Imag[in]ing Global Justice

Posted on June 14, 2011


This essay examines video activism after the emergence of digital video in a context of a global network of media activists. These video activists are not professional journalists or filmmakers; they use the camera as a weapon in a fight for social change. I will investigate the forms and functions of activist videos from the last decade, focusing specifically on the presentation of large international mobilisations. Starting with a definition of the characteristics of activist videos, I will contextualise video activism within a wider community of media activists as well as its political and historical background. After outlining the motivation behind video activism, I will look at the whole process of production and distribution in order to identify the working processes specific to video activism, and show that the working relationships and organisational structures of video activists are their most defining factor. After an examination of recurring motifs and themes in multiple sequences, it will become clear that these films construct emotional and political meaning for an audience that to a large extent also constitutes the subjects of these films. The conclusion will discuss the implications for the future of video activism of a world, where moving images pervade the personal, political and cultural life of every person in the first world, and media monopolies are weakened by hundreds of thousands media producers working from their desks at home. At the same time I will look at the impact of the internet and networked structures of the community of video activists on the narrative form of activist videos.

I will try to present a conclusive argument, but due to the limited length of this dissertation, my investigation will scrape the surface of the issues presented, rather than dealing with them in depth.

What is video activism?

The decision to write about video activism came easily to me: it has been the focus of my work since before I started studying. I interpreted all essay assignments in such a way that I could write about an activist film or some aspect of video activism. I have seen countless activist videos of different length and quality and I have filmed and edited a couple myself. When I started, my main motivation was frustration. Most of the films were too short, didn’t give any context, were so badly shot and edited, that they seemed a drag to watch. But once I started immersing myself in the subject, tracking down films and talking to video activists and activist distributors, I became increasingly fascinated. There is a wealth of material out there, dispersed and hidden in the folds of the internet and the memories of people1. I discovered the passion for life, justice and liberty that is the basic foundation of these films.

Video activism is not an established genre or category and activist videos have not received much attention. The distribution, although global, remains marginalised, and the films can be hard to track down, even if one knows what one is looking for. In this dissertation I will attempt a definition of what video activism is, and contextualise it in the historical, technological and political landscape. Video activism stretches from short clips of protests, to journalistic pieces, to documentaries that take up to ten years to film and edit. Some draw on footage shot around the world, by hundreds of video activists and are held together by passionate manifestos, embracing the possibility of social change and the potential of a better and juster world2. Besides documentary pieces, video activism includes fiction shorts, art and experimental films as well as music videos. If it is a definable genre it is defined by the modes and intent of production and distribution.

I investigate indymedia3 videos as insider media; videos that come out of are circulated within and support the social movement. Indymedia videos are political interventions, but they also constitute a social intervention as IMC videographers make politically informed choices to shape the film making process itself.

(Stringer 2007, Abstract)

Making history before history makes us

The combination of political action with the moving picture is nothing new. Before video activism came film activism, starting with Vertov and the Soviet Film Trains in the context of the Russian revolution (Stringer 2006: 125 ff) and going on to the Newsreels of the late sixties and seventies (Stringer 2006: 129 ff.). And with the onset of video technology, the means of producing films became even more accessible. I realise that summing up the history of video activism like this is insufficient, but a full account of the history of film and video activism falls outside the scope of this dissertation.

Video can have a major impact when social injustice is exposed to a wider public by being caught on tape. One well-known example is the case of Rodney King (Chanan 2007: 54). The chance footage of Los Angeles police officers beating King sparked debates on institutional racism, and eventually, after all police officers had been acquitted in court, major riots.

The story of video activism of the first decade of this millennium has many beginnings. It begins in many places and over a span of several years, in the everyday struggle of people fighting for their right to a dignified life. But it also begins in the Lacandon Jungle in 1996 when a Mexican guerilla leader, Subcommandante Marcos, announced in the Second Declaration of La Realidad for Humanity and against Neoliberalism4 (in Leon 2002:117):

That we will make a network of communication among all our struggles and resistances, against neoliberalism, and for humanity. This Network will attempt to create channels so that words may flow to all paths that resist. It will be the medium by which distinct resistances communicate with one another. This network is not an organizing structure, nor does it have a central head or decision maker, nor does it have a central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who speak and listen.

When the World Trade Organisation (WTO) came to Seattle in 1999, thousands of people came to oppose them, to shut down a decision making body that was not democratically legitimised, had not been instituted by the people and was not accountable to them. Some of them made a website, in the spirit of the the Second Declaration of La Realidad, and called it Indymedia (Sam and Annie in Coyer et al. 2007: 79).

In 1999 the Internet was different in a way that now, only ten years later, is hard to imagine: people were using the internet to read websites and to email, but not everyone had an email address and home computer. Publishing content on the Internet required technical skill and knowledge, there were no blogs, no MySpace, no Twitter. But on the Indymedia site, anyone could type up their report, press a button and publish it on the Internet. This was so new, it was almost revolutionary. Besides the website, volunteers also set up a physical Independent Media Centre for the duration of the protests. It was a media centre without journalists, and without press releases, where the people who had been at a protest could write reports about their first hand experiences. Arguably for the first time, news reached a global audience directly from the contested streets, without being mediated by governmental or corporate bureaucracies.

Dissatisfied with their allotted roles as culturally passive consumers, many continue to feel resentful of the process of ‘receiving’ news, as a form of product, as this involves placing trust in reporters and media organizations. They want to be involved in gathering and presenting news themselves and the rise of the internet makes this new form of control possible.

(Spencer 2005:181)

Protesters themselves were telling the story of their protest with thousands of eyes, and collected photos and video footage of hundreds of photographers and camera teams. There was no single person in charge and no one was paid. Viewer ratings and advertising revenues were not a consideration. The footage collected during the protests was later made into a documentary that starts with the titles:

The following film was shot

by over 100 media activists.

One can only imagine how much it would cost to cover an event with over 100 camera teams. This is what Democracy looks like is not the first video activist documentary. But it is an early example of a new generation of films inspired by and part of the global justice movement5 (Stringer 2006: 2).

This new generation of video activist documentaries can be split into two successive waves. The first wave emerges from the global justice movement, with films made by temporary collectives. They each tend to focus on a large anti-summit mobilisation, such as the WTO summits or G8 meetings. Besides This is what Democracy looks like (Big Noise Films and Indymedia, 2000), examples for the first wave are Praha 2000 – Rebel Colours (Praha IMC, Indymedia, 2000), Trading Freedom: the secret life of the FTAA (FTAA Video Working Group, Indymedia, 2002), and Genoa – Red Zone (Indymedia 2002). This is followed by a second wave of more contemplative films, focussing on both the movement in the context of current world politics as well as video- and media-activism itself. The biggest shift is that the films of the second wave do not necessarily revolve around one specific event, and are produced by more stable and continuous collectives or by individuals, drawing more heavily on the by then existing archival footage of the movement. Examples are: The Fourth World War (Dir. Jacqueline Soohen and Rick Rowley. Big Noise Films. 2003), I – The Film (Dir. Raphael Lyon and Andres Ingoglia, Indymedia. 2006), Brad – One more Night at the Barricades (Dir. Miguel Castro, Videohackers, 2007), and Two or Three Things about Activism (Dir. Joanne Richardson, Dmedia, 2008).

