“Music is a weapon of mass destruction” – ADF
Cinema and sound sync/mix technology seems to come and go in leaps and loops. Where once the screen image required accompaniment by a live performer at a piano, today, such a ‘throw back’ to the old black and white days of immediately present live sound is rare, even nostalgic. A calculated and curious staging renews our appreciation of the artifice of sync sound, although the piano is electric and the ‘live’ now requires mixing desks, digital precision, planned sequencing and programmed synthesisers. It requires all this, at least, in the case of performances over film by the drum and bass outfit Asian Dub Foundation (ADF includes John Pandit, a speaker at the RampArts discussion below). Always innovative, of late ADF have been filling cinema halls with new audiences for old films. I am impressed by this revival of a past format, and thinking about how this technology is used perhaps helps our understanding of the pursuit of innovative modes of political activism.
ADF screen movies with intent. For several years they had used the 1995 Kassowitz film La Haine as a vehicle for a cinema-music experiment, where the story of three youths caught up in suburban unrest (which is itself largely off screen), in the suburbs of Paris, is presented in performance with a new live ADF soundtrack. This film has particular relevance given events in the Paris suburbs in November 2005 (discussed here), but I do not want to focus upon representation and the repetition ‘in the real’ of the events ‘in the film’. Rather, I am more interested here in the scene of the screening of a French film replayed in Britain, a film which itself is very much alert to the politics of representation, to the reverberation of screens, such that when shown in the UK it is meant to evoke parallels and differences in terms of race, suburban alienation, and the politics of the imagination, especially with regard to thinking about technology and terror.
La Haine begins with a Molotov cocktail, set across the background of a shot of the planet as seen from space. The incendiary device is falling, and spinning as it falls, towards the earth as pictured from afar. A voice recounts a story of someone who fell from a tall building, and as he passed each floor on the way down, he said aloud: ‘So far, so good, so far, so good’. Ash and Sanjay Sharma wrote perceptively on this film, suggesting that this ‘anxious repetition of assurance’ might be dubbed ‘the inner voice of liberal democracy’ (in TCS, vol 17, no 3, 2000). The Sharma brothers link this reassurance to the critical scene of the journalists visiting the suburbs only to be confronted as intruders by the youth, chased with their television cameras back to the safer boulevards. When the three youth themselves are stranded in the centre of the city, caught without tickets to the metro, they see reports from the ‘riots’ on a public multi-screen, and learn of the death of one of their comrades.
ADF want the film to provoke discussion. They screen it for new audiences and it is discussed in detail on the interactive activist/fan website that is part of the ADF Education Foundation (ADFED), itself an activist oriented youth politics forum. Workshops organised by ADFED included one by Sonia Mehta in 2003 involving Ash Sharma on the development of ADFED as a music technology training provider working with visual media and exploring the politics of sound. Discussion within ADFED and on the ADF chat site is not uncritical. For example, the politics of screening action cinema as entertainment is measured against questions about the best ways to organise, and politicize, the music industry, organisations like Rich Mix (an arts centre and venue for music, cinema, performance and training with which ADFED is associated) and anti-racist campaigns. Concerns about street and police violence are aired and the testosterone-fuelled adventurism of the Paris uprisings are compared with events in the UK that echo those shown in La Haine. The film, as ADF intend, also articulates these concerns. The absence of women in the film is striking, but as the Sharma’s argue, the pathologizing of the suburbs is an old sociological, anthropological and Hollywood standard, where inner urban tradition demands alienation and decay, disaffection and lawlessness, reinforcing the racism, even as La Haine challenges these easy moves (TCS 17-3 2000:103)
In 2002 ADF initiated similar concert-screenings of another film, this time the revolutionary cinematic extravaganza of The Battle of Algiers, directed in 1964 by Gillo Pontecorvo (scenario Franco Solinas, music by Ennio Morricone, won the Golden Lion Venice 1966,). This film tells the story of the clandestine resistance movement against the French occupation of Algeria and works well when screened for new audiences with a live ADF soundtrack. Bringing a new audience to an old film, a part of the third cinema movement, quite often overlooked by drum and bass fans, carries a powerful allegorical charge at a time when issues of colonial occupation – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon – are prominent in the media.
