Article categories: Issue 63
July 31st, 2009

Increasingly in the world of social response, artists’ and creative practitioners are able to produce both lo-fi or big budget artistic responses to social, cultural or political issues that will have equal gravitas and exposure to the public. This occurrence is particularly due to the increased access to new technologies such as shared video content or portable devices as a means to distribute this information. Following a conversation in June this year with filmmakers Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini, and media producer Sam de Silva, Meg Mundell explores the current creative response to the Howard government’s recent Sedition laws.

If the marriage of art and commerce has often been a testy one – as we’ve seen with the recent stoushes over music copyright – art and politics have been even more volatile partners. Art has thrown accusations of tyranny and greed; politics has dubbed art a rabble-rousing brat. But when the rent is due or there’s a dinner party on the cards, they’ve been known to call a truce of sorts.

sed_intent4However, since 9/11 and last year’s London bombings, that relationship has faced new tests. In September 2005, Prime Minister John Howard announced controversial plans to boost Australia’s anti-terrorism laws. [1] Two words in the draft law sparked outcry from artists, writers, media buffs and civil libertarians across the country: ‘seditious intention’, a vague term related to bringing the Queen or government into hatred or contempt, or urging disaffection against the state. A fiery debate continues over whether the proposed laws, which can carry a jail term of up to seven years, will harm free speech, artistic expression and political dissent.

A month after the sedition issue hit the news, Sydney-based documentary filmmakers Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini shot out an email calling for short films for a project called Seditious Intent (SI). The SI website, [2] featuring seventeen films ‘inspired by Australia’s terror laws’, was launched online in May.

‘We wanted to get it up and running quickly,’ recalls King, ‘but we had no budget.’ At the project’s inception, the pair had hoped to release the collection as a DVD. [3] But when both financial and hands-on support proved scarce, King and Cavadini were happy to hear from digital media artist and producer Sam de Silva, who offered to take the project online. de Silva explained, ‘it’s important to provide opportunities for creative people to respond to political issues – especially issues that may have long term, negative consequences on the way we live.’

The filmmakers featured in SI fit into the new or emerging category, explained King, and Cavadini admits the response from the established filmmaking community disappointed him. ‘People said “I’m too busy”, but the sedition laws are a very important issue – we don’t know where it could lead. In the future, people might look back and say “Where were you when all this was going on?”’

Production-wise, the seventeen films vary sharply from super low-fi numbers to polished works. They include claymation, ‘subverts’, vox pops, animation and soft toy drama. The Bridge features an uneasy meeting at a famous Sydney landmark; in Last Stop (a Tropfest finalist), a man of Middle Eastern appearance causes near-panic on a Melbourne tram; in 2 Box Cutters, the Twin Towers’ collapse is enacted via dance. ‘A crucial part of this project was to allow a real diversity of material,’ says King. ‘Some people could have culled [the final collection], but this was not a festival, and we were not acting as curators.’

That open access ideal is mirrored at the presentation and distribution end of the project. The SI films are posted online under a Creative Commons  license, which allows them to be downloaded and distributed for free, provided their creators are acknowledged, and the works are not altered or used for profit. ‘Creative Commons is committed to ensuring the artist is placed in control of his or her artwork’ says de Silva. Importantly, he adds, making the films freely available online enables people to download them, burn them to DVD and hold autonomous screenings and discussions in their own communities.

Growing access to new technologies continues to open up fresh creative spaces for artists. The rise of shared video content on websites such as Youtube testifies to a thriving global DIY media culture; in September, Melbourne will host the International Portable Film Festival, one of the first flick-fests to screen wholly on portable devices. While online links between SI and like-minded projects overseas have not yet been woven, word spread nationally via email, then postings on independent media sites and the blogs of activists, film buffs and digital media fans sprung up.

King describes herself and Cavadini as ‘old guard’ filmmakers, but she is impressed by the potential of online distribution: ‘People can view the films 24 hours a day. There’s a whole generation really plugged into that. A few years ago, it would not be possible to do what we did,’ says de Silva, ‘especially without a budget. But today, the technologies to encode video material and host them on fast servers are accessible to anyone.’

The internet also helped the group of Australian artists and filmmakers who are lobbying – with some early success – against the proposed sedition laws. [4] The SI producers tapped into that network to hold face-to-face launch screenings in Melbourne, Newcastle and Sydney. Speaking at the Sydney launch, Elizabeth Evatt, from the International Commission of Jurists, said that while fears about terrorism tended to dilute public opposition, the proposed sedition laws do pose a real threat: ‘The more widely you define sedition…the more your freedom of expression contracts,’ she said. That definition ‘may be as long or short as the court may think in a particular case, [so] no one will know whether they’re infringing the law.’

King admits to some early paranoia over appearing on the ASIO [5] radar. ‘But no government would try to trounce a project like this – that would just give it more publicity,’ she says. One of the SI filmmakers Azlan McLennan however, has experienced police reaction in this current climate when his artwork, a burned Australian flag, was removed without a warrant from a billboard outside Footscray’s Trocadero Gallery Victoria.

Artists worldwide are tackling such politically charged topics as surveillance, terrorism, globalisation and the refugee crisis. In the current fearful climate, with Western governments cracking down hard in the name of security, the rocky relationship between art and politics looks set to produce some curious offspring. But if there’s any truth in de Silva’s blunt assessment that ‘political art doesn’t get funded’, the realm of grassroots digital media (of simple or complex production), rather than government-funded projects, may well be its prime stomping ground.

Meg Mundell
Meg Mundell is a writer, teacher and academic researcher whose work has been published by The Age, Meanjin, The Big Issue, Metro Magazine and Sleepers Almanac. Meg is currently doing an MA in creative writing and surveillance at the University of Melbourne.

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Second draft of Anti_Terrorism Act
The Attorney-General’s response to criticisms


[1] In the Anti-Terrorism Act (No 2) 2005, the Federal Government wants to ‘modernise’ old sedition offences in the Crimes Act 1914.
[2]  Seditious Intent short films project is hosted by Engagemedia
[3] The initial DVD distribution plan for SI was inspired by the TimeToGoJohn project, a short film collection critiquing John Howard’s leadership
[4]  In the Act’s current form, the definition of sedition now includes ‘recklessly’ urging the use of ‘force or violence’. It also includes a new offence for financing terrorism, control orders to monitor terrorism suspects, expanded police powers to stop, search and seize, expanded powers for ASIO and provisions for preventative detention and interrogation. There is a defence of ‘good faith’, but debate continues over its potential application.
[5]  Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Australians national security service

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