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Monday, March 18, 2019

On Resentment: An Interview with the Programmers

A Separation (2011)

In June of 2018, the magazine Triple Canopy began publishing an issue devoted to the topic of resentment. In the issue, the editors ask, who has the right to be resentful? How is resentment stoked, mobilized, policed, and to what ends? From March 20 through March 28, BAM and Triple Canopy present a film series that engages these questions by looking at how resentment has been expressed through the medium of film. Below Triple Canopy senior editor Emily Wang and series programmer Ashley Clark discuss the series.

This series features films from all over the world. How is resentment universal and how is it specific to a particular country or group?

Ashley Clark: The beauty of “resentment” as a core concept is that it is at once entirely universal on a personal level—who among us hasn’t felt deep resentment?—and localized. This is apparent in our opening film, Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), which struck a deep chord with international audiences and critics, and has assumed modern classic status, yet is utterly specific and detailed in its portrayal of the class and racial tensions of the Paris banlieues. Spike Lee’s caustic satire Bamboozled (2000), for example, is keenly attuned to the specifically baroque racism of American entertainment, but its message can be understood by any group resentful of being codified and represented in offensive and simplified ways by dominant society.

Bamboozled (2000)

We see in our present moment how resentment can and is used to bolster white supremacy. Can you think of movie moments in which we see this happening?

AC: Well, the American cinema as we know it was effectively forged in white resentment—D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is an historical travesty which posits Reconstruction as a sham, the KKK as heroes, and black people as savage brutes or shiftless cowards. It’s the key film in instituting a system of anti-black stereotypes that found their way into the media and, crucially, way beyond. 

Emily Wang: Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You (2018) is a really interesting take on how capitalism—which has always been a system for upholding white supremacy—produces resentment that it then exploits to feed back into itself. The protagonist, a young black man named Cash, resents his life: he lives in his uncle's garage, he's unemployed, he's just, as he says, "surviving." So when he lands this telemarketing job, it's easy to see why he takes his co-worker's advice to use his "white voice" on calls. And then we witness his spectacular, surreal, manic rise through the company. Eventually he comes back around, but not before becoming a scab to his coworkers' unionizing efforts—the culmination, I think, of the instrumentalizing of his resentment.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Pick two or three of your favorite films from the series and explain why they are good expressions of resentment.

EW: The first film that came to mind for me when I began thinking about this series was Brett Story’s documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016). The film examines the US prison system from outside of the prison, which is really just one site in a larger carceral geography. In each of the 12 vignettes, we’re introduced to people who have some relationship to the prison system and the supremacist economy that supports it. The formal strategies of the film model a way of situating—and perceiving—the resentment of these individuals within a broader structure that cuts across time and place. 

Another film I’m especially excited about is Liang Zhao’s Petition (2009), also a documentary. Petition follows people who travel to Beijing from all over China to petition injustices committed by authorities in their hometowns; these people have to wait for months or years to be heard. The footage was filmed over 12 years with hidden cameras. There’s a five-hour-long director’s cut that we’re not showing, but I think the sheer duration of both the making and the viewing of the film inflect the kind of bureaucratic resentment built into the form of the film.

Petition (2009)

AC: I’m excited to share with audiences Ngozi Onwurah’s remarkable Welcome II the Terrordome (1995), which was the first feature film directed by a black British woman to receive a theatrical release in the UK. Prior to Terrordome, Onwurah had made some experimental, often self-lacerating short films that dealt with the racism she had experienced growing up in the north of England. But no one could have been prepared for Welcome II the Terrordome, a blistering, dystopian evocation of a woman’s resentment of racist, sexist, and oppressive power structures. The film is rough, unwieldy, overcooked, and at times deeply unpleasant. It provoked a dismissive and, yes, resentful response from an overwhelmingly male commentariat, including, notably, Paul Gilroy, who, in Sight & Sound magazine, claimed that “it would truly be a tragedy if Terrordome finds an audience so immiserated, disenchanted and powerless that it can be satisfied and excited by the film’s dismal, hopeless vision.” If that’s not a ringing exhortation to test your mettle with Onwurah’s film, I don’t know what is.

Welcome II the Terrordome (1995)

One of my personal favorite films in the series is If…. (1968) by the British director Lindsay Anderson. It’s a surreal and trenchant satire of the country’s pompous political establishment, atomized here in an exclusive private boarding school, a scenario with which the Oxford-educated Anderson was intimately familiar. The lavishly appointed school, with all its finicky regulations, perplexing social codes, and iron-clad hierarchies, is the perfect setting for anti-establishment tensions to burble and fester, and finally come to a head.

Lastly, I don’t want to say too much about Leigh Ledare’s The Task, a truly excruciating filmed record of a risky social experiment, but I think it’s required viewing for, well, anyone who works with, or has to communicate with other people on a daily basis!

The series description asks if resentment can and must be useful. I’m curious about the must part of this question. Are there times when resentment isn’t useful, but still necessary? And are there any examples from the series that show this?

AC: My first thought here is about how we—the media, the general public, the arts—discuss civil unrest, the moments when resentment spills over on a collective, communal scale: do we call it a “riot” or an “uprising?” Handsworth Songs (1987), by the black British group Black Audio Film Collective, is the key film in the series regarding your question: it dissects these very matters with cinematic dynamism and a profound critical lens. Steve McQueen’s debut Hunger (2008), about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, seems to ask whether spiritual transcendence can stem from profound resentment and the abnegation of one’s corporeal form.

Handsworth Songs (1987)

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Lucrecia Martel’s glorious Zama (2017), one of the best films ever made about the total, low-level bullshit of colonialism. The eponymous character, an officer of the Spanish Crown born in South America, is entitled, mediocre, stranded and frustrated. As a viewer, you can understand, if not sympathize with, his festering resentment, which stems from his lack of self-knowledge, and his failure to grasp the absurdity of his situation. Martel’s film is useful precisely for conveying the fundamental uselessness of Zama’s resentment—it’s such a refreshing antidote to cinema’s long history of heroic, swashbuckling colonial narratives!

Zama (2018)

EW: I think this question of “usefulness” haunts any project that posits art-making as a political practice. I guess I’m rephrasing your question (which is really our question!) about the usefulness of resentment as a question about the usefulness of art. In the context of the series and the issue, these questions are inextricable and analogous, especially because we’re saying that resentment ought to be expressed, ought to be an animating experience for art. But once you’ve put that expression into the world, then what? In the introduction to the issue that I wrote with my co-editor Matthew Shen Goodman we were really conscious of not investing resentment, and art-making generally, with any intrinsic political efficacy. In a sense, we were precisely opposed to making resentment “useful” in the way that it’s been “useful” for Trump and other right-wing nationalists, now and historically. There’s an implicit question here of, “useful for whom?” And then there was something in the pettiness and excess of some experiences of resentment that we didn’t want to disavow but rather to hold onto. A refusal of catharsis and “healing,” but also an affirmation of the pleasure of that refusal.

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