one there ruining the shots. I know it’s never going to happen again, we got a lot of yeah I know we got lots of actors because they were just sitting at … for free because they were just sitting at home doing nothing. A weird period when like contacted these actors again to about doing another projects and go ‘No, no, no. We're busy now. Anyway, moving on so how is the current context of war in Gaza affected ‘A House in Jerusalem’ and its ongoing promotion?

MA: I never imagined that this film will be made or released during any kind of time where the story of displacement of Palestinians is this relevant, you know? In our worst nightmares did we ever think that, but I think it's sadly more relevant than ever, you know? I mean, yeah, what's happening in Gaza makes what's what happened in 1948 sound like in terms of numbers at least, you know, it's unbelievable. And I think like you said I can say that we definitely being a Palestinian co-production being a Palestinian film during such times you immediately get some sensitivities of you know is this another Palestinian film you know is this another propaganda film or whatever, and then you at the same time you gain a lot of interest from a lot of people who are really curious and want to know what's going on there, and what's the history of this whole thing.

I mean technically this is a fact: 70% of the population of Gaza are refugees, I don't know if you knew that? Yeah, so 70% of the people in Gaza are registered refugees recognized by the United Nations as refugees who were expelled from their homes and their houses and their territories and their lands just like the house in Jerusalem, and they were pushed away into refugee camps in Gaza and basically Gaza which was at the time in 1948 I think not official numbers … I think Gaza had 200,000 population and then 300,000 refugees went to Gaza and this half million population grew into this 2.2 million population so Gaza is dominantly refugees.

So it is the story of a house in Jerusalem is very relevant but sadly these refugees are now being made refugees for the second and third and they're being tossed around and moved around you know. It's like they're being asked to go to the sea or to the beach and then they start new tents near the border and then they bump them and they ask them to go back to the centre and this collective trauma of us, the Palestinians, does not seem to ever be ending. And I think it like yeah to me I'm just so happy that the film is being released. I'm so happy that the film is being shown because I really hope that people would walk out from the screenings with, you know, feeling and a couple of questions about this whole thing, you know, and to take things beyond, you know, even for those who were tracking the news in the last seven months you know people need to see the bigger picture. I think people need to see.

BG: Yeah, yeah, I think it's good with in terms of to me like young adults which I used to teach you know like in their late teens/early 20s and it's sort of a good counterpoint because on the mainstream news, and particularly on social media, it's just layers of horror and horror and, you know, its runs a risk of you know sort of making them inured, sort of dampening their emotions because they just overwhelmed and say this is something that's impossible to tackle but that said this generation of young adults, particularly the universities, there's a lot of protests, you know, in the UK universities and obviously in the US and obviously in different states where some of them are bringing in riot police and then others are having negotiations.

So the thing is there is some sort of I believe which is completely different to say to the conflict in between Russia and Ukraine where there seems to be a passion and a connection with the Palestinian situation and history and the thing is like and obviously because of my age in the 90s when I was at university the concept of Zionism was pretty simple. I'm saying ‘Oh well, this is this is sort of like, you know, this compressed sort of Israeli ideology, you know, this aggressive and also they've got access to nuclear weapons and military stuff and obviously they're bullying the Palestinian people. This is when we were like, you know, I was a teenager, you know what I mean, and this was normal but then some propaganda machine has kicked in during the expansion of the internet around 2000 of this equating Zionism with anti-Semitism. Where did that come from?

MA: That was strategic … it was in the open. Like there was I remember reading about it in Israeli media and it was a plan to do that, to counter what was going on with the younger generation that is being becoming more and more aware about the occupation and what's going on in Palestine and they tried, and they are still trying to play this card to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and this is complete nonsense, you know, it's complete nonsense.

BG: Orwellian. It's an Orwellian sort of collapse of language to create thought, but what the worrying thing is there's obviously because I was born in the 70s so I've got a different historical perspective than those say born at the end of the 90s or the beginning of 2000s. That have not experienced anything different and they go, ‘Oh well is this the cultural reality and you go ‘no’.’ Anyway, so ‘A House in Jerusalem’ is on release in the UK from Friday 31st of May. Now if you were to write and shoot this film now in 2024, in what ways would it be different? For example, would there be more anger, accusation, demand for justice in the film? Would it be more obviously with what's happened, you know, like how would you have approached this film with what you know now and what the world knows?

MA: Now, honestly I see your question, I see your point, I see where I see the idea behind the question, but honestly to me this film and this story is very personal. I am the son of a mother and a father who are both refugees who were expelled from their homes and they lived their lives longing for that place and that time and in both of my family from both sides they've lost family members in 1948 and in 1967, and they've lost family members and right now when I'm talking to you if I point one kilometre that way out of the window is my family house. I have no right to ask for it under any part of this, it's there I cannot demand it, I cannot claim, it even if I have the legal in Israel it that I don't exist, you know. So I for this film I wouldn't do anything differently. I would still tell the story of these two girls who are hurt, broken and they found a way to heal together and who raise big questions about personal trauma and collective trauma as well.

Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians now are facing the same kind of reality from back in 1948 again now in Gaza, so there is a connection for sure but I wouldn't have done this film differently I would have just narrated my story because I'm pretty sure there will be so many Palestinian filmmakers from Gaza who will tell their stories of trauma and of grief as well. I mean, if I go into the details of certain things in the film there are so many things like that, for example, I'll give you a very quick example so that boy with the bicycle when Rebecca is walking in that street that's called ‘The Valley of the Ghosts’ right now in Hebrew, it's called ‘Valley of the Ghosts’ I read that, yeah, so that that store was my grandfather's store right, and that lady with the hat that she sees coming out – that mysterious lady, ambiguous lady that comes out of those two villas – this lady this actress, these are actually her uncle's houses that she cannot go back to, you know.

The place where Rebecca has her nightmare and she chases her mother that's the destroyed village of Lifta who hundreds of people were expelled from and became refugees, you know, where you see the cactus trees and where she runs between these ruins, yeah, and where she encounters the wells in this country and this part of the world, these wells where she goes on the tour with the kids in the summer camp. That's the village of Imwas. Imwas is a village that was destroyed in 1967 not even in 48 in 1967; they destroyed this village and expelled all the population to Ramallah because they wanted a clean highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; they didn't want Arab towns on the way, right, so there's that village so Simon the dog that Rasha is talking about in that scene, my grandmother's dog was Simon, and when she came from her house to the family house she ran away during the war during the war she went back to check on her house and she found her house was bombed and Simon was shot. It is a very personal film to me, it's extremely personal everything in the film, in the mosaic of the film is so personal and I wouldn't have done anything differently. But I can tell you that there will be many other stories maybe from other filmmakers from Gaza that unfortunately talk about displacement and grief and trauma and our ghosts that, you know?

BG: So as a Palestinian filmmaker/artist, let's say, are you compelled to create stories about the region, the people, its history and its future? Is this your duty as an artist? Do you feel this is this your destiny do you feel?

MA: I decided to be a filmmaker because I wanted to tell stories and because I wanted to touch people's hearts and challenge people's minds, and part of that goal is coming from the fact that I'm Palestinian and I come from this heritage particularly with the fact that historically we have been crushed in mainstream media and our narrative has been, you know, censored, blocked, you name it. We grew up with this feeling that we know we're aware that the powerful media in the world is against us and the media in the world does not allow us to, you know, narrate.

So becoming a filmmaker partly was due to that the like very early days and, yeah, I mean, I think we have something to say, I mean, in the beginnings, you know, we all go through this naive period where you think if I narrate what's going on, if I tell our perspective to the world, the world is going to change, and this suffering is going to end, then you realise that the world doesn't work this way, you know. You sometimes think that you just need people to know, you know, and then some but actually the problem is not just knowing, you know, there are powers there, there are so many things that are capitalized in this world to keep us in this situation.

BG: Yeah, exactly. I mean the thing is what changes – I mean this is me being hopeful – is you don't change the world, you change your perception of the world so your process of making this film has changed the world as you see it, you're a different man.

MA:  Absolutely. And I know as well that in every screening, in every Q&A, I can see, of course, I see people who walked in, you know, who are fans and followers of art house cinema, and because of that they have watched so many Palestinian films and they have been exposed to Palestinian cinema but I also see people who have never seen a Palestinian film before and they are, you know, encountering this narrative for the first time and I feel blessed and I feel that it means something, you know? What I mean, yeah, and I see people who walk out you know in tears out of the screenings and I'm sad sorry but I feel happy that it works and you know they're going back home with this kind of fireworks of emotions that I'm sure they will tell their friends, their grandkids, so that's what kind of drives me right now, you know?

BG: Do you see yourself then as a film director or a Palestinian film director? Because I, for example, I'm from a working-class background, poor background and I pursued academia and that is how I ended up making films, you know? It's just through education not money, no connections but because of that then I'm associated with the social realism genre and like working-class, everyday people and saying, ‘Oh well, because that's your background that's the films you're meant to make,’ and I'm there going ‘No’. So now I'm in production on a short adaptation of a Franz Kafka short film, as far away from working classness as possible to prove that I can work in different genres and I'm not imprisoned by my background my, you know, and that's the same question I'm asking you: do you feel that you're tied? I mean, it might be a good thing that you're tied I mean like Scorsese says he's very happy about his Italian-American heritage and doing the films over and over again about that, but there's others that go, ‘Well, I don't want to be doomed by my or trapped by my ethnicity or my economic social status. I want to be creative and expressive so there you go.

MA: It's a very good question. I'm often asked this question in variations of, you know, approaches but I like how you, I mean, I'll try to make it short. But so on one hand in the recent years apart from ‘A House in Jerusalem’ most of my films have focused on Palestinian anti-heroes particularly in Jerusalem who are confronted with situations that are bigger than themselves and that they are not heroes or they were not built to handle, yet they have to figure out a way how to handle them. I in … like the stories that attract me and that get me writing notes on the side for the day when I'm going to write a treatment and a script about, it's the average anti-hero, who's a hero to me in other ways than the expected on the average, you know, the heroes of just simply being able to survive or provide for your family. I'm biased towards these people who do not make it of to the news, you know?

BG: Underdogs. The underdogs.

