by Germán Martínez Martínez, Mexico City
February 28, 2018 – March 6, 2018
FICUNAM and the political: The Travis Wilkerson retrospective
The political character of a work of art is not determined by its invocation of particular issues. The work of filmmaker Travis Wilkerson (USA, 1969) presents a valuable opportunity to reflect on the political in film. The common response to his cinematic work is to assume, based on the facts therein, that they belong to a genre of “political cinema [with] a deep critical spirit,” as is stated on the UNAM International Film Festival (FICUNAM, acronym in Spanish) website. Wilkerson attended the 2018 FICUNAM, which featured a retrospective of his work. During the festival, which was held from February 28 to March 6, he repeatedly rejected the notion that his work can be defined as political. Wilkerson says that some friends take him for crazy when he claims his films are not political, but I believe he is correct in denying it, at least in terms of how the political is commonly understood.
Wilkerson’s cinematic work stands out for its diversity. The use of his voice as narrator in several films and the recurring discussion of issues in an apparently critical tone lead certain viewers to assume that his work is homogenous. This is not the case. Wilkerson directs films that range from shorts just minutes long to feature films and his oeuvre includes both fictional works that appear to be documentaries and contemplative documentaries. Perhaps this variety is driven by his desire to explore: he came to cinema almost by accident while studying organic agriculture in Cuba, where he met the filmmaker Santiago Álvarez. From Álvarez, he learned, among other things, not to be held back by lack of resources, but to carry out his work in whatever way he could. Wilkerson’s formal explorations are constant. Another recurrent element of his work that shapes its characterization is the discussion of issues such as the discrimination faced by Black and Asian communities by Whites—like Wilkerson himself—in the United States, as well as the many effects of armed interventions by the US in different areas of the world. His position is one of clear opposition to both racism and war.
Denunciation is not necessarily a political act, particularly if it occurs in a plural society with freedom of expression. Confusion abounds and there are those who attribute heroism to inconsequential endeavors, but often these are not even linked to other social factors, despite being an expression of groups or even masses. A public denunciation against the government, in a context such as the Cuban dictatorship, is without doubt a political act. In contrast, dealing with the issues mentioned in Wilkerson’s films in the United States is a personal position, that is, barely an incipient step.
Wilkerson shows himself to be someone with both feet on the ground. He sees himself as a “political person” for his activism, not for his films. The issues he chooses to explore as a filmmaker can be understood when he describes his parents. His mother grew up during segregation and was opposed to racism. His father fought in Vietnam and afterwards protests US American warmongering. Wilkerson knows that effective political action in his country, as in ours, I would add, is not essentially captured in the act of venting during marches, but rather in social organizing with tangible consequences, even if they are small. In this sense, Wilkerson stated, as examples of his political involvement, his participation in an association that seeks to prevent suicide among veterans and in an organization that provided an ambulance. In contrast, Wilkerson asserted that he doesn’t believe a film can change the world. Cinema is not, per se, political.
One of the challenges to identifying the political in art was captured in statements heard during the FICUNAM during a question and answer session with Wilkerson. With the assuredness of those who believe they can illuminate their fellow citizens, one viewer asserted that “all cinema is political,” following an intervention in which Wilkerson’s contrary affirmation had been taken up. However, not every film and not every work of art is political, in the same way that not every action in our lives is political. It is true that if we stay at the level of a logic game, politics impact, for example, how our sex determines the order in which individuals access a given space. The operating concepts of gender determine power relations. In Mexico, in a twisted way, gendered power dynamics give the appearance of women’s eminence while in fact masking their stigmatization as weak and requiring special treatment. There are, however, other cultural elements that impact the order in which we go into a room, including age and hierarchy, that complicate recognition of the fact. Even chance can play a role. There is no doubt that there is a political aspect to it, but whether treatment is eminently political is debatable. To clarify, consider the fact that all foods have nutrients, but we do not develop campaigns in favor of diets based just on chicharron (pork rinds) or water. The assumption that every film is political is revealed to be foolishness when one steps back from the slogans disguised as reflections.
Mentioning topics that are conventionally seen as political is not, then, a political act. The insistent flaunting by many individuals, on social media and elsewhere, of their supposed anticapitalism, feminism, or veganism is in fact an aspect of the processes of identity construction. In Wilkerson’s filmography this does not occur, but it is the basis of a popular interpretation of his work. It is the logic backing the creation of a character before the public, for the apparent participation in the group that results in a self-complacent social identity that is politically ineffective. Fundamentally, these are the same gestures as a woman who buys a Chanel bag, or a middle-aged man who buys a Harley-Davidson. Wilkerson turns his back on this logic. In his Bergman Lecture at UNAM, he spoke of the incapacity for introspection among certain contemporary US politicians. His comments suggested that introspection could have political potential. In this sense, his examination of his own family history in Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017) illustrates this personal and cinematic possibility. Closer to self-criticism than positive self-representation, the film shows that racism and violence in the United States have and continue to be part of Wilkerson’s world. When others flatter themselves with innocuous denunciations of abstract, general categories, Wilkerson shows something concrete, personal, and because of that, terrible.
The filmmaker recognizes the difficulty of being an activist and an artist at the same time. He’s seen as too political by artists, and too artistic by activists. There is one film, however, that shows a possible balance between the two: Sand Creek Equation (2012), which displays an attitude regarding both the public realm and the viewers, but without neglecting work with formal elements. Wilkerson’s attention to landscape—both physical and emotional—is evident in the film, and at the same time it takes advantage of the research behind his works and the type of knowledge he looks to develop in his films: rather than academic and exhaustive, they focus on presence and detail. Taking on a braided narrative, the film explores the Sand Creek massacre, a mass killing of indigenous people in the US that took place in the nineteenth century, and the contemporary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. There’s no doubt about the filmmaker’s criticism of his ancestors’ actions. Neither is his anti-Israel posture hidden, but in one of the film’s final shots, he calls into question his own position on the conflict. Without concealing Wilkerson’s positions, the film opens possibilities.
As these are processes of national construction, the comparison between Sand Creek and the existence of Israel is not insane like attempts to draw connections between the Israelis and the Nazis are, but neither are we facing clearly related facts. Because of this, in Sand Creek Equation Wilkerson succeeds in linking disconnected realities to provoke viewers. Wilkerson calls for “critical thinking” from the humble recognition of his own fallibility. Thus, beyond the clichés of US progressivism—which find their equivalents in the multiple clichés and the moralizing of the Mexican pseudo-left —Wilkerson’s films are political because they do not intend to indoctrinate the public. Travis Wilkerson’s audiovisual work confirms its relevance by leveling the hierarchy between viewers and the filmmaker and calling for discussion among equals.
Translation to english by Addison Woolsey.