Third Cinema revisited

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First, Second and Third Cinemas.

Posted by keith1942 on March 12, 2014

Solanas and Getino, centre in group photograph.

Solanas and Getino, centre in group photograph.

The Manifesto Towards a Third Cinema is probably the central text relating to filmmaking that offers a genuine opposition to colonialism and neo-colonialism. However, the sub-title makes the point that these are ‘notes’ rather than a fully worked out analysis. And different aspects of the arguments and examples in the work receive different emphasis in different authors: I note in the ‘About this Blog’ that I focus on antic-colonial filmmaking, though some other writers include oppositional film from within the colonial and neo-colonial states.

An equally important distinction arises because Fernando Solanas, by himself, wrote a ‘clarification’ on the original manifesto. This changes the terms and meanings given to the various types of cinema characterised in the Manifesto. So in the original text we are presented with a dominant and reactionary cinema, and their possible alternative cinemas:

The mechanistic take-over of a cinema conceived as a show to be exhibited in large theatres with a standard duration, hermetic structures that are born and die on the screen, satisfies, to be sure, the commercial in­terests of the production groups, but it also leads to the absorption of forms of the bourgeois world-view which are the continuation of 19th century art, of bourgeois art: man is accepted only as a passive and consuming object; rather than having his ability to make history recognised, he is only permitted to read history, contemplate it, listen to it, and undergo it. The cinema as a spectacle aimed at a digesting object is the highest point that can be reached by bourgeois film-making. The world, experience, and the historic process are enclosed within the frame of a painting, the stage of a theatre, and the movie screen; man is viewed as a consumer of ideology, and not as the creator of ideology. This notion is the starting point for the wonderful interplay of bourgeois philosophy and the obtaining of surplus value. The result is a cinema studied by motivational analysts, sociologists and psychologists, by the endless researchers of the dreams and frustrations of the masses, all aimed at selling movie-life, reality as it is conceived by the ruling classes.

The first alternative to this type of cinema, which we could call the first cinema, arose with the so-called `author’s cinema,’ `expression cinema,’ `nouvelle vague,’ `cinema novo,’ or, conventionally, the second cinema. This alternative signified a step forward in­asmuch as it demanded that the film-maker be free to express himself in non-standard language and in­ as much as it was an attempt at cultural decolonisation. But such attempts have already reached, or are about to reach, the outer limits of what the system permits.

The second cinema film-maker has remained `trapped inside the fortress’ as Godard put it, or is on his way to becoming trapped. The search for a market of 200,000 moviegoers in Argentina, a figure that is supposed to cover the costs of an independent local production, the proposal of developing a mechanism of industrial production parallel to that of the System but which would be distributed by the System according to its own norms, the struggle to better the laws protecting the cinema and replacing `bad officials’ by `less bad.’ etc., is a search lacking in viable prospects, unless you consider viable the prospect of becoming institutional­ised as `the youthful, angry wing of society’ – that is, of neo-colonialised or capitalist society.

Real alternatives differing from those offered by the System are only possible if one of two requirements is fulfilled: making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System. Neither of these requirements fits within the alternatives that are still offered by the second cinema, but they can be found in the revolutionary opening towards a cinema outside and against the System, in a cinema of liberation: the third cinema.

(Towards a Third Cinema Notes and experiences for the development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, Tricontinental no. 13, 1969, translation Julianne Burton).

Ten years on the ‘clarification’ presents only three types of cinema: the dominant cinema and two alternatives:

First cinema expresses imperialist, capitalist, bourgeois ideas. Big monopoly capital finances big spectacle cinema as well as authorial and informational cinema. Any cinematographic expression … likely to respond to the aspirations of big capital, I call first cinema. Our definition of second cinema is all that expresses the aspirations of the middle stratum, the petit bourgeoisie…

Second cinema is often nihilistic, mystificatory. It runs in circles. It is cut off from reality. In the second cinema, just as in the first cinema, you can find documentaries, political and militant cinema. So-called author cinema often belongs in the second cinema, but both good and bad authors may be found in the first and in the third cinemas as well. For us, third cinema is the expression of a new culture and of social changes. Generally speaking, Third Cinema gives an account of reality and history. It is also linked with national culture … It is the way the world is conceptualised and not the genre nor the explicitly political character of a film which makes it belong to Third Cinema … Third Cinema is an open category, unfinished, incom­plete. It is a research category. It is a democratic, national, popular cinema. Third Cinema is also an experimental cinema, but it is not practised in the solitude of one’s home or in a laboratory because it conducts research into communication. What is required is to make that Third Cinema gain space, everywhere, in all its forms … But it must be stressed that there are 36 different kinds of Third Cinema. (Reprinted in L’Influence du troisienre cinema dans le monde, ed. by CinemaAction, 1979.)

Some writers follow one set of categories, some the other. I have to confess that in my earlier pieces I followed the 1979 classification of a dominant ‘first cinema’ and the alternative ‘second’ and ‘third’ cinemas. However, in revisiting the original Manifesto I have become convinced that the original formulation is the best [even if slightly ambiguous].

Firstly, we have two circulating concepts to consider. There is ‘The Third World’, a useful but politically somewhat dubious formulation from the 1960s. Then we have ‘Third Cinema’, which presents a set of categories that are different from the ideas of a ‘First’ ‘Second’ and ‘Third World’.

This becomes clearer if we look at the major political influence on the Manifesto by Solanas and Getino. The key work here is Frantz Fanon’s On National Culture Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom (in The Wretched of the Earth, 1965). Fanon describes three phases in the consciousness of the intellectual or artist in relation to the anti-colonial struggle.

In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power.

In the second phase we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is.

Finally, in the third phase, which is called the fighting phase, the native, after trying to lose himself in the people and with the people, will on the contrary shake the people.

Clearly Fanon’s original words need to be amended to avoid gender determination. However, whilst Solanas and Getino did not use Fanon’s concept in exactly the same way, his thought clearly marks their set of categories.

The idea of falling under the hegemony of the colonial power, of progressing to a sense of the indigenous culture and its history, but finally breaking free to struggle for a new, autonomous culture is central both to Fanon and to Towards a Third Cinema. This complexity is diluted in the 1979 re-formulation. Even if one includes oppositional film in the developed capitalist states the bracketing of auteur with national cinema loses important distinctions. [The posting on The Spirit of ’45 suggests that Ken Loach works as an oppositional filmmaker in a particular national context rather than as an ‘auteur’]. Equally categorising the work as petit bourgeois reduces the complexity. Fanon discusses the petit bourgeois, the national and the comprador bourgeoisie

Fanon’s ‘first phase’ is rather different from the uses of ‘auteur’: though it is worth noting that auteur is predominantly of French derivation. Thus is part of the coloniser’s language. Interestingly in Africa the common designation of auteur occurs in what was known as ‘Francophone’ Africa. Fanon’s ‘second phase’ does correspond much more closely to the idea of ‘second cinema’; it suggests a national consciousness but not necessarily an anti-colonial consciousness. With Fanon’s ‘third phase’ there is a strong alignment between his concept and ‘third cinema’.

If I can take a practical example. I have recently posted a piece on the films set in black townships under the South African Apartheid regime. I was prompted to do this by viewing and reviewing the new South African / UK film production Mandela Long Walk to Freedom (2013). I argued that the film merely dramatised the reformist politics that characterised the settlement the ANC made with the Apartheid regime. One could characterise this with Fanon’s criticism of the limitation of the national bourgeoisie. This Mandela biopic is not really a work of an auteur in a cinematic sense. If there is an authorial strand, then it comes from the book by Mandela himself. However it seems to me that the film does express a national bourgeois set of values. The values of the film would appear to be those inscribed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Something similar seems to inform an earlier South African film Tsotsi (2005). Whilst it is both scripted and directed by Gavin Hood (from a novel by Athol Fugard] his other work seems to fall into the category of genre rather than auteur. Tsotsi, and his later films, with their strong relationships to Hollywood and dominant cinema, demonstrate the limitation of the merely national.