MA: Yeah, so a house in Jerusalem is an exception in that fact because it was a personal film, it's a personal project and it's something I wanted to make and, yeah. So do I see myself as only making … There was a saying I can't remember who said it but it's basically ‘if you want me to write poetry about the birds you need to turn off the fighter jets and the tanks so I can hear them’, you know what I mean? And this is my answer also about cinema. I cannot remember, I think it was a Palestinian poet who said that now – I've had fever for three days so yeah I'll dig the name if you want – but I think I always like that quote because it was so true. In our case even if we make like a two character story locked in a house, you know, like a one location story. The occupation will be right there out of the window, you know, there's no way you can it is the thing that has left the biggest mark on our lives and we would be, you know …

BG: Blind to ignore.

MA: You know, yeah so it's it does not make … I wish we can make cinema without having to deal with this but if we try to do that right now it's … I don't know what kind of mutant.

BG: I know it reminds me of, you know, Jan Švankmajer, the Czech sort of animator like clay and he was working under, you know, communism in the 70s and all his films were interpreted as anti-communist even when it wasn't. Oh, this is obviously about being the claustrophobia, you know, and then I the world events in that context end up defining your individual creativity even if you're not engaged directly with it and then I'm just interested about that because then the idea of creativity that is associated with freedom but then is there any freedom because then you say, ‘Well, I'm going to be because … I'm Palestinian I'm going to be interpreted in this way at this time in history’, and then, you know, so if you went and did a like a rom-com musical in Chicago and then people will go, ‘Yeah, but what's the Palestinian angle?’

MA: Absolutely, absolutely. And, you know, it get to some point where sometimes I mean … Even in some of my previous films, you know, certain audiences around the world, unfortunately, they are okay let me be careful with this answer …  I think there has been a lot of films that have been made with that are good films important films but the main aim was to counter the Israeli propaganda in Western media … and I think that's important, I think that's crucial, I think we need to do that because Western media is biased period.

So we need to counter that with art, with documentaries, with social media, with every tool we have. But not every film, I think, has to have that kind of one kind of solid goal. I think we should have Palestinian love stories, horror stories, detective stories, Westerns, I don't know, we need to have Palestinian culture and literature on all platforms possible around the world because as much as it is important to counter the propaganda narrative of the Israeli occupation, I think it's more important to prove, I mean, we don't need to prove to the world but we need to show it, we need to make sure it's there that we are much more than a nation under occupation. Not simply, you know? So that's why sometimes there are certain expectations of a Palestinian film – ‘Oh, where are the checkpoints?’ – you know it doesn't fall into that kind of activist category, you know what I mean?

BG: Well, yeah, but also it's the sort of dominant narratives that then will … the dominant forces are setting the narrative and then you've got a Palestinian narrative that's a reactionary narrative so that means the dominant force is already then controlling the cultural dialogue so then the Palestinian filmmakers in this case are then drawn into an argument and making films to say, well, I want … I wanted to do a science fiction film but I can't. Now I've got to do, you know, a sort of political film, do you know again sort of thing? So, yeah, I know, I understand, I mean it's just the demands of the wider world or demands of the audience or those in in the industry and it's just fascinating about how things are sort of, yeah, interpreted. It's like that's what I'm saying about with you say like that's the question about the semi-autobiographical angle where people won't see that because it's a female girl who's the lead and it's the ghost girl, and where do you come in who's playing your role, do you know what I mean? As a witness I think it's a witness to the … I see your character in the old lady, I think.

MU Miley Locke with Souad Faress

Miley Locke with Souad Faress

MA: You know I think the old lady is my grandma, but I'll tell you a story, it also goes back to your previous question of Palestinian filmmaker or filmmaker that's Palestinian, and I think being Palestinian is what led me to this path because I have two memories of how I became a filmmaker. There is one when I was a teenager and digital technology was on the rise and we got our hands onto digital cameras and editing software and we thought okay this is our time to tell our stories to the world and, you know, film documentaries about the occupation and what they're doing to us, and you would walk down the old city in Jerusalem and the minute they see you with a camera the first thing people would tell you. ‘Show them. Show them film. Show them.’ This is the first word you will hear around from everybody in the streets, the sellers, the passers-by, show them the world, you know?

So this is one experience as a teenager, the other experience as a child was when we bought the very first video camera in, you know, the early 90s and the first thing that came to mind for the family was to go and visit my grandmother’s destroyed house which is now part of an Israeli kibbutz and we're not allowed to go there, redeem it or ask for it or whatever, and my grandma refused to go, it has been ages she didn't go at the time, you know, she hasn't been there since the 40s, you know? She just lives a couple of kilometres away but it was so heavy for her she could not do it. In the end they convinced her, let's do it, my uncle who was a wedding videographer operated the camera, my older sister was dragging me and my brother Rami, the kids around, you know, and my grandma just was giving us this tour of this place, you know, the destroyed house, the leftover of a part it looks like a window and she was pointing out this was the bedroom your mom was born here, that brick is my brick oven I used to you know prepare the bread and whatever, and I used to keep the chicken and the cow in this … you know, and you see me going around and throwing rocks into the well, you know, in the video and then we came back home and this video tape, this VHS tape was the thing the family was talking about for months.

Everybody who would visit us they would show them the video, they were so proud of this video and for me as a four or five year old kid I was like. ‘Wow, this video thing, this moving image thing, is so powerful’. Like you look at the faces of … the silence in our living room when they were watching the TV, you know, and it was so impressive to me, you know, because as kids we always want attention and this was taking all the attention in the world, you know, and I realised that for them later on, of course, I realised that for them that videotape was getting their life back, it was getting a part of the house back and they cherished that videotape so much that it was so powerful, it was so important to everybody in the family. So for me, yes, this is what brought me to filmmaking; I think this power of image, like they really believe that this VHS tape got them back some of their spirit of this life that they've lost, and it was there saved on this little, you know, video tape.

BG: Right then, okay, I'll let you go. So thanks for your time.

MA: Thank you so much, thank you appreciate it.

BG: Take care, man.

An edited version of this interview was first published in The Morning Star. A House in Jerusalem has UK-wide release on May 31st 2024.

Brett Gregory is currently in production on a short film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s classic parable, Before the Law. The cast and crew are predominantly working-class, and a majority of the action is to be shot in the Old Magistrates' Courts in Bolton in the north west of England.

How to Protest: UK Politics, Press and Propaganda
Wednesday, 10 April 2024 12:57

How to Protest: UK Politics, Press and Propaganda

Brett Gregory interviews Giedre Kubiliute, principal author of Protests and the Media: A Critical Event Studies Exploration into the Future of Protest (Routledge, 2024)

BG: Hi, my name is Brett Gregory and I'm an associate editor with the UK arts, culture and politics website, Culture Matters. What follows is a wide-ranging interview with the principal author of ‘Protests and the Media: A Critical Event Studies Exploration into the Future of Protest’, an excellent book published in February 2024 which interrogates the interrelationship between protest, politics and propaganda in the UK.

Hi. What is your name, and what are the academic origins behind your publication?

GK: My name is Giedre Kubiliute. My path into research began through my Master's research project while studying at Leeds Beckett University, and that's where I met Dr Ian Lamond, the co-author of the book who was my research supervisor at the time. Ian's areas of research interests include conceptual foundations of event research, creativity and events of dissent, death, fandom, critical geography, whereas myself, having no previous academic background, my interest in protest and dissent is rooted in my own past growing up in Lithuania in the turbulent 1980s and 1990s, and the significance of dissent throughout my country's history.

BG Black Lives Matter

BG: And what was the experiential key which helped you to unlock your motivation and determination with regards to completing this project?

GK: The book started as my Master's research project which I was due to start working on during the Covid-19 pandemic. All the events happening at the time, particularly the wave of the Black Lives Matter protests across the world, and Sarah Everard’s murder and the vigil. They were so emotionally charged and emotive, and the unprecedented context of the lockdown and the unknown that they were happening in, it added a whole new level of intensity. So, I personally found myself feeling really moved on some visceral level by all the protests taking place, and I wanted to interrogate that feeling further.

BG The Baltic Way 2 Chain of Freedom Lithuania 1989

BG: You mentioned your Lithuanian background earlier. In what ways has this characterised your political outlook?

GK: It took me back to my childhood and the events of dissent I was a witness to from The Baltic Way of 1989 – which was a demonstration of close to 2 million people creating a human chain (see above) which connected Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – to the hundreds of people defending the Lithuanian Parliament and the television tower in Vilnius, and standing up to the Russian tanks on the 13th January 1991 where 14 people lost their lives, to many other events I have seen or have been told about. So, to me protest events of defiance against oppression first and foremost, and they can bring hope, unite people and change the course of history, and they are tools to achieve societal change and innovation.

BG: And what wider sources have helped to define your own personal understanding of political dissent and protest?

GK: As Matthew Mars has said for innovation and the betterment of the existing situation to happen, there must be a form of so-called ‘creative disruption’. Or, as Henri Lefebvre said, a group of people who designate themselves as innovators must firstly intervene by imprinting a rhythm on an era, and their acts must inscribe themselves on reality.

So, seeing protest from my standpoint, it was very uncomfortable to observe how the media twisted and framed those events. Not only influencing how the public saw those specific events in question, but how the purpose and the driving force for that dissent was at times twisted to meet certain narratives that were perpetuated by certain media outlets or the state; and there was often a certain lack of will from the wider public to interrogate those narratives as well. And once you see it happen over and over again you can't unsee it: it happens everywhere all the time.

BG: Please tell us a little bit more about ‘Critical Event Studies’ as an academic subject, and how it can relate to our everyday lives.

GK: ‘Critical Event Studies’ interrogates the concept of an event. It frames the event as a rupture that can reveal the structures of power that underlie what's holding the daily life routines in place. Different theorists will use different terms which, while the meanings differ, they basically show that it is power or oppression that binds the routines of daily life into the practices of daily life. However, as well as exposing those power relationships, we also open up possibilities for different ways the relationships can be formed, and it's the event's ability to open up the multiplicity of alternative formations that enables resistance to existing power relationships.

When we stop seeing an event as something anchored to corporate or commercial constructions of events and project management, that enables us to draw on multiple fields and disciplines whilst seeking to explore their disruptive connections.

BG: Could you give a few specific examples?

