by KELLY GALLAGHER (2014)
US, 12min, Still/video, Color, Sound.
The best movie about volatile race relations in America in recent years might also be one of the least analyzed: Kelly Gallagher’s Pen Up the Pigs. In its bold, aggressive denunciation of white supremacy and the ongoing enslavement of black Americans (especially by the penal system), Gallagher’s film reveals the cowardice of most other movies that are purportedly about race relations. Through its use of still-images animated into movement and perfectly-placed soundbites by black intellectuals and freedom fighters such as Fred Hampton and Angela Davis, it also reveals the discursive power of found footage and non-narrative forms, developing a cyclical style reminiscent of writers as diverse as Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon.
We begin with that paragon of American media, the ultimate symbol of both mass communication and mass deception: the television. (It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that television also provides an apt symbol for the polysemous nature of found footage—the ability to channel surf through a history of media, conflating voices that are often contradictory.) After a few blips of static, the words of former Black Panther Assata Shakur (who escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba) can be heard: “[Prison] was a new kind of plantation… I feel like an escaped slave, because what I saw in United States in those prisons was slavery. It was black people with chains, in cells, it was just poor people, you know, just stepped on and smashed… I’ll never forget what my people have lived through.” This becomes something like Pen Up the Pigs’ political motif: slavery has not yet been abolished in the US, now taking the form of mass incarceration and police brutality.
Act I of the film then switches to its main stylistic concept, as a paper cutout of a pig wearing a police uniform is set against a colorful backdrop (with frenetic music by Paganini blazing on the soundtrack). A black activist suddenly appears in the foreground, wielding a megaphone; handcuffs drift ominously in the background, ever-present. In other words, Pen Up the Pigs is a study in visual juxtaposition, composing various symbolic images of power and retaliation, black and white, justice and injustice on various planes of action. Just as found-footage cinema itself has the power to reappropriate past images and convey new meanings, Gallagher’s bold use of spatial composition creates explosive conflicts both visually and metaphorically.
This first segment is set on “The Plantation” (as an onscreen title reads); cutouts of animals (foxes, squirrels, birds) are set into vicious motion, a cycle of predator and prey that segues into the brutality inflicted upon slaves by slaveholders. Suddenly, the background loses focus as a more recent photograph emerges in the foreground: a white police officer beating a black man with his baton. This is the first of many allusions to Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism, the idea that past and present are not separate from one another but part of the same cycle—that political and economic conflicts of yesterday and today will reemerge, in often explosive fashion, in the near future. The numerous images of rotating gears and clocks also evoke this idea, again drawing a parallel between the historical simultaneity of the found footage format and political activism.
Blending stop-motion animation with brief found footage snippets (both aural and visual), Gallagher creates a bold, semi-surreal vision in which racism and police brutality turn America into a bloodstained Hades: red flames lick toward the skies as dismembered policemen fall into them, an urban street is inundated with crimson blood in the form of pipecleaners and construction paper. Such a brutal, cathartic commentary might have seemed irresponsible or simplistic using newly-filmed footage or more traditional animation, but there’s something about the found footage aesthetic, perhaps, that reveals the discursive and historical undertones of Pen Up the Pigs—a sense that the demons of America’s past are being confronted.
As an American currently residing in Minneapolis, I can attest that current resentment against the police in the US is barely restrained and slowly festering. Most people are scared, angry, and fed up with police brutality—but, most importantly, feel powerless to confront such an unstoppable force of injustice masquerading as the just. Explosive films like Gallagher’s are incredibly valuable in fomenting outrage and providing even momentary catharsis; Pen Up the Pigs might make us believe that something can be done, this violent force can be confronted. Overwhelming the audience with an archive of images, sounds, symbols, and motifs, Gallagher is able to synopsize an entire history of racial violence in a way that no dramatic narrative ever could.
Lifting quotes from Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Rob F. Williams, and George Jackson (“Patience has its limits. Take it too far and it’s cowardice”), Gallagher pays tribute to a legacy of activism and retaliation, commemorating fighters who are often (in this country) mislabeled as criminals. Perhaps sometime in the near future, an equally committed filmmaker will appropriate images of Bree Newsome tearing down the Confederate flag in South Carolina—another artifact of a turbulent media history expressing one small facet of an inexpressible, almost unfathomable whole.