Recent developments in digital video technology, have (so far) culminated in the pervasiveness of video recording equipment. Camcorders become cheaper all the time and even digital photo cameras and mobile phones nowadays can record video The means of digital video production are available to everyone6. With the equipment becoming more and more affordable since the nineties (Chanan 2007: 9) and an internet revolution in video distribution, videos can be made available to millions of people instantly (Coyer et al. 2007: 40). The result has been an increase in video output and new forms of collaboration (Ford and Gil in Downing 2001: 203). Creating videos has become pervasive in our culture. The attraction of dealing with video, not only as part of a passive audience, but as an active producer, can be witnessed in the popularity of online video platforms such as YouTube. In an interview in 20057 Scott Beibin, curator and host of the Lost Film Festival, a travelling film show which includes video activist productions of all genres, describes it like this:

I think that people are sick of being passive in terms of their consumption and want to be more participants, and to me it seems like the internet is a very good way of using a lot of the broadcast technologies to get large amounts of people to hear about things on a very grassroots level in a very quick way […]

Making films with the intention of promoting global justice, means that video activists mostly publish their videos copyright free or under licenses that explicitly allow sharing and re-distribution, such as creative commons8, and contribute to the public domain.

The public domain, anticopyright and copyleft are all attempts to create a commons, a shared space of non-ownership that is free for everyone to use.

(Nimus 2006)

Video activists want their footage to be spread, hoping it will fall on fertile ground and inspire other people to take up the struggles for justice and liberty. One example of how video footage is spread, shared and re-used is addressed in I – the Film when the uprising in Argentina in 2001 is discussed:

By the years end, half a dozen urgent documentaries on the Argentine uprisings will have sprung up, in half as many languages. All with different perspectives, but much of the same footage. […] Copyright-free information, is viral information. Its duplication, reinterpretation, and redundancy, ensures its survival. In this way media activists give and take. They see with a fly’s eye, in places they have never been.

Rejecting the notion of intellectual property does not mean neglecting to credit the creators and artists. The credits of Trading Freedom name seven collectives, one band and 49 first- and nicknames of individuals, going on to give full credit to all musicians whose music is used in the film, including their websites, but omitting the record labels.

Contextual film making

Video activists are not filmmakers with a cause, but activists with a video camera. They are embedded in a social and political network, and appropriate the video camera as a tool for social change. They do not pretend to be objective or neutral, and they tell their side of the story with passionate partiality, as a counter to what they see as a fraudulent “objectivity” on the part of mainstream media outlets. The resulting films are often raw, and of low production quality. The editing can be rough and obviously lack the finesse of experience and education. Nevertheless these films often reveal a subtlety that has its roots in a strong conviction, valuing respect, equality and dignity over the infamous bottom line. Embedded in a vibrant network of independent media producers, including writers, photographers, radio producers, computer programmers, artists, musicians, and many more, video activists draw on an incredibly rich pool of media. At the same time activist videos are inevitably just one part of a mesh of reports and viewpoints that hold them together and situate them in “A World that Contains Many Worlds” (Levidov 20039). Scott Beibin (2005), who has done hundreds of screenings describes the environment of video activists the following way:

[…] we attempt to bring together a lot of the different worlds that we’re involved in, the world of filmmaking, the world of music, the world of hacking, the world of culture jamming, the world of philosophy, the world of de-constructing and re-constructing and trying to understand the world that we’re living in and hopefully make it a little bit of a better place.

The individual films can be seen on their own, but have the most impact when seen in context, the context of other activist media and art, as well as the physical context of watching films in a setting that involves activists. When watching activist videos at a screening, someone will inevitably tell a story connected with the protest in the film. Activist videos not only write the history of the protest by documenting it using the available audio-visual material, but also by keep the personal memories and stories alive, indirectly contributing to an oral history of the movement.

The production process of feature length films is in itself experimental: there is no traditional form of preproduction and each step in production and post-production is a collective process. Collectives are based on voluntary association and decisions, including creative ones, are made on a consensual basis. In this sense making a video activist feature film is as much an experiment in social organisation as an experiment in film production.

Motivated by mainstream media

Anyone who has been to protests, or even any other events that receive mainstream coverage, has faced the slightly surreal experience of watching the news later on and wondering whether they are covering the same event one has just witnessed. One major factor that motivates video activists is the perceived failure of mainstream journalism.

Video activism was born from the recognition that mass-media is controlled by powerful elites and that although it claims to serve the democratic interest of the public to be informed, its real interests, sources of financial support, hierarchical leadership and decision making processes are all hidden behind closed doors.

(Richardson 2006)

Journalism in our society, for the major part, does not fulfil its mandate and promise of being “one of the arts of democracy” (Ward 2004: 9) and cannot “provide the news and analysis by which a society communicates with itself, allowing it some measure of self-government.” (ibid.). Instead,

News reportage urges us to look but not care, see but not act, know but not change. The news exists less to orient us toward action than to perpetuate itself as commodity, something to be fetishized and consumed.

(Nichols 1991: 194)

In contrast video activists passionately urge viewers to become involved, to take up the promise of democracy and participate in the shaping of our society. Video activists always take a position in the conflict they are filming, they give first hand accounts of protests, from the point of view of the protesters. And the position video activists take is physical as well as philosophical: the cameras of video activists are filming from inside the demonstration, facing police lines. The cameras of larger media outlets are usually placed behind police lines, looking in on the protest from the outside, and separated from it by these police lines. The symbolism in this placement of cameras does not need to be explained.

The disparity between the experiences of people protesting on the streets and the mediatic representation of their experiences creates a strong motivation to produce independent media.

For me it all started as a reaction to the mainstream media, and knowing that people were mostly being fed rubbish. It’s just so easy to do your own media now, with computers, internet etc.

(John Hodge, SchNEWS, in Spencer 2005: 177)

While mainstream media often ignore large peaceful demonstrations, they can see the whole nation under threat when a window is broken, but are hesitant of showing peaceful protesters being attacked by police. The mainstream media often rely on official press releases alone, without even attempting to check the facts. The short film Li2UNews10 by the Portland Indymedia Video Collective details how a TV station de-contextualised the events at a protest, by contrasting the full footage available to the station with the footage that was broadcast.

When an Indymedia activist says: “You have to eat, sleep and be informed” (I – the Film) he is pinpointing a crucial aspect of democracy in the information age. Nowadays we rely on communication technology to enable us to receive the information necessary to make informed decisions. The power to decide what is being reported, is also the power to make events invisible by deciding not to report about them.

It’s terrible how they isolate you from the world and what’s happening. When they want it, nothing is happening anywhere.

(I – the Film)

While I have talked extensively about news in this chapter, my main interest is in documentary film. The excursion into journalism was necessary to explain the context and background of, and motivation for video activist documentaries. It is also relevant, as the footage produced from a more counter-journalistic impetus, is the same footage that later on is made into documentaries.

