In 2017, the stakes of organized dissent seem exceptionally high. The 214 people charged as part of the anti-fascist protests on January 20 — a/k/a the DisruptJ20 action during the inauguration of Donald Trump — have been hit with felony charges and currently face up to ten years in prison. These blanket charges — levied onto some without evidence that they did anything more than show up — are the most severe repercussions for nonviolent political protest in recent history. In early parts of 2017, GOP legislators in more than 20 states across the U.S. have introduced bills intended to suppress organized protest, which the U.N. has stated are “incompatible with U.S. obligations under international human rights law.”
But as times change, so do the tools at our disposal. When anthropologist Maple Razsa set out to make The Maribor Uprisings, he had little idea what political life in 2017 would be like. As it turns out, the Mainer’s groundbreaking film about a series of Slovenian political demonstrations in 2012 could serve as a valuable experiential tool for audiences who have never witnessed a protest first hand.
The film is comprised of on-the-ground footage that Razsa, along with co-director/producer Milton "Milo" Guillén and others, shot during a series of civilian protests in Maribor in November of 2012, when Slovenia’s second-largest city revolted en masse against its mayor, violent police forces, and a corrupt political elite.
Using organizational tactics that mirror those deployed at Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere, Razsa and Guillén facilitate the screening, guiding the audience through a series of collectively made decisions throughout the film that steer their trajectory through protests and direct action within Maribor. Audiences decide, for example, whether to follow activists as they escalate the demonstration by rolling a bale of hay to be torched outside City Hall, or to stay back with the more peaceful protesters in Liberty Square. In each case, audience members are required to face not only the content of the film, but one another.
Each of the film’s decisions leads to other crossroads and talking points, the paths and discussions of which change with every screening. Like life, Razsa says, it’s impossible to “undo” a decision in the film. And though audiences shouldn’t expect a choose-your-own-adventure style “wrong choice,” part of the experience of the film is collectively processing the consequences of decisions made in the heat of action.
Razsa, a Maine-raised documentary filmmaker, writer, and anthropologist, has had ties to Slovenia since he was a teen, when an exchange student classmate convinced him to travel there as a high school exchange student. As he tells it, Razsa arrived to former Yugoslavia a year before the war started, and he spent his time there “watching the country fall apart.”
Now an Associate Professor of Global Studies at Colby College in Waterville (where co-director Guillén also works at a photography and video journalist and educator in the Communications department), Razsa identifies Maribor as one of an early wave of modern revolutionary protests across the globe which began with the Arab Spring, and which continues with insurgencies in the U.S., from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock.
While the particular circumstances in each protest surely differ — the anti-globalization protests of the turn of the century to Standing Rock's protracted sit-in — they share common themes of citizens pushing back against systems of inequality, through government corruption, and ecological destruction.
But from a technical standpoint, the modern wave of protests also share the emergence of video as a tool to make movements, protests, and narratives of oppression visible to a wider public. Maribor is a prime example of this, as its biggest uprising occurred when protesters posted videos of a mass of citizens calling for the resignation of Mayor Franc Kengler to Facebook and other social media, resulting in the protest captured in the film.
The Maribor Uprisings may be unconventional, but it’s a film Mainers should expect to hear a lot more of. And for a production ostensibly about Slovenia, it has deep local ties, not only from the Maine-raised Razsa but the hand of veteran editor Mary Lampson of Dresden, who has edited documentaries as influential as Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), about a labor strike in a rural Kentucky coal mine, to Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’s climate change doc This Changes Everything (2015).
INDIRECT ACTION Maple Razsa facilitates a screening of The Maribor Uprisings
“The conceit of the film is that you can’t go back,” says Lampson, who moved to Maine from New York in 1978. “If you make this choice you have to follow it to its logical conclusion.”
Audiences might feel compelled to choose the more dynamic or cinematic choice, but unlike most entertainment, the film is designed to hold audiences accountable for those decisions. “What’s so interesting is that it’s not just somebody’s fantasy,” says Lampson. “These things really did happen.”
