by Monica Jardine and Andaiye
from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 36-38
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005
The following interview with Rupert Roopnaraine, director of the film THE TERROR AND THE TIME, was conducted by Monica Jardine and Andaiye in New York City in September 1977 while the film was being edited. It was published in the Georgetown Review (Guyana) 2, no 1 (August 1978). We have edited it for length. — The Editors
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: You know that even among progressive artists there often remains a belief that art, "by its very nature," must be an individualized production. Can you tell us how you see this question and how your effort at collective filmmaking has worked in practice?
ROOPNARAINE: The main thing is that artistic production is a social process. The conception of the artist as lone ranger driven by the demons of creation is a bourgeois conception of artistic production; it belongs to the same worldview which seriously proposes Robinson Crusoe as an example of what economic production is about.
We wanted to carry further our understanding of art as social production by confronting the conventional work practices of bourgeois film production. Clearly this can be seen as an ideological preference that had already reached some level of actualization from our previous experience of working together. But I want to stress other elements in the decision: the level of efficiency we were able to reach because of our attempts to overcome the retarding consequences of a rigid, hierarchical division of labor; the necessity to approach the work in this way when you have to make a film on an economy budget with few "trained professionals"; finally, that collectivizing the work process enhanced the commitment of the core people to the project, a commitment that extended itself to other comrades who joined us in working to produce the film. Yet it would be idealistic and dishonest to deny that this was an uneven process or to claim that every member's intervention at every level was equal. We all had to develop skills, not only in technological aspects like light reading, sound recording, video transfer, etc., but in research, scriptwriting, and editing. We set aside time for practical instruction in the technology of filmmaking. But at times we had no alternative but to rely on the technological skills of our professional comrades. Because of the kind of film we wanted to produce, we had to have regular theoretical study sessions on the revolutionary tradition of filmmaking within which we wanted to situate the film. Of course, in this struggle for theoretical understanding, there were frequent ideological interventions of the very kind we were trying to fight against. But the commitment to struggle remains, and that is the important thing.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: Who was Victor Jara, and what was the significance of naming the collective after him?
ROOPNARAINE; Victor Jara was one of the revolutionary working-class artists who emerged as part of the creative cultural explosion during the Allende years in Chile. He was a popular poet, guitarist, and folksinger and a militant who was murdered by the fascists.
Since one of our primary concerns is with cultural violence and the relationship of art to struggle, we could not have chosen a more appropriate emblem. There is a sequence in the closing minutes of the film when we see a Viet Cong guerrilla unit resting after days of marching and fighting. Two women are performing a peasant dance for their comrades. Immediately after the dance ends, they all shoulder their rifles and set off for the next confrontation with the French invaders. This sequence expresses very clearly how revolutionary art integrates with political struggle. We cannot ignore the very real differences between Vietnam and Guyana (even in 1953). Our point is that art has a political function and does not lose its artistic value when it becomes self-conscious about situating itself politically.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: How do you respond to the criticism that the title of the film implies a greater level of aggression against the Guyanese people than the facts, or the film, warrant?
ROOPNARAINE: There are a number of responses that come to mind. To begin with, THE TERROR AND THE TIME addresses more than the specific aggression against the Guyanese working people in 1953. We tried to situate that aggression in a wider context of imperialist violence at the time. The film draws attention to the aggression against the Iranian people which culminated in the violent overthrow of the Mossadegh government, to the aggression against the Kenyan working people in the terrorist violence against its Mau Mau liberation fighters, to the French aggression against the Vietnamese working people in the brutal attacks against its patriotic revolutionaries. Looked at from a global perspective, the terror seems real enough to satisfy even the most benumbed. The second and main aspect of naming the film THE TERROR AND THE TIME is that, for us to move toward a more precisely formulated theory of liberation, we need to examine with strict patience and great discipline the moment which, after all, spawned the neocolonial state. The title, THE TERROR AND THE TIME, suggests that 1953 is a moment "unto itself," a concentrated expression of imperialist aggression in a particular conjuncture, as well as a critical point in our ongoing process which unites 1953 with 1977.
If we wanted any demonstration of the necessity to situate the terror of 1953 in this way, we found it in our practical work experience. We had intended to open this film with school children talking about what they knew of 1953. We actually filmed some interviews with young school children in the Corentyne and in Georgetown. We discovered to our horror that they did not even know that British troops had invaded the country in 1953.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: Then you see the film as part of an attempt to combat what you have called the erasure of the past?
