If not now  


by Jill Daniels

View Jill Daniels' Biography

Jill Daniels' autobiographical essay films explore memory, place, history and Jewish identity.

If not now

by Jill Daniels



If not now1, is a video essay film located in Brick Lane running through the heart of London's East End, England. Brick Lane was established in mediaeval times and has been home to successive waves of immigrant communities, including French Huguenot weavers, East European Jews and currently, Bengalis; today it is semi-gentrified with hipster clothes shops, street food, beigel bakeries, 'Indian' restaurants and sari shops. 1978 was a significant year for the Bengali inhabitants of Brick Lane with a successful strike in the local brewery which was followed by an escalation of racist attacks on the community led by the fascist group the National Front (NF). Politically left-wing parties and groups were divided over strategies of resistance to the NF, some advocating direct action, others advocating the building of a broad front of community leaders, mainstream political parties and vicars, to publicise their opposition to racism.

The film has a nonlinear, disjunctive structure augmented by its use of heterogeneous materials woven together through montage and use of subjective voice-overs; it furthers speculation rather than certainty. Laura Rascaroli in her discussion of the essay film cites Theodor Adorno who argues that the essay is a subversive method of thought, which by moving through the fissures between the aesthetic and epistemological may undermine the dominant division of labour. Adorno points out that since the antagonistic nature of capitalism is largely concealed, it follows that suppressed conflict may not be revealed simply through taking a mimetic approach to the mediation of actuality (Rascaroli 2017: n.p.). The video essay then, may be achieved through a critical realism, since realism in this case may not be pinned down to the solely mimetic. If not now in its mediation of the past responds to the assertion that in opposition to notions of waste, and dispersal of the past, there is a grand circularity, of nothing ever, ever going away; that the uncovering of a history of resistance may act as a catalyst for resistance today. Further, there may also be interruptions since resistance may be patient.

Jane Gaines pertinently asks: "what might it be that moves viewers to want to act, that moves them to do something instead of nothing?" (1999: 89). She recognizes that the question is not directly answerable because of the problem in defining what constitutes action as well as the need to have the exact knowledge of the political conditions in the world of the audience. In 2010, Hito Steyerl argued that a new range of aesthetic approaches to artistic research may arise to resist the dominant division of labour and there may be many aesthetic approaches to resistance according to specific circumstances in geographical locations.

In making If not now to evoke the past in the present I adopted a method influenced by Alexander Kluge, who compares the production of a film to the creation of a construction site, bringing all the elements together in an order, but by its fragmented nature the film has no definitive closure, thus enabling reflection and the possibility of action (Kluge in Thomas, 2019). If not now is constructed through hybrid filmic strategies of a critical realism and the imagined. It evokes the circularity of history in an opening shot of floating dust and through my voiced address to Rebecca, which tells us of her arrival in the East End from Kovna, Lithuania in the early 20th century and her lonely death in a tenement building in Brick Lane twenty years later. Avery Gordon's view of haunting is as a struggle against the reduction of individuals "to a sequence of instantaneous experiences that leave no trace", or whose trace (as dust) is hated as irrational, superfluous and 'overtaken' (Gordon 1997). Rebecca's identification as my Jewish great-great grandmother is given at the end of the video thus inviting a reconsideration of why she is in the film.

The use of black and white, slow motion and long takes of streets where nothing much happens, creates distanciation, intended to encourage reflection. Slow motion is often described as resembling a dream state. However, André Bazin considers that slow motion conveys a psychological state of the difficulty of achieving our ends that may often occur in dreams. The effect of slow motion is distinct from a dream, because dreams are about the expression of repressed desires rather than the formal quality of their images (Bazin 1997: 74). My aim in using wide-angle, deep focus long takes was to give the spectator's eye the time to wander around the frame. For Bazin:

Depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality ... it implies consequently, both a more active mental attitude on the part of the spectator and a more positive contribution on his part to the action in progress (ibid, 35).

The sound of birds and distant voices creates additional distanciation from the mimetic, creating an aural temporal continuity interrupted by the loud sound of fire in the archive sequences of a riot. Mary Ann Doane notes that although the record of time may be non-specific or unanchored "the elaborate development of structures that produce the image of a coherent 'real time' ... is much more 'real' than 'real time' itself" (2002: 163). If not now encourages reflection that may lead to action; this may not be immediate but as Stephen Muecke remarks: "The enemy wants to escalate the situation to get things done, but the war of resistance has all the time in the world" (Muecke 2020 n.p.).

Works cited

Bazin André. 1976. What is Cinema Vol. 1, University of California Press.

Mary Ann Doane. 2002. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. London England: Harvard University Press.

Gaines, Jane.1999. "Political Mimemis" in Collecting Visible Evidence, J. Gaines and M. Renov (eds.). University of Minnesota Press.

Gordon, Avery. 1999. Ghostly Matters. University of Minnesota Press.

Levi, Primo. 1987. If Not Now When? trans. William Weaver. Abacus.

Muecke, Stephen. 2020. "Resistance". Overland, 241. Summer.

Rascaroli, Laura. 2017. How the Essay Film Thinks. Oxford University Press.

Steyerl, Hito. 2010. "Aesthetics of Resistance? Artistic Research As Discipline and Conflict" in maHKUzine, Journal of Artistic Research.

Thomas, Jane. (n.d.) The Third Rail, Issue 10. Website.


  1. The title of the video refers to Primo Levi's novel 'If Not Now When?' which pays tribute to the Jews who fought back during the Holocaust. Levi joined a partisan group in northern Italy in 1943. He was captured and deported to Auschwitz and survived.