A place for reflection

Political, questioning art film is a vital but threatened form.

There was no protest about the closure of the BFI Gallery a few weeks ago. I had the distinguished but melancholy honour to be the last exhibiting artist and we dedicated a symposium held on the gallery's penultimate day to the staff losing their jobs. The gallery was the only art space in London with the specific mission of "commissioning and showcasing artists' films and videos and the moving image in its most contemporary forms". In its brief existence since 2007, it had shown the work of Michael Snow, Patrick Keiller and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among others - that is, both film-makers working with art and artists working with experimental film and video.

Interestingly, while contemporary art is often lampooned for having no meaningful content, we have seen a movement characterised as a "documentary turn" in lens-based practices over the past 20 years. Running parallel to the systemic neglect of serious investigative impulses in print and broadcast media, critical questioning of the world we live in has relocated to galleries and museums. We can and should argue that artworks are not able to effect social change, and that is why they sit within a white cube (or a black box), unable to venture further than the smoked glass of the gallery door. But film and video are able to instigate an exchange with an audience about the status of ideas such as truth or authenticity.

This is an important intellectual tradition, advanced by film-makers such as Alexander Kluge, Harun Farocki and Peter Watkins. My peers - artists as varied as Hito Steyerl, Sharon Lockhart, Johanna Billing, Omer Fast and Duncan Campbell - all contribute to this kind of discourse in their own ways. The theorist Alfredo Cramerotti sees the increasing interest in the unstable and reflexive aspects of documentary as "aesthetic journalism".

My films largely reflect this instability of the document. The subjects they touch on range from the trauma of language and identity in Kosovo (why i don't speak serbian (in serbian)), to the relationship between Malaysian skinhead subculture and British colonial history (the meaning of style), to the promises and betrayals of talk shows and reality TV (the return of the real). The BFI exhibition brought together two short films: marxism today (prologue), about the education system in the German Democratic Republic and the lives of former teachers before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and use! value! exchange! - in which one of them teaches an introduction to Das Kapital and Marxist political economy to current business students in the former East Berlin. I was interested in finding out more about what we all lost with the demise of state socialism in 1989, and in the tales not of the victors or the dissenters, but of the vanquished and the orthodox.

Last year, I set out to find people who taught Marxism-Leninism, once a mandatory part of the curriculum that was abandoned in 1990. I spoke to 60 from all over the former East Germany, interviewed ten on camera and worked with three in the film: Petra Mgoza-Zeckay, whose husband, a Tanzanian fellow student, committed suicide months before the wall came down, and who thus experienced die Wende ("the change") as not only a national loss but also a deeply personal grief; Andrea Ferber, who wrote her PhD on neoliberal theories of unemployment and went on temporarily to become a successful financial analyst in west Berlin; and Marianne Klotz, who set up a dating agency and is the mother of an Olympic gymnast. What perspective could they bring to bear on the past 20 years?

With the fall of the wall, the culture and social framework of the GDR, and more importantly the ideals of a generation, were wiped out in a matter of months. Reunification is usually narrated as a liberation from a comprehensive system of ideological indoctrination. But then, was my comprehensive-school education in 1970s and 1980s Britain not ideological par excellence? At Cubs, we were forced to dib-dib-dib to God and the Queen, and history lessons were not about the genocidal excesses of the British empire, but about its civilising force.

My budgets were insignificant compared to those of an average TV or film production, yet these films never would have been supported through conventional broadcast structures. With our current cabinet, four-fifths of whom are millionaires who seem intent on punishing the British people for an economic crisis caused by the financial sector, it is likely that we will return to the philistine wasteland of the 1980s. The BFI Gallery has thus become one of many sites of experimentation and critical thinking that will disappear from our cultural landscape in a feast of privatisation and ideologically motivated cuts masked as economic necessity. l

“marxism today (prologue)" will be shown at the 57th International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany, from 5-10 May 2011

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden