Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Beyond Romances of the Negative

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Siavash Minoukadeh explores the role of hope in ...- then love is the name (dir. Niki Kohandel) and Sab Changa Si (All Was Good) (dir. Teresa A Braggs) which are screening in this year’s Open City Documentary Festival as part of a series of texts commissioned on new films in the programme.

As a teenager, the first protest I took part in was a CND march. A few hundred of us wrapped a knitted scarf around the Ministry of Defence, called on the government to not renew its arsenal of nuclear submarines, and then went home. As the days went by, the righteous optimism of the day turned to nihilism. The government did not even acknowledge our action which had seemed to have an unstoppable moral force at the time. We hadn’t won the future we wanted, therefore we had lost.

I suppose then I could empathise with the students in Sab Changa Si and …-then love is the name as under a typical definition, neither of the protest movements shown in these films have succeeded either. In India, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed into law and the ruling BJP party appears to be showing no sign of moderating its agenda of religious nationalism. In London, cultures of abuse, discrimination and exploitation continue to be uncovered at educational institutions, including at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, part of the same university as the Slade, and indeed this festival. The future that we wished to see has, it would seem, not been reached. More broadly, the picture seems far from optimistic for those of us who would like to see a more equitable, sustainable and just world. Hope, in this climate, is easy to deride, a naive remnant from a long-obsolete utopianism.

So why then, despite all of this, was my first response to watching both of these films, a rousing (and quite unfamiliar) sense of hope? The films posit a different approach to protest and political action, one in which the metrics of success are not whether everything you called for took place, but what was built in the process. Victory is not portrayed in either film as a full and complete shift in what the future looks like, but something to be taken, and enjoyed, in the present. The work of protest is not attempting to impact some out-of-reach, not-yet-conscious (in the words of José Esteban Muñoz, from whom I have also taken the title of this essay) future, it is creating that future right here and right now.

The staff and students picketing outside the Slade, wrapped up in coats and scarves did not eliminate systemic racism from the academy permanently. Yet their attempt to do so manifested a solidarity between members of that same academy and a different way of relating to each other and their institution, all of which live on, in the kinship Kohandel captures during the preparation of the students’ degree shows, and beyond.

Likewise, the students in Sab Changa Si are fighting for a better India but in doing so, they are creating it – in public assemblies, where questions around religion, gender and caste are addressed openly and in living rooms where political kinships also become friendships and serious discussions sit alongside moments of levity. The students in Braggs’ film are not sitting around waiting for the future of India to change, they are building that future themselves in the present, with every gathering being an act of making things better than they otherwise would have been.

…-then love is the name and Sab Changa Si share a belief in the power of the here and now. They make a case for defining what we can do in the present, be it taking up space or forming alternative relations with each other, as a victory. It may not be Utopia with a capital U, but these actions are microtopias in their own right, to borrow a term from the curator Nicolas Bourriaud. Protest is not just discourse, calling for things to happen in a future that is yet to come – it is also an articulation of that very future, a building of it.

You can say these films articulate a pre-figurative politics, a queered understanding of time, an anti-antiutopianism. All of these are true to some degree. More fundamentally however, they offer hope. Hope that all was good and all will be – will be made to be – good again if we act to make it so. The future, as the popstar Kim Petras sings, starts now.

Siavash Minoukadeh is the Marketing Assistant at Open City Documentary Festival and also works as a curator, programmer and writer. siavash.cc