From Inventing the Future (2020), dir. Isiah Medina (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

What does an anti- or postcapitalist film look like today? Reference points among Soviet cinema or the 1960s counterculture often no longer apply to contemporary conditions. Two Canadian films released this year attempt to answer that question with different approaches. Mike Hoolboom’s Judy Versus Capitalism is an experimental portrait of activist Judy Rebick, while Isiah Medina’s Inventing the Future is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The former focuses on the individual experience, while the latter tackles systemic issues.

In Inventing the Future, Srnicek and Williams argue that contemporary leftist politics often fail to affect change because they tend to be reactionary rather than inventive. As they see it, by offering a return to simplicity and authenticity, such trends “reject the complexity of the contemporary world and thereby reject the possibility of a truly postcapitalist world.” These proposals are defined more by what they respond to than by their own value, looking to the past rather than the future. Thinking of anti-capitalist cinema as merely reactionary is similarly flawed — such films must seek to reinvent cinematic language rather than merely react to the mainstream.

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Since the 1970s, Judy Rebick has been an active participant in a variety of social justice causes in Canada. She rose to prominence as a spokesperson for an Ontario pro-choice group in the 1980s, in particular after she saved the life of doctor Henry Morgentaler when a man attacked him with garden shears. Judy Versus Capitalism employs various destabilizing techniques to approach her life. It forgoes a chronological narrative, and adopts a variety of layered images to represent the different facets of Rebick’s mind and work. In one sequence, as she explains the realities of sexual harassment in the workplace in the 1960s, images of Rebick in the present day are overlaid with black-and-white images of a younger woman. The vivid colors of the present blend with the abstracted shadows of the past. 

The film does not attempt to contain or limit Rebick’s perspective to digestible soundbites, preferring to create a sense of her ever-expanding impact and ideas. It is a film with a starting point of individual struggle and transforms into an intimate portrait of collective action. Hoolboom, an established filmmaker in the Canadian underground, seeks to extend beyond the self to represent various experiences that transcend the individual perspective. This film, which is rooted in his friendship with Rebick, is both political and personal. His textured images blend celluloid, video, and computer effects (which adds a nonhuman perspective), creating a transcendent complexity of human and systematic experience. 

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Inventing the Future is even denser, exploring notions such as universal basic income and automation, and how they could make for greater freedom for individuals to create, think, and develop. To explore complex strategies and systems, it rejects traditional notions of time and space. Medina privileges the cut above all else, making use of near-constant montage, operating through rapid-fire associations to go from one subject to the next. In an early sequence about artificially generated intelligence, human faces and profiles are intercut first with statues of Greek philosophers and then computer-generated images. The rapid editing transforms mostly fixed compositions into moving objects. Even the voiceover is not fixed or polished; there is no one authorial narrator, and the different speakers stumble at times or repeat phrases. The film eschews naturalism and adopts an almost alien POV, fittingly for its futuristic perspective. How do you imagine a reality that has not yet arrived? What will that experience look like? How will humanity be transformed under such conditions?

Medina made Inventing the Future with the help of crowdfunding and grants from various arts organizations, then went a step further by going outside the expected distribution model. He released the film for free on YouTube and made it available to download on his website. In bypassing even the festival circuit in favor of a direct relationship to the audience, he continues to circumvent the norms of the commercial film industry.

From Judy Versus Capitalism (2020), dir. Mike Hoolboom (courtesy Festival du Nouveau Cinema)

There is no uniform language for anti-capitalist cinema. By its very nature, it has to be transformative and inventive, to challenge audiences as it unveils the complexity of the world we live in. Whether approaching an individual or a system, it seeks to transform reality rather than merely portray it as it is. To ensure a better future, the rigors of postcapitalist cinema demand that we open our imaginations. 

Inventing the Future is available on YouTube. Judy Versus Capitalism is playing various film festivals.

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.