Mandy McIntosh's The Animal Riot and Oompie ka Doompie by Simon Yuill
'Both films juxtapose the fairytale and documentary form.'
At first glance the two films may seem very different; a 19th century fairytale set in a Russian farm and a biographical account of a Scottish family's encounter with apartheid-era South Africa, but a number of parallel strands run through them. Both films juxtapose the fairytale and documentary form. The Animal Riot begins with footage of chimpanzees shot at a research project investigating animal intelligence, a factual counterpoint to the fairytale that follows. This sequence is reversed in Oompie ka Doompie, which takes the fairytale of Humpty Dumpty as a prelude to the family biography, and from which the film's title is taken, Oompie ka Doompie being the Afrikaans name for the unfortunate egg who fell from his wall.
Both films open with scenes that expose and reflect upon their own means of production. Oompie ka Doompie begins with a series of close-up shots of the artist's hand making pencil drawings, which become the substance of the film, whilst the chimpanzees of The Animal Riot are seen drawing and painting on sheets of paper, which become the background of the main story. In both cases this scene of 'natural', 'organic' production is taken up into a digital, computer-built graphic realm with the two media deliberately montaged and juxtaposed in a fashion which never tries to resolve or reconcile their differences, but rather leaves their seams open, as though the representational expression of the works was itself intended to be unpicked and unravelled.
The original author of The Animal Riot was Nikolay Ivanovich Kostomarov, a 19th century Russian-Ukrainian historian, who drew upon ethnography and folklore in his work, and propounded a Romanticist view of the peoples of each nation as being imbued by a particular 'spirit' embodied in their culture. Kostomarov was part of a Pan-Slavic federalist movement that opposed the Russian aristocracy. Written in 1859, his story allegorises the uprisings that swept across Europe from Ireland and the Scottish Highlands to the Baltic and Russia. The clash between humans and animals mirrors the ideology of an era that divided people between 'civilised' ruling classes and 'barbaric' peasants. This was a power structure often defined through linguistic differences, and the fact that the Russian farm-owner is unable to understand the language of the animals parallels the context of the times in which landowners often spoke a different language from those who worked the land.
Whilst Kostomarov may invite us to seek common cause with his animal protagonists, from the viewpoint of the 21st century, the basis upon which he did this, that of people tied to an eternal ethnic spirit, seems contradictory and problematic. For, whilst in the 19th century, such ideas became the basis for many emergent liberation movements, during the 20th century these same constructions of identity and difference came to underpin the politics of populist rightwing and fascist movements. Often drawing upon a rhetoric of freedom and emancipation, these also internalised the discourse of 18th and 19th century colonial and imperial expansions.
It is into such a context that the artist's family moved in the early 1970s, and which is explored in Oompie ka Doompie. The state of South Africa came into existence at the turn of the 20th century through the struggles between the Dutch Boers, the British Empire, and Zulu peoples, which ended in the area becoming a British colony. Within this struggle the Boers adopted a rhetoric of populist liberation, presenting their cause as that of creating a free republic, but it was precisely this rhetoric of freedom within ethnic differentiation that created the apartheid system on which the state developed. Even in the early 1970s the consequences of this legacy were not fully acknowledged, and like many working class families in search of a better life, the McIntosh's moved in search of jobs, unaware of, or shielded from, the politics which made the 'brighter prospects' of the colonies possible.
The family are never at one with the dominant white society into which they enter, but at the same time cannot fully overcome the divisions of class and colour that are placed around them. The film acknowledges how through a small gesture we may become unconsciously complicit in attitudes we do not share, how the context and construction of the social conditions in which we operate can be over-determining, and how in such contexts identifications become complex and contradictory. Whatever we may wish to be, wherever we may feel our commonality to lie, we are not only constantly confronted by constructions of race and class and culture we have not shaped ourselves, but are also often forced to find ways to articulate another understanding through these.
Commonality is not found in recourse to some shared ethnic 'spirit', therefore, but rather in recognising the instruments of commodification and social construction that impose themselves around us: the tourist beads of Swaziland and the kilted costumes of Scottishness. In this sense the notion of an authentic cultural 'wholeness' is nothing more than a series of fragments, a broken eggshell that cannot be put back together again and instead from which we must seek other constructions and configurations, new commonalities. Oompie ka Doompie deals honestly with these contradictions, and does not seek to resolve them into some liberal notion of redemption, but rather seeks to uncover some form of agency within the fragments, and is both a family testimony and critical self-questioning.
Both films can be read as stories of political becoming, of emerging forms of consciousness of politics and personal agency; stories which come not from following a pre-formed narrative but rather from the unpicking and unravelling of the exposed seams of the ideologies that surround us. They propose one thing in common: that such understandings are things we make for ourselves, and that we must be conscious and explicit in how this making takes place.
Simon Yuill is an artist and programmer based in Glasgow, Scotland. His work explores aspects of social process and formation in projects which draw on a variety of approaches ranging from those of Free Open Source Software and hacker culture, to writing, public workshops and discussion events. He has written on aspects of Free Software, 'notational production' and cultural praxis and has contributed to publications such as Software Studies (MIT Press, 2008), FLOSS+Art (GOTO10 and MUTE, 2008) and MUTE magazine. In 2011, his projects are focused around relationships between land, law and social structures and includes research on the Pollok Free State, an autonomous community that developed out of a road protest campaign in Glasgow during the 1990s.