Paul D. Miller AKA DJ Spooky's film Rebirth of a Nation reinterprets D.W.Griffith's controversial, racist, revisionist, landmark 1915 film Birth of a Nation. The movie puts DJ culture in the director's chair seeking to show how history has a habit of recycling itself. In remixing Birth of a Nation it makes its own context. DJ Spooky created the score for the film , which is performed by the fabulous Kronos Quartet. Rebirth of a Nation has been screened at London's Tate Modern, New York's MoMa, and the Acropolis amongst others. It arrives in Hong Kong for its Asian premiere. There will be two performances on October 15th at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Additionally, DJ Spooky will be doing a Master Class and DJ demonstration on the 14th. Tickets and information are available on the Hong Kong Arts Centre website. Get involved.
What is it that made you want to reinterpret, or remix Birth of a Nation?
Okay well the first thing you've got remember with race in the United States is that it adds layers and layers of complexity to an already paradoxical society. I mean with film Birth of a Nation is the DNA of American cinema, if you look back. So when I was thinking of the last election with Bush dividing the US into red state, blue state. In a way that you really could that the former states of the confederacy had all voted for Bush in this strange way. It was making me think more and more about that, so I just took it from there.
What is the significance of the title Rebirth of a Nation?
Well it's about remixing, recycling, repurposing and what ends up happening with political landscapes, especially in the Obama era. You've got the Tea Party, and the Republicans and they are going crazy and my film was made during the centre of when Bush was starting all these wars so I wanted to try and get people thinking about the way that the past shapes the present, and in a way tell that story. The Re in the title was just a way of saying reason, recycle, repurpose.
America remains fairly divided to this day. Political and legal equality was eventually established, but on a social and economical level there is still a huge disparity. How much real progress has been made with racial equality?
Well, lets see, we just saw a huge situation where a guy got executed by the state of Georgia. There's a lot of problems between race and our place in the legal system. There's a lot of inequality based on economics, based strange statistical use of politics. A white yuppie who does cocaine, will serve a lot less time than an Asian, a Latino, or a black person who smokes weed. Something simple like that, you'd be surprised. When you start looking at the big picture and the numbers, it is eerie to see how statistically speaking we are more unequal than a lot of previous periods in United States' history.
What do you make of Griffith's image of Lincoln. The Great Heart/ Hero of the South, or do you see him as the Great Emancipator, or something else entirely?
Well regardless of how you feel about him one, Lincoln was a Republican, and two, he was a very progressive visionary on a lot of issues. So I respect his memory and I think he is an important figure. the funny thing you have to remember, he was hated in the South that's why he got assassinated. Amazingly enough there isn't anyway that you could all of a sudden make that the composite. It's very easy to remember he was killed because the Southerners hated him, I don't see why he becomes this figure, but it helps with the story for African-Americans. He's very respected, and he is very renowned as a hero for keeping the country together.
In the film you argue that Griffith's depiction of the Lincoln assassination is equivalent to the way the media portrayed events like Katrina and Iraq. What specific links would you make?
I would say that Lincoln and the way that that narrative set-up in the film, where his assassination all of a sudden leads to a worse treatment of the South. There's a lot to be argued for the way Katrina played out in the midst of the South as a kind of new forum for debate. You know, it's funny. Lincoln really was hated by the South and the Republicans because of the Civil War amazingly enough they were hated in the South for almost a century. It took the civil rights movement to get the South to move away from the Democrats. I always view that as a very strange paradox, especially from our current moment, because Republicans called it under Nixon the Southern strategy, which was to co-opt white anger in the South about the civil rights movement and to use that for political gain. Whereas Lincoln was just trying to make things work and be functional. There all these strange situations.
You have that great clip at the beginning where Griffiths is being asked about the truth of Birth of a Nation and he replies, "Truth...What is the truth?" How would you describe the media of today's relationship with the truth?
As we see all over the world, wars, revolutions, the fall of nation states and governments because of Facebook or Twitter. People want to hear what they view as something that relates to their life, their experiences. If their experience in life is misery, and people are on the TV saying everything is great, well, they are going to see that there is the old media and the new media. New media is far more responsive to actual conditions, more local perspectives, which a lot of the time is far more truthful than the national media or Fox News or whatever. If you compare that to what happened in North Africa with all these countries Libya and so on. People were able to compare and say look we are tired of this.
As you've mentioned there are numerous parallels between now and when Birth of a Nation was released, the red/blue divide, external threats, and so on. When you were making this film Bush was in power, since Obama has come in and looking at the reaction to him in certain parts of American society, do you see the fear of the Lynch character as slightly prophetic?
Yeah, he is mixed race, it's about someone who represents the fear of the blurring of the lines of ethnicity. Whites in the US and the Tea Party won't believe that Obama is American because he has a birth certificate from Hawaii. He is mixed at every level, so he represents complexity. But also what's eerie about it is he's not going to push pack as hard as he could. I think he's been letting the Republicans frame the debate on a lot of issues. So it's eerie because you want to see more of a push back, and actually amazingly enough, I think Hilary Clinton at this point probably would be able to push back because she is from a viewpoint within the norms of what they see as political discourse. Obama vs. Lynch it is eerie how resonant it is. He is not evil like Lynch, in fact Obama is a nice person and I think he is too nice.
