First published on the Red Pepper website on Thursday 20 October 2011

It’s a sunny day and a small, blonde girl is picking flowers in her garden. The rest of her family, are arriving home from school, cleaning and washing the car. It’s a picture of middle England tranquillity, a large rural house and a close-knit family.

Within two minutes they are under attack leading to brutal rape, humiliation and murder, a regular occurrence in the Democratic Republic of Congo where nearly one woman a minute suffers some form of sexual abuse. The film uses an old campaigning trick to try to get Western audiences to take action on issues abroad. It asks what if this happened to someone you know? What if it happened to your family?

The film is definitely shocking, as the title suggests,  and Save The Congo and filmmakers Black Jack and Dark Fibre are hoping it will shock people into taking action. The film is attempting to highlight the link between violence and rape in the DRC and mobile phones. As the film is only available through the official site, they are careful to make sure there is always some context but the link between the story and mobile phones (explained by text at the end of the film) is not immediately clear without some digging around the website. It’s also arguable that making the film so graphic and not widely available will restrict how far their message spreads.

Hunger for DRC’s natural resources has had a negative effect on its citizens and like many countries in the global south natural resources have proved a curse instead of a blessing. The basis of the Unwatchable campaign is that minerals mined in the DRC have been financing the war which has seen over five million deaths in the country since 1998 and led to mass rape. DRC is rich in minerals such as tin, tantalum, tungsten that are all used in the manufacture of mobile phones as well as other electronic equipment such as games consoles.

These minerals pass through many hands before reaching the multinationals and money can get into violent hands. Over 90% of mines in eastern Congo are controlled by armed groups or sections of the army that have ‘gone solo’. As prices and demand rise there is more to bargain with; minerals are either bought directly from armed groups or from miners who pay taxes to warlords in order to mine. They are then sold on to traders who export the minerals to smelting companies for refining and ultimately to factories for manufacture. Unwatchable calls for more transparency in the process and an end to ‘blood minerals’.

Rape is used as a cheap and effective way to force populations to leave areas, or destroy communities and gain control of these lucrative minerals. While mass genocide would often provoke decisive action from the international community mass rape does not. Congo has now been named one of the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.

Mobile phones are now seen as a necessity in the UK so the team behind the film are hoping that the connection of the industry to the events shown will galvanise people into action, seeing another away that their lives are affecting those elsewhere, and not for the better.

The main call to action, which comes at the end of the film, is a petition urging the EU to introduce legislation to stop mobile phone manufacturers buying conflict minerals as well as contacting their mobile phone manufacturer to demand they make sure they are not using blood minerals by publishing details of their supply chain.

The plot for Unwatchable is based on the true story of Masika and her family. Masika’s husband was mutilated and murdered, her daughters gang raped and Masika herself was raped over twenty times and forced to eat her husband’s dismembered penis. Masika was left unconscious and developed fistula. Traumatic fistula is often suffered by women in the DRC after violent rape. If it remains untreated it can lead to dangerous infection, incontinence, restriction of mobility and a nasty smell. These effects can lead to women, who have already undergone severe trauma, being ostracised from communities ans left immobile.

Maskia’s story is actually far more horrific than the one in the film and the video of her telling it on the website is incredibly powerful, coming directly from the person affected. Unwatchable is not the only recent film to highlight the issue of blood minerals. Blood In The Mobile is soon to be released which explores the relationship between minerals, violence and rape in DRC.

Although only just over six minutes long the production of Unwatchable is slick and you can tell it has some big Hollywood names behind it including composer David Arnold, cinematographer Michael Bonvillian and Mark Wolf. Film can be a good way to get an issue into people’s consciousness but there needs to be a clear link between calls to actions and horrific stories. Unless a film does this it doesn’t matter whose ‘eyes’ it is told through, people will still shrug it off as ‘just another tragedy’ they can’t do anything about.

