Filmmaking As An Act of War

M.A. Littler is a maverick, a pirate, a poet, an artist and, most prominently, a filmmaker. He is not yet a household name, but that doesn’t make his films any less important. I first became aware of him after seeing his incredible documentary Voodoo Rhythm: The Gospel of Primitive Rock ‘n’Roll. Jump forward five years (and a few films and videos) and his forthcoming The Kingdom of Survival almost defies any standard explanation.


 The Kingdom of Survival is an odyssey,” says Littler. “On the surface,” he explains, “it’s one man’s journey: 7,400 miles, 23 states, 29 days on a zig zag route from the American East Coast to the West. It’s also a journey into the history of American dissident culture from Thoreau to the Beats and from punk to radical politics.” Littler admits it is also a spiritual film that “seeks visions that challenge the status quo in a world that seems more and more like a ship sailing across oceans of fire, where the haves do as they please and the have-nots suffer as they must.” Eat, Pray, Love this ain’t.


When asked why such a film needs to exist, Littler, who also brought us The Folk Singer and The Road to Nod, is fairly blunt: “Because my team and I wanted it to exist. In a way it was ‘willed’ into existence. In this particular case we felt that someone needed to raise the black flag. Someone from within. The current globalized capitalist system is failing or let’s say it’s working quite well for a minority and it is not working at all for the majority of the six billion plus people on this planet.”


For Littler the issues in his film are so important that he had no choice but to make the movie. “I often hear there are no alternatives to the current system and I disagree. History has taught us that there a multitude of potential systems that operate outside of this greed and exploitation-based interpretation of capitalism. And when a filmmaker disagrees, he [sic] ought to harden the fuck up, quit whining, and get to work. I didn’t want to make a picture about complaining. I wanted to assess the situation and seek out concrete alternatives.”


One of the things you first notice about the film is the wide variety of people interviewed who seemingly have little in common. Noam Chomsky and militias come instantly to mind. Littler, in speaking with militias, definitely had his work cut out for him. “The people in the film are quite private,” he explains, “and not exactly drawn to the camera. So getting them to talk was the biggest obstacle. I was interested in people and groups that challenge the status quo. Yet, I wanted them to be intellectually and rhetorically convincing—that vastly reduced the potential interview subjects.”


“For the most part,” he says, “they believe in self-governing their lives, mutual aid, avoidance of the international monetary system, avoidance of mainstream media, and they all believe in not blindly consuming a prefabricated culture, but instead creating your own culture.”


The obvious question for Littler then is whether there is a mainstream anymore? Magazines, websites, cable channels, satellite radio, and the like target niche markets and actual “mainstream phenomenon” (like the Twilight book series or “America’s Got Talent”) are not the norm they used to be. “If a film can cost $200 million and make a profit, there’s your mainstream,” Littler counters. “Starbucks, Apple, Wal-Mart —mainstream.”


He doesn’t see the central problem with the mainstream being an issue solely of consumerism, however. The real problem, Littler says, is “a mainstream way of thinking, of accepting things you’re fed as truth, of being non-critical, passive, blind. That leads to your life being directed as opposed to directing it yourself. You’ve got around 70 years. That’s not a whole lot. You might as well make those 70 years yours. Then there’s the people who only talk the talk and I feel they’re almost worse because they don’t put theory into action.”


Are the people who thrive on films like The A-Team going to want to watch this? How can you make them want to watch it? “It’s a film for anyone who thinks there may be more to human existence than wage labor, down payments, taxes, supermarkets and remote-controlled citizens,” the director explains. “For everyone who thinks there must be a better way. If that’s the converted, so be it. However, I suspect they may soon become the majority. Do you enjoy being governed by people you’ve never met and will never meet, who come from a social class you only know from TV, but that decides the rules of the game? A class that directs the majority of wealth into the pockets of a selected few? If so, by all means avoid this film. You will not enjoy what you see. Remember that there is intentional ignorance. Waking up can hurt.”


Wanting a population that is less “remote controlled” is a good goal for any society. That said, a filmmaker creates a film to have a message and to inspire. With that in mind, I wanted to know what message Littler intended his audience to receive.


“We’re challenging how most people live and think. Fact is, there are alternative ways of living for those who are interested. Here’s a scenario: I got a job, a wife, a down payment on a house, but I feel like death. Why? Because your coordinate system may be ill-adjusted. What can I change? Everything. The change from within is the biggest thing you can experience and it’s all up to you. It’s about awakening and self-empowerment. You don’t need therapy or pharma- ceuticals. You need to realize that you have a conscience and that you are the master of that conscience. A spirit can’t be jailed unless you jail it yourself.”


A film with a transforming message is nothing if one doesn’t have the skills to back it up. Littler, as evidenced by his other films, has shown nothing but skill. His work comes across as a combination of story, art, and life. He makes audiences feel as if the subjects on screen are people they’ve known all their lives—for better or worse. The word that would best describe the feeling in his films is “intimate.” When it came to The Kingdom of Survival, however, the director went through a new and different process in its creation. For him, the act of making the film was symbiotic with the actual film. “I’ll have to connect the filmmaking process with the actual film—they’re inseparable,” he explains. “As far as relevance goes, the film asks some of the necessary questions and offers some answers or perhaps alternate routes. If you compare it to the highway, we’re exploring the back roads. In this post-post modern age, that is almost a romantic concept, that there actually are answers. But I think the people we’ve met supply some real nuts and bolts knowledge—perhaps even wisdom—that anyone can apply to his or her life and increase their personal and spiritual freedom.”


