by Toby Ashraf
Juli 9, 2013 10:14 AM
1 Comment

Que(e)ries: Considering Tilda Swinton, The Activist
“In solidarity. From Russia with love.” – Tilda Swinton
Sandra Kopp
A photo has hit the web and has become a viral phenomenon within 24
hours. It went from Facebook to Twitter and back, quickly popped up in
gay interest news sites, and has by now been featured by the sites of The Independent, The Huffington Post, Le Figaro and Der Standard.
picture shows a woman holding a rainbow flag in front of an orthodox
church in Russia while a manned police car is parked in the background.
The image, taken by Sandro Kopp, is perfectly composed and its symbolism
couldn’t be clearer. Religion, state power, gay liberation – these
three things seem to become more and more impossible to reconcile in a
country that has just launched laws to forbid any kind of pro-gay
demonstrations and that has put any circulation of news in favour of the
LGBT community under the law of gay propaganda. The church is the St.
Basil's Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square by the Kremlin. The woman who
is holding the flag is Tilda Swinton, activist.
I met Tilda five
years ago when she and filmmaker/writer Mark Cousins put up a small film
festival in an abandoned ballroom in Nairn, Scotland called The
Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams. For 8 ½ days, they would show films
ranging from Fassbinder to Mohammad-Ali Talebi and ask for an entrance
fee of 3 pounds or a self-made cake. I was sent there by Salzgeber’s, a
German film distributor who made Derek Jarman’s work accessible to
German audiences and was founded by the gay film activist Manfred
Salzgeber who, like Jarman, died of AIDS in the 1990s. From the minute I
arrived at the festival, I was part of what felt like the best birthday
party of my life and what looked like George Méliès on acid – the old
music venue was affectionately painted and decorated with stars and
colourful festoons, silver balloons, equipped with donated chair
cushions, and beach chairs.
What Swinton and Cousins had
organised was a sort of anti-film festival with no current films, no red
carpet, no need for media support. Instead, they left markers on the
toilets to encourage graffiti, climbed on a ladder before every
screening to hold up an improvised curtain that read “State of Cinema,”
and let everyone in for free who would attend a Sunday matinee of Miss
Marples in their pyjamas. The sense of solidarity and community during
these 8 ½ days was something I had never experienced before – elderly
town people mixed with international artists and enthusiasts and
everyone was in the same fun boat to enjoy the magic of film. I realized
then that this was in fact activism. It was a statement – it brought
people together with film instead of making the film festival an
exclusive event, as they are nowadays. It was a statement for world
cinema, for children’s films, and for bringing the cinematic experience
of togetherness back to a place where it had died long ago.
Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, Nairn, 2008
Sandro Kopp
Like the Cinema of Dreams film festival in 2008, the photo in Russia is a
statement. It is unambiguous and accompanied by the words, “In
solidarity. From Russia with love.” I asked Tilda and Sandro for a
little backstory of how it was taken, but they say that the photo in
itself is a message enough and Tilda has since not made any comments
apart from the brief testimony. Although the journalist in me wants to
dig a little deeper, I quickly appreciate that a photograph is more
powerful without further explanations and that it is already well
READ MORE: Cinephile Summer Camp: A Dispatch from Tilda & Mark's Magical "Pilgrimage"
Interestingly enough though, in this week’s print issue of German Spiegel
magazine, a small article features only a detail of the photograph and
not the entire image. The police car was cropped out which reduces the
original picture to a face shot of a celebrity with a rainbow flag, a
relatively innocuous and certainly less complex image. That the German
magazine Männer published the picture unedited and called it civil
courage is more accurate: that a gesture of simple fellowship might need
to be contextualised thus tells its own tale.
The fact that
the passionate 'Thank Yous' in the comment sections of the various
social media outlets are in the thousands by now and headlines like
“Swinton challenges Putin” were followed by the first Twitter posts of
the original photo are proof of what seems to be guideline of Tilda’s
work: prioritising images over words.