ROOPNARAINE: Exactly. A film, like any form of artistic production, is consciously or unconsciously an intervention into a specific conjuncture, an intrusion into a set of existing concrete relations. The Poems of Resistance was such an art/act. Obviously, any art produced as part of a struggle is conscious of this intervention and takes it into account. Now we have to be constantly aware of the nature of the context into which any artistic production is going to intervene. The context into which the film will intervene now includes, on the one hand, the ruling party's attempt at complete control over consciousness production by its ownership of the media and its use of those media and of educational institutions to falsify both past and present. But the context also includes the organized refusal of conscious people to be either duped or silenced. The film concentrates on consciousness production in the colonial period as part of the current contestation of the consciousness production of the party which today rules in Guyana. We are in effect taking sides with those forces now struggling to combat the continued underdevelopment of the minds of the Guyanese working people.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: What you've been saying about artistic production implies that the concept of revolutionary art embraces more than the "content" of that art, that a new relationship of form is a part of the contestation of bourgeois consciousness production. Let's talk about how you deal with narration in Part One, where you have no narration in the traditional sense but use the poet as narrator. Why?
ROOPNARAINE: For a number of reasons we rejected right from the beginning the idea of a traditional narrator. Several people have urged us, at various points along the way, to use a narrator for exposition and analysis. But we remain convinced that an external narrator would violate structural principles which order this section of the film. The so-called "objective" narrator of the average industrial documentary can be, and almost always is, a totalitarian device. Narrators induce passivity and docile compliance. They encourage the viewers to treat the film they are watching as alienated spectacle, a product outside of themselves designed for inert consumption. There have been the rare exceptions where the narrator is a self-conscious device, a full sign of the filmmaker's own presence in the production. In this kind of revolutionary application, the narrator, in the act of self-situation, summons the viewer into active appropriation. But this is a tactical and immobilizing power of the traditional narrator. Now part of what we reject when we reject the device of the objective narrator who explains and clarifies everything is precisely this master/slave notion of pedagogy.
Instead of abolishing the freedom of the spectator, we have chosen to emphasize that freedom, to assert it at every level. Consequently we have organized the film in such a way as to insist, as a prerequisite for understanding and action, on the active participation of the viewer in the production. The film, considered now as a process whose completion is achieved only in the act of consumption, relies on the viewer to perceive connections and relations. It invites practice, not acquiescence and passivity. The imposition of a narrator would have violated this principle.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: The editing was obviously carefully and deliberately designed to produce something other than a formal plot or, structure. Why?
ROOPNARAINE: Simply because we were attempting to negate, at all levels, the type of Hollywood film-as-spectacle which functions according to particular principles of plot and structure. We aimed for an assertive editing technique, rapid and percussive in some places, slow and lyrical in others. It is all a question of meaning. To take an example from the film: the cartman sequence that opens the film is edited, for the most part, in what you have called an orthodox way: long and medium shots, dissolves, a linear progression of images, a moment from darkness to light, and so on. There are two reasons for this: first, the interpretation we have given the poem and, secondly, the strategic situation of the cartman poem/sequence in the overall structure of the film. The poem speaks of the "hidden cartman consistent in the dark." We took our cue from that "consistent." Restoring to the word its strict etymological meaning, we took the cartman's consistency in the dark to mean a kind of integration of man in his world, a moment of oneness and cohesion.
We then moved from this dominant idea of cohesion to its dialectical opposite, fragmentation. We now had our "plot": cohesion to fragmentation. The task then was to concretize these abstractions. So for cohesion we supplied the content: place of production/ nature/ country; for fragmentation: place of exchange and alienation/ culture/ town. The descent of the cartman — and the poem suggests it's an epic descent — is from the secure countryside, where he has known control over the processes of nature, to the noisy marketplace, where not only his products are alienated in exchange but where his own control is lost. We end with an epic plot: from birth to death. So you see, the decisions we make in terms of editing, decisions of pace, of spot perspective and distance, are determined by considerations of meaning and interpretation. But the process doesn't end there. We begin from some fairly abstract concept and set about accumulating and organizing the images and sounds to serve that concept. But then the organization of the material impacts back on to the concept and influences the meaning in turn. You are right. The film is very deliberately plotted. Again, what we reject is not plot or structure but a particular kind of plot and structure.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: Do you think that the working class will find this film difficult to understand?
ROOPNARAINE: Undoubtedly. In terms of what we have been saying about the films shown in the commercial cinemas, how can it be otherwise? The film will be difficult and unusual because the Guyanese and Caribbean working people have been denied exposure to films of this kind. We are struggling against film-viewing habits and expectations formed over decades. It is a question of making available to the public alternative types of film language. And what we're talking about will involve many long years of work. You know, even after the Cuban revolution had become a fact and the Cuban people were becoming conscious of what socialism was, they went right on seeing the Mexican and Hollywood films until the blockade in 1961. We are hoping that this film will contribute to the cultural struggle here in Guyana by opening the possibilities of different types of film language, by demonstrating what a cinema in the service of the working class is capable of.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: There has always been in Guyana a kind of tension — among working-class and peasant Africans and Indians in particular — between a concretely shared life of day-by-day oppression and an equally real separation at the occupational, social, and cultural levels, and this even in moments of political solidarity. The question now — do you think that Part One ignores or downplays the divisions between the two groups in the interests of revealing the other side of what we have called the tension?
