Last week, we got the chance to interview (via email) the writer and director behind Let Fury Have the Hour, a documentary that, according to it’s synopsis serves as a “journey into the heart of the creative counter-culture in 2012.”
Here now, are Mr. D’Ambrosio’s views on what exactly creative response is, the greatest challenges of the moment, and whether the arts and artists are given too much credit in their ability to affect change.
How did you pull the financing together for this project and how long have you been working on it?
Antonino D’Ambrosio: The financing came from a variety of sources, mostly private individuals who served more as patrons. Of course, I had to use money I earned via other creative projects to keep pushing the film along as well as depending heavily on sweat equity (my own and countless others). Also, for a dozen years I’ve run La Lutta, a new media and production non-profit. During this time, I worked with hundreds of individuals, artists, groups, organizations many of whom, because they believed in my vision, offered support in numerous ways. For this reason, the film, which is about creative-response, is itself a version of creative-response—from how it was made, financed, and now how it’s being presented to the world.
I worked on the film over a period of seven years following the initial acclaim and interest that my book Let Fury Have the Hour generated. At that time, Sony-BMG optioned the book but it was writer/director/actor Tim Robbins, who offered support and encouragement believing that the film I wanted to make was too important to let it drift away. Over that period, despite the unrelenting obstacles of funding, I continued to work on assembling the film mostly by creating other work including additional books [like] A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash, The Making of Bitter Tears and Mayday with artist Shepard Fairey. Films like No Free Lunch starring comedian Lewis Black, and my visual art series La Terra Promessa created while an Artist-In-Residence at the Center of Contemporary Arts in New Mexico. All of it is a journey that still continues because in many ways the film is still being made—now in collaboration with audiences around the world.
What is creative response?
Mr. D’Ambrosio: Let me share an excerpt from my essay “Bend the Notes: A Creative Response Initiation” from my book Let Fury Have the Hour:
Creative response is advanced by cultural activists who create work that can breach sideline spaces and transform the popular culture and consciousness. Playwright Harold Pinter summed up the efforts of creative responders in his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror—for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us. I believe that despite the enormous odds, which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation, which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory. If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us—the dignity of man.” Creative response is a worldview that reflects our dreams and struggles.
Examples of what I describe in this essay are found in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, Tina Modotti’s photographic essays of the Mexican revolution, Chilean musician Victor Jara’s folk music, Rilke’s poetry and more. Recent examples include the defiant creativity of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Russian punk band Pussy Riot’s courageous protest that landed two of the members—in a massive display of injustice—in prison, Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki humanist films, the economic creative-response of musician Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records, Brian Greene’s pioneering work in physics, the choreography of Elizabeth Streb, and the plays and poetry of Nigerian Nobel prize laureate Wole Soyinka and so many more. These examples provide a framework to discover our own creative-response, helping us re-imagine the world around us.
How has the music and the musicians that appear in Let Fury Have the Hour had a personal effect on you, what other things inspire you toward action and engagement?
Mr. D’Ambrosio: The musicians and all the participants including the novelists, poets, economists, skateboarders, street artists and more in the film remain inspirations for me to aspire to do more. Many are now collaborators (Chuck D of Public Enemy, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, street artist Shepard Fairey, composer DJ Spooky, musicians Antibalas, author Edwidge Danticat, novelist Hari Kunzru, international human rights advocate Jack Healey). The most significant personal effect that each— and their creations—have had on me during and since I made Let Fury Have the Hour is the continued affirmation and validation that our shared worldview, based around world citizenship, compassion, empathy, and the belief in the power of creative-response — stands on the right side of history.
There are many performances of all kinds throughout the film. Each is stripped down, bare, intimate. And they all move me in different ways from memoirist Stacey Ann Chin’s recital of her powerful prose to Eugene Hutz’s rooftop protest performance of “Immigraniada,” both very much capturing the spirit of the film and the global phenomenon that the movement of creative-response is. As a result, the film’s participants and their shared creations honor me and all those that watch it. For this incredible gift, this exchange, I am deeply grateful.
In your view, what’s the biggest problem facing our society today, how does it compare to what we’ve faced since the Reagan era, and how can creative response help conquer that problem?
