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Films for the 99%: Art, Politics, and People Converge at {Poem 88}

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Michael Fassbender (left) portrays Bobby Sands in Hunger, a film directed and cowritten by visual artist Steve McQueen. © Icon Film Distribution.

The Films for the 99% screening series has been quietly creating a space for dialogue on politics, art, and protest at {Poem 88} in Atlanta’s Westside Arts District on two Wednesday evenings a month since April. Gallery owner Robin Bernat has curated a lineup of programming for the series that spans several decades, genres, and languages with the aim of engaging the Atlanta art community–and anyone with an interest–in social and political dialogue.

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Created in response to the Republican primaries earlier this year, Bernat hopes that Films for the 99% will provide a forum for discussion about the current political climate in contrast to what she describes as the Republican candidates’ “misrepresentation of pertinent social issues.”

Films have been screened at {Poem 88} since the gallery opened in 2010, but in an election year with political and social issues coming to the forefront of the conversation in the media and daily life, Bernat recognized a need for a forum in which the Atlanta art community could come together and engage in this conversation.

Click the video above for the trailer for Hunger (screening at the gallery this Wednesday, July 25, 2012), or click here to watch it on YouTube.

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A filmmaker herself, Bernat believes that “film has the ability to encapsulate a political or social issue in such a tidy way. Film, over live theater, is a powerful medium for creating a new reality.” The educational power that Bernat recognizes in film is one of the motivating factors in hosting this film series at {Poem 88}.

Though the films selected for the series come from several different film genres and cover a broad range of subject matter–from McCarthyism in Trumbo to drag ball culture in Paris is Burning–the films share in their telling of stories about people who have been oppressed, in one way or another, and their reactions to that oppression.

Sally Field, playing the eponymous character in Norma Rae, rails against unsympathetic management and coworkers at a North Carolina textile mill, advocating to install a workers union. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart portrays Senator Jefferson Smith as he stages a physically exhausting filibuster to clear his name in a corrupt United States Senate. Vittorio de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis details the loss of innocence by a group friends in the face of anti-Semitic fascist politics in World War II-era Italy. In addition to the films selected for the main body of the series, Bernat has compiled a suggested viewing list of films to accompany the films that will be screened in the gallery.

Up next in the series is Hunger, British artist Steve McQueen’s 2008 debut feature which deals with the events leading up to and during the 1981 hunger strike led by Provisional IRA member Bobby Sands at the Maze Prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The film opens at the tail end of 1980 in Belfast, 11 years deep into The Troubles, a bloody conflict that would not end for another 18 years with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Imprisoned members of the Provisional IRA are several months into “no wash” and “blanket” protests with the aim of having their status as political prisoners restored to them by the British government. The Republican prisoners are naked, having refused to wear the uniforms of common prisoners; live in execrable conditions of their own design; and are subject to frequent beatings and inhumane treatment by the prison guards. Outside the walls of The Maze however, the guards live in daily fear of assassination in the form of shootings and car bombs by the IRA.

Though steeped in the historical and political context of The Troubles, Hunger is a story about individuals caught up in politics and what it means to protest when all other power has been taken away. Hunger runs with almost no spoken dialogue for the first 40 minutes. Lingering shots allow you the time and space to become immersed, even though what you’re viewing is often terrifying and painful to watch.

Click the video above for the trailer for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (screening at the gallery Wednesday, August 15, 2012), or click here to watch it on YouTube.

It is the politics of the films and not the aesthetics, however, that dictated the decision of what to include in the lineup, which may be opposite of what one would expect from a film series presented in the context of an art gallery. “Some have a greater degree of artistry than others,” says Bernat, “but aesthetics were not the primary concern.”

In a time when there’s easy and cheap access to pretty much any film on the internet, a screening series such as Films for the 99% has to compete for an audience not only against an onslaught of Hollywood movies at the megaplexes, but also with that audience’s perhaps lazier inclination to stay in and watch Netflix.

Besides running the space as an art gallery, Bernat hopes that {Poem 88} will function as a gathering place for people interested in the ideas held in these films. “By participating in the viewing experience [with others], it opens up the possibility for conversations,” she says.

The desire to participate in these discussions is a factor that will motivate audiences to attend screening series like Films for the 99% rather than watching a movie online or at a theater which, while in the public realm, can be just as anonymous of an experience.

Films for the 99% has helped facilitate a unique forum for conversation for the past four months and will continue doing so through October. The atmosphere of the screenings has been warm and casual–something closer to a movie night with friends–rather the potentially volatile or intimidating tone that the political nature of the series might suggest.

Film’s power to communicate ideas and spark conversation is unmistakable, and the thoughtfully curated lineup of Films for the 99% creates context for a conversation that is greater than the sum of its parts. In an election year, discussions about the issues are both necessary and pressing. Members of the 99%, these films are for you.