By Elizabeth Mizon and Lee Salter.
Digital media technologies are full of paradoxes. On one hand they are said to open up new opportunities, a “democratisation” of media, but on the other they are said to consolidate not just media power, but also the ideological frameworks that constrain critical creative practices. Funding regimes, festival circuits, commercial distribution networks, filmic narratives and conventions of film-making, not to mention the institutional order in which we exist, are persistent limitations on truly critical, or radical practice.
YouTube views, Facebook likes, retweets have become the new currency of digital media, and come to be the measure of that all too neoliberal mechanism of account, success. Properly radical film tries to escape the confines of film-making in a neoliberal, or hyper-capitalist, world, in which all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.
A number of projects have matured in recent years that have attempted to bypass the totalising reach of capital. Shaun Day’s Reel News, the Bristol Radical Film Festival, the Radical Film Network and recent zero-budget documentaries such as Michael Chanan and Lee Salter’s Secret City, and Brass Moustache Films’ The UK Gold. Such initiatives are hard to separate from traditions in radical film-making such at those that grew up in Latin America, exemplified by the work of Santiago Alvarez. Radicalism in this respect refers not to negotiating power or trying to dance differently to the same piper’s tune. Rather, “radical” means resistance from the roots to power and domination at every turn, with all of the absurdities and difficulties such a commitment entails.
This is the tradition in which our new documentary, The Fourth Estate, sits. The film traces the links between capital, politics and media power through which so much of our world is (mis)understood. The need for radicalism is intensified when one undertakes immanent critique: how does one use the media to criticise the media without undermining the foundations of one’s critique?
Begun in 2013, The Fourth Estate was fortunate in the sense that the commercial news media had been caught with its pants down in the phone hacking scandal. The supposed “revelations” uncovered in the subsequent Leveson Inquiry did three important things. Most obviously, they shone a light on the wrong-doings of the British Press. The Inquiry also gave voice to campaigners, activists and individuals critical of the media system who are normally systematically silenced by the corporate grip on public communications. But perhaps most important was the conspicuousness of excluded concerns.
Indeed while the UK news media was just robust enough to eventually break the scandal, siphoning enough information out from behind the curtain to confirm our many suspicions, these successes have not been enough to overturn, remedy, or even fully delineate the warped balance of the media’s own powers. To do so, to really investigate and dismantle the corruptions of the media industries would threaten not only individual jobs but all newsrooms’ legitimacy, and potentially their existence. Most of the coverage tended to be simple laments riding on the power of hindsight; a record of what happened, and what a shame it was. None truly called for radical or fundamental change to the pervasive and broken structures of a contemporary society that is becoming ever more disparate in the face of a deluge of revelations about its absurdity.
It was this lack of engagement, this ignorance of the real problems of the media, the selectivity that brackets out the broader cultural circumstances in which journalists work and news discourses are produced and understood that drove us.
We didn’t need another Panorama special that passively observed in the name of “objectivity,” or a Dogwoof-distributed feature doc that compromised on explicit politics so as not to “put people off.” Knowing we ought to do something different, and determined to produce something that might satisfy and inspire those fighting for true reform, we took a different approach.
With our self-imposed radical mandate came as many problems as opportunities. Over and above the restrictions of tight deadlines and runtime requirements, time diverted to writing long and repetitive applications, and partnering with large organisations who didn’t necessarily recognise any need for a move away from their status quo, applying for funding would have tied us indelibly to parts of the industry that we were critiquing and almost certainly bound us to its questionable practices. However much industry cash would have helped (not only our aesthetics, but our mental health) there is little doubt that a whole lot of compromise was inevitable by obtaining funding, whether or not the individuals we worked with shared our views. Both of us already had jobs that were materially impossible to give up, and so it was quickly decided that we would make the film part-time and on a zero-budget, using our wages for expenses, pulling in the favours we could, and utilising what we already had.
What we already had was a reasonably cheap DSLR camera, a stolen microphone, a 6-year-old second-hand Macbook, a monopod and a combined knowledge of and interest in the media industries. As one of us was a lecturer and both involved in radical media projects, we had access at the outset to like-minded people who were prepared to be interviewed, but beyond that we had no producers or corporate backers whose weight we could utilise to gain access to key interviewees, just cheek, irreverence and a commitment to telling a more adequate story about the oppressive nature of the media system.
Given both film-makers were particularly concerned about the corrupting effects of money, a decision was made early on to resist the urge to spend money – not least because we had none to spend. So train tickets and software subscription were our only expenses – the latter because Salter was locked in to the software as it was provided for free by his university. Given the need to continue paid work elsewhere to feed ourselves we worked around our own schedules for two years to gather footage, assess what we had, what we wanted, and what roughly we might end up with. As our capacity to plan was materially truncated, we very much worked with what we were able to garner and weave a film out of these fragments.
The fate of the tradition of found footage is a paradox in this digital age – there’s so much more available but so many more legal restrictions on use. So we faced the challenge of what found material we might be able to use, and how we might be able to get around copyright restrictions. From previous experiences, we were in the fortuitous situation of understanding a little about the routes around copyright – to make a non-commercial, current affairs film with academic backing, under fair use rules we could use as little as possible to get the point across – a precarious argument without the backing of legal advice!