I find it difficult to think of a South African based film auteur, though you could apply the literary equivalent to Athol Fugard. But Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987) can be placed within a cinema of auteurs. The film is based on the book by Donald Woods but the film that it appears to most closely resemble is Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). And both of those films offer a sequence of liberal protest against violence that recalls The Angry Silence (1959) produced by Richard Attenborough. Certainly the political projects of these latter films differ from those of the Mandela and Tsotsi films.

Closer to the territory of Solanas and Getino would be examples from the Latin American Cinemas. The New Latin American Cinema that developed in the 1960s produced a range of films that were clearly anti-colonial. Now in the C21st we have had had several New Cinemas in Latin America: notably in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. But this movement is dominated to a greater degree by films of ‘personal visions’. Often, as with Mexico’s La Zona (Rodrigo Pla, 2007), there is a clear sense of opposition to the dominant system. But in others, such as with the films of Carlos Reygadas, any critical sense is subordinated to the ‘personal vision’ of the filmmaker. Moreover, many of these directors tend to travel between Latin America, Hollywood and Europe in their filmmaking. A position that tends towards the privileging of dominant values. So a film like Y Tu Mama tambien (2001), directed by Alfonzo Cuaron, draws attention to the oppressive social system in the mise en scène. But his foray into Harry Potter (2004), and now space travel in Gravity (2013), is redolent of Solanas’ and Getino’s description of ‘first cinema’.

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Discourse of tears.

Posted by keith1942 on January 30, 2014

A black township in 1976.

A black township in 1976.

I recently saw Mandela Long Walk to Freedom (Republic of South Africa, 2013). The film features the black townships during the Apartheid era, but mainly as a backdrop to the biopic of the famous leader. The political complexities of these black ghettos and of the wider struggle in which they played a leading role were missing from the film. However, the film falls into a long and varied series of treatments of these now iconic settings. The article below was written in 1995, the point at which history and the new Mandela film enter a new phase for Southern Africa. I have added this introduction and a final coda.

Movies and the black townships under Apartheid.

A discourse can be defined as a mode of speech, which has evolved to express the shared human activities of a community of people. Discourses are ideological, expressing the dominant or consensus values found in the community that uses them. This article will examine how differing filmic discourses responded to a particular political and social situation – township life under the Apartheid State in South Africa.

There have been a number of films that represent in some way the life of black people in these townships. Some were produced outside South Africa and gave an outsider’s comment; some came from within and expressed, as far as they were able, an indigenous voice. The historical events they represented were intrinsically related to the development of South African capitalism and the organisation of class divisions, largely along lines of racial classification. This included specialised jerry-built housing for black workers. Such housing dated back to the gold and diamond mine exploitation of the nineteenth century. Then, emerging capital used liquor both as a social opiate and an additional profit margin, a phenomenon to be repeated in the new townships of the twentieth century. (Onselen 1976)

In the late 1940s townships expanded under the contradictory pressures of demand for black labour and pressures for separation of the working class black majority population. This led to the erection of Apartheid from 1948. These concentrations of black people, poverty, social deprivation, crime and dissent have provided a dramatic environment for feature films. Some merely use Southern Africa as an exotic backdrop, a good example is Gold (1974). This British film features sabotage in a South African gold mine. The black characters provide material for displaying the liberal sentiments of the hero, Rod Slater (Roger Moore), and an act of self-sacrifice at the film’s climax. However we never see the actual life of the black miners, only a Zulu dance and a Christmas football match.

Other films do take a closer look at black characters. These include Hollywood and British movies, and films made in South Africa. Of the latter, a large number have never been seen in Britain, a few only on video or Satellite TV. However, those films available, with their disparate sources – movie moguls, white liberals, exploitation cinema and black activists – provide an interesting set of variations on this one theme.


Cry the Beloved Country

Cry the beloved Country (1951)

One of the first films to depict the new black township life, Cry the Beloved Country was an adaptation of the novel by Alan Paton, a white liberal South African. Published in 1947, it tells the story of a black father who travels from the countryside to Johannesburg to search for his son. Paton’s book uses the search structure to draw both a picture of the appalling living conditions for black people and the mixed responses of whites. Some are concerned and anxious for improvement, others fearful and demanding even greater separation.

The film presents us with two fathers and sons: Stephen Kumalo, the black minister, and his son Absalom who lives in a shanty town and drifts into crime, and James Jarvis, white farmer and his son Arthur, a young engineer who lives with his family in the white suburbs. Arthur (unlike his father) argues for improvements in the treatment of black people, supporting such activities as youth clubs. In the book Arthur appears only as a victim of a shooting by black housebreakers, and in the memories of him among his family and friends. It is Absalom who shoots Arthur, and the moral of the book is in the responses of the two fathers to this crime. At the novel’s end, back in rural Ixopo, each father cares for his grandson, reminder of the lost son, but also a harbinger for the future. James Jarvis, having undergone a conversion in attitude, supports the work of the church and the agriculture of the black village. This is a message of black and white harmony and co-operation, but also of white paternalism.

The 1951 film was co-produced by Zoltan Korda with Alan Paton, who also wrote the screenplay. While the main narrative and much of the dialogue are transferred directly from the book, there are significant changes. Whereas the book first presents the story of Stephen and his search, with the white family’s story following in part two, the film has integrated then into one chronological story. So while the book presents Kumalo’s discovery of his son’s crime as the end of his search, in the film the murder scene is followed directly by the breaking of the news to the white parents. Thus theirs is the first, significant, grief. This is a privileging of white characters, which is dominant in films set amongst black people. The film does still include long sequences devoted solely to black life and action. And Stephen Kumalo’s trauma is given a certain force by receiving almost the entire sparse musical accompaniment in the film.

In this, and other ways, the film draws attention to the lack of autonomy in black lives. However, it unthinkingly reinforces this lack in the privileging of a white discourse. A key scene is where Stephen, angry and grief stricken, vents his feelings about his son’s crime. It is the white Father Vincent (Geoffrey Keen) who calms him and reminds him of the efficacy of prayer, rather than the black Theophilus Msimangu (Sidney Poitier). Stephen’s brother John also lives in Johannesburg, a successful carpenter. In the book he is a black politician, discredited because of his opportunism. This political portrait is missing in the film. However, he is still discredited, after shaking his hand Msimangu asks, “where can I wash my hands?” This is part of the film’s representation with a range of good and bad black characters. But there are really no bad white characters, apart from expressions of prejudice.

Cry Freedom

Cry Freedom

The Wilby Conspiracy (1974), Cry Freedom (1987)

In the intervening decades several films made in the UK and Hollywood have featured black townships. In 1974 United Artists distributed The Wilby Conspiracy, directed by Ralph Nelson from a novel by Peter Driscoll. Like his film Soldier Blue (1969), this is a morality play, dramatising the oppression of black people. In a classic scenario we have a white mining engineer, Jim Keogh (Michael Caine), literally tied to black activist Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier again). They journey through the underworld of black townships pursued by Major Horn of State Security (Nicol Williamson). The positive ending hinges on two scenes. One showing the conversion in attitude by Keogh, who expresses his support for the black activist by shooting Major Horn in the final confrontation. However this confrontation only occurs because black villagers, led by Shack, have downed Horn’s helicopter. The latter scene is an example of black action rarely seen in liberal films. The fact that it is villagers rather than township people may be an oblique comment on the way these institutions are seen to disempower black residents.

