Five years after it ceased production,
the Undercurrents video activist network is back.
The Guardian, 21 April 2004
Just over 10 years ago, when affordable
camcorders were still a novelty, a small group of people
- describing themselves as "a couple of frustrated
TV producers and a handful of environmental activists"
- set up an experimental media project from a bedroom
in north London. Calling themselves Small World Media,
they wanted to use their film skills to capture stories
they believed mainstream media was missing.
To do so, they began to "embed"
film-makers among Britain's burgeoning direct action
scene. Back came coverage of the campaigns to prevent
the building of the M11 link road and the Salisbury
bypass, including footage of evictions and illegal arrests.
Other reports covered the opposition to the criminal
justice bill, police clampdowns on open-air raves, and
villagers trying to stop their common land being turned
into a golf course.
From 1993 to 1999, Small World produced
10 video compilations, which they called "Undercurrents".
The project was born out of a frustration that, despite
a huge upswelling of direct action and radical politics
in Britain throughout the 1990s, very little of it seemed
to be covered adequately on television news or in the
Undercurrents created a network of
camcorder activists, providing support and media training,
setting up a "grassroots protest video archive"
with more than 1,000 hours of footage, printing its
own "video activist handbook", and releasing
video after video of alternative news. Within a few
years of its inception, it was getting glowing reviews
in the very mainstream press it scorned, winning international
awards for its videos and blazing a trail for alternative
news reporting that continues to this day.
In 1999, Small World stopped production
of its compilation videos and concentrated instead on
its website, media training, community projects and
producing specialist documentaries. Now, though, its
alternative news video is back, in the form of the newly-founded
Undercurrents News Network (UNN), which was launched
at the beginning of this month.
With political dissent and accompanying
protest more widespread now than at any time since Undercurrents'
heyday in the mid-1990s, it seems a timely relaunch.
Zoe Broughton, one of UNN's co-producers, says: "There
are a huge number of little video activist cells and
alternative film-makers out there, many of them doing
a very professional job. The quality of film is stunning,
but the problem is the distribution of it. That's where
we come in."
The media world into which UNN arrives
is very different from that of a decade ago. A plethora
of "alternative" news sources has sprung up,
prompted by the growth of the internet. The most widespread
is Indymedia, an international network of almost 100
websites that showcases the kind of activist writing,
filming and reporting pioneered by Undercurrents. In
other words, the marketplace for "alternative news"
is a crowded one.
Perhaps this is one reason why the
revamped Undercurrents looks much slicker than it used
to. Gone are the shaky cameras, poor sound quality and
dubious editing; instead, the new Undercurrents is a
slick mix of news reportage, short films, cartoons and
even songs. From The Meatrix, an anti-factory farming
cartoon, to the story of how Harvard students ran a
successful campaign of direct action against their own
university to force it to increase the wages paid to
its cleaning staff, Undercurrents seems to have lost
none of its verve for telling stories that you won't
see on TV. It is also clear that, as before, this is
partisan journalism, with its head held high.
Undercurrents plans to produce three
video compilations a year and show them at a rolling
programme of public screenings, as well as selling videos
directly through its website. Ninety per cent of the
material on the first video has been made and sent in
by film collectives around the world - outfits as varied
as a Croatian feminist collective and an American student
body - and this is the way its creators intend it to
continue. How successful the project is now will depend
on how much of an appetite there is out there for alternative
For more information, see www.undercurrents.org/unn.