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Generation Revolution: what happens when black activism goes wrong

17 Jan 2017

Generation Revolution is a documentary film that tells the story of young, radical groups of black and Asian campaigners in the UK. As well as looking at the work they do in helping to tackle racism, prejudice and white supremacy, it also explores the personal growth of the activists at the forefront of the movement, the oppression they face, and the difficulties and stumbling blocks they encounter – culminating in one explosive disagreement which makes for a fascinating watch.

Tracking the groups from 2014 to the hot summer of 2016, when the Black Lives Matter movement crossed the ocean and started making waves in the UK, the film mainly looks at the work of direct-action group the London Black Revolutionaries (known for pouring concrete on Tesco’s anti-homeless spikes) and their enigmatic leader, Arnie, alongside R Movement, an “intersectional revolutionary organisation”.

gal-dem spoke to the directors behind the film, Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis, about their motivations, political blackness, and what it’s like to watch a black activist movement implode.

Generation Revolution – Trailer from Generation Revolution on Vimeo.

How and why did you decide to start making the documentary?

Cassie: Generation Revolution started as a short project Usayd and I wanted to make, first of all, to get to know each other as filmmakers, but also because we felt that it was kind of our duty to be challenging a lot of negative stuff in the mainstream conversation about young black and brown people. There’s so much stuff about our generation being apathetic and apolitical; this idea that we’re not necessarily contributing. We saw there was so much going in our communities, there was so much amazing activism and conversations, and actually, what we wanted to do was document that not only for our peers, but also for posterities sake – so people in the future would be able to see what exactly the conditions were in the early 2000s.

From a practical perspective, who did you contact with first? Was it Arnie, or were you friends with some of the people you filmed?

Usayd: The Black Revs, at the time we started following them, were kinda an anonymous group and there was this mystery about them that was kinda exciting. A lot of people had heard about their direct action against Tesco’s anti-homeless spikes, but no-one really knew who they were, so it involved a bit of investigative journalism. We kinda found them through some friends – ‘cus obviously the great thing about this project is that Cassie and I are activists and we sort of know activists and we’re really in that world as well. We weren’t outsiders coming in, but rather we were already in the world and were able to access people. So we found Arnie and started talking to him. Then we found R Movement soon after and we realised that there was more to this than just a short film.

That was back in 2014, so how were you able to sustain the trajectory? How much time did you spend filming, how much time did you actually get to spend with them as a group?

Cassie: In terms of how much time we spent with them: so when we finished filming we had just over 100 hours of footage and then did shoot a bit more afterwards. A really important part of documentary making is actually building these relationships, so we were actually spending time with them and a lot of the conversations we had with them were not necessarily ones we ended up filming or even ended up considered for the film. I mean, the biggest thing for us, was we were struck by how inspiring and how really intelligent and switched on everyone was. As Usayd was saying, we really saw these people as our peers in the sense that we have a lot of the same ambitions of deconstructing the nature of the oppression that really rules our lives. 

And from a personal perspective, how effective did you think that they were in what they did? Because the end of the film is kinda ambiguous…

Cassie: We don’t necessarily look to make value judgements. The film looks at two groups that definitely see themselves rooted in intersectional feminism; who not only see themselves as fighting around race, but actually seeing everything as interconnected.  We’re not saying, “Oh the way R Movement does it is better” or “Oh, the way Black Revs do it is better”. It was really interesting actually because we had a screening with R Movement and Black Revs, well ex-Black Revs members, and it was kinda heartening to see how encouraged they were by each other because you had R Movement like, “Oh man, I really would have loved to have known how to organise people into the streets and protest and makes loads of noise” and you had the ex-Black Revs saying “The every-day, on-the-ground stuff you guys were doing like just handing out information to young black and brown people in Brixton or just going and handing out homeless packages is really important”.

So I don’t think there’s necessarily a right answer to either form of activism or even if there was two forms of activism, which one is the best. I think ultimately even though, or even if, neither of the groups appeal to you in term of their tactics as Teju [a girl in the film] says, its not necessarily that she doesn’t believe in changing the world anymore, its just maybe the engagement she had wasn’t necessarily right for her. I think she’s definitely on a journey and you see that in the film. I think, as everyone that we followed with Generation Revolution, once you kinda become aware with all that is wrong in the world, once you start think critically about these systems of oppression, it’s really difficult to turn away even if you don’t think individuals that you had contact with – for example, with Arnie – are doing it the right way, it doesn’t mean what they’re fighting for isn’t right.

