Prison, Cinema and the Fight against Injustice

Queer | Art | Film
August 27, 2012
EYEBLAZE #3 IT CAME FROM KUCHAR
August 31, 2012
By Bradley Tuck
With Pussy Riot spending time in prison on charges of hooliganism, I thought it was worth taking a trip through the uses, or more importantly, missuses of the law. If Russia has been dishing out the harsh sentences, it is hardly time to look to Britain and America for the voice of freedom (although you could easily get that impression from the media). Since the September 11th terrorists attacks and the ensuing war on Terror the US and the UK, amongst others, have pushed through laws that allow for imprisonment without trial, house arrests and torture. The cases of Guantanamo bay and Abu Graib (see article ‘Art Prophesising Life’ by James Marcus Tucker) being the most obvious examples. Recently, the Case of Bradley Manning who leaked classified military material including Helicopter gun attacks in Baghdad  to Wikileaks and fears of Wikileaks founders Julian Assange’s extradition to America all raise questions about the future of freedom of access and speech.
Tough sentences are increasingly common in Britain, especially after the riots, where you could get 16 months for stealing a couple of scoops of ice cream. Simon Jenkins has also observed the phenomena of harsh sentencing in Britain, noting the case of Charlie Gilmour, who received 18 months for swinging a flag from a Cenotaph and tossing a bin at a police car. Jenkins points out that “If a rock group invaded Westminster Abbey and gravely insulted a religious or ethnic minority before the high altar, we all know that ministers would howl for “exemplary punishment” and judges would oblige.”
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Issue 6 of One+One (a Special on Revolution) was launched with the news that Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi had received a six year prison sentence and a twenty year ban on making films for supposedly making propaganda against the Iranian state. The charges were based on a script for a film that he never made. This is not a film follows him under house arrest in the process of (not) making a film. In this film he picks up the script that got him in this trouble and says “By the way, acting and reading a screenplay by me are not going to be counted as offences are they?” Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who is filming replies “I hope not.” “No, they aren’t,” Panahi tells him “So far it says ’20 year ban from filmmaking, 20 year ban from writing screenplays, 20 year ban from leaving the country, 20 year ban from having interviews.’ Acting and reading screenplays are not mentioned”. What follows is Panahi acting out scenes from his unmade film, as well as making films on his iPhone, speaking to people on the phone and petting his dragon and other everyday activities to quell the boredom and impending doom. If you are expecting a Cinema overload of action, comedy or violence then maybe you would be batter off watching Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, but this film is well worth a watch for its implicit urgency and emotional subtlety alone.
negri
A cursory reflection brings to mind the many great activists who have faced injustice in the name of the law, from Antonio Gramsci to Angela Davis, from Emma Goldman to Steve Biko. Antonio Negri’s story is no less impressive. Antonio Negri: a revolt that never ends charts his many trials and tribulations. The film documents his involvement in 70s Italian worker’s movements, his alleged involvement as the mastermind of the Red Brigade and his implication in the death of Christian Democrat, Aldo Moro, his imprisonment, where he read the works of Spinoza, his election into parliament whilst in prison, his asylum in France, his return to prison in the late 90s and his involvement in the anti-globalisation movements. This film gives a fascinating account of European politics over the last 40 years, through the life of a single activist.
Recently the use of film as a means to protests and raise awareness of injustice has been documented in both the American film In the Land of the Free and the Chinese film Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul. The former tells the story of the Angona 3, imprisoned in solitary confinement since the early seventies. Largely as the result of the attempt to suppress the black panther movement within the prison survives. The film explores the unfair trials, unsafe convictions, corrupt officials that lead to the the imprisonment of three men (Two of which are still in prison).
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Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul tells another tale of injustice. As Ying Qian recently wrote in the new left review.
“The origin of activist documentary can arguably be located in Hu Jie’s Xunzhao Lin Zhao de Linghun (Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, 2004), a three-hour film on a former Beijing University student condemned in the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957. A gifted writer and courageous thinker, Lin Zhao never rescinded her criticism of the Party’s intolerance and despotism. Deprived of pen and paper, she wrote hundreds of thousands of words in her own blood with hairpins on scraps of paper, bed sheets and the prison walls before her execution in April 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Hu spent four years on the project, collecting testimonies from Lin Zhao’s family, teachers and classmates to reconstruct a courageous heroic figure standing up against systematic violence done in the name of revolution. The depiction of Lin Zhao’s uncompromising conscience, her youth, innocence and beauty touched audiences, and spurred heated debate amongst film critics and practitioners.”
It is hard not to feel admiration for those who struggle for justice, but it is also easy to forget that injustice is often only meters around the corner, whichever part of the globe we live in. If we are not careful (and even if we are careful) we can easily become the victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These and other films remind us of the importance of the continual fight for justice, freedom and humanity.