Learning about film-making is a curious thing – it is, in effect, a discipline, in the Foucauldian sense: it disciplines us to conform to constraints – seeking permission to film in private locations, respecting the wishes of those in power, ethics forms, risk assessments, permission slips and so on. Such devices are not bad in and of themselves, but can restrain properly critical film making.
Consider, for example, BBC film-makers adhering to legal constraints that apply in Iran, Iraq, Egypt or Afghanistan (to take some clichéd examples.). They simply don’t. Bad power ought not be respected, good power ought to be. However, to be critical, radically critical, of one’s own environment requires speculative risks. Such was the case when filming – and being prevented from filming – outside News UK… or rather on the pavement they own, or in Parliamentary committee rooms, where filming is forbidden. Ought the economic power of Murdoch or the secrecy of Parliament be respected?
When one is prevented from filming, the constant question is “what’s your company,” with the none-too-subtle implication that they could make a phone call never too far away. Moreover, the film has not been “legalled,” which therefore poses a risk to commercial cinemas who, understandably, do not want to be seen to be publishing libel or copyright infringement.
There are, however, relations that exist against those of industrial production. The music for the film was taken from an open source record label, LOCA Records. Digital transfer technologies allowed for footage to be transferred across the country, often using mobile phone data, to facilitate the editing of the film, as well as the grading and sound engineering, which were done for free by a respondent to a call for help and a friend. Networked relations with campaign groups, activists and academics provide an effective mechanism for awareness raising and distribution.
To make the film entirely by-the-book; securing funding, obtaining copyright, not gently bending the law; would have more likely carved a path to large and mainstream film festivals with an eye to securing large-scale distribution, of course. The film would be reaching more people, potentially internationally, via some form of corporate media company (however antithetical this may seem; as Michael Moore said in The Corporation, the corporate media are happy to sell his anti-corporate stance for as long as politics-hungry audiences continue to pay them for it.) Were we to find a way to fund and distribute the film through industry channels to mass audiences without having to compromise our political message, should we have?
If one can maintain a truly radical political film-making practice via these “legitimate” means, then there is certainly an argument to be made for it (CitizenFour and Tony Benn: Will and Testament, two documentaries hardly scrimping on radical politics, were both funded and distributed via mainstream channels in 2014). At the very least, it ensures that the labour of the film-makers is recognised and fairly compensated – currently a rarity for the majority of workers, let alone those in the arts. But at every step of the way, and each time the process became strained and we considered another arduous funding application and its consequences, we chose to continue an independent, radical (and broke) production practice. Franklin Lopez, a US-based radical film-maker and founder of subMedia.tv, has been sustainably making and touring his various radical video works for over a decade now, and at this year’s Radical Film Network conference in Birmingham he explained a particularly clear stance on his self-sustainable methods:
“In my opinion revolutionary, anarchist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian filmmakers have to reflect on how their radical filmmaking praxis aids radical movements and some key questions need to be asked.
What we have is the well-carved path of film festivals as means to securing distribution through capitalist media corporations. This desire of radical filmmakers to reach larger audiences and the lack of alternative distribution led many to bury their politics. [—] [I]s the payout for reaching millions of eyeballs worth this compromise? Wouldn’t building and contributing to long-term radical media distribution and infrastructure projects be more beneficial to our movements?”
For a film that was opposed to the domination of corporate media structures and the resignation to a system that could not be changed because “that’s the way it is,” would it not have been hypocritical, senseless, cynical, and a lot less fun to fall back onto a system in which we have little faith? Our hope is to build a new system, a new pluralistic media structure that has no hindrances to interrogating itself. This is stated explicitly in the film. The least we can do is begin by contributing to the solidification of that idea, investing and involving ourselves in it fully.
As Natalie Fenton, vice-chair of phone hacking campaign group Hacked Off, says towards the end of the film, those alternative media communities do exist – though many have failed. The question now is: how do they survive?
This is part of a larger concern, one that is answered in part by organisation, mobilisation and solidarity, but which also asks complex and painful questions of governments and corporations, organisations, politicians and citizens all at once (with frustrating and painful answers.) While working people are tied to ever-precarious wages and working hours to survive, it is only by a series of lucky circumstances that some, ourselves included, have a little money, time and energy to dedicate to political organising and new ways of operating.
Journalists, film-makers, photographers and all various media creators are in a particular, though not easy, position – the combination of prosumer tools, the internet and social media can be used to affect a more democratic route to organising and affecting change than, say, the next generation of economists and politicians. The monolith of the mass corporate media is currently posed with a real challenge as citizens take it upon themselves to subvert and refract its toxic discourses. And that counter-communication, ultimately forming a new media industry, is the route via which we can understand all the other broken socio-economic systems that need repair.
Elizabeth Mizon is a writer and film-maker. She was the production manager on The Film that Buys the Cinema and is Co-Director of the Bristol Radical Film Festival and the Bristol Cable. She is the editor of The Fourth Estate.
Lee Salter is a Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Sussex, and a film-maker. He wrote and co-produced Secret City with Michael Chanan and worker to help found the Bristol Radical Film Festival. He is the director of The Fourth Estate.