Modes of production

Video activist films are the work of amateurs, not only in the current meaning of being unprofessional, but also the original meaning of the Latin “amator”, lover: they are products of love and passion. In the following chapters I will be looking at the modes of production of video activist films and the political understanding that inform those principles, talk about recurring motifs in these films and outline the functions of activist videos for the movement they come out of and are an intrinsic part of.

For video activists, cameras are a political tool, less a mechanical eye than a passionate participant11. Video activist films are usually made without external funding and hardly any budget at all, using consumer and prosumer but no professional equipment and by activists who mostly do not have a formal education in film making. They are never made for profit, and usually published under free licenses. Filmmakers frequently remain anonymous, their identity concealed by synonyms, nick names or collectives that may exist only temporarily. These modes of production and distribution are based on an idea of cooperation and mutual aid, that is trying to invent social contracts beyond markets, commodities and reification.

Political principles

Video activism is based on political principles that inform the working relationships as well as the content of the films. The hallmarks of Peoples’ Global Action (2001), “a worldwide network of peoples’ movements” (Professor Nanjundaswamy in Notes from Nowhere 2003: 154), are a good example and widely acknowledged by social movements around the world:

1. A very clear rejection of capitalism, imperialism and feudalism; all trade agreements, institutions and governments that promote destructive globalisation.

2. We reject all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds. We embrace the full dignity of all human beings.

3. A confrontational attitude, since we do not think that lobbying can have a major impact in such biased and undemocratic organisations, in which transnational capital is the only real policy-maker;

4. A call to direct action and civil disobedience, support for social movements’ struggles, advocating forms of resistance which maximize construction of local alternatives to global capitalism.

5. An organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and autonomy.

(spelling and punctuation original)

Activist videos do not appeal to decision makers to reform policies, they do not call to give to charity or vote for a political party. They call on common people to get involved in political struggles, promoting self-organisation and direct democracy instead of representative models. They address social conflicts, and take a side, without pretending to know the detailed solution. By raising questions without answering them, they ask the audience to bear witness to the struggle and make up their own mind.

These political principles not only apply to the message of the films, but also influence the relationships in production and distribution.

A crucial element of the independent scene has always been to radically transform the relations of production.

(Spencer 2005: 338)

Video activists organise horizontally, aiming to abandon hierarchy. They stress the autonomy of each group and make decisions based on a consensus model. They focus on empowering others to create media, in this case films, above requiring people to already be skilled in order to participate. While this on the one hand can result in shaky footage and jarring cuts, it provides at the same time a unique learning environment, with no tuition fees asked for or paid.

Activist videos are often aimed to a large extent at an audience, that at the same time is the subject of the film: the active participants of the movement. This results in a relationship between subjects, film makers and audience that is based on trust and respect and “allows its participants to engage in a critique of mass society and to construct alternative models of creation, communication, and community” (Duncombe 1997:190).

Different models of activist video production include individual activists, temporary working groups and permanent video collectives as well as networks of video activists and collectives. These are not entirely separate categories, but rather a spectrum, with individual video activists fluidly moving from one to the other and often being part of several at either one time. An example for different forms of video production are Indymedia videos. While This is what Democracy looks like was produced by Indymedia in collaboration with Big Noise Films, Trading Freedom12 and Rebel Colours were produced by temporary Indymedia video working groups that came together around a specific mobilisation and Genoa – Red Zone is attributed to a generic “Indymedia productions”. I – the Film is a one off film, produced by the Argentinian Indymedia collective, and Li2U News is one film amongst many produced by the Portland Indymedia Video Collective over the course of years. Other video collectives that work locally and continuously include Reel News in London, Kanal B, SchNews, Undercurrents, Pepperspray, and many more13. It is not always possible to tell if a film was made by an individual video activist or a collective, as it is common for video activists to use nick names, many of which could be either.

In order to facilitate collaboration and coordination, video activists also organise in loose networks. Indymedia has several email lists committed to video work14, both global and local, as well as a dedicated video site15. There are several video activist networks, regional as well as global ones. One of the nodes of video activism is the Transmission network16, which focusses on distribution and the technical aspects of video activism.

The work of video activists is made with no budget to speak of. As there are no wages to be paid, the cost for a film comes down to the hardware. Cameras and other equipment are bought only once, potentially limiting the costs for producing a video activist documentary to the cost of DV tapes. On the other hand, as video activists still have to make a living, the voluntary work on activist videos is limited to their spare time.

Filming protest

The actual filming of protests is very straight forward, as video activists mostly keep an open mind about what they will get. They are, however, faced with certain challenges that are at once specific to the type of film making and general in the sense that most, if not all, video activists are confronted with them. Filming protests harbours some risks, especially if the protest is attacked by police, as has often happened in the past. While it is not only video activists who are faced with these risks, they are usually in a more conflicting situation and more exposed, especially when dealing with a fast-moving situation through a viewfinder.

Even though activists love watching activist videos, in a protest situation they are often sceptical or even hostile towards anyone with a video camera. One of the reasons for the emergence of video activism, the disillusionment with mainstream media, can turn against the very people trying to remedy it: other activists, based on the same disillusionment, may challenge video activists, demanding to know who they are filming for. The conflict that arises here is in part reflective of a movement that is critical of power structures and is aiming for a maximum of participation. The subjects in front of the lens can only rely on their trust for the camera person and anyone who will be handling the footage later on. The situation is one of utter powerlessness – no matter how eloquent one is speaking in front of the camera, the editor might twist the meaning utterly. Video activism is made possible by a relationship of trust between protesters and video activists, but like any relationship based on trust it is complex and both side have to deal with expectations and disappointments.

It is not only the movement that can be hostile towards videographers. The police, while usually sporting their own cameras for surveillance purposes, have tried to seize footage shot by video activists in the past, presumably hoping to find something that will help with the prosecution of protesters. Video activists, who often do not have the protection of press cards and are identifying themselves clearly as part of the movement and part of the protest, can find themselves subjected to harassment, including arrest and confiscation of their equipment and footage.

When the Independent Media Centre in Via Battista was raided during the G8 in Genoa 2001, the computers and hard-drives used for collecting footage for a documentary were seized amongst other equipment. At a screening of OP Genova17, a member of the Genova Legal Secretariat18 who produced the film said that, even though the footage seized by police had been used to prosecute protesters, it had more impact on making a wider public aware of police misconduct and helped prosecuting responsible officers19.

Any one of the films centring around a large summit like the G8 summits, International Monetary Fund (IMF) or WTO meetings, shows images of tear gas clouds rolling down the streets and people crying and choking from exposure to the gas. Anyone who films these images will also feel the effect of this chemical weapon, which is forbidden in warfare under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, but used by most countries for crowd control. The only difference to other activists here is that video activists have the tools and means to communicate their experiences later on.

Protests are unpredictable, fast-moving situations, and can quickly turn violent. Combined with low quality equipment and a lack of training, the resulting footage that can be extremely jarring, shaky with bad light and audio. When filming a protest one has to respond quickly and does not necessarily have the time to set up shots nicely. Additionally protests can happen late into the evening or night and video activists then have to deal with low light situations. When conflict develops the situation becomes even more unpredictable. Videographers might get shoved around or be running with the crowd while still trying to film what is happening. Often the internal microphone is the only one used, and there is always background noise with traffic and chanting and shouting. All these factors give the footage a very direct and immediate feel, but also result in material that is difficult to deal with later on. It is not nice and clean and appealing, but shaky and confusing, just as life is not nice and clean all the time.

