Brett Gregory, UK Desk for Arts Express on WBAI-FM Radio (New York) interviews David Archibald, Professor of Political Cinema (Theatre, Film & Television Studies) at the University of Glasgow (UK), December 2023. Image above: The Tenementals
BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. Tonight's guest is an academic, an author, an activist, a filmmaker, and a singer from Glasgow in Scotland.
DA: Hey, my name’s David Archibald, and I teach film studies at the University of Glasgow.
BG: Great voice, David. Anyway, as well as teaching film, what are your wider research interests in the subject?
DA: I'm the editor of the Political Cinema series at Edinburgh University Press, so perhaps that may indicate something of my general research interests.
BG: And what other projects has this led onto, specifically?
DA: I recently completed a book on Ken Loach, which is published in the series. And just now I'm working on a project that attempts to link feminist activists in Cuba, Catalonia and Glasgow through collaborative no-budget filmmaking. And I'm also doing another research project that explores how a music band might be able to make history with a capital H.
BG: So what's your personal perspective on cinema as an art form?
DA: In common with the pioneers of Third Cinema, a radical film movement from what is generally now called the Global South, I take the view that cinema can be utilised as a generator of theory: that we can think and that we can learn through making.
BG: I like that, that's interesting. I reviewed your latest book, 'Tracking Loach,' for Arts Express earlier this year, as well as for the arts and politics website Culture Matters, which is based in the Northeast of the UK. Out of curiosity, what was your rationale behind the book's title?
DA: I called the book 'Tracking Loach' because I've been tracking the British filmmaker, Ken Loach, in different capacities for some decades, as an audience member for many, many years, but also as a journalist including writing articles for the great New York-based journal ‘Cineaste’, and as an academic with various chapters and articles.
When I heard that Loach was coming to Glasgow to film 'The Angels' Share' about 10 years ago, I was contacted and asked if I could look over his shoulder while he was making the film. And I proposed that I would write a book about his celebrated working practices. Thankfully, he said yes, so the book is an account of tracking Loach in many ways over many decades from a political perspective.
BG: What would you say is particularly significant about the films Ken Loach has directed in the first quarter of this century?
DA: What's noticeable about Loach's work is how the films are utilized to force the political discourse beyond the screen. And Loach's work – whether it be 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' which deals with Britain's role in Ireland in the Irish Civil War, or 'I, Daniel Blake' about the conditions facing unemployed workers in Britain – what's noticeable is the significant way that they shift the discourse away from the one set by the British right-wing media.
BG: And how would you personally assess Ken Loach's impact on, for example, the field of cinema as a whole?
DA: Loach has been a socialist for his entire adult life. His contribution to radical cinema is unmatched in breadth alone on a global scale.
BG: Now, in this cold-hearted corporatized society of ours, what would you identify as a key practical value of independent artistic expression?
DA: I think that artworks help to set agendas for conversations to come into being. I've spent a long time attempting to foster and nurture alternative ways of talking and doing, being and making. There's a parallel perhaps in the invaluable work that alternative media, like your own radio station, do. They’re vital in creating a new set of possibilities for us. That's why I'm delighted to be here, speaking today.
BG: Yeah, it's all about digging deep, excavating the new, the unknown, the hidden, and sharing the wealth. So, Glasgow: a place that’s always brimmed with energy and ideas in the arts, culture and, particularly, grassroots politics. What does this tell us about the city's psyche, its outlook, and its history?
DA: Glasgow is a city haunted by a proletarian ghost. The city is well known for its industrial past and for a radical heritage which goes alongside it. The spirit of collectivism which developed when it was a major industrial centre continues to operate in much of the city's cultural scene. It’s manifest, for instance, through various ways that artists are open to working together. There is a collaborative ethos, and that's connected to the spirit of collectivism which was forged in the shipyards and factories. And I’m interested in exploring and have always been interested in this for a long time, exploring how to converse with that ghost and see what might transpire.
