Polyvocality as Resistance

By Inge de Leeuw and Julian Ross

Recent years have seen the renewed popularity of artist and filmmaker collectives around the world. As a result of various worldwide protest movements, there is now greater awareness of the need for more diverse representation in film, media and other disciplines. In response to the social and political changes, we see a shift from an individualistic model to one that is based on collectivity, which is perhaps more appropriate for these times. By decentralising the roles of the artist, filmmaker and curator, traditional concepts and ideas about authorship, ownership and gatekeeping are upended. This perhaps explains the surge of new collectives and the renewed interest in past ones.

Many examples can be found in the art world: the Karrabing Film Collective have held solo shows in prominent museums such as MoMA PS1 and Kunstverein Braunschweig; Canadian indigenous collective Isuma presented their work at the Canadian Pavilion for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019; the 2019 Turner Prize nominees formed a collective in order to reject the competition inherent in such prizes, and the Turner Prize subsequently nominated four artist collectives for their 2021 edition; artist collectives have been appointed to helm renowned art events, such as ruangrupa from Indonesia as the artistic director for documenta 15 in 2022.

On the one hand, the spotlight on artist collectives within major institutions gives space for previously underrepresented voices to be heard, to be included in the canon, to be part of the discourse on art and society. On the other hand, it raises some questions: What happens when different modus operandi are incorporated in the traditional structures of the art world and the film market? What does it actually mean to be in a collective when the term has diffused to encompass many things, from artists making work together to temporary collectives being formed for marketing or commercial purposes? Is the idea of a collective in these different forms an invaluable tool for filmmakers and artists to retain agency over their own work?

In Domain: Collectives, we present artists and filmmakers who have united for specific sociopolitical purposes. It is a programme about artists who make work collectively to resist the dominant structures of art and film production by de-emphasising the individual and resisting the cult of genius. Their activities remind us that filmmaking is more often than not a collective endeavour that involves multiple people channelling their creativity and labour towards a project. The resultant works imagine alternative futures and propose different ways of looking at the present and the past, no longer shackled by dominant narratives. With the resurgence of collectives in recent years, we are seeing previously under-represented voices unify to bring imagination and criticality in a moment that feels we need it most.

Still, collective filmmaking isn’t a recent phenomenon. The 1970s and ’80s saw many collectives break out across the world. Through juxtaposing key examples from the past with exemplary recent works, we hope to share the many similarities and differences in themes that collective filmmaking touch on despite being 50 years apart.

Domain: Collectives revolves and reverberates around some of the most hotly debated topics today, including land rights, gender and spirituality—three themes highlighted in the short film programmes. Predecessors to contemporary collectives expressed their need to change the narrative for the future. How much of this did we inherit and live through? We see a return to these issues on our current agendas, and we can only hope we have now arrived at the moment when these debates culminate in social change.

Still from Give Us a Smile (1983) by Leeds Animation Workshop

Underrepresented Stories and Voices

Members of artist collectives are often not traditionally equipped or schooled in the way that the art establishment has historically expected of artists. Their starting point is often an urgent need to tell their own stories within and beyond their communities and claim their place within the dominant narrative. Not only do collectives present alternative stories and histories, they innovate by placing collaboration and dialogue at the centre of their activities.

The unconventional and often interdisciplinary ways of working fuel creativity. For example, The Nest Collective, a multidisciplinary collective living and working in Nairobi, Kenya, offer different access points to address politically contentious topics in their local context. They achieve this by creating work in film, music, fashion, visual arts and literature, such as their critically acclaimed queer anthology film, Stories of Our Lives.

More Than Just Collective Production

We see collectives who exercise tight agency over their work by not only making films and art together, but also collectively producing and distributing their work. A successful example is the French female collective, Les Insoumuses—founded by Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder—who produced videos to document the struggles of women in the ’70s. They later founded the Centre Audiovisuel de Simone de Beauvoir, firmly retaining the rights of their works in their own hands.

Agency is also central to the group of day labourers and filmmakers involved in Yama—Attack to Attack (1985), a powerful activist documentary exposing the corruption between the yakuza and the police. Following the murders of both co-directors for their involvement in the film, the YAMA Production and Exhibition Committee have collectively ensured that each screening is properly contextualised due to the sensitive content.

In Sudan in the 1970s and early ’80s, a group of filmmakers working in the film department of the Ministry of Culture founded the Sudanese Film Group (SFG) in order to be able to act more independently of the state. Their aim was to be involved in all aspects of film production, screening, teaching and igniting a passion for cinema in Sudan. The 1989 coup and subsequent military rule brought about distrust of all forms of art and ended all cultural endeavours. In 2005, the firm hand of the state was finally somewhat loosened and SFG was able to register again. They are currently working towards building a cinema culture in their home country through organising screenings as seen in the documentary Talking About Trees (2019). In this programme, we screen their compelling short film The Tomb.

Still from Eltayeb Mahdi’s The Tomb (1977)

The recent transition of artist collective Ummah Chroma into an independent, artist-led production company, Ummah Chroma Creative Partners, also speaks to the expanding function of a collective. The company’s intention is to create a unique space of fostering to create, elevate and preserve authentic Black narratives and perspectives in all media including advertising, television, cinema and art. Rather than comprising artists only, the collective have two producers among them, thus safeguarding the commercial aspect of their work and ideas.

In the United States as well, film collective COUSIN support indigenous artists to experiment with form and genre in their filmmaking. Founded in 2018 by Sky Hopinka, Adam Khalil, Alexandra Lazarowich and Adam Piron, COUSIN actively create space for poetic works driven by strong artistic voices, recognising that the industry’s expectation for indigenous filmmaking has been historically limited to straightforward documentaries and that there is a need to fortify the space for creativity. We are screening one of numerous projects they have supported in recent years, Maat Means Land (2020) by Fox Maxy.

Agency and Polyvocality

We started this essay with a reflection on the inclusion and appointment of collectives as artistic directors in long-running art institutions and the spotlighting of artist and filmmaker collectives in their programmes. However, these are not systemic changes—at least, not yet. These initiatives are often temporary detours before they return to their familiar ways. A question arises: If the policy and zeitgeist change, will institutions still offer space for underrepresented voices? Or would they by then have become completely assimilated into the mainstream; if so, is this the goal?

At least, art institutions have been awakened by collectives. They have offered the latter more than a platform to not only present their work, but also to take on decision-making and organisational roles. But why have we yet to see the same take place in the film industry? While works by film collectives have screened in festivals and theatres, we are only beginning to see collectives taking on other roles in the ecosystem of filmmaking—and what we see is self-organised and situated at the periphery. Will the film industry ever commit to initiating fundamental changes to how they operate, or will their relationship with film collectives be nothing more than short-term flings? Our hope is that this film series can contribute to a conversation towards a film culture and industry that can be collectively imagined.