This text was written originally for the 2015 Black Star Film Festival program guide.
Film Review: Red Bones Guerrillas (2003) Directed by Pierre Bennu (TRT 103min)
Before you could hire a corporate consulting firm to organize a “flash mob” for your next gala, there was “culture jamming”, “billboard liberation”, “tactical media” and “interventionism.” This twelve-year old video by Pierre Bennu, known more recently for his mash-up and Harriet Tubman Barbie works, takes us back to that time.
Red Bones Guerrillas begins with two potential protagonists. Bonita Evans is making her first documentary and performance guru Magenta Bergenstein is teaching her first class. Bergenstein’s students relay in reality-TV “confessional” style scenes how Magenta is “really pushing them”. Days pass and they wring all they can from her acting exercises (act like a bully is peeing on you, act like you are walking in Peanut Butter!), gradually getting frustrated. As they become disillusioned, one asks “Did you notice that she spoke about herself in third person?” Another comments that the myth of herself “is irrelevant.”
When Magenta stops coming to class the group self-organizes to “jam the system” and “take it to the proletariat” through street theater. A montage of public interventions characteristic of late 1990s and early 2000s bring absurd street actions to the sidewalks of New York City. Occasional narrator Bonita Evans, who keeps following the ex-students, cites the Situationists as an influence on the group who call themselves Red Bones Guerrillas (RBG). Magenta Bergenstein is gone.
As with many groups of this era, the RBG seem to swing too far in targeting their actions towards the media. The group rises and falls in fame, with public recognition and attention combined with internal tensions driving many of their disputes. While Bennu’s Red Bones Guerrillas could have benefited from some additional editing (with a long the talk-show segment really felt like a tangent), overall it is a compelling fictionalized history of a group that could have been. Channeling some of the intimacy captured in Emile de Antonio, Haskell Wexler and Mary Lampson “Underground” (1976) in combination with the ambiguous fact/fiction of Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers” (1966) Bennu successfully portrays the inner life of a small cadre of activists. And yet it is not a film of 66 or 76.
Considered with two other films released the same year as Red Bones Guerrillas – a rich dialogue about the political imagination at the turn of the century emerges across the three stories. “Threads of Belonging” (Jennifer Montgomery) explores the collective living experiments of the “anti-psychiatry” movement while “The Yes Men” (Sarah Price, Chris Smith, and Dan Ollman) shows what two white men can get away with in suits. While Red Bones Guerrillas is formally a fusion of the other two (both a play on the documentary form) – the contribution it makes to the dialogue is not aesthetic but representational – what if the most famous interventionists were people of color and what if the New Left project of finding new ways of living and being together was the model for sustaining collaborative artistic practice wasn’t treated as nostalgic? Watching Red Bones Guerrillas in a year where USC Roski’s School of Art and Design MFA graduate students collectively dropped out and started a support system for one another to make art and Bree Newsome scaled the South Carolina statehouse flagpole to remove the Confederate flag…the above question seems more 2014 than 2003.