Johan Grimonprez about the Commons

28 February 2018

Look beyond the fear and start connecting!
January 29 the international acclaimed artist Johan Grimonprez was our guest. We showed his film Blue Orchids and together with some BEAR students we spoke with him about his work.

In Blue Orchids (2017), Grimonprez creates a double portrait of two experts situated on opposite ends of the same issue—the global arms trade. The stories of Chris Hedges, a former New York Times war correspondent, and Riccardo Privitera, a weapon dealer, provide an unusual and disturbing context for shocking revelations about the industry of war. The film consists of material that was shot for the more documentary style film Shadow World (2016). This film, in part based on Andrew Feinstein’s book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, reveals how the international trade in weapons – with the complicity of governments and intelligence agencies, investigative and prosecutorial bodies, weapons manufacturers, dealers and agents – fosters corruption, determines economic and foreign policies, undermines democracy and creates widespread suffering.

After talking a while about the difference between making documentary films like Shadow World to raise awareness and activate people and films like Blue Orchids that are more poetic and open to interpretation, one student asks him how it makes Johan feel to dig each time deeper in these disturbing shadow worlds? How come he does not get cynical and lose all hope for humanity?

Johan goes back to the period right after his time in school when he got involved in working with political issues. He tells about his stay in Irian Jaya (now called Papoea) in the middle of the sessionist war when the people there were still trying to get independent. A lot of people came talking to him about how their family members were killed by the Indonesian military and how by transmigration projects that were sponsored by the world bank poor Javanese farmes were moved to West Papoea and were outnumbering the autochtone people. To feel first hand the sadness of those people, that scarred him. ‘That’s how I came about to work with political issues.’ Unlike the traumatized journalist Chris Hedges in Blue Orchids, Johan makes clear he never lived in the middle of a war zones or was imprisoned. ‘But’, Johan says, ‘we are all sort of traumatized in a sense. We are all being criminalized and drilled into fear every second of our lives. That is not healthy. We cannot imagine any more what a different world  could be. That’s why I think it is absolutely crucial to look beyond the fear, to reimagine different stories. If we want to survive as a humanity we have to look for ways of connecting again. Journalist Chris Hedges expresses that sense of hope too in the film: we have to try to connect to other people, try to create stories that show that we dialoque, that we talk.’

That’s why Johan is interested very much in the idea of the Commons. It grew directly out of the film Shadow World. Johan: ‘Of course I can show what went wrong with the world, but it is as crucial that we start talking about where we go from there. The Commons is a very interesting template to talk about this. The Commons is that what we share, like language, numbers or wikipedia. The Commons is a joint project in which you have to dialoque about how you are going to share. And as such it is defined by very many people in very many ways.’

Johan takes from his bag a book that he is studying at the moment for the future projects that he is working on: Think like a Commoner, A short Introduction to the life of the Commons by David Bollier. On Bollier’s website we read: ‘In our age of predatory markets and make-believe democracy, our troubled political institutions have lost sight of real people and practical realities. But if you look to the edges, ordinary people are reinventing governance and provisioning on their own terms. The commons is arising as a serious, practical alternative to the corrupt Market/State.’

Studium generale thinks it is a great idea to read that book now! And if you want to purchase it to scribble your notes and ideas for action in the margins: please, don’t forget to buy it at your local bookstore!