Colliding social change and art


“I want to make films with a social purpose”, Newcastle-based film maker and activist Simon Cunich told Green Left Weekly. “I think every one has got a responsibility to persuade people and to inspire activism.”

Cunich, a member of Socialist Alliance, is completing a certificate in Screen and Media.

Newcastle is the largest exporter of coal in the world and Cunich said this “environmental destruction” has led to a hub of activism in opposition.

“There is a very strong activist community here”, he said. “There is a lot of crossover between different activist circles, it's a very cool and collaborative environment.

“There are a lot of opportunities for activists and also for people to tell their stories, be it through film or other media.”

Cunich was recently the runner-up in a local film competition for his film Based on a True Story. The festival required films to be two minutes long and be edited only on camera, with no post-production.

“That created a technical challenge, but it also limited how complicated the film could be. So I created quite a simple story about how a young aspiring graffiti artist is held back by the closing down of Newcastle's only legal graffiti wall, which did happen in Newcastle this year.

“My film was in response to that.”

Speaking about the power of documentaries to inform and mobilise people around social change, Cunich said, “It can make people think about things differently, documentaries can give people the information and tools to go out and organise.

“You can’t underestimate the power of that.”

Cunich said that although art on its own doesn’t produce social change, it’s definitely part of the mix.

“Photographs or documentaries can be a part of the broader movement, but art shouldn’t be a substitute for people going out and organising.”

But it’s not just traditionals forms of “art”, such as film or photography, that play a role in progressive movements, said Cunich.

“When you go to a rally and see people that have made their own placards with an interesting take on an issue, it makes you pause and think. That’s art.”

Cunich’s initial interest in film making was sparked during his final year of high school when he discovered it could be used as a tool for activism.

“I made a short film as part of my HSC [High School Certificate]. It was as I was becoming more political and I wanted the short film to have strong political overtones.

“It’s funny looking back at it, it really spelled the politics out. It was probably too didactic. I’d do it quite differently now.”

For Cunich, the 2001 Tampa affair was the real catalyst for his involvement in activism.

“The racism against refugees under [then-prime minister John] Howard — that’s when I first started getting involved in activism and I started organising stuff at high school.

“That was a turning point for sure. The blatant racism opened my eyes to a lot of other injustices.”

Cunich has been involved in many campaigns, including protesting against the 2002 World Trade Organisation meeting in Sydney, opposing the Iraq war and organising for action on climate change.

This year, Cunich said he was “involved in helping putting together and editing what ended up being a half hour documentary called There is No Future in Coal”.

“That was an awesome project. It was very collective. I think there is a lot to be said about making stuff like that in groups.”

The project strengthened his drive to use film as a vehicle for activism. “It was good to be able to have a directly useful and relatable role in the campaign.”

Next on Cunich’s radar is a promotional video for the NSW Climate Camp designed to help organise environmental activism, a documentary he filmed on a recent trip to Venezuela that looks at alternatives to corporate control of food and agriculture, and the Sydney-based grassroots Live Red Art exhibition and festival.

The Live Red Art competition aims to promote and recognise art that investigates radical social and political perspectives. It will profile artists such as Cunich, who are directing their passion, creativity and talent to aim to inspire social change and raise political awareness.

Live Red Art awards co-ordinator Lauren Carroll Harris told GLW: “I think this kind of collision of the creative and the political is something both the arts world and the political world could really benefit from.

“The rise in support for the Greens shows many people are really disenchanted with politics-as-usual. There’s a long tradition of artists who’ve used their work to keep the wheels of progressive change turning, to imagine a different kind of world.

“I would argue that every artwork promotes an ideological agenda or way of thinking of some kind, overtly or not. So it’s exciting to see this kind of project in Sydney and exciting to be able to support emerging artists and filmmakers.

“I think we have a big potential to really motivate and empower audiences to participate in the social movements.”

"So far, the process has been really interesting. We’ve received submissions from artists across a broad range of conceptual and artistic practices — photomedia artists who are challenging traditional notions of the land, performance artists taking up the question of social alienation.

“We also have a political posters exhibition and a live street, graffiti art performance planned, and a mini-zine fair for people who are interested in busting the corporate dominance of the media.”

A prize of $3000, and a people’s choice award of $500, will be awarded to an individual artist or group of artists whose work of art best reflects the motto: “Another world is possible, but we must fight for it.”

The focus of the project is on live, interactive, multidisciplinary art that can engage audiences directly and dynamically, and inspire them to activity.

The Live Red Art awards are open for submissions until October 1. The festival and awards take place at the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville, Sydney on October 17.

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