Obstinate Memory: Documentary as trauma in disrupting state narratives on racial violence

by Ken Fero, Migrant Media

"The most political decision you make is where you direct people's eyes. In other words, what you show people, day in and day out, is political. And the most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show them, every day, that there can be no change." Wim Wenders (1)

Television is a series of rapidly cut images which cancel out the previous one until, in the end, nothing remains. Within mass audiovisual media, asserted by Peter Watkins as MAVM (2), televised news and factual production are primary sources of information and control that work in the interest of the state. Watkins outlines the monoform approach in film production as a system of audience control, as opposed to the possibilities of a more interactive approach. However, the dominance of discourses serving the interests of only small sections of society, and the lack of space for debate on television, are being challenged. Social media has now facilitated rejection of these previously trusted monolithic media institutions. When Tik Tok was generating over 600 million hits on #freepalestine, as seen recently, it became clear that story containment by the MAVM is being undermined. Documentaries, however, tend to be tasked with taking a more long-term approach than both mainstream and social media.

The Chilean documentary director Patricio Guzman, whose remarkable work centers around memory and national trauma during and after the Pinochet regime, said that documentary was the great archive of human history. What fascination there would be, he said, if we could look back in time at footage of the court of King Louis XIV. Guzman is correct, of course, but even now, into a century of cinema, how important is film memory and are we really using it? The footage of the Holocaust did not prevent Rwanda or Srebrenica in the same century. The images of Vietnamese children running down a road after the US bombing of their village with napalm in 1972, shocked the world. Crying with skin and flesh hanging off them, they are naked, shocked, traumatised. They run towards the camera and towards the US soldiers who pour water on the children’s flesh as the chemicals burn into them. Shock and awe, the torturer is also the savior. Those images of the chemical assault on children in Vietnam did not prevent the US army using white phosphorus in Falluja in 2004 and burning Iraqi children. Once we see these images we cannot forget them – much as we may try - these images are part of our psyche, yet we seem unable to act when shown this evidence. The weakness of film as reality is, ironically, the deniability of film is evidence of truth. We consume these images but we do not process them. With the increased speed with which we see each atrocity we become desensitised, we give no time to have a ‘long take’. A process which may lead to a deeper analysis and perhaps some action, or even resistance.

Migrant Media is a collective of migrant, black and refugee film activists established in 1991. (3) The struggles of race and class are at the core of their resistance-based work. They employ techniques of Third Cinema to incite political change through a provocative strategy of deconstructing established narratives. As Getino and Solanas state: “Every image that documents, bears witness to, refutes or deepens the truth of a situation is something more than a film image or purely artistic fact; it becomes something which the System finds indigestible.” (4)

In the past, the principles of Third Cinema were also the foundation for the Workshop Movement in the UK. These were collectives of media workers whose foci were largely around communities of interest of class, gender and race. Initially supported by Channel 4 during the ‘80s and ‘90s, groups like the Black Audio Film Collective, Ceddo (5) and Amber (6) took on the role of documenting marginalized communities and bringing their stories to a wider audience.

It is in this spirit that Migrant Media continues to attempt to challenge conventional documentary through the position of the filmmaker as the gatherer of what can be termed ‘obstinate memory’. This documentary practice is a radical approach in challenging the dominant media and state narratives. The films largely focus on the representation of political struggles for racial justice in the UK. Explorations of resistance, race and class from a community perspective are documented over three decades, employing a ‘documentary of force’ research method. It is a praxis summed up by the Dziga-Vertov Group: “The problem is not to make political films but to make films politically”.

The approach of Migrant Media offers hope around the production of images of resistance, of which the notion of collective memory is a fundamental part. The 2001 documentary Injustice (Fero & Mehmood) examines the killing of Black people by police in the UK. The film took 7 years to produce. On its attempted release, a number of serving police officers served notices of legal action towards cinemas. These threats led to an ongoing controversy, including clandestine screenings, the intervention of the Attorney General and accusations that the film was libelous and an incitement to riot. Its 2020 sequel, Ultraviolence (Fero), took 15 years to produce and is currently on release through the BFI. The films critique how media frames custodial deaths to avoid becoming national moments of trauma. The approach is critical in understanding mainstream media functioning in maintaining what Zizek terms fetishist disavowal “I know, but I don’t want to know that I know, so I don’t know” (7) What are the strategies that filmmakers take to ensure that state abuse remains in the collective memory? Why is it important to have more than one truth?


Documentary films can be made prescriptively; a text is written and images gathered to illustrate them. They can also be exploratory; an audience is taken on a journey by the filmmaker, but even these tend to have a pre-determined destination or framework. A third way is through memory functioning as the narrative, this chronological approach is a filmmaking process that happens over decades. It is not a matter of purchasing archive and commenting, rather the archival nature emerges out of the process of filming over very long periods. Migrant Media documents memory - personal, community, national – as a process of gathering. The approach is to present a reflective memory, one that is able to speak of the past, show the present and question the future. This reflection is carried out by the film participants.

