Review: Documentary ‘Acts and Intermissions’ explores life of anarchist Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman sits for a portait in 1910. (Takuma Kajiwara/Flickr)

The documentary “Acts and Intermissions” by filmmaker Abigail Child isn’t really a documentary. It’s more of a biographical poem about a woman whose biographers have called “The Most Dangerous Woman in America.” The film is an erratic montage through the life of anarchist Emma Goldman.

On March 14, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art held a screening of the 2017 experimental documentary. The event was part of the Schnitzer Cinema film series programmed by JSMA curator of media arts Richard Herskowitz. Following the film screening, there was a Skype Q&A with Child.

Goldman was born to a Jewish family in the Russian Empire (modern-day Lithuania) in 1869. She immigrated with her sister to the U.S. in 1885, settling in Rochester, New York where she worked as a seamstress in a clothing factory.

The conditions in the factory were poor. She worked 10-hour days. And she became increasingly aware of the rising tensions between laborers and elites in various American cities. All these factors planted the anti-authoritarian seeds that would lead to Goldman being ironically dubbed “Queen of the Anarchists.” As a key figure in the development of anarchist political philosophy, she plotted the botched murder of industrialist and steel magnate Henry Frick. Her attempts to convince people not to register for the recently instated WWI draft jailed her for two years. Those activities motivated Congress to pass the Espionage Act of 1917.

Child wanted to make a film that reflected who Goldman was. “I asked myself: ‘How can I create something with anarchist form,’” Child said during the Q&A session following the JSMA screening. “It needed to be without hierarchy and without a beginning or end.”

Viewers experience Goldman’s early life and most influential years through her eyes. In the film, quotes from Goldman’s personal journals make up all the narration, which is conducted by a Russian voice actor. Many of her words are typed onto the screen and accompanied by clicking sounds of a typewriter. These journal entries show her internal struggle to make known the plight of the laborer. Her intellectual struggles shed light on her personal battles with love as well as her understanding of injustice.

Visuals in the film reinforce Goldman’s abstract way of thinking. Clips show packed city streets, factory workers, protests, riots and police violence from both early 20th century and present-day New York City. Sequences go from short, quick cuts that correspond to the more turbulent, protest-filled times in Goldman’s life to longer, slower cuts that reflect her personal relationships and romantic interests.

Child brought viewers further into Goldman’s world by casting actors to play her and other anarchist pioneers. They have no lines, are dressed in clothes from her period and are filmed in black and white. These reenactments, along with real photos of Goldman, make viewers feel like they are in a room with some of the world’s first anarchists.

The visual juxtaposition of clips from Goldman’s era and present-day serve as a jarring reminder that people are still dealing with deeply-rooted class disparities. Scenes showing protests and police violence from both eras look alarmingly similar. The film makes viewers asks themselves: “How far have we come in 100 years?”

“While I was working on the film, I was continuously surprised by how many parallels there were to today,” Child said.

“Acts and Intermissions” is not available to stream online. But the film will continue to be screened in various locations around the U.S. including the Ashland Film Festival in southern Oregon in April 2018. Visit Child’s website for details about upcoming screenings.

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