GK: I mean there are so many of them, from a mainstream event studies perspective. We could look at the reactions to recent sporting mega events such as the Qatar World Cup or the recent iteration of the Olympic Games. We'll look at the debates of how to manage the most recent Eurovision song contest. Outside that narrow frame of reference, in the UK general elections, recent and emerging legislation around the forms protest can take; the huge upsurge in hate crime, particularly associated with sexual orientation and gender identity. None of them are critical events but they are ‘evental landscapes’ that warrant critical interrogation.

BG: Let's now look a little deeper into the mechanics and organics of political dissent and protest. What is the overall purpose, for example?

GK: Public dissent is really about publicly demonstrating counter-narratives. When we increase the level of knowledge and awareness of a topic the general trajectory of public discourse can be slightly nudged. It won't be an overnight solution, it's not a magic bullet kind of thinking. It's just a slight push but it can influence the change: it can draw people into coalitions as well, maybe those who were floating before. Of course, it can push people away too.

BG Extinction Rebellion Protest at Blackfriars Bridge 2018

Extinction Rebellion protest

One of the people we interviewed for our book Pete, a scientist for Extinction Rebellion and other movements, made a very interesting and important point. There is often a misunderstanding that a movement behind a protest always seeks some sort of approval from the public which is then followed by an argument that more disruptive protest action will turn the public against the movement. And Pete argued that the purpose of a protest is never to make the wider public like the movement: it's to draw the public's attention to the problem, and that can often be lost in how the events are framed by the media.

BG: And what possible consequences can such actions and events have for wider society?

GK: Roland Bleiker, a Professor of International Relations, suggested that if we push the understanding of democracy beyond an institutionalised framework of processes and procedures, then dissenting protest could be viewed as a new kind of democratic participation that actually makes a meaningful contribution to the theory and practice of global democracy. But, instead, we witness governments refusing to deal with the causes that push people to protest and often those governments won't even attempt to eliminate those reasons but will instead put forward legislation to increase police powers and punishment in an attempt to squash the dissent which will only set the system up for further failure.

BG: So, how do governments, corporations and their media associates manage to keep the public at large in check?

GK: Public relations will often use propaganda and persuasion techniques that make use of emotional triggers instead of rational arguments, and often those are used without any regard for potential underlying ethical issues. Popular media sources and even some academics tend to frame protest by using traditional ‘angry mob’ or ‘mob mentality’ concepts which originate in historic crowd psychology. This cliché has been perpetuated to the extent where just one mention of a protest will evoke an image of an angry crowd in some people's minds.

BG: Can you give us a specific example of this?

GK: In April 2023 Extinction Rebellion organised an event called ‘The Big One’, and this event attracted approximately 100,000 participants and it was run in cooperation with the police. However, I'm pretty sure that hardly anyone has heard about it because we know that there are various reasons why the media will not cover peaceful gatherings.

If you speak to some journalists that have turned to activism I'm sure they'll tell you that disruptive events are partially driven and encouraged by the media itself, so the reporters are not exactly free to report the topics they feel are important as the power structures within their corporations decide what narratives and stories are acceptable. So, sometimes publishing a coverage of events may be the only way to touch on the issues at the heart of the dissent. However, for a journalist to be able to cover the event it has to be of significant scope and cause enough disruption to attract the media attention, so in that way media in itself can act as a catalyst for disruptive action.

BG: And the work of Noam Chomsky has been important in terms of your understanding of, for instance, ‘soft power’ shaping public opinion.

GK: In our book we talk a lot about how Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Propaganda Model’ is still very much alive today and it can be adapted for the new information technologies, and the way the information society operates. This model looks at how the so-called ‘raw information’ or ‘raw news’ gets filtered and manipulated by the factors of who owns the media firms, where their political interests lie, advertising as the primary income source; the reliance of the media on information provided by the government and so-called experts who are funded and approved by those sources and agents of power.

BG: What do you mean by the term ‘priority distortion’ with regards to mainstream mediated communication?

GK: Mainstream media, and particularly those sources specialising in ‘soft news’, they will use what we call ‘priority distortion’ by firstly reporting on some celebrity drama which will be followed by a story about political or social welfare issues, and that creates an absurd contrast in the reader’s mind and it devalues any interest in political engagement. When we spoke to a member of Extinction Rebellion they told us that the right-wing media will sometimes publish articles stating that the scientists are concerned about the climate emergency, but will not explain any details. So that makes such a topic and news too complex for some of the readers to understand or engage with; and, worryingly, as coverage of important social issues can be distorted and controlled by misinformation and omission, the public and some mid-level policy makers will still be basing their decisions on such filtered information.

BG: And ‘perspectivism’?

GK: ‘Perspectivism’ is a concept that looks at how we interpret the world around us based on our views and perceptions, and that is a result of the impact, the ideology and material conditions have on news reporting, which in itself is a process of choosing what information to report on and then using that information to carve it into further narratives. Most frequently we can witness the narratives that create a binary between us and them where ‘they’ will be positioned as problematic disruptive outsiders whose actions and nature are always so transparent to us, while they cannot fully appreciate the complexity of the virtuous ‘us’.

BG: Them and Us. Us and Them.

GK: So, there’s binaries are everywhere you can find them in the news reporting, ranging from the local reports about disruptive protesters in the UK, the asylum seekers in Europe, the narratives about gender identity, religion, to ultimately the West against Russia narrative which has been perpetuated by the Russian government over the last couple of years. We also witnessed it again when the right-wing media reacted to Extinction Rebellion's blockade of Murdoch's print works and used character assassinations of individual members of the movement in order to discredit the whole movement.

BG: Misinformation, disinformation, character assassinations … How do they keep getting away with it?

GK: Often the ruling elite will also use the concept of national security and intelligence to control any information leaks that could pose a danger to the ruling classes and corporations; and those who question the corporate political and military powers will be labelled as traitors. In the same way mainstream media can be used to drive the general public away from political debates by conditioning people to support the policies of political elites by claiming that those policies are essential for state security and public safety, although they are really aimed at silencing the voices that could be dangerous to those who are in power.

BG: And what else has your research uncovered?

GK: In our research it was interesting to observe how the media's portrayal of police actions at protests shifted depending on the event. All three events we spoke about in the book took place within about a year of each other during the lockdowns and under the same guidelines. However, the media was expecting the police to behave very differently in each of them; and not only that, the media can use a protest event as a basis to reinforce certain narratives that lie at the heart of the movement. In our book we explore how both right-leaning and left-leaning media displayed overall similar attitudes and coverage of the events around Sarah Everard’s vigil, but behind that coverage they had very different attitudes and discussions regarding the matter of women’s safety. And there are so many more examples of how public opinions are formed to avoid any interrogation.

BG Sarah Everard The Search for Justice BBC 2024

BG: For example?

GK: One that really boils my blood is the conversations we are having about gender-neutral toilets. What we have now is an argument that women's safety is put in danger as essentially men posing at trans-women or otherwise can get access to women's spaces. So, the narrative has been turned to position two marginalised groups, women and trans-people, against each other and to put trans-people in a role of the threat when the real and, in my opinion, very obvious situation is that women are worried about their safety because men in disguise or not pose a threat to women's safety, and not only women's: any other marginalised groups really. It's a historical, cultural and societal problem that we are avoiding and we're not talking about.

So, what we do as a society now, we position two marginalised groups against each other as enemies and allow the real perpetrator to walk away unchallenged and unscathed. Those who pose the real danger just so happen to also hold the power in terms of capital, legislation, justice, policing, yet they don't get challenged. Why don't we as a society start having those uncomfortable conversations? Why aren't we challenging our male friends, family members? Why don't we educate our sons and employees and teach them the values they never had to be bothered to learn? Because it's an uncomfortable conversation, and people would rather find an enemy in a marginalised group that holds no power than challenge the real problem. Again, you see this everywhere and I think as a society, and particularly in this country, we will do everything in order to avoid any uncomfortable conversation. So, we will happily reinforce power structures even though they are contributing to the collapse of society, and put people and the planet in danger, just so, God forbid, we don't have to question anyone.

BG: Indeed. Utterly shameful. We are talking about at least 2,000 years of white patriarchy however – fully resourced by seemingly unlimited wealth and power – and which is, sadly, as embedded into our society and collective psyche as the foundations of Hadrian's Wall are embedded into the earth.

I believe it is going to take at least another 200 years of round-the-clock vigilance, education, activism and sacrifice for a truly permanent attitudinal change to be accepted on a national scale.However, isn't this one of the reasons why we choose to be here right now in 2024: to continue to help bring about progressive and positive change in others in some small but significant way? And with this in mind, I suppose we should continue and explore how propaganda and persuasion techniques are currently being employed online.

GK: The dominant social media platforms have concentrated ownership and form a very concentrated market. So, while on television and in the printed press the advertisers can target specific audiences, on social media multiple audiences can be targeted at once and this can be done artificially through bots which not only create automated posts, shares, likes and such but can be used as a tool to target and harass journalists and activists to flood them with hate and threads from artificially created accounts.

BG: And, of course, the reaction of the billionaire owners of these platforms is to simply hide away in their high-security ivory towers and count their money. As a consequence, where does that leave the rest of us?

GK: Facebook and Google algorithms are kept as a corporate secret so the owners control them and determine new sources for the general public. So the algorithms selected, exposure and audience fragmentation, they all create a hotbed for radicalisation, deep fake videos, voice cloning, generative text and other AI-generated content are becoming more and more convincing, and they have been widely used to spread disinformation during the US presidential elections, the Kremlin's attempts to discredit European governments, bots and fake accounts have been widely reported to be used by Russia to create counter-narratives around the war in Ukraine. It's also suspected that the Chinese government used fake news stories in a barrage jamming technique to overwhelm certain hashtags and make the readers see images of cotton fields as opposed to the tweet about the forced labour camps.

One of the people we interviewed for the book shared her horrific experiences, when following her public actions trolls created a fake ‘Only Fans’ account where they had her face superimposed and which was shared to her family, and those trolls used and altered photographs of her mother who had passed away to harass this person even further.

BG: It's like a war, an ideological, hyperreal war. Such a daily and nightly barrage of abuse must take its toll on activists and protesters on a personal level?

