Brixton Community Cinema Founder Abiba Coulibaly talks with cinemóvil nyc founder Ali Jaffery
By Abiba Coulibaly
Ali Jaffery is the founder of cinemóvil nyc, a mobile cinema that is organizing revolutionary, grassroots film screenings throughout New York. Running Brixton Community Cinema, an itinerant pay-what-you-can film club on the other side of the Atlantic, I spoke with Ali about the mobile cinema’s anti-capitalist model, side-stepping commercial distributors, and attracting audiences whose interest in radicality goes beyond its aesthetics. With Ali in the post-production stage of two documentaries, we also spoke about alternative approaches to shooting, editing, and exhibiting his own work, which explores mutual aid and copaganda.
Abiba Coulibaly: In addition to cinemóvil’s primary activity of screening films, you're also doing a lot of editorial work and commissioning writers around cinema. What was the impetus behind that?
Ali Jaffery: Well, you know, in the history of cinema, especially radical political cinema, criticism was inseparable from filmmaking. There was an awareness that filmmaking and criticism go hand-in-hand, that in order for there to be vital, interesting work, you have to embrace the realm of ideas, and the realm of debating ideas, and debating about culture, and to have that be present in your work too in some way. A lot of the films that we show obviously come from that tradition, and so we’re applying that principle to today.
We were influenced by Third Cinema, and “cinemóvil” references these kinds of proletarian mobile cinemas that were set up in places like Cuba after the revolution, which would go out into areas of the country that weren't getting news, art, entertainment, or political cinema. Coming out of that tradition, you can't separate criticism from filmmaking and film exhibition. The people who write for us, write for us purely out of a desire to express themselves. And that's a big draw with us, that you can express yourself freely. I know a lot of film writers who are finding their politics completely drained out of what they're writing because that's the way that capitalism has functioned in art.
I also run a community cinema, and one of the things that I've enjoyed the most has been commissioning people to write texts to help the audience further engage with the films, to understand their influences and the geopolitical context of their production. But as I think about the financial practicalities of continuing the community cinema, it's unfortunately the most obvious place to cut back on [spending], because the screening can still go ahead whether or not there's a text to accompany it. So thinking about funding, how do you sustain cinemóvil?
It's just donation-based. The main focus for us is how to support filmmakers who are making vital radical work just by an anti-capitalist model whereby people come, and they donate what they can to this filmmaker and this film project. The vast majority of funds that come in go straight to an artist’s pocket. We might take a nominal fee to support the collective itself, but our costs are relatively low.
Then beyond that, we don't believe in copyright. We think that this is a means of reaching an end, and that we should be free to show what we want, when we want, with responsibility. We have shown some films that are Hollywood films. Of course, we're not going to get rights to that, and, of course, Hollywood doesn’t need the money that might be raised from that. When we do raise money from those kinds of movies, it goes to a community cause.
And then there's the other, broader thing, which is that a lot of big highfalutin film theatres in New York City will show radical, decolonial, militant cinema from the 60s and 70s and charge $20 tickets. [They go] through the distributor, who owns the rights to screen these films. Fuck that. Corporate and so-called nonprofit distributors do not deserve to have the right to tell anyone whether they can or cannot show these things. It's a cultural project [too] because they have a real vested interest in controlling how much and what kind of historical, cultural awareness we have. It’s in their best interest to limit that and to force us into what's new, which you see on the streaming services pretty glaringly. But that's a broader cultural project that works in their favor on so many levels, because it just keeps people unaware of anything outside. It tries to create goldfish memory out of all of us—you can't really think beyond the moment about what life is and what is possible.
Then there are other things like reciprocity when it comes to screening. So we're thinking through an anti-capitalist model whereby the people who are programming and screening the films, maybe they're not really going to take much in the way of funds for doing that. But if you're showing other people's work [then] you can have your work shown as well, right? That reinforces itself. You're able to have people see your films, discuss them in a rich way, and then raise funds for your films. You'll make way more money than if you play the game and try to get your film to play at a repertory house or MoMA, because they're gonna pocket a big amount of that. The distributor is going to pocket [some of that] as well. Then you don't really have anything to show for other than prestige, and prestige doesn't really pay the bills. It doesn't let you work, it doesn't let you make your next work. You're also supporting a broader ecosystem that has been so built upon for decades and decades, which can't change without outside forces. It's the hard work of saying, “Okay, we need to believe in a new world and we need to start enacting the things we want to see,” by doing it and rallying more people around it, which creates more power and more capacity. That’s just the work of organizing at the end of the day. And as somebody who's been involved in the work of radical organizing for the past seven, eight years in New York City, I’ve learned that this is the way to move. If you actually want to see the liberation that people like to make art about, you know, the “What if we were free?—well, what if we were free? Wouldn't that be something that we have to be actively involved in?
I thought your comment about established cinemas organizing overpriced ‘radical’ film seasons was so interesting, and it's true that these subject matters have become extremely trendy in a way which can often feel uncomfortable. I also know you’re operating in areas of New York that have experienced rampant gentrification. So I’m wondering how you navigate audience dynamics and wanting the cinema to be open to all when you’re holding screenings in areas where, on the one hand white liberals might flock to them because they’re trendy, and on the other hand some of your target audience may not be familiar with these titles.
