A lot of the documentaries screened at this year’s Flatpack are contrived towards giving voice to forgotten histories or hidden lives, narratives and figures outside officialdom which still resist capitulation or are incompatible with the dominant account. The Lebanese Rocket Society is perhaps the one film to do this most explicitly. A work by artists Khalil Joreige and Jana Hadjithomas, the first two thirds of the film tell the now completely forgotten story of how in the 1960s a group of students and professors at the Armenian Haigazian University in Beirut lead by physicist Manoug Manougian began a mini-space programme, building missiles and propelling them into the air with homemade rocket fuel. The group achieved modest fame, and eventually the support of the military, and while Manougian and his colleagues always maintained that the project was solely scientific – and did so in all honesty if the contemporary interviews in the film are to be believed – the military personnel involved had covert plans to co-opt their research for the production of weaponry, as is candidly confessed by retired captains in the film, a moment which had me almost booing at the screen (in my notes I at this point scrawled BASTARD in block capitals). Ultimately, the programme was abruptly abandoned – many suspect at the behest of France – and over time it was effectively erased from the cultural consciousness. In the final third of the film, we see Joreige and Hadjithomas’s efforts to rectify this by erecting a missile replica in Haigazan University to commemorate the Rocket Society. Their reasons for doing this are surely admirable; they say they wish to pay tribute to ‘researchers, utopians, dreamers.’ However, the inherently problematic nature of placing in Beirut a public artwork which represents a missile is not properly addressed, Joreige and Hadjithomas simply deflecting such criticisms with a shallowly-articulated argument about how certain things are possible in art which are not possible in life. Also, the filmmakers’ overarching mission to rescue a spirit of innocent innovation from something which became sullied by governmental and military interest seems to beg the obvious question of whether it’s better for utopians and dreamers to attempt to create things which cannot be appropriated by merchants of death and oppression. With the exception of an earlier sequence wherein Hadjithomas’s enunciation of the words ‘for scientific purposes’ in her narration is juxtaposed with a shot of burning wreckage, the dialectical counterpart of destruction which accompanies technological development is not acknowledged, and the filmmakers’ naivety in this respect is cemented in a deeply underwhelming animation which ends the film; a vision of what could have been if the Rocket Society had continued in their spirit of inquiry unabated which seems all too much like the future as envisaged by blinkered 1950s sci-fi idealists than a utopian future befitting today.
The kind of creative spirit which Joreige and Hadjithomas might have called for had they followed their findings to the conclusions which I draw above is one embodied by the eponymous subject of the first of two documentaries by Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams at this year’s festival, The Bruce Lacey Experience, an affectionate portrayal of the octogenarian artist which – with no narration and minimal off-camera intervention from Deller and Abrahams – effectively allows Lacey to tell his own story, replete with would-be ephemera from each period of his life which Lacey has collected, from the remnants of a model plane which he made as a child and upon which his sister promptly sat and broke onwards. Like the members of the Lebanese Rocket Society, Lacey also had dreams of outer space. At one point in the film, he describes how he sometimes imagines that, had he been accepted by the R.A.F. and graduated on to being a test pilot, he might have become an astronaut. However, the implausibility of this ambition did not lead Lacey to attempt to contribute in whatever way he could to someone else’s interplanetary exploration, and thereby play into the hands of forces who had other ideas about what new technologies of propellant could be used for. Instead, Lacey strove to fully realise his aspiration for stellar adventuring through art, most explicitly in a 1973 performance piece entitled British Landing on the Moon, wherein he and his then-wife Jill Bruce, both wearing astronaut suits, mimicked a moon landing and promptly laid down a picnic and garden gnomes. Shockingly, this did not pique the interest of the British Military. Neither did his accomplished abilities as an engineer, mainly because he employed these skills not in the service of utility, but in the production of complex automatons, which serve no function aside from providing joy. In fact, the only way in which Lacey piqued the interest of the authorities was in his involvement with fairs, which – as he suspects aloud in the film – governments saw as a threat and worked to quash because they allow multitudinous people to share ideas which might run counter to prevailing ideology. A similar maverick is the subject of another film at the festival, Masanori Tominaga’s The Echo of Astroboy’s Footsteps, a portrait of sound-designer Matsuo Ohno. In the 1960s, Ohno created hugely influential sound effects and music using techniques which contemporarily would have been seen as errors and thereby useless and without value, such as feedback loops, and in his later years has dedicated his life to helping handicapped people, initially producing documentaries which illustrate their plight and later working at a Foundation. This, however, turns out not to be as much of a departure as it may seem, when Ohno says in an interview that, while for people in power, the disabled are useless, he sees much of value in them.
The Posters Came From the Walls, the second film by Deller and Abrahams which screened at this year’s festival, allows its subjects, obsessive Depeche Mode fans from all over the world, to tell their own stories with minimal ostensible intervention from the filmmakers in a similar fashion to The Bruce Lacey Experience. In contrast to what one imagines would be the case were a documentary on the same subject made for network television, Deller and Abrahams do not invite the spectator to demean or feel superior towards the behaviour of the fans onscreen, which range from a man who has collected hundreds of the band’s t-shirts to citizens of the Eastern Bloc for whom the band provided a locus for dissent and soundtracked the fall of the Soviet Union. However, I couldn’t help but feel a lot of the people interviewed, who were often dispossessed and alienated misfits for various reasons, would do better to embrace their oddness and realise their creative potential in deeply idiosyncratic praxis a la Bruce Lacey, rather than finding a uniform sense of belonging in their love of a mediocre synthpop band. Another film at the festival from which I received a similar impression was Only the Young, a genuinely affecting work by Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet about three teenagers – Kevin, Garrison and Skye – living in a small desert town in Southern Cali skating and listening to hardcore, in that the characters’ self-confessed ‘conservatism’ and Christianity is no doubt coerced in part by the fact that they feel out of place in a part of the United States which is predominately secular and ‘liberal’, despite this not necessarily being causal. Ironically, however, these are the people who socialism would serve best, most poignantly in the case of Skye, who is being evicted from her home. If she needs Jesus, it is the Pauline radical Marxist avant-la-lettre, and not the version co-opted by right-wing America. As is the case with Deller and Abraham’s documentaries, though, such judgements are not passed by the filmmakers, they instead electing to present the film’s events on the teenagers’ terms.