Directing Action


Towards the end of the documentary Beating the Bomb, Mark Thomas says in an interview that “there’s a paradox about campaigning…it always takes more effort than you think, but you always have more power than you think.”

I interviewed the makers of Beating the Bomb – Meera Patel and Wolfgang Matt – in early March. It’s partly a historical documentary, giving the timeline of nuclear weapons development since 1945, as well as the peace movement that rose up to fight those weapons. But it is also a campaigning resource and a call to action. As Meera says, it’s important “to recognize that everything you do makes a difference. You can do things that have an impact.” For her that is a key intention behind the film.

It was the first of two conversations I had with UK-based documentary makers in the last fortnight. Yesterday I interviewed Emily James, the maker of new film Just Do It about direct action in the climate movement. The films are very different in their approach and their focus, but both leave the viewer wanting to get out of their seat and start fighting. Fighting the system, as well as the specific battles against fossil fuel or arms companies, or government policies. Because both films also make the necessary connections between capitalist economic models, social and ecological crisis, and state-sponsored violence – be it in the form of policing protesters or slaughtering Iraqi children.

And both films demonstrate Thomas’ point – both in the narratives they employ, and in the fact of their existence. Climate change and war are both still overwhelming challenges in our lives, and it is easy (and negatively self-justifying if you are not taking part) to accuse the movements to halt them of having achieved little to prevent either catastrophe. But just imagine, if you will, what our world would be like if people didn’t get up and stand up against them? If the principles which we hold dear were not shouted loudly and publicly defended? As Beating the Bomb reminds us, the universal peace symbol is the logo of CND, the nuclear protest movement born in 1958. Imagine if we didn’t have that symbol to identify with, to unite us? Remembering a conversation at a party in London at which someone said the peace movement had ‘failed’ on Iraq, Wolfgang Matt is indignant: “I was like: so what is that, a public service or something? They didn’t do their ‘job’? – and where were you by the way?”

And the existence of the films themselves testifies to the story to be told, to the fact that people have been and are prepared to put themselves on the frontline of their own ethics, sometimes at personal risk. And in telling those stories they become part of the tapestry of those ideas – and they hopefully inspire others to participate. Kony 2012 may have been horrendously misjudged in many ways, but the combined power of visual and social media has been more than amply demonstrated by its notoriety. Beating the Bomb and Just Do It are both great examples of how documentary works as a powerful advocacy weapon without necessarily being explicitly made as advocacy films. And since both are independent productions they rely on social and non-mainstream media to reach people.

Photo by Kirill Kozlov

I met Wolfgang Matt and Meera Patel in Cochabamba at a screening of Beating the Bomb to raise money for a local children’s hospital (the film is a non-profit project, available to watch free online). Meera had spent several months here volunteering, part of a long journey embarked upon since finishing the film in 2009. The planned 20-minute commission for CND’s 50th anniversary in 2008 was supposed to take six months to produce. In the end the film took three years to make and lasts over an hour. While CND and its prominent members (Walter Wolfgang, Tony Benn, Kate Hudson, Bruce Kent) feature heavily, this is no longer just a film about that particular campaign group. Rather it is a moving – and frightening – journey from the ‘Big Boys’ that demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki, via Cruise and Trident missiles and through to the current Missile Defense System and the UK base at Menwith Hill that supports US dominance over military space technology. In the week when we remember Fukushima it’s worth also remembering that the weapons technology to destroy Hiroshima or Nagasaki hundreds of times over is still with us – and ever more ‘sophisticated’. The UK alone has enough nuclear warheads to blow up the world – and the US controls the GPS systems to guide them.

Isao Hashimoto’s amazing time-lapse map showing every one of the 2,053 nuclear explosions which took place between 1945 and 1998.

The film uses a lot of fascinating archive footage, but it employs history to increase understanding of the present. As someone whose parents were anti-nuclear activists, whose mum went to Greenham Common in the early 80s, it can feel like the ‘peace movement’ is a chapter consigned to the past – despite, or even because of, the anti-Iraq protests in the early 2000s. As Meera says, “I genuinely think a lot of people don’t think there are nuclear weapons anymore, or not as many. That we got rid of them – that’s the general impression… most people don’t have an idea how much their own countries are proliferating, spending on nuclear weapons.”