GK: We gathered from the people we interviewed for the book that a lot of people come to social activism not really knowing what to expect or rather not understanding how hard-hitting and life-changing this choice can be. First of all it's a huge and steep learning curve. An individual may think they might know enough and that they stand firmly on the ground, however joining a movement seems to open a floodgate of information or truth that one was not prepared for. Ultimately, it can create a sense of burden and loss and foster a sense of duty to create a change, and it will likely impact personal life choices going further as well which can have a negative impact on existing relationships, family ties, even professional life. Ultimately, it is likely to have a very significant impact on a person's mental health.

BG: Of course, naturally.

BG Green and Black Cross Group Manchester 2023

Green and Black Cross Group

GK: Then again there are other significant aspects. The question of finding one's identity and purpose within a movement; finally seeing that a change can be achieved and advocated for through collective action; network-building, finding like-minded people. So, there is a lot to consider, there is a lot of potential for life-changing happenings. Social movements also need to support activists more. Whether that support will be on a movement by movement basis, or it adopts the lines of something like the Green and Black Cross Group where an independent body of volunteer counsellors are established to support movements.

This is something both Ian and I want to interrogate further. The mediated manipulation of activism and activists has raised profound mental health and well-being issues for social movements, and to neglect working on those can cause high risk to individuals and to the work of the movements for social justice.

BG: Due to the absolute derelict state the UK is in at the moment I'm certain there are many, many conscientious readers and listeners out there who have seriously considered political activism of some sort but then again, on a personal level, is it worth the risk?

GK: There is always a risk but there are a couple of important things to bear in mind. Engaged democratic mobilisation for change that operates through a perspective of care and conviviality is much stronger on the left than it is on the right politically. It is opposed to the neoliberalist stance that promotes the destruction of the social through increased focus on the individual. We mentioned well-being and personal transformations that individuals undergo when they get involved in activism, and that's not to scare or put anyone off, it's to highlight how all-encompassing such transformations can be. And I think it's important for the movements to remember that they are creating lasting networks where peer support and education must be and it must remain one of the priorities and, hopefully, external players being aware of what activism entails. The various aspects and sometimes risks, they can also contribute to the societal change by offering their support and promoting and facilitating the culture of collaboration between different networks and groups.

The political right is far less about conviviality and much more about the spectacle and Donald Trump is an example of this above all others. Late capitalist democracy is very skilled at appropriating the tools of activism and converting them into commodified commercial opportunities, but activism isn't static either. What this means is that as activists we must always be adapting, growing and evolving. By assuming the approach we are now adopting that will affect change we will essentially be walking those techniques into the hands of those we are opposing, so only by being agile and creative we can keep ahead.

BG: Many thanks for your time, insights and patience, Giedre.

‘Protests and the Media: A Critical Event Studies Exploration into the Future of Protest’ is available now via the Routledge website.

The Trust Fall: Julian Assange
Saturday, 16 March 2024 12:06

The Trust Fall: Julian Assange

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews the director of The Trust Fall: Julian Assange, and reviews the film

Kym Staton appears on screen, tired. In the little Zoom box in front of me he is sitting at a table in a little box room in a hotel with his head a little bowed. He is the Australian director and producer of the 2023 documentary, The Trust Fall, a 126 minute rumination on the 15 year political evisceration of the journalist, activist and WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who has been indicted under the 1917 US Espionage Act and incarcerated in Belmarsh Prison in London since 2019.

I am sure that releasing this film in the UK in the wake of Assange’s final appeal at the Supreme Court on February 20-21, amidst cacophonous coverage from the international media, seemed like a good idea at the time.

After Staton’s twenty minutes with The Daily Star, it is my turn. I ask what inspired him to produce the documentary. 

‘In 2010 I was watching the news in my living room,’ he replies, ‘and I was absolutely shocked to see 12 civilians, including two journalists, being shot dead on a street in Baghdad by a US Army helicopter.

‘Seven or eight years later I started to explore some films about Assange and WikiLeaks, and I started to make sense of it all. It just happened that three years ago I had some spare time to make a documentary. I’m an Australian and Assange is an Australian citizen who’s just a few years older than me, and I really admire his bravery, his striving for peace and truth.’

The coarse black-and-white footage filmed from the POV of a circling US Apache gunship in 2007 – subsequently disclosed to WikiLeaks by whistleblower, Chelsea Manning – forms the centrepiece of ‘The Trust Fall’, providing undeniable, demented and damning evidence of the US military’s febrile ferocity during its operations in Iraq.

‘What the US government didn’t bank on,’ Staton continues, ‘was that we were going to dredge up this footage, enhance it and make it even more shocking and more powerful by putting it on a screen for an audience, eliciting all kinds of emotive elements that would make grown men cry.’

The segment is called ‘Collateral Murder’, and I ask where he acquired the footage.

‘It’s freely available on the Sunshine Press YouTube channel,’ he informs me. ‘It’s been there since 2010 but it’s only had a couple of million views. This shows you that YouTube hasn’t taken it off their platform, but they’re definitely stopping it from circulating, and perhaps that’s why only 5% of the world’s population has seen it.

‘Plus there is the never-seen-before footage of the 10-year-old boy who was a victim of that incident.’

He is referring to Sajad Sattar Mutashar who, along with his father, was gunned down by the Apache crew as they attempted to rescue some of the wounded from off the street. While his father was killed, Sajad survived and, during an archive interview featured in the documentary, the boy lifts up his t-shirt, in tears, to reveal a scar rising up from his stomach to his sternum.

I point out that there are far-reaching issues at stake in The Trust Fall which, ominously, are critical to the future direction of Western democracy, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and governmental accountability.

I then ask if he has any plans to produce a follow-up documentary, regardless of whether Julian Assange is extradited to the US or not?

‘Well, this film was such a laborious process I wouldn't be surprised if I never make one again,’ he confesses. ‘It just stretched me to my absolute limits. I'm not a career documentary-maker, I'm a musician in fact; and once this is all finished I'd quite happily go back to my singer/song writing adventures and take things easy. But certainly, with this project, with this cause and this campaign, I won't stop until Julian is free.’

And with that my time is up.

‘We’ll be in touch,’ the PR tells me, and the little Zoom box goes black. I remain at my desk, however, and ponder Australia. There are twenty or so screenings of the documentary taking place there throughout March, and I imagine the ways in which it will be received differently than in the UK.

Al Jazeera reported that a motion had been proposed in the Australian Parliament by MP Andrew Wilkie on February 15th and, in response, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese argued that the Australian government had a duty to lobby for its citizens and that he had raised the issue ‘at the highest levels’ in Britain and the US. ‘This thing cannot just go on and on and on indefinitely,’ he said.

Of course, from the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, there has been nothing. Nothing but silence.

Lacking discipline, deftness and definitiveness

With regards to the documentary itself, as well as the accomplished publicity campaign which accompanies it, I find it admirable that the team has managed, amidst a mediated milieu of animosity and apathy, to strongarm Julian Assange’s sorrowful saga of persecution and imprisonment into the public eye.

Allied with the leaked footage of the US military’s multi-million dollar drive-by shooting of twelve Iraqi civilians, it is hoped that the audiences the film connects with will rightfully and rigorously reflect upon the war crimes which their superiors commit, and the whistleblowers they condemn, in their name. Whether or not they choose to act upon the results of such reflection, however, is another matter.

Unfortunately, as a cinematic construction, the production does not deliver the stylistic or narrative discipline, deftness or definitiveness which such high-profile political subject matter deserves. The music cues are often immodest, the editing inelegant, and the unrestrained use of still photographs somewhat undermines our understanding of cinema as ‘the art of the moving image’.

The production’s aesthetic endeavours are sadly exacerbated by a parallel animated narrative running throughout which aims to illustrate and dramatise Assange’s ordeal. However, this is not needed: the wide array of political, legal and intellectual talking-heads, interspersed with footage harvested from online sources, serves this purpose effectively enough. Thus, instead of humanising a blighted man on our behalf, we are instead distracted from him.

Furthermore, the running time of the documentary is too long and should have been restricted to about 90 minutes, so it would be more accessible to a wider and younger audience. For instance, probably due to their international reputations as purveyors of peace and justice, the late journalist and documentarian, John Pilger, and the writer and activist, Tariq Ali, are somewhat overused and, inevitably, their political points begin to grow repetitive.

In the denouement of the documentary, we are also met by multiple emotive endings, an act of authorial indiscipline which subverts the clear, compelling and conclusive call-to-action which a political production of this type requires.

In short, this film’s heart is firmly in the right place, but its head sometimes is not.

The Trust Fall: Julian Assange is released in selected UK cinemas from March 15th 2024.

'Americonned' film review: how we're conned by capitalism in the US and Britain
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 17:52

'Americonned' film review: how we're conned by capitalism in the US and Britain

Published in Films

Hi, my name is Brett Gregory, Associate Editor for the UK arts, culture and politics website, Culture Matters, and this is my review of Sean Claffey’s 2023 documentary, Americonned.

Throughout the 20th century Hollywood often hypnotised us with its mirages of the United States which were altogether beautiful, beguiling and bountiful, its diverse and dramatic population constantly reinventing itself as it seemingly surged as one towards the comfort and glory of the American Dream.

Sean Claffey’s documentary, Americonned, bluntly announces that that dream is now over as it charges us through an economic war set in the first quarter of 21st century North America.

Human casualties who look exactly like you and me litter the hideous housing projects in Florida, the basement apartments buried in New Jersey and the forgotten farms of Iowa, instantly reminding us of our own crumbling council estates in Newcastle, the boarded-up shops in Bolton and the bankruptcy of Birmingham City Council.


Ana (Florida): I'm looking for storage units. Next door, yesterday they put my friend out, my neighbour, and they had what I thought was a legal document, you know, to help them, you know, stay. But unfortunately, neither the sheriffs nor the management company would accept the paperwork and they, you know, kicked them out, and I don't want that to happen to me.

Elaine (Boston): With this job I'm not making enough. I have tried to apply for a loan through the SBA. That's a nightmare. I tried to apply for the PPP. They denied me for that because it was not the accurate information. I really want to give up because I'm just so tired. I don't know. I don't sleep much at night, so I just lay there and I think and I think and I think and I think, and I can't figure a way out. And I've always been able to figure a way out, and I can't. My kids literally hate me because I can't fix the problems of the world.

