Twelve Questions about Covered
Covered is a 15 min experimental documentary’ about a 2008 queer arts festival in Sarajevo that was closed down by homophobic mob violence. This film weaves together several threads: diary excerpts from my time there, navigating the violence; documentary footage and interviews with the festival’s four organizers; youtube cover versions of bird-themed pop songs by Canadians; text-on-screen extracts from an essay by Susan Sontag; bird lore drawn from Balkan history.
I pulled Covered from 2009’s Toronto International Film Festival in protest against their City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv, which both the Israeli Ambassador to Canada and Tel Aviv’s Mayor claimed at part of a Brand Israel PR campaign. In the wake of Israel’s brutal 2009 attack on Gaza, where 1417 Palestinians and 13 Israelis (4 from friendly fire) were killed, I felt it was impossible to unproblematically ‘celebrate’ Tel Aviv, located 50 miles from the carnage.
Why not make a traditional doc?
Covered is a campaign film, made in the aftermath of the attacks, attempting to mobilize grassroots global support for the four organizers via the queer film fest circuit. Masa and Casim from Sarajevo had already made a smart half-hour activist talking-heads doc that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. This freed me to make something more idiosyncratic, quirky, avian – connect the feathers as I saw them -- and in the process, more honestly position my own Canadian distance from the birds of Sarajevo (as I fondly called the fab four – Alma, Svetlana, Emina, Slobodanka -- whose courage, integrity and steadfastness I remain in utter awe of).
Equally, it’s a subject without b-roll. Masa and Casim’s film struggled with no footage to cut to of the actual violence, which occurred in dark streets away from the museum, far from their cameras.
Why not a drama?
Sure, starring Keira Knightley and Ellen Page, perhaps. If it did get the green light (with Sarah Polley dying in a shoot-out in the 3rd act, no doubt), such a film would fly in the face of not just Hollywood, but most Queer cinema of any genre, which has rarely explored contemporary gay activism as subject matter (with exceptions such as Van Sant’s Milk or Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman proving the rule – and of course, in both cases, the activists were shot dead in the third act). Comedy has proven somewhat more auspicious. Alea’s Fresa y Chocolate, a box office sensation in Cuba, or Rosa von Praunheim’s agit-prop AIDS comedy A Virus Has No Morals. Most recently, the urgent topic of Balkan homophobia has been addressed by Dragojevic’s wildly popular Parada (2011), spinning off real-life attempts to stage a Pride parade in Belgrade. Imagine Mel Brooks and Bertolt Brecht co-directing a fable about a sissy gay veterinarian who recruits former macho mercenaries from the Balkan wars to provide security at Belgrade’s Pride Parade, in real life an annual site of hooligan violence where hundreds have been visciously beaten since 2001.
Ok, what about a rom-com? A musical? A porno?
Following Parade’s example, the temptation to address Sarajevo via any of these genres is eminently defensible in activist campaign terms - and a Sarajevo porno by Cheryl Dunye could subversively reach viewers not inclined to engage with the earnest arguments or sentiment that a conventional doc or drama would deliver. My issues were larger than Sarajevo, though: though I can genuinely admire the efficacy of any and all of these genres when other people make them, I’ve found I can’t go there myself any more. My gut can’t commit to the practices of realism demanded by both drama and doc, or the redemptive character-driven arcs demanded by social-change comedies and musicals, or the egregious cycles of repetitive sex acts every 6 min demanded by porn consumers. Each genre comes with too many insurmountable formal, structural, and narrative yawns. Formulas are just too much work. So… one solution is suggested by Sontag’s essay on radical juxtaposition.
Sontag’s 1966 essay about Happenings traces this surrealist strategy of hybridity -- new meanings produced through the radical/shocking/Artaudian juxtaposition (collage) of discordant elements. She quotes Lautreamont: “the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Or in my case: “the fortuitous encounter of youtube cover versions of bird songs by mostly aging Canadian pop stars except for Soulja Boy and Mary Poppins, mashed up with a faux Sontag essay.”
Every image and sound in the film was triggered by things I saw that week, in the manner of novelist Max Sebald’s narrative strategy where his radically-juxtoposed scenes are collected on his back-packing jaunts on the Cornish coast. When I arrived in Sarajevo Airport, no one was there and no one was answering the phone. After two hours, Svetlana finally appeared, grabbed my hand, and whisked me into their waiting car. Everyone was tense. They’d been circling the airport for two hours, not daring to park, because they’d been followed by a car filled with football hooligans yelling their names. Driving past the Museum, hundreds of swallows were swooping over the river, oblivious to the lurking danger. When we arrived at the hotel, a huge dead crow lay on the sidewalk. Emina told me the story of the crows in 1389.