But the people you see in the film protesting Trident renewal understand that the trillions still spent on nuclear weapons today could be spent on genuine ‘security’: health, jobs, schools, fighting climate change…The second half of the film powerfully builds a picture of a war machine tied to corporate globalisation and the self-perpetuating drive to arms proliferation in the race for profit (under the supremely ironic label of ‘deterrence’). Not in the past but now, with immense influence over our own lives – and even more so the lives of people caught in conflict zones in ‘strategic’, oil-rich areas. As Wolfgang says, “if you don’t have a history to look back on you can be led like sheep. And that’s also why I’m happy this film is on the internet because if somebody wants to know then the information is out there.”

The march on the Aldermaston nuclear base in 1959 and the protests against Iraq in 2003 are not disconnected. Iraq may not have been about nuclear weapons, but the arms race that defined the Cold War goes on and, as Wolfgang points out, “if you’ve spent so many billions on weapons you need a war”. The film recalls us to the fact that after domestic US oil production peaked in 1971 their foreign policy attention switched to the Middle East. It’s been done before on screen, but to see the list of US conflicts or bomb attacks initiated between 1945 and 2000 – and to understand the profit motive behind those displays of power – is chilling. It is followed by Linton Kwesi-Jonson’s voice relating the death tolls for 2001 in the USA: cancer (over 500,000); AIDS (14,000); malnutrition (3,500); September 11th attacks (2,500). No war, as he points out, has been launched on cancer, AIDS, or malnutrition. But Halliburton and Dick Cheney have made a tidy profit out of Iraq.

And the UK has of course been deeply complicit in upholding the status quo – at Brise Norton and Menwith Hill most clearly today, plus of course our involvement in the Iraq war. The rush to renew Trident is about ensuring continual financing for BAe Systems – a company involved in fraudulent activity that, as Mark Thomas reminds us, has any potential overseas purchases defaults covered by the UK taxpayer. In 2007 the UK became the world’s largest exporter of arms – something to remind people of when they bemoan the loss of our manufacturing industry.

When I ask Meera and Wolfgang about the peace movement today what is clear – and I feel it too – is that the real meaning and extent of the ‘military-industrial’ complex that Eisenhower warned about is now more generally understood by an angry public. We are in a new moment of protest and political awareness in which the joins between the dots have become more apparent. As Meera says, “I think this illusion of a benevolent capitalist system and a benevolent establishment is really breaking down. When you can start calling the bankers ‘banksters’ and everybody gets it, then you know people are pissed off and are getting the story: we’re getting shafted.”

“There’s these anti-Wall St protests,” adds Wolfgang, “and what happened in Egypt, and I think you can’t just separate it. What happens in Greece and what happens in Madrid: you can’t separate those things any more. Like this 99%. That’s what we say in the film as well – there’s this 99% whose interests are well kept and guarded with nuclear weapons, and the rest can pay for it. And it’s being told that it’s all for you, for your security. The broader protest or counterculture I think clearly needs to get stronger and has been getting stronger. This awareness level has been rising I’m quite sure, and I wouldn’t take all these things in isolation – against Mubarak or against the Greek government fucking up and against all bankers on Wall St and that these are all separate issues; they’re not.”

My conversation with Emily James takes a similar turn – that protests against climate change don’t happen in isolation from the kinds of issues that, for example, inspire the Occupy movement. Just Do It shows climate activists facing the full force of the Danish state in Copenhagen, or ‘Growing Heathrow’ – establishing a new kind of community, based on communal values – in abandoned greenhouses on the proposed third runway site, with support of the local residents. When I ask Meera and Wolfgang where they see the peace movement today Wolfgang says “I guess the most prominent of the activists these days are the climate activists not the antiwar activists”. What both of these documentaries remind us of is that, firstly, for those who want change on either score then you have to recognise that it is self-interest (in the form of profits) that is the common enemy. And secondly, that if you really want to see change then you are going to have to get out there and make it happen – and believe that it will. “The military-industrial complex or whatever you call it,” Meera tells me, “is a disempowering machine. It constantly tells you what you don’t have, how incapable you are and how powerless you are as an individual…For me that’s the most important thing, that people look at the film and think that every action has a repercussion, every thing makes a difference.”

Mads Ryle

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