American Insurrection

American Insurrection (aka The Volunteers) (2021)

On 6 January 2021, a disparate group of conspiracy theorists, MAGA maniacs and trained militiamen stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, called to action by a President who could not accept that he had clearly lost the last election and would now have to yield the White House to the winner. This attack on the seat of the U.S. Federal Government’s legislative branch ended in failure, if not without fatalities, and even as a United States House Select Committee continues to investigate what exactly happened and who was responsible, the attempted coup has already brought into sharp relief the dangers posed by armed and organised paramilitary groups of the far right who were ready to demolish democracy and impose their own rule over the country. Though never referring directly to the events of that day, the film American Insurrection imagines a near-future America where white supremacist militias (known as the Volunteers, which was also the film’s alternative title) have succeeded in taking over America. Indeed the militia’s smooth-tongued, suit-wearing leader Richmond Spence Williams V (Toby Leonard Moore), seen at various points on television, is clearly modelled, in his conduct and even in his name on the influential alt-right neo-Nazi Richard B. Spencer. The dog-whistled civilian insurrectionists here are likewise all too recognisable.

In this dystopian, drone-filled America, those who are not white, not straight or not Christian are branded with barcode-like tattoos on their necks, and faced with persecution that is fast escalating into a nation-wide Holocaust. Director William Sullivan (Percival’s Big Night, 2012; That’s Not Us, 2015; Jane Wants A Boyfriend, 2015; The Ring Thing, 2017) follows a small resistance in a farmhouse near Canada. A liberal feminist angered by loss, tough-as-nails Sarah (played by Sarah Wharton, who has appeared in all Sullivan’s features) runs an Underground Railroad with her husband Jarret (Jarret Kerr), helping marked refugees get out of America. Currently they are awaiting coordinates for a border crossing so that they can themselves flee to safety along with their close friends, the married couple Zahabiya (Nadine Malouf) – who is tattooed – and David (Nick Westrate). Yet as time passes with no word from the Canadian contacts who are their lifeline, tensions mount. Their decision to ‘hide in plain sight’ in the property of the Volunteer seems ever more perilous as the presence of the man himself, Gabe (Michael Raymond-James), kept prisoner in the barn, serves as a constant threat to both their safety and their moral integrity. Meanwhile, the arrival of Arjay (Brandon Perea), a gay Filipino fugitive, risks not only drawing the militias (whose numbers, along with their ruthlessness, are increasing), but also disrupting the delicate balance between the four friends. 

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was turned into a film in 1990, and into an ongoing television series from 2017. In certain respects American Insurrection feels like another reimagining of Atwood’s work, with its similar depiction of an authoritarian state, and of nearby Canada as the promised land of escape and emancipation. Still, Atwood’s focus on the sexual subjugation of women is here reoriented as a broader picture of a polarised America in danger of slipping easily into fascism. While the screenplay (co-written by Sullivan with Jarret Kerr) never lets us forget the Volunteers circling on the periphery, and offers glimpses (in flashbacks or via background media) of how their coup has rapidly transformed the country into a totalitarian thugocracy, for the most part the film stays with the six characters on the farm, and through their interactions shows how easily we all succumb to the politics of hate, and how hard it can be to come back from that. As a man crudely outspoken against non-whites and gays, the chained-up Gabe embodies hatred – but the others readily reciprocate by treating him, at least at first, as an animal, denying him his personhood, even his own name, and literally referring to him as ‘the dog’, in a reversed dynamic where it is clearly they who are now the brutal oppressors. Even Sarah, in many ways the most heroic of the group, regularly beats Gabe. 

Similarly Jarret is aggressively distrustful of outsiders, and his eagerness to eject the injured Arjay from the group is not dissimilar to the Volunteers’ earlier victimisation of him. Meanwhile David harbours – and is conflicted by – a more complicated kind of homophobia that is destructive not just to others but to himself. Much as the Volunteers leave bombs in mosques like terrorists, and attack gay men in a manner that is hard to distinguish from rape, the characters at the farm, all traumatised by their recent experiences, are at risk of becoming what they claim to despise, so that their personal dramas represent a microcosm of a beleaguered nation at odds with itself. Ironically, it is Zahabiya, the branded Muslim with the most to lose, who alone treats Gabe as a human being, and trusts him to treat her in kind, meeting hate with compassion. It is a model for dialogue and reconciliation crossing the border of division – although the film is neither pat nor naïve enough to end with everyone singing ‘Kumbaya’. For while not entirely without hope, this is essentially a bleakly confronting portrait of a society whose hatreds are rooted in self-loathing, and of an America whose different people, riven by anger, denial and scapegoating, struggle to accept themselves as much as others. And while American Insurrection may be an allegorical fiction, the events of January the sixth show how uncomfortably close it skirts reality. Matching the complexity of the characters, the performances here are nuanced all round, in a film that does not seek easy answers to a national problem.

strap: William Sullivan’s dystopian drama imagines an America uniting under neo-Nazi authoritarianism and divided in its resistance

© Anton Bitel