It’s hard to imagine two songs more different than The Clash’s "London Calling" and Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit." Both were born from the spirit of struggle, however, and both fit seamlessly into Agit8—a singular film that celebrates protest songs, which was recently projected on the side of the Tate Modern in London.
Agit8 began when philanthropist rocker Bob Geldof asked Love, Actually director and activist Richard Curtis to participate in a project preceding this year’s G8 Summit. The goal was to show the historical effectiveness of protest by focusing on the vast catalog of protest songs. Soon, collaborative production house The Found Collective came on board and worked with Curtis to make something unique—an ambient musical piece, imbued with purpose, and designed to be experienced live.
"It’s a very different kind of film to anything I’ve ever been involved in," the screenwriter says.
Agit8 is less a film than a sensory composition, carefully directing viewers’ eyes, ears, and emotions. It’s a visual collage that weaves together protest songs and quotes that evoke the injustices their creators were protesting. Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Colin Firth stop by to lend gravitas to dramatic readings and artists like Ed Sheeran cover songs such as Dylan’s "Masters of War." The cumulative effect of the experience is intended to rile viewers up enough to text their G8 leaders asking for change.
In order to create such an effect, the first thing the team did was look at songs about large subjects like war, apartheid, and civil rights—ones that were conducive to telling a story about a movement in a short time. ("On civil rights, we were spoiled for song choice," Curtis says.) Next they chose songs that had strong visual elements, careful to pick songs from different eras. In addition to topics like "war," which feature Bob Dylan and Edwin Starr among others, they also created a topic called "Breadth & Scope," containing a number of issues, limited to one song each.
"I consider the work that I did on Make Poverty History and, indeed, some of the work with Comic Relief [to be] part of a long-running protest movement—protesting about the levels of extreme poverty in the world today," Curtis says. "What was interesting about making the film was remembering quite how important, particularly when I was young, songs were in forming my opinions about social issues of the time."
In order to make some of those older songs relevant again, The One Campaign got involved and commissioned videos of 50 artists, including Sheeran and U2’s Bono, performng covers of protest songs. Whether a resurgence of these older songs from other struggles will have any bearing on the issues of today, however, remains to be seen.
"By definition, an effective protest is one which has an effect on events and policy," Curtis says. "But protest can also be effective in planting an issue emotionally in people’s minds, and it may be that the effect occurs later down the line, in another context—or in the behavior of the people who become powerful and were first affected by the movement. The enemy is apathy and inaction."
See video of dozens more protest songs here.