Mr. D’Ambrosio: Our biggest problem today remains the entrenched ideology of individualism, cynicism, and consumerism that now dominates our politics and culture (including most harmfully blasted out by the mass media) that has stripped away compassion, citizenship, and community. That’s what leads us mindlessly into wars, allows poverty and discrimination of all kinds to exist, denies access to basic human rights. What Reagan launched is now codified and continues to divide society. If you think you’re not connected but instead are a “different person” from your neighbor, a mother in Iraq, a kid in Russia, a grandfather in Senegal, father in Brazil then you can easily fall for this dehumanizing ideology. But the truth—and it ‘s an undeniable truth—is that there is only one people. To think otherwise for even a moment means you have handed over your humanity and allowed your worldview to be constricted by a false construct.
In addition, many of Reagan’s public policies—particularly around de-regulation—have led to terrible consequences most notably the economic collapse of 2008,which still engulfs the world from harsh austerity cuts in Europe to economies around the world teetering on further collapse. I was just on a tour with my film in Europe and while I was there thousands in Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, England, Ireland and more were protesting what is essentially the further victimization of people who had nothing to do with creating these devastating conditions. Now millions stand on the brink of degradation and desperation. At this point in history, this should not be the case. But when you have leaders working within a broken structure based around bad ideologies that don’t account for the majority but instead enrich the few, the concerns of humanity are viewed as unimportant.
I wouldn’t say that creative-response can help conquer problems—it transforms our problems into creative opportunities to do better, to be better. It can and does present another way of organizing the world and society—one that I think can make the world work better for everyone. And these are not hypothetical fantasies or a utopian dream. There are many, many people around the world utilizing creative-response following the example of those that came before. We have the evidence—not the faith—but real, tangible examples that creative-response changes the way we think, we feel, how we act, engage, and connect. Whether it’s the invention of the printing press or the city, Johnny Cash’s protest folk record Bitter Tears, Tony Kushner’s scathing indictment of the Regan era in his play Angels in America, Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum or the millions who dream of a new world and work to making that dream a reality. It can’t be overstated: if one can dream it then one can realize it.
Not to discount inspiration, but action, peaceful action, has been what has been at the core of our most recent civil rights victories. Is it possible that the arts are overrated as an instrument of change?
Mr. D’Ambrosio: People joining together is what changes things and I believe the vehicle for this change starts with creative-response. I would say that the civil rights movement and all social movements are dependent on creative-response and are forms of creative-response. The civil rights movement, which I still believe continues to this day, mines creativity from the theatrical nature of the speeches to the use of music to convey their thoughts and ideas to use of beautiful storytelling. It’s in service of generating action, participation, and bringing people together. Creative-response is never always about building. As musician Ian Mackaye of Fugazi says in my film: “If you are about building, creating than I’m with you but if you’re about destruction count me out.”
Art, or for me creative-response, is something we do while politics and culture is done to us. Falling into the trap that art is something that is perhaps silly, not to be taken seriously as a democratic tool, or that the power of dreaming/imagining/daring to do the impossible, serves little or no real value (or it shouldn’t) supports the status quo, which is always a step behind, out of touch, rooted in the bad ideologies of the past Creative-response (and art) creates a language that translates into the future. Still it’s not art itself that changes things, which I make clear in my film. It’s people joining together, seeing themselves as part of something greater.
The idea in my film and in all my work is that there are no easy answers or solutions. Instead we should always be (and as history proves we are) in pursuit of the next good idea that makes us better. It’s our indefatigable human spirit and our the ability to transform our everyday obstacles into opportunities that creates democracy. It’s not easy or comfortable– which is what the Reagan’s and Thatcher’s promise us—but rather messy and unpredictable, which is where the true beauty lies. It’s a reflection of the resonant power of humanity—how we’ve endured, advanced, and evolved—where we are rewarded with tangible, progressive social gains. History is made by everyday people standing up for their rights. Musician Tom Morello emphasizes this point in my film: “the lesson in that is that we have our hand on the wheel of history…that’s how lunch counters got desegregated, that’s how the Berlin wall fell, that’s how women got the right to vote, that’s why we have the weekend because people fought and struggled for their rights. Anything you can imagine you can make happen.” Creative-response is the tool—the chisel, brush, the camera, the guitar, the pen—that converts our imagination into reality, a starting point for a new dialogue. Once that discussion begins whether in the concert hall, the theater, cinema, classroom, library, job site we connect as an audience, a community thinking, feeling and acting together in way that strengthens and expands democracy.