Editing protest

Editing is always a time intensive process, even more so when there is no plan or concept in the first place. The editing of activist videos varies immensely. Some videos are barely edited at all, put together roughly, or show an obvious lack of skill. Others are edited elaborately, including intricate visual effects, graphics or animations. The quality of editing is not a criterion for whether or not a video qualifies as activist video. A large proportion of activist videos consist of short clips lasting somewhere in between several seconds to two or three minutes, showing a short clip from a protest or rally. Another group of activist video are also focussed around one specific protest or rally, but up to 15 minutes in length and aim to document the whole protest. In these single protest videos, the need to publish the video shortly after the actual protest happened might take precedence over taking the time to produce a well edited video, especially as video activists can only work on the videos in their free time and usually have other full time occupations. For feature length documentaries post-production becomes more complex. During a large mobilisation, hundreds of hours of footage can be collected. 350 hours of footage went into the documentary This is what Democracy looks like that had to be reviewed, logged, and edited into a coherent film (Stringer 2006: 95). There is no one way of dealing with this process and it is unique to each film. I will not have the time to elaborate on it, and written sources are sparse to non-existent for most films20.

When I first came in touch with activist videos, the low production quality, with sequences made up of dark and shaky clips in low resolution, edited together in a rough way, with obvious cuts, that are often jarring and disruptive to the flow of the on screen narrative, led me to criticise their failure to create a more appealing ‘radical style’. I complained about the absence of grading and other post-production steps, that could give the film a more unified feel and about what I interpreted as a lack in care, skill and effort. I felt almost aesthetically insulted by the lack of a visual concept and more pleasing stylistic devices. But investigating these films more closely, made me change my mind.

When the image produced by a hand-held camera operated by a person who is in the streets at a demonstration shakes, it is because the filmmaker has been jostled, and the audience can feel the jostling, can feel being there. These moments interrupt a viewer’s so-called suspension of disbelief experienced at a mainstream movie viewing because the audience realizes the presence of the cameraperson, realizes that this event is real.

(emphasis in original, Stringer 2006: 145)

The different quality of the individual clips and camera angles gives the films what Stringer (2006:90) calls an “abundance of perspectives, a thicker texture” and adds to the feeling of immediacy. The ‘radical style’ I had wanted, making protest look ‘cool’, and protesters look pretty, does not exist. Video activist films are not intended to be pleasing aesthetically, but to be ‘disruptive’, to not allow the viewers to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the film, but to drag them back into reality. Activist Videos force the audience to realise that this is not a fictional narrative, that the events depicted are real, and thus urge viewers to become actively involved in the issues, rather than emotionally involved in the film.

Distributing protest

Distribution of activist videos is at the same time global and marginal. While films hardly ever enter regular distribution channels or get broadcast on TV, they do get international exhibition: a lot of the films are available online and activists set up screenings in their hometowns and cities. Internet platforms play a large role in the distribution of activist videos, with video activists using mainstream sites such as YouTube, more progessive projects like or, peer to peer21 file-sharing sites like OneBigTorrent or Miro and activist hosted platforms like Indymedia and Engage Media22. Films get screened internationally, but only rarely in movie theatres. Instead the venues are social and community centres, pubs and universities. Scott Beibin, who has been touring North- and South America and Europe with the Lost Film Festival says about the films he screens at “big festivals, small underground venues, caves, warehouses, rooftops”:

The Lost Film Festival exists in order to allow ideas and information that are often lost in the culture and lost in the information that we’re bombarded with, to give this specific information a chance to be seen and heard in an intimate setting. These films are not necessarily lost, they’re actually found at that very moment. But a lot of our society really is lost in this well of information.

Distribution can be an amazing process, with screening tours being set up very quickly using existing organizational networks, and screenings usually happening in an informal and intimate setting. At the same time it can also be quite frustrating: it is confined to a narrow circle, and only few people ever hear about the films. There are some networks that try and tackle this problem, such as the Indymedia Video Distribution Network, Transmission and the Lost Film Festival23, but the films remain largely obscure and can be hard to find, even if one knows about their existence.

Themes and Motifs

In this chapter I will look at three recurring themes in activist videos more closely. All the sequences I am looking at are from the first wave of documentaries coming out of the global justice movement, namely This is what Democracy looks like, about the protest against the WTO in Seattle in 1999, Trading Freedom, about the protest against Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec in 2001 and Genoa – Red Zone, about the protest against the G8 in 2001. I also include scenes from Crowd Bites Wolf24, a short film about the protests against the IMF in Prague in 2000. Crowd Bites Wolf stands out from the other films in that it contains a fictional element. A presenter leads us through the film, explaining and commenting on what is happening and helping to ‘mastermind’ the protest together with a fictional command central in the Lacandon Jungle – a nod to the Zapatistas, whose Second Declaration of La Realidad for Humanity and against Neoliberalism I have quoted as an inspiration for media activists earlier. The film is very tongue in cheek, sometimes ironic and openly appraising all forms of protest as part of the struggle, including the breaking of windows and direct confrontations with the police. I have not included films from the second wave, that put part of the focus on investigating the film makers identity and position as media activists within the framework of the movement. Again, this is due to the scope of this dissertation, so this part remains necessarily incomplete, only a small section of themes will be addressed, and those not in depth.

We not Me

The introduction of the concept of collectivity in This is what Democracy looks like

This is what Democracy looks like25 opens on plain white titles over a black background:

The following film was shot

by over 100 media activists.

After some seconds a female voice, distorted by a megaphone cuts in:

I think in ten years from now

and, as the titles fade into white, is answered by a ensemble of voices from off screen, reminiscent of a Greek chorus:

I think in ten years from now

The screen fades from white to a montage of a celluloid film strip, slowly moving from right to left, displaying scenes from the protests against the WTO in Seattle in 1999 in still images of protesters and riot police in gas masks.

frame of the opening sequence of This is what Democracy looks like

This continues, while we hear the calls and answers, going back and forth in an almost meditative rhythm:

The thing that’s going to be written about Seattle

The thing that’s going to be written about Seattle

Is not what tear gas bomb went off on what street corner

Is not what tear gas bomb went off on what street corner

But that the WTO in 1999

But that the WTO in 1999

Was the birth

Was the birth

Of a global citizen’s movement

Of a global citizen’s movement

For a democratic global economy

For a democratic global economy

Written down, these double lines almost look like a poem, several verses, that have a distinct rhythm of emphasis and caesura. We start with two long verses, establishing the setting, followed by two short ones that create tension leading us to the climax in the two last verses. The sequence ends in a crescendo of the crowd cheering and clapping. In the repetition of each verse, the crowd picks up the speaking rhythm of the caller, effectively acting as a human amplifier.

As the cheers fade and the image dissolves back into a white screen, we hear rhythmic concussion music and another chorus picks up:

Whose streets?

Our streets!

