This week, the Toronto International Film Festival is running a program called Brave New World: The Films of Barbara Hammer. This three-night survey offers a fascinating retrospective of Hammer’s forty-five year career as a lesbian activist and experimental filmmaker.
Hammer’s 2003 film Resisting Paradise, which deals with the concept of art as a tool of political resistance, was especially fascinating to me. Hammer, who was doing a painting residency in Cassis, France, when war broke out in Kosovo, found herself questioning the validity of art in the face of political conflict and unrest. She began exploring the history of the French Resistance in Cassis, and used that as a chance to reflect on how Cassis’ artistic community, both those who were threatened by the Nazi occupation of France and those who were able to remain relatively neutral, reacted to the atrocities of the Second World War.
I was fortunate enough to be able to get in touch with Barbara and ask her a few questions about Resisting Paradise. Her responses are just as eye-opening and fascinating as the film itself.
Q: So there this fascinating parallel happening in Resisting Paradise, namely that you were making a film exploring how and why art was created in Cassis during the second world war, while you yourself were, of course, creating art during the war in Kosovo. How did your experience of making this film influence your view on the creation of art during times of war?
A: By making Resisting Paradise during a time of war I felt like I was at least doing something to possibly stop war. I had asked the director of the Camargo Foundation to be released from the contract I signed as an artist to work and stay in Cassis and be able to go to Kosovo to carry water, walk with women, help in any way I could. He said’ no’, and so with that I decided to enlarge my project and research what artists did during a time of war. Matisse and Bonnard during WWII and me during Kosovo. My view was altered as I felt by making art that had to do with war in one way or another I was contributing to peoples thinking about the same subject when they watched the film.
Q: Can you say a little bit about what it was like to speak to some of the survivors of the Nazi occupation of France? Especially those whose lives were threatened by the Nazi regime? How did their responses help shape the narrative of the film?
A: All of the survivors I spoke with were threatened with the possibility of capture and death. They lived with that reality everyday. It was my privilege to be able to share their stories in the film. Less than a year later they had all died. I am humbled by their risk taking to save the lives of others. Their responses directly shaped the narrative of the film as I could put them in dialogue with Matisse and Bonnard. The two painters were writing letters to one another as gasoline was so expensive as to prohibit their visiting. The subjects they talked about - composition, the difficulty of purchasing cadmium yellow because of the occupation - were so mundane compared to the stories of Marie-Ange changing identity cards in her home or Lisa Fittko walking Walter Benjamin over the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain.
Q: At one point in the film, you wonder aloud what you would have done, had you been living in Cassis during the occupation. This is something that I think nearly all of us have wondered at some point or another - in times of persecution, would we risk our lives to save others? Or would we save ourselves and our families first? What conclusion did you eventually come to, and how did that influence your take on the events and philosophies described in your film?
A: I agree with Matisse’s granddaughter who told me we never know what we would do until faced with the situation. I think that’s true, but I do think we can train ourselves in little ways to be prepared for a catastrophe. That little way might be in answering back to a denigrating comment made to you, it might be in gesture, not moving aside because you are old or small, when young people talking together and unaware of you look like they will walk right into you. To speak up. To not be afraid to voice your opinion. The personal agency of standing up for yourself can be seen as operative against the training we might have received from family, school, and religion to ‘turn the other cheek’, to not be ‘loud’ in public, or to be so overwhelmingly empathetic that we don’t speak up for ourselves. We ready ourselves then to ‘take charge’, and to ‘make things happen’ should we find ourselves in a dangerous situation.
Q. I found this quote, from writer Walter Benjamin, extremely affecting: “Every line we succeed in publishing today is a victory wrenched from the powers of darkness.” It almost seemed like that could be the response to your original question, “How can art exist during a period of war?” What are your thoughts on these ideas, both Benjamin’s quote itself and its context within the themes that you explored in Resisting Paradise?
A: The global world we wake to everyday confronts us with oppression, violence, and killings. Every creation we make is a victory over darkness.
Q: Finally, how did your experience of filming Resisting Paradise during the war in Kosovo influence your later projects? How do you feel that the act of creating art during a time when horrific atrocities were being committed in a neighbouring country has shaped your view of the artistic process and the necessity of art?
A: I hadn’t thought of this before, but if I think of what I’ve said above in response to your questions and I believe that making Resisting Paradise helped give me courage to refuse an awarded American Academy in Jerusalem fellowship to live in Israel for four months to make creative work. When I realized fully the occupation of Palestine and the imbalance of power that has made so many inequities for the Palestinian peoples and I was asked by them to boycott the award I had the courage to do so. That decision had to be made quickly but a year later I took the opportunity to see for myself if I had made the right choice. I joined the first LGBTQ solidarity group to travel to Palestine. We went to many cities, villages, isolated homes cut off by the barrier walls, destroyed towns and we met with a diverse Palestinians who told us their stories.
After this trip I was sure I had made the right choice. I show these stories in a performance Witness: Palestine that I will do at Images on April 5 and I invite you and your readers to attend.
Brave New World: The Films of Barbara Hammer will run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre on April 4th, 6th and 7th. Resisting Paradise will screen on Thursday, April 4th at 6:15 pm. The cost is free, and the screening will be followed by a conversation between Barbara Hammer and Toronto artist and filmmaker Elle Flanders.