I am particularly interested in what a British Asian music activist outfit, with a record of anti-racist, anti-imperialist organising, can achieve with the technology of sound and film as propaganda device. What does this tell us about activism, media, and the intended audience for ADF’s experiments at the movies? Some will of course say that the ADF update track for Battle of Algiers is no improvement upon Morricone’s score; some will quibble about the sanctity of creative work in the age of digital reproduction; some might suggest that ADF cash in with a radical pose, presenting themselves as advocates of any and every left cause going. It is of course possible to discuss these matters, but I think these are the wrong questions.
It might be interestingly provocative to ask instead after the plausibility of ADF’s attempts to get the youth to question; to ‘meditate’ (not at all in the yogic sense) upon problems of politics, violence, resistance, and on alternate ways of viewing the world. Battle of Algiers, in Pontocorvo’s third cinema way, was already a moment of consciousness raising, which ADF now update according to their want. ADF are not sentimental, and they are never in denial about the culture industry as a sapping vortex of commercialisation, but their engagement with the media cannot be described simply as an issue of chains or noise. ADF would want to promote a revolutionary consciousness. I wonder if we can grant them the luxury of thinking so differently?
Perhaps what ADF have though is not just any kind of politics, nor any greater or lesser disguised evangelical mission, but a purpose and push towards a more fundamental form of thinking; the realisation that a limit to thinking, a narrowing, is a baleful consequence of an unexamined attachment to the silver screen. The jangling soundtrack ADF provides for La Haine or The Battle of Algiers is intended to in the face of so much dross on TV. ADF member John Pandit is often contemptuous of idle-talk as a substitute for the necessities of organising an alternative to capitalism, imperialism, racism, and in many ways I hear this resonating over and over in ADF’s politically motivated use of film.
Perhaps we can better understand something about what Battle of Algiers, as a film, achieves by listening to the ADF soundtrack. The event is never simply the cause of bringing about a critical anti-colonialist consciousness in the youth that are attracted to ADF performances. Ostensibly this would be one of the simple planned, even calculated, ends, but no-one would be so stupid as to think there is a one-to-one equivalence between planned intention and effect. Indeed, there is no simple or singular intention possible when an audience, by definition, comes from a wide range of possible contexts. There are plenty of debates about ethics and motivation, even inspiration, in the literature on propaganda, promotion and politics. ADFED itself is a broad ‘church’ (to again invoke an out of place chalice metaphor), open to many, and ADF have long pointed out their wide ‘consciousness raising’ orientation.
Unfortunately, this does not mean that film itself, with added live music, is by and by an automatic consciousness raising tool. One particular story drives this point home. In 2002 it was reported that Pontocorvo’s film was to be screened (with the original score) at the Pentagon as an instructional text for the generals of the low intensity warfare operations unit, with the intention of aiding the generals in their thinking about how to win the war in Iraq, and how to deal with a militant insurgency without losing the ‘battle for hearts and minds’, as the French so clearly did in Algeria. It seems the generals watched less than carefully. The point is not to suggest only that any text – film, event – can be turned to any politics whatsoever (though I am sometimes convinced that all things can be recuperated and co-opted to do service for capital) but that what is required to achieve a radical thinking is something more than the conventions of calculative thought that usually belong to technology, especially technology in the hands of the generals bombing Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq.
ADF use technology to make us think, not simply consume. In this, they are, I feel, an advance insofar as they do more than simply offer a critical note against colonialism, revealing some of the truths about colonial history; rather, revealing plus an activism that militates for critical thinking. It is no accident that ADF called an earlier EP Militant Science. They explain:
“Whatever anyone says about ADF’s so called ‘political’ lyrics, no one would have taken any notice if it wasn’t for ADF’s sound and its inherent energy: ragga-jungle propulsion, indo-dub basslines, distorted sitar-like guitars and samples of more ‘traditional’ Asian sounds” http://www.asiandubfoundation.com/adf_home_fs.htm