Something of the same unease with black township life is seen in Cry Freedom (1987). the film version of Donald Woods’ account of his friendship with black consciousness leader, Steve Biko. Our visits to the black townships are always in the company of one of the white characters. At the start of the film a raid illustrates the massive police violence against black people. Later Steve Biko takes Woods to see the actual townships. A black activist tells him, “before you arrived, many generations ago we had our own culture. We had many, many villages – small, everyone known to everyone.” The implicit critique of the townships is emphasised in the third example. As Woods carries his book about Biko to freedom he recalls the Soweto school student uprising and resultant massacre.* This powerful and brutal scene shows the carnage wreaked by the white state security. The film ends with Woods and family flying to freedom in the west whilst a roll call of names shows the black activists dead or imprisoned. Whatever its liberal motivation, the film reinforces ideas of whites rescuing black people, rather incongruous in a film supposedly dedicated to the life of a black consciousness leader, who emphasised autonomy and self-action.

The same problematic can be seen in subsequent mainstream forays into South Africa. A Dry White Season, (1989) despite a black director (Euzhan Palcy), is centrally from the white perspective. The discourse in these films reflects certain ideological and political strands in western thought. It is also a manifestation of traits and motifs that are typical of Hollywood. All the films have recognisable melodramatic traits; they follow predictable patterns of story and continuity; and they are built round easily identified `star’ actors and actresses. Thus there is a marriage between intellectual and cinematic discourses that are imposed on the experiences of black people fictionalised for the purposes of the film story.

Racist parallels can be seen operating between such western liberal products and the mainstream, white-dominated cinema in South Africa. Its products go back to the days of silent film. As a market mainly dominated by Hollywood, few of these films have been seen in the west. In his book, Keyan Tomaselli (1989) describes and discusses these films. He notes a cycle of “back to the homelands” films, which “usually begin with the hero, a well-dressed urbanite carrying a suitcase on his way ‘home’… Once ‘back’ from the city, the ex-migrant workers progressively discard their Western urban ways and Ire-adapt’ to tribal life, wearing skins and beads.” One can see here both racist attitudes about the `natural savagery’ of black people, and a suppressed desire for them to go back, back being elsewhere, anywhere else. These attitudes cross over with the western liberal films, which tend to privilege rural life, as more moral and less corrupting.

Friends (1994)

Several independent films offer something different. The most recent, Friends, is from Film on Four. It comes up to date with the freeing of Nelson Mandela from jail and the new elections. The story tells of the friendship of three women, a white liberal, a white Afrikaans and a black woman. It moves from their graduation from university in 1985 up to the recent free elections in 1994. The central position of women characters is a refreshing change. Cry Freedom, for example, downplays the role of Wendy Woods in recognising the significance of ‘black consciousness’. (Farrar 1987) Friends also grapples with the question of the division amongst whites between English-speaking and Afrikaans. In most western films the Afrikaners are racist villains, the only liberals are English-speaking. This film concentrates on the white liberal who embraces violent action in the anti-apartheid struggle and much of the film is about the agonies of the conscience-smitten whites. However, as the movie nears the present the black presence grows. At the end the three women re-unite in a black township, a symbol of the centre of the new South Africa, and a rare positive image for these townships.



Sarafina (1982), Cry the Beloved Country (1995)

An indigenous cinema subsidised by the State has developed in South Africa since the sixties. This enabled the mainstream film to survive, but also supported films aimed directly at black audiences.

“The van der Merwes… are the first family of South Africa’s made-for-blacks film industry, having cranked out more than 200 between them since Tonie’s first productions in the early Seventies. In fact, it is not difficult to make 100 of these films in seven years. Preparation is minimal. Scripts are the barest synopses, left to the actors’ improvisational skills. Shooting time varies from two to ten days, editing never more than two. Much of the footage is pinched from earlier features… “The blacks aren’t fussy,” says Gary van der Merwe. “Most of our audiences are rural. Some of these people have seen a motor car before, let alone a movie. They’ll take anything you give them.” Their work – like that of the entire local film industry that produces knock-off black-exploitation films – is bankrolled by the South African government through a byzantine system of subsidies. (Powell, Fisher)

This and the black audiences have created white, multi-millionaire film producers. The first black film producer (`coloured’ in Apartheid-speak) was Anant Singh: In 1984 he teamed up with young white director, Darrell Roodt, to make a film that treated directly the oppression of black people in the countryside, Place of Weeping. Singh and Roodt have continued with a series of critical films, most famously Sarafina, a film adaptation of a stage musical. It was written by black African activist Mbongeni Ngema and originally performed outside South Africa in New York.

The film is set in Soweto during the school student rebellions of the mid-1980s. In the film the musical numbers sit uneasily with a film drama, which provides a view of the township experience through the eyes of school students. There is also a mismatch between the personal story of Sarafina (Leleti Khumalo) and the more collective sequences depicting the suppression, imprisonment and torture of the rebellious school students. There are still many powerful and moving sequences in the film. At its centre is Sarafina’s admiration for Nelson Mandela and her politically conscious teacher, Mary Masombuka (Whoopi Goldberg) who practises resistance but who says “don’t ask me to kill”. Sarafina is imprisoned after a school rebellion and an execution of a black policeman.

The film ends as Sarafina is released from prison and visits her mother Angelina (Miriam Makeba), a domestic servant with an affluent white family. She tells her mother, who she had previously criticised as subservient, “I was a stupid child…”. Later she throws away a gun she has been hiding into a marshy lake, a familiar motif from films where the hero/heroine forsakes violence for peace. The final sequence sees her performing `Freedom is coming’ as she imagines the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. Made after Mandela’s release from prison in 1992, the film emphasises a non-violent response to apartheid violence of that period. Exemplified by the Truth and Reconciliation process.

This discourse re-appears in Singh and Roodt’s more recent project. Their 1995 film Cry the Beloved Country, is the first film to emerge from the new South Africa. In going back to the fifty year old classic they consciously aimed to dramatise a message of reconciliation between black and white (see Miramax Press Pack, 1995). So, for example, the scenes of anger in the earlier version, such as Stephen’s outburst over his son, are missing. The film, shot in colour and modern wide screen, has a similar narrative to the 1951 version. The white father, James Jarvis (Richard Harris), is seen early in the film at the railway station as Stephen Kumalo, the black father, leaves for Johannesburg. Jarvis is meeting his daughter-in-law and grandson who are visiting his farm. It is there that the news of Arthur Jarvis’ death is broken to the father and to the audience. This is part of the film’s emphasising of the black/white contradictions, with less time devoted to the search of Kumalo for his son. As in the 1951 version this gives greater prominence to the white discourse, especially as the depiction of white prejudice is even more muted than in the book.

The black discourse is strengthened by the use of a voice-over by Stephen Kumalo, as he comments on South Africa and white racism. In the book and 1951 film the message is placed in an article written by Arthur Jarvis and read by his father after his death, the instrument of James Jarvis’ conversion. In this remake we hear little of Arthur’s thoughts, what matters are two scenes where James encounters black people – first at the boys club organised by Arthur in a township and later in a personal encounter with Stephen.

