Future | Cinema | Archive: On Appropriation Processes of Protest Videos
By Alena Strohmaier
“Politics in the Middle East is now seen”, proclaimed political scientist and director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House Lina Khatib in 2012, designating a new era of political activism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Acknowledging that images are political is not new. The Green Movement in Iran in 2009 and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, however, triggered a flurry of research on the backgrounds, effects, and meanings of images of popular uprisings, especially protest videos, and subsequent developments. The extent to which popular uprisings today operate primarily on social media is the subject of a debate that is as topical as it is controversial. While in the early 2010s ‘cyberutopianism’ often prevailed – viewing the events of the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement hopefully, as part of a leaderless digital revolution – recent studies paint a more diverse and far less optimistic picture in light of current political developments. Nevertheless, it is undisputed that traditional production, distribution, and reception channels have changed largely. Film scholar Hamid Naficy from the Northwestern School of Communication in Chicago called these new forms ‘internet cinema’, a concept describing the use of novel internet-driven digital media in terms of both mobile production and reception as well as networked distribution.
In a research project I lead at Philipps-Universität Marburg, which began in 2019, I consider how protest videos found a path back to the big screens of cinemas and festivals, moving from ‘internet cinema’ to documentary feature-length films, and thereby breaking the exclusive coupling of protest videos and social media as the affective sites of such images. The feature-length films reassemble the videos through shortening, editing, and adding intertitles and/or voice-overs. Some of the protest videos’ source material is completely unknown; some, like the death of student Neda Agha Soltan on the streets of Tehran in 2009, have iconic status. Through these processes of cinematic appropriation, a new functional context for the videos emerges. In the corpus of approximately 30 feature-length films that I examine, it is no longer the supposedly distanced or even objective position of their producers as uninvolved observers, reporters, or witnesses that is characteristic – as is associated with journalism. Rather, affective involvement and the cinematic qualities of the protest videos are decisive elements.
It is undeniable that digital media greatly facilitated the exchange of pre-existing footage, even if this is not an entirely new practice: collage was an integral part of visual art since Picasso, and musical sampling has its roots in 1970s Jamaican DJ culture and African American hip-hop. The use of pre-existing footage dates to the dawn of cinema. In fact, cinematic appropriation processes are now a practice in which almost anyone with access to a computer can participate. Moreover, digital media have dramatically increased the speed at which such appropriations take place. While experimental works may have different goals than YouTube clips or memes, what unites both is a clear sense of the subversion of meaning. Film scholar Jamie Baron, from the University of Alberta, argues that any reuse of an existing recording is in some way a misuse: the new use was not intended or at least not foreseen by the original producers. Of course, we cannot really know the original intent behind an appropriated recording, but we recognise that there must have been another context. Baron calls this the ‘archive effect’ – an effect of shifting perspective from the viewpoint of the filmmakers to that of the viewers – which occurs either through the perception of a temporal or an intentional disparity in the use of pre-existing footage within a film:
Archival documents exist as ‘archival’ only insofar as the viewer of a given film perceives certain documents within that film as coming from another, previous – and primary – context of use or intended use.
Baron highlights the different temporal levels of production, montaging, and viewing of the images, as well as the various determinations that the images experience on distinct temporal planes. In terms of an ‘archive effect’, we can interpret cinematic appropriation processes of protest videos in feature-length films as a sequence of archival images that we recognise as such because, first, we have a temporal distance to the events; and, second, because we have a distance from their ‘originally’ intended purpose of circulating as documents or testimonies. In this reading, the social media is the digital archive from which the filmmakers draw their material, and the feature-length films would be the result of their aesthetic engagement with it.
However, I propose a different reading. The feature-length films using protest videos negotiate the pre-existing footage not as past media events, but in terms of the potentiality of future ones. To say this in the words of film scholar Dork Zabunyan,
images of a struggle captured as it unfolds in the present, also engage in future struggles […] It’s in this sense that images taken in the midst of an uprising are also addressed to other individuals who might become the bearers of the torch of revolt at a later as yet unspecified date.
In this passage, Zabunyan refers to Michel Foucault’s conception of memory as something not directed into the past, but the future. It is in this sense that we need to expand the classic approaches to popular uprisings in the MENA region and their cinematic appropriation – approaches that assume a linearity and normativity to transformation – to a more open-ended view that also considers ambiguous dynamics of both protest movements and protest videos.
 Khatib, Lina, Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 2.
 Naficy, Hamid, “Iranian Internet Cinema, a Cinema of Embodied Protest: Imperfect, Amateur, Small, Unauthorized, Global,” in: Strohmaier, Alena, and Angela Krewani (eds.), Media and Mapping Practices in the Middle East and North Africa: Producing Space (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021), 119–138.
 Baron, Jaimie, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (London, New York: Routledge, 2014), 7.
 Zabunyan, Dork, The Insistence of Struggle: Images, Uprisings, Counter-Revolutions (Barcelona: IF Publications, 2019), 27.
Alena Strohmaier is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department for Media Studies and the Centre for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany. She is a leader of the interdisciplinary research project “But I’m not filming, I’m just doing a bit of video”: Cinematic appropriation processes of protest videos from the Middle East and North Africa since 2009 (funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research). She did her PhD on films of the Iranian diaspora (published open access in 2019) and initiated the scientific Open Media Studies Blog. Her recent publications include the edited volumes Media and Mapping Practices in the Middle East and North Africa: Producing Space (Amsterdam University Press, 2021) and Re-Configurations: Contextualising Transformation Processes and Lasting Crises in the Middle East and North Africa (Springer VS, 2021).
Further articles in the #Aesthetics&CulturalPractice thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Angela Rabing, Can Images Shape the Future? A Conversation with Director Abou Bakar Sidibé, 3 February 2022
Farouk El Maarouf, Coming to Terms with Marginal Art(ists) in Morocco, 17 February 2022
Teresa Pepe, Science Fiction and the Anticipation of the Future: On a Public Talk by Kawthar Ayyed, 1 March 2022
Rasha Chatta, Comics as Witness and Testimony: An Interview with Jennifer Howell, 31 March 2022
Citation: Alena Strohmaier, Future | Cinema | Archive: On Appropriation Processes of Protest Videos, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.04.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/35146