J. D. Scholten (Iowa): When I decided to move home several years ago, I looked in my hometown paper for a job for about a month, and the best job I could get is 15 bucks an hour and no benefits. Whether it's a McDonald's or Dollar General or whatever, they hire people for 10 / 12 bucks an hour and the profits go out of the district. That's not benefiting our society, that's not benefiting our communities. The economy isn't working for here. It benefits these multinational corporations.


Like a military dossier detailing the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces during World War II, this film manages its moral outrage with dark data that refutes the false flag of fiscal progress which is waved mechanically, and maniacally, by the mainstream media across our syndicated smart screens.

In line with the rise of workers’ productivity since the 1960s, for instance, the minimum wage should be at least $20 an hour in the US, but it isn’t, is it? Instead, it’s a sickening $7.25 an hour.

For the record, and according to the Trade Union Congress, the minimum wage in the UK should be £15 an hour, but instead it’s £11.54.

In turn, 70% of all adults who work full-time in North America have to suffer the humiliation of receiving government aid, while in the UK over 6.4 million people, including myself, are claiming Universal Credit.

Moreover, although the long-term average unemployment figures across the United States are around 5.7%, Marty Walsh, former Mayor of Boston, observes that the 6.1% unemployment rate for the black community and the 9.7% rate for the Latino community will never, ever improve.

So, where did all the money go? And what about all that hope?

Well, coincidentally, in 1987 there were 47 billionaires in the United States with a total net worth of $186 billion. In 2024 however we now have 759 billionaires with a combined wealth of – wait for it – $4.48 trillion.

Such figures, to any rational mind, are absolutely ridiculous.

It’s as if we’re playing a game of Monopoly in a locked room against Charles Manson, a machete in his right hand, a litre of tequila in his left.

But such a subhuman socio-economic state of affairs didn’t happen by accident now, did it?

Amongst other things Machiavellian men and women with incalculable capital, connections and control desired for it to be this way, they conspired for it to be this way, and they contrived for it to be this way.

But who was the original Svengali, the David Koresh, the Colonel Kurtz that first let this Wall Street savagery loose upon the streets and suburbs of California, Texas, Washington, Britain and the rest of the world?

According to Kurt Andersen, author of ‘Evil Geniuses’, and venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer:


Kurt Andersen (Author): Milton Friedman was an incredibly important figure. He was at the University of Chicago where he was at the centre of this group of libertarian economists, and they were really outside the mainstream.

Milton Friedman (Economist): Personally, of course I would get rid of social security. I've always said it was one of the great miracles of Madison Avenue packaging.

TV Interviewer: Would you do about the minimum wage law if you could?

Milton Friedman (Economist): I would abolish it.

Kurt Andersen (Author): Then in 1970 the New York Times magazine invited him to essentially summarise his beliefs in an article that they called ‘A Friedman Doctrine’.

Television Talk Show Host: Please welcome the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Milton Friedman.


Kurt Andersen (Author): He was making the case that for businesses nothing mattered but profits. Not the well-being of your employees, not the well-being of your communities, not the well-being of the larger society. All that matters was your profits – period.

Nick Hanauer (Venture Capitalist): He was making a claim about how human economies worked. That the more selfish business executives were the better it would be for everyone, and that's what people bought. The trick of trickle-down economics is not believing that when the rich get richer that's good for the economy; the evil part is the belief that when the poor get richer that will harm the economy. And that has been the basic message of our nation's economic system for the last 40 years.


But surely there are robust constitutional and legal mechanisms in place, which have been historically drawn up to prevent such wanton ransacking of the social contract between employers and their employees, citizens and their government?

Well, unfortunately, Americonned is quick to alert us that in the United States of America, the land of free enterprise and brave opportunism, even democracy is up for sale.


Kurt Andersen (Author): So how do you change things permanently? Well, you change law, you change the way the judiciary interpret what is constitutional or not. A big way that change is made is by billionaire right-wingers giving 50 million or 100 million each to all the best law schools. And, oh, by the way, let's also start this fraternity, mafia, whatever you want to call it.

CBSN Host: So what exactly is the Federalist Society?

Eric Lipton (Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist): The Federalist Society got started through law schools and it's grown into an organisation that has incredible influence in the United States.

MSNBC Host: Getting conservative judges on the bench has been a project for multiple decades.

Kurt Andersen (Author): Once you get both the law and Washington lawmakers, you could make sure that those laws were going to be declared constitutional or not by judges you have essentially bred in your laboratory through the Federalist Society.

Keith Olbermann (Countdown News Host): Today the Supreme Court of Chief Justice, John Roberts, declared that corporations had all the rights of people.

Bernie Sanders (US Politician): What you have right now is the undermining of American democracy as we know it.

Keith Olbermann (Countdown News Host): There are now no checks on the ability of corporations to decide our elections. None.


Although there are many heartbreaking and humanising speeches and scenarios in Americonned that any level-headed left-winger or progressive would be engaged and enraged by, the documentary is not without its faults.

For the sake of audience inclusion and narrative drive, for instance, Jeff Bezos is crudely cast as an obscene online Ozymandias, while his Amazon workforce are portrayed as his eternally suffering Egyptian slaves.

However, this basic binary, good versus evil approach overlooks the depth and breadth of the neoliberal tech-feudalist system which now operates above, below and within all supposed civilised societies, not just the United States, and which, it could be argued, accidentally engineers egregious entities like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

We’re talking here about a supremely organised interconnected network of institutions whose hourly purpose is to maintain absolute power by generating trillions of dollars via the day-to-day exploitation of the world’s 8 billion citizens.

Indeed, this global complex of control is of such incomprehensible scope and strength it would take centuries of round-the-clock resistance from millions of focused, educated, dedicated and resourced activists to even begin to attempt to dismantle it, let alone hold it to account.

Yep, we’re talking here about actual international governments, their presidents, senators, prime ministers and members of parliament; non-governmental organisations like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change; think tanks like The Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US and Chatham House in the UK; elite universities like Yale, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge; global 2000 companies like JPMorgan Chase, Saudi Aramco and China Construction Bank; pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk that make our medicines; energy companies like ExxonMobil and Shell that drive our cars; chemical companies like BASF and Sinopec that clean our floors; media companies like Disney and Comcast that are supposed to entertain us; tech companies like Apple and Alphabet that definitely detain us; arms manufacturers; the military; the CIA, MI5, FBI; the police, the prison service….all protecting their – not our – trillions upon trillions of dollars.

Americonned is currently available to buy in the UK as a DVD through Amazon Prime Video. This has been the UK arts, culture and politics website, Culture Matters, and I’ve been Brett Gregory.


Saturday, 10 February 2024 10:28

Zombies and capitalism: George A. Romero's anti-capitalist critique, and his democratic, collaborative film-making

Published in Films

Interview Transcript

BG: Victor Halperin's movie ‘White Zombie’ from 1932, Jacques Tourneur’s ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ from 1943, Gordon Douglas' ‘Zombies on Broadway’ from 1945 … all early warning signs which were ignored by the great and the good alike until …

[‘Night of the Living Dead’ audio clip]

TF: Hi Brett, my name is Tom Fallows. I work for the American Film Institute and I'm the author of ‘George A. Romero’s Independent Cinema: Horror, Industry, Economics’ published by Edinburgh University Press.

BG: Welcome, Tom. So, born in the Bronx in New York in 1940, who was George A. Romero?

TF: George Romero is an American independent filmmaker best known for his series of zombie films which spanned from 1968 to 2009. Beginning with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Romero and his collaborators essentially invented the modern idea of the zombie.

BG: What do you mean by ‘the modern idea of the zombie’?

TF: Traditionally, zombies had their roots in Haitian folklore, where they were basically dead bodies bought back to life as slaves through magic. Romero removed this magical component and reimagined the zombie as a mindless ghoul hungry for human flesh. In the process he also transformed them into something more immediate. He embedded his creation into the heart of America, where for US audiences they were no longer some kind of existential other: they were deceased friends, neighbours and family members.

BG: Romero's ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1968 was much more than a horror film, wasn't it?

TF: ‘Night …’ was famous for being one of the first US films to have an African-American hero where his race is never mentioned. Romero insists that lead actor Dwayne Jones was only cast because he was the best actor among his friends, but race is crucial to the film. Jones's hero ‘Ben’ is fiercely intelligent and capable and ends up hiding from the zombie hordes in a farmhouse where he's trapped with a white patriarchal father who undercuts Ben's agency at every turn, and the film ends in kind of the starkest way possible with Ben surviving the zombies but killed by a white posse that had supposedly come to the rescue.

G Night of the Living Dead 1968

[‘Night of the Living Dead’ audio clip]

TF: As other critics have pointed out, the images in this black and white horror film were evocative of a harrowing real world violence at the time where bloody attacks and assassinations on civil rights leaders and protesters frequently played out in the streets and on the evening news. In that sense there are moments in ‘Night …’ with its gritty low-budget aesthetic that feel almost like a documentary, and demonstrated Romero, whether he admitted it then or not, as a socially conscious counterculture filmmaker with his finger on the pulse of what was going on in America.

BG: So how would you describe Romero's view on people, on humanity?

TF: A main theme of his film is really communities, and how people interact with each other. When its dystopic, such as in his zombie films, it's about the impossibility for humans to function collaboratively, and how this failure often results in our destruction. The human survivors of the zombie apocalypse can never work together, and this failure ultimately leads to catastrophe. This is a thread that I think is very, very current in 2024.

BG: People not helping one another during difficult times, motivated only by self-interest? I'm … I'm … shocked! So what role does Romero's use of explicit imagery play in all this? You know – the violence, the gore, the consumption of self-centred human beings?

TF: The key aesthetic in Romero's films is obviously the violence. It's the gore: his films often revel in scenes of carnage and zombies devouring human flesh in extreme close-up. While the violence in these films has been controversial, often resulting in X ratings or getting the films banned, it never feels gratuitous, it's never violence for violence’s sake. To me the gore is crucial to Romero's politics: it gives an edge to the satire, it presents his rhetoric as something fierce and exceptionally angry and urgent. In that way these films are almost like the best punk music in that they are confrontational, anarchic and disdainful of the status quo.

BG: You mentioned ‘these films’. Tell us a little about his follow-up feature ‘Dawn of the Dead’.

