On the Need for an Explicitly “Anarchist” Cinema

Almost since the birth of cinema, anarchists and anarchism have been a subject for exploration (and exploitation) on film. So much so, that films with anarchist protagonists or anarchic themes could literally fill a book. Indeed, such films *have* filled a book; Richard Porton’s Film and the Anarchist Imagination (1999, Verso) provides an exhaustive examination of the influence of anarchist ideology on this particular sector of the culture industry. As a self-identified anarchist and film producer, I would have to give Porton’s text much credit for inspiring this article, and my work in general. Though this is not a review or a synopsis of his text and anyone who desires a much more detailed discussion of the topics, that I merely graze here, should head immediately to his brilliant book.

What quickly becomes clear when one seriously studies the interrelationship of anarchism and cinema is that the relationship has largely been of a one-sided nature; with the most commonly noted “anarchist films” being those not created by artists who would self-identify as anarchists, but rather films that utilize a maligned and stereotypical image of the anarchist that shares many commonalities with representations of other marginalized social elements. A stereotyped image especially similar to all of those who have, at one time or another, posed some perceived threat to the hegemony of the plutocratic & patriarchal status quo. In good company with libertine women, indigenous peoples, African-Americans, colonized nationals, the disabled, and the so-called “criminal element” in various “civilized” societies; anarchists comprise a significant part of a larger marginals milieu. A people whose value for the cinema often lies in sensationalistic and wildly inaccurate representations. At the turn-of-the century (not the last turning, but the previous one), anarchists appeared often in film as a social bugbear very much like the role that turbaned terrorists and violent Islamic jihadists have played for Hollywood since the waning years of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

Yet, as many of the other members of that marginals milieu have also accomplished over the course of time, sympathetic writers and directors in the cinematic tradition have (on occasion) allowed anarchist protagonists to perform roles contradictory to the typical black-clad bomb-throwing trope of the early 1900s. Even if merely by romanticizing the tale of the doomed rebel by creating essentially anarchist characters for the frequently recurring cinematic “antihero”.

One notable example from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” would be the screen adaptation of Edward Abbey’s second novel (The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale In A New Time), which resulted in a classic Western titled Lonely Are the Brave, a film in which a young Kirk Douglas brilliantly portrays an unmistakable “individualist anarchist”, whose only strong emotional attachments are to his horse and his freedom, at a time when the Western United States was rapidly rushing headlong into the modern mechanized era. He is undoubtedly the protagonist of the story, yet his status as an “antihero” could not be more firmly established. All the cards are stacked against him and none of his actions could be judged as “right” from the perspective of mainstream mores. He doesn’t “get the girl”, he has seemingly even given up the hope of it without much regret. He cuts through fences to continue riding the open range. In one sequence, he essentially breaks IN to prison, in an effort to liberate an old comrade who disappointingly decides that he would rather just go through the system. So, Douglas then proceeds to break OUT of the prison that he had just managed to enter. At the risk of providing spoilers for a 50-year-old film, the movie ends with Douglas wounded and sobbing as his horse is hit by a heavy truck and then callously dispatched by a police officer’s revolver amid a curious crowd of onlookers who have stopped their cars on a rainy night to gather around this exotic relic of a past era while urging the agent of the state to put the poor beast out of its misery. The message is painful in its obviousness. The “wild” West is dead. The sacrifice of his horse, to make way for the automobile, is the end of the road for Douglas himself. The free-ranging cowboy now truly a thing of the past. Though the film was released only one year after playing his leading role as Spartacus in the Stanley Kubrick epic that was the winner of numerous Oscars, Douglas still attests that the much lesser-known Lonely Are the Brave is his best work and his favorite film.

Sympathetic depictions of ‘social anarchism’ are so rare in the American cinematic tradition that I am actually at a loss in attempting to identify one. Perhaps if I fully re-read Porton’s analysis of anarchism in the cinema I could name one that he has found for us through his extensive research. Though, in speaking from my own experience, I would have to refer readers to a film adaptation of the novel Los Vengadores de la Patagonia Trágica (The Avengers of Tragic Patagonia), written by the Argentine anarchist historian Osvaldo Bayer. La Patagonia Rebelde (Rebellion in Patagonia) is a similarly romanticized film of a time gone-by. One where cowboys (or “gauchos”, as the case may be) could still flee to the wide-open wilderness when the pressures of civilized life became too burdensome. This movie, however, recounts the true story of a general strike that eventually expanded across several sectors of industry, and several provinces of the Argentine Patagonia, even into Chile, to the degree that national military units from both nations had to be dispatched to the area. If cinematographers in the United States ever saw fit to commit to film the epic and historical “Battle of Blair Mountain” — where 12,000+ “wildcat” strikers from the coalfields of five Appalachian states could not be deterred from their intention toward armed rebellion, even by exhortations from the inimitable Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, and thus precipitated the largest armed-insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War and the first aerial bombardment of U.S. citizens by their own government — then it would have to be a movie similar to La Patagonia Rebelde.

