Georg Koszulinski’s short film, “Inauguration Day,” is simple enough: it’s a collage of brief, menacing, and occasionally violent scenes from Washington DC on January 20th, 2017 – the inauguration day of President Donald J. Trump. There’s a guy shouting into a megaphone about Trump’s campaign sins while another guy, decked in patriotic red, shouts “Make America Great Again!” directly into the camera. There’s footage of smoke and fire billowing out from the destroyed limousine that so many photographers and journalists were attracted to over the course of the day. There are scenes of harried and clearly anxious cops interacting poorly with protesters. There is the profoundly menacing sound of a helicopter sort of omnipresently roving over the scene. There’s a guy who gets pepper-sprayed. It’s a dystopic film, meant to send a clear message.
There are, however, odd little moments of grace or humanity that do much to complicate the picture: after the patriotic guy finished shouting Trump’s slogan at the camera, for example, he walked off, all alone, and the image is undeniably sad and poignant. There’s another scene in which a full gaggle of cops are just sort of standing around in the street, clearly unsure of what to do. When a glass bottle flies into the screen, chucked or bowled, possibly, by a protester, one of the cops just skips it, and another stops it with his foot, like a soccer ball. Nobody reacts with animus. There’s an interview with a protestor who mentions love a lot, and how “it’s going to save us,” after which she’s shown wearing a surgical mask and a threatening sign that reads “Las Feministas are coming for you, Trump.” There’s a black man who, given the negative and often racist comments Trump made during the campaign, seemed to understate his case when he said, “I feel like [Trump’s] not a good fit for us.”
The film, in other words, is not as one-sided as it seems on first watch. And frankly I’ve got no real clue if these little humanizing touches were intended or not: the conversation I had with Koszulinski, over email, did not touch on them (although it did touch on some interesting things, see below), because I didn’t want to know. It would have ruined the magic, somehow. I hope you find this film as interesting and timely as I do.
- Eric Fershtman, editor
The mood of your video is, for lack of a better word, dystopic, which I think accurately captures how lots of people were feeling back then. I’m wondering, now that we’re a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, what you see as the difference in the national mood?
I think lots of people have been living in what we could call dystopic conditions for quite some time now, and not just Americans but people all over the world who lack basic human needs, remain institutionally unemployable, or simply at the mercy of multinational corporations who continue to harm our planet in the name of short-term monetary profits. 500 years of colonization in the Americas has created some very dystopic conditions not just in the States, but all around the world.
That said, I think there have always been people who work relentlessly for social and economic justice. It's that radical minority that defies the majority to effect change. Those are the people I identify with. 'National mood' is really a fiction anyway – an extension of a nationalistic framework that creates an image of community rather than actual community (see Benedict Anderson's Imaginary Communities, where he develops that argument). Nation-states create the conditions for imaginary communities to emerge in the sense that we could never know all the people who comprise that community. Such is the danger of the modern state, that through mass media, or now via Twitter, a supreme leader can get in the minds of all these folks to create a common set of beliefs. The modern state coupled with mass media creates a system where fascism can take root. Without mass media, there would be no way to imagine such a thing as national mood, because people thousands of miles apart from one another would not be consuming the same news feeds, watching the same movies, reading the same newspapers, getting the same information from a handful of corporate/national sources.
So are mass media and social media necessarily bad things?
Your question reminds me of an argument in Jerry Mander's book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. I remember him making the case for tools having inherent uses, and how some of those uses could be considered quite harmful. Take a hammer, for example. Most everyone would agree a hammer is a very useful tool, inherently constructive, etc. Yet it could also be used as a murder weapon. Other tools, like guns and bombs, are inherently destructive. Tools such as these maximize the violence that an individual can commit, and in the hands of the state, enable forms of organized murder – modern warfare. Other tools, like a train, seem innocuous enough, but when we consider that in the previous century, millions of people were sent to their deaths on trains, I think the train's value and inherent purpose gets more complicated. Your question is I think a question about the path of industrialized societies. Do mass media and social media serve the common good? Do they make our collective lives better? Of the examples outlined above, I think social media is most like a train.
There’s this interesting element in your film, that pops up multiple times, that, to me, speaks to our current moment: we see people filming and taking pictures, and recording audio, with their phones. I’m wondering what you thought of this, as someone who’s doing more deliberate filmmaking. How all of this instant footage in our social media feeds is affecting our lives, our politics, our arts.
At least since the infamous Zapruder film, home movies have played an increasingly important part in the historicizing of American history. These kinds of images still have to be contextualized. When someone creates a video with their phone, they're essentially producing what documentary folks would call an 'actuality film.' The fact that most people living in industrial countries can produce actuality films with the cell phones in their pockets doesn't do much to replace the need to critically engage these images. It's in some kind of discourse, some kind of critical engagement with the material at hand that meaning gets produced.
If you could go back, would you change anything about the film?
As an editor of your own work you can always go back and change things about a given film. I have no desire to do that, and not because the film is somehow perfect. It's more a matter of letting go of something once it's done.
Who was it that got pepper-sprayed at the end? And why?
The man who was pepper-sprayed by police is a DC-based street photographer named Bang Le. I interviewed him after he was assaulted by police, and that footage figures prominently in America is Waiting. Bang Le also agreed to allow us to use his bodycam footage, which pretty clearly shows him being pepper-sprayed in the face at close range by police. You'd have to ask the police why they pepper-sprayed an unarmed photographer in the face at close range. That's a good question.
What’s in the works? And how can interested folks find more of your work?
Fandor distributes a number of my films. Trailers to the upcoming documentaries and some of my experimental short forms can be found on Vimeo.
I've been working on a feature documentary, White Ravens: A Legacy of Resistance, and it's set to premiere later this year. White Ravens focuses on the cultural resurgence of the Haida People in the wake of colonization and Canada's Indian Residential Schools. Those 'schools,' like the Indian boarding schools in the States, were a form of genocide, both in terms of cultural genocide – forcibly removing children from their families, torturing children for speaking their languages – but many Indigenous children died in those so-called 'schools.'
White Ravens presents a portrait of a community in healing, working through the cross-generational traumas caused by colonization.
Later this year, I'm also set to release a feature documentary, America is Waiting, focusing on the events that transpired in DC on J20, a more in-depth version of Inauguration Day. I interviewed protesters and pro-Trump alike, and in those interviews a portrait of competing realities emerges. The film bears witness to the people willing to speak out for social, economic, and environmental justice, and it also creates a space to hear from Americans who don't prioritize those concerns. I think there's value in examining that conflict, how different ideologies can create radically different interpretations of the world and our place in it. I created a Facebook page for the film, but in the spirit of my previous point about the potential dangers of social media, I will remove it if President Trump acknowledges fake news on social media played a decisive role in his being elected, and then he resigns.
header image: "inauguration day," mobilus in mobili / flickr