TF: So after ‘Night’s …’ critique of race and racism, the sequel ‘Dawn of the Dead’ in 1978 turned to issues of consumerism in a very pointed manner. It's set in a shopping mall where it's almost impossible to see the difference between the zombies and contemporary American shoppers. ‘They are us!’ is a key line in the film and a key line in Romero's zombie cinema. The survivors in ‘Dawn …’ meanwhile use the mall as a refuge and the comfort they get from its wares allows them to ignore what's happening in the outside world. Again, this is an overt plainly-stated satire on the direction Romero felt America was headed in the 1970s. Ultimately, the film's not about consumerist greed as some critics have stated, but it's about ignoring the problems we collectively face as a society.

G Dawn of the Dead 1978

[‘Dawn of the Dead’ audio clip]

BG: Now, what I find very interesting is that not only were ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ both shot in Pittsburgh, Romero's production company, Laurel Entertainment, was also situated in Pittsburgh, rather than, say, Hollywood.

TF: Pittsburgh was crucial. As an independent filmmaker it gave him the freedom to tell the stories that he wanted to tell, largely without the interference of Hollywood or corporate decision-making. To begin with he was working with low budgets and drawing upon the local business community for financing which really allowed him to fly under the radar and produce the kinds of bold, politically radical films that we've been talking about. It also gave him space to experiment with alternative working practices and, at the start of his career, his films were much more collaborative or egalitarian than traditional modes of filmmaking allow. Romero and collaborators, such as John Russo and Russ Streiner, were really striving for a democratic process of filmmaking. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ particularly was made in this uniquely collaborative style where, although Romero was credited as the director, all the key decision-making was done collectively by a core team – from editing to shot selection to production design to core aspects of the screenplay.

BG: It sounds like a socialist, cinematic utopia. What could have possibly gone wrong?

TF: Although it started as a grassroots organisation, the international success of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ – which earned over $55 million at the box office – really changed the shape of their operations. After ‘Dawn of the Dead’ the firm went public and it became beholden to shareholders and committee meetings, just the kind of bureaucracy that Romero tried to avoid and that ultimately pushed him away from the company in the mid-1980s.

BG: Capitalism crushes creative collaboration – Stop the Press! This said however, Romero, Laurel Entertainment and their horde of zombies actually did bring some genuine prosperity to Pittsburgh in more ways than one, didn't they?

TF: Although this experiment in egalitarian film production didn't last, Romero always valued the creative input of collaborators, and his company nurtured a base of film workers that ultimately helped transform Pittsburgh more widely. This base of trained professionals fed into Pittsburgh and transformed it into a leading film centre. It remains a leading film centre to this day with Hollywood productions such as ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ using that talent base in Pittsburgh to create these big-budget films.

BG: And, of course, Romero's cinematic influence spread much farther than Pennsylvania.

TF: In terms of Romero's impact on independent cinema more widely, this can be seen most evidently in horror. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ awakened filmmakers such as Toby Hooper with ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and Wes Craven with ‘Last House on the Left’ to not only the socio-political potential of the genre but also its affordability, demonstrating filmmaking as something that could be achieved outside of Hollywood, and even outside of New York, without compromising on their artistic vision or political ideology. ‘Halloween’ director, John Carpenter, famously once said if any independent filmmaker tells you that they weren't influenced by Romero and ‘Night of the Living Dead’, they're lying.

BG: And what about the young pretenders who have followed in his wake? Sprightly socialist transgressives, or lethargic capitalist copycats?

TF: Romero’s idea of the zombie has become dominant and it’s something we now see in everything from the AMC TV show, ‘The Walking Dead’, to Zac Snyder’s recent Netflix film, ‘Army of the Dead’. But what these recent films and TV shows tends to leave out is, as you say, the transgressive political address that has defined Romero's critical reputation.

BG: Finally, George A. Romero died in 2017. How will you remember him, Tom?

TF: Romero ended his career in Toronto, once again producing low-budget zombie films that were at once fiercely critical of American capitalism and deeply humanist in their approach to characters. I think the best thing that you can say about Romero is that he was always true to his countercultural roots and never stopped believing in the prospect of something better for America.

BG: Great to have had you on the show, man. Many thanks for your time and your insights.

TF: Thanks, Brett, it's been a pleasure to talk to you.

BG: This has been the UK Desk for Arts Express with Dr. Tom Fallows, author of ‘George A. Romero’s Independent Cinema: Horror, Industry, Economics’ which is available now via the Edinburgh University Press website. Cheers!

G George A. Romero Horror Economics Industry 2023

‘Folk Horror on Film: Return of the British Repressed’
Thursday, 01 February 2024 09:33

‘Folk Horror on Film: Return of the British Repressed’

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Louis Bayman, Associate Professor Film Studies at the University of Southampton

BG:  Even before the suicidal insanity of Brexit, the UK has always been regarded by the wider world as a very posh, very violent and very strange country: out of place and out of time, lost in its own history, locked inside one of its own dungeons.

Indeed, to acquire some sort of insight into the oddity of our people, our customs and our belief systems, one only needs to watch four films: ‘The Witchfinder General’ from 1968, the unsung classic ‘Cry of the Banshee’ from 1970, ‘Blood on Satan's Claw’ from 1971 and, of course, ‘The Wicker Man’ from 1973.

Folk horror The Wicker Man 1973

[Audio clip from ‘The Wicker Man’]

LB: Hi there, Brett. It's really nice to be here and thanks very much for inviting me to speak to your listeners at Arts Express. My name is Louis Bayman and I'm an Associate Professor in the Department of Film Studies at the University of Southampton here in the UK.

BG: Many thanks for lending us your time, Louis. So, folk horror.

LG: British cinema and, in fact, television in the late 1960s and 1970s contributed many of what's now recognised as being the classics of folk horror. The folk horror scholar, Dawn Keetley, in fact points out that most horror can in some way find its traces back in tales around the campfire, in folklore, in myths and legends that were particularly popular back in the earlier kinds of periods which folk horror often represents.

BG: And what about its cultural history?

LB: There had been an interest in folklore and the folkloric past at least since Victorian times. James Fraser and ‘The Golden Bough’ - actually not a really particularly scholarly reliable compendium of supposed pagan practices, but nevertheless one that was enormously influential on popular modern understandings of what might have existed before modernity in Britain. We're interested in looking back at the societies that we feel that we've supplanted as well, of course, as looking forward to the society that we may wish to become in the future.

BG: Fascinating. Unlike most other film genres folk horror is very much seated in British history, its internal conflicts and its desire for self-destruction.

LB: Folk horror stages times of social crisis. So ‘Witchfinder General’ is set in the 1640s during the English Revolution, ‘Blood on Satan's Claw’ is set in the very early 18th century, again in England, and there's frequent reference made to the Jacobite rebellions which were ongoing at the time. And then there's also a film called ‘Cry on the Banshee’ from 1970 which was set in Elizabethan England.

Folk Horror Cry of the Banshee 1970

[Audio clip from ‘The Cry of the Banshee’]

LB: These are films that are squarely about Britain itself and British history, and can't simply be solved by a group of peasants with pitchforks chasing after Frankenstein's monster. There's an important class element here as well because the gothic tends to be set in the castles of barons and counts; there's a whole other history about how the gothic is a product of a modern England which is going through the Industrial Revolution / capitalist liberalism but looking anxiously back on the aristocratic past that it hasn't entirely left behind. However, what you get with folk horror is much more of a concentration on the peasantry which, of course, made up the vast bulk of the population.

BG: What's distinctive about folk horror though? What separates it and, in my opinion, elevates it beyond other horror sub-genres?

LB: Whereas in the traditional gothic you might have vampires, werewolves, other kinds of ghouls that threaten the community from outside, in folk horror what's distinctive is that it is the community itself that is the source of violence, of anguish and fear. In folk horror it's civilisation itself which is the problem: its belief systems, systems of ritual, systems of punishment and justice which are actually particularly threatening. So it's not a fear of savagery but actually of customs, of lifestyles, of arable agricultural land – rather than the wilderness that we might associate with the sublime of the gothic – and it's a fear of a particular form of education and social development; fears of how what is totemic for one society could be taboo for another.

BG: I remember sitting in the living room in the 1980s and watching ‘Psychomania’ on the television, hypnotised by its premise that with a little bit of witchcraft and self-belief suicide and death were just the beginning. However, these topics of teenage interest in our current happy-clappy corporate culture are now seemingly verboten.

LG: What I think is most radical is that folk horror removes any sense of there being a stable set of values at all, or any normative social order; both traditional society, pagan or cult worship and modernity are all shown to be equally mad. In ‘The Wicker Man’ Howie’s Christianity is just one form of ritual fanaticism which removed from the social structures that give it meaning and give it force seems perhaps to be just as ridiculous as the veneration of the old gods of the pagan community that he finds himself among.

So I think that folk horror, actually what's most disturbing about it, is the way that it points to how some societies and belief systems actively engage in ritual sacrifice. Other forms of social organisation might engage in corporisation, in the enclosures of the land, in persecution of heresy. And our adherence to one or another of those belief systems is not based on their fundamental rightness, but is based simply on accidents of history: the things that we find right and proper are considered by people from other cultures as horrific and vice versa.

Folk horror The Blood on Satans Claw 1971

[Audio clip from ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’]

BG: And, symbolically, we see such sacrifices played out over and over again when, for example, a prime minister is voted out of office. The right-wing mass media leading us to believe that this is some sort of ceremonial blood transfusion, but it isn't: as a country, as a collection of countries, we're actually dying, rotting on a throne like a Francis Bacon painting.

LB: There's a sense that maybe a certain vitality or a certain form of British pre-eminence is now slipping away and in that all sorts of other alternative forms of social organisation could come to the fore. And as well as this I think decolonisation is extremely important. No longer is weirdness and foreignness located in far-flung places across the rest of the world but actually within the British Isles itself, perhaps we're actually forced to look at ourselves now that we're no longer an imperial power.

This is the same kind of time that E. P. Thompson was talking about the rise of the English working class, a book which, in particular, is about the decline of handicraft, artisanal trades and ways of life, the very things that folk horror is particularly interested. Tom Nairn was writing about the breakup of Britain, and one of the articles, one of the chapters in the book that we've just co-edited, by Beth Carroll is about the uncomfortable position that Celtic cultures play within a broader understanding of Britain, and it draws attention to how many folk horrors are set, for example, in Wales, in Cornwall and in Scotland. So while Tom Nairn was writing at the end of the 1970s about a future breakup of Britain, in some ways we can see folk horror already in the decade prior to that kind of anticipating this notion.