This leads to the final reconciliation, sealed by the plan to rebuild the rural church and symbolised by the arrival of the rains, for which the black subsistence farmers have been waiting. As in the earlier version the story provides space for black township life. At the end a powerful sequence shows the execution of Absalom intercut with his father’s prayers on a hill overlooking Ixopo, and the birth of his son, Stephen’s grandson. Against this must be set the film’s repetition of a range of black characters, from saintly Stephen to his manipulative, populist brother, with no corresponding variation in the white characters. James Jarvis is converted from prejudice to sympathy, with an only faint demur from a family friend. The nearest to a depiction of the real racist violence is in the prison and court where, interestingly, the guilty characters all appear to be Afrikaners. The centre of the film is exemplified by the role of Leleti Khumalo who plays Katie, Absalom’s common law wife. Her sole function appears to be producing the grandson of Stephen, a far cry from her powerful presence in the earlier Sarafina. There is a replication of the discourse of the novel; racism is to be overcome by black acceptance and white sympathy and good works. A rather feeble rejoinder to the systematic racism and violence detailed in films like Sarafina, and rooted in the structures of South African society through institutions like the black townships.



Mapantsula (1988)

One set of oppositional films (in the 1970s) were cinematic versions of the dramas associated with Athol Fugard. Other oppositional filmmakers, connected with movements such as the ANC and PAC also made independent films. These tended to be documentaries, a mode suitable to films that were openly propagandistic. They also stem from the penchant for documentary in the ex-British colonies, as opposed to feature filmmaking in the ex-French colonies. One of the most famous is Last Grave at Dimbaza (1974), a powerful indictment of apartheid, ending on a shot of the most recent grave of a black child in a resettlement camp. But the film suffered from the usual problems of distribution for independents and from the unthinking racist censorship of the times. “In the face of the evidence presented in the film, the BBC’s decision to show a mere twenty seven minutes of it, (originally running for 54 mins), `balanced’ by a film of the same length compiled from seven South African propaganda documentaries, bespeaks a discouraging political naivety…”. (Glaesner 1975)

However, changing political conditions and changes within the South African film industry in the 1980s created other spaces for black filmmakers. The exploitation cinema provided one pair of filmmakers with opportunity. Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane’s Mapantsula, released abroad in 1988, appeared to the censors as an example of the gangster genre. “To meet the restrictions of the Internal Security Act, the filmmakers simply deleted every political reference before passing it on for approval”. (Goldman 1989) Within that the film developed a powerful story of black militancy and consciousness.

Panic (Mogotlane) is a small-time crook in Soweto. He is picked up by the police during a funeral procession which becomes a demonstration. In prison he is clearly demarcated from the black activists also arrested, who regard him with scorn. During his imprisonment a police interrogator, Stander (Marcel Van Heerden) attempts to to make Panic incriminate a black political activist Buma (Peter Sephuma). Whilst the interrogation proceeds the audience are privy (as Stander is not) to Panic’s memories of how he became caught up in the funeral. This includes his relations with his girlfriend Pat (Thembi Mtshali), who works as a maid to a white family, notable for their petty racism. His relationship with Buma, a black activist, who tries to help Pat when she is sacked. And with Ma Mobise (Dolly Rathebe) his next-door neighbour whose son has disappeared in an earlier police roundup.

These memories unfold in parallel to the interrogation, in a complex flashback structure, which owes much to the montage theories of Eisenstein, revealing to the audience

not just parallel events but parallel political ideas. The ending echoes a scene from Eisenstein’s own film Strike. Here the film cuts between police video of the funeral and Panic’s own memories; the contrast is between the white police version, visually accurate but totally uncomprehending, and Panic’s version, personal but powerfully political. It not only indicts the apartheid system, but engages with the political consciousness of black people. There is no running back to the countryside in Mapantsula, it is a call to resist and struggle.

The finished film recognised as a powerfully political tract was banned, only available on video and then with an age restriction of 16 years. It apparently was widely viewed on video in the townships in halls, churches and community clubs.


In the new South Africa the ANC leads a coalition of parties directly based on the black majority. However, they operate within a negotiated settlement that retains much of the structure of apartheid South Africa. Some integration has taken place, but there are new forms of segregation, with white-only suburbs still surrounding the now open city of Johannesburg. The economic structure remains capitalistic and dominated by the same companies that did so profitably out of apartheid. The new series on BBC, Rhodes, details how this imperialist organised a monopoly of South African diamond mining, using exploited black labour, an exploitation that led directly to the black townships. The conditions of that monopoly exist in almost the same form today. Paton’s foreword actually named Ernest Oppenheimer, mining magnate, as ” one… able to arrest the deterioration described in this book.” Films like Darren Roodt’s Cry The Beloved Country reproduce that liberal discourse of fifty years earlier. The more radical black cinema represented by Mapantsula or the earlier documentaries have yet to find a space alongside this. The most recent example dates from 1994; (i.e. under the old system) the C4 co-produced Soweto. This was a documentary providing a visual history of the townships.

The competing discourses manifested in the different films are dependent on the economic power that fuels them. The developing situation in South Africa does not seem to offer much promise for the more radical discourse. The changes in filmmaking and film-going promise to extend the dominance of mainstream capitalist cinema, i.e. Hollywood.** Roodt’s most recent production features Ice Cube as a returning African-American tackling the drugs problem; a recognisable Hollywood product with a South African location. It suggests the townships will become (once again) exotic locations for stories concerned solely with entertainment.

In 1995 South Africa held an International Film and Television Conference to discuss its future. One proposal was for `Maxi Movies’, screening facilities in the black townships which, however, would use video rather than celluloid, to save capital costs (Moving Pictures International November 1995). The purchasing power of the black majority is still very small; they can only afford a poor imitation of the western multiplex. The production features in the report were of upmarket, partly western funded features, with Hollywood stars, e.g. James Earl Jones and Ice Cube. It would seem to offer little opportunity for a pure indigenous cinema or openly political cinema.


In terms of the categories set out by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino Gold is clearly an example of the mainstream, dominant cinema. Cry Freedom would seem to fall between the mainstream and an auteur cinema. A film like the second version of Cry the Beloved Country represents a national cinema. But all remain ‘trapped within the fortress’. We have to look to a film like Mapantsula for a genuine positional film.

The contemporary output of the South African film industry remains small and only a limited amount can be seen in the UK market. The new Mandela Long Walk to Freedom follows the conventions of the Hollywood biopic and is full of the reformism of the earlier ‘liberal films’. There has been one notable and fairly critical film, Tsotsi (2005), that benefited from winning the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the 2005 Hollywood Oscars. The film uses a combination of English and township dialect, hence the subtitles. It is adapted from a novel by Athol Fugard, which was set at the end of the 1950s. The film updates the novel to the post-Apartheid South Africa. Crucially it also changes the ending. The basic plot focuses on the title character, David (nicknamed Tsotsi), a petty thief. By accident he steals the baby of a black middle-class couple. Whilst the film ends on a note of ambiguity it does suggest, through the return of the child to the black couple, a note of class conciliation. The title translated as ‘thug’ in English recalls Mapantsula. And the sequences in the township are powerful and revelatory. However, the resolution lacks the political punch of the earlier film.  I certainly felt to me that this weakened the more radical note of the book.

In fact, in many ways the most radical film to emerge from post-Apartheid South Africa seems to me to be the science fiction film, District 9 (2009). The film depicts townships filled, not with black people, but oppressed aliens. It is as if the surrealists had taken the situation and transformed it into one of their subversive morality tales. Alongside the macabre violence of the film is a strong strand of desire, both among the aliens and the key white South African character. And like all good horror films there is also a potent ‘return of the repressed’. The way that the film plays with generic conventions, both science fiction and protest melodrama, makes it a powerful and critical voice.



  1. The effect of Hollywood mores can be seen by comparing the funeral depicted in Cry Freedom and the news footage of the actual event, shown in Biko (C4 1989). A similar comparison can be made of the school student rebellion in Cry Freedom and photographs of the actual event in Soweto (C4 1994). In both cases the commercial film images are smarter and glossier.


