Arresting Power: Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon
By Jodi Darby, Julie Perini, and Erin Yanke/2015/84 min.
In rare confluences of timing and artfulness, documentary films, at their best, can fill a breach, sound a clarion call, and coalesce communities to action. Arresting Power: Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon premiered January 15, 2015, at the Northwest Film Center in Portland at a time when primetime media reports of racially motivated police use of deadly force aired with disturbing frequency across the nation. In the case of Arresting Power’s premiere, the packed art-house venue spoke strongly to the tenets of relational filmmaking that underscored its making.
Arresting Power’s opening sequence—rendered in a black-andwhite scratch-on-film technique—is a telling foreshadowing of the kind of hands-on filmmaking that both characterizes this documentary and signifies its departure from traditional docs. Local indie radio station KBOO’s press for Arresting Power, by first-time feature- length documentary filmmakers Jodi Darby, Julie Perini, and Erin Yanke, describes the use of archival materials, documentary footage, and interviews with community members, activists, and organizers to uncover a dark history of policing and race relations in Portland.1
Bucking the current Portlandia image, the film builds a context for understanding systemic racism in Portland through the long lens of history. Oregon was the only free state to be admitted to the Union with racial exclusion laws built into its state constitution. The filmmakers broaden their scope and point to the early Texas militia as an origin for local police forces. Returning to Oregon, they draw the link between the political/business interests of the state’s early white majority and the persistent Ku Klux Klan activity that flourished throughout Oregon well into the mid-twentieth century.
Arresting Power is pointedly local. It has a DIY feel in its making and in its message. The scratched film—revealed as rubbings from the sites of lethal action—becomes a unifying device as researched reporting gives way to a series of community interviews edited to give, not a prescribed third-person overview, but the viewpoint of a grandmother or a father. As a litany of names and places linked by scratched film cross-dissolves into long, static shots of sites of fatal police actions—a ubiquitous two-story 1970s’ apartment complex, a freeway overpass, a 7-Eleven parking lot—the filmmakers provide room for reflection. Particularly effective is a long shot from the parking lot of an apartment complex held steady as recordings from 911 and police dispatch tapes narrate the events that led to the fatal shooting of Aaron Campbell.
Structurally, Arresting Power reflects its genesis. The film grew out of the success of Safe & Sound?: Artists Respond to Police Violence, a video/web project about police violence in Portland. Posted as a collection of short documentary and experimental videos jointly produced in 2012–13 by Darby, Perini, and Yanke, the web project offers an overview of Portland’s history of policing and race relations from the 1960s to the present. Arresting Power adds an additional element: documentation of the city’s rich history of resistance to police racism and violence.
Through interviews with community leaders, scholars, and activists, the film outlines resistance movements that have been active throughout the past fifty years, from the Portland Black Berets and Black Panther Party to police observation organizations like Portland Copwatch and Portland Community Liberation Front (PCLF). Interestingly, the activism of the PCLF, which daringly followed police cars with VHS cameras, prefigured a current pilot program in Portland in which officers are tasked with wearing cameras while on duty.
Throughout Arresting Power, the filmmakers eschew more traditional documentary techniques like reenactment and statistical infographics in favor of personal reactions from family and community members. Veracity in documentary filmmaking has been questioned for decades, from Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite (1978) to Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), and “voice,” or perspective, in documentary is now widely recognized as existent within film journals and film studies. Evident in Arresting Power is Perini’s “Relational Filmmaking Manifesto,” a brief and “snappy” piece of writing she adapted from Nicholas Bourriaud’s idea of “relational aesthetics.” One particularly relevant tenet may be: “Relational filmmakers use their tools to experiment with new ways of being and to emancipate new forms of subjectivity.”2
Arresting Power is an activist’s tool. Community organizer Joyce Harris provides an eloquent summary near the end of the film, speaking of the importance of teaching these stories—of putting them in context. This is a film made not so much for Oscar contention as for community ownership. At the premiere, it seemed that every “talking head” in the film was present in the auditorium. Judged on the basis of relational filmmaking, community ownership is primary, and “reality is the consequence of what we do together.”
Rose Bond is a media artist and educator whose recent animated installations blur the lines between architecture, public art, and cinema.
1. “Arresting Power—A Documentary Film about Police Violence and Resistance in Portland OR,”
KBOO Community Radio, http://kboo.fm/content/arrestingpoweradocumentaryfilmaboutpoliceviolenceand.
2. Julie Perini, “Relational Filmmaking: A Manifesto,” http://julieperini.org/filmmaking-manifesto.