In light of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War, with Obama in office, beyond symbolic importance has he substantively achieved much for African American rights?
Well, it is a very paradoxical situation because he doesn't want to push the idea of blackness too much because he feels like it would piss of whites. But the problem is just his existence has pissed off whites laughs. You know they will accept Bush, they will accept all sorts of stuff. But I think the fact that he is very smart, he went to Harvard for real, whereas Bush was a D- student who benefited from a lot of hook-ups is a very big issue for them. I think the Tea Party and the rank and file of Fox News Republicans find it difficult. You know, he hasn't really appointed that many black people to office, as a symbol it is very powerful but he is more of a centrist like Bill Clinton.
There are similarities between Obama and Lincoln, in some respect if Obama was to miss his 2nd term would this be in any way comparable to the Lincoln assassination for you?
Well, assassination is a whole different thing. Assassination implies that you were in power and they really couldn't get you any other way. Whereas what's happening now is there has been a relentless, I'm talking unflinching war against Obama since he even first got in office. The Republicans have been hitting him on every level to weaken the idea of a multicultural person in office, and they would probably have done the same thing to a woman. Anybody who is outside of this idea of a very stratified norm of what they view as American, which usually is white male. If it was an Asian, a Latino whatever I'm sure they would have done anything, as long as it's not one of them laughs.
Talking about a North South divide, most presidents of American have come from the South. Do you think there is any significance in that?
Yeah, I mean the South because they lost the war. There is actually a really funny book called A History of White People written by a Harvard professor, a very serious book on the construction of whiteness. In Europe, and I DJ in Europe all the time now, the Germans and the Swedish, the French have issues with the English, the Spanish have issues with the Basque, and so on, it's complex. But they are not all running around saying, "Hey, I'm White." The construction of whiteness is very much a part of the American project, so when you're saying presidents are from the South, that's because there you can easily play off race versus actual facts. So a lot of times the Republicans can get poor whites to vote against their interests, "You know what I don't need health care!" You'd be surprised. Or they'll say "the Earth was made in seven days" but they don't need science.
The Birth of a Nation in many respects marks the dawn of modern cinema. Do you think that with its DJ perspective Rebirth of a Nation is somewhat a pioneer in its own right?
With remix and DJ culture,with sampling, you can pull anything out of context and re-edit it, and make the edit itself become an art form. So sampling, the idea of literary play with words, games theory, mixed memories, all of that is part of the way the globe functions now. Once something is digital you can edit it and change it any direction. There is even software now which allows you to change someones face in a photograph. This is just the beginning.
The DJ as director and the cut and paste philosophy, what does it add to our understanding of cinema?
For me right now sampling is about pan-humanity. It's saying Asian, African, European, Latino, and so on, that we can exchange culture. That means that there is respect for the human subject, and it's not about region or one style. And sampling breaks open so much creativity. It's really important for me to celebrate that and it's also important for me to that as a literary and arts foundation for the twenty-first century.
In the past you've talked of Warhol's concept of the fund object. What does that mean to you?
Think of anytime you play a record, I'm talking like vinyl. You are dealing with a couple things, one, the record cover sleeve, two, the actual piece of vinyl. And the record cover sleeve, in my last book, I found the person who invented the record cover sleeve. He was still alive, his name is Alex Steimler. Alex created a revolution in graphic design on a lot levels, because you had to start thinking about visual and sound. When you say found objects, usually its a kind of collage. They pull the collage from bits of pieces of newspaper or books or posters and cut them up. But to do the same thing with sound you are doing the same thing with geography and memory. The found object becomes the world and I think sampling is like a mirror you hold up to the world.
A while back I saw Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari screened while a new wave German punk band played. What other films do you think would be fit for musically influenced remixes?
I think music for re-score/remix, the perfect film is Metropolis and that's been done a couple times. Another film that could be really beautiful is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm really interested in a lot of Chinese cinema, you know Wong Kar Wai's 2046 and also some of the stuff coming out of Japan Akira Kurosawa Seven Samurai. I would love to see re-score's of those in the future.
Do you plan to do any of those yourself?
Yeah, I plan on doing a lot more. Right now my main project is The Book of Ice it just came out. Basically, I took a studio to Antarctica and went to all the main ice fields. The whole idea was to do what I call acoustic portraits of ice. I wanted as much as possible to show that you could have a kind of sampling applied to landscapes. Sampling is usually for records, but I wanted to show that you could sample geography and time. It was a really beautiful project. We went to Antarctica for 6 weeks and was staying in all these different glacier fields. It was super intense. It was so much fun and crazily remote. It was so cold if you fall in the water you would die in two minutes. I like doing weird projects it keeps life interesting.