ROOPNARAINE: We spoke earlier of the self-reflexive dimension of the film, its conscious self-situation, the way in which its production is enmeshed in the relations of 1976 even when its object is 1953. Now it is well known that in Guyana today the crisis in race relations is a dominant element in the larger structural crisis. No one even seriously bothers to dispute that anymore. It is not that we chose to ignore or underplay the real racial divisions and fragmentation of the period. No, what we chose to do was to emphasize the positive achievements of the 1953 moment.
One of those achievements, brief though it was, and coming only after long years of struggle and many serious defeats, was the unification of the working people in 1953. This assertion of class solidarity over racial division has occurred on a less developed scale only once before, in the 1924 convulsions when the wharf workers and stevedores went on the great waterfront strike. On that occasion large contingents of sugar workers joined in the huge demonstrations on April 1 in Georgetown. The colonial state machinery reacted then with much the same reflexes as the PNC today: intervention of the military, arrests, and widespread repression. The film celebrates the achievement of a relatively harmonious working relation between our two major races. The colonial state responded by driving a wedge into the militant workers movement, pitting African against Indian, town against country, worker against worker. The race riots of the sixties, sponsored and engineered by the CIA this time, were a direct extension of this policy of division. And so the film invites the working people to dwell on images of symbiosis and solidarity, to experience imaginatively the potential energy of a united working class movement.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: A number of your images focus on women working. Are you making a point about the sexual division of labor?
ROOPNARAINE: The sisters in the collective never permitted us to lose sight of the fact of women's oppression or to underplay their role in the struggle against oppression. They constantly forced us to confront, within the collective itself, the problems arising from the sexual division of labor. The film emphasizes something which we, products of male supremacist society, are too prone to overlook, namely, that the women and children in class society are the colonized of the colonized, victims of a double oppression. We chose a woman worker (Halliman) to describe the conditions of labor on the sugar estates in the colonial period. She speaks for the entire class both as a member of the oppressed class and as an oppressed member within that class.
The section of the film we are describing also provides the key to other sections where the particular oppression of women is seen as the most profound and damaging aspect of the more general oppression. The film tries to explore — mainly through an analysis of newspaper advertisements directed at women, fashion photographs, and sex-film displays — the particular strategies of cultural violence, racist and sexist strategies, designed to produce distorted and diseased self-images. Imagine the grotesque situation of the Guyanese women, day after hot, sunny day, turning to the women's page of the Daily Argosy and being asked to marvel at the latest Parisian fur hats for winter or the new tweeds for the autumn collection in London. We also chose to take account, in the African and Vietnamese images at the end of the film, of the women's role in the liberation struggles. The Chinese say that women hold up half of the sky. The film struggles not to forget this.
JARDINE/ANDAIYE: We can argue that artistic production in Guyana in the 1950s had a definite grounding in the vitality of the mass movement and that the retreat of the movement after 1953 was reflected in artistic production and cultural expression in the country after that time. Do you see this film — THE TERROR AND THE TIME — as an isolated piece of work or as part of a new creative upsurge itself, both agent and reflection of a renewed vitality in the Guyanese working-class struggle?
ROOPNARAINE: The point is irrefutable. Working-class production as a whole, of which artistic production is a part, has never been anything other than alienated production in Guyana. The surge of creative activity in the colonial period was a vital and dynamizing element of the liberation movement. The cultural production of the period understood itself as an antagonistic and contestatory production. But, even so, these were imprinted with the contradictions of the period, both the internal contradictions within the liberation movement itself and the external contradictions arising out of the confrontation with colonialism. But even within these limits, the art of the period actively participated in the creative energy of the moment.
The official cultural production of this period — from independence to today — has been in essence an extension of the cultural production of the colonizers. It is again a question, as it has been throughout our history, of two contending sets of cultural production, each stamped by its specific class character. We can describe the official cultural products as celebratory, ornamental, and designed to mystify reality and confuse the people. It is unreasonable to expect that the cultural production of the dominating petty bourgeoisie would escape the moral and intellectual prevarication of that class. But the dominated culture of the working class, which for many years has been sporadic in production and turned in on itself, is again emerging as a vital and dynamizing element of an intensifying class struggle. As we might expect in a society where the working class is systematically excluded from creative participation in all spheres of production, the cultural activity of the people is still a repressed, marginal activity and will enter into the mainstream of cultural production only as other relations are shattered and recomposed of the working class in its own interests.
We definitely see the film as an active expression of class struggle and participating in the renewed energy of the working-class movement. It is a very concrete expression of that energy in the sense that it could never have been produced without the militant collaboration of working people's organizations in Guyana and to a lesser extent in the other neocolonial Caribbean territories and in the United States.
Third World Newsreel distributes THE TERROR AND THE TIME. Contact them at 160 5th Ave., Rm. 911. New York, NY, 10010. (212) 243-2310.http://www.ejumpcut.org