Practicing Intellectual Martial Arts or, The Wrecked Gestures of Liberation: Hito Steyerl’s November

by Pernille Lystlund Matzen*

 

We are not any longer in the period of October, described by Eisenstein, when the Cossacks decide to join the Russian proletarians in Internationalist brotherhood during the Bolshevik revolution. Now, we are in the period of November. In November, the former heroes become madmen and die in extralegal executions somewhere on a dirty roadside, and hardly anyone takes a closer look.

 — From November, Hito Steyerl, 2004 (DVD, 25 mins, color, sound)

As this initial quote from Hito Steyerl’s November suggests, the film positions itself in an ideologically precarious space in which clear demarcations of revolutionary struggle have been blurred—a space where the distinction between hero and villain appears arbitrary and the political subject can no longer be constructed without complication. How do we maneuver in a state of uncertain truths and corruptible imagery? How can we imagine aesthetic and political resistance through documentary film, when political action seems either reduced to empty gestures or turned into local, peripheral struggles, and when it is only the gestures and images of liberation that keep circulating? These are some of the central questions posed in Steyerl’s film essay November.

Circulation of Images


The appropriated imagery of November takes us through a cinematic structure that would initially seem to oscillate between fictional and documentary material. This clear distinction is, however, complicated by each instance that makes us reconsider how gestures transgress the porous boundaries between the fictional and the factual. The film takes as its starting point sequences from a feminist martial arts film Hito Steyerl directed when she was 17 years old, with her friend Andrea Wolf starring as the charismatic combat heroine. The sequence is followed by a videotaped news interview of Andrea Wolf as a real-life Kurdish revolutionary fighter a few years later, before getting killed as a foreign revolutionary in 1998. The fiction film images of the leather-jacket-wearing female fighter thus oddly take on an almost prophetic quality in light of the later events, when Andrea morphs out of the screen to become a real guerrilla fighter in Kurdistan. After her death, Andrea—renamed Şehît Ronahî during the Kurdish resistance fight—becomes a public icon of martyrdom in the Kurdish resistance movement, spreading her images in the public through posters, protest banners and illustrations. The mutations between fact and fiction proliferate from this initial structure of the film in different ways, tracing the way Andrea’s trajectory is transformed and dispersed through the unpredictable flow of traveling images. Towards the end of the film the voice-over tells us that the Turkish and German government have denied the death of Andrea in their official statements, claiming that she is terrorist “still in hiding.” Archival materials taken from popular culture and news footage are interwoven with Andrea’s story to trace the wider political and cultural reality of November. The varying “portraits” of Andrea throughout the film, ranging from fictional action heroine (in the martial arts film), exemplary revolutionary martyr (in the Kurdish resistance movement), clandestine terrorist (in official statements from the Turkish and German government) and as Steyerl’s personal friend, create overlapping and often contrasting accounts of the status of Andrea’s image. Though Andrea is arguably the hero of the film, the many references to military secrecy, revolutionary fighters’ murder of Kurdish civilians, false government statements, and fragmented oppositional struggles underline the murky waters of political struggle and the ambiguous status of the hero in the period of November.

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Documentary Fictions

Along these lines, the film portrays a precarious political reality where documents are fictionalized, just as fictions, to some extent, become documents.As the film illustrates by tracing traveling images and gestures, this conflation between document and fiction is intensified by the advent of our global informational-present, where new technology and digital recording make images increasingly easy to circulate, mold and post-produce. However, November is less invested in problematizing these increasingly blurred boundaries between reality and fiction than taking these entanglements as a premise to rework through documentary. The underlying question seems to be: How can documentary still lay claim to some sense of historicity and social integrity in the relativization of politics and truth? What can images show us in a time of precariousness and uncertain truths? The French theorist Jacques Rancière’s notion of documentary fiction, which he develops in an essay on Chris Marker’s Le Tombeau d´Alexandre (1993), is helpful in providing a set of terms to look closer at Steyerl’s method of filmmaking.[1] In Rancière’s view, the task of documentary fiction is to create memory against information, to construct a sequence of images that work against the homogenization of information, as the sheer quantity of information circulating creates an overabundance that paradoxically reduces the possibilities for meaning-making or for creating links that connect disparate facts.[2] The conjunction of the words “documentary” and “fiction” is a way to contest the idea of a binary opposition between fiction as “false” and documentary as “real” or “true.” Placing documentary in the realm of fiction can help move beyond the idea of documentary as representation of factual evidence, instead creating fables where thoughts and things, interior and exterior are part of the same texture.[3] According to Rancière, documentary fictions reside in an “indeterminate space of writing,[4] one that is at once participating in “reality” (recorded footage with an indexical trace) and constructed in a system of assembled forms (a montage created and edited by the filmmaker). This is precisely how documentary fictions intervene into reality: by creating a fiction of memory, i.e., by creating material arrangements that connect the “facts” of images. In contrast to fiction films, documentaries have no obligation to produce a reality effect by presenting us with coherent plots and recognizable characters, which allow them greater liberty to play around with the cinematic utterance and the signifying power of images, and to focus less on subject matter and mimetic reality than on the organization of audiovisual material.[5] As Rancière notes, “the documentary instead of treating the real as an effect to be produced, treats it as a fact to be understood.”[6] The questioning of the way history is organized, as opposed to merely instilling in the viewer an impression that he/she is dealing with history, is the very strength and value of documentary fictions.[7]

