The University of Chicago is playing host to “We Tell: 50 Years of Participatory Community Media,” a national traveling exhibition of short documentaries produced by community media organizations. The six-part series is made up of works related to topics like gentrification, labor, and public health; Thursday night’s screening, “States of Violence,” contained films about war, domestic abuse, and mass incarceration. (There were no Chicago-specific works, though later programs—split between the Logan Center and the Green Line Performing Arts Center—include a documentary by Kartemquin Films about the 1975 Cook County Hospital strike.)
“States of Violence” consists of seven works filmed between 1978 and 2017. A glance at the program—chronologically ordered, in roughly decreasing length—already reveals much about the films, whose subjects skew toward topicality. A 2005 documentary in which a pair of interns wear a wire in order to surreptitiously record an army recruiter (“training camp is just like basketball tryouts!” he said), came out in the midst of American protest movements against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A longer 1990 piece, Just Say No, presents the sprawling network of resistance to the First Gulf War.
The final two pieces, short films about the Movement for Black Lives and cop-watchers in New York’s Sunset Park neighborhood, reflect a heightened awareness of police brutality and violence. But they also demonstrate how easy it is for anyone to create films with very high production values or just for anyone to create media. It’s amusing to trace technological developments across the decades in the context of state violence. The Brooklyn cop-watchers are able to engage in their activism because of the ubiquity of cellphones; their inexpertly shot videos, sometimes shaky and nervous, comprise a form of resistance in a surveillance state that seeks to monopolize image and data streams.
Indeed, it was difficult (particularly during these last two films in the program) not to think of Chicago, where demands for police accountability after civilian shootings have often revolved around footage of the incident in question. During a post-screening panel discussion, Maira Khwaja of the Invisible Institute (and a Weekly contributor), which produces media investigations around policing in Chicago, spoke about the 2018 killing of Harith Augustus by a Chicago police officer. In the aftermath of the shooting, Superintendent Eddie Johnson released bodycam footage of the incident.
“It was paused and zoomed in on Harith’s holster. It was also titled ‘Aggravated Assault of an Officer,’” Khwaja said. “I think we just have to be careful with that obsession [over body cameras]. Even the copwatch perspective is not the only angle of perspective that’s helpful.”
This attempt at pacification by the city—disingenuously annotating the officer’s view of the incident in order to redeem his actions—rang even more hollow a few months ago, when it was discovered that the city had “lost track” of two additional videos of the incident.
The program’s older films remain compelling in their graininess and apparent naivete. Ain’t Nobody’s Business, produced by the New Orleans Video Access Center, features women who have been abused by their partners, as well as feminist activists discussing their efforts to set up organizations to help them. Louis Massiah, the series’s co-programmer and the founder of the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia, pointed out during the panel that the lack of synchronization between reels in the film resulted in abrupt, slightly jarring transitions between scenes. You might also note the prolonged shots of the interviewers nodding mutely at subjects, interjecting with a quick “that’s right,” or allowing a woman to speak so long that her verbal tics—like a repeated “it just breaks my heart”—come through. You might chalk all of it up to a lack of resources or experience. But these superficially inelegant touches seem deliberate; the roughness breaks open the viewing experience and reminds the viewer of the brutality inflicted upon the women in the film.
The experimentalism is easier to discern in Inside Women Inside made by Cynthia Maurizio and Christine Choy, who is perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated documentary on the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin. Inside Women Inside is about the incarceration of women: it was filmed at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women and the Correctional Institute for Women at Rikers Island, where Choy and Maurizio were given access that would seem impossible today. They follow inmates to their cells, into the cafeteria, to the rooms where they work on sewing machines and shout to be heard. The women tell them freely about the preferential treatment handed out to suck-ups and informants, the hair in their unpeeled potatoes, and the back-breaking labor they’re forced to carry out, hauling seventy-pound boxes by themselves up flights of concrete.
Much like Ain’t Nobody’s Business, Maurizio and Choy’s movie turns its low budget into an asset. Ambient noise bleeds in during interviews and people filmed through cell bars are cut off unconventionally. An interview with a prison superintendent is shot from the ground up, it seems—with a large dark desk taking up most of the frame, the official’s face looming over it, the footage takes on the quality of samizdat. “There’s no telling what I might do to get free,” says one woman. “There’s no telling what I might do, just to be treated like a human.”
Massiah introduced the program with some short remarks, in which he noted that what makes participatory community media particularly compelling is that the subject of a work is also often the author. Afterward, during the panel discussion with Khwaja and UofC professor Jacqueline Stewart, founder of the South Side Home Movie Project and recently-appointed director of the UofC’s Arts + Public Life program, Massiah explained this idea with reference to Books Through Bars, a short documentary produced with the help of his organization Scribe Video Center. Through one of its programs, Scribe sent two staff members to work with an organization as facilitators, helping its members create a film about themselves.
In this case, the organization was Books Through Bars, an anarchist-inflected group that sends books to people in prison. (The group still operates out of its headquarters in West Philly.) Massiah noted that there were concrete outcomes: the group ended up with a film that it could show its constituents and they learned filmmaking skills that would hopefully turn out to be helpful in the future. But more generally, making films also helped the groups better comprehend what they were trying to do. “When people work collectively to create work, it forces them to make decisions,” Massiah said. “All of those decisions, I think, force people to have a greater understanding of the subject, and I think the groups that work on these pieces are changed by them.”
Khwaja made the same point in connection to the work the Invisible Institute has been engaged in with students at Hyde Park Academy. There, students in the broadcast media program participate in the Youth/Police Project, aimed at helping them explore their own past and potential encounters with police officers. “It really is a lot more about the actual conversation that we’re having and what giving… students cameras can allow for. It’s less about the end product that maybe we’ll edit together and make at some point, and more about the conversations.”
In the case of the Hyde Park Academy students, their work is for them alone, a way of making sense of the state-sanctioned violence many of them are threatened with daily. But Massiah also pointed out that a local focus can ultimately appeal to a broad range of people. “One of the things that happens with participatory journalism is, it is specific…. It’s kind of micro-focused. But there is a huge generality and universality in learning about something happening in one locale,” he said. “We all live in the same universe. When you make work you want people to watch it…. I think it’s an ongoing effort to figure out in a kind of systematic way how this work can take advantage of existing platforms.”
“We Tell” continues with screenings January 30, February 6, February 20, February 27, and March 12 at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts and Green Line Performing Arts Center. Check filmstudiescenter.uchicago.edu/about/spotlight for more information.
Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly. He last wrote about a retrospective of Hyde Park neighborhood photographer Nancy Hays.