Palestine Film Festival 2011 Review: Children of the Revolution

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 16 May 2011

Amy Hall reviews Shane O’Sullivan’s Children of the Revolution. A film about complex mother/daughter relationships and the legacy of of two famous militants…

Families are complicated, and with every generation they get more so. This is the focus of Children of The Revolution, a documentary mainly described through the eyes the daughters of two notorious and controversial militants: Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu.

Neither daughter has followed in their mother’s footsteps but they have very different views on their upbringings and the things their mothers did to try and further their cause.

Both Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu became interested in violent direct action groups around 1968 when the smell of revolution was in the air across the globe. Although Meinhof, with her husband Klaus Röhl, had been heavily involved politics for a while, Shigenobu first became inspired into activism after joining a protest on student fees just before she started university.

Bettina Röhl, the daughter of Ulrike Meinhof, is now also a journalist with a small daughter and says that this has brought her further away from understanding her mother’s behaviour, especially towards her and her twin sister Regine. Mei Shigenobu, despite also being separated from her mother for long periods as she grew up in the Middle East, describes the loving community that surrounded her.

Perhaps what makes the film so interesting is that it contains a huge amount of archive material. As well as old photographs and news reel there are interviews with both of Bettina’s parents. It is easy to see the source of Bettina’s resentment for her mother and also how torn Meinhof felt as she says a female political activist is “disarmed by her children”, that her private life is set against her political life – the “source of women’s oppression”.

The film does contain a lot of violent images, and neither daughters are in support of this. While Bettina sees her mother as simply a terrorist, Mei seems to think that was the way activists needed to get noticed at the time – doing a big action and then releasing statement. But she adds that with the growth of the internet and independent media means that this is outdated. It is also unclear what actions Fusako Shigenobu was actually involved in.

This film is a fascinating look at the intricate weavings of the family and relationship between mothers and daughters, which even those not interested in the political landscape can relate to. But it is also a snapshot of the revolutionary spirit of the late 1960s and 1970s and how sometimes that was exploited to commit acts of extreme violence. It is clearly rooted in the time period it is set, although there are links made between the movements the two women were involved in, there are not so many with the present. But then, as Mei points out as she is filmed in her work as a television anchor:  “From where you start history thinks look differently.”

CAS @ Oil In A Teapot, Tate Britain

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on Thursday 21 April 2011.

There’s nothing we like more at Ctrl.Alt.Shift than a quick bit of protest on our lunch break. That’s why Amy Hall jumped at the chance to head down to the Tate Britain this week and join climate change campaigners Climate Rush as they mourned BP’s sponsorship of the arts…

The sun blazed down on a crowded lawn outside the Tate Britain as members of Climate Rush gathered for an afternoon picnic, aptly named ‘Oil In A Teapot’, to mourn the lives lost in the BP oil disaster exactly one year ago.

But they were also mourning what they see as a cultural loss, showing their sadness that cultural spaces, such as the Tate, have to accept funding from companies with dodgy ethical reputations such as BP.

Dressed all in black, with their suffragette inspired red sashes, the group posed for photographs on the steps of the Tate along with artwork produced by artists from Louisiana which was greatly affected by the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

The paintings were then displayed alongside the picnic with and a version of a Turner painting, altered to show an oil spill. This was later delivered inside the Tate with ‘Love Oil Painting, Hate Oil Funding’ written on the back and a message asking them to stop accepting BP’s money.

Passers by couldn’t help but take a look at tea party (grabbing a cucumber sandwich in the process). Many people had never heard of the link between BP and the Tate and were intrigued to know more about why the group were there. The stunt was part of a wider week of action against the relationship between the arts and BP coordinated by Art Not Oil.

“A year ago today BP caused an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Jennifer Sherriff of Climate Rush. “80% of the oil is still in the ocean and toxic dispersants were used. BP has not only destroyed the environment of the area but 11 people died and livelihoods were ruined. They are still not paying the compensation they should be and are breaking the law.

