Activist filmmaker returns to Athens

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(Roger Hill interviews a demonstrator during an anti-war march in New York City, sometime in either 2003 and 2004. Photo by Damon Krane)

A conversation with Roger Hill

By Damon Krane
April 2006
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)

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In 2001, the Athens International Film and Video Festival featured an acclaimed documentary on the massive citizen protests that disrupted the World Trade Organizations’ 1999 meetings in Seattle. Produced by a group of young activists called Big Noise Films, This is What Democracy Looks Like records the public birth of America’s “New, New Left” and its basic opposition to global corporate capitalism. Shown at the Athens festival, the film inspired OU student Roger Hill to pick up a camera and become a media activist. Five years later, the recent graduate of Ohio University and founder of Mental Rev Productions returns to Athens with a competition film of his own in this year’s festival.

Your film in this year’s festival is a short 10-15 minute piece called Tasers and Lies. What is it about?

Well, the film’s tag line says, “The truth about military recruitment lies somewhere between tasers and lies,” and I’d like to leave it at that for now so that people can find out by seeing the film. But I will say that it’s a pretty violent piece.

If you watch any Army promotional video, you don’t see violence. You see comradery. You see teamwork, advancement, opportunity, leadership. Those are the concepts the military is selling. But in reality, they’re trying to sign up people to commit inhumane acts of violence. You follow orders and kill people when told. That’s your job, really. So if you take even a semi-critical glance at what recruiters are offering people-especially at a time of an illegal war on lraq-and you’re not just trying to sell the military, then you’ll pretty quickly see through the shiny, glossy propaganda to the real violence and destruction.

POGtaser
(A scene from Hill’s film Tasers and Lies.)

This isn’t the first piece you’ve had at an Athens International Film andVideo Festival, is it?

No. Two years ago, I had one of the earlier cuts of Witness a Peace Movement, a documentary from the front lines of the anti-war movement all across the country.

I had a piece last year that was called Offend Marriage. The current version of it is called Divine Persecution, and it’s going to be screened at the Minneapolis Film Festival this fall.

What is Divine Persecution about?

The film asks: Who has the power to oppress LGBT people: hate-spouting homophobes or every day Ohio voters? The point is that marginal groups like the Westboro Baptist Church that were going around picketing The Laramie Project [a play about the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard] with signs that say God Hates Fags, Fags Burn in Hell-you can liken them to the KKK or the Aryan Brotherhood today in that they get a lot of attention because they’re saying things that are so vile, and they’re so overtly racist and sexist and homophobic. But these marginal groups didn’t have the power that Ohio voters used to directly disenfranchise and oppress people by voting for the Issue I Amendment to the state constitution. So that’s really where the hatred is manifested. These people aren’t going out and saying they “hate fags,” but what they’re doing is far more devastating to gay people.

It’s just like you don’t have to go around saying “I hate niggers” to support a system that sends about 50 percent of black males to prison before their 30th birthday, if they’re fortunate enough to live that long. A big focus of all of my films is to try to get people to think on a macro level. It’s not just about making sure you don’t say offensive things. It’s about opposing the larger structures of domination that hold people down based on their race or sex or sexual orientation.

My films are what you could call activist documentaries. They’re meant to inform people, to get them to question dominant institutions and to mobilize them to act.

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(Police confiscate Hill’s camera as he is arrested during an anti-war rally in uptown Athens on March 19, 2003, the day the US invaded Iraq. Photo by Lindsay Eyink)

Is there anything else that all of your films have in common?

There’s a lot of violence in my work: police violence, as well as the violent effects of people’s passive complicity. This violence tends to affect people emotionally, to give them a sort of visceral, gut reaction to the work. Then I try to step in and open people’s minds to some of the ideas that are expressed in the films, which are usually atypical of those you’d hear in the mainstream media.

Have you had to risk your own physical safety to make these films?

Yes, certainly I have. But that’s alright. When you’re in these kinds of situations, it’s not uncommon to get cracked by a police club or shot with a rubber bullet or sprayed with some tear gas. But that’s nothing compared to the risk of joining the military-and nothing compared to the risks that are imposed on people who are just trying to live their lives in a part of the world where the US government has geopolitical interests. So I really don’t want to play up the risks that I have the privilege, because of my white skin and US citizenship, to choose to take or not. That’s not the focus of my work.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I have another film that I entered in the festival, but for whatever reason it wasn’t accepted. I’m going to be screening it locally in person the Saturday after the festival. It’s called Palestine is a Prison, and it takes issue with people’s passive support for the Israeli government’s apartheid policies against Palestinians.

Again, the point is that you don’t have to go around saying hurtful and hateful things like, “Man, I hate Arabs.” When average Americans look at the situation in the Middle East, they think of the Holocaust and the suffering of Jewish people – and that’s real. But it shouldn’t prevent people from looking seriously at the 4 or 5 million Palestinians trapped in refugee camps with no opportunity, living under military occupation, based solely on their ethnicity and/or religion. It shouldn’t make it taboo to criticize the racists, colonial policies of Israel that are supported by the US.

So I’ll be showing Palestine is a Prison at 7:00pm on Saturday, May 6 at The Wire community resource center [at 21 Kern St., across from the old Bob’s IGA building].

Other than that, I’m just really looking forward to being back in Athens for the week of the festival. I’m going to see a whole lot of movies.

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[Editor’s note, 1/9/13 – To learn more about Roger Hill’s films, visit the website of his production company Mental Rev Productions.]

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