Maribor had a secret screening at the 2016 Camden International Film Festival and had a private test screening in Maine last spring. Since then, it’s received a warm reception at the Toronto festival Hot Docs, and is featured at this week’s Maine International Film Festival, its premiere screening the evening Saturday, July 22, at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. The film returns to Portland in late summer, as Razsa facilitates a screening in Congress Square Park on September 15. Other area screenings will be announced shortly.
The Phoenix spoke with Razsa via Skype in Athens, Greece, where he was conducting research for a book on the way activists have welcomed refugees to Europe over the last few years.
YOUR FACILITATORS Maple Razsa and Milton "Milo" Guillén [Photo courtesy Colby College/Andrew Kist]
How have screenings of The Maribor Uprisings been in Slovenia compared to other parts of the world?
Well, I would separate the screenings we’ve done in Slovenia from other places. When screening to Slovenia, we’re screening to people who are or were part of it, so they have a totally different perspective on the film that is specific to them.
When I started this project, I was worried that the first questions I would get would be where the hell is Maribor? I was worried that people would not get what this was about, that it would feel like too specific a story. That has not been the case. Maybe it’s partly because of the form, or partly because we’re in such a period of protest, but people have very easily read the project through their own experiences and places. Especially in the bigger, more cosmopolitan places we’ve shown, like Denmark or Toronto, we’ve gotten people from protest movements from around the world who are in the audience. People are making comparisons to Gezi Park [in Turkey] or Tahrir Square in Egypt, or the Montreal students’ protests of the last couple years. Black Lives Matter in New York for sure was a big topic of comparison.
That’s been one of the heartening things. Usually, you show a film and people ask questions about the site, the documentary, what’s going on there now — further background. But most of the questions have been more like How would I respond? How would this connect to our world? I don’t know if that’s in part to the invitation of imagining yourself there making those decisions, or if it’s because the film is in an unusual form, but it’s really nice to see people connect to the material that way.
So people actually identify themselves as having taken part in protests like Black Lives Matter or Tahrir Square?
Yeah, absolutely. Some of the most powerful moments in the film happen in the interactive space in the theater as people are talking to each other, as much as when they are watching the film. In the screening in Copenhagen that we had [, there was a decision to go toward conflict with the police or try to fight and hold this square or to regroup and try and find safety. And a woman from Turkey who was part of the Gezi Park protests spoke up and said, “Well, what happened [for us] when people moved toward only militant tactics [was that] a lot of women didn’t feel safe anymore and it became much more of a male protest. So I would ask that we regroup and think about how we can keep everyone involved.”
A similar thing that happened with Black Lives Matter protesters in Brooklyn. They were like, it’s never safe for us to go toward the most violent parts of the protest so I’d ask that people show solidarity and retreat to this space. And so there’d been like a straw poll first, and it looked like everyone wanted to stay and fight. But once there’d been those interventions of people drawing on their own experience, the audience swung the other way and decided to go on the other path. So some of those encounters would be very important.
I think for many people, this is just entertainment. They choose what sounds like the most exciting thing. But as soon as someone starts saying no, this is a lot like my real experience, it’s like, Oh, this isn’t just a game. It’s really neat to see that.
In America obviously, there are constitutionally protected rights to protest, and in various other parts of the world there’s a shiftier understanding of that.
Yeah, but in the New York screening, though. We had a couple of people who are defendants in the J20 prosecutions. There are 200 people who have been charged as a group and they’re facing upward of 75 years in prison. They were talking about why the selective prosecution of some people serves to criminalize the whole protest sometimes. And that was very similar to what happened in Slovenia. It’s interesting that even in the U.S. you see parallels to this stuff.
What dates from the 2012 uprisings does the film cover?
The film gives you a little pre history — there had been two earlier uprisings that had been violently suppressed by the police — and then you enter live action in real time at the start of the third uprising in November. There were some smaller ones afterward but this was the largest and most confrontational of the uprisings — November 3, 2012.
How typical is the running time for a screening?
It runs about 70 to 90 minutes. That’s with a little bit of discussion folded into it.
