Ever since the G20 summit in Toronto four years ago, the question of policing and governance has been a hot topic. Tonight, a documentary focusing on the way police and protesters interact is under examination as the documentary Preempting Dissent screens in Toronto.
Growing out of a book of the same title by Greg Elmer and Andy Opel, Preempting Dissent, the documentary, delves into preemptive forms of law enforcement and governance that emerged in the post-9-11 world. It brings together video submissions, personal testimonials, interviews, and photos from across the world.
Greg Elmer co-directed the film, and he believes the documentary manages to harness information from people and groups in order to showcase central issues examined in the book. Elmer spoke with rabble.ca‘s Miriam Katawazi.
How does the documentary build on the book published in 2008?
It’s an experimental film, in the sense that the directors and producers of the film didn’t shoot all of the interviews, all the scenes, and all of the b-roll. Everything that you saw in the film is the result of a very large and very collaborative effort. It’s us reaching out and asking to use various footage and engaging in a process of crowdsourcing. It was really an effort, an experiment in many ways, to see if we will be able to tell a story, if we tried to encourage activists, NGOs, and individual protesters, whomever, to share their video footage, their music, their sound footage, and their photographs. We asked if we could we tell a story, a compelling story, and could we raise and make coherent a lot of the issues that we raised in our book from 2008. So the film was very experimental in that sense.
That isn’t to say there was no structure to it of course, what we did was we used our book from 2008 and used some of the central questions that were raised in that book and topics that we discussed to provide certain core questions. We interviewed about three to four people and asked them questions that came from our previous book and then we used all the footage that people contributed and shared with us to try to flush out some of those themes in the larger 41-minute documentary.
Why do you think it was important to collect material from people across the world?
In one part of the film, a very brief part but very important, we show the difference over the decades in the way in which people not just dress but what they do when they are in protests. I guess for many decades people would show up to protests with placards, signs, and banners, expressing their solidarity, their particular issue, or the group they are affiliated with. That’s not to say that this does not happen today but what we have seen, over the last five-plus years, is that people will show up to protests now and instead of having a placard or sign in their hand, they will have a smartphone. We see this over and over again in a lot of the footage that was shared with us, and so for us it was a very powerful symbol of the way in which protests were changing. So what we set out to do with the film is to try to get people to share all that amazing footage that they were individually capturing with their devices. So one of the core questions we were asking ourselves as filmmakers was there is so much footage around, what would it take for people to share that footage with us? That was a key symbolic moment that people will also see in the film as well.
What are some of the central issues looked at in the documentary?
The documentary looks at the state and its police agencies overreacting, the state and police agencies trampling on citizens’ rights, and the numerous ways and tactics the state and police agencies engage in these processes.
Why did you choose the title Preempting Dissent?
One of the guiding principles that bind together a lot of the police strategies that we talk about, over the last 10-plus years, is the adherence to the notion of preemption. Preemption is defined in this film as the process of acting before necessarily deliberating or acting without knowledge. That is something we have definitely seen and something the film really portrays, over the past decade and even going a bit before that as well.
What do you feel has been the effect of preemptive policing tactics discussed in the documentary on social movements today?
My fear is that its overwhelming effect has been of one of intimidating peaceful protest. My fear is that it is intimidating people who are interested in coming out and genuinely voicing their concerns of issues of the day. I think that’s one of the overriding messages of our film that the overwhelming force, the indiscriminate arrests, the stop and seizures, and many other things, are in my opinion, designed specifically to send a message that protest comes with a price. I think there is a certain philosophy of collective punishment that is being doled out. Where perhaps there is a very small, an incredibly small group of people, who show up to an event to cause trouble and that does happen, but the overriding and overwhelming response to a few violent protesters is to punish the whole group. I think that is sending a signal. Sometimes the signal is not even implicit, sometimes you have people, including our leading law enforcement officials here in the city of Toronto, who come out and say if you are standing next to someone and if they do something wrong then you are just as responsible as they are. So that’s my fear, the intimidation. My hope is that people see that intimidation for what it is. My hope is that the starkness of the violence of the over-the-top military posture that is being taken by law enforcement agencies is going to push people to reject that fear and to still come out and practise their democratic rights.
Why do you feel this documentary is especially important for Canadians?
As a Canadian citizen who feels at home here and loves Canada, I think we do live a very sheltered life in Canada. I think that something that is quite obvious to anyone who travels around the world. We have a very sheltered life in Canada. That is not to say that there aren’t sectors of our society, individuals, groups and even parts of our government who are outward-looking. But I think overall Canada is a very wealthy county, relatively, and we have a relatively democratic system, so we are a very trusting society, an incredibly trusting society. I don’t think what we are trying to do with our film is to encourage distrust but to encourage the questioning of authority, in all of its forms. Particularly, during events, summits, and other kinds of mega events that are purporting to celebrate global and democratic culture. I think that it’s at these times that we need to remind ourselves as Canadians that there are many injustices around the world and they are ones that we need to actively engage with.
What are you hoping people take from the documentary?
The documentary came to be as a result of the reaction people had over what happened in the G20 in Toronto. I guess the reaction that I was somewhat intrigued and slightly perplexed by was that people were surprised that something like this could happen in Toronto. I think what we tried to do with the film was to provide a history of police tactics with regards to public protests and to show the fact that this wasn’t just a one-off event during the G20 but in fact it was a set of strategies that have been deployed by police agencies going back for quite a number of years.
Miriam Katawazi is a fourth-year journalism and human rights student at Carleton University and rabble’s news intern. She has a strong passion for human rights and social justice in Canada and across the world. Her writing focuses on health, labour, education and human rights beats.