Obviously from what I gather, Arnie is not ethnically black? I was wondering whether it was a conscious choice by you guys to not have any particular focus on political blackness?

Cassie: I think that’s a really a really interesting question because actually its been something that people have talked about at every single screening but has also been a massive debate between us as directors. So we conscious talk about the group as being made up of black and brown activists as opposed to Black with a capital “B” because although political blackness had a really strong historical use in the 70s and 60s, in really highlighting the solidarity between people who were ethnically black, Asian people and people who were not white, I think in the current context, it’s just a term that the public really isn’t gelling with so, in that sense, we don’t use it.

Usayd: But in terms of the term itself, I think, you know, you have to choose. We did actually ask basically everyone we filmed with about political blackness and their understanding of it, but I think when you’re creating a film you also have to think about the story and the narrative, what people are going to relate to, I think political blackness, although extremely important as Cassie was saying, is actually a sort of an internal conversation. To be honest a lot of people don’t even know about the concept at all. I think there’s a separate film there to be made.

So how did you leave things with Arnie in the end? Is he still heading up whats left of the Black Revs?

Usayd: Yes, as far as we understand. Since we stopped shooting we haven’t really had a lot of contact so we couldn’t really you too much about that.

Did you see, at the time, the deterioration of them as a group? From the narrative it seems like it was like it was that one Brixton event that set off a disastrous change, but did it feel like that at the time or not really?

Usayd: I think that’s a good question. As filmmakers its quite difficult to know what’s gonna come in a documentary, that’s kinda the unpredictable nature of making documentary film. You sort find the story as you go. So, yeah, we didn’t know and actually we were quite scared when thing were going awry, it didn’t fit with out plan for making the film. But, actually, I think the story that we unravel is a really important one and now, looking back at it I feel quite grateful that we were able to tell that story. For example, we screened that film in the US recently and it was just so interesting to see Black Lives Matter organisers reacting to those stories and saying “Actually, the same thing has happened here and we can’t believe how similar it is”. So being able to build that solidarity and get underneath the surface, rather than just showing “oh this is what it looks like, it’s great fun and really important”, to actually show that you’re entering a world that’s full of people and characters and differences of opinions, and those are all valuable things to know before you get involved.

On Black Lives Matter actually – were you kinda enthused to see the movement come to the UK or did you wish it could have come sooner so you could have documented it more? The summer of 2016 was largest amount of black activism I’d ever experienced on the streets personally. I don’t know if you guys felt the same?

Cassie: I think the emergence of Black Lives Matter UK was heartening for us but I think a really important thing to recognise is that there was a lot of black activism going on in the UK before that and that’s kinda the point of Generation Revolution. The Black Revs and R Movement were young people who were doing stuff, and obviously Black Lives Matter already existed in the US, but they were organising around things that really mattered to them, so it wasn’t just in solidarity with the US but around issues that were UK-specific because even though white supremacy, anti-blackness, capitalism and patriarchy are things that exist everywhere, they manifest in different ways in difference places so yes, its great to see Black Lives Matter UK but it’s also important not to forget that there were a lot of people doing a lot of important work before.

What are you most proud of since the outcome of this film? Do you think it’s opened up conversation in any way on activism?

Usayd: Yes, absolutely. Our goal with the film has been exactly that. We want young people of colour, in particular, but obviously anyone who sees this film, to see people like themselves, other young people, who may not have the means to make some sort of dramatic change in the world, but actually they’re just doing what they think is right. I think being able to relate to other characters, that’s kinda what a film really is, but in this case it’s even more important because you want people to see this and think, I could do that, I could get some mates together and help some people on the streets or, I could join a group or I could form a group in my community. That’s why we’ve been inviting local activists to our screenings, wherever we go, to partake in that discussion. So in Miami, we invited organisers from Black Lives Matter to talk about their perspective, on how it relates to them. In Birmingham, in Nottingham, in Leeds, again, in all of these places we’ve been lucky enough to bring people in and say, “Look, this film doesn’t just exist in isolation but actually there’s work going on in your cities right now.”

Generation Revolution is screening throughout February and March in London and beyond.