Chris Robe, Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas
Oakland: PM Press, 2017; 463pp; ISBN 9781629632339
Many who are familiar with recent anarchist video-making in North America will recognise that the title of this study, Breaking the Spell, is the name of a video produced by anarchists to deepen understanding of events in Seattle during actions against the World Trade Organization in 1999. I recall my own community's efforts to get people to Seattle from Edmonton, Canada (no small feat, given the distance and border logistics) and the exhilaration rippling through the crowd at our post-Seattle 'report back' as we aired a short video, RIP WTO N30, produced at those events by the future creators of Breaking the Spell. The 'spell' being broken in RIP WTO N30 was multifaceted. Psychologically, people from various walks of life were filmed talking about why they were breaking with the norms and values sustaining business as usual through non-violent blockades, mass marches, and occasional property destruction. In the heat of the moment they delivered passionately articulate critiques of State-adjudicated exploitation, ranging from the colonial displacement of Indigenous peoples to stealth programs for 'globalizing' GMO crops. Police responded with brute force: protestors creatively defied them. RIP WTO N30's closing credit, 'special thanks to the courageous people who destroy property to protect life', presaged many more 'breaks' in the years to follow.
Unfortunately, Robe's methodology for understanding how anarchist video-making forges insurrectionary subjectivities that point beyond capitalist social structures falls far short of the mark. At the onset we learn many of the video-makers under discussion are actually not anarchists: they adopt 'anarchist-inflected' media practices in some variation, but are not fully engaged with the movement's politics or its larger social vision (p4). 'Anarchist-inflected', which hovers in stasis as the book's ideological criteria for identifying video-making as anarchist, is keyed to three tenets--'consensus decision-making, nonhierarchical structures, and direct-action tactics' (p5)--and it is repeatedly evoked at a slight remove from chapter to chapter. Throughout, these practices are more often than not couched as a hindrance to effective video activism, even if their underlying anti-authoritarian aspirations are laudable. Indeed, Robe casts...