Making films about human rights abuses involves trauma. Whilst the role of the news is to report a crisis, the role of documentary is to question the source of the crisis in depth. Memory allows the emergence of patterns and the documenting of a modern history of social justice campaigns. The dominant MAVM approach to state violence is the use of expert opinion to contextualize the trauma and the events that created it, a form of crisis avoidance. Migrant Media rejects this approach, instead seeking to offer film participants the opportunity to be more than victims. The filmmaker Werner Herzog’s notion of ecstatic truth is that “facts do not constitute truth” (8). Whilst dominant media does deal with facts, a memory-based approach allows much more instinct, emotion and humanity to emerge on film. The trauma that viewers experience when viewing films such as Injustice and Ultraviolence tends to be relatively restricted to cinemas and online audiences. The ongoing refusal by corporations to broadcast the films restricts the possibility of change that the national trauma induced by such screenings would no doubt generate. (9)

How does the notion of obstinate memory work? With the film Injustice, Migrant Media spent 5 years filming with families of those killed by the police, simply observing with their cameras. There was political engagement also in forming the struggle. However, there were no sit-down interviews with participants during the times of the crisis in their lives. When the evidence of systemic patterns of policing abuse and legal failures were eventually captured on film a series of lengthy interviews took place. It became clear that, with the passing of time, the participants became more than victims. With the memories of five years of struggle they were able to process, analyze and, most importantly, offer a critique for resistance. They became the experts and were able to present legal, medical and political aspects of the story from a personal point of view. They were able to see the whole picture. This form of speaking truth to power is one of the reasons the work is so impactful.


Of course there are many other documentary filmmakers that deal with trauma and memory and whose work is worth exploring. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Emad Burnat’s 5 Broken Cameras and Ava DuVerny’s 13th are a few examples. Exploring the use of memory as a filmmaking methodology also brings up the issue of cinematic memory itself. John Akomfrahs bricolage approach in his work allows a poetic reflection that transcends time and space. (10)

It is Jean Luc Godard, however, whose work, esoteric and unapproachable to some, posits the idea that cinema itself is a collective memory bank. His Histoire(s) du cinema series explores cinematic language not just terms of syntax but cinema as a time capsule with each film, Hollywood or Arthouse, of any form and anytime having a residual meaning of 20th Century humanity. Films evoke memories and, in Godard's editorial hands, they progress beyond the meaning on screen as nostalgia. When fused together in his reflective montage, cinema reflects both the beauty and the horror of the past. It does this perhaps in a way that no other language can.

So to the horrors of the present. The research for Injustice revealed that over 1000 people had died after coming into contact with the police during the 30-year period investigated. In the 20 years since then there has been another 1000 deaths. Anyone that claims, as many have in the light of the George Floyd killing, that the UK is somehow different, that those things ‘do not happen here’, are sadly mistaken. The cold hard facts are in the words of Frank Ogboru, the death of whom predates Floyd with the cries of “I can’t breathe” as he died on the streets of South East London, physically restrained by the Metropolitan Police. The last words of Paul Coker was to scream “They are killing me” when more than 12 officers restrained him in his girlfriend’s flat in Plumstead. A society that refuses to even acknowledge the last words of the dead is in chronic denial and that is why memory is important. It is a challenge to the collective amnesia and societies’ desperation to trust the state.

The role of documentary memory to release trauma and disrupt state narratives on racial violence cannot be underestimated. Now, a generation of young people have emerged who are questioning the very fundamentals of society. Whether it is Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion or the #MeToo movement there is a growing interest in the social struggles of the past to learn lessons. Obstinate documentaries that focus on resistance, it seems, may be coming of age.


(1) Wenders, W. (1997) The Act of Seeing: Essays and Conversations, London: Faber and Faber

(2) Watkins, P. (2018) Dark Side of the Moon Part 1, Available at: http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/links.htm

(3) Migrant Media (2021) Available at: https://vimeo.com/migrantmedia

(4) Getino, O. & Solanas, F. (1971) Towards A Third Cinema. Tricontinental 14. La Habana: Organización de Solidaridad de los Pueblos de África, Asia y América Latina. Available at: http://ufsinfronteradotcom.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/tercer-cine-getino-solonas-19691.pdf

(5) Ogidi, A. (2014) Ceddo http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/569785/

(6) Amber (2020) https://www.amber-online.com/event/side-cinema/the-workshop-movement-a-conversation/

(7) Zizek, Slavoj. (2009) Violence Profile Books, London

(8) Herzog, W. (1999) The Minnesota Declaration: Lessons From Darkness Available at: https://walkerart.org/magazine/minnesota-declaration-truth-documentary-cinema

(9) Aziz, W. (2003) Press Gazette https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/c4-cowards-wont-show-death-in-custody-film/

(10) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3tRS9D4vJ2qWzWh7t31YnnB/moving-images-film-maverick-john-akomfrahs-screen-art