In tracing the gestures of liberation in images of Andrea, Steyerl uses a heterogeneous mix of live-recordings, fiction film, archival footage, news images, pop music, and reconstructed voice-over accounts of witnesses, which creates precisely such a highly self-reflexive memory of fiction. The sequences showing VHS tapes put into the TV followed by close-ups of the pixelated imagery on the TV screen emphasize Steyerl’s interest in material texture and formal organization of images as an indistinguishable part of the content. At the same time, the explanatory commentator-voice of Steyerl is a strong component of the film that organizes the montage into a specific “lesson” on the image, which creates a tension between the image and text. As Rancière points out, this is where an aporia of the documentary fiction arises between the belief that images can “speak for themselves” and the authority of the narrator voice that these images refer back to: if the commentary is too didactic, the images lose some of their power to create free association; if the images are completely “free to roam,” then the possible associations and forms of the image create an eccentric archive of infinite referral, a cinematic hall of mirrors.[8] Here, Steyerl is closer to Chris Marker’s pedagogic commentary than Jean-Luc Godard’s consecration of the image as icon, valorizing the heterogeneous combination of the audiovisual material to a larger extent than the autonomy of pictorial figures.[9]

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The Truth of Uncertainty


Steyerl does something very interesting in regards to this dilemma between the self-reflexivity of the commentary and the images’ power to “speak for themselves”: she embeds herself so thoroughly into the film that her voice is ambiguously both undermined and authorized. When Steyerl was documenting a German demonstration of the Iraq war, a television director who knew about Steyerl’s video project hung a Kurdish flag around Steyerl’s neck and told her to join the demonstration “looking sad and meditative” while being filmed. Steyerl later found herself starring in a TV documentary as one of the Kurdish protesters, the perfect image of “the sensitive and understanding filmmaker who tells a personal story.”[10] This footage is included with a voice-over by Steyerl stating: “In November we are all part of the story, and not I am telling the story, but the story tells me.” In being appropriated as a “gesture of liberation,” Steyerl exposes her own role as deeply embedded within the global circulation of images. At the same time, through merging the filmmaker-as-image and filmmaker-as-commentator, she simultaneously confirms the statement of the commentary voice and removes this voice from a position of authority. In this way, the commentator voice acknowledges itself as a subjective construction, not standing on the side of truth and transparency, but rooted within the story it seeks to tell. Filmmakers are thus not exceptions to the networked flow of images, but thoroughly participating in this structure. The film suggests that there is no authentic or authoritative position “outside” the system; that is, no privileged position for the filmmaker to claim truth for herself. But while November may initially appear to adhere to the logic of relativism and subjective truth, the very uncertainty of many of the images is perhaps precisely where we can claim there is an element that is aspiring to speak the truth: If the most certain thing about documentary footage is its very unreliable character as a claim to truth, then the images that most clearly express this dubious, post-representational state would be the most “realistic.” This argument follows Steyerl’s own articulation in the article “Documentary Uncertainty”:

What if…it is precisely those blurred and unfocussed pictures from the cell phone camera that express the truth of the situation much better than any objectivist report could? Because these pictures do not really represent anything. They are just too unfocussed. They are as post-representational as the majority of contemporary politics. But amazingly, we can still speak of truth with regard to them.[11]

Though Steyerl here is primarily talking about low-resolution digital images, the same claim can be applied to her position as a “sensitive filmmaker” in the TV documentary. The sequence visualizes the ambiguity of the gestures of liberation and resistance in its complex entanglement with structures of power, in which the image of the “sensitive” filmmaker is a particularly hypocritical case in point. In this vein of thought, thwarted and mutated images become documents that attest to the status of current political reality and the precarious space for oppositional struggle—the signs of mutation and ambiguity inscribed in the image are precisely what makes it aspire to some claim to “truth.” Through tracing the links that verify as “fact” the uncertainty of documents in our image production today, November creates a fiction of memory—a montage that works against the historical relativism of the global informational-present by making visible the present political reality that these images express, rather than represent.

