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Manifestos: A Forgotten History

Manifestos: A Forgotten History

by Bill Nichols

from Film Quarterly Summer 2014, Volume 67, Number 4

How to make manifest the spirit and intentions of a movement that has yet to triumph over an oppressive but dominant adversary? Issue a manifesto. Stand up and speak out. Rally and mobilize. Goad, galvanize, and transform. Be bold, be ruthless, be uncompromising in the vision that will guide the transformation. Bring into being what has thus far not found a place at the table. The ambiguities of formal complexity, the nuances of aesthetic choices, the vagaries of audience reception melt away in the white heat of a singular call for a radically new vision of how to engage with the world.

Film manifestos follow a familiar form. Most manifestos spring from the soil of discontent. Things are not as they ought to be. Change is imperative. Manifestos spell out the direction such change must take. They display the tears and rage of dreamers for what has yet to become a fully formed reality. Most often the work of outsiders, rebels, misfits, and revolutionaries, manifestos not only embody what a new, emerging cinema strives to express, they help to bootstrap such a cinema into being in the first place. Truffaut’s denigration of a “certain tendency” in French cinema had such an effect, for him and other New Wave directors, just as the merciless attacks on Hollywood cinema in manifestos by avant-garde and third world filmmakers have had in a more global context. Scott MacKenzie’s astonishingly broad and amazingly thorough assembly of some 180 manifestos, Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology, gives a vivid sense of the centrality of the manifesto to the breadth and scope of cinema as it exists today.

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Manifestos are, as MacKenzie argues, a form of utopian writing. They strive to bring into being a new form of experience, a fresh way of seeing, and a radically distinct world for the first time. They take up the principle of ostranenie, the Russian formalist idea of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar as a guiding inspiration. Perceptions of film are too familiar, too comfortable, and must change. The world is a far stranger, less fulfilling place than imagined and must be reconceived.

Like Pope Pius XI in his “Vigilanti Cura,” which championed the moralistic policing of a corrupt and sinful medium, bolstering the work of the Legion of Decency and Hollywood’s own Production Code, S.E.L.F.’s (Sexual Egalitarianism and Libertarian Fraternity) “Wet Dream Film Festival Manifesto,” which called for a celebration of sexual freedom on screen in place of sexual fear, and Solanas and Getino’s classic call for a Third Cinema as a cinema of liberation, the film manifesto constantly reminds its audience that all is not well and that a more utopian future awaits.

In 1956 Chairman Mao wished to let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend, at least on paper and as long as the thoughts didn’t veer too far out of control, but MacKenzie points out that the sheer number of manifestos creates something of an impossible situation. Arising most often from the margins of mainstream cinema, striving to alter the face of the dominant culture or to claim a space of its own, these manifestos cannot all triumph, and few have. There is something of a romantic lament beneath the strident attack and something of a wishful longing beneath the triumphant future. And yet this is not entirely a flaw. It is a sign of a desire to give form to a fantasmatic, to what can be called the “mise en scène of desire,” the psychic reality that shadows the social reality with which it must contend.

Psychic reality cannot exist independent of that which it stands against. But stand against it, it must. In the manifesto, psychic reality—the fantasmatic that structures the relation of the one to the other, of a cinema that has yet to come into being in relation to a cinema that has been dominant too long—flies aloft on utopian wings. It proclaims itself alive and well. That such flight has taken shape primarily (but not exclusively) in the minds of filmmakers rather than critics is no surprise: they are the ones who dream the new reality to which their manifestos lend embodiment. That such dreams take richly diverse forms, that they motivate and inspire as no analysis or critique can, that they arise wherever cinema appears, and that they continue to emerge—strident, caustic, emboldened and electric—means that Scott MacKenzie’s extraordinary collection is a tribute to a tradition that ought to be taken much more seriously than the standard film histories and introductory textbooks have heretofore done.

MacKenzie invites the reader to understand film manifestos as the heart and soul of a desire to reconfigure reality and as, therefore, a treasure trove of the hopes and dreams of cinema itself. They stand as testimony to the radical potential of a medium that may never achieve the final form that the manifesto demands but which will nonetheless emerge, in part, because of the aspirations held for it by its most fervent creators.

Scott MacKenzie, ed.
Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology
University of California Press, 2014
$95.00 cloth, 680 pages
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The PDF includes the following excerpts:

  • Scott MacKenzie, “Introduction, ‘An Invention without a Future”
  • Oswell Blakeston, “Manifesto on the Documentary Film” (UK, 1933)
  • Pope Pius XI, “Vigilanti Cura: On Motion Pictures” (Vatican City, 1936)
  • El grupo Nuevo cine: José de la Colina, Rafael Cordiki, Salvador Elizondo, J. M. García Ascot, Emilia García Riera, J. L. González de León, Heriberto Lafranchi, Carlos Monsiváis, Julio Pliego, Gabriel Ramírez, José María Sbert, and Luis Vicens. Subsequently signed by José Baez Esponda, Armando Bartra, Nancy Cárdenas, Leopoldo Chagoya, Ismael García Llaca, Alberto Isaac, Paul Leduc, Eduardo Lizalde, Fernando Macotela, and Francisco Pina, “Manifesto of the New Cinema Group” (Mexico, 1961)
  • Fernando Birri, “Cinema and Underdevelopment” (Argentina, 1962)
  • S.E.L.F, “Wet Dream Film Festival Manifesto” (The Netherlands, 1970)
  • Kim Jong-il, excerpt from “On the Art of Cinema” (North Korea, 1973)
  • Palestinian Cinema Group, “Manifesto of the Palestinian Cinema Group” (Palestine, 1973)
  • FECIP (Féderation européenne du cinema progressiste), “Manifesto for A Non-Sexist Cinema” (Canada, 1974)
  • Med Hondo, “What Is The Cinema For Us?” (Mauritania, 1979)
  • Jonas Mekas, “Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto” (USA, 1996)
  • Jan Svankmajer, “The Decalogue” (Czech Republic, 1999)
  • Hisashi Okajima and La federation international des archives du film (FIAF) Manifesto Working Group, “Don’t Throw Away Film” (France, 2008)
  • Mia Engberg, “Dirty Diaries Manifesto” (Sweden, 2009)