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Generation Revolution
Still from Generation Revolution

The black activists pushing change forward in London

This documentary looks at a new generation of black and brown direct action groups making noise in the capital

In some ways, times are changing. While the recent shootings of Black Lives Matter activists reveal that we have not moved away from America’s racist roots, among a generation of activists and creators of colour, a resistance is being built. This momentum has been captured in the UK in the form of a documentary aptly titled Generation Revolution (currently crowdfunding funds here). According to the filmmakers, Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless, “while the activists are standing on the shoulders of giants, the activists of today are organising differently to those of the past”.

Indeed, direct action groups, such as Sisters Uncut, are skillfully manipulating the way that the mainstream media uses the internet to bring women of colour to the forefront of our screens; it was no accident that women of colour had been left out of Suffragette but that they were represented when these new young radicals jumped onto the red carpet. Similarly, in the words of the directors, “it is no coincidence that Generation Revolution focuses on black and brown people’. When these actions are placed in conjunction with one another, we can clearly see that Generation Revolution is coming at a unique moment in time. Not only does the film promise to intimately reveal the characters’ political awakenings, it also will show how technology has changed the ways in which protestors are able to organise and refuse to be erased from our screens.”

For the creators of Generation Revolution, their film has not occurred in a vacuum. For a long time, it has been deeply unpopular to discuss the relationship between art and politics – people blindly stating that art could exist unaffected and unassociated from other walks of life. But, right now, we are seeing a surge of unapologetic black and brown creatives whose work is deeply political and they are some of the voices we should be listening to.

How did you come up with the idea of your film?

Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless: Generation Revolution began with the simple desire to tell the real stories of our peers – fellow Londoners who are trying to affect meaningful change in our society. We were sick of seeing narratives about young black and brown people that we simply know aren’t true. The 2011 ‘riots’ are a great example, with David Starkey famously being invited on Newsnight to say “the whites have become the blacks” – which translates as ‘young white people are becoming as bad as black people’.

How did you come up with the title? Do you think that the activist movements of today are different than the past?

Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless: ‘Generation Revolution’ is an aspirational title that is becoming a reality. Our film is a testament to the fact that our generation and those younger than us are waking up to some of the stark realities of the world. Whether we are considering economic, gender, race, trans justice, the recognition of these issues is fast being forced into the mainstream.

A report by the Black Youth Project said that 70 per cent of black millennials in the US believe that political engagement can change their conditions as opposed to about 50 per cent for white millennials. That kind of optimism about our collective potential doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has been built over years and now the movements really seem to be picking up steam.

The activists of today are organising differently to those of the past. It might sound cliché, but the Internet has played a major role in it! Not only in the way that information and knowledge is passed around but also in the ways that they can mobilise people for protests and actions. They are definitely standing on the shoulders of giants. Throughout our filming we were often astounded by the amount of knowledge that these young people have. Not only looking back at past groups and movements but also wrestling with new ideas.

“There’s an expectation of non-white artists to pander to white audiences, where our stories have to be watered down for them to become ‘palatable’” – Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless

Does your film follow groups or did certain characters emerge?

Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless: Both! We started out with the intention of just following groups – we thought that the London Black Revolutionaries (at the time) and R Movement were doing really exciting things. As the project went on we found that a more effective way of conveying the importance of what the groups are actually doing is by making you connect with them on an emotional level – through characters.

By the end of the film we had followed three groups: The London Black Revolutionaries, R Movement and the Black Dissidents (who were made up mostly of ex-London Black Revolutionaries members). You do get to see a variety of characters but you also get to spend more time with a few people and really connect with them.

I know that you both are involved in activism yourselves. Do you think that in documentaries we need to break away from the idea of objectivity and that the line between creators and activists should be blurred?

Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless: Can you really claim objectivity when you act as a voyeur looking upon a subject, journeying to ‘faraway lands’ to report on foreign people through an orientalist lens, as so many documentary filmmakers do?

It is assumed that you have to be a cis white man to be able to be objective. All art, all media, all thought is subjective. But talk about subjectivity only ever crops up when those who are meant only to be studied begin to talk back. It’s important to revisit the roots of documentary. John Grierson, an early figure in British documentary said: “I look on cinema as a pulpit – a pulpit from which to preach about how the working class really lived, and to show the middle and upper classes how much their comfort depended on working-class labour.” We’d simply be lying if we acted as if the creators of art were non-partisan in such a political world.

There are many forms of activism (as Generation Revolution explores), and we certainly see radical, critical documentary filmmaking as one of them. We didn’t have to join the activists in protest because documenting that protest to tell stories that humanise marginalised people is a protest itself.

I love how your team is also made up of people of colour. Of course, this could just be because you both happened to work together, but in a time where there is such a poor representation of people of colour in the mainstream, do you think filmmakers should be actively doing more to represent people who are not white?

Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless: Actually it wasn’t a coincidence at all. The two of us met and decided to make a film about black and brown people, from our perspectives – as black and brown people. There’s an expectation of non-white artists to pander to white audiences, where our stories have to be watered down for them to become ‘palatable’. We wanted to challenge that and make something that we would want to watch.

The onus isn’t necessarily on white filmmakers to tell more stories of people of colour. If anything, often we’d prefer that they didn’t, if it meant allowing room for marginalised communities to tell their own stories. What we really need is a radical shift in the industry: for it to recognise that it isn’t inclusive and representative and for it to humbly accept that things need to change. For that to happen, there needs to be a wider recognition of the reality that inequality on the lines of race, class and gender is a very real issue and a ‘diversity policy’ isn’t going to fix it.

Generation Revolution is currently crowdfunding for the completion of the film, click here to support