No Gods, No Masters (Icarus Films, NR)

In Christian anarchist Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, she famously writes: ‘The past once destroyed never returns. The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.’ After nearly 70 years, Tancrède Ramonet takes up her call and makes the first-ever documentary on the early history of anarchism. Focusing on the late-19th and early 20th century, Ramonet’s No Gods, No Masters presents itself as a historical retelling of the thoughts and practices characterizing the global anarchism movement prior to World War II.

In the first episode, Ramonet sets lays down the routes for anarchism in the 1840s when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously declared property as theft. The episode then recounts anarchism’s spread from France through Europe and into America, which concludes with Chicago’s Haymarket massacre. Spanning across 1907 to 1921, the second installment is a dizzying recounting of twentieth century revolutions from Mexico to Russia and the momentum anarchism had gained in France and England. In its final episode, No Gods, No Masters opens with the end of anarchism in Depression-era America and the rise of fascism in European countries. Additionally, the episode details the fall of Spanish Republic which lead anarchism’s greatest success: Catalonia’s revolutionary turn to an anarchist and socialist commune.

Unfortunately for Tancrède Ramonet, No Gods, No Masters looks and sounds like episodes of Ancient Aliens. There are obnoxious production oversights such as inconsistently labeling documents featured in the film, including archival footage and images. On numerous occasions, I was left to guess if I was looking at newsreel footage or some sort of archival reenactment. I might not know what’s in front of me, but the pipped in melodramatic score sure did let me know how I was supposed to feel. Worst of all is the voice-over narration that maintains a steady commitment to histrionics, a cadence that is especially baffling when one considers the documentary’s principal aim of bringing a sobering lens to representations of anarchism. I fundamentally do not understand it.

If it is not already obvious, Ramonet’s film was initially a French production. The press copy did not allow for me to switch to French with English subtitles, but it does look like Icarus’ physical release will allow for you to watch the series in French. I imagine that would make for a marginally better viewing experience, but there are so many problems with this series that lie outside of the language barrier that I still cannot recommend it. A major problem here is that Ramonet tries to wrestle 30+ years of international anarchist history landscapes into three 50-minute episodes. It is just not enough time to do a fair job covering the movement, its figureheads, and the major events which took place in multiple countries. Sadly, Ramonent set himself up to take on an impossible task, and this choice coupled with poor production decision makes No Gods, No Masters one of the most insufferable documentaries of the year. | Cait Lore

No Gods, No Masters is distributed on DVD, Amazon Video and iTunes by Icarus Films. Extras include 30 minutes of bonus footage, a 20-page booklet with essays, and a 26-minute interview with Noam Chomsky.


One comment

  1. I would recommend this documentary for someone who is interested in the history of anarchism but I would not present it in an academic setting, for it lacks objectivity. As the reviewer left explicit, this is far from a neutral view of the events, adopting a clearly positive attitude towards its subject (although, to its credit, it presented some internal inconsistencies within anarchism that ultimately dictated the downfall of various anarchist revolutions, like the treason committed by urban anarcho-syndicalists in Mexico who felt threatened by the religious values expressed by the triumphant Zapatist peasantry). However, this healthy self-criticism was mostly lacking in the analysis of the anarchist revolution in Spain, where many rich landlords, fearing the advance of anarchists, preemptively offered their land to fascists in exchange for protection, being the small landowners the main victims of anarchist occupations (which, in many cases, were accompanied by public humiliations and executions).

    I was able to find two errors in the documentary, which only made me wonder about what other errors I wasn’t able to detect due to personal ignorance: namely, they credited anarchists for the regicide of the Portuguese King in 1908 (most historians claim it was a republican with links to masonry and, although this is debatable and an anarchist may well be responsible, the matter-of-fact way in which they presented it put me off guard). They also presented some socialist thinkers as affect to anarchism, namely George Orwell, who although fought alongside the anarchists against the fascists in Catalonia, did so as a member of the POUM (Worker’s Party of Marxist Unity). Orwell described himself in “Why I Write” as a democratic socialist, recognizing the legitimacy of the electoral process and the necessity of the State.

    All in all, this is a documentary made by anarchists for anarchist viewers. It is a reasonably well-done documentary, but one that could benefit immensely from a more objective and less histrionic narrative.

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