John Berger, the Marxist art critic, had caused a scandal with his television show from 1972, ‘Ways of Seeing’, where he de-mythologises landscape painting by showing the ways that it actually asserts the dominance of a landholding class as being beautiful and as being part of nature, rather than the actual violent social process of enclosures and corporisation that it really was.

So there's a very similar demythologising impulse there in the films of folk horror which, as I say, on the one hand can be related to the counterculture of the late 1960s or a sense that society in general is perhaps falling apart or disintegrating, there's a great deal of disorder, and maybe folk horror is a fear of that sort of disorder; but underlying it even further a more relativised place and understanding Britain's own place within history, a recognition of the violence that formed British history and perhaps also a certain insecurity about what exactly Britain's future might be.

BG: It's such an all-encompassing and deeply involving film genre. For those who wish to investigate further, as well as your book, what would you recommend?

Folk horror Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched 2021

LB: Any of your listeners who are fans of the genre might have seen the recent documentary, ‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’, which is a three-hour long documentary that sprawls across a hundred years of film history from one part of the globe to another, and seems to pretty much cover everything that it possibly can do with any kind of sense of strangeness that might be attached to prior or rural beliefs and ways of life.

BG: And in conclusion, Louis, how would you personally sum up British folk horror?

LB: So I would say ultimately it speaks to a certain confusion about who we are as a society and where we're going. I don't think that there's the same kind of faith in progress that there was in the Victorian era or in the middle of the 20th century, and so folk horror speaks to a certain fear and an anxiety about social change, but without progress where are we going as a nation, as a people, as a class? What is there left for us to believe in?

BG: I couldn't have put it better myself, Louis. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Folk Horror on Film Return of the British Repressed 2023

This has been the UK Desk for Prairie Miller’s Arts Express with Dr Louis Bayman, co-editor with Professor Kevin Donnelly of ‘Folk Horror on Film’ which is currently available to buy through the Manchester University press website here. Cheers.

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York on January 31st. Brett Gregory is an independent filmmaker and broadcaster based in Greater Manchester. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Social media: @seriousfeather. Website:

Grim, glorious visions of broken Britain: a review of the film 'Tish', and the photography of Tish Murtha
Wednesday, 17 January 2024 12:10

Grim, glorious visions of broken Britain: a review of the film 'Tish', and the photography of Tish Murtha

Published in Films

Brett Gregory reviews 'Tish', directed by Paul Sng, 2023, and presents some of Tish Murtha's photographs

'My use of photography and the approach to it is based on the conviction that the fundamental value of the medium is its capacity to provide direct, accurate and vital records of the conditions, events and experiences that shape our lives.'

This is a quote from one of Patricia ‘Tish’ Murtha’s essays as narrated by Maxine Peake in Paul Sng’s observational and performative documentary, ‘Tish’, from 2023. In turn, it can be understood to be at the core of her socialist agenda as a working-class photographer and social realist documentarian.

As a 52-year-old working-class filmmaker myself, it’s depressing to see that the desolate council estate where she was raised in Elswick, Newcastle, was very similar in style and content to the miserable maze of treacherous terraced houses where I grew up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Places where poverty, illiteracy, alcoholism, drugs, child abuse, domestic violence, vandalism and boredom were the main attractions.

Ex Miner New Found out Pub Newport 1977 Ella Murtha

Ex-Miner, New Found Out Pub, Newport, 1977 © Ella Murtha. In 1976 Tish Murtha, with support from her tutors Dennis Birkwood and Mick Henry, secured a funded place on a photography course at Newport College of Art and Design run by David Hurn. The New Found Out Pub on Cambrian Road in Newport was notorious for serving lumpy cider.

While the working-class residents of Elswick were ravaged by the descent and dismantling of the steel and shipbuilding industries during the latter part of the 20th century, Mansfield, a mining community, was decimated and deformed by the Thatcher-led pit closures in the early to mid-1980s. This mining community had been composed almost entirely of regional migrants, particularly from Scotland, Wales and, coincidentally, Tyneside. Indeed, the older lads I sometimes hung around with outside the local shops during my mid-teens – Carl, JJ, Biddy, Kev and Mozz – were all Geordies.

In the summer of 1985, I remember that JJ saved up enough money to get a tattoo of his beloved Newcastle United on his arm, but when he peeled the scab off after a few days it read ‘Newcastle Uniten’ instead. It seemed that even the tattoo artist in town was illiterate.

Anyway, we all laughed and poked fun at him, and he told us to ‘Ga'an away or a'll boot the shite oot ya!’ before storming off home. A week later and he then triumphantly reappeared outside of the shops, pulled up his sleeve and revealed to us that ‘Uniten’ was no more, had never even happened, for it had now been replaced by a new tattoo of a big red rose. I asked him what the ‘Newcastle Rose’ stood for, but he said, ‘It divvn't matter, like. It looks canny. The lasses will gan mad for it.’

Around this time the accent, dialect and earthy humour of the North East had also begun to pervade wider popular culture in the UK. There was the highly successful television series, ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’, the widely read ‘Viz’ comic, the volcanic rise of the footballer, Paul Gascoigne, and, of course, the ubiquitous and inimitable Newcastle Brown Ale. The lads told me, stony-faced, that there was actually a wing in Newcastle General Hospital where men who were addicted to ‘Newkie Brown’ received treatment, and I believed them.

They never told me about Tish Murtha from Elswick though. If she wasn’t on the telly with Terry Wogan, or in a band on Top of the Pops, or running the 1500 metres at the Olympics, how would they have known about her? How would they have known that she was a photographer, or that her work mattered, or that she was even alive? How would they have known that, in blazing black and white, she was documenting and dignifying dead-end lives like ours on a council estate which was just as dark and derelict as this one?

Glenn and Paul on the Washing Line Youth Unemployment 1981 Ella Murtha 

Glenn and Paul on the Washing Line, Youth Unemployment (1981) © Ella Murtha

'[O]ne has only to look at football grounds to see how the evils of extreme right-wing groups are being preached to youngsters who seek some diversion from the misery of unemployment.' – Mr Robert Brown, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne West, House of Commons Debate, ‘Redundancy Fund Bill’ (Feb 1981)

Flats with their windows all boarded up; the bus stop smashed to smithereens; the burnt out car at the back of Spar; the drunk uncle who staggered home from the social club on a Sunday afternoon; the stepdad who combed margarine into his hair because he couldn’t afford Brylcreem; the kids on the bottom estate who set fires in the park and danced in the ashes; the majorettes who twirled their maces and tossed them up higher than houses; the girls who pushed prams down the road as if they were ploughing a field; the mum of three who answered the door wearing sunglasses because she had two black eyes.

Sng’s documentary highlights that the main reason why people knew nothing about Tish Murtha and her photography was because she never received any financial support from the dead-eyed decision-makers who work for opaque, undemocratic organisations like Arts Council England.

Why would she? This country’s establishment doesn’t understand, doesn’t respect and doesn’t care about working-class culture, its narratives, artefacts, experiences or its history. It never has and it never will. Working-class creatives are regarded as unsophisticated, untrustworthy, unruly and, much more importantly, unconnected. Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers gripping onto cheap, borrowed or stolen pens, paints and plectrums.

Kids on Spare Ground Youth Unemployment 1981 Ella Murtha 

Kids on Spare Ground, Youth Unemployment (1981) © Ella Murtha

‘On the whole, reports Tish [Murtha], the only generation who understand these youngsters are pensioners, perhaps because they remember the Depression years.’ - Blakelaw School’s ‘Roundabout Journal’ (1981)

Tish got used to this kind of letter:

‘Many thanks for your recent application for funding. We regret to inform you that your project proposal has been unsuccessful on this occasion. If you would like more specific feedback …’

And so you either fund yourself or you just give up.

Twenty years ago I was able to choose the former because I’d secured a job as a lecturer in film and cultural studies at a college in Manchester. Out of my salary I self-funded, self-distributed and self-promoted numerous campaign and charity promos, music videos for struggling acts, an international short documentary and two documentary features. All of which received absolutely no financial assistance, exhibition or promotional support from publicly-funded entities like the British Film Institute, Film Hub North or HOME cinema.

In turn, my debut working-class feature film, ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’, was part-funded by my redundancy money between 2016 and 2022, and the rest was paid for by loans, credit cards and an overdraft which I couldn’t afford.

Each year students used to ask me:

‘How do you find the time to make all these films when you’re teaching us as well?’ And I’d reply, ‘It’s easy: never get married, never have kids, never get a mortgage, never own a car and never go on holiday. See? There’s plenty of time.’

‘That’s well sad, Brett. Why won’t the government fund you? Or the council?’

‘Because they don’t fund people like me, and I haven’t got the time to play their silly games.’

And you don’t have to take my word on this either. Following her time at the influential Side Gallery in Newcastle, Tish Murtha wrote a letter to Dennis Birkwood, her college tutor at Newcastle College of Arts and Technology, which Maxine Peake also narrates in the documentary:

‘I left the Side Gallery for a number of reasons, but mainly because of their peculiar attitude to me and my work – they wanted to manipulate it to fit their group philosophy … And the boss’ girlfriend was getting really spiteful and bitchy towards us, damaging expensive photographic work … ‘accidentally on purpose’. So, as they obviously thought it was all a big joke, and I should be grateful for any situation they offered, I told them all where to stick their job and what an offensive, incestuous little clique they were.’

In 2013 an exhausted Tish Murtha had to die from a brain aneurysm while on the dole for her photography to be finally recognised by national and international cultural commentators for what it is – the work of a major 20th century artist.

Karen on Overturned Chair Youth Unemployment 1981 Ella Murtha 

Karen on Overturned Chair, Youth Unemployment (1981) © Ella Murtha

Tish Murtha took a number of photographs of Karen Lafferty which appear in the 'Youth Unemployment' series. This particular image, which Tish would playfully refer to as 'Saturday night out on the dole', is currently a part of a collection at the National Portrait Gallery.

