Montage as a Radical Ethical Act: Revolutionary Film-making from Eisenstein to Anakiev
(Journal of Creative Geography)
Stuart C. Aitken
Department of Geography
San Diego State University
Over twenty years ago I wrote an essay that focused on montage as it is contextualized in what I called the image-event of film. Within this context, I defined these events as “images in motion over time through space with sequence” and produced an elaborate diagram to illustrate the process (Aitken 1991, 109). As a prosaic film technique, one of the primary intents of sequencing image events through montage is to condense space and time in particular ways – usually in short bursts – that leave an audience with an abridged but understandable narrative. Alternatively, as an extraordinary film technique, I wrote about image-events as creative processes where certain images when juxtaposed with others heighten awareness as a precursor to transformation and change; I was concerned about how montage shocked audiences into new realities. This was the original intent of Russian filmmaker, Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, who pioneered montage as a "collision" of shots used to manipulate emotions (Eisenstein 1949).
He believed that an idea should be derived from the juxtaposition of two independent shots, bringing an element of collage into film that told a new and different story. Eisenstein first used montage effectively in the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin (1925) where a massacre by Tsarist troops is portrayed through a juxtaposition of images of neatly ordered soldiers firing repeated volleys of shots at the top of the stairs, Cossacks charging the crowd at the bottom of the stairs and, on the stairs themselves the montage jumps from an old woman wearing glasses, a young student, a schoolgirl and, famously, a mother who loses control of the pram containing her baby. The scene comes together to leave the audience with feelings about the undeniable brutality of the imperial Tsarist regime. This, I think, is the power of montage: it can take us beyond the mundane to an intense emotional and political engagement.
Run-of-the-mill filmmakers use the technique to abridge and condense narrative. Good filmmakers use it to engage audiences and shake them out of their sensibilities. Gilles Deleuze (1986, ix) suggests that movies grab us because they present preverbal intelligible content, which is not about any kind of existential or psychoanalytic lack or repressed desire but, rather, is about desire that is always positive. This takes Eisenstein in a different direction, because not only does it remove us from the bind of desire as a hole or lack we try to fill, but it positions us as active and positive in the creation of our own identities. Well, almost. Thankfully, Deleuze does not fall into the neo-liberal trap of burdening us with complete responsibility for our desires. He acknowledges that there is also something distinguishable from us (perhaps external but integrally tied to who we are) that affects our desires (It is Lacan’s big Other, Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, Fred Jameson’s political unconscious, or whatever you want to call it). Here’s how Deleuze characterizes the internal/external processes interwoven through image-events: movementimages are comprised simultaneously of a perception-image that moves us from indistinguished knowledge at the periphery of our universe to a central subject position, and an action-image that is about our perception of things at the center of our universe and grasping the ‘virtual action’ of those things. Concurrently, there is the affection-image that “surges in the center of indetermination” between our perceptions and our actions (Deleuze 1986, 65). This is very much what Eisenstein had in mind when he talked about montage as a dialectical process. It is also precisely about the spatiality of montage; it is an affect that alludes to the “motion part of emotion that sloshes back and forth between perception and action” (Aitken 2006, 494). The effect of montage, then, points to an intensity that exceeds representation, but is also about shocking us into action. Montage, when done well, is more than just about condensing a series of images to proffer information efficiently.
As I sit in the movie theatre I want to be moved; I want to understand bodily and viscerally in ways that do more that suspend my disbelief, I want them to take me to new revolutionary places. I want the images speak to my poetic soul, and to the activist part of me that desires change in the form of radical ethical acts.
Eisenstein was working his magic with montage in the post-revolutionary communist Soviet Union. Dimitar Anakiev is a Serbian-born film-maker working in post-independence democratic Slovenia.