On the first call, a scene on the streets of Seattle fades in.

frame of the opening sequence of This is what Democracy looks like

Young people are standing in a circle in the middle of a street crossing, their arms stretched out and joined by short pipes. The camera circles them, moving from one face to the next, showing each one when chanting the answer the call: “Our streets!” The chorus continues and when the camera moves from outside of the circle to the inside, we see that they are surrounded by another circle, which in turn is surrounded by a crowd. The people in the inner circle have locked their arms together inside the pipes, in order to blockade the street crossing and prevent delegates from reaching the WTO meeting. What we see is one of countless actions that effectively shut down downtown Seattle on November 30th 1999 and prevented the WTO from holding its summit. Protesters practising this form of direct action, locking themselves onto gates, train tracks, or each other in order to form a human blockade, are often demonised by the media as violent and extremist. But the only people endangered in these kind of actions, are the activists themselves: being locked up makes a person utterly vulnerable.

The opening of This is what Democracy looks like makes a statement: this is not me, this is not isolated individuals, this is us, the people, speaking out against injustice and putting our bodies into harms way to protest against leaders who we did not appoint and who have no right, nor legitimacy to represent us and make decisions that force people to live in misery and put the whole planet at risk. The opening credits read like a dedication, devoting the film to the very people who took part in making it. It also emphasises from the first moment, that this film was not made by a maverick director, is not the result of individual genius or talent, but was produced by people organising collectively.

The first chorus is the collective conscience of humanity. It alerts us to the conflict of the film: both the tear gas in the streets of Seattle and the WTO. But it is a positive message and appears almost prophetic in hindsight: a global citizen’s movement for a democratic economy. Seattle was indeed the moment when the general public globally became aware of the global justice movement. The stills give a glimpse of what we will see in the film, but by using still images, the whole emphasis of the first moments of the film is placed on this chorus of disembodied voices. The calling and answering voices create a somewhat surreal atmosphere, this is not the usual chanting or shouting of slogans. The effect is slightly hypnotic and leaves a sort of aural afterimage. While writing these lines, I can still hear the voices echoing in my head. What the viewer does not know at this point, is that the crowd shouting was assembled outside a prison, where hundreds of people, arrested during the protests, were being held. The woman at the megaphone is reading out a message and the crowd repeats it in order to penetrate the prison walls and communicate with the people inside. When the second chorus takes up the chant, it is a reaffirmation of the commitment, necessity, strength and legitimacy of the protests. The individual faces are expressive, reflecting excitement, joy, determination, fear and insecurity, and create an intense emotional atmosphere. This is the first moment that we see the protesters who put their physical bodies on the streets and the effect is palpable and visceral. The inner circle of individuals, forming one collective entity by physically being locked together, is held by a second circle and supported by the crowd surrounding the latter.

The opening of This is what Democracy looks like introduces us to a concept of collectivity that is one of the pillars of the movement: people breaking through the isolation and alienation so common in our society and organising collectively in a decision making process that aims at giving every one an equal say and succeeds in creating a model for the participatory democracy advocated by the movement. It follows the same principles that I have described in the modes of production. And these collective processes are celebrated in the film: the power of the people when they come together to make their voice heard.

Celebrating Resistance

Mass Protest as celebration in Trading Freedom

Trading Freedom26 opens to cheerful music and the black screen comes alive with the Indymedia logo: the letter ‘i’ sending out rhythmic waves, reminiscent of radio waves. We hear a voice distorted by amplification:

Attention Police! Please be aware that our happiness and our exuberance should not be a threat to you.

The black background fades into a shot from one of the marches, protesters dancing and waving flags, a girl in the foreground dancing and chanting, smiling happily into the camera.

frame of the opening sequence of Trading Freedom

This opening is exemplary for another theme that is present in most films about the large protests of the global justice movement: protest and resistance as celebration. Images of large puppets and props, people dancing in the streets, some in fancy dress, to a sound system or live concussion music by marching bands or improvised by protesters drumming with sticks and stones on lampposts, fences and railings. The spontaneous celebrations are an expression of the joy of realising that one is not alone with the urge to make a difference and the confidence that ‘we’, common people, can change the world for the better. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world get together to show – in the words of a wide spread slogan at the time – that “another world is possible” and celebrate humanity’s potential. That the protests cross borders and bring together people from different parts of the world is one aspect that is celebrated, as in Genoa – Red Zone27, where several people smiling and looking directly at the camera say where they come from:

“Dovè soi?” “Pakistan.” “Pakistan?” “Pakistan.”

“Io sono provende de Peru.”

“I am from Genoa.”

“From Bologna.”

“Sogno Latino Americano del Peru”



“We’re all Irish.” “Why are you here in Genoa?” “We’re here to live the memory of our ancestors and oppose oppression.”

On the last word the protester raises his fist and we cut to a close up of raised arms. The camera zooms out to reveal a crowd jumping and dancing to music from a sound system. There is a similar clip in Crowd Bites Wolf28: the presenter is dancing amongst protesters and turns to the camera saying:

People are dancing all over the world, everywhere, all over the earth, people are rising up, waking up, dancing […] from Bolivia to India, to Africa, to Australia, to America, to Spain, France, Italy […]

This clip is embedded in a sequence set to music, that depicts the pink bloc, a form of action that first surfaced in Prague. Protesters form improvised Samba bands, and dress up in pink and silver fancy dress, often inspired by the costumes worn for Mardi Gras.

frame from Crowd Bites Wolf

It is an affirmation of femininity and queer identities, with male and female participants wearing skimpy skirts and dresses, sporting pompoms and indulging in general frivolity, in an attempt to destroy the normative image of young male protesters, dressed in black with masked up faces and flags throwing macho poses. In Genoa Red Zone the concept is explained by a man in accented English:

We would like to go into the Red Zone […] to express our opposition or confrontation in creative and diverse and funny and, you know, sexy way.

And a little later a woman continues in Italian29:

Our aim is not to respect the limits of the Red Zone and we will not be using any form of active violence. Our only weapons will be creative actions. These are theatre, performance, bands, music and dance.

These explanations are intercut with footage of the pink block, people dancing in the streets, pink cheerleaders shouting anti-capitalist slogans, and ends in a crowd cheering and slowly moving through a police line, some with hands in the air in a gesture of non-violence. The police officers wearing helmets and carrying shields, seem confused. Even though the crowd confronts a police line and they successfully walk through it, there is no show of aggression. A similar but more pronounced scene shows up in Crowd Bites Wolf30:

A person, of indeterminable sex, wearing a long dress that looks like a wedding dress, with a baroque looking pink wig and samba-style back piece, a gas mask dangling from his or her arm, is walking towards a group of police officers, waving a pink feather duster at them. The police officers retreat, walking backwards, eventually getting to the corner of a building that forces them to retreat down a hill. The aspect that the gender of the person cannot be made out is important here, as the action form of the pink block consciously challenges hetero-normativity and images of patriarchal power as well as gender stereotypes.

frame from Crowd Bites Wolf

But pink and silver are not the only party guest, everyone is joining in. The sequence from Genoa – Red Zone I described earlier, with people saying where they come from followed by protesters dancing and jumping in the streets, cuts to another motif that is present in a lot of these films. Protesters are walking along a container barrier set up around the so-called red zone31 in Genoa, all of them banging their hands against the containers, in an symbolic attack on it, creating a soundtrack to their protest.

frame from Genoa - Red Zone

In a more pronounced sequence featuring the drumming of protest in Trading Freedom32 a young woman sitting on the pavement says with a strong French accent:

Everybody should do a little bit and with a lot of little bit, we can change the world.