From what I understand, one of the factors that led to the series of uprisings was a sort of public-private partnership that the mayor of Maribor made with a company that enforced speed radar systems. There were suddenly all these minor traffic violations that were extorting money from Slovenians. How much was that a part of the public consciousness when the uprisings occurred?
Yeah, that really blew up. Everyone I had spoken to [in Slovenia] talked about that as the last straw. It was a pretty dramatic story of corruption. Like, 70,000 automated speeding tickets issued in the first couple weeks — basically, one for every vehicle in the city. And when people found out that 90 percent of the proceeds when to the private contractor and not to the city, they got very upset. And then they heard that the mayor was on the board of the organization, and then finally they heard that he was about to run for this national body called the National Council, and members of Parliament have parliamentary immunity so they can’t be prosecuted. He would have gotten immunity if he had been elected. They heard this was happening, and people put it on Facebook and then mobbed around the building calling for his resignation, and for him to leave the building and not to be given this parliamentary immunity that protected him from corruption charges. And then the police beat people. There was a lot of violence against people who gathered there, and then it started to snowball as people got angry about that.
Could you talk about some of the ground rules you lay down before screening the film?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a script that [Portland writer, actor, and filmmaker] Ian Carlsen and I developed, so that if someone else is going to show the film without one of the directors present would know how to run it live. First, we give a little bit of the background to orient people to the fact that this is a protest that’s one in a series of global uprisings from the Arab Spring through to Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock. Then we say that’s all out there in the larger world, but we wanna turn now to this room and what we’re going to do together. And we talk about how basically directly democratic and anti-authoritarian practices were common to this whole period of uprisings, from Occupy and all these others, and we’re going to use a few of them in the theater to make decisions. And the first one is that you decide collectively, together, and that there’s no going back from those decisions. Once you make a decision, that’s the path you’re on, and like in life, there’s no going back.
The second one we use is “take space, make space,” which is the idea that if you’re someone for whom it’s easy to speak and often is invited to speak, then hold back a little and make room for people who speak less. And in that spirit, as facilitators, we try to draw people present who are from underrepresented communities into that discussion too — women, people of color, etc. And then we point out to people that for some people in the audience this will be a kind of entertainment and it will seem like fun and interesting, and for other people it will bring back very real and frightening experiences of the police and protest, and to hear each other out and listen and be aware of those differences and respectful of them in the theater.
How many different crossroads and voting points are there in the film?
It depends on which path you’re on, but basically six or seven. But I would say that on each pathway, there are two moments that dramatically put you on a different pathway. The others are a little like sidebars, but there are basically four significantly different paths through the material.
In a recent piece for POV magazine, you talked about potentially formatting this to an online version, but you were reluctant to do that. Why?
We’re still entertaining the idea because we’d like the material to be more widely accessible. I’d like to prepare an educational version with a set of readings and a syllabus. I think it would work very well with a classroom, where you’d be able to watch together able to reproduce some of these dilemmas in the classroom and argue about them with a little bit more of an advanced reading with it. But I’m reluctant to lose something about this format. I like the way that the form mirrors the content, which is that you’re forced to be together with other members of the public and make decisions collectively. That parallels the kind of decisions that protesters always have to make in the streets, and to me, to lose that or reduce it to an individual experience, makes it more game-like and takes away what I think of is that political element. So I’m not closed to it, but for now we’re still kind of reluctant to do that. But if the right kind of host came up, we’re still open to it. But you can understand my reluctance.
Sure. And you are writing scripts for hosts for screenings that may not include yourselves?
Yes. We were just at a film festival in Romania. We got the first draft of the script done so that they could run it themselves. They did a couple of screenings in Transilvania with that script we developed. Now it’s ready to go to student groups and those sorts of things who can’t afford to bring in a director to facilitate.
Upcoming Screenings of The Maribor Uprisings
July 22, 9:30 pm | Maine International Film Festival | Railroad Square Cinemas, 17 Railroad Square, Waterville | www.miff.org
September 15, 9pm | Congress Square Park, Portland | www.congresssquarepark.org
Look for other potential screenings in the fall at www.mariboruprisings.org