Both filmmakers are revolutionary in their politics and film practices. Amongst Anakiev’s films are three documentaries that portray the plight of the 25,671 people (including 5,600 children) who were officially erased from Slovenia’s permanent residents’ register and, as a consequence, lost basic human rights to health-care, education, housing and so forth. As a Slovenian of Serbian descent Anakiev was erased as part of the 1990s purge. Rubbed Out (2004) and Citizen A.T. (2010) tell the story of activist Aleksandar Todorović and other activist members of the Association of Erased Residents. Slovenia, My Homeland (2012) focuses on Irfan and Nisveta, who suffered horrendous abuses and privations during their erasure. Slovenia, My Homeland (2012) begins with a scene from Bled, an iconic picture-postcard lake in the Julien Alps used for touting Slovenia’s beauty, and a choir singing “Gloria in Excellus Dio.” The scene then switches to a ramshackled room where an American filmmaker is interviewing Irfan and Nisveta as they describe some of the abuses they suffered with erasure. Later, in a particularly poignant scene, Anakiev’s camera bounces between Irfan and Nisveta who are now in their respective apartments talking about the joy of their youth in Tito’s Yugoslavia and how their families were torn apart by the erasure. With each corresponding shot the camera pans in until we are focused on Irfan and Nisveta’s eyes. The whole movie is a powerful montage between state violence, erased people’s plight, official ambivalence, the destruction of youthful dreams and families torn apart. We are opened to Irfan’s joy in memories of youth when he was part of Yugoslavia’s Youth Work Brigade; Nisveta’s strength is seen as emanating from her Islamic faith and anger at being unable to return to Bosnia for her mother’s funeral. There is juxtaposition with the resilience of erased people and their willingness to organize politically and fight back. The final, powerful juxtaposition comes at the end of the film when we realize that Nisveta is one of the Catholic choir-members singing “Gloria in Excellus Dio.” Her ability to transcend religious differences between her Muslim culture and the Catholic choir are in sharp contrasted to the state violence against difference in the “ethnic cleaning” (to quote Todorović) of erasure.
As part of my embeddedness in Slovenia these last six months I’ve been talking to erased children and their families, as well as to filmmakers like Anakiev. I’ve also read everything by Slavoj Žižek that I can get my hands on; a tough task given that he writes faster than I read. Žižek (2014) latest tome is about events and transition, which speaks in some ways to the power of montage. He writes that “an event is [about] the effect that seems to exceed its causes – and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes” (2014, location 63 of 2411). In this book, as elsewhere, Žižek is indebted to Deleuze. He also points out that there is something miraculous about events in terms of the ways they disturb the sensible (“the pure flow of (non)sense” (2014, location 96 of 2411)) and this is where he gets to political ruptures and radical ethical acts. Radical ethics are elaborated best by Žižek’s (2010, 326) Marxist focus on the “base” of freedom that disrupts “a traditional ethic of common sense and common decency among ordinary people,” As a neo-Lacanianist, Žižek wants to find ways to topple the big Other. He argues that this is only possible when there is simultaneously change from within that also changes “ensuing and pursuant external forces through un passage à l’acte” (Žižek 2010, 326) that radical transforms the subject and all her contexts.
By moving from despair to hope through activism, Nisveta, Irfan and other erased people radically transform themselves and those around them; last week (March 15, 2014) the European Court found in favor of the Slovenian government paying reparations to erased people who had filed suite, opening the door for more reparations and reconciliations. As an erased person, Anakiev’s radical ethical act was to give up practicing medicine to become a film-maker. He helped educate a generation of Slovenians through powerful films that juxtaposed the actions of politicians and rightwing nationals with the day-to-day privations of erased people. His use of montage reflects Eisenstein’s revolutionary dialectics and, ironically, Anakiev’s film practices raise awareness of the brutal imperialism that is sometimes embedded in what we have come to think of as democracy.
Aitken, Stuart C. (1991). A Transactional Geography of the Image-Event: The Films of Scottish Director, Bill Forsyth. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers. New Series. Vol. 16 (1), 105-118.
Aitken, Stuart C. (2006). Leading Men to Violence and Creating Spaces for their Emotions. Gender, Place and Culture. 13 (5), 491-507.
Deleuze, Gilles (1986). Cinema 1: The movement-image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Athlone Press.
Eisenstein, Sergei (1949) A Dialectical Approach to Film From. Essay in Film Form. New York. Accessed March 16, 2014. http://interactive2.usc.edu/blog-old/wpcontent/ uploads/2010/08/Film_Form.pdf
Žižek, Slavoj (2010). Living in the End Times London and New York: Verso.
Žižek, Slavoj (2014). Event: Philosophy in Transit. New York: Penguin Books (Kindleversion).