Another expression of the theme of collectivity. The scene cuts to a young man wearing a gas mask and goggles, seen against blue sky, sitting on a metal bar and hitting it with a stick as if setting an exclamation mark, underscoring what the young woman said. He keeps drumming, part of an improvised piece of percussion music, as the camera zooms out revealing him to be sitting on a pylon. The rhythm never flounders, as the following shots show young and old people using sticks and stones to drum on lampposts and railings, most of them wearing goggles or colourful scarves covering their faces, a young man with a Djembe33 amongst them. People are drumming together, creating a raw and improvised but complex rhythm. It is another variation of celebration but at the same time reminiscent of the origin of drum signals: an emergency call to the population of the city and the world to come out, take notice of and participate in the protest.

In the middle of this sequence we see a masked up protester use a stone to break the lock of a fuse box and flip all the switches inside. An act of sabotage, the sound of the stone on the lock and the flipping of the switches contributing for a short time to the rhythm of the improvised music. The seamless inclusion of acts of property destruction in activist videos reflects the political position taken by this part of the movement. Ethical values and human rights are valued above private property. According to this logic, it is acceptable to commit property destruction in a gesture of defiance or acts of sabotage, as long as people face poverty and death as a consequence of unequal distribution of resources.

The footage of celebrating protesters is sometimes used in combination with talks, speeches and lectures outlining the critique of neoliberal capitalism. This juxtaposition can work very well, with the vivid images of dancing people counterpointing and emphasising what the speakers are saying. This technique offers a solution for one of the problems in documentary, the visual dullness of extensive shots of talking heads, while allowing speakers to talk in depth about an issue. In Trading Freedom34, shots of people drumming and dancing at a large bonfire underneath a motorway bridge are combined effectively with the voices of Dr. Albert Berry, Unversity of Toronto Economist, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians and Paul Hellyer, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, speaking on issues around corporate globalisation and privatisation. We never see their faces, learning only from titles who is speaking. The sequence ends on one extensive take, that lasts almost a minute, of the camera moving around the bonfire in the middle of dancing protesters, moving through and around them, as if dancing with them, a visual expression of the position of video activists and their cameras as part of the movement, not observers.

frame from Trading Freedom

Tear gas and batons

The presentation of violence in Trading Freedom

Trading Freedom35 contains a long segment devoted to the question of violence. When José Bové, a farmer, says: “And even if some windows are going down on Saturday, that is not violence. Violence is the free market.” it reflects the opinion of a lot of protesters. In a world as rich, productive and technologically advanced as ours, hundreds of thousands of people still die from hunger, poor working conditions, curable diseases and war, and environmental exploitation and destruction has pushed the whole planet to the brink of catastrophe.

The violence in activist videos is twofold: on the one hand there are violent protesters, who smash windows, build barricades, set cars on fire and attack the police. On the other handhere is also the violence of the police, wielding batons and pepper-spray and tear-gassing and attacking marches, rallies and sit-down protests.

I have touched on the portrayal of acts of property destruction in activist videos earlier, and while they are often included in feature length films, they are usually not the given a lot of space. A lot of activists criticise that, while event minor acts of property destruction by protesters are given a lot of attention by the media, the cause of the protests never get enough. This reflects in the films, where property destruction is included, and by no means condemned, but the emphasis is on the message of the protest. I will follow that approach and not spend more time on the theme of violent protester, But first I have to mention there is sub-genre of activist video, devoted to riots, that has been dubbed ‘Riot Porn’.

The goal of this content is to allow the viewer to feel the demonstrators winning, feel for a moment that the institutions they are fighting against aren’t invincible or impenetrable.

(Stringer 2006: 144)

The images of protesters rioting are often set to fast and energetic music, almost entirely lacking in political context or background.

The other face of violence is police brutality. After José Bové speaks in Trading Freedom, white titles on a black screen give place and time:

April 21, 2001

Rue St. Jean

Quebec City

The screen fades to a close up of a young woman sitting on the ground amongst other people, singing, soothingly, a little sad but very calm. Music fades in and we cut to the image of riot police with long shields, and the nozzle of a tear gas projector sticking out between them, the militarised image creating a stark contrast to the intimacy of the previous shot. The camera pans to the right, protesters are sitting in front of the police line, many with their arms in the air, showing the victory sign. Several fades show more protesters sitting on the ground, some with goggles or even gas masks, but quiet and peaceful.

frame from Trading Freedom

We see the same scene from several different angles, the quality of the footage varying enormously. In any other film, this might be put down to low production quality, and it remains jarring here, but it also creates the unique “abundance of perspectives [and] thicker texture” Stringer (2006:90) talks about. We arrive back with the police, and images of black helmets, faces hidden behind gas masks, an image of war rather than a protest in a democratic country. One police officer is making an announcement over a megaphone, but it is unintelligible over the music.

frame from Trading Freedom

Cut to a woman, sitting on the curb in front of another police line, explaining why people are protesting against this Free Trade Agreement and as she goes on talking, we see more protesters sitting on the ground in front of police lines. Another cut to the close up of a young woman, obviously shaken, who looks like she has been crying and speaks directly into the camera:

My face is burning, my heart is racing, my legs are getting a bit weak.

Over yet another shot of a crowd sitting on the ground, the voice of a young man comes in

Grenades like this, they’ll throw these into crowds of people, 30 odd people, 40 people, they’re trying to disperse crowds by throwing explosive devices into them.

He holds up a tear gas grenade. We see a police line with some scattered protesters in front of them, waving their arms in the air, obviously not posing any threat at this moment, one of them is hit by a concussion grenade fired from the police line in front of him. A fade takes us directly in front of another police line, close enough to touch them. The air is heavy with tear gas and the line is slowly advancing, officers rhythmically drumming their batons against their shields with every step.

frame from Trading Freedom

The next shot takes us into a densely packed crowd, physically touching the police line with no space to move back and we see the smoke of another volley of tear gas being fired directly into the mass of people. We cut back and forth between several cameras, sometimes switching the angle on one scene, or cutting from a wide shot of a scene to a close up of the same scene. Every shot shows people amongst the protesters with cameras and camcorders, and the editing approaches the continuity of a multi-camera shoot, that we usually only know from fiction film, or other controlled production environments, each shot positioning us inside the protest, facing the police.

[…] the sheer number of multiple camera angles make it clear how many videographers were on the ground at this moment. The ability to use so many camera angles allows the viewer to be in many positions at one time. This stragegy [sic!] in filmmaking is where the viewer can see democratic media at work in visual production.