I think some people who come to our screenings are the film people who read about the films and log their little pithy Letterboxd reviews or things like that. But unlike most theatres, that's not the most prominent element [of our audience]. The people who tend to come to our stuff are interested in seeing, talking, and thinking about radical and revolutionary work and its legacies. Since so many of our screenings also have that connection to radical groups, they’ll be co-sponsored by a radical organization, or have something else paired with them, whether it be a teach-in, skillshare, or fundraiser. They're there to support and to learn and to take part in the activities as well. So, those are good because they inherently bring in people who are not just film people, who are not just interested in the aesthetic of radicality. They inherently want to move beyond just the aesthetic by wanting to attend these types of events.
Honestly, most film-world people that I know and have met throughout years of programming before I started cinemóvil have never shown up to a cinemóvil event. It's good that they aren't, because this is not just a thing to get some sort of social cachet from, which is what was driving me nuts. Essentially one of the biggest reasons why I started cinemóvil was [I thought,] “Wow, I'm showing these radical films and no organizers, no leftists, certainly no working-class people come to any of these things.” And so for instance, we love to do pop-up screenings in parks and public spaces or even just community spaces because ordinary people will come through, neighborhood people will stop by and just watch and have conversations. That happens all the time, and there's a lot of potential in that, a lot of possibility.
You're also making a film, and I heard that you're showing different audiences different cuts. I'd be really interested to hear more about that, and how the cut changes depending on the setting that it's being screened in.
There are two documentaries in post-production; the goal is for one of them to come out at the end of the summer. One of them's about copaganda, a definitive statement on its history, its development, and the ways in which it moves in culture and society today, and then also a theory for how it can be defeated. Thinking about ways that we can practice detournement, how we can use the images that our targets produce against them.
The other one is about mutual aid and the homeless crisis. For two years I've been documenting the homeless crisis in New York City and how mutual aid groups have been a crucial support system for homeless people. And [it] came out of organizing that I was doing with the mutual aid space in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. For a recent fundraiser for that documentary, we had a bunch of the organizers that are involved in homeless organizing in the city come to the screening and discuss the work they do. We also screened a radical documentary from the early 1990s called The Battle Of Tuntenhaus, which is about radical squats in Berlin. Then we screened a trailer for the mutual aid and homeless crisis documentary. The idea is for the doc to be just one form, but then also to have other modes of discussion and viewing as a part of it, meaning that we put out materials about how to discuss this, and how to show it. It would be something that travels, first and foremost through movement spaces, and amongst people and groups that are interested in mutual aid and whatever broader audience wants to access it.
Because the copaganda [film] deals with a lot of imagery and different strands of thought, the idea is to release several cuts that are attuned to specific audiences. So there'll be a cut for people who are arts and film workers, to go really hard into the nitty gritty of the high degree of complicity in copaganda that comes from film and TV workers specifically, and thinking through what it means to combat this thing that they're complicit in. There’ll also be a cut that reduces images of real world violence against people. And then there's another unsparing cut, which is maybe going to be the ultimate cut that threads all those things together.
The idea is that it will offer different ways to be screened, such as places [in the film] where you can stop and discuss, or do other activities to make it more than just a passive viewing experience. People can actually start to think through how they can act on the knowledge and ideas that are being presented. Maybe I start an online forum where people can gather materials of what they're seeing in terms of copaganda, discuss it, and talk about their efforts to push back. But really [it’s for] just trying to think through the ways in which [the film] can have an authentic engagement. It's so unsparing that I'm also not considering releasing it through any kind of “legitimate” streams. I'll just be building up these networks in the meantime, and trying to get screened in all these different cities that way and then trying to get more and more people to try it.
[A.E. Hunt asks Ali a follow up question weeks later]
At the fundraiser screening at Mayday Space, a person involved with your Mutual Aid documentary mentioned you were paying participants for their stories, rather than taking them and leaving them to dry like a lot of documentaries. I think the typical argument against paying participants in a film is that it will encourage people to behave how you want them to or pressure them into participating. So what has this looked like? Why did you decide to do this? What do you think about the arguments against it?
I organize as part of the mutual aid project that I am documenting. Besides carving out time and resources to film and edit the project, what money I have has gone into engaging in mutual aid practice, particularly supporting the homeless folks we've been in community with as we organize to meet their needs and fight against oppressive state powers and business interests. I am not an external observer of events, and find that dominant style of filmmaking incompatible with the radical community-based organizing which has increasingly come to define the landscape of vital resistance. I relate to the people featured in the film as a friend and comrade first and foremost, and these relationships will continue after the film is released. The film project is a natural outgrowth of those relationships, reflecting the desire of everyone involved to tell their story of oppression and resistance.
There’s this group Prism in Norway that put together this symposium of nomadic film collectives throughout Europe. We got invited to do a Zoom meeting, where we were presented the idea of having an actual anti-capitalist film network where all these radical and nomadic film collectives that show vital work and are interested in community and discussion, to get together and carve out this network whereby we can share works together and have them be screened in multiple cities as a result. It gives people a sense that they can make work that is vital and radical and that there’ll be a space for it that doesn’t really exist yet.
I think if we prove the model just by doing it, then we’ll start to get a lot more interest. It’s the same old thing of everyone thinking, “There’s nothing we can do because where’s the other model?” Well no one’s trying to do it really, so you have to try to do it—and it creates its own momentum.
To learn more about or get involved with cinemóvil nyc or Prisms reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org
Abiba Coulibaly is a film programmer with a background in critical geography, interested in exploring the intersection between ethics and aesthetics. She runs Brixton Community Cinema and is part of the programming team for Magnum Photos Film Festival and Open City Documentary Festival.