The title of Mike Hoolboom’s experimental documentary Judy Versus Capitalism is something of a misnomer.
Yes, there is a lot of Judy Rebick, Canadian feminist firebrand, activist and all-round hellraiser. There is also footage aplenty of the various battles Rebick has waged over the years against the oppressive tentacles of predatory capitalism.
But that’s not really what it’s about.
Truly, the film explores what a deeply strange place the human mind is and shows there’s no better way to document this than through the art of cinema.
Hoolboom’s film runs two narratives simultaneously. One comprises Rebick’s life story, recounted in anecdotes, family history and moments of cultural shift, both big and small.
The other half is something more mysterious, a mélange of footage flowing like a stream of the subconscious, moving underneath and alongside the more ordinary moments of Rebick’s life.
These twinned pairings of sound and image sometimes touch, but other times they lurch away from each other so that a third narrative can come into being, one created in the mind of the viewer themselves as they watch the depictions of events detailed in the film to unfurl.
The combination reminded me of another artist, Brion Gysin, who dated his epiphany on the nature of consciousness to a bus ride where the play of sunlight and shadow flickering across his eyelids induced a trance-like state.
There is something of the same quality in the dappled play of black-and-white Super 8 footage within Hoolboom’s film.
Hoolboom and Rebick’s long friendship enabled the intimate convergence that led to the documentary. The pair met at a party at the house of filmmaker Velcrow Ripper and instantly gravitated to each other.
Shot over the course of a several years, the film encompasses not only Rebick’s life and work, organized into chapters like Family and Weight, but the foundational idea that the personal is always and inextricably political.
As a woman and an activist, Rebick’s personal evolution ran parallel to larger events taking place in Canadian history. The rise of worker’s rights, women’s rights, reproductive freedom — Rebick was often at the centre of the action, putting her body on the line to effect change.
In one particularly staggering sequence this became more than a metaphor, when she stepped in front of Dr. Henry Morgentaler after he was attacked by a man with pruning shears.
Hoolboom takes a Zapruder approach, slowing the footage of the incident down so that it moves one frame at a time. The effect is altogether startling, like a dream sequence or more accurately a nightmare.
Rebick’s courage ensured her notoriety for a time, with people on the street recognizing her. As she recounts in the film, truck drivers stopped her to press money into her hands, donations to help the cause.
But Rebick’s world-beating fire-breathing engine of energy and drive had a terrible birthplace. In spite of her fearless and often loud-mouthed bravado, another reality was running the show.
Clinical depression, health issues and battles with her weight had marked her life since she was a young woman, but the decision to take on the job of director of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women surfaced the more profound injury.
After a period of deep depression, Rebick sought help. Therapy revealed a number of distinct personalities that lived inside her head.
All of these fragmented selves, of different ages and genders, were watched over by a guardian personality by the name of Simon, a calm and rational character who allowed for the emergence of this subsumed reality because he thought it might help.
Rebick documented her experiences with dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personalities) in her book, Heroes in My Head.
Hoolboom takes poetic license with the idea, turning it into a cine-poem of images that pour out in a flickering cavalcade of light and dark, chiaroscuro shadows mixing freely with the blinding spotlight of the media fame.
It’s a curious combination, a whirl of intimate history grounded by Rebick’s no-nonsense delivery and punctuated with laughter. It’s fallible, human and ultimately brave, a reminder that it’s our injuries and scars, failures and missteps that make up the person we become at the end of the day.
Judy Versus Capitalism is a reminder that accepting your pain, allowing it to infuse you with empathy and compassion, is truly the best use of suffering. The film is screening for free at the Cinematheque in Vancouver from Jan. 22 to Feb. 4.
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