  1. The latest report on the South African film and television industry appeared in Screen

International on October 11 1996 and showed `local’ film production with 1 % of box-office (as against 92% for Hollywood).


Max Farrar (1988) `Biko on the big screen’ in Where and When, January 14-28 1988

Verina Glaesner (1975) Review of `Last Grave at Dimbaza’ Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1975.

Steven Goldman (1989) `Panic and Protest’, Guardian January 14 Charles Van Onselen (1976) Landlords and Rotgut’ in History Workshop, Issue 2

Alan Paton (1948) Cry the Beloved Country London: Jonathan Cape Powell, Ivor and Fisher, William (1989) `White Mischief’ Independent Magazine 27 May

Keyan Tomaselli (1989) The Cinema of Apartheid, London: Routledge.

This article originally appeared in itp Film Reader I 1996. Reproduced with kind agreement of the Editor.

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Posted by keith1942 on September 3, 2013


This film is a mainstream drama but by a director who addresses social issues: so it fits into a ‘second cinema’ in India. The film is a Hindi [or Bollywood] social protest epic. It is not exactly like the stereotypical Bollywood film but does fit into a line of Indian social problem films that variously deal with exploitation, communalism or corruption. Do Bigha Zameen (1953) would be a classic example of a film that addresses the exploitation of the poor migrants to the city. Mani Rathnam’s Bombay (1995) is a film drama that addresses communalism. An earlier film by the director of this film, Prakash Jha, Raajneeti (2010, with some of the same stars) apparently deals with corruption within the political elites and the bureaucracies that they control. Jha can be identified as a political filmmaker: an early documentary, Faces after the Storm (1978), dealt with riots over ‘untouchables’ and was ‘unofficially banned’.

Satyagraha combines a social problem with a ‘political thriller’. The title refers to the non-violent campaigns first pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi. The state in which the film is set seems to be unidentified and the town appears to have a fictional name. It deals with the corruption in state institutions where bribery is the norm and where poor people constantly loose out on their rights and entitlements. In the film India’s greatest modern superstar Amitabh Bachchan plays Dwarka Anand, a local teacher who becomes involved in the fights against such practices. His son Akhilesh [Indraneil Sengupta] is an engineer working on the new road system who is killed in a collision involving a lorry. Akhilesh’s best friend Manav (Ajay Devgan] is a successful mobile phone entrepreneur who becomes involved in the campaign. They are supported by Akhilesh’s widow Sumitra (Amrita Rao), a popular leader in the slums Arjun (Arjun Rampal) and a female journalist Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor). As you might expect the existing political elite oppose their campaign and use manipulation, bribery and the police to try and stamp out the opposition.

The film clearly fits the Bollywood formula with its major stars as the focus of the story: and with its melodramatic plot line and stereotypical events and characters, most notably the corrupt political elite. It is slightly less typical in its use of the traditional Hindi song and dance routines: there are the required six numbers, but one of these plays out behind the opening credits and one behind the closing credits. Only one of these numbers is a romantic duet and it is untypically restrained in its use of flamboyant moment and exotic settings: though it does finish with an ellipsis in a bedroom. The other three numbers all accompany set pieces of social protest, an infrequent musical trope in Bollywood.

What struck me most forcibly in the film were the innumerable representations of Mahatma Gandhi, with portraits, photographs and a statue in the central setting of the town square. I cannot recall a movie with so many icons of the seminal figure. Gandhi is in a sense the father of the Independent Indian nation and represents a particular form of social protest, non-violent. And this is emphasised and re-emphasised throughout the film. Centrally this is done through the character of Dwarka. It is almost is Amitabh Bachchan is ‘deified’. As the film moves towards a climax his character starts a fast in protest. His diminutive has been Duduji, but twice his daughter-in-law Sumitra uses the variation ‘babuji’: a term frequently associated with Gandhi. Later in the fast, weakened by the lack of nourishment, he is assisted to his feet by the two women, recalling both photographic and cinematic representations of Gandhi in his later years.

Manav represents a different strand, global business. In the early part of the film, as he builds his telecommunication empire, he is involved in the corruption between big business and the government. As he becomes involved in the campaign he undergoes a conversion and at one point surrenders his wealth and control to debtors and ordinary shareholders. What is noticeable in the film is that the force of the emotional plot is directed against state corruption and inefficiency. There is not the sense of the ‘evils of capitalism’ or of foreign exploitation. Given the film was shot partly in Bhopal, this seems a surprising omission.

It is the male characters who dominate the film: as the campaign develops it is centred on Dwarka, Manav and Arjun: the women are there as a support and for romance. This is typified in the giant posters, which are used in the campaign, [looking very like movie posters] with the three men in the centre and the woman at the margins. In fact, the force of male bonding is one of the strongest themes in the film. Akhilesh is in awe of and subordinate to his father. After his death Manav, whose relationship with Akhilesh was very close, by stages becomes an alternative son. It is noticeable that the romance between Manav and Yasmin is not the focus of the films resolution but the funeral and mourning for Dwarka.

The film uses the new technology represented by Manav’s empire both in plotting and as visual tropes. The campaign makes use of the new communication formats – mobile phones, computers, social networks. And these are translated onto the screen as framing devices and strap-lines. This would seem to play into the burgeoning business and social usages in India, but it also gives what is in many ways a traditional representation of populist campaigns a modern technological edge.

Even with its use of the ‘new media’ the film seems fairly conventional. It would seem to be playing into the ongoing debates in India over the problems in the organisation and running of state institutions. The film’s campaign repeatedly makes the point that it is the poor and least powerful that suffer the most. However, the focus of the film is on characters that are predominantly from the professional and business classes. Dwarka’s home fits into an image of a middle-class residence. Manav is a multi-millionaire. And Yasmin is a journalist who works internationally [she cancels an interview in Japan with the Prime Minister at one point]. The ordinary exploited working people remain the ‘cannon fodder’ of their leaders. And this seems as true of the populist campaign as it does of the corrupt elite. Do Bigha Zameen was equally melodramatic as this new film. However, it also includes representations of the exploitative zamindar in a rural area and of the speculators who expropriate a rural proletarian’s land for a factory. These areas of class conflict are absent in Satyagraha.

The director of the latter film was Bimal Roy and his work was clearly influenced by the Indian People’s Theatre Association, informally affiliated to the Communist party of India. The CPI in the 1940s was a far more radical organisation than in recent years when it has become part of the political establishment. I have a sense that there is no equivalent in contemporary India.

Shot in colour and anamorphic widescreen on Kodak film, distributed in the UK on a 2K DCP, running 152 minutes plus an intermission, with English subtitles. Cinematography by Sachin Keishna. Editing by Dantosh Mandal. Music composed by Salim-Suleiman.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Posted by keith1942 on June 18, 2013


This is a new film from director Mira Nair. She has been described both as a ‘transnational filmmaker’ and also as a filmmaker working in Diaspora Cinema. She has directed films both in North America, including Hollywood, and in India. Her films have included mainstream films in both continents and more independent films likely to be seen in Art House Cinemas. She certainly fits the contemporary usage of auteur. But what set of values dominate her films?

The Sight & Sound review [June 2013] describes the film as ‘a tense thriller that also manages to provoke thought’. The title itself suggests a film that addresses one of the most loaded words in contemporary politics. The ‘reluctant’ protagonist of the film is Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). He is now a Professor at the University of Lahore in Pakistan. However, previously he has been a successful student at a US Ivy League University: and then a financial analyst with a major Wall Street consultancy firm. Much of the film is taking up with the back-story that explains how he came to lose faith with the values of US capitalism and to present radical criticism of US imperialism to his University Students.

