Published in Oak (#2, Fall 2020):
“The destruction of this landscape brings us catharsis…”
A Review of Touch the Sky: Stories, Subversions, and Complexities of Ferguson
“The city is not ours. It is engineered for a lifeless population of producers and consumers. The destruction of this landscape brings us catharsis, comradery and so much happiness?” –Touch the Sky narration
In 2014 Michael Brown was shot by the cops with his hands up. The footage was clear and visceral, a huge portion of the local population rose up and began to interact with their community on the terms set by the civilizers themselves: this was always a war against the human animal by the material and spiritual forces of the elite. This time both sides would engage, even if only for a painfully brief period. Windows were smashed. Buildings were burned and looted. The surpluses of capital were carried in makeshift baskets of still-attached t-shirts scooped up and spilling over with the spoils of what feels like an echo of barbarian raids 8,000 years ago.
The release of Touch the Sky could not have come at more prescient moment. Chronicling the Ferguson uprising and insurrection the film presents an inspiring and daftly constructed collage of footage. The vast expanse of sources includes corporate media, independent left- and right-wing media, as well as personal streams and footage from participants. The resultant drama on the screen, for those who were not present at least, is palpable and impactful.
The film is organized in three parts (stories, subversions, complexities) and the creators of thisproject are forced to walk a careful line to maintain the distinct feel of the film while incorporating voiceover and analysis. For the most part this is successful, and the film is able to convey the gravity of the revolt while asking viewers to embark on an analytical journey that may be critical in future and current uprisings and insurrections.
The quality of the collage and the choreography of the cuts is incredibly skilled and compelling. The voiceover which attempts to describe what happened is sparse and effective. Many of the points made in the film are of crucial importance, particularly its identification of the ultimate failure at the end of the uprising and its condemnation of the engineered reality of the city which becomes an often necessary, but nonetheless awful, place to stand off against the state. The liberation inherent in the sort of illegalism of looting and rioting is not a sustainable tactic in confrontation with state and economic power.
“We shared food, made music, danced, discussed and not one dollar was exchanged in this dance of equals.”
Nevertheless, there is a hope in these moments, despite the tragedy baked into their genesis. The liberation of severely temporally restricted areas is inspiringly portrayed in the film. These moment of rage and joy should buoy the spirits of the those fighting against the sustained war against life.
Parts of the film comically clip corporate media and the hysteria of elites as the world they have built and defended burns around them. CNN’s Jake Tapper yelling to an anchor: “Stephanie, get to safety please!” as someone attempts to drive the state-monger media out of the community. Of course, this tactic of driving away media is not without its issues. Attempting to convince apopulation that conventional media is inherently Working against them is not necessarily intuitive in the American mindset. But what is clear is that, in the project of defending geographical space, there is no room for much of media’s inherent civilizing and state-crafting lens. It distorts and confounds struggles, reproducing them as ideological tools for the ruling factions. Even more striking are the local media clips. Often beyond sensational and very often openly antagonistic and propagandistic, local media is able to operate with its narrative-mask off, fully backing the cops and creating reactionary narrations for the viewers that defy the visual reality before them.
Touch the Sky is the kind of media radical politics actually needs, a film which seeks to ask what went right in this moment? What spores of resistance and liberation were able to germinate in the wake of this tragedy? What possibilities lay beneath the broken daily life of civilized existence?
“The truth is we failed. In the end all that remained was specialists, reporters[sic] and spectators.”
We can analyze its analysis of the insurrection, but ultimately this is a film about a moment. A moment of freedom, rage, love, joy.
To argue the finer points of these kind of temporary spaces is important for those that moved in and out of the ebbs and flows and energies of that time and place. For the rest of us fighting the Leviathan we should be grateful to get such an unflinching glimpse of liberation, even if on an illuminated device.
*Huge thanks to the filmmakers for sending a physical copy
“The effort to reform power will always spoil the dream of destroying power.
Published in Anathema (vol. 6, issue 5, July 2020):
Touch the Sky Review
Touch the Sky is a documentary “video collage” constructed from images from the Ferguson riots following the death of Mike Brown in 2014. This documentary is a welcome contrast to popular films covering this period, such as Whose Streets? and Stay Woke. These earlier documentaries emphasized the role of organizers and recognizable activists, sometimes at the expense of the broader crowd. Touch the Sky stands out by emphasizing the crowd — its agency and participation in producing these tumultuous events. The film’s foregrounding of agency is on display in its title: a reference to Nicki Minaj lyrics (interpolated by a rioter in a film clip) “hands up and touch the sky” that recontextualizes the well-known “hands up” gesture. Through this subtle detournement, this popular symbol of passive resistance (usually accompanied in Ferguson by the chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”) becomes one of active defiance — striving for something held out of reach. Most importantly, Touch the Sky focuses on the riots in the Ferguson riots, refusing the sanitized narrative that downplays the riots for “legitimate protests” and rejecting the respectability politics that animate such revisionary history. This alone makes Touch the Sky an important — albeit flawed— addition to the historical memory of the past decade.
