The notion of history repeating itself is a well-known adage, but rarely has it been pleaded with as much fervor as by Abigail Child, whose film “Acts and Intermissions” played at the Ann Arbor Film Festival this past Saturday. “Acts and Intermissions” retells the life of Emma Goldman in America. Goldman, a Russian Jew who moved to America at age 16, quickly became a leader of anarchist-communists and later defended other causes. By the time of her death in 1940, she had taken on capitalism in the Industrial Era, militarism during World War I and gender politics during the suffrage movement (though her politics strayed from the suffragettes, for she reviled political participation). Goldman was a radical rebel, giving speaking tours around the country and calling for political assassinations.
“Acts and Intermissions” tells Goldman’s story in the United States, from her auspicious rise among her peers, to her rhetorical peak, to, lastly, her retreat back to Europe. The film is a collage of archival film stock from the past century — even the present — and reenactments of Goldman’s life, solitary and with peers, captured in grainy black-and-white. Snippets from Goldman’s personal diaries and other contemporary texts are read aloud by a voice actor. The voice, disembodied and omnipresent, is defined by its strong Russian accent, with a tone that indicates a sort of weathered smugness, a jovial disdain for the lesser minds of capitalism and statism.
Like its subject, the film’s form is radical, too. By juxtaposing archival footage with present-day cell phone footage of protests around the country, Child’s film invites its audience to contemplate how we think about political disruptors nowadays. In a comment before the screening, the director explained she hoped to combine genres in the film. The result does not clearly demonstrate this idea — though there are clear elements of film noir and kitchen sink drama, two disparate genres — but perhaps that’s the point. Life and the struggles contained therein aren’t easily definable; the films that seek to answer the core questions of life needn’t be either.
For Child, the correctness of Goldman’s convictions is beyond question; the only question is how Goldman’s ideals are translated to the present. Child’s argument isn’t subtle: Those chanting in the streets, calling for a $15 minimum wage or to oppose low quality working conditions, are her heroes and model citizens. Child did not expressly advocate for radical political killing, her outward criticism of President Donald Trump and her celebration at his recent healthcare defeat notwithstanding, but the message is clear: Don’t trust elites.
The most jarring shot in the film comes fairly late. We’ve come to recognize the actress playing Goldman. After all, her face is occasionally shown before or after an actual image of the historical figure, plus she wears a long string of earrings that would seem out place a hundred years ago. But in one brief sequence, we see the actress in the staged room, dressed in her regular 21st century pedestrian clothes, seeming to indicate that Emma Goldman was not some anomaly: She’s a role anyone could play. Save for a moment in Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” another film about protest, it’s a pertinent shot that captures the real behind the screened quite unlike anything I’ve seen before.