The Fearless Indie Film Challenging the Progressive Left
The new DIY flick “Empty Metal” is a nihilistic, Bushwick-set fable—and the rare movie that takes on modern-day liberalism.
Empty Metal is a DIY movie that, in a form-follows-content move, takes on Bushwick nihilism (to borrow a facetious phrase from a friend). Playing from Dec. 5 to 11 at Anthology Film Archives in New York, the film’s central protagonists—Rose, Pam, and Devon—have a noise band called Alien and live in a sizable Bushwick loft where they lament the track list on their new vinyl album, which, of course, the label fucked up. A young woman, Queen Omega, visits Alien at their studio for a video interview during which the band comments on the dire state of the world. Queen Omega makes the mistake of asking why, if the word is so fucked (like their track list), don’t they do something? The band laughs at what strikes them as her conventional naïveté. Do what? “Run for local government?” Rose giggles. “Kill a cop?” Devon ironizes. They feel they are contributing via their music. “Contributing to…?” Queen Omega asks, in turn. The interview ends there.
Directed by artists Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, Empty Metal is as serious as it is surreal, combining the trickster perspective with an ever-increasing political dread. It pokes fun at nearly everyone in the film while simultaneously attending to them with a kind of radical compassion—whether we like it or not, we’re all in this world together. Specifically, the film takes the risk of leveraging a complex political argument in the predominantly Hispanic yet steadily gentrifying Bushwick, where young—usually white but not always—liberal arts school graduates often take up comparatively affordable residence to live out their countercultural dreams. Queen Omega is Hispanic, and the other activists who come for Alien—not to attack them, but to convert them to their cause—are black (King Alpha) and indigenous (Mother and Daughter). They use everything from magic to riddles to Trinidad Corn Soup to connect ideas to action.
Mother, Daughter, Queen Omega, and King Alpha’s other convert, a Buddhist monk who is the father of a far-right extremist militia leader, is a ghostly-white immigrant who first came to the States wanting to be an artist. He is instructed to wipe his government-tracked identity off the map and is jailed for failing to furnish a driver’s license and proof of insurance to a traffic cop. Meanwhile, Rose is telepathically transmitted a message from Daughter, telling her and the rest of the band to take out the cops and vigilantes who have killed unarmed black men; their names are redacted in the film, but we see clips from their television interviews: Daniel Pantaleo, George Zimmerman, and Darren Wilson who killed Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, respectively. These newly formed radical activists must be careful though; throughout the film we’re taken into the perspective of a drone that follows everyone, from the movement’s leaders to the militia men to Alien. Activists can go underground, but there is always surveillance overhead, ready to strike.
Khalil and Sweitzer respond to political ideology on both the left and right, and as artists familiar with the mode of “practice”—or gradually addressing a set of concerns and interests—rather than professional filmmakers who are often pressured to spin tightly planned and plotted narratives, they allow themselves to sort through radical messaging to arrive at a set of ideas about the present, past, and future of social justice, resulting in a feature that seems to demand as much imaginative fuel from the viewer as it does from the film’s cast and crew.
By daring to confront violence across the political spectrum, Khalil and Sweitzer risk making a political film without grand conclusions. Instead, Empty Metal is a movie that, like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames—a major influence for the directors—challenges us to sort through our own web of ideas, assumptions, and impulses; to take a hard look at how our personal decisions are connected to our political obligations; and to identify what kind of sacrifices we would be willing to make to transform the present reality.
This kind of challenge doesn’t just apply to Bushwick nihilists either—in our increasingly professionalized and corporatized world, it is easy for the middle and upper classes, especially, to believe that symbolic contributions are enough. Talk the talk, make your art, send a donation or two, and let somebody else expose themselves to active struggle. Empty Metal engages the extreme—political violence—not only theoretically, but also as a way to examine the history of political movements. In a monologue, Rose explains that there is a difference between the end of the world and the apocalypse; the former is universal, the latter personal. So, Empty Metal asks, what causes are worth personal risk and how long can you depend on others to take those risks so that you can maintain an illusion of safety?