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Rise Up

Director: Michael Heinig (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

A montage of modern-day disasters from melting ice caps and burning forests to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. An unseen female narrator talks about her problems of navigating modern society. Her problems range from the catastrophic (global warming) to the trivial (why did she buy that iPhone?) But one question looms over all others. What can she do? She’s tried donating money and signing petitions, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be enough.

Although only one director is listed in the IMDB, elsewhere it is attributed to 4 members of the Leftside editorial collective Marco Heinig, Steffen Maurer, Luise Burchard and Luca Vogel, who previous produced the documentary Hamburger Gitter about the 2017 G20 protests in Hamburg. Rise Up introduces us to five activists who are doing much more than dropping their spare change into a collecting tin. Each in their own way has been involved in an important social movement.

First up is Kali Akuno, who is introduced as an Organiser. Kali is an anti-racist activist in the US, so he knows something about repression. His experiences have taught him that political activity should be peaceful where possible, but there are plenty of times when violence is necessary in self-defence. Organising in the community has showed him that significant political change must come from below.

Camila Cáceres is a Chilean feminist, who has been very active in the recent demonstrations. She explains how the women’s uprisings of 2018, which led to a more generalised movement which removed neoliberal president Sebastián Piñera, We see footage from the protests which show political activism to be full of moments of joy and not just sectarian back-biting. Nonetheless, Camila sees that Chile’s social problems are tied into the dictatorial rule of capital.

Marlene Sonntag was destined for a dull job in Frankfurt-Main, where she couldn’t find any satisfying form of political activity. That changed when she moved to Rojava, where she got involved in the struggle for political autonomy. Like Camila, Marlene proudly explains the leading rule of women in the movement. For her, the Kurdish revolution is fighting not for a state, but against the need for having states at all.

The last two activists belong to a previous generation of fighters. Judith Braband was a leading member of the Left Opposition in the DDR at the end of the 1980s. She is proud that she was involved in a mass struggle for more democratic rights, but is still unsatisfied that they didn’t want more. For her, the campaign was for socialism, not a Western takeover. While celebrating their peaceful revolution, she wonders whether another revolution is now necessary.

While Judith was fighting the DDR bureaucracy, Shahida Issel was part of the movement which overthrew apartheid in South Africa. She fondly remembers the moment when they realised they were going to win – when Nelson Mandela and the prisoners from Robben Island were released. While handing over the baton to the next generation, she says “there is much that you can change, and I am looking forward to it, as I’m going to be on your side.

I agree with just about everything that’s said in Rise Up, from the warnings about right wing populism and fascism to the refusal to accept that the fight has been lost, even in apparently impossible struggles, like the one against global warming. With plenty of footage from huge demonstrations from around the world, we are also shown that what matters are not the actions of brave individuals, but how we can develop a collective response.

Yet for all the great content, there is also something missing, most notably any sense of a strategic discussion. In one way or another, each of the protagonists has not been in a movement which surged inexorably forward, but one which has faced political dilemmas. We see this most acutely in the results of earlier struggles. In the DDR, the Left Opposition demanded workers councils and got Western neoliberalism, and South Africa, apartheid has gone, but black capitalism reigns supreme.

There is something of a spontaneist feeling from many of the protagonists. The unnamed narrator says that all we need is a little more courage. And yet this idea that our side has hegemony and all we need to do is try harder is rather belied by the growth of the far right in many countries. Camila and Kali both talk of trying things out and learning what works and what doesn’t, and yet nowhere is there any discussion of how we can develop a collective understanding of how we can resist.

There used to be a running joke about left wing film criticism which condemned any film that doesn’t call for revolution. Well, Rise Up calls for revolution on more than one occasion. It remains unclear, though, about who will make this revolution. There are vague mentions of class, but little talk of the State and the media, of how the people who hold power are able to maintain control. This means that the vital discussion about how we can gain fundamental change is missing.

The aim of Rise Up appears to be to inspire people that resistance is both possible and necessary. It fulfils this aim admirably. Yet its tendency to preach to the converted means that it fudges some vital discussions about which resistance could be most effective. This could reinforce the reservations of the initial narrator who wants to do something but isn’t sure what she can do. Watch this film, but make sure you follow the screening with a serious discussion of what it means.

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