This mindset ties in with the director’s filmmaking process as he describes it. “It gets wilder and wilder the older I get,” he states. “Lack of money is a breeding ground for outrageous behavior and peculiar situations. Try traveling 7,400 miles with nothing but a pistol and a prayer and ending up at MIT with Professor Chomsky looking like Pike Bishop after he took on the bandits. Another key difference is my new producer, Alex Hebert. He’s a real pirate. So now there’s two of us raising the black flag. He’s the charm and I’m the hydrogen bomb.”


When I first talked to Littler about his film, he told me that filmmaking wasn’t a dinner party, but an “act of war.” “My brand of filmmaking is inspired by John Cassavetes and Sam Fuller, two filmmakers who considered the personal vision holy. To me, filmmaking is a way of life, not a fashion statement or a way to get praised or receive social acceptance. Filmmaking is having an opinion, always educating yourself, resisting temptation and compromise, accepting that you’ll get a bloody nose and others may get a bloody nose because of you. It’s being a pirate, a revolutionary, a friend, and part of the solution not part of the problem. It’s zen anarchist pirate cinema.”


The fact that Littler holds filmmaking in such high regard leads to the question, Is there a place for films that are nothing but pure entertainment in this world or are they missed opportunities by filmmakers who end up squandering their cinematic power in order to give the audience what it wants?


“There’s nothing wrong with wanting a vacation from reality,” Littler answers. “French Connection is entertainment and a good film. Chinatown is another. However, if you spend $50-200 million to make mere entertainment, well, you’re a no good swine in my book. Film can reach people unlike any other medium and I feel it’s going to waste. Though I do believe we may be experiencing a renaissance of maverick cinema—the worse things get, the better films may become.”


All of which brings us back to The Kingdom of Survival, maverick cinema with a message. The times it was created in were bad and getting worse. Some of the subjects Littler interviewed have been saying such things for years. Because of that, you would think any individual or group with an axe to grind over the current state of the world would be more than happy to be included in the film, but I found out that wasn’t the case at all.


 “Radical right-wing preachers and African American radicals such as the New Black Panther Party,” Littler replies, when asked whom he wanted to include in the movie but didn’t. “The ones I wanted accused me of being part of the Jewish media conspiracy—pretty amusing considering I’m German-South African and the so-called media avoids me like the plague. In their world I’m like the cousin with tattoos on his face [who] doesn’t get invited to family reunions. The ones [who] wanted to talk to me were intellectually not what I was looking for. My intention was to show a wide array of alternative visions without discrediting certain views and I felt some would have discredited their view without any help from me, so I let them be and moved on.”


His answer touches on something quite interesting when it comes to Littler and his films. His work has generally been well-received by film critics and journalists, but he is still not well-known, not even in film circles. And while he will never be one of those faces you see on the E! Network, I wondered if that lack of recognition from the more mainstream outlets was important to him and whether he paid any attention to the critics. His answer is surprising.


“Hey,” Littler says, “everyone likes to get a pat on the back, especially if you’re making films without a safety net. When you get down to it, it feels good when a friendly voice tells you you’re on the right track. When the bank calls, the doubt creeps in and another friend sold out—you’re getting real close to dark places. In those times, kindness is the light switch.”


“I don’t hold critics in higher regard than so-called ordinary folks,” Littler continues. “I also don’t demonize critics. A good critic can be very helpful. I do believe that in order to apply constructive criticism one must have worked in the field one criticizes—one must have gone through the process of making a film.”


One thing is certain, critics and audiences can keep a film relevant and alive forever. Rightly or wrongly, it is why Citizen Kane keeps popping up on lists of the greatest films of all time. When it was made, the world was a different place than it is now, but the film still resonates with people. I asked Littler what he thought the reaction to his films would be like 20 years from now. What would they be a testament to?    


“I don’t care much for nostalgia or my legacy,” Littler states frankly. “I ride this black wave the best I can and I try not to die a corrupt asshole. The rest is not in my hands. If the world heads where it’s heading now, my reputation will be the least of my concerns. My prognosis is bleak, but I believe you can create islands of joy and freedom inside a dark world that’s been sold. The mystic philosopher Hakim Bey calls it ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone.’ Once you get past the adolescent feelings of self-importance and realize your insignificance, you’re liberated. And let’s be clear on one thing: It’s been a hard ride so far, but a wild and joyous one, too. If I kick the bucket tomorrow, I was still blessed and have no reason for complaint. We’re making these films with next to nothing. But what we have is wild courage, insanity, brass knuckles, and a pure heart on our side. These films, as flawed as they may be, are proof that you can operate outside of the system.”


The Kingdom of Survival is not the last the world will hear from Littler. He has plenty of ideas and projects he can bring to the table. Like any competent artist, he is not content to rest. “I’ve got a number of projects written,” Littler says. “One is a cinematic ballad of sorts, I call You Can Never Go Back Home. Another is a film called The Last Hotel. We might also add episodes to The Kingdom of Survival and turn it into a series. There are simply so many alternative visions out there that intrigue me. Perhaps we’ll go to South America or Africa next. It all depends on the means available to us. My projects largely depend on what we can get our hands on. I always write—poetry, prose, songs—so that will always be there. I feel strongly about creating a pirate non-monetary community without rent and fear. People frown when they hear it, but they also frowned when I told them about my idea of maverick cinema 12 years ago and the ship is still afloat.”


Indeed, that situation doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. Littler’s films are varied enough to prove he is no one-trick pony. This new feature, however, may just be what people need to see exactly when they need to see it. With healthcare reform’s failure, the BP disaster, the Tea Party, and record glacier meltdowns still fresh in everyone’s mind, this could be the catalyst for a paradigm shift in many people’s lives. At the very least, it will be testimony to let people know another way is possible and I’m sure Littler wouldn’t have it any other way.



Doug Brunell writes for several magazines and websites, including Film Threat, Tattoo Savage, Panache, Pagan Palaver, Eye, and Gray Areas.