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Activist artist: Simon Cunich

Simon2Film-maker Simon Cunich aims to create social change through his craft. He spoke with Kate Ausburn about the collaboration between artists and activists.

12 September 2010

“I want to make films with a social purpose,” says film maker and activist Simon Cunich. “I think everyone has got a responsibility to persuade people and to inspire activism.”

Simon lives in Newcastle in the state of New South Wales in Australia where he is completing a certificate in Screen and Media. Newcastle is the largest exporter of coal in the world and Simon says that this “environmental destruction” has consequently led to a hub of opposing activism.

“There is a very strong activist community here [in Newcastle]. There is a lot of cross over between different activist circles, it's a very cool and collaborative environment. There are a lot of opportunities for activists and also for people to tell their stories, be it through film or other mediums.”

Simon was recently awarded runner up in a local film competition with his film, Based on a True Story. The festival required films to be two minutes long and be edited only on camera, with no post-production.

“That created a technical challenge, but it also limited how complicated the film could be,” says Simon. “So I created quite a simple story about a young aspiring graffiti artist is held back by the closing down of Newcastle's only legal graffiti wall, which did happen in Newcastle earlier this year. My film was in response to that.”

Speaking about the power of documentaries to inform and mobilise people around social change, Simon says, “That stuff that makes people think about things differently ... like documentaries that give people the information to have the tools to go out and organise. You can’t underestimate the power of that.”

Simon says that while art on its own doesn’t produce social change, it’s definitely part of the mix.

“Photographs or documentaries can be a part of the broader movement, but art shouldn’t be a substitute for people going out and organising.”

But it’s not just deliberate ‘art’ such as film or photography that plays a role in the social and politically progressive movement, says Simon.

“When you go to a rally and see people that have made their own placards that have an interesting take on an issue that make you pause and think. That's art,” he asserts.

Simon’s initial interest in film making was sparked during his final year of high school when he discovered it could be used as a tool for activism.

“I made a short film as part of my HSC. It was as I was becoming more political and I wanted the short film to have strong political overtones. It’s funny looking back at it, it really spelt the politics out. It was probably too didactic. I'd do it quite differently now."

For Simon, it was the 2001 Tampa Affair that was the real catalyst for his involvement in activism.

“The racism against refugees under [then Prime Minister John Howard – that’s when I first started getting involved in activism and I started organising stuff at high school,” says Simon. “That was a turning point for sure. The blatant racism opened my eyes to a lot of other injustices.”

In addition to rallying for refugee rights, Simon has been involved in a variety of campaigns including opposing the Iraq war, rallying at the 2002 World Trade Organisation meetings in Sydney and has more recently become increasingly involved in rallying around action on climate change.

SimonThis year, he was involved in helping putting together and editing what ended up being a half hour documentary called There is No Future in Coal. “That was an awesome project,” he says. “It was very collective. I think there is a lot to be said about making stuff like that in groups."

The project strengthened his drive to use film as a vehicle for activism. "It was good to be able to have a directly useful and relatable role in the campaign."

Next on Simon’s radar is a promotional video for Climate Camp, designed to mobilise audiences for environmental activism, a documentary he filmed on a recent trip to Venezuela which challenges corporate control of food and agriculture, and the Sydney-based Live Red Art exhibition and festival, a new grassroots arts project.

Live Red Arts

Existing as a forum to promote and recognize art that investigates radical social and political perspective, Live Red Art Awards will profile people like Simon who are directing their passion, creativity and talent to aim to inspire social change and raise political awareness.

“I think this kind of collision of the creative and the political is something that both the arts world and the political world could really benefit from,” says Lauren Carroll Harris, co-ordinator of Live Red Art Awards.

“The recent election result and the rise in popularity of the Greens shows that many people are really disenchanted with politics-as-usual. There’s a long tradition of artists who’ve used their work to keep the wheels of progressive change turning, to imagine a different kind of world. I would argue that every artwork promotes an ideological agenda or way of thinking of some kind, overtly or not.

“So it’s exciting to see this kind of project in Sydney, and exciting to be able to support emerging artists and filmmakers like Simon. I think we have a big potential to really motivate and empower audiences to participate in the social movements.

“So far the process has been really interesting. We've received submissions from artists across a broad range of conceptual and artistic practices – photomedia artists who are challenging traditional notions of the land, performance artists taking up the question of social alienation.

“We also have a political posters exhibition and a live street, graffiti art performance planned, and a mini zine fair for people who are interested in busting the corporate dominance of the media,” says Lauren.

A prize of $3000, and a people’s choice award of $500, will be awarded to an individual artist or group of artists whose work of art best reflects the motto: ‘Another world is possible, but we must fight for it’.

The focus of the project is on live, interactive, multidisciplinary art that can engage audiences directly and dynamically, and inspire them to activity - hence the concept of ‘live red art’.

The Live Red Art Awards are open for submissions until October 1 with the festival and awards occurring at the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville, Sydney on Sunday 17 October.

Kate Ausburn is a Sydney based writer and regular contributer to Australian Times London and Green Left Weekly. She is progressively political and an activist for environmental and human rights issues.

Images: Stills from Based on a True Story by Simon Cunich. Photos courtesy of the film-maker.

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