An increasing number of new films hinge on direct action – Úna O’Sullivan explores their potential to advance a culture of resistance. This article features spoilers for I’m a Virgo, Code Name Jenny, Black 47 and How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
Very few people heard that in April 2022, Just Stop Oil activists took direct action to block 10 critical oil terminals in England, and Exxon Mobil was forced to temporarily cease oil distribution. By contrast, many people heard about when JSO threw soup at a Van Gogh painting. The latter tactic was thought necessary because JSO’s actions against oil infrastructure get far less media coverage, and their actions need to be public knowledge if they are to have their full impact.
Direct action is here defined as an act which leads directly to creating a change desired in the world, even if on a smaller scale than desirable. Thus, blocking an oil depot so that oil cannot be sold counts as direct action. Blocking a road in a city to lobby politicians to remove a company’s licence to sell oil, is an indirect action.
There are times when direct action becomes a majority tactic, for instance the Bengali squatters’ movement in 1970s London, which addressed the racist distribution of council housing by occupying vacant council homes. So many people squatted that it was impossible to evict everyone, and so evictions were relatively rare. For the most part though, direct actions are carried out by a tiny minority, and the ruling class can easily reverse the material consequences of their actions. A broken pipeline can be replaced, a guerilla garden can be bulldozed, a thwarted deportation can be rescheduled. However, it is more difficult to reverse the cultural consequences of a direct action. If the message is pitched right and widely broadcast, new layers of potential activists can be emboldened to act for radical change, and the news of their direct actions, if pitched right, can spread further.
Thus, a direct action encompasses both the act in itself and the media outreach that accompanies it. (Stuart Hall’s line of thought around ideology shows that the divide between the cultural and the material is never clear, as they both have a social force. But media and action are roughly separate activities within planning a direct action, hence their separation here.) The mainstream media rarely honour the narratives chosen by the activists themselves, but the last few years have seen a spate of fiction films portraying direct action and its accompanying motivations, strategies and philosophies. The leftist direct action thriller is a wider category than the eco-thriller genre, as it spans broader struggles for social change. This piece explores a few examples, and suggests we use them to spark discussions among activists and potential activists.
Code Name Jenny (2018) is an independent film made by and about activists in Germany. The characters take direct action to temporarily shut down border control infrastructure, so that migrants can enter from the Mediterranean without being detained by authorities. The film has gripping sequences of night-time break-ins, secret planning sessions, a surprise informant in the group, and myriad other plot twists. It also follows the queer polyamorous relationships of the activist group, and we follow threads of their romances too. An additional subplot is the intergenerational story of an activist’s father who rediscovers his political history through his daughter. In short, we see the wider ramifications of the lives of these activists, as they struggle to take direct action safely in spite of police surveillance. The interpersonal stories expose the audience to dialogic expansions upon the activists’ political views, without didacticism.
There are two notable gaps in the film’s portrayal. First, it neglects to indicate a long-term strategy. Second, none of the actions are accompanied by portrayal of the media aspect, or clues as to whether the activists try to shape their narratives at large. Thus the film weighs too heavily toward the action itself, as the activists hop from one struggle to another, disrupting and intervening as they spot an opportunity. Omitting the broader view of direct action traps the film in the activism trope of adventurists who leap into their risky missions without a strategic vision for social change. Nonetheless, the film’s energy is infectious, and the free love anarchism filters through to romanticise direct action in general.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022) is a fictional adaptation of Andreas Malm’s book of the same name. In the book, Malm argues for direct action groups within the climate movement to sabotage fossil fuel infrastructure (e.g. pipelines). This is supported by a reading of historic movements for social change, which shows that making peaceful requests of the ruling elite has never won change. Rather, movements have relied upon a militant wing to take action when demands are ignored. The fictional characters chosen to enact Malm’s viewpoint are diverse, perhaps to normalise direct action across demographics. As well as the usual anarchist suspects, the cast spans kids who faced the health impacts of growing up beside an oil refinery, an indigenous American whose ancestral land was wrecked by oil profiteers, and a patriotic blue collar Texan who was also displaced from his land due to a pipeline.