All those birds lead to bird songs, which lead via youtube to an extraordinary ad-hoc archive of amateur cover versions, a practice of karaoke that must walk the fine line between tribute and treachery, as Sontag noted. Except of course she didn’t. What queer Sontag did do was live in Sarajevo for several months during the 92-96 seige, producing a Bosnian Waiting for Godot as committed solidarity, an act of courage still remembered with respect by my Bozniak hosts (even though the Guardian slammed it as excruciatingly self-indulgent).
Why not pigeons?
The downtown mosque was filled with pigeons, the same mosque where an imam was delivering daily incitements to violence against the festival. Another festival guest, a Dutch transman photographer, was snapping pix of the pigeons in the mosque courtyard, when he was approached by a 60-something gentleman who politely offered to give him a tour. No sooner were they in a secluded courtyard then this gentleman started groping the photographer, whispering coy come-on lines, urging a homo hook-up right there in the mosque. The photographer gracefully extricated himself, and rushed back to the hotel to tell the rest of us. I tried to work this additional bird story into the film, but couldn’t find a succinct way to deftly summarize this complicated Dagwood sandwich of desires and bigotries – it just kept lapsing into Islamophobic discourses. I’d already struggled with language enough, trying to find adequate words to describe the complex subject positions of the hooligans: variously homophobic, righteous, Muslim (some observant, some not – as were two of the fab four), betrayed by a guilty Europe who rebuilt Sarajevo in their names but left them unemployed. Pigeons on the grass, alas.
What were your Rad Jux inspirations?
Yvonne Rainer bien sur (see Shelley Green’s book on her films); Anger bien sur (his ambivalent pop-song soundtrack in Scorpio Rising);
Walid Ra’ad bien sur (his fake essays and lectures, written in the persona of the Atlas Group); Stan Douglas (voice-over narration masquerading as a language lesson, help me out here someone, I’m pretty sure it’s stan I’m thinking of?); Amar Kanwar (his Lightening Testimonies remains one of the most haunting and effective works of avant-garde multi-screen documentary anywhere, likewise addressing the violences of gender, religion, nation, and partition; Haroun Farocki (particularly his Images of the World and the Inscription of War, for it’s rad jux of disparate discursive and documentary threads); Dziga Vertov’s agit-prop Kino Pravda’s (with their circulation to peasants via Cine Trains inspiring present day dispersals to queer film fests and youtube); Toronto artist Spring Hurlbut’s The Final Sleep, which first alerted me to the Royal Ontario Museum’s drawers of dead birds; First Nation artist Kent Monkman’s camp assaults on colonial amnesias; especially Santiago Alvarez’s LBJ, Now and Hanoi Tuesday 13th (where urgent documentary content, whimsical invention, and Nina Simone fornicate in splendid rad juxes of revolutionary tropi-camp (thanks for the term, Oiticica).
That’s a pretty hefty grab-bag, no?
Well, you know what they say – big bag, big shopper. Campaign films by definition must be polyvocally promiscuous in their affections and polymorphously perverse in their parentage, grabbing DNA from any seedbed they can find (watch out vito).
So if you’re so promiscuous, why did you pull it out of TIFF?
It was a question of hypocrisy. Covered is a campaign film that slams those who stayed silent despite the pleas of Sarajevo queers to speak out: in particular, the Sarajevo International Film Festival. I couldn’t screen Covered in TIFF, when Palestinian civil society was calling on all of us to speak out, protesting this Israeli-sponsored spotlight on Tel Aviv, merely nine months after the war on Gaza. The film went on to an active life on youtube and vimeo and also, at other fests -- now additionally campaigning on behalf of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Isn’t the concept of the campaign film anti-thetical to the creation of art?
You’re missing the campy quotation marks. It’s a purposely utilitarian term, deployed here today to assault certain refined sensibilities, to force the issue – what rulers are we using to measure transcendence or use-value? How many inches deliver pleasures of escape … or engagement? Would you like a cigarette? Was it good for you?
But didn’t your TIFF boycott silence the Israeli films in the Spotlight?
Just the opposite: no screenings were disrupted in any way. We stressed that the filmmakers were welcome – and people should go see their films – it was the TIFF Spotlight itself and it’s participation in Brand Israel that was being protested, through letters, statements, op-eds. Our protest triggered a very public discussion – the opposite of censorship and silence.
Shouldn’t a good campaign film be defined by building bridges, populism, accessibility – persuading the greatest number for the greatest good?
Campaign films are tactical, working hand in hand with other strategies which can include the sloganeering op-ed essay, the sentimental heartfelt drama, the simplistic Mel Brooks comedy. Within such a critical continuum, an avant-garde should tactically insist on the relevance of discursive strategies which disrupt, which challenge, which disturb, which intrigue… which assume an audience that enjoys the pleasures of a puzzle, political and formal, which delights in piecing together the highlighted elements of radical juxtapositions, a collection of words which together combine to make new hybrid meanings…