Originally published in Senses of Cinema (October 2020)
I sat with Mike Hoolboom at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2020, after the premiere of Judy versus Capitalism, an hour-long political bio of radical Canadian activist Judy Rebick, I had already seen the film online but was interested in the crowd reaction to the film given it was not a typical political documentary. I was also familiar since the early 90s with Mike’s long history of engagement and prolific production with artist film culture. Last year Hoolboom screened 27 thoughts about my father (2018) which features his own articulate ruminations on his father’s memory, who passed away in 2017. In Judy versus Capitalism it is Judy Ribeck’s stirring and personal voices that drive the narrative and Hoolboom’s skills in shaping rhythm and visually processing emotion are foregrounded, developed over decades of film production.
Dirk: When you introduced Judy versus Capitalism you began with an anecdote about the birth of capitalism.
Mike: According to the Italian feminist historian Silvia Federici the best time to be a European peasant was the 14th century. Labour shortages meant high wages, improved diets and mobility. The feudal class was crumbling and the inevitable reaction shot was twofold. A new aristocracy was built on a widespread theft of public land (commons) that has been named “enclosures.” These continue today as capitalism breaches new frontiers. We are sold water that already belongs to us, charged for entering public space, even our internet wanderings, phone metadata, and geographical locations have been commodified.
The second keynote was a devastating attack on women, taking particular aim at women’s control over reproduction. These two gestures were the beginnings of what we now call capitalism. I wanted to return to a moment in my own country, Canada, where women’s fights over reproduction were heated, both in the streets and the courts. My friend Judy Rebick was central to that struggle and the film lays out some of her story.
Dirk: First wave feminism fought for the right to vote and own property. Second wave feminism brought us across new frontiers, and Judy straddles both these waves.
Mike: It was feminists who began addressing the epidemic of sexual abuse and domestic violence, while demanding equal pay for equal work, and the right to control their own bodies. There were so many struggles.
Dirk: The way you tell that story is interesting, there’s a lot of meat there for a traditional documentary. But you approached it in a very different way, utilising found footage, focusing on gesture, and breaking the narrative into six sections: Family, Fat, Feminism, Abortion, Others, Leading the Biggest Feminist Org in the Country. Can you talk about some of those decisions?
Mike: I imagined the movie as a temporary city — what kind of city might Judy live in? A city of women and trans subjectivities. If we are made of each other, a complex of relations, if we “arise out of conditions” as the Buddhists like to say, why would it be necessary for Judy to appear in the movie at all? I began to film Toronto events: marches and celebrations, wrestlers and fashion shows, street dance parties and architectural interludes.
Dirk: You have had a long history of interest in gesture. When we both lived in Vancouver in the early 1990s, I remember you put an ad in the paper for nude actors, wanting to shoot them performing simple gestures like sitting in a chair, or raising their arms. It was done frame-by-frame, pulling the body apart and reconfiguring it, showing these bodies as a shamble of parts, not unlike your own body that was being consumed by the HIV virus.
Mike: Yes, I am always part of the picture. My camera is not over here, while the subject is over there. The gaps and discontinuities, the feelings of vulnerability and being broken, are part of the frame. In Judy we can see a somatic city waking up to itself, as bodies reinvent each other in order to uncover new relationships.
Dirk: Well, that makes sense both in a political and body-centred way. Judy has embedded herself into so many networks.
Mike: She’s spent her life engaged with movements that corporate media struggles to represent. Why? Because there’s not a single iconic figure, like Greta Thunberg. How to make a picture of a movement, a multitude who come together not to bury our differences, but to celebrate them? In corporate media this is known as “the mob,” you can see this so clearly in a movie like Joker, where hero-worshipping robots take the streets so they can destroy everything. A neat reversal of reality: it is our governments and their corporate bosses who are busy with their necrotechniques, while activists do the work of healing.
Dirk: It’s a language of resistance that comes from the body.
Mike: When the light was good I would spend the day alone with a friend, or sometimes with groups. I might ask them a question or make a statement and then film their response. Our faces run through so many changes, charging across decades in an instant, revealing a person as they were at five or six, and then prophetically forecasting how they will appear at 90. Alongside time travel there are a brace of emotions that can appear in just a fraction of a second, and one of the great pleasures of working in movies is being able to review a moment frame by frame to see what was actually happening.
Dirk: That reminds me of how trauma works. Encounters mark us even if, especially if, we don’t understand them. The gestures remain, and it can take us weeks or years to unpack, to re-member and make it into some kind of narrative. That’s what I understood when you were talking about the material way you put this together.