(Stringer 2003)

All throughout the sequence, protesters are passive, no one is attacking or confronting the police, and amidst the repeated smoke clouds from gas projectors, we see hands in the air, still flashing the victory sign. Several times we see people being hit by tear gas volleys or grenades in body, limbs or even the head. The feeling of this sequence is of a highly militarised state at war against its own citizens, the effect is deeply unsettling. Over a black screen we now read the title:

Severe traumatic injury

from exploding tear gas bombs as well as lethal

toxic injury have been documented… in vitro tests

have shown o-chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile36

to be both clastogenic and mutagenic37.

Journal of the American Medical Association

The title fades out and we are back on the streets of Quebec, with the protesters, who are now trying to get away from police lines, and helping each other. One shot shows a young woman obviously distraught walking backwards and being helped along by a street medic38, wearing a patch with a red cross on his sleeve. The next shot shows a man in a big pink elephant costume, dragging the mask behind him, led away from tear gas clouds by two men, who help him to wash his face. Repeatedly we see close ups of police officers, all wearing helmets and gas masks, who seem to have been displaced from a science fiction movie into the streets of Quebec. The sequence ends on a title detailing the amount of tear gas and rubber bullets fired during the protests, and the number of arrests. By the time the film is seen, most viewers will already know about the violence that took place during the protest, and the sequence plays on this anticipation, successfully creating tension by contrasting images of sitting protesters with images of riot police.

These images, of peaceful protesters being attacked and beaten by the police hardly ever appear on mainstream media, even though they are available, even pervasive after large protests. To be clear, I am not saying that protesters are always peaceful. There are protesters that break windows, smash shops and even attack the police. But reports and accounts by protesters and bystanders as well as photo and video evidence show that protesters are often attacked by police with no more provocation than the same acts of civil disobedience, that Gandhi and Martin Luther King advocated. I can not help but wonder which poses more danger to democracy: some broken windows, burned cars or even groups of people attacking fully armoured and equipped police officers with sticks and bottles, or large peaceful protests of thousands, sometimes several hundred thousand people, being attacked by the same fully armoured and highly militarised police force. If people have to consider that they might be detained in the open with no access to food, water and facilities, or may be attacked, chased and beaten, this will intimidate many to the extent that they refrain from attending future protests.

The commitment of video activists can be seen in another clip in Trading Freedom39. We see a close up of the now familiar police line, one of the officers says something and gestures, but his voice is hard to make out under the gas mask. The videographer responds: “I don’t speak French, I’m sorry” the camera zooms out and we can just barely make out several officers screaming “Get back!” and “Move back!” The camera starts moving sideways, giving the impression that the videographer is moving off, when the police officer who was first seen gesturing, now at the very edge of the frame to the left, raises his tear gas projector, aims it directly at the camera, and shoots. We hear the videographer scream, the image quickly moves to the ground and the clip ends.

A similar, even more impressive clip can be seen in Genoa – Red Zone. The protest against the G8 in Genoa in 2001 can be said to mark the beginning of the end of the movement of movements40 and the police violence during that summit has become legendary. Police shot one protester dead, attacked a school where protesters were sleeping and beat them up inside their sleeping bags, and countless reports tell of torture and sexual assaults in prisons, including protesters being forced to sing fascist songs. Genoa – Red Zone shows a lot of these attacks. At some point we see a large demonstration on the day after the police shot a protester, being attacked first with tear gas grenades and then charged by riot police with batons. The short clip depicts a scene that we have seen repeatedly, on the scales of Genoa the incident in itself is a minor one, one of many: a person is on the ground with several police officers leaning over her, beating her with batons. What makes this clip outstanding is the perspective: it is the videographer herself who is being beaten, her camera running, moving erratically between the blue sky seen through the leaves of a tree and riot police in gasmasks with raised batons towering over the videographer and by proxy the viewer.

frame from Genoa - Red Zone

Batons rush towards us, while we hear the videographer pleading in German, Spanish and Italian: “Presse! Presse! Por favor, por favor, scusa, scusa, por favor, prensa! Prensa!” (“Press! Press! Please, please, excuse me, excuse me, please, press! Press!”) This clip is thoroughly disturbing and its effect penetrates the whole film: whenever the viewers see someone beaten up, they will identify with them. These clips of videographers being attacked symbolise one of the strengths of video activism, video activists are committed to report on protests, even if they risk their own well-being in the process.

Re-imag[in]ing Protest

Activist videos successfully combine all four fundamental documentary tendencies as defined by Renov (1993:21): they record the history of the movement, reveal repression against the activists, try to promote the ‘good cause’ and provide some analysis of neoliberal capitalism. By an “Act of Transformation” (Kilborn and Izod 1997:4) video activists create a unique form that transcends the mere representation of the movement (Stringer 2006:I), and makes the film part of the movement, using various techniques in the process of making the films as well as on screen. When I complained about the short clips of protests not giving enough context and information in the beginning of my research, I made two mistakes: I ignored that these clips are embedded in and rely on a wealth of other media and cannot be seen isolated from that background. And I was old-fashioned, I expected a video to give an introduction, provide a narrative arc, and have some form of ending. While these rules apply to traditional story telling, narratives are becoming more and more fragmented. Rather than following one arc, they are comprised of bits and pieces that complement each other. If they also contradict each other, this reflects diversity not only of the movement but of human experience. These fragmented stories are never complete, never exhaustive and always open to interpretation and waiting for yet another fragment. The approach to collect the footage of independent camera teams in order to make it into a documentary, is an early reflection of this fragmentation. When many people collaborate on telling a story, it is an expression of the realisation that one perspective is not enough.

Being directed more at the activist community itself, rather than a wide audience, activist videos provide points of reference within a movement, whose participants are geographically separated. Thus it helps to create a shared identity that does not try to overcome differences but includes and celebrates them as crucial part of the multitude (Hardt/ and Negri 2000:56). Many viewers will have been in situations similar to those depicted in the film, and being able to see each other, albeit only on screen, helps to create solidarity and break through the feeling of isolation.

Activist videos contribute to the writing of the history of the movement and thus help to create a collective, as well as an individual, identity, that is not based on everyone being the same, but on everyone being equal. Activist videos bear witness to and are embedded in other accounts of this history of the movement, written down on websites and in books, frozen in photographs and paintings and told in a tradition of oral history that is strongly interwoven with and in part kept alive by them. When watching the scene from Trading Freedom, with people dancing under a bridge for the chapter on the celebration of protest, I had a Canadian friend visiting, who told me that he had been there. The crowd dancing at the bonfire had just been dispersed from the bridge, and, while this improvised party was happening, the bridge above was full of riot police looking down at the protesters. Almost every time activist see ‘their’ films together, someone knows another story from these protests, making the events come to life more fully than the videos could by themselves. So many stories told to me by activists are interwoven with the films, that it becomes hard to distinguish between the information provided by the video alone and the collective memories that are inseparably connected with them. This fragmented, but continuous process of creating sense from the experience of violence by integrating the story into the narrative of the individual’s life as well as of the movement’s history also helps to overcome a feeling of powerlessness.

