In a world of cheap and shoddy political documentaries whose talking points are talk-radio simple, John Gianvito's second film, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, is a refreshing palate-cleanser: an avant-garde response to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, with static frames taking in the grave sites and memorials of left-wing heroes, labor strikes, et al. Intercut with nature shots—the whispering wind is both a tactile force à la Tarkovsky and a metaphor for the increasingly urgent call of political activism—and animated snippets of capitalist frenzy, the result is equal parts formal rigor and didacticism.
The Voice talked to Gianvito, currently an assistant professor of film at Emerson College, from his home in Boston prior to his film's New York premiere.
Howard Zinn's work is very accessible, and you've made a film in the avant-garde. Did you worry that your formal methods would outweigh your political message?
Part of the impulse to make the film was to write a poem through images in response to this epic work of Howard Zinn's. Howard himself has just completed shooting a TV series based on his writings that I was fortunate enough to attend all the tapings of, and that—if they succeed in getting it aired, as they're hoping to, on some network prior to the fall elections—to me will represent one of the most radical programs to have ever been broadcast in the U.S.
It's a four-part series called The People Speak, under the headings of "race," "class," "war," and "women." It's built around staged readings of texts, letters, speeches, and diary entries from many of the individuals from A People's History of the United States, but also others that extend beyond the book—survivors of Hurricane Katrina, relatives of individuals who perished on September 11, and so forth. I'm very happy for Howard that he's found yet another mechanism so that some of this material might reach a broader audience that might not sit down and read his book or look at my film. As a so-called political filmmaker, I never subscribe to the belief that there's one path.
There's been a lot of talk about the declining presence of old-fashioned street protests, which is the focus of your final montage. Do you feel like that kind of protest has declined in vitality, or is it just less visible?
There may be a certain winnowing of street protests in the last five years—the last massive one I think I went to was during the Republican National Convention—but I would be hesitant to say this is some indication of the collapse of a meaningful progressive movement. I know that when people on the left fell into depression following the rapid conclusion of the so-called first Gulf War, it was important for me to hear someone like Noam Chomsky talk about the need to put this in historical perspective. To the best of his knowledge, that war was the first time that there were large-scale protests in the United States for a war before it had even actually happened. During the Vietnam era, there was a good five, six, seven years before you could get people out on the streets around an issue.
How has your time teaching affected the direction of your work?
I don't think the work has taken on any kind of different complexion because of the beck and call of academe. It was interesting to me to enter an institution that was, at the time of my joining them, going through considerable turmoil around stalled contract negotiations and the administration's desire to break—or at least dramatically weaken—the faculty union. So, yeah, there are some parallels to the work I was engaging in and what was happening on my own campus.
So the emphasis on labor rights and strikes in your film isn't just an abstract issue.
No, but the whole thrust of the undertaking is beyond the realm of the abstract for me. It's all, in varying ways, germane to the here and now, about life-and-death issues that are unfolding around us every minute of the day.
Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind will screen April 26, April 28, May 3, and May 4.
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