Dean Puckett’s Grasp the Nettle is an attempt to understand, and thereby empathise with, the struggles of constructing an anarchist community in a city metropolis over a period of roughly five years. Although anarchism as a political concept is not explicitly mentioned in the film, the community’s reliance on the land, on utilising little or no money, and on evenly, peacefully distributing labour and resources between every community member, are all deeply felt anarchist viewpoints. The community in question, for the first half of the movie, is an eco-village established on a piece of disused land in Brentford, West London.
Like many of the great anarchist films of the past, Grasp the Nettle becomes first and foremost an examination of the struggles an anti-capitalist community must confront and overcome as a self-contained unit, as well as the paradoxical nature of their frictions against and minor reliance upon external capitalist forces—which ranges from where they source their water supply to the constant threat of repossession and development on the site of the eco-village. Puckett’s film is an act of learning and adjustment; developing and forming a shape and perspective according to the length of time he spends at the village and with the people he encounters.
Due to this constant reshuffling of the director’s aesthetic and thematic vocabulary, Grasp the Nettle is less a didactic-theoretical experiment in narrative structure, like Jean-Louis Comolli’s La Cecilia, which at first seems an obvious point of comparison, and more embedded in the tradition of many small, recent British activism movies, most of which are disseminated widely on the web and at festivals around the country, and which directly encourage the participation and emancipation of the viewer in political action, like Emily James’ Just Do It.
Bizarrely, one of the most common uniting characteristics of the people living at the village is a very active rebellion against the war in Afghanistan, seemingly even more so than a direct condemnation of the ideology of capital. Once the eco-village in Kew Bridge is destroyed by property developers, the activists move to Democracy village, a rough-hewn camp set-up outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, where they directly engage with the police, pedestrians, and other anti-war protestors.
Puckett’s film, like La Cecilia, becomes about the inevitable disintegration of a newly-formed bohemian community. Both ‘villages’ in the film begin to attract the dispossessed and aggression builds up between members of the camp, yet violence is repeatedly eschewed by the villagers in favour of diplomacy and reorganisation. One of the many ways Grasp the Nettle proves to be a valuable film is in its constantly expanding structure. As one episode collapses into the next, Puckett seems to concentrate more on the people who populate the film. Many of them are tragic characters, with real and even graphic burdens, and though there are points where the film lingers closely on their peculiarities, one can sense the filmmaker subjecting his gaze to scrutiny. Is it in the best interests of the community to focus on the tensions in the camp rather than the work they accomplish daily? The film stakes a claim somewhere between the two sides; Grasp the Nettle is more of a collection of ephemeral moments, more of a statement of solidarity with those living in the camps, with their eccentricities, and with their fervently anti-capitalist way of existing.
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