The film is an absolute Hollywood thriller in cinematography and style. Hair-raising sequences show the activists building DIY explosives in a rickety shed, and intricate heists are carried out by the skin of their teeth. The film is riddled with red herrings, unexpected twists and suspense which mounts through to the close. It has you on the edge of your seat as if it’s Mission Impossible, but instead of pursuing the CIA’s objectives, the team are trying to blow up a pipeline.
Transposing the thriller genre onto new political content raises questions about how high-adrenaline stories affect an audience’s relation to the mission at hand. Top Gun (1986) was a riveting war thriller which was so successful at instilling the desire to join the military that the US Air Force set up recruitment stalls outside the cinemas where it screened. In research built upon Freedom of Information requests, Matthew Alford has uncovered the control which the US Department of Defense exerts over a significant selection of Hollywood’s action thrillers. Both the Terminator and Godzilla franchises started out as metaphors for the threat of the Bomb. In their most recent incarnations, with expanded military involvement, they have become pro-nuclear propaganda. Terminator Salvation sees a nuclear bomb go off right before open heart surgery is performed, outdoors. The film ends as characters fly by helicopter into a post-nuclear sunset. Thus, these Hollywood thrillers are almost explicitly propagandistic to favour US military messaging. If mass direct action is to be popularised, perhaps direct action thrillers could serve as an alternative form of recruitment?
This occurs on two levels in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, in that the characters accompany their direct action with a carefully crafted social media release, and the film itself represents the action, the media broadcast, and all the thoughts and strategies that went into both. Although the plot twists are far-fetched, the activists’ security culture is at times terribly reckless, and things work out a bit too smoothly to believe, the audience is left with a sense of the importance of taking action. Just as importantly, the film emphasises that action is possible.
This emphasis on the media outreach of an action is necessary due to the divided cultural opinion which prevails. If an action were self-evidently just, outreach would be redundant. This is the case in the colonial setting of Black ’47 (2018), where actions against the British state take place in 1847 Ireland. Máirtín Fiannaí left Connemara to fight for the British Army in India and Afghanistan. The film begins when he returns to find half his family dead and Ireland mired in the Great Hunger – the colonialism-induced famine which caused the death of 1 million Irish people and the emigration of 1 million more.
Fiannaí’s direct actions consist of flipping the British justice system such that Britain’s social murder is treated as murder. As he puts it, ‘if I kill a man they call it murder. If they kill a man they call it war.’ Fiannaí burns a Royal Constabulary station to the ground, and the magistrate who sentenced his brother to be hanged is hunted down and himself hanged from the court’s roof. Most of this is basic revenge drama content. But he also takes down a British soldier so that peasants can access grain that’s about to be exported to England, and disrupts a Protestant service so that Irish Catholics don’t have to submit to English-language hazing to get a cup of soup.
Set almost two centuries in the past, and relying on the expertise of an ex-soldier to carry out its portrayed actions, Black ’47 does not have the inspirational qualities of Code Name Jenny or How to Blow Up a Pipeline, both of which show activists muddling through in the 21st century. However, this film exemplifies the drawback of direct action which to an extent is shared by all the films so far.
Direct action difficulties
Fiannaí’s actions are carried out by a lone vigilante on a quest for justice. The potentialities of collective power are left to one side. He enables peasants to steal grain and access soup, but he doesn’t speak to them. Although his sense of justice aligns with their material needs, he works for the people, not with them. Is non-dialogic vanguardism an inevitable component of direct action, whilst it remains confined to such a small minority? The secrecy necessary to planning means that communities cannot meaningfully be consulted as to the target and tactics of a given action. Further, given that there are many people who simply cannot risk arrest – due to immigration status, caring responsibilities, a profession requiring a PVG/DBS – direct action may remain the prerogative of a minority. Should activists prioritise good actions carried out at speed, or the slower work of bringing more people into the consciousness that action is needed?