BG: But your passion for and your pursuit of these creative conversations, as you say, has taken you further afield beyond Glasgow, beyond Scotland even?
DA: I'm currently working with Núria Araüna Baró, an academic from the Public University of Tarragona, and with four groups of feminist activists in Havana and Glasgow, cities which are twinned, and Vilanova i la Geltrú in Catalonia, the city in which Núria resides and Matanzas in Cuba; these two cities are also twin. It's a project that tries to connect these activists through dialogical filmmaking, building trans-local connections. And we have an event at the Havana Film Festival in December next month, at which women from all the four cities will meet for the first time. It's a beautiful project, and I feel very lucky to be part of it. So although I create work that is deeply rooted in the city, always interesting to build international connections and alliances beyond them.
David Archibald (centre) at the Havana Film Festival
BG: Admirable stuff, man. Your students at Glasgow University are lucky to have you. Right, your band, The Tenementals. Tell us more.
DA: The Tenementals is a wild research project and a lot of fun. It attempts to recount the history of Glasgow in song and asks what might history look, sound and feel like if it was created by a group of musicians. It also asks not whether artworks or songs can be history but whether history with a capital H can be artworks or songs. It's wild because it refuses the strictures often imposed on conventional academic research and finds its own path within the artistic community. It runs to its own beat, untethered by authority or control. That's really the only way it can be alive. It has to do whatever it has to do, and the history that it constructs is a history of fragments. It's a radical history of a radical city told in a radical way.
BG: And your latest song – which we’ll be actually playing out with – has got a compelling radical history all of its own.
DA: Although we set out to record a history of Glasgow in song, we're certainly not parochial, far from it: our outlook is international. In January we played a support gig for striking workers and we wanted to do a cover. We were thinking through options, and I was speaking with a filmmaker and academic friend of mine, Holger Mohaupt. And we were talking about German songs popular during the Spanish Civil War. And he mentioned 'Die Moorsoldaten' or ‘Peat Bog Soldiers' in English. It was first performed 90 years ago this year, 1933, in a concentration camp for leftist political prisoners. And although it's been covered in English by a number of quite famous singers like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, it's not particularly well known in Britain. We asked Holger's daughter, Lily, to sing it because I'd heard her very, very beautiful but delicate voice on some films that Holger had made previously. The first time I heard her singing in the recording studio or in the rehearsal studio, I knew instantly that we had to record it.
BG: And the release is a bit different?
DA: We've just brought out two versions, one in German and English with a new translation, and one the rarely performed six-verse German version. We hope to introduce an old song to new audiences in a new way. It's a song about opposition in the most difficult and darkest of times, and I think that that has resonance.
BG: Yeah, the darkest of times pretty much sums a lot of things up at the moment. What are your thoughts on the future? Do you see hope?
DA: You know, when I was a teenager, people often used to tell me that I'd grow out of the radical socialist ideas which I held. Socialists are often presented as dreamers and fantasists, but if we look at the catastrophe which capitalism has created in terms of global climate change, the true fantasists are surely those who would have you believe that it can be resolved under capitalism. It cannot. Socialism, for me at least, remains the hope of the future. And while some academics often talk very vaguely about living differently or about being differently or working in a post-capitalist world, I suppose we're not afraid to name our object of desire: a democratic socialism in which workers have control over their own lives, and where human beings live in harmony with the world, rather than ruthlessly exploiting it in the interests of the ruling class.
BG: That's very honest and rousing, David. The struggle often feels lonely for many, myself included, but thanks to you, not today. It's been brilliant having you on the show. I'm really happy to have finally met you.
DA: Thank you, Brett. It's been great to talk with you, and good luck with all your great work.
BG: Cheers, man. This has been the UK desk for Arts Express, and I've been Brett Gregory. And, as promised, here are The Tenementals with their latest single, the haunting and historical ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’ which is available now via Strength In Numbers Records on Bandcamp.
This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.