The plot structure of the film [somewhat changed from the source nove by Mohsin Hamid, 2007] is a conversation between Changez and US journalist ‘Bobby’ [Robert Lincoln played by Liv Schreiber). This is an interview in a Lahore teahouse favoured by the radical students. In the course of it Changez tells Bobby [and the audience] the story of his career and of his disillusionment. There is his work with the Wall Street company: and we see him in one sequence organising a ‘rationalisation’ of an Indonesian factory, leading to substantial lay-off s of the workers. He develops a relationship with a young New Yorker, Erica (Kate Hudson), the niece of his overall boss. And we see the sudden change caused by the ‘9/11’ attacks on the New York’s Twin Towers, glimpsed on a television screen. From this point Changez suffers increasing suspicion and hostility from co-workers and US citizens. We see him strip-searched at an airport. And finally he appalled when Erica uses photographs of him in an exhibition, which includes crass comments on Islam and South Asian culture.

The subsequent breach with Erica appears to be the ‘last straw’ that sends Changez back to Pakistan and in a more radical direction. However, she is also a part of an interesting contrast in the film between the USA and Pakistan. Most of the flashbacks to Pakistan in Changez’s story concern his family. Family values are central to his identity. At one point, when he is still a successful Wall Street analyst, he returns to Pakistan for his sister’s wedding: but also to secretly give money to his mother to pay for the ceremony. The hold of family and Islamic culture is suggested even when he is completely embroiled in his new world: at a barbecue in Central Park with colleagues he surreptitiously drops the sausage [presumably pork] into a waste bin.

Family values are consciously lacking in the world of New York. Erica suffers guilt over her involvement in the death of a previous boyfriend; she is luke-warm when Changez talks of marriage and children. We meet her father, but her mother seems absent. Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) is Changez’s mentor at the Wall Street firm. We see him once outside the office at his flat: where he and his servant/partner are coded as gay.

One strand in the story is Changez’s need for father figures. There is his actual father in Lahore, Abu (Om Puri). Jim Cross acts as a father figure as he rises up the echelons of the Wall Street firm. And at a crucial moment in the film Changez meets a Turkish publisher in Istanbul, Nazmi Kemal (Haluk Bilginer). Changez is there with Cross to close down a firm that is losing money. Nazmi talks to Changez about his cultural loyalties [as a cultural father] and through the metaphor of the Ottoman Empire’s use of the janissaries  – [Christian boys recruited and indoctrinated to be warriors for the Ottomans in the late medieval period] – the way the young man has become a subaltern for the exploiters. This is the point that Changez refuses to implement Cross’s dictates and returns to Pakistan, to his family, and to a radical ‘anti-USA’ position.

These contrasts are emphasised by the colour scheme. New York is all cool colours.  For much of his time there Changez is hemmed in and blocked by screens, doors and furniture. These latter increase in the post-‘9/11’ climate. Lahore is a much warmer and more vital place: there are rich unsaturated colours. It is here that we see the most vibrant sequence, an evening of Urdu singing, markedly different from the upmarket exhibition space for Erica’s photographs. This opening sequence is great, but it also includes crosscutting with a kidnapping in a nearby street. And Lahore is also full of dark corners and noirish shadows, presaging the later stages of the film.

Rel fund

The Sight & Sound review mentioned a number of other ‘9/11’ movies. One missed off this list, Lions for Lambs (2007) struck me as the clearest parallel. Both films use conversation/s as a way of filling in a character story and as a way of explaining the film’s plot. The conversation/s also enable some presentation of arguments for and against the war in Afghanistan. And both films use an approaching event as a way of developing an escalating tension. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist this plot device [apparently not in the novel] is the kidnapping of a US Professor at the University by Islamic radicals. Because of his views and his connections Changez is seen as likely to have some knowledge of the whereabouts of the victim. As the conversation continues, with flashbacks and return to the present, the suspicion grows that Bobby is an actually a CIA operative. Thus the complexities increase. And this helps racket up the tension as a CIA listening post is following the conversation.

The Reluctant Fundamentalists struck me as like Lions for Lambs in another respect, its political project. Both films appear to offer critical comments on recent US foreign policy, in both films this is exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Both films present what one might call ‘Neo-liberal’ characters that represent the exploitative and negative aspect of the USA. But both films are at pains to distance themselves from any sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism. And in both cases the rather generic representation of this fundamentalism shades over into the traditional conventions of Hollywood, with Pakistani and Islamic characters mainly seen as both ‘the other’ and a threat. It seems likely that this is a much stronger emphasis in the film than in the book. Among the differences is that the ‘Bobby’ character changes from tourist to CIA operative. And we both hear his voice and see from his point-of-view: entirely absent from the book. A crucial shot is of Changez on his mobile, watched by Bobby with the audience aligned with Bobby.

This become clearer when one lists the actual violence depicted in the film. On the Islamic side we have the ‘9/11’ attack on the Twin Towers: the kidnapping: a murder: and the violent radical mob in which Bobby is caught up. On the US side, we have a single shooting, which whilst it results in a fatality is presented as accidental rather than deliberate. The shooting also reinforces the sense of misunderstanding by characters rather than deliberate manipulation. Cross believes that Changez has tipped off the Islamist [as he saw him on his mobile phone]: later, in the CIA car, he realises this was a mistake.

Liv schreib

The key moment when the clash of the values of Neo-liberals and Islamists is central to the story is the moment when Changez meets an Islamist leader. He uses the word ‘fundamental’ and an interior flashback recalls Jim Cross using the same word, ‘fundamentals’, as he tutors the would-be analysts at the Wall Street offices. It is clear at this point that Changez recoils from both types of ‘fundamentalism’. The problem with such a comparison is that these are very different types of fundamentalism. Cross represents the operation of contemporary capitalism and thus his ‘fundamentals’ relate to the economic base. The Islamist’s fundamentals, in which he mistakenly attribute the clash between Islam and the USA to a religious conflict, is part of the superstructure. Several comments in reviews on this point use the term ‘ideological’. But from the Marxist perspective they represent different aspect of ideology. Cross’s use of the term is part of the dominant ideas in a capitalist system. The Islamist’s use of ideology represents seeing only the surface appearances but not the underlying social relations. And this is what the film itself does in its representation of the cultural clash: which at base is economic. I am pretty sure that despite his training in economics the character of Changez never explains to his students how imperialism operates or the economic structures that it creates and maintains.

Endings tend to be especially important in the projection of a particular project and of the values embodied a film. The Reluctant Fundamentalist ends by crosscutting between Changez and Bobby. Changez, with his followers, stands at the grave of his dead colleague, reiterating a message of non-violence. Bobby recuperates in an Afghanistan facility with a wounded leg. He starts to replay the tapes of his conversation with Changez: with the implication that he may revise his responses to Changez position and arguments. This fits with the comments made by the director: “Liberal humanist” does sum up Ms. Nair’s perspective and intentions. “The book is about the mutual suspicion that the two men and the two countries, America and Pakistan have of each other,” she said. “In my film, we use the enigma of the situation — is he a spy, is he a terrorist, are neither, are both? — as the springboard for a dialogue, a bridge connecting them, and connecting us, making each of us see ourselves in what we had regarded as ‘the other.’ ”

[New York Review – there are also some notes on the source novel].
Such a comment and such an ending ignores the economic imperatives that drive the imperialist activities of the USA and the economic imperatives that drive capitalist Wall Street.

