Documentaries of Protest: From Narita to Heathrow
27 November 2016
Heavy drumming and jarring strings from a Japanese shamisen prompts stylized white calligraphy to appear before us. “Smash the airport!” it reads in subtitles beneath. Next to me, my friend punches the air and shakes his fist in solidarity and amusement.
“We need slogans like that” he responds.
The week before, fifteen activists blockaded the M4 near Heathrow Airport. Fifteen arrested. The same day Ogawa Shinsuke and Ogawa Pro's films: The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan - Summer in Sanrizuka and Sanrizuka - The Three Day War premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
A timely reminder for the hundreds involved in Heathrow's protest. Despite the cultural and political differences (and there are many), global anti-aviation struggles remain ongoing. With some, especially in the global south only just beginning. The resistance against the construction of Narita International Airport – was not explicitly environmental like most are today. Japan in 1968 was in the midst of major social and political upheavals, with many people still reeling mentally and physically from the impact of the war.
“They threw bullets of faeces and urine and carried sickles” recalls Director Dashima Haruhiko of the protestors immortalised in Ogawa's films “... it is a fact that they stretched and linked their bodies to hold back the riot police. However, I found out after actually meeting them that the people who fought are nameless, ordinary people.”
Thousands joined the resistance. The plight of Sanrizuka's farmers attracted people from all over the country. Student, anti-war and environmentalist movements gained momentum in opposition to the Vietnam war and controversial rural developments deployed by the Government. Many moved en masse to the site of the would-be battleground. Forty-six years later, Haruhiko focuses his film on the farmers and locals of Sanrizuka.
In The Wages of Resistance: The Narita Stories (Sanrizuka ni Ikiru) the fierceness of the characters captured on screen by Ogawa in the late sixties are revisited through archival footage and multiple stories told by the surviving farmers and families of Sanrizuka. Their grief and anger amplified in the Government's betrayal and disruption to their already unstable livelihoods. As they continue to toil the fields between the rumbling of jet engines, a heavy dose of self-reflection is precisely what you would expect after five decades of ongoing opposition. Each person's connection to the brutality inflicted upon each other by both forces re-ignites raw, painful and unforgettable memories. Crucially, for us it asks – Why? Why after all these years do they resist? And what made them do it in the first place?
A man sits by himself in what he calls “The Soldarity Hut”. “Why are you still here?” the Director questions. The sound of a low flying aeroplane interrupts his answer and the man waits for a minute. Because the world hasn't changed he replies. “If the world’s problems had been solved these 40 years, I would have changed.” His reasons like many of the defiant farmers interviewed reflect the stubbornness and stoicism in their David and Goliath cause. The Government had naively mistook the poverty of the farmers and the lack of historical connection to the land for an easy buy out. And yes, many did sell and move on to greener pastures. However, it was a small group of obstinate farmers who held their ground.
Protestors were kettled by riot police on a daily basis. Living on the edge of the village, a woman recalls her husband beating a large barrel drum to signal the arrival of police. “On a bad day he would have to do it twice”. It made it nearly impossible to farm during the years of the resistance. If you didn't put down your tools and join in – you would be ex-communicated. “The farmers built fortresses and burrowed under their fields. The students picked up weapons, especially rocks, clubs, long spears and Molotov cocktails.”
Heathrow's protest history differs drastically from the ferocity of Narita. Our communities lack the autonomy and radical defences of La ZAD in Nantes and we have yet to experience violent State oppression like in Atenco. What has happened during the Heathrow controversy has culminated in a diversity of tactics over the years, albeit carried out by several small groups of committed activists willing to risk arrest and prison. Local community campaigns have effectively overturned decisions in the past, but compared to the grassroots movements of Narita and Atenco whose actions (quoting RZA) brought the motherfuckin' ruckus, Heathrow lacks the all important transition from local resident to badass activist. Even groups known for radical direct action need to weigh up the modern challenges faced by your part-time activist full-time NGO campaigner. The possibility of losing their job, a trashed reputation (thank you Daily Mail), thousands of pounds worth of fines and a grueling legal process. Compare this to the life and death scenario faced by thousands of activists around the world and it's relatively tame.
