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‘Rebel Video’ Author Heinz Nigg on the history of democratised video-making

Heinz Nigg is a Swiss a renowned community artist, academic, author and video activist, who has spent his life finding innovative new ways to make powerful people intensely uncomfortable. The writer, filmmaker and curator behind the multi-media archive project Rebel Video spoke to Indy Film Library about the lessons activists can learn from the communal video groups of the 20th century – as well as from his Wikipedia page!

Rebel Video is much more than the book Indy Film Library reviewed in late 2019. Could you please explain the broader project to our readers, as well as its long-term goals?

In the 70s and 80s, young activists discovered video as a new medium. We used moving images in our struggle for access to cultural expression. We were researching and developing new forms of independent and participatory media work. In the book Rebel Video I portray my colleagues and friends from the community and alternative video movement in London and Switzerland.

I live and work in Zurich and always kept in touch with the alternative/radical video scene in London. The book came out in 2017. It shines a light on our video movement with all its many facets. What is the aim of the book? To encourage and inspire debate on the democratisation of film/video practice.

By all accounts you have enjoyed an incredible and lengthy career in community filmmaking. Many of the contributors to your book Rebel Video (particularly in its Swiss portion) cite you by name as having had a formative role in video activism – as well as his role in preserving its legacy in the modern day. What was behind your decision to keep your own story and experiences at arm’s length from this particular project?

For Rebel Video I listened and documented what my friends had to tell me about their lives as video/film activists. Of course, it is also important to reflect my own role as researcher/activist in the grassroots video movement. My next book will be an autobiographical collage of my life as an artist, ethnographer and rebel. If you want to know some facts of my life, please do look me up on Wikipedia.

What has your response to the Rebel Video book been so far?

The book came out with the opening of my video installation Rebel Video at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich in 2017. For the first time the video movement of the 70s and 80s was presented in its historic and transnational dimensions.

The Swiss media covered the exhibition and the book widely. Some months later, I went on tour with Rebel Video to the US, Canada, the UK and Italy. The students and activists I met loved my approach in Rebel Video: to use video to portray the activists of a video movement. You can follow the tour on the website rebelvideo.ch.

Due to your video documentation of the Zurich youth movement, in 1980 the Zurich University banned you from teaching there. Like many people involved with grassroots activism and culture, it seems your involvement has made you a target throughout your academic career – did that kind of treatment ever cause you to consider going into a less controversial field? What kept you going?

Yes, it was a shock for me to get expelled from the university. I was around 30 years old and just had become a father. I had to make my ends meet. Emotionally, I got a lot of support from the 1980 youth movement in my hometown Zurich. To live in a tightly knit network of friends and professional contacts kept me integrated in society. Since 1980 I have been working as an independent researcher and community artist.

I continued my interest in social movements and participatory video. I also did exhibitions and web projects on migration, mobility and globalisation. I mostly work with portraits, based on the methods of Oral History. My academic background as a doctor of the arts and social science helped me to attract funding for my projects.

Following a series of galling election results, do you think Western Europe’s left is taking the right approach to documentary, storytelling and communication?

I followed closely the influx of young activists in the Labour Party in the UK when Jeremy Corbyn took over as president. New exciting channels of expression and communication were developed, like Momentum or Novara Media. These new forums stimulated analysis and debate in the Labour Party. Also, after the lost elections, video and TV will play an important role to rejuvenate the Labour movement. And the Radical Film Network (RFN) in the UK is a good example of how independent film/video makers can come together to share experience and know-how.

On the continent I notice similar positive developments. Video is being used in campaigns, in grassroots organising for climate strike, etc. On social media you find a lot of short documentations about demos and other manifestations of protest. But I would like to see more in-depth coverage of movement activities, so that we can learn from each other across geographical borders and language barriers. Especially now that Europe is confronted with this strong shift to the right in politics and society.

One of the key assets of your project is that it has a wealth of lessons for modern activists to learn from those who came before. The video activists of the 1980s, for example, must have had to contend with fascistic filmmakers etc. Now, websites like YouTube are broadly spoken about in terms of being ‘tools of radicalisation’ for the far-right, suggesting progressives are ‘losing the fight’ in terms of winning hearts and minds through video communication. From your experiences with video activism, how do you think community video makers and the left more generally might remedy that?

Investigative video journalism and participatory video practices are powerful tools to uncover the roots and mechanisms of xenophobic tendencies in politics and in the media. Here some interesting examples of the community video movement in London of the 70s, 80s and 90s: The Battle of Trafalgar and Despite the Sun by Mark Saunders, Being White by Tony Dowmunt (both on rebelvideo.ch).

On the website of the Community Video Archive London (LCVA) you find many more examples of good practice, like August 13: What Happened? (Albany Video Project), Peoples Account (Ceddo Film and Video Workshop). Have also a look into Step Forward Youth (Menelik Shabzz) and Who Killed Colin Roach? (Isaac Julien). I am sure you will find a lot of inspiration to do similar film/video projects today.

Community video production and (stretching someway back) the printing press were both heralded as revolutionary at the time of their inception, as they enabled a decentralisation of the way information was produced and distributed. After a period of adaptation, the same old powers were able to regain control of them – and similarly the same process seems to be taking place now with the internet. If it isn’t too late already, do you see anyway the digital commons can resist its privatisation, based on those earlier examples?

One answer to your question is to build our own independent media channels like Novara Media in London or The Real News Network in Baltimore and get involved in networks for radical and experimental film/video like the RFN. But who is going to pay for these important services and who is volunteering time and energy? The other answer is campaigning for a free internet, to put pressure on the internet giants. They must respect our privacy. We want to take back control over our data. Internet companies should not be allowed to give a platform for racism and election fraud. Both strategies are important and do complement each other.

What is next for you and the Rebel Video project, and is there anything our readers can do to help?

The Rebel Video Facebook presence documents activist video/filmmaking – then and now. We are a small community of enthusiasts of radical and experimental video/film practise. We communicate in English and German; some posts are also in Italian and French. Please join the conversation!

Heinz Nigg’s book Rebel Video is available for order for €39 from publisher Scheidegger & Spiess.

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