Mike: While shooting, I sometimes told the story of Judy’s first big date who is going to take her to the high school prom, but when he shows up at her door, her father humiliates him by pushing him to the ground saying “Aren’t you going to help her put on her boots?” Filming the simple gesture of pushing someone down to the ground, along with the accompanying facial reaction shot, began to create a gestural vocabulary that could float across the movie, providing counterpoint and variation to Judy’s speaking on the soundtrack.
The camera is not a fourth wall making surveillance recordings. When Judy is chatting with a pal there’s an energy flowing between them. Recording without sound, I’m trying to make a picture of that energy. The only way you can do that is to be part of the flow. The two of them are moving, the camera is moving, and that dance becomes the film.
Dirk: You were just shooting? You weren’t collecting sounds?
Mike: Picture and sounds were collected separately, like in our analog past. A few years ago I began a new sound practice with a couple of thumbnail-sized Clippy Microphones which I use to make recordings of cereal just after you pour hot water into it, or soda fizzing in a glass, Russian washing machines, you name it. It’s an ongoing practice unattached to utility or results. Whenever I start a new movie I have a large archive of sounds already waiting, and this is supplemented by an archive of picturesIn the digital era, I think of each project as an archive that needs to be sorted and arranged.
Dirk: In the past, you’ve made shorter films and then magically put them together to create a bigger whole. Public Lighting (2004) is one example. The skills you’ve developed doing that would have been useful in getting this film done, which is also made in parts. This is a strategy Al Razutis also used in his Amerika series.
Mike: My features Imitations of Life (2003), From the Archives of the Red Cross (2017), Aftermath (2018) and Father Auditions (2019) are all multi-chaptered longform movies. They’re like reading a book of short stories. We’re speaking at a fest where audiences are absorbing many media moments, but that’s no longer unusual, today everyone lives inside a festival of pictures and sounds, the sedative simulations that make late capitalism possible. Working with broken forms is another way of acknowledging that.
Dirk: At what point did you come up with a structure of six chapters in order to organize the material?
Mike: I finished an edit that I thought was definitive then shared it with a couple of pals who saw only mess and incoherence. They delivered pages of notes, detailing exactly what wasn’t working. It was devastating. I was convinced the movie was over. I would just throw it away because I didn’t want to spend the next several years working day and night to fix a doomed project, as I have too often in the past. These crit receptions and wound lickings are a commonplace in my work. With great reluctance I stepped back into it some months later and created a structure out of chapters, and that inspired hundreds of other changes. Each chapter begins with a moment from Judy’s public life, often in the form of speeches and rally addresses, which are one of her many great gifts.
Dirk: I experienced those moments as very body-centered, something came out of her body that she released into crowds who responded with the same rhythms. It’s a kind of dance, a primal connection, even a virus, that offers release and transformation.
Mike: She can reflect an audience, rechannel a collective spirit. This practice of generosity is a key component of her public persona. Privately, Judy experienced abuse as a young child of three and four years old though memories didn’t surface until she was in her 40s.
Dirk: But it was in her body all the time.
Mike: A close friend of hers apologized recently because the medical profession didn’t used to recognize depression in children. Judy has suffered from crushing depressions her entire life, and her physical health has likewise been a challenge. Though neither has stopped her from being a galvanizing force for change.
Dirk: This feminist narrative is familiar. But underneath it all is an abuse that arrives at the end of the film as a new space of contestation where she’s trying to understand how her own memory and body works along with her multiple personalities. I think your methods are always in touch with this subaltern subconscious, where these unspoken dreads bubble along. Judy says that in the end it’s her greatest challenge.
Mike: She calls the revelation of her abuse and personalities “my most revolutionary act.” To speak these secrets. To say what nobody wants to hear.
Dirk: Right. The abuse was always in the background. And in the bodies of how many women who reclaimed their streets during marches and demonstrations? Judy uses her own psychological struggles in a very moral and ethical way to talk about issues that affect every body in a visceral way. She transforms her victim position into a political imperative of healing and restorative justice. You film this as a kind of virus at work, one gesture spawns another as a liberatory force moves through these bodies. Perhaps this is also part of what we call feminism.
Mike: She couldn’t save herself when she was three years old. How could she? But she gained an embodied understanding and empathy for injustice and the undercommons. A new need is developed, as essential as shelter. If something is wrong, I have to do something about it. In the film she recounts how, at the age of nineteen, she was already involved in organizing a tent city for homeless youth that occupied the downtown campus of the University of Toronto.
Dirk: There are connections between all those levels for me. Judy tries to integrate her self-contained identities. The process of you putting the film together as a series of chapters. The fragmentation of the anti-globalization movement after the 90s, and the way global and local interact. The Australian Indigenous group you mentioned is a very local response. That re-iterated the idea of film scholar Federico Windhausen’s El Pueblo program on Latin American Cinema at Oberhausen in 2016 which traced the concept of “the public” from 1960’s political cinema to the present through an arc from mass public demonstrations to the present “local,” a series of fragmented niche situations that reflect the impact of surveillance capitalism.
