Top of the Docs #29 – ‘Rebirth of a Nation’ (2004)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. For August, we will be looking at documentaries that use a digital filmmaking process!

Birth of a Nation is one of the most infamous films in world cinema. Directed in 1915 by DW Griffith and adapted from a novel entitled The Clansman, the film fantasies a vision of the Ku Klux Klan battle valiantly against a Reconstruction-era congressman. It engages in vile racial stereotypes and is unreservedly racist. Yet despite this, the film is often praised for its historical importance. Birth of a Nation was the first 12-reel film ever made and had perhaps the most complex narrative we had seen up until that point. This has led to a struggle in which critics and theorists have attempted to untangle the film and its themes from its historical relevance, is it possible to explore what the film represents historically given the disgusting and unforgivable nature of its content? And should we even be untangling it at all? Perhaps the most innovative exploration of the film has been DJ Spooky’s live performance remix of the film, Rebirth of a Nation.

DJ Spooky, also known as Paul D. Miller, has toured his performance of Rebirth of a Nation since 2004, taking it around the world and performing in such venues as the BFI IMAX in London and the Herod Atticus Theatre at the base of the Acropolis. The performance consists of Miller using DJ techinques, chopping up the film, changing its speed, and even overlaying it with external visuals, to remix Birth of a Nation, examining its imagery, grammar, messages, everything that a century of writers have attempted to untangle. This unique approach gives Miller and his audience the freedom to explore the film visually, as well as – as Miller said in an interview with The Atlantic – “Think about the trajectory of The Birth of a Nation through the mass media landscape.”

Griffiths’ film is often cited as “innovative” and “influential”, and it is true that there are echoes of the film throughout mainstream American film history. From Francis Ford Coppola to Quentin Tarantino the influence, whether subtle or blatant, is certainly there, with references coming both sonically and visually. Rather than dismissing or even attempting to deny this, Miller forces us through his performance to challenge what we allow to influence our culture, and question what we consume in order for that to happen.

Birth of a Nation is a reprehensible piece of work, yet one that because of its influence remains constantly part of our conversations regarding film history. With Rebirth of a Nation, DJ Spooky uses his own innovative techniques to call on us to take responsibility for what we consume, and what influences us, demanding we be critical of the culture we are absorbing. The use of DJ techniques to create an entirely new film out of the body of such an incendiary piece of work is brave, but genius work, and is a powerful example of how new technologies allow films and filmmakers to constantly find new ways in which to creatively construct new discussions, even out of the ashes of old ones.

Trailer for Rebirth of a Nation

Header image courtesy of Michael Raz-Russo