Short film: What We Said to the Thunder

James Bell
Jul 6, 2018 · 5 min read

What We Said to the Thunder is a short film poem, depicting the propaganda campaign waged by British, EU and US imperialism to justify war upon Russia in the wake of the Skripal incident on 4 March. The film builds upon themes in a recently published experimental poem, The War Report.

The short notes below are intended to offer some assistance to interpreting the film’s meaning. A notable absence is a full position on the Skripal incident itself. This can be found in the materials included with The War Report. It must also be noted that those elements of the film’s construction which are discussed here draw upon broader theory which cannot be fully explicated in these notes. The themes, artistic and political, upon which What We Said to the Thunder is based will be developed more thoroughly through my podcast, AgitProp, and theoretical articles.

If you would like to support this work, please consider donating. Any donation, no matter how small, is vastly appreciated and goes a long way toward keeping this cultural platform going. All donations are divided equally between myself and Alex Bushell, the film’s videographer and co-writer. For more regular updates, follow me on Twitter.

Notes on general structure, themes and montage

The themes and structure of What We Said to the Thunder largely emerged during its development. What had been concretely agreed and decided upon before the editing process is minute by comparison to that reflected in the finished cut. Initially, the film was intended simply to include a few shots of the natural world, juxtaposed against shots of military hardware, with verse spoken over these shots. The meaning of this was simple. It was intended to show that there is a world worth protecting from the plunge toward barbarism engendered by the imperialist crisis. Whilst the essence of this meaning is retained by the film — particularly in its final sequence — the reality of the imperialist crisis seemed at odds with such simplistic thematic content. As such, the film was broadened considerably to include discussion of more complex material.

Structurally, the film is divided into five parts: an opening and four image verses. Aside from the opening sequence, each section of the work is contextualised by written verse. For example, the image verse following the poem’s opening sequence is contextualised by the following verse:

Shot by shot,
we descend;

Riverrun past Eve and Adam’s

What follows from this is an elaboration on the meaning of this verse. “Shot by shot” is further contextualised by the image verse’s repeated insinuation that the bourgeois media is fully complicit with the imperialist campaign on Russia and, more than this, that the culture of imperialist society is actively involved in “selling” the notion of war to us. This latter point is particularly communicated by the “ad break”, beginning with the first Trump Steaks shot.

The use of montage in the film is best initially explained through the piece’s opening sequence. In accordance with Eisenstein’s theory of montage, in which ‘ an idea [arises] from the collision of independent shots’, this sequence introduces the poem’s central themes by a direct collision of imagery. Throughout the sequence, the outlines of natural imagery is repeatedly traced by overlays of explosions. Symbolically, nature is here intended to represent the flow of history, the outlines of which are repeatedly traced by the encroachment of imperialist war.

This montage approach is used to create increasingly complex meanings as the film progresses. For example, in the poem’s second image verse (that set over Easter), the image of a cartoon Christ being crucified is overlaid by the image of a “Satan 2” — that is, a Russian Sarmat missile — launch. The meaning of this image is derived from multiple collisions. Firstly, the image of Christ must be attended to. In its authentic form, the crucifixion symbolises the rebirth of mankind through sacrifice. By using a cartoon Christ instead of one of flesh and blood, the implication is that this rebirth is inauthentic. Rather than the rebirth of humanity proper, it is a certain gaudy culture (that of capitalism) which is being reborn here. How this rebirth is to be achieved is implicated by the presence of the missile which, as it rises into the sky, comes to appear as the star of Bethlehem. As such, the full meaning of this image is that capitalism (capital accumulation) is to be reborn through the sacrifice of imperialist war, render almost religious by the propaganda campaign surrounding it. A full discussion of every montage piece in the film is beyond the scope of these materials, but it is hoped that this explanation of method will aid in its interpretation. For those who want a more detailed understanding, I have written in much more detail on Eisenstein and the “idea montage” technique in the second episode of AgitProp and in the supplementary materials to my poem A Montage on Bread.

The ultimate purpose of the poem is reflected in its last image verse and its title. The title piece is a reference to the final section of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land (1922), titled “What the Thunder Said”. In Eliot, thunder represents the rebirth of human civilisation, as it implicates the coming of rain. Where Eliot is vague in his understanding of how this rebirth is to be brought about, in What We Said to the Thunder, the rebirth of thunder refers to the rebirth of imperialist society through war implicated in earlier sections of the film. The ultimate meaning of the piece is that this can be rejected (‘And we said no, / for life is good’) in favour of a different path — that of socialism. This is further communicated in the image verse, which juxtaposes the ordinary world of human life and nature (that is, what is in the interests of the working class and, really, the human species) against the cataclysm offered by the bourgeoisie.

I have argued in the supplementary materials of The War Report and in a recent article, The Civil War in Heaven, that imperialist society is today more and more tending toward the kind of barbarism seen in the first and second imperialist world wars. Both The War Report and What We Said to the Thunder are intended as aesthetic expressions of this process and the possibility of resistance to it.


Prolekult is a communist film platform, run by James Bell and Alex Bushell.

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James Bell

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Marxist-Leninist writer, poet & critic.

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