This film implies a distance in regarding the opposing values of the Neo-liberal and the Islamist. But on closer examination this leads to the taking of sides, and predictably the side of the dominant class. Julio Garcia Espinosa, in For an Imperfect Cinema, comments “What is it, then, which makes it impossible to practice art as an ‘impartial’ activity? … There can be no ‘impartial’ or ‘uncommitted’ art, there can be no new and genuine qualitative jump in art, unless the concept and the reality of the ‘elite’ is done away with once and for all. “  Despite relying on funding from outside the main Hollywood system The Reluctant Fundamentalist clearly remains within the purview of the dominant class.

Mira Nair [who has lived in India, Africa and North America] is also quoted as saying: “The beauty of living in two or three places is your worldview is forced to expand,”. This does not mean that the worldview expands beyond the limits of the dominant system. One can journey from imperialism to resistance: but one can also travel from criticism to acceptance.

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The Spirit of ’45

Posted by keith1942 on June 8, 2013


This is a new documentary directed by Ken Loach with the subtitle of The Labour Victory of 1945 – memories and reflections. It is a historical investigation with a clear political message to the Britain of the Coalition’s policies of ‘austerity’. Loach has a long pedigree of political films, both fictional features and documentaries, that address contemporary and historical Britain from a left position. This cinema of Loach and his collaborators is a cinema of opposition. Some writers on Third Cinema have tended to include oppositional cinema in the imperialist countries as a constituent in the larger discourse of “making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the system’. In fact, Solanos and Getino in their seminal manifesto refer to such examples: e.g. “Cinegiornali liberi in Italy”. But they also follow the analyses of Mao tse Tung and Franz Fanon when they call for a ‘cinema of decolonisation’.

One could place Loach’s film in the category of second cinema: ‘trapped inside the fortress’. And it is true that his films rely on the distribution system of that cinema. But it is fair to distinguish his work from that of the ‘auteurs using ‘non-standard language’ [first cinema]. As Lenin argued, categories are always dynamic, the boundaries are always slippery. Ken Loach’s new film, with its overt political message directed at the current activities of the British bourgeoisie provides an interesting case study to assess his politics and their place in a movement of real opposition.

The Spirit of ’45 focuses on the five years, [1945 – 1950] of the post W.W.II Labour Government led by Clement Atlee. The Labour Party won a surprise landslide victory in June 1945. It then proceeded on possibly the most radical restructuring of British economic, political and civil society of the C20th. The coincidence of the death of Tory Leader Margaret Thatcher during the film’s current distribution provides a telling set of parallels. It also provides a contradictory position to the hype that has tried to elevate her to the top in UK Prime Minster ratings.


Atlee and supporters celebrate

This contrast is deliberately presented in the film. It is constructed around to set of polarities. The first is between the 1930s, Auden’s ‘low decade’, and the late 1940s. The 1930s were the decade of the great depression and of the Tory dominated National Government. The levels of exploitation, poverty and deprivation are only now being matched in the current austerity.

Later the film sets up a second set of polarities, between the 1945 Labour Government and the 1979 Conservative Government. They are indeed polar opposites. And 1980s saw the start of the destruction of the Welfare State created under Labour. It should be noted that the destruction has taken longer than the erection, and that the obverse is usually the case.

The film is constructed mainly from archive footage. There should be a word of praise for archivist Jimmy Anderson, who has researched and supplied a rich and varied selection of film from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Interspersed with the archive footage are a series of interviews with people who lived through or have studied these different decades. Many of these are working people with direct experience of the 1940s and indeed the 1930s. There are several ‘experts’ and few representatives of the political classes. All are filmed in black and white by Stephen Standen, matching the predominately black and white archive footage.

The interviews are the strong centre of this film. The witnesses are clear and direct, often extremely eloquent. They provide both evidence and personal testimonies to support and enrich the archive material. They are also often moving, as for example the woman who recalls her grandfather carrying round in his wallet the letter informing him of his first council house. A doctor recalls calling on a working class family who, counting the pennies, only advised him of one sick son when there were two. He told the mother; ‘from today it’s free!’

There are also moments, of humour, some grim some satirical. A conservative MP reads out a letter from a constituent who fears that the British Army’s Current Affairs Education Programme late in the war is both subversive and in danger of creating demobbed soldiers ‘all pansy-pink.’

The style is recognisable from Loach’s other work. There is frequent use of overlapping sound. Parallel editing creates significant and signifying contrasts. The interviews are almost uniformly shot from a frontal viewpoint in mid-shot. However, on just two occasions the camera cuts to a side-angle and close-up: in both cases the witness is remembering a traumatic death. In the first instance Bert remembers realising that his mother has died from a miscarriage and the lack of proper medical provision. In the latter Ray remembers the death of a fellow miner due to the lack of pit props in the seam where they were working.

Unfortunately one technical weakness is that the 1930s and 1940s film footage has been cropped to fit the 1.85:1 frame of the digital release. I was surprised at this act in a Loach film. I wondered if it is down to one of the funders, Film Four, who will sooner or later transmit the film on television. It does show a lack of respect for the footage so carefully selected. And it is quite obvious on occasion, as with newsreel footage where titles are often only partly visible.

A much more effective technique is colourisation, the first time I have approved of such manipulation. The film opens with celebrations by people on VE day 1945. We see them singing, dancing, cheering in the streets and in iconic setting such as Trafalgar Square. At the film’s end the footage re-appears, now in colour. The contrast achieves a fine, upbeat sense. And it fits with the thrust of the film, which is that the loss sense of community of the 1940s is actually re-achievable today.

In both the coverage of the 1940s and of the 1980s there is detailed film on the policies and actions of the two governments. As one might expect, this is a series of oppositions. The Labour’ Governments major achievements are dealt with in turn – nationalising the mines, transport, housing and centrally the National Health Service. And it is in this iconic achievement that the destruction of the later governments is most forcibly made apparent.

The film is not unalloyed praise for the great 1945 reforming Labour Party. In particular the experts offer some critical comments. These include Tony Benn, who was both a participant but who also looks back and examines. Two points in particular emerge as criticism of the Labour Governments implementation of their policies. One is the dominance of centralisation: the other is the lack of any sort of control by the working class. A particular example of this is the new National Coal Board. Its head was an ex-coal owner who had led the opposition to nationalisation.

But there are important aspects of the 1945 Labour Government that the documentary omits. One ‘elephant in the room’ is Finance Capital. In fact one of the early nationalisation in the 1940s was the Bank of England. But the Government went no further, though nationalising the top 100 companies including the banks was a policy supported by grass roots activists. This failure becomes more obvious when our gaze [which the films prompts] comes forward to the current crisis. It is worth noting that the reforming Labour Government was constrained in the same manner as the current Coalition Government. The need to placate the banks and the markets so that they would fund the debts to pay for government action. The UK was a substantial recipient of monies in the USA ‘s Marshall Plan, and pressure from across the Atlantic was clearly a powerful factor. One commentator in the film suggests that the USA aid was partly motivated by the fears of radical change or even revolution by the British working class.

There is the another ‘elephant in the room’; Britain’s membership of what became the Western Imperialist front [NATO], led by the USA. Nowhere in the film are the policies of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism addressed. Among the important issues from the 1940s would be the suppression of the democracy in the Greek Civil War: the handing back of Vietnam to the French colonialist: covert support to suppress the movement for Independence in Indonesia: and the creation of a settler Zionist State in Palestine. Notable also was Bevin’s insistence on the development of a nuclear option. The government saw the empire / Commonwealth, particularly Africa, as a source of cheap resources: the groundnut scandal was not about economic independence for Africans but bailing out Britain’s own faltering economy.

