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The online circulation of raw footage from live streams, cell phones, and police dash-cams has fueled much political dissent in recent years, from Occupy Wall Street to the protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and others. This essay looks at experimental moving image works made in response to these contemporary dynamics of protest. It offers a comparative analysis of short digital videos by Jem Cohen and Alex Johnson, both of whom embrace the newsreel as a radical genre, making direct reference to earlier generations of filmmakers who did the same. Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreels (2011) offer a series of immersive observational studies of the Occupy demonstrations and Zuccotti Park encampment. In a more directly referential mode, Johnson’s Now! Again! (2014) appropriates Santiago Alvarez’s Now! (1965), a Cuban newsreel made by animating photographs depicting the civil rights struggle. Johnston juxtaposes this imagery with media coverage of protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown in August 2014.
Fifty years ago, radical filmmakers of Alvarez’s generation urged newsreel audiences to recognize themselves as a social body, sharing a stake in the struggles depicted on screen. Today, the currency of “newsreel” as a political mode of experimental media is less certain. Although the experimental videos at issue here could be read as nostalgic for conditions of cinematic exhibition long since eclipsed by the dominance of social media, I argue instead that they engage the current mediation of political unrest in order to explore the indeterminacy of the social body to which it gives rise. Calling attention to rifts in the visual field and the seams that bind one historical moment to another, these works are guided by a desire to grasp the historicity of newsreel as a form enlisted to play a participatory role in social protest. In each case, newsreel provides new forms for responding to urgent events that cut against the temporality and visual codes of social media, opening up new space to share the world differently.