Instead, Blair Mountain is unfortunately being forgotten… losing nearly every effort to gain the protections of a National Historic Battlefield; it is rapidly being reduced by encroaching mountain-top removal mining. Yet, while commemorating history to film in a laudable manner, La Patagonia Rebelde still portrays even one of the most social and organized variants of anarchism as an ultimately futile struggle. Though it provides Argentines with a radical history that Americans seem largely content to forget. (Yet as an American anarchist viewing the film, I could not help but to permanently retain the impression of a large memorial to the Haymarket martyrs, of Chicago, displayed in the most prominent position of the small meeting hall of the Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation, at one of the southernmost extremes of The Americas.) Perhaps the results of this historical remembrance are evident in Argentina’s radical response to social crises in our own time, and it is likely little coincidence that the president Nestor Kirchner, who finally sated the public’s demands of “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“Out with all of them!”) in December 2001, was previously mayor of the city of Rio Gallegos; which 60 years prior to his term as mayor had been the epicenter of the Patagonia rebellion that only ended after the mass executions of over 1500 rural workers by the military & police.

Cinematic examples of a social or cooperative form of anarchism that are not inevitably tragic are even more rare. Ed Abbey, again, has provided the material for an American classic along these lines; having specifically written The Monkey Wrench Gang with cinematic adaptation as a foremost consideration. For decades the public has been teased with rumors of its imminent production. Within the last 10 years we’ve even been given the names of directors and cast who are supposedly already working on the project. Yet, it seems that the time will never be right for a depiction of anarchist antiheros and antiheroines that are fun, witty, sociable, effective, and yet not inevitably doomed to suffer terrible repercussions for their illegal “direct action” at the hands of the state/corporate apparatus. The film is reportedly due for theatrical release next year. It’s being billed as a “comedy”, though I suppose something is better than nothing. In any case, I’ll only believe it when I see it.

In the documentary genre (aside from fiercely “independent” productions that rarely leave our activist ghettos), the dearth of positive portrayals of anarchism that could also ever be considered classics is even more striking. Anarchist documentaries are exceptionally rare. So much so that there are probably already more films made about the mystical/metaphysical ramifications of the year 2012 than there are documentaries that deal specifically with “anarchism” in any respect. Where they do exist, they focus solely on individual luminaries in the anarchist tradition; like the relatively recent PBS production that is solely a biography of Emma Goldman. More generalized explorations of anarchist philosophy tend to be extremely dated — shining their light on one specific instance of anarchist history. Naturally, several have been made about the Spanish Civil War era, but only one stands out for its focus on anarchism in America. That being the rather anachronistic, and unimaginatively titled, Anarchism in America, which focuses solely on a relatively small subset of the anarchist movement during the hyper-individualistic Reagan-Thatcher era of Anglo-American politics. The film is most notable for its significant lack of interest in the “social” aspects of anarchism, with the filmmakers spending an inordinate amount of time displaying public misconceptions about anarchism via “man-on-the-street” type interviews and traveling around the nation’s highways in a recreational vehicle, seeking the remote enclaves of anarcho-capitalists who only somewhat jokingly worry about the potential tax-burden of having the documentarians’ RV in their garage, and who, by their own admission, came to Emma Goldman via Ayn Rand and disillusionment in their past affiliations with the Republican Party.

With social movements around the world currently experimenting in undoubtedly “anarchist” forms of resistance and organization (perhaps without even necessarily realizing it), the time has never been more ripe for a film that can reach relatively mainstream audiences with information about the ancient origins of anarchism, anarchist philosophy’s influence in all spheres of culture since its inception as a school of socio-political thought, the diverse and protean nature of the global anarchist movement, and its potential for helping humanity to create a future beyond the current capitalist model of production, consumption, and general social organization.

Denmark Vesey is a producer & researcher for the Anarkos Media Collective, currently utilizing the model of the Free/Libre Open Source Software movement to produce an anarchist/anti-authoritarian documentary series of unprecedented scope. You can learn more about the Anarkos series -- where contributions from innumerable anti-authoritarian academics and grassroots activists are being sought and compiled for a crowd-sourced and crowd-funded media project that will be released for free, online, with a Creative Commons license. Read other articles by Denmark.