What took place on November 19 was an experiment in mass civil disobedience. The idea was for a hundred people to pledge their part in a disruptive action and risk arrest. The tactic being... They can't arrest all of us. And if they do - we await a hundred people clogging up the courts with a misdemeanor charge and the inevitable public backlash. Too easy? By the early morning police matched protestors 1:1. Several groups did not execute their plans for whatever reason. Some who were desperate and brave enough, like in the case of Isabelle Andersen, saw no other alternative but to run onto the M4 and have four police officers carry her off the road. A mother and a long time campaigner, her actions responded to a crisis that is not receiving the attention and urgency it deserves.
Narita's second runway was approved and built in 2002. It is unable to be extended because a farmer refuses to move. His body prevents this. The Wages of Resistance is a compelling slice of history in a battle that for some was lost the moment construction began and for others will continue until there is no one left standing in the way. Undoubtedly, the biggest factor for those left in Sanrizuka, was the suicide of a close comrade and member of Sanrizuka's youth corps. The reasons for his death are debated by his friends and family. They knew the resistance had been taking its toll on the young man, especially following the deaths of three riot police. It's possible he thought his death would put an end to the Government's plans, that his martyrdom would trigger enough of a emotional response to the pull the plug on the project.
We know this did not happen. But his death instilled something in the fight that they did not have before. Now, an even bigger reason. An even bigger burden. To avenge their friend's death and honour his actions. Today the resilient farmers of Sanrizuka all have one thing in common when questioned “Why?” - “Because of Fumio.”
Haruhiko skilfully recovers the stories of Sanrizuka's locals with the kind of footage that remains with you long after the film ends. A group of policemen drag a grandmother away from her thatched hut. She's never been to school, and she doesn't know how to read or write. So the villagers paint a sign outside her house with her message to those who want to evict her. It's hard to recall all of it but let's just say the words “government dogs” and “sacks of shit” were personal highlights. Watching the film between two friends who in the past have chained themselves onto the runways of two major London airports – it occurs to me that the fight against Heathrow may just continue until the last grandmother is dragged out her home. Haruhiko subtly reveals the answers to questions that plague the minds of many activists. What drives a revolution? What sustains a movement? What happens when we are expected to fail? And at what point do we submit to the State and move on? We can easily dismiss the Sanrizuka protests as another failure in revolt. Because what would be the benefit in risking all that we take for granted to fail?
What happened all those years ago in Japan and what is happening today inspires me and inspires new generations of anti-aviation actions. This is about more than land rights – present day resistances have an added dilemma: climate change. Yes they caused disruption to your holiday and maybe you're gonna be stuck in traffic for an hour because a road is blocked. But these activists don't really give a shit. It's not you who they are targeting. It's the rich – who are flying incessantly throughout the year, it's those chartered flights deporting vulnerable men, women and children from this country. It's the fact that it's cheaper to fly then it is to take the train. It's the displacement of peoples and the nightmare of construction and pollution that West London will be in the future.
And more importantly – it is because communities around the world are already experiencing the detrimental effects of climate change. If Heathrow expands it will be the single biggest emitter of carbon in the UK.
When will we start to take a leaf out of Sanrizuka's history book and stand shoulder to shoulder in confident defiance against this decision? When the bulldozers move in to Harmondsworth? When it's too late?
Ogawa Shinsuke and Ogawa Pro: Collective filmmaking and the culture of dissidence, Institute of Contemporary Art
The Wages of Resistance: The Narita Stories (Sanrizuka ni Ikiru) by Otsu Koshiro and Daishima Haruhiko, Japan 2015, DCP, colour, 140 min
The Feel of Memories Flowing from A Well, an interview with director Daishima Haruhiko www.yidff.jp/interviews/2015/15i039-e.html
Markus Norne: The Wages of Resistance and the Spiritual Problem of Sanrizuka http://sanrizukaniikiru.com/review.html