Wednesday, 18 July 2012 06:58

Gavras taps into the poetics of protest

Written by Ania Micińska

The recent protests, and especially those of the Occupy movements in numerous American and European cities, have gained a vast presence in the media and in many cases popularised radical alternatives to the current democratic system. This process brought back situationist initiatives such as the 90's "Reclaim the Streets" that were envisioned as a model for the contemporary manifestations. Along with the protesters' demands came symbols of civil disobedience, such as Guy Fawkes masks, a human microphone, tents in a cityscape, or the calls simply to "occupy everything." The last of these didn't just remain in the symbolic sphere. Patterns of communication and cooperation that were adopted in the occupied spaces effectively appealed to the public imagination and thus formed a "poetics of protest."

Tapping into the feel of these movements, Jay-Z and Kanye West released a video for their song "No Church In The Wild" last May. The video was directed by a young Greek, Romain Gavras, who is known for his violent yet elegant aesthetics, a coldly tinted imagery and daring narrative themes. This time, Gavras had a go at the spectacle of a riot scene.

The video quite clearly strikes the viewer as glamorous. When a protester lights up a Molotov cocktail in the opening sequence, it is difficult to resist an association with French New Wave cinema chic. On a fiercer note, for Salon's Natasha Lennard the video is unmistakably "riot porn," "capturing particularly dramatic riot scenes - the sort with fire, tear gas, charging police horses, careening masked crowds and, often, a hardcore backing track." "Riot porn" might also earn its name because it shows scenes of passion staged especially for the camera. Indeed, the video's striking beauty is disturbing and alarming when we realise the familiarity of the images and our consent to watching them paired with some rather decadent rap.

Jay Z & Kanye West "No church in the wild" (dir. ROMAIN-GAVRAS, available on Vimeo.)

The fact that Hov and ‘Ye can afford to appropriate the imagery of riots in their music video exposes their removal from the matter despite their supposed sympathy for the grassroots movements. The video formulates a code that masks reality in its aestheticisation, rather than a poetics of protest.

All the fans that Gavras has earned himself through making videos such as the one for M.I.A.'s "Born Free" or the controversial film for Justice’s "Stress" might be wary of going along with this more aloof representation of society's ills. Moreover, rather than formulating slogans to be carried across the protesting crowds, the song is more likely to produce phrases that will belong to rap concert decorum.

There is however one moment which masterfully enacts a cinematic engagement with the radical significance of a riot. The green lasers flashed by the mob at police officers crossing in space and in between the crowd inevitably recall a view of a busy disco hall. Despite being a pop culture reference, the scene creates a spatio-cultural association of its own that has the potential to help reclaim public territory.

The video was shot in Prague (one can easily recognize the shots of the city’s National Theatre). Why this choice? While the Occupy movement has also reached the Czech capital, the city is not in the spotlight as a centre for riots. The crowd in the video could have well been taken from Spike Lee's "Inside Man," which portrayed the cosmopolitan New York. Maybe Gavras is going for a universal image of a riot, based on scenes that a viewer will just recognise as an urban rebellion. Prague then might stand for a city where this scene didn't (yet?) happen, but could happen - thus contributing to what Godard would refer to as "just an image," which does not pertain to anything more than it is.

"No Church in the Wild" may ultimately not stand the test of the expectations of political agitators or come up with a useful political language. Still, the video seems to produce an effective meaning, namely one of disillusionment. The stunning imagery of this short film is moving, but so is the fact that this is not actually happening.

In the end, it all may just remain on the level of filmic analogy to the metaphors of protest. Perhaps the surreal elephant at the end of the clip does exactly that - reiterate the fact that the stakes here are also just imaginary.  

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 July 2012 08:56

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