Close Up

9 June 2019: Nick Macdonald: Anarchist Films


In the early to mid 1970s, Nick Macdonald made several political essay films in and around his New York apartment. Influenced by anarchism, the films are unique, personal projects that eschew traditional documentary footage in favour of a sort of bricolage technique in which Macdonald used narration, newspaper cutouts, knickknacks, photographs, guerrilla skits, and wordplay on a letter board to explore such topics as the Vietnam War, Palestine, the Attica uprising, women’s liberation, and the anti-war movement. These films are not historical artefacts but surprisingly relevant object lessons in using personal art to address current political issues.

We're thrilled to welcome Nick Macdonald to present and discuss his work with Gareth Evans.

Break Out!
Nick Macdonald, 1970, 25 min

A self-criticism, self-analysis” in which Macdonald struggles with his own status as a self-declared “armchair radical.” Wondering what real effect making films and attending demonstrations can have, he wrestles with the idea of violence and examines his own excuses (protecting his family, protecting his life) for not “being radical as opposed to talking radical.” In a section that introduces the letter board and bricolage technique that would become so prominent in his filmography, he lays out a radical 12-point program for the attainment of a more decent society; a coda proposes a halfway point between armchair radicalism and bomb-throwing.

No More Leadershit
Nick Macdonald, 1971, 4 min

Macdonald lays out his theory of anarchy – in its purest sense of a rejection of hierarchy – in this seriocomic short he argues that protesters, police, and soldiers alike are not the perpetrators of violence but are victims at the hands of leaders.

The Liberal War
Nick Macdonald, 1972, 33 min

Macdonald’s magnum opus is staged as an attempt to explain the Vietnam War to members of a future anarchist society. Along with a voiceover that emphasizes that this story is just “my own view, the way I see it” with visual wordplay on a letter board, Macdonald’s bricolage technique uses odds and ends lying around his apartment to literalize the metaphors of invasion and occupation: the puppet government of South Vietnam is a sock puppet with Ngo Dihn Diem’s face glued onto it; dominoes and then plastic army men are set up and knocked over on a map of Vietnam; Macdonald’s own Harvard diploma is cut into paper dolls to illustrate the prevalence of the war’s architects at that esteemed institution. The film rejects the widely held belief that the war came about through a series of accidents and well-intentioned but misguided decisions by the “best and brightest,” arguing instead that it was the necessary outcome of American exceptionalism.

Still Attica Remains
Nick Macdonald, 1976, 15 min

Shot on September 13th, 1975 in New York City, Still Attica Remains revisits the Attica Prison Uprising exactly four years after its violent end at the hands of state actors. Handheld footage of the city acts as a backdrop as Macdonald recounts the events of the rebellion, focusing in particular on then-governor Nelson Rockefeller’s refusal to negotiate and his role in escalating the conflict that resulted in 43 deaths. Both a screed against political power and a memorial to those who have lost their lives because of their exclusion from our society, Still Attica Remains is a heartfelt contribution to the prison abolition movement; as powerful today as it was in 1975.

After making three silent comedies in college, and a documentary about refugees from the Spanish Civil War, Nick Macdonald made seven political (essay) films from 1970 to 1976. These films have been shown at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and various university and leftist forums. He also filmed two short color movies on Cape Cod. Made on extremely low budgets with a homemade quality to them, his films don’t rely on documentary footage but, instead, use photographs and guerrilla skits, often taking place within his apartment. Macdonald’s book, In Search of La Grande Illusion, on Jean Renoir’s classic film, was published in 2014 by McFarland & Co. In 2015, MoMA accepted his films for their archives and they are currently being processed by the museum.