Books Reviews

Rebel Video (2019) – By Heinz Nigg

Approaching film from an academic perspective is a tricky and often arduous process. Even the experts of the field can find themselves racked by self-doubt, when it comes to applying impenetrable academic language and complex analytical methodologies to a medium notorious for its popular appeal.

During my Masters, Eylem Atakav – a tutor of mine who has since become Professor of Film, Gender and Public Engagement –  said to me that she was concerned academics were sometimes part of a process which removed ideas from “something as accessible as film, and the level where they could be understood by everyone.”

This is a particular concern when it comes to discussing independent, grass-roots film in particular. These are often radical in both format and content, and aimed at communicating new ideas to a mass audience – but churning them through a laborious academic process can ultimately serve to wrench their legacy away from those it was intended for, and turn them into merely another token interest of a socially aloof academic elite. One of the things most worthy of praise when it comes to Heinz Nigg’s book Rebel Video, is that it tries bravely – if not entirely successfully – to avoid this, while introducing today’s generation of video activists to an archive of material that is essentially their journalistic birth-right.

Recording rebellion

In the age of the internet, where a global mass audience has suddenly been handed the opportunity to create swathes of the content it consumes, it is all too easy to forget what came before. Until the late 1960s, video content was the preserve of a rigid establishment consisting largely of television studios – particularly when it came to producing news content. That hierarchy was abruptly challenged with the launch of the Portapak, and other nascent home video recorders.

Across North America, artists, students and political activists were among the first groups to seize on the new technology – recognising its potential to take the power to access and disseminate information into their own hands. The video that the new machinery recorded on was much cheaper than traditional 16mm film, and as a result, people who would never dreamt of picking up a camera to tell their story before were quick to get involved in a revolutionary audio-visual movement swiftly spread to Europe and beyond.

During two decades of social turmoil and seismic political change, video work soon became an indispensible pillar of activist networks across the continent in the 1970s and 1980s. Those wielding video were able to uncover abuses of power across all walks of life, for example revealing the level of police brutality during the anti-poll-tax protests in London, directed at many “often elderly, distinctly un-student-like” people – contrary to the narrative constructed in the mainstream media of the time.

Battle of Trafalgar from Rebel Video on Vimeo.

Rebel Video fulfils an important role in both remembering and learning from this movement, long after the VHS moment has faded from memory. For that reason alone, I would recommend that you seek out a copy. This expansive collection of essays and eye-witness accounts seeks to not only document and analyse the video movement, but to open it up to a broader audience.

To this end, Nigg clearly favours plain language when documenting what happened, as well as its implications for modern activists and content producers in the digital age. His introductory treatise subsequently does a fine job of setting the context for the subject to a lay audience, setting out a whistle-stop account of how the movement grew and then declined, conjuring up questions about how this trend might have already been replicated by YouTube-based journalism in the modern day – including the question of avoiding the limitations of dependence on platforms and funding still connected to the audio-visual establishment, then and now.

Unfortunately, comparisons between the old and new worlds of independent video feature all-too-rarely in Rebel Video – and this is something further work from Nigg and his collaborators might do well to explore. Besides this, however, the Editor’s introduction is both insightful and thought-provoking enough to engage with a wider audience, as intended. The real problem comes over the course of the next section; the eye-witness testimony.

Mushroom source

Don’t get me wrong, the anecdotal accounts of video activism that follow do include some unique and intriguing insights into a now forgotten world – but after a promising start, the jump from being a introductory text into being a ‘source book’ is jarring, as the following chapters become transcriptions of video interviews taken from the Rebel Video web archive. These are not verbatim as Nigg has edited these “for good reading,” but this is light-touch editing in the extreme. While this preserves much of the authenticity of the primary source, when considered as a text which could introduce an audience to the topic, it is at times utterly excruciating to read.

For example, the following passage from what is actually one of the most interesting chapters, by Tony Dowmunt:

“My father was Polish. He was a Polish air-man and came to this country in 1939, at the start of the war, eventually to join the Polish air force here. My mother was upper class English and they met after the war. She was involved in the Royal Air Force. My father was involved in Polish Air Force Association business, so they met through that. He was a mushroom farmer. He cultivated mushrooms on the land that my mother inherited. He was an agricultural economist in Poland. The opportunities for university educated Poles in England in the 1940s were not great, so he retrained as a mushroom farmer. I was born in the house that my mother inherited, and around which he created this mushroom farm.”

Surely, if this book is meant to be a companion to a video archive, the point of it being part of a multi-media project is to avoid the kind of repetition seen above? If the whole body of Dowmunt’s testimony is available for free in video form, why not sieve out the more monotonous or irrelevant parts for the sake of the book, while directing readers to the other resource, if they feel so inclined to see it?

On top of this, a number of Rebel Video’s contributors overlap on topics. The late John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, for example, not only has his own chapter, but is referenced for his work in the world of activist video by numerous other sources. This is the kind of opportunity that cries out for a heavier touch in terms of editing – these contrasting perspectives could be woven together into a single compelling section, which has both significant insight and editorial flow to engage readers more deeply in the subject. As it stands, this does not happen, and we end up re-reading the same story from multiple angles over the course of a number of meandering chapters.

It is here that Nigg’s intentions seem to conflict, then. While he wants to use this book to reach as broad an audience as possible, he also intends for it to be used as a source material, which academics can draw reference too. Unfortunately, I don’t feel he can have his cake and eat it too in that way.

Project with potential

A few brief essays from various contributors bookend the interview section, followed by a few intriguing summaries of some of the films produced by the eye-witnesses. Again, if these had been wedded to snippets of testimony, and run through a coherent structure created by Nigg, these would help illustrate and contextualise the important role activist video played in informing the politics of the 70s and 80s. In this case, however, they are annexed off at the end, slightly anti-climactically.

Meanwhile, Nigg himself remains a curiously distant figure from his own book. Many of the contributors (particularly in this Swiss portion of the piece) cite him by name as having had a formative role in video activism – as well as his role in preserving its legacy in the modern day. Beyond his own brief introduction and chapter, it would have surely been an intriguing and informative opportunity to hear the full account of the man who documented the outbreak of the 1980 youth riots in Zurich – or even to have that account frame and draw together aspects from all the other contributors.

The ultimate absence of this structure feels something of a missed opportunity, because the subject, material and editor all have the potential to combine into a truly interesting and accessible piece of work, which would engage a mass audience. Instead, Rebel Video is a book which feels lost in a broader multi-media project, unsure as to quite how it fits in.

If you consume this book as part of its wider project – and I would still sincerely recommend that you do – there is undoubtedly a great deal of invaluable material to be gleaned from Rebel Video. It is just that, if viewed as a stand-alone book, Nigg’s work falls short of the goal it set to engage a large audience on its sadly forgotten subject.

That is not to say this aim cannot still delivered on, it should be stated. Hopefully there is still enough momentum in this project that Nigg – who by all accounts is a tirelessly dedicated archivist – might re-visit it to expand on his own account of the Rebel Video story. In turn, this could see him re-frame some of the rich vein of raw material on display here, refining it in a way a mass audience would more easily take to.

Rebel Video is available for order for €39 from publisher Scheidegger & Spiess.

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