It has only been a few
months since Tilda Swinton re-enacted a performance that came without an
instructions manual and linked the politics of now to a yesterday of
activism. When Tilda became a performative sculpture, lying asleep in a glass box for The Maybe at MoMa,
the deliberate lack of explanation left the art piece open for
interpretation and analysis that Tilda was wise enough not to provide
herself. The Maybe was originally performed at the London Serpentine
Gallery in 1995 and can be read as a form of eulogy for Derek Jarman and
the many others who died of AIDS at a time when the lethargic
neoliberal governments under Reagan and Thatcher decided to ignore the
AIDS crisis instead of taking action. “Silence is Death” was one of the
most powerful slogans of AIDS activist groups like ACT UP! at that time;
the associations in The Maybe of a human being, a Sleeping Beauty,
silent and immobile in a glass coffin for the world to watch, is one of
the many possible approaches to the piece.  “The Maybe was not a protest
as such,“ Tilda tells me. She says that it was “'partly’ created in the
spirit of a response to the deaths of Derek and so many others in
proceeding years.“ It came to being at a time when Tilda had attended 43
funerals in one year and when, as she had explained in a beautiful,
posthumous „Letter to Derek“, British politicians were openly thinking
about creating camps for HIV-positive people.
The Maybe, MoMa, NY, 2013
Sandro Kopp
The consistency with which Tilda has managed to avoid labels as a
performer and a person in film and in real life is unparalleled and has
been utterly inspirational to many over the years. It brings along the
challenge of falling into the trap of labelling her in writing. Words
are often trickier than images and when I use terms like activist in
this article, I want it to be understood that this is my reading, my
awkward attempt to paraphrase and find words to express my deep
appreciation and affection towards someone who brings solidarity and
love into a world of intolerance and ignorance.
The systematic
deconstruction of labels in my view is an act of political activism in
itself. It creates uncertainty and destabilises common notions of truth,
consensus, and often power. It implies that any kind of reading is
already an act of giving something a definite meaning and thereby
closing doors to a multitude of different, unusual, or unorthodox
approaches. Tilda charmingly rejected the label of “actress” in an
interview and claims that she “plays” instead, just like kids do. The
word career also seems unfit. It makes more sense –regarding the
politics of filmmaking – if you understand the 60 films she has worked
on (since her debut in Jarman’s Caravaggio, 1986) as a series of
collaborations. To collaborate is to work together, and it denotes the
sense of community and togetherness as opposed to the notion of the
capitalist division of labour that film productions are seen as since
the rise of the Hollywood studio system – “in solidarity”, not in
solitude. Unlike Thatcher’s infamous quote, there is such a thing as
society because society comes from the social, without which we would
all just be the cogs in the big wheel that Charlie Chaplin gets stuck in
in Modern Times.
Most of the films Tilda made with Derek Jarman
were collaborative efforts and stand for a form of social filmmaking in
an anti-social, deeply homophobic climate. Edward II, including a clash
of OutRage! activists with the police and generally rewriting history by
re-interpreting and queering it, is maybe the most explicit and
specific form of activist film protest. Other collaborations include the
12-year making of Orlando with Sally Potter, the nine years it took to
make I am Love and the producing of Derek, a personal memory of Jarman
that was directed by another collaborator and friend, Isaac Julien.
twenty years after Derek Jarman’s death, the global human rights
situation is still dramatic in many places and sometimes small gestures
of concern make a big difference. It’s the t-shirt that Mark Cousins and
Tilda wore in Bejing that said in Chinese, “I want to watch gay films.”
Or that one photograph with a rainbow flag that, thanks to the rapid
virtual distribution –unthinkable in the 1990s- can be shared and
forwarded and downloaded and discussed and commented. It sends out the
simple, but powerful message from a person that answers hatred with
love: “In solidarity.”
Toby Ashraf is a Berlin-based
journalist and guest columnist on Que(e)ries, a weekly LGBT-focused
column here at Indiewire run by Senior Writer Peter Knegt.