When I watched some activist videos with a friend, who was too young to witness the global justice movement first hand, he told me it felt like watching a documentary from the seventies. The big global protests in the era before the world got dragged into the so-called ‘war on terror’ seem further removed than they are. Only ten years ago, social change for the better seemed imminent, and this palpability of change opened up a space in which people could meet, connect their struggles and begin to take history into their own hands. But instead nations first went to war and then into recession. In a way activist videos keep this space open, that is created during successful protests, where the potentiality of a better world becomes palpable.

Video activism will become more important in the future. The means of production and distribution become more accessible all the time, and video is becoming an integral part of communication in our society. While video has become pervasive, the internet and other communication technologies have influenced the possible ways to tell a story. Video activist films reflect this development: films are worked on collectively, sequences edited locally and later pieced together in a meaningful way and distribution happens mostly on the internet. The next wave of activist video will most likely be produced in an even more distributed fashion. Barbarossa and Lotta, two Indymedia activists from Germany and Spain, are currently working on a way to enable a video activists to cooperate on editing one film over geographic distances, using the internet. The future of documentary will include some form of interactivity, collaboration and forms of fragmented story telling, not to replace linear narration, but to complement it.

There is no voice of god, telling us “there are no ruptures in history” anymore. It is us, speaking and listening, building networks and frameworks, to create a more complex image of “the history or geography of struggle” to once again live the moment when “our bodies [remember] a strength that [is] not their own and a purpose outside of their time.” (The Fourth World War)


Battle in Seattle. Dir. Stuart Townsend. Insight Film Studios. 2007

Brad – One more Night at the Barricades. Dir. Miguel Castro. Videohackers. 2007

Crowd Bites Wolf. Guerillavision. 2000

Eye of the Storm. Dir. Raphael Lyon and Andres Ingoglia. Indymedia. 2006

The Fourth World War. Dir. Jacqueline Soohen and Rick Rowley. Big Noise Films. 2003

Genoa – Red Zone. Indymedia (as Indymedia productions) 2002

I – The Film. Dir. Raphael Lyon and Andres Ingoglia. Indymedia Argentina. 2006

It’s the End of the World as We Know it, and I Feel Fine …. Franklin Lopez. Submedia TV. Since 2006

Li2U News. Portland Indymedia Video Collective. Indymedia. 2003

OP Genova. (english title: Public Order – Genoa 2001) Genova Legal Secretariat. 2008

Praha 2000 – Rebel Colours. Praha IMC, Indymedia. 2000

Press Freedom: Collateral Damage. Dir. Jason Parkinson. 2008

Two or Three Things about Activism. Dir. Joanne Richardson. DMedia. 2008

This is what Democracy looks like. Big Noise Films and Indymedia. 2000

Trading Freedom: the secret life of the FTAA. FTAA Video Working Group. Indymedia. 2002

Why I love Shoplifting from big Corporations. Franklin Lopez. Pepperspray, Submedia. 2005


1  The scope of the dissertation did not allow me to study existing sources as closely as I would have wanted to. I do have access to a lot of first had sources, but did not have the time to conduct proper interviews, which forces me to neglect a lot of the information available to me.

2  The Fourth World War is an excellent example for the latter.

3  Indymedia is a global network of media activists, running between 1-200 news platforms on the Internet, and including, but not limited to, print outlets, radio, film screening and trainings. Indymedia activists have produced some of the first as well as some of the most impressive activist videos.

4  In 1994 a group of indigenous people in the Chiapas region of Mexico rose up and officially declared war on the Mexican state, with the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional – Zapatista Army of National Liberation) as military arm. The movement, also known as Zapatistas, has addressed neoliberal capitalism as one of the main problems the world is facing today and has received strong support from social movements all over the world. (Ford and Gil in Downing 2001: 217/218)

5  The global justice movement is widely referred to as the anti-globalisation movement. The latter term is wrong as the movement itself was a global one. It was criticising the effects of trade agreements that worsened the conditions for people around the globe, but it was in favour of global economic and social justice.

6  That is of western cultures north of the digital divide. Of course video and editing equipment are still unaffordable for most people in the world. I am focussing on video activism in Europe and the Americas, as most of the material available to me originates from there.

7  For a transcript of the Interview, see the appendix.

8  For details the ‘Others’ in appendix

9  Where no page numbers are given, I am referring to a text from the Internet. References, including the web-address can be found in the section ‘Articles on the Web’ following the main body of the bibliography.

10  See ‘Li2UNews’ on DVD.

11  In this sense, video activism stands in the tradition of cinema verité, rather than Direct Cinema, with the camera in the position of an active participant rather than a “fly-on-the-wall” (Chanan: 2007: 167, 180)

12  See ‘Trading Freedom‘ on DVD.

13  See the list of Video Activist Projects in the appendix for more details.

14  See for a list of Indymedia video mailing lists.

15  See the Indymedia Video Distribution Network under Distribution in the appendix

16  See Transmission Network under Distribution in the appendix

17  OP Genove, english title Public Order – Genoa 2001 is a film constructed of video footage gathered over years, including material from TV Crews, video activists, CCTV and Police Cameras, and police radio traffic, in a minute by minute account of the events leading up to and during the unprovoked police attack on the peaceful Tutte Bianchi march. The film was screened at court during related trials.

18  The Genova Legal Secretariat is an organisation set up to support the lawyers prosecuting police and defending demonstrators, mainly by gathering video and photographic evidence.

19  The comments were made at a film screening on 10.12.2008 at the London Action Resource Center.

20  Tish Stringer writes about the production process of several feature length activist videos in her 2006 PhD ThesisMove! Guerrilla Media, Collaborative Modes and the Tactics of Radical Media Making

21  File sharing protocols where files are not downloaded from a central computer, but shared directly between personal computers. Usually everyone who downloads a file, simultaneously uploads it to other people’s computers.

22  For details see Distribution and Others in the appendix

23  For details see Distribution in the appendix.

24  See ‘Crowd Bites Wolf’ on DVD.

25  See ‘the opening of This is what Democracy looks like‘ on DVD

26  See ‘the opening of Trading Freedom‘ on DVD

27  Due to problems with the file format of the video available to me, I was not able to include any clips of Genoa – Red Zone in the DVD.

28  See ‘Pink Party in Crowd Bites Wolf‘ on DVD

29  The English translation is taken from the subtitles.

30  See ‘Scary Fairy in Crowd Bites Wolf‘ on DVD

31  Red zones were established for large summits by setting up barriers around the summit location, effectively creating an enclosure within the city.

32  See ‘Drumming Protest in Trading Freedom‘ on DVD.

33  A popular kind of West African drum.

34  See ‘Dancing Theory in Trading Freedom‘ on DVD.

35  See ‘Rue St. Jean – Trading Freedom‘ on DVD.

36  CS Gas

37  Both referring to effects on chromosomes.

38  Street Medics are protesters who have some level of medical training and take first aid kits to demonstrations. If a protest is attacked by police or turns violent, ambulances often do not get to the area and police have been known to arrest people even from hospitals, following the logic that someone who is hurt must have participated in clashes.

39  See ‘Videographer tear gassed – Trading Freedom‘ on DVD.

40  The end of the global justice movement of course has various reasons, the repression in Genoa is by no means the only or most important one. While the protests in Genoa mark the beginning of the end they are not the reason for it.

Posted in: essays, videos