The filmmakers have assembled 1 hour and 50 minutes of footage, producing a dense archive of events. Their choice to rely entirely on found footage means that their work is unlikely to further criminalize participants by adding to the body of evidence used to prosecute rioters. Their light touch narration (supplemented by brief intertitles to mark the dates and passage of time) maximizes the opportunities to highlight the action and voices of rioters. The film is divided into three parts—stories, subversions, and complexities— structuring the film around these subjects, which are tackled to varying, degrees of success. The first of these subjects, the stories, is the most fleshed out and, to my mind, the most important. The stories of riots in America are rarely told by participants, especially not unrepentant rioters. The filmmakers position themselves as fellow rioters but, to their credit, do not foreground their personal experiences. Their hand is most evident in the selection of material, which privileges footage that might be called “riot porn.”
And who doesn’t like that? The riot footage is generally exciting, intense, and frequently inspiring. However, with close to two hours of riot footage, I found myself looking forward to moments where the film transcended the familiar repertoire of tactics and made space for reflection and analysis. This came in two main forms: 1) brief scenes set away from the direct confrontations and looting and 2) moments that addressed the spread of the riot beyond Ferguson. I appreciated the filmmakers’ interest in how the riot generalized, as the action spread first to St. Louis and beyond. Even more intriguing were the fleeting moments when rioters remarked on similarities between the Ferguson riots and riots past, such as the 1992 LA riots. The film’s narrator reminds us that, St. Louis was known for its “good behavior” while other cities burned in ‘92. Thus, the 2014 riots could be understood as a moment that riot tactics finally spread to this part of the country. Likewise, the tactics taken up in Ferguson— looting, street fighting, burning police cars — are likely to bring to mind the events this summer, following the death of George Floyd. The film invites us to think about continuities between riots.
On the occasions that the narrative drifts away from the center of the riots, the filmmakers’ argument comes more into focus. While the film is thankfully free of the formulaic marches and redundant symbolic protests, the scenes of confrontations can get equally repetitive. It is worth noting that the filmmakers’ positions become clearest when, in the second half of the film, they spend some time looking at the activists and other known representatives of the uprising. Their polemic against these would-be leaders brings the film’s argument for an antipolitical agency of crowds to the surface. Similarly, the attention the filmmakers pay to the festival atmosphere of the occupation of the burned-out QuikTrip brings to the fore their interest in Situationist analysis of riots — particularly the riots’ playful subversion of the commodity form. But it is the moments that the filmmakers transcend the Situationist analysis of 1960s riots that demonstrate the strengths of the film. The Ferguson riots make it possible to consider new lessons that undermine commonplace assumptions, such as the passivity of suburbs and omnipotent power of militarized police.
The film runs a little long and, at times, the analysis of these events gets lost in the blur of action and haze of fires. This is particularly true of the final chapter of the film, “Complexities.” Yet, it is the repetitious nature of the scenes throughout the film that causes many of the complexities to get lost, and appear more as ambiguities. The audience would be forgiven if they lost track of the nuances and distinctions between events and tactics after some time.
The discussion of the role of guns in the riots gets particularly murky. On the one hand, it is great to see a documentary directly address the appearance of guns in this uprising. On the other hand, guns for the most part appear in the film alongside and almost indistinguishable from an array of riot tactics and tools privileged by the filmmakers. It is all the more surprising that guns are singled out near the end of the film for criticism. As a viewer, I felt unprepared for this turn because I had lost track of the unique significance of guns in the reels of riot footage. In early parts of the film, guns are mentioned in an offhand way (a rioter casually states “[the police] got guns, we got guns”). Near the conclusion, the usually impartial narrator takes on a more serious tone and makes the striking claim that the rioters’ use of guns mirrors the State. Furthermore, the use of guns is characterized as gun-play. The term “play,” it seems, has lost its positive “pro-situ” connotation as rebellious and become a term to denigrate these “gunslingers” lack of tact and strategy. While the narrator concedes that the guns forced the police to retreat, it was rioters not police who were ultimately shot. The ultimate result of gunplay in a riot, the narrator claims, is friendly fire. Although this argument is quite clear and succinct, it suffers from a lack of a broader discussion of guns in uprisings.
Missing is a discussion of the historical importance of guns to Black Liberation movements, whether as armed self defense or, for that matter, offense. How do the filmmakers square this critique of guns with the significant role played by armed groups in past uprisings? Missing, too, is a consideration of other conclusions that could be drawn from the experiences they described. Why is the solution to the problem of friendly fire not better target practice? Or the kind of rooftop sniping reported in 1960s riots? And, if the only solution is, as the narrator suggests, to “identify and exclude” these elements that threaten everyone with their escalation, how is this accomplished? More importantly, how is this argument to be distinguished from similar arguments made by pacifists about rock throwers? The documentary seems to rush past these questions to fit the so-called gunslingers into an insurrectionary anarchist framework that critiques military specialization. The gunslingers threaten the crowd by taking up an ungeneralizable tactic and monopolizing the action. My problem is it doesn’t quite even fit this age-old argument, since Alfredo Bonanno (who popularized this argument) directed his critique at guerrilla groups, not the armed rioter— of which there were many in the Italy of Bonanno’s Armed Joy. Since I was not a witness to the events of Ferguson, I cannot claim to have a conclusive position on the role of guns in the riots. All I can say is that I found Touch the Sky’s argument on this point somewhat confusing and ultimately unsatisfying.
That being said, I found the film thought-provoking and a compelling depiction of the Ferguson riots. Despite its limitations, the film does a great job of capturing experiences and events from a multiplicity of angles that are often left out of the historical record. As a result, it brings up questions that need to be posed when considering past and future of uprisings. If you have the opportunity to see it, I recommend checking it out.