Online Movies: Activist Cinema

In Prison My Whole Life

At the London Film Festival last year, actor Colin Firth launched a new site, Brightwide, which bills itself as a ‘YouTube for Social and Political Cinema’ and whose stated mission is to ‘watch, think, link, act’. On the Brightwide website, writer and poet Fatima Bhutto quotes Milan Kundera: ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ The internet, perhaps the greatest public archive ever created, must surely count as one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for social justice and seems a natural home for activist cinema.

Although it started as a US military-backed scientific research project, the internet became a hotbed of counter-cultural activity almost as soon as it went public. As a child in the 80s, I remember my older brother’s Magic Modem which could connect us to a whole hyperlinked world of anarchic bulletin boards and cracked software. Years later, Indymedia, launched in 1999 to report on the Seattle WTO protests, became not just one of the first major wiki-style projects on the internet, but was among the first major online news sources, framing the internet as a space of possibility for marginal and oppositional voices against the dominance of corporate interests in older forms of media.

If networks for distributing news and photographs of political actions had existed since, at the very least, the underground press boom of the 60s and 70s, the internet provided the possibility for something more - film and video of and about all manner of political events and issues available to stream online or download in an instant. The sense of immediate live presence afforded by globally networked digital technologies became a major catalyst in the spread of the anti-corporate globalisation protests of the late 90s and early 21st century, and continues to play a part today in, for instance, the backlash following the death of Ian Tomlinson at the hands of riot police during last year’s G20 protests in the City of London.

In America, Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films assumed signal importance in the run-up to the presidential election of 2008 with speedily produced documentaries about the inconsistencies in John McCain’s policies and biases in Fox News reporting, which became top-rated videos on YouTube and made a lasting impression on voters. Elsewhere, Michael Moore’s website provides a steady stream of supplements and footnotes to his theatrically released documentaries along with shorter films showcasing alternative viewpoints on major news stories and events.

While critics have condemned the spread of web-based activism as ‘cyberbalkanisation’, and the tortured history of Google in China has proved that the net is far from immune to censorship and government control, technology journalist Evgeny Morozov has argued that it is at least as useful to repressive states as it is to their dissidents. Issues arise when, as in the denouement to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s MICMACs, tactics of resistance remain parasitical on corporately owned portals such as YouTube, and behind the cosily presumed consensualism of iPod liberals there is always the danger of serious issues being reduced to the level of the latest Facebook fad.

In this light, Brightwide may provide a welcome alternative. Less a politicised YouTube than a new outlet for the exhibition of high-quality political documentaries, it features work by high-profile directors like Michael Winterbottom. With each film linked (both figuratively and literally) to ‘real world’ campaigns, Brightwide clearly has ambitions to make an impact beyond the list of Twitter trending topics, even if it lacks some of the anarchic freewheeling spirit that first made the net attractive to marginal voices.

Robert Barry

To find out more, go to the Brightwide website, where among other films you can watch In Prison My Whole Life, an investigation into the case of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of a policeman in Philadelphia.