The News you don’t see on the News’: Undercurrents and Britain’s Video-Activist Movement
By Steve Presence
This paper explores the history and significance of Britain’s video-activist movement. Undercurrents, founded in 1994 and still active today, are the video-activists most often cited as the pioneers of this movement and as such present themselves as an ideal case-study with which to approach the topic. I will begin by situating Undercurrents – and the video-activist movement more generally – into the wider tradition of oppositional British filmmaking of which they are a part. Thus far video-activism has not been a significant feature of scholarship dealing with oppositional film in Britain, despite being a highly visible part of the activist landscape for at least the last fifteen years. The precursors of video-activism, however, stretch much further back, to the Workers’ Film Societies of the 1920s and 1930s in particular.
The first part of the paper will establish this historical continuity, exploring some key similarities between the two periods of filmmaking. Both the Workers’ Film Societies and the video-activists, for example, emphasised the importance of technology in facilitating the kind of documentary work they produced (16mm, or ‘sub-standard’, stock in the 1930s and small format 8mm and VHS camcorders in the 1990s) and abandoned the pretensions to objectivity that characterised mainstream film producers. The content of the films of both groups is also similar. The Workers’ Film Societies focussed on documenting hunger marches, strike actions, anti-fascist demonstrations and other events they felt were ignored by the mainstream media. In comparison, the video-activist movement covered equivalent events of the 1990s (the anti-roads protests and other climate-based actions, squatting, police repression of travellers and other minority groups etc.), with Undercurrents adopting the slogan: ‘the news you don’t see on the news’.
As well as the similarities, however, there are also some key differences between the two periods. A crucial difference is the political alignment of the two groups. Many of those involved in the Workers’ Film Societies were affiliated to the left-wing political parties of their day. By contrast, and reflecting the splintering of the British Left more generally in the intervening period, video-activists of the 1990s were associated with the more decentralised ‘DiY culture’, often being explicitly opposed to party-political organisations. The final part of the paper will explore the context and consequences of video-activism’s more anarchic mode of organisation, working through some of the criticisms and issues this has raised as this most contemporary of documentary movements develops its presence online.
Undercurrents is an award winning alternative news service producing videos of people taking inspiring actions. http://www.undercurrents.org