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Intellectual Martial Arts

As Steyerl’s video removes sequences from fictional films, news images, and documentary material out of their original context, and re-assembles them into a new montage to reclaim their power as images, it is tempting to read the video as participating in what the German philosopher and media theorist Walter Benjamin conceptualized as messianic history. According to Benjamin, messianic history serves to remove an image from its narrative continuum of homogenous, empty time and to redeem and reclaim its possibilities of depicting a real.[12] By seizing hold of images lost or unrecognized in the present, while tearing these images away from their original historical context, something from the image can be reclaimed or “saved.” However, although the film does inscribe itself in the avant-gardist tradition of messianic history through cinema, it simultaneously shows hesitance about uncritically adopting such ideas of intellectual subversion. Interestingly, November includes a scene from René Viénet’s film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1972), in which a Chinese martial arts film was dubbed by Viénet to transform it into a Situationist fable, using the strategy of détournement to turn a spectacular martial arts film into a tool for revolution. Though initially similar to Steyerl’s own method of appropriation and re-use, there is a sense of critique in the particular quote she includes, spoken by the intellectual antagonist of the film who tells the proletarians: “I don’t want to hear any more about class struggle. If not I’ll send in my sociologists! And if necessary my psychiatrists! My urban planners! My architects! My Foucaults! My Lacans! And if that’s not enough, I’ll even send my structuralists.” The quote points towards a certain exhaustion with critical theory’s arsenal of martial-arts strategies that results in the same worn tactics of subversion and claiming an authentic “outsider” position in cinema, a strategy that often ends in a repetition of status quo rather than arriving at new critical approaches.[13]

In the contemporary context of filmmaking, strategies like détournement or the dialectical montage first employed by Eisenstein might precisely be said to fall into this “automatic” response of critical strategies. Just as November deems the iconic image of Andrea Wolf / Sehît Ronahî to be much more ambiguous than the iconic poster initially would have us think, the filmmaker’s subversive strategies often become parodic rather than critical (as exemplified by Viénet’s rigid intellectual antagonist), subscribing to the same empty gestures of liberation as does the post-representational media-scape. The inclusion of Eisenstein’s October (indeed, the primary example of revolutionary filmmaking that November contrasts itself with through the title) and Godard’s film La Chinoise from 1967, in this context, exemplify the “lost past” of signification, the epoch of “straightforward colors and simple ideas”[14] when global icons of resistance could still be universalized in cinema. Since the political landscape and the status of images have changed so substantially since then, all attempts to seek a return to the revolutionary project of October would be a nostalgic and defeatist endeavor.

An Exercise in Identifying With the Hero

As exemplified previously in Viénet’s case of détournement, appropriation of popular culture has been a well-known strategy in avant-garde cinema for decades, while the level of identification with the appropriated populist material has been an ongoing cause for debate.

Even though November extracts popular imagery from its original context, the film shows a rare faith in the power of popular culture and elements of humor to be politically efficient in their own right. The commentator-voice of the film credits the large-breasted women of Russ Meyer’s exploitation film Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! as role models for the female heroines in Steyerl’s first film, insisting that clichéd images of overtly sexualized action-heroines can provide accessible, useful gestures to copy and transform—perhaps, as the commentary suggests, due to the sheer lack of female role models available in popular culture at the time. The incorporation of the Bruce Lee film The Game of Death (released five years after his death in 1978) provides a parallel trajectory to the complex play between facts and fiction at work in Andrea’s image, as the fictional plot of Lee’s film—in which the main character stages his own death in order to go underground—oddly coincided with the real death of Bruce Lee during the shooting of the film. This conflation between fiction and real life made fans deny the death of Bruce Lee, in a similar fashion that Turkish and German government denied the death of Andrea in their official statements. The inclusion of the archive of Bruce Lee’s film creates a resonant side-story to the narrative of Andrea’s images through the myth of cheating death, but also, importantly, around the practice of martial arts. The focus on martial arts throughout the film traces yet another set of popular gestures available through re-articulation, as martial arts is a branch of amateur fighting that has been carried on and transformed through centuries and across continents, both through commercialization in lucrative action films and its use by actual resistance fighters in battles against their oppressors. It is hard to miss the humor and element of play that these inclusions also seem to serve, perhaps insisting on the efficiency and democratic appeal of images formed in the collective imaginary of popular culture.[15]