Her gloriously grim visions of broken buildings, broken people and broken Britain were ignored by the mainstream during her lifetime because they revealed truths about this country that simply made the authorities uneasy, but not ashamed: the inequality, the hypocrisy and the cruelty.

Of course, the self-entitled and self-serving right-wing establishment which the UK is cursed with relies upon, and revels in, keeping working-class culture in its place, down in its oubliette, year after year, decade after decade. At the very least it reminds the rest of the population of what to expect if they too decide to step out of line and speak up. What is more chilling however is that, while protected and empowered by the ideological and repressive state apparatus surrounding them, this establishment’s key historical figures have the experience, resources, personnel and desire to continue this war of attrition until the very end of time.

It is their country after all. For example, only just this week the official portrait of King Charles III was unveiled and, in turn, an £8 million scheme was announced by the Tory Cabinet Office to permit schools, police stations, hospitals and councils to request a free A3-size, oak-framed copy to hang wherever they see fit.

£8 million! Following her death, aged 57, Tish Murtha received a £100 rebate from her energy company.

She wasn’t a working-class photographer. She was a war photographer.

Kids Jumping on to Mattresses Youth Unemployment 1981 Ella Murtha 

Kids Jumping on to Mattresses, Youth Unemployment (1981) © Ella Murtha

With Mark Murtha, one of Tish's brothers, holding on to a ventriloquist dummy (bottom left), this photograph now features in an exhibition at Tate Britain. As her daughter, Ella Murtha, tells us in the documentary: 'To actually say that Tate Britain has acquired me mam's work for a permanent collection ... The whole thought of that is just quite overwhelming really.'


Paul Sng’s documentary ‘Tish’ (2023), which chronicles the life and times of the late North East photographer, Patricia Murtha, is currently screening at selected cinemas across the UK, and is available internationally via the Curzon Home Cinema website.

Please also visit, which is run by her daughter, Ella Murtha, for further information about her exceptional mother. Thanks to Ella for permission to use Tish's photographs.

Thanks also for additional research for this review, by Jack Clarke / @ClarkeJ98

A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy: Julian Assange and Wikileaks
Friday, 12 January 2024 13:04

A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy: Julian Assange and Wikileaks


Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Matthew Alford, Lecturer in Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath (UK) 

BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. Antonio Gramsci, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Bertrand Russell, Benazir Bhutto … Just a handful of 20th century citizens who were incarcerated by their respective governments because they dug deep, took a stand and said, ‘No!’ No to injustice, no to fascism, and no to war. This evening I'm joined by Dr. Matthew Alford from the University of Bath in the UK who is here to discuss one of the most important political prisoners of the 21st century. Matt, please tell us more.

MA: Julian Assange is 52 years old. He's Australian, he studied maths and computing and then founded WikiLeaks in 2006. I'd say perhaps the most neutral term for Julian Assange's profession is ‘publisher’. Personally, I prefer to call him a ‘freedom fighter’.

Julian Assange

BG: WikiLeaks is a term which is often bandied about by the mainstream media, but how did it actually work?

MA: WikiLeaks was important because it had a specially designed dropbox that allowed whistleblowers to post secret documents without anyone, including WikiLeaks itself, knowing their actual identity. This was designed in order for everyone to be kept safe from prosecution. It was a brilliant invention.

BG: And why is whistleblowing so important?

MA: Whistleblowing is part of democratising any organisation, and it's really, really important, especially for organisations that are as secret as the CIA and NSA.

BG: So, what kind of information did Julian Assange release by way of WikiLeaks?

MA: Julian Assange's revelations implicate powerful government and corporate villains worldwide in things like illegal surveillance and false-flag military attacks. And the charges that are against him are for much of his best and his most famous work, including footage of the US Army when they slowly and deliberately killed 12 innocent people, including several journalists, from the safety of a helicopter gunship. He was instrumental in putting that video out online, to hold the American military to account.

BG: And I'm assuming the consequences for him were extremely dire?

MA: Julian Assange was charged under the US Espionage Act of 1917 back in 2010. He's accused of working with army private, Chelsea Manning, to obtain and disclose classified information.

BG: Tell us a little more about Chelsea Manning, another name which the mainstream media has conveniently forgotten.

MA: Chelsea Manning leaked a lot of material when she was a private in the army, and she did this for moral reasons. She was imprisoned for several years herself. Eventually she was released following a plea bargain with Barack Obama. Chelsea Manning is a real hero for what she did. Personally, I'm unclear on why she has been so silent about Julian Assange's case for quite some time. It might be that she's had to sign some kind of gagging order, I don't know. That would just be speculation on my part.

BG: The plot thickens ...

MA: There's been a huge clampdown on these sorts of leaks from the Obama presidency onwards. One study found that almost all non-government representatives thought that the Espionage Act had been used ‘inappropriately in leak cases that have a public interest component.’ One journalist says that it's almost impossible to mount a defence against charges under the Espionage Act because defendants are not allowed to use the term ‘whistleblower’; they're not allowed to mention the First Amendment, and they're not allowed to explain the reasons for their actions. The US government wants to get Julian Assange using the Espionage Act, but this would be the first time in over a hundred years that that legislation has been used against a publisher.


Julian Asange at the Ecuadorian embassy

BG: A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy. But Assange managed to escape, didn't he, for a while at least?

MA: In 2012, Julian Assange hid in an embassy in London, and he stayed there for the next seven years. He was forcibly removed in 2019 and, ever since, he's been in Britain's top security prison, Belmarsh. All of Julian Assange's exercise is indoors; he has not seen the sun for five years, and his feet haven't touched free soil in nearly 12 years. Library books, where he currently resides, are deemed a fire hazard. Julian Assange married his brilliant lawyer, Stella, in 2022 while in prison. For their wedding they were not allowed to use the chapel, and his children weren't even allowed to give him a daisy chain that they had made: it was deemed a security risk. The food available in Belmarsh consists of, quote, ‘porridge for breakfast, thin soup for lunch, and not much else for dinner,’ according to his latest visitor.

Julian has been in Belmarsh longer than any other prisoner, apart from one old man. He's actually lost his freedom for longer than Solzhenitsyn did when he was sent to the Soviet gulag. Julian Assange does currently have a radio, but this is only because one of his prominent friends pointed out to the prison warden that even Hezbollah allows their hostages access to radios. The authorities, even up to the top judicial level, formally accept that Julian Assange is a suicide risk. They don't seem to care; in fact, if anything, they seem to be encouraging it. I find it quite heartbreaking that the last photograph of Julian Assange is of him in court while he happens to be having a mini-stroke.

BG: That's a horrific and inhuman timeline, and in the 'Land of Hope and Glory' as well. In 2022 the then UK Home Secretary Priti Patel of the right-wing Conservative Party approved the extradition of Assange to the US in order to face the country's judiciary and penal system. From your descriptions though, can this really be worse than Belmarsh prison? Isn't the United States the land of the free and the home of the brave? Hasn't Julian Assange been brave?

MA: There are all sorts of ways to make his life worse in prison, to make anyone's life worse in prison, and those could well occur if he is deported, if he is extradited to the United States. So, for example, Julian Assange is currently isolated in his cell for 23 hours a day, which is really, really bad. But if he goes to a supermax facility in the United States, it could be even worse.

For example, it's likely that the CIA would prevent him from handling paper. I mean, it's possible; it does happen to several dozen other prisoners who are there on national security grounds. You know, just be shown a letter through a glass screen. In fact, the British prison Belmarsh already did this once a couple of years ago. In the depths of winter, they said, ‘Okay, fill in this form so that you can acquire your clothes,’ but, due to coronavirus regulations, he was not actually permitted to touch the pen and paper to put in that application. So, there are all sorts of grotesque, perverse things that can be done to a human being when they are incarcerated, and that situation could easily get a lot worse for Julian Assange if he goes to the United States, where the prison system is, I think, widely accepted to be more brutal than even the British cases.

BG: Aren't political cases like this explicitly banned under the UK-US Extradition Treaty? Is international law being tampered with here?

MA: Yeah, I mean, the extradition treaty does explicitly ban extradition for political reasons, except for in cases that involve things like murder. But, you know, law can always be stretched, it could be repurposed for political reasons, and when it comes down to it, the national security state in the United States and in the UK despise Julian Assange. It's almost kind of personal. They're prepared to break all laws, they're prepared to break all conventions just to mess him up. I think standard borders, things like sovereign jurisdiction, Australia's rights, Ecuador's rights, don't matter a jot to organisations like the CIA.

WikiLeaks Logo

BG: What about freedom of speech? What about our right to know how our societies are being governed?

MA: I mean, it's always been standard practice for journalists to receive secret information, and they can use that secret information to hold powerful organisations, particularly the government, to account. If the government is allowed to repurpose current laws to prosecute a publisher, that means that in the future, they'll have set a precedent; they'll be able to do whatever they want in the name of ‘national security’. And it would take a phenomenally brave whistleblower or publisher right now to follow in Julian's footsteps, having seen the price that he's paid.

BG: That's genuinely chilling; it's like we're discussing the Gestapo or the Stasi police or something. Anyway, so from a personal perspective, what does Julian Assange mean to you, Matt?

MA: Julian Assange is a symbol, a symbol of freedom, and a symbol of resistance. But he is also a human being in his own right. Even from this British prison where he currently languishes – Belmarsh in London – he's still sending out regularly, whenever he can, messages of love and hope. I like this quote from him: ‘If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.’

BG: Exactly. We need to keep the faith. So what action can people take? What can they do so they don't feel, you know, useless?

MA: For more information, I'd suggest going to the website That's the best place to be active, to support, and to coordinate both online and on the streets. You can also contact me on Facebook if you like: Matt Alford: War, Laughs, and Lies. If you want some more specifics, I'll be doing a running commentary about Julian Assange and other international political events.

I'd just like to add, and this comes from Stella Assange's website: ‘Saving Julian Assange is about saving ourselves. What happens to him cannot be undone. It would be the end of our right to know and the end of our democracies.’ So please gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, and in cities around the world, on the 20th to the 21st of February at 8:30 am and demand Julian's freedom.

BG: That's the Royal Courts of Justice in London on February 20th to the 21st from 8:30 am. This has been a very sobering yet very urgent interview, Matt. Many thanks for your time. 

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.

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