“BP needs to stop trying to fix their image through corporate sponsorship. They need to be held to account.”

BP has described the last 12 months as Year of Change for the better. But many from Louisiana say their communities and livelihoods have been destroyed.

Since the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the company has also started extracting oil in the Canadian Tar Sands a project not just controversial for its massive effects on climate change but also to the lives of First Nation communities who suffer high levels of cancer and devastation to their natural environment.

The First Nation communities from Canada have joined with those in Louisiana in solidarity in their campaigning.

Questions are again being asked about arts funding, especially in the wake of cuts to public funding for the arts. Should it matter where cultural spaces get their money from? Are companies like BP legitimising themselves in Britain while people across the globe suffer at their expense? And perhaps most importantly, does art have an obligation to be moral?

Find out more about the campaign at the Art Not Oil website.

Photos: Climate Rush

Review: Collapse

First published on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on October 26 2010

Director: Chris SmithAs you would expect from a film on economic and environmental ‘Collapse’ – this film isn’t a light watch.

Directed by Chris Smith, best known for his documentaries including American Movie and The Yes Men, this film takes a minimalist and slightly darker approach to his previous work. 

The focus of the film is Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD officer now better known for his reporting on corruption and criticism of mainstream media. It is shot in a dark room with very little light, Ruppert chain smokes as he is interviewed by Smith. The camera pans around him often close up so it is possible to see every wave of emotion that goes over his face as he talks about his life and work.

Ruppert is frank but very angry, a man who feels he has been ignored and unfairly treated by those with power. Energy is one of Ruppert’s biggest concerns, and he explains how he thinks society’s belief that we can have infinite growth has led to a naïve belief that we can have infinite energy. Energy, he says is becoming more powerful than money but when the sources we rely on, such as oil, run out we will need to be able to adapt to this new world.

Ruppert bases many of his arguments on the problem of peak oil, the point in time in which global oil reserves will go into decline. He highlights how peak oil predictions and signs of the recent economic crisis have been ignored by those in power for many years and how people voicing their concerns have been branded alarmist.

Much of the film seems to me to be disempowering to those who share Ruppert’s views but despite all the anger, Ruppert describes the power of community with tender emotion. He describes walking away from the problem and not doing anything as taking part in our own suicide, describing ways people can take control of their own lives to protect themselves.

Some people may see him as too paranoid, pessimistic or even extreme but there is a lot of sense in a lot of the things Ruppert says. He defends himself against accusations of being a conspiracy theorist saying that the thoughts that he promotes are more conspiracy facts and comments on the growing dissent he feels in the world and how ordinary people can use this movement and become part of it to effect real change.

This is the kind of sentiment that we, as activists for social change, need to take hold of. We can’t expect people to join a movement of hopelessness, we can’t expose problems without offering some solutions.

Chto delat? – The Urgent Need To Struggle

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on October 22 2010

The event: Chto delat? (What is to be done?) – The Urgent Need To Struggle
Date: October 9 – October 24
Location: Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH
Price: Free entry

This project has been created by Tsaplya (Olga Egorova), Nikolay Oleynikov, Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), Nina Gasteva, Vladan Jeremic/Rena Rädle and Dmitry Vilensky…

A dream for any political and cultural theory geeks; this exhibition even comes with a handy reader – a newspaper of texts to help further your understanding of the theoretical ground the artists have started from but can still be appreciated by those looking for something less involved.

‘This exhibition… tells the story of the struggle of ‘ordinary’ people against the government, the authorities, oppression, inequality but also the feeling of hopelessness that can engulf activists at their low points…’

The Urgent Need To Struggle is a modern take on old school leftist principles, which, as history seems to go round in circles, are still relevant today. It gives a series of thought provoking proposals on varied movements and works to unite cultural workers and all working people together in their struggles, rejecting any perceived artists’ pretention.