The films above prioritise the former and ignore the latter, but a new TV show on Amazon Prime addresses the difficulty head on. I’m a Virgo (2023) was created by Boots Riley of Sorry to Bother You acclaim. The series is not a leftist direct action thriller only – it also hops across the superhero genre, fantasy and coming-of-age, with a large dose of working class realism and explorations of racialised America, along with a theatrical pedagogy of Marxism that has rarely (if ever) been so thoughtfully generated for the screen. Most usefully for this conversation, it encompasses the constructive counterpart to the destructive aspects of direct action: community organising and workplace organising.
In a sense, I’m a Virgo is an extended metaphor for the impact of neoliberal individualist ideology on people’s theory of change. Cootie, a 13-foot tall giant born into a repressed Black community in Oakland, has been raised by his family, television, and astrological pep talks to believe he was born to do great things. Once he leaves his sheltered teenage years and enters the politicised community who are fighting for social change, he throws himself into a warped version of vanguardism to restore electricity to his neighbourhood.
However, his direct action, which destroys the piece of equipment which allows the power station to cut off electricity to the Black neighbourhood, was not portrayed as an inherent good. Not because the material end was wrong, although it was ultimately not materially very useful, but because its intended messaging was to glorify Cootie and his vanguard team. Self-styling as a group of heroes who would lead the neighbourhood toward a better life was a notion contrasted throughout with the views of Jones, a community organiser. Jones insists that it’s necessary to create more leaders, rather than spotlighting a few leaders who enable a neighbourhood to simply be led. She is vindicated when the electrics company immediately replaces the equipment damaged by the direct action, which happens before Cootie even has a chance to broadcast their intended messaging.
Of course, direct action is rarely a glory-hunting exercise in real life. Activists seek to evade arrest and remain anonymous where possible, and their reasoning is more political than personal. But perhaps the main takeaway from I’m a Virgo is that direct action and community organising must coexist, precisely because they move at such different speeds. We are living within a worsening climate crisis which interlocks with tyranny at the border, tyranny of police and prisons, and increased suppression of the working class. From this angle, speed is of the essence. However, for a new society to be built, we need to bring as many people as possible with us.
Mass direct action could in theory be sufficient to make present-day fossil profiteering unviable, if sabotage is organised at a high enough frequency and amplitude. But that would not be sufficient to build a new form of society. For that, it takes the slower work of building working class power. These are largely separate tasks, but if the direct action messaging is pitched right, they can be done in solidarity. For example, if oil workers built rank and file power to win autonomy over a just transition to climate jobs, that would be eminently compatible with direct action targeting fossil fuel infrastructure. A Lenin quote that could be appropriated for direct action is: ‘gradualness explains nothing without leaps. Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!’ But the reverse is necessary too: communication and relationships need to be forged if the vanguard is not to alienate itself.
Will we see the capitalist film industry distributing works which vocally call for the destruction of the infrastructure necessary to reproduce capitalism? It’s possible. A high level of oppositional content can be absorbed by the capitalist media stream. As Raymond Williams writes, the capitalist economic base only ‘sets limits and exerts pressures’ on the media produced within the superstructure. (p130) At least for now, it’s more a question of profitability than ideological censorship. If it were to become clear that leftist direct action thrillers have a profitable market base, we might see the widespread distribution of these works. I’m a Virgo is already quite likely to reach wide audiences and, with its incredible cinematic renderings of Marxist analysis, the hope is that audiences apply its ramifications to their everyday lives.
However, DIY screenings followed by discussion may be more desirable than mainstream distribution anyway, so that activists and potential activists can weigh up the ideas discussed therein. Local film screenings organised and followed by discussion in groups are a useful way for people to build connections, parse out agreements and disagreements with the film’s ideas, and to think about how ideas could be actioned in their own area. The films above are nothing if we allow the characters to act out our actions for us. As Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino write in their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’: politically-committed films are important ‘only as a detonator or a pretext’ for the social change they inspire.