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The relation to the appropriated images from popular culture in the film resonates strongly with Rancière’s formulation of détournement, which he develops in his article on Guy Debord ́s films. Here, Rancière posits: “détournement does not distance, does not make us understand a world by making it strange. Nothing is behind or beneath the image to understand. […] détournement is an exercise in identifying with the hero.”[16] In his view, détournement is thus not a method of subversion or a revelation of the oppressive nature of the object that has been détourned, but an affirmative “taking back” of the images that commodity culture has transformed into weapons, in order to turn them into counter-weapons. Even though Rancière attributes these features to Debord’s film, I would argue that Rancière himself détourns Debord’s concept to imply something different than what can be found within Debord’s two most widely received films, The Society of The Spectacle (1973) and In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni (1978). In In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, the voice-over by Debord explicitly states, “In the present film, for example, I am simply stating a few truths over a background of images that are all trivial or false. This film disdains the image-scraps of which it is composed.” That is, he disregards any aesthetic valorization of the content within the images, and instead appropriates these “image-scraps” to voice his contempt for consumer culture. Such denouncement of popular culture is consistently manifest throughout the commentary of the film. Contrary to Debord’s mode of détournement, where there is an underlying sense of overturning the spectacle, the film November employs spectacular images and populist references as an equally valid source of “truth” as any other archive—the appropriation works as a tribute rather than a contestation. Rancière’s notion of “identifying with the hero” could thus readily be applied to the film’s correlation of its popular material and its combat heroine, Andrea Wolf, whose story tellingly ends by riding a motorbike into the sunset. However, going back to the initial remarks of this essay, the identification with the heroine must always take into account that her status as political subject is not without complication; Andrea is perhaps the most convincing heroic image of our time, expressing precisely the dubious position one must inhabit within contemporary political struggle, both actively transforming gestures into useful weapons and being appropriated into more reactionary forms of display.

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Confronting November

Although the title November initially places the film in a post-revolutionary era after the gestures of liberation have lost their inherent meaning, the film should not be misunderstood as a displacement of all past attempts at global resistance. Instead, November asks us to depart from the critical strategies and gestures applied to October—its methods of subversion and its claims to authenticity—in order to confront the post-representational reality of November. This calls for a documentary practice that does not only bespeak the uncertainty of documentary’s claim to truth, but which develops new intellectual martial arts strategies to revive and rethink the available gestures of liberation. In this case, the film refrains from a documentary practice that seeks truthful representation, instead working with images that express and record the current situation most truthfully. This shift in method establishes a new approach to both aesthetics and political resistance through film, but it also expands the archive of available, useful gestures to employ in such endeavors. By working within and collecting the of traveling images in her montage, Steyerl creates a trajectory that shows the sheer velocity, excess and elasticity of these images—as well as their potential for being molded and remolded—demonstrating why the importance of creating new documentary fictions of memory has only increased. November is thus a rallying cry for battle rather than a moaning cry of despair.

 

[1] T.J. Demos, “Travelling Images,” Artforum (Summer 2008). http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=200806&id=20392&pagenum=1(accessed May 5, 2014).

[2] Jacques Rancière, “Marker and the Fiction of Memory,” in Film Fables (New York: Berg Publishers, 2006), 158.

[3] Ibid., 2-3.

[4] Ibid., 161

[5] Ibid. 158 – 159.

[6] Ibid. 158

[7] Brian Ieven, “Memories of Modernism: Jacques Ranciére, Chris Marker and the Image of Modernism” in Paul Bowman (ed.): Ranciére and Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 95.

[8] Ibid. 168 – 169.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Quoted from the voice-over commentary of November.

[11] Hito Steyerl, “Documentary Uncertainty,” A Prior 15 (2007): http://revisiones.imaginarrar.net/spip.php?article37 (accessed on May 2, 2014).

[12] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, Shocken Books, 1968), 255.

[13] To be fair, critical theory in the Lacanian or Foucaultian tradition does itself assume that such an outsider position is impossible, but my claim is that many artistic strategies with roots in this ideology critique nevertheless adheres to an idea of subversion or overturning.

[14] Jacques Rancière, “The Red of La Chinoise” in Film Fables (New York: Berg Publishers, 2006), 149.

[15] Pablos Lafuente, “For a Populist Cinema: On Hito Steyerl’s November and Lovely Andrea,” Afterall 19: http://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.19/populist.cinema.hito.steyerls.november.and.lovely (accessed on June 29, 2014).

[16] Jacques Rancière, “When We Were on The Shenandoah,” Grey Room 52 (Summer 2013), 130-131.

*Pernille Lystlund Matzen is a Graduate Student in Art History and Modern Culture at the University of Copenhagen, and has recently completed a semester abroad at Columbia University. She currently  works as an Art Educator at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.