The view of artists as part of the wider workers’ movement is central to the work of Chto Delat, the platform of artists and thinkers who created this exhibition, and was “founded with the goal of merging political theory, art and activism.” They take their inspiration from revolutionary Russian working groups and basing their work on principles of self organisation, collectivism and solidarity.

These principles are immediately recognisable in this exhibition which tells the story of the struggle of ‘ordinary’ people against the government, the authorities, oppression, inequality but also the feeling of hopelessness that can engulf activists at their low points…

The room’s strong red, white and black colour scheme hits you instantly as does the main focal point: A cinematic screen faced by ascending double beds, an installation that wouldn’t look out of place as a bedroom on Cribs. There is also a viewpoint where you can attempt to sing a song called Partisans Forever – in Serbian – along with a video of people in white boiler suits. The walls are decorated with pages from the reader, an issue of Chto Delat’s paper, quotes from well known leftist leaders and images from the films that make up the main depth of the exhibition.

The amount of film content means the exhibition needs time to be explored fully. Each short film or trailer centres on a different struggle, many are bizarre and abstract fiction; whereas others are simple documentaries or a series of stills with commentary. Although many of the issues explored are very much in he present, history never feels that far away.

Chto delat have presented a valid and useful series of thoughts on the position or art in activism and the importance of cultural workers in the wider workers movement, although I can’t help thinking that some of the more conceptual representations of struggle, such as the musical films, echo exactly the type of pretetion they are trying to avoid.

The Urgent Need to Struggle is central to the Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) current season titled ‘Dissent’; in which they ask whether culture can be a site for protests in a time of economic crisis. The season has included numerous events including talks and debates and a big focus on film with an artists film club and the regular screening of Collapse from American director Chris Smith.

Artes Mundi 4

Chen Chieh-jen

First appeared on Big Issue Cymru online on March 31 2010

Artes Mundi 4
National Museum Wales, Cardiff




As the old saying goes, ‘there’s nowt so queer as folk’. This year’s Artes Mundi short list reflects just that, from complex social and political struggle down to the tiny details and strange habits that make humans so intriguing.

The eight artists from around the world taking part in the fourth Artes Mundi competition are all vying for this year’s top honours. This year the works, which are judged in May, are all based around the theme of the human condition.

Fernando Bryce’s painstaking Indian ink copies of media, including newspaper articles and posters, cast their eye over history, laying bare the power of propaganda. It’s interesting to notice what and who is absent in these pictures; it’s clear the media gives only a snapshot, reflecting only the voices of those with the power to make themselves heard.

Chen Chieh-jen’s films about the position of Taiwan in the world are haunting. The stories, which are among the strongest works displayed this year, include the wives of Thai men from China and their struggle to be accepted as citizens. The imagery is dark and mesmerising – their tales told against a background of motionless women, silent in protest.

After the gloom, it is refreshing to step around the corner and lay eyes on Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev’s lively and engaging photographs capturing the fall of Communism in Krygyzstan. The country’s Silk Road route connects it with China and other parts of Europe and North Africa and the images feature a light, vibrant and rich set of characters.

Yael Bartana’s work on the formation of Jewish identity, is striking, particularly his Mur i Wieża (Wall and Tower). A serene group of people, seemingly oblivious to the walls and barbed wire being constructed around them, are shown learning Hebrew to Polish translations in central Warsaw.

The beauty of Olga Chernysheva’s work, which explores modern Russia, lies in the tiny details of everyday moments. A young boy struggles with his uncomfortable cadet uniform while a teenager climbs a pole aided by the men below who are struggling to help him.

The amount of footage displayed this year means the exhibition can be time demanding. Meanwhile, some of the concepts shown are sometimes difficult to grasp – Adrian Paci’s work about Albanian weddings is elusive.

This year’s Artes Mundi shortlist collates a very diverse set of works, but sadly Africa and Oceania are not represented. An engaging collection, albeit one that sometimes masks its deeper meanings (exhibition runs until June 6th).