Over the coming months our column We Like Shorts, Shorts will play host to a series of pieces about the new short documentary series Field of Vision, hosted over at The Intercept and co-created by Laura Poitras, AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook.
God is an Artist – Jake Moody
The tricky terrain of contested public territory is the subject of Dustin Guy Defa’s eleven-minute piece God is an Artist, which takes the city of Detroit’s crackdown on graffiti artists-slash-vandals as the jumping-off point for a much wider discussion. Despite its brevity, the piece is absolutely effective in animating the real issues of community identity and freedom of expression tangled up in debates over public art. On the other hand, its presentation as a series of visually-accompanied musings by Defa himself is less effective – the films at time forgoes real incisiveness in favour of a style of philosophising that feels a lot like navel-gazing.
The post-bankruptcy Detroit backdrop explored in God is an Artist is brilliantly defined. Defa resists the obvious urge to depict the city as a rubble-strewn dump in favour of highlighting its position of stasis: we see tidy brick homes and colourful public artwork as often as we see grey, rundown tenements, often in the same shot. A standout moment is a fleeting shot of a floating plastic bag, a clear reference to the famous shot in American Beauty which formed part of its attack on picket-fence Americana. While Sam Mendes’ bag was a sterile white, though, Defa’s is black: this is not a Hollywood production. This evocation of cultural ‘drift’, or at least malaise, is a technique which mirrors the sentiments expressed by Defa and one or two of his interviewees, who argue that Detroit should be seen less as having fallen from its past as the Motor City, and more as being in a vital period of redefinition. As such, the controversial prosecution of celebrated graffitist Shepard Fairey for ‘vandalism’ which drives the short’s loose narrative is framed as a key flashpoint in the debate over what the city and its community want Detroit to be.
The tact with which Defa presents and narrates these issues is a strong point of God is an Artist, and all the more impressive that they are compressed into about five minutes of screen time. However, the piece falters when it aims to extrapolate these ideas to broader discussions around the interplay between authority and personality. A somewhat arbitrary link between the graffiti art community and a contemporaneous faux-Satanist movement is made, at which point the short morphs into a Therouxian study of an out-there subculture. The Satanists, explains Defa, intend to erect a sacrilegious statue of Baal next to a church’s Ten Commandments, pointing out the hypocrisy of America’s strange dualist obsession with its freedoms and simultaneous nativism. The link to the public artwork debate, it’s suggested, is the common interest of the rebelling groups in breaking down the politically-loaded relationships between sign and signifier: like Fairey’s ‘OBEY’ symbol means nothing in itself but instead acts to provoke the viewer, the Satanists challenge mainstream religions by forcing them to attribute their own meaning to the statue.
While the context is fascinating, this final takeout of God is an Artist ends up less than satisfying. Defa, whose deadpan voice works as a background to a chronicle of urban decay and political manoeuvring, comes off less well as an investigative documentarian. The out-and-out weirdness of the Satanists’ meetings and members is barely touched upon, and approaching their community with too much seriousness makes Defa seem like an ironist, or worse, a contrarian a la Michael Moore. His personal connection with the group is made explicit, with the voiceover at one point asserting that he at one point considered joining up.
In truth, Defa seems somewhat blinkered by his affection for iconoclasts, and this affection prevents him from realising that the likes of Shepard Fairey are operating on a wholly different level from the awkwardly-masked, tatted-up Satanists, who seem more likely to return to their office jobs on Monday than to live out a life against the grain. God is an Artist is bookended by two sequences featuring Rob, a rough, long-haired ex-con who has fallen in with the Satanist movement thanks to his anti-statist, survivalist ideology. Intended to venerate the trappings of outsider identity and lament the system which forces alternative communities to its fringes, the film’s emphasis on Rob instead shows up its failings. He’s the kind of all-American anti-government weirdo we’ve seen a thousand times before, not an avatar for the same movement that spawns Detroit’s graffiti subculture. Ironically, the film would benefit from taking that subculture, spawned underground and existing within and without the law, and bringing it further into the light.
Homeland Is Not a Series – Dominic Barlow
Homeland is Not a Series, as the title suggests, is a strong repudiation to the real-world integrations and implications of the Showtime series Homeland, told through the lens of three artists – Heba Amin, Caram Kapp and Don Karl, the latter being better known as Stone – who spray-painted Arabic phrases that translated to “Homeland is racist” and “Homeland is a joke and it didn’t make us laugh” on its Syrian street set. These went unnoticed right up until broadcast and then caused a stir on social media, but the film is more than a cursory look behind the scenes. It mixes the artists’ reflections and several discordant forms, including the Homeland episode itself, into a dark mirror and holds it up not just to the booming portent of the Showtime series but to erroneous Western conceptualisations of the Middle East in general. The result is so lurid as to justify its didacticism and bring home the horrifying reality that mass-narrative media is co-opting and sanitising.
These artists continue to work but in secret, with an early narration being a letter addressed to “Laura”, presumably producer Laura Poitras, in a moment not unlike the intro to Citizenfour. Their subsequent reflections, read aloud by actors, are bolstered by real dialogue excerpts from the show, mostly accompanied visually by contradictory title cards (“This is Not a War Zone”, we read while Claire Danes says the exact opposite). Actors continue to read their written reflections aloud, while a handheld camera wanders around the deserted Berlin set of the show, inviting us to marvel not just at the translated graffiti but also the facsimile of the devastation that the artists have lived through. Their bemusement and determination is palpable; “sometimes,” goes the narration, “I feel there are more Syrians here than in Syria itself.” He then goes as far to wonder, horrifyingly, if their descendants will evolve via natural selection into creatures that can survive the elements, while they continue their mass exit from their real-world homeland. Combined with a harsh orchestral score, there is a strong enough sense of helplessness to know that this piece, as powerfully disruptive as it is, will only endow a fraction of the trauma and displacement they are going through.
Rather than a manifesto or essay, the artists and their collaborators attempt a circumvention of Western media’s staged reality through a carefully organised sensory assault. Editor Ahmed Hanifa deserves huge credit for the swirling landscapes and glitched-out reconfigurations, which are finely crafted to break through the delusions fed to us by Homeland and similar ilk. Your binge-watched source of entertainment is a real ordeal, they scream through a thousand jarring cuts, and it can’t be so easily switched off. Yet, for the undeniable sincerity, there’s seemingly a concession to the need for recognisable narrative closure: a blackly funny coda takes thirty seconds of Raoul Walsh’s 1964 Cavalry western A Distant Trumpet and resubtitles a Native American chieftain character’s dialogue with an excerpt from film-maker Neil Diamond’s documentary Reel Injun, in order to mock Hollywood’s self-justification. Whatever level of abstraction Homeland is Not a Series allows for, it’s an arresting work that makes the original stunt carry much more significance than the unusual social media news item it originally appeared to be.