When I came to Belgrade’s Alternativa Conference in 2018 I realized that eastern European histories of experimental movies looked very different from the standard canons issued from New York, San Francisco and London. The historic structural films I saw there were immediately political to me and spoke to the surveillance culture now being ushered in. How to write histories, as Benjamin asked, that do not tell the stories of the victors?
Your film ends with a revolutionary act and I’m really curious how that is received, because many might not want to face either their own shadows, or others.
Mike: Judy argues that she didn’t have a mental illness at all. But instead that as a kid she was able to perform amazing creative acts, and that many others have done this as well. It allowed them to survive. This isn’t something that needs to be stigmatized and shamed, but a feat to be celebrated.
Dirk: Anti-psychiatry experiments and activisms in the 60s and 70s tried to reframe outlier behaviours. Steina Vasulka mentions this in the documentary about the Vassulkas in The Vasulka Effect (2019) also shown at IFFR. The medical system has been used to control dissent, and that’s the kind of political situation that Judy faces coming out. I had a look at some of Judy’s online interviews she’s given recently, and in the comments section there are skeptics and naysayers, a very different reception from her street protest video responses.
It sounds like you and Judy developed a strong relationship over a period of years. Where do you think that started?
Mike: We recognized something in each other, on a bodily level. Something had happened that was “familiar.” It’s like we belonged to the same club because we’d gone through the same unwanted initiation.
Dirk: It’s a very big club these days.
Mike: What’s shocking is how common child abuse remains. Anti-abortion activists are still on the street claiming that they are “pro-life,” while they support churches and governments that have been very effective delivery vehicles for an international mafia of child abuse. Our culture has both hidden and normalized child abuse, and as feminists like Judy have pointed out, the violence inflicted on children and women occur often within the family, or amongst friends.
Dirk: Well, that’s been my experience. I was sexually abused, it’s addressed to some extent in the documentary The House that Eye Live In (2014) Steve McIntyre made, and I mention it as a framing influence in my book The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art (2014). So my questions are coming from that point of view. It seems you’ve both found creative ways to address these wounds, though they are wounds that never heal entirely.
Mike: The unending wound is Parsifal, the young man who grows up with his mother, hoping to shield her charge from a knight’s life, but sure enough, as soon as knights flit past, he joins them, and soon enters the castle where his father is slowly dying of an endless wound. They are strangers to each other, and he fails somehow, he can’t find the right question. He spends the rest of his life performing virtuous deeds for others, so when he finally returns to the castle he knows what to ask.
Dirk: What is your pain? Is that it?
Mike: He asks the dying king simply: how can I help you?
Dirk: What was the wound his father had? The ongoing wound that nobody had shown any empathy to. I think for men it’s always part of the frame, this inability to feel vulnerability and loss, to show the wound.
Mike: No one wants to hear about your depression, your schizophrenia, your near death of AIDS. We have professionals for that.
Dirk: It’s called a pity party.
Mike: I think it makes people feel bad and then they have to put that bad feeling somewhere. They need to get it out of their bodies and into someone else. For instance: the person who is telling them the sad story.
Dirk: They’d rather get lost in sports or immersive cultures where they can be consumed.
Mike: Aren’t all forms of corporate culture based on dissociation? Please relieve me of the burden of having a body. Of all these feelings I can’t name or control.
Dirk: You made a comment about what Toronto has become today, that it’s not a place you find easy to live with. Many people who were part of those underground cultural scenes have faced increasing difficulties.
Mike: I live in a city of winners, a neoliberal showcase driven by developer greed. The marginal lives we had in our 20s are no longer possible because rents are too high. It’s had a devastating effect on culture. Adminstrators uber alles. Audiences become clients who should be serviced using multi-channel delivery systems, the commodification of “difference,” the primacy of image and brand even in marginal artist-run excursions (video art distributors now routinely attach their logo to the start of any movie they carry), while the very young long not to become artists but curators, where the real power lies.
Dirk: You decided to shoot on super 8 because it was part of the times Judy describes in the film?
Mike: The Canadian abortion struggle was coincident with global squatter’s movements. Many of us lived in unregulated or unwanted spaces in neglected city zones. We were part of an anti-capitalist counterculture, no one owned cars or TVs (this was pre-home computer), our clothes were fashionable but second hand, there was no sense of careers at stake or cvs that had needed filling. New cultural forms emerged, including new figurative painting, bands of course, and DIY cinemas including New York’s No Wave and the Funnel in Toronto.
Dirk: In the 60s I remember Australian film artist Albie Thoms saying that there were always handmade, abstract films shown at anti Vietnam War rallies. They were made inside communities that shared both aesthetics and politics. This connection is not so clear anymore.