These omissions may seem surprising. Ken Loach in earlier films has addressed the Republican war against fascism in Spain (Land and Freedom, 1995): the War of Independence in Eire (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and resistance to US neo-colonialism in Nicaragua (Carla’s Song, 1996). However, only The Wind That Shakes the Barley actually addresses British colonialism and the central focus of that film is the Irish Civil War.

These lacunae carry over into the treatment of the UK class struggle. Loach’s film completely fails to deal with one of the most potent factors in the politics of the decade, the arrival of large numbers of black people from Britain’s colonies. This was underway during the 1940s, partly due to the need for additional labour. The Labour Home Secretary opined that ‘he would be happier if the intake could be limited to entrants from the Western countries..”. Part of his motivations were questions of ‘tradition and social background’, partly the possible problems of deportation if needed. The Trade Unions were often hostile, as Bevan reported to the Cabinet in 1946. By 1949 there were occasional racist riots, but the Government ‘sat on its hands’. By 1950 a review was underway to “check immigrants into the country of colonial people from the British Colonial territories”. [See Race & Class 1984].

This would seem to be a broader issue that has never been squarely confronted in Loach’s output. His films do feature positive black characters, but only in subordinate roles. Given his output is almost entirely devoted to issue of the class struggle in Britain, the absence of a film that centrally deals with what is termed “race” is surprising. More generally whilst Loach’s film focuses on and supports the struggles of the working class it is debatable whether it fully confront ‘the system’. The continuing strand that runs through most of his films is the sense of ‘betrayal’. This is the message that appears at the end of the very fine series for BBC Days of Hope (1975). And it a feeling that figures in The Spirit of ’45. The film’s main analytical conclusion centres on the failure of working class control. This begs the question of what are the politics of that control.

A number of screenings of the film have featured a Live Satellite coverage of a Q&A following a screening at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema. There was Ken Loach, Dot Gibson, Owen Jones and Jeremy Hardy. Dot is interesting because she recalled being expelled from the Labour Party in the 1950s for belonging to a group that promoted the policy of nationalising the banks! The central theme of this discussion was a new political movement, Left Unity. This offers the appearance of being a new, more democratic, more radical version of the Labour Party. This also begs the question of the political line required to effect actual, real change. Britain’s Empire was a factor in enabling the British capitalist class to make concessions to the working class. Certainly socialism is not compatible with imperialist power or imperialist ambitions.

Third Cinema’s perspective requires not just addressing policies of interest to exploited and/or oppressed people but the politics of overthrowing the basic capitalist and imperialist structures. Loach’s film appears to address reforming the system rather than advocating what it ‘cannot assimilate’. So The Spirit of ’45 remains “trapped inside the fortress”. However, I think it should be clear that Ken Loach and his colleagues do not really fit into the concept of auteur as presented in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. Towards a Third Cinema refers to ‘author’s cinema’ and ‘expression cinema’ and ‘national cinemas’. In the examples that follow they include cinéma novo, presumably because of the influence on that strand of the Nouvelle Vague. However, for example, the work of Glauber Rocha seems to me to be a long way from the French New Wave, especially in terms of the politics of the films. This would seem to be a premise of the manifesto that needed more thought and development. However, I do think that the general comment, ‘the outer limits of what the system permits’ does provide a distinguishing line.

Race & Class 1994, see The Role Labour in the creation of a racist Britain by S Joshi and B Carter, Volume XXV, number 3.

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Five Broken Cameras

Posted by keith1942 on March 30, 2013

5 cameras

This is essentially a Palestinian film made with the assistance of an Israeli filmmaker and funded by companies in nine different countries, developed through a European media project. It fits well into the concept of ‘Imperfect Cinema’. The film is constructed from the footage that the main protagonist, Emad Burnat, recorded on a series of domestic video cameras. Burnat lives in the Palestinian village of Bill’in. The village is over looked by the Zionist settlement of Modi’in Ilit and was a target of the so-called security wall which is encroaching and stealing Palestinian lands in the occupied territories. The film is similar in topic to the 2009 Budrus, another Palestinian village threatened by the wall. In fact, both were able to achieve some re-routing of this monstrosity. However, whilst Budrus tended to celebrate this as an unconditional victory, Five Broken Cameras is much clearer about the limitations of what was achieved.

Burnat has bought six cameras: the first five were smashed in confrontations with Israeli security forces and Israeli settlers. We get a very personal view of five years [2005 to 201] of protest and conflict as the Palestinians defend their lands, their rights and their livelihoods. Burnat’s film focuses on his experiences and that of his fellow Palestinians. These include his family and his two friends: Adeeb and Bassem. Both the later are active in the protests, which are supported by fellow Palestinians, international volunteers and the small minority of Israeli’s who oppose the state’s neo-colonial occupation.

What the film offers little of is the wider context: among Palestinian forces, of the larger Zionist project of Israel, or of the international aspects including the media. Such subjective limitations restrict any analytical discussion of the situation but it does present a powerful and emotive presentation of the conflict. We see repeated violence by the Israeli military, and also by Israeli settlers. Emad is arrested and jailed: Adeeb is shot in the leg and Bassem is killed by a gas grenade. And there are other Palestinian fatalities including children. This is emotive material, but only part of a much larger picture of a brutal occupation and expropriation.

The film has won wide praise and a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary at the 2013 Hollywood event. There has also been some interesting criticism: one can discount the ‘gnashing of teeth’ by Zionist supporters. On The Case for Global Film Roy Stafford expresses the following reservations:

“What is slightly sinister is the film’s depiction of the settlers – Orthodox Jews who are perhaps the least ‘humanised’ by the camera’s gaze. The Israeli settlers seen here trouble me deeply – I can’t think of anything about them that would attract my sympathy – but I don’t want to feel that way about anybody and I wonder if the filmmakers’ decision not to invite them to speak or not to attempt to present their perspective, somehow damages the strength of the film’s polemic. I’m not asking for ‘balance’ – the settlers are in the wrong, that’s the starting point. But we’ve got to try to treat them like human beings, otherwise they are trapped behind their fences in the same way that they have deliberately put the Palestinians behind a fence/wall.”

In part Roy appears to be arguing that Israelis, including settlers, should be given a voice in the film. This is a valid point in many cases: I have argued that a serious problem with Israeli films like Waltz with Bashir (2008) or Western films like One Day in September (1999) is that the Palestinians are mute victims in the films. However, I would argue that this is not a universal requirement. In Waltz with Bashir the lack of a ‘voice’ for the Palestinian s and Lebanese is part of the films refusal to confront the actual social actions taking place: the invasion which is not only illegal under the laws of bourgeois states but which is a blatant suppression of what are generally accepted as basic human rights. This is part of a general conventional approach in Israeli films and the mainstream films from Hollywood, which support Zionism.

It seems to me that Five Broken Cameras is a different case and needs to be judged somewhat differently. The film follows an artistic form which has resonated powerfully fore centuries: most notably in Goya’s great and famous painting: The Third of May 1808. These are agitational artworks which dramatise both the oppression and the resistance of a people. Emad’s narrative is presented as a ‘representative story’ for Palestinian resistance. Hence there is a clear awareness [absent in Budrus] of the need for the struggle to continue.

It is worth pointing out that the Israelis in Five Broken Cameras do have a voice, both the military and the settlers. They appear frequently on camera barking out orders, threats and insults. Their voice is as revealing of their standpoint as are their actions. And the ‘voice ‘ they present in this film is typical of the actions of the larger Israeli State. Juan García Espinosa writes:

“Should we ask for a cinema of denunciation? Yes and no.  … Yes, if the denunciation acts as information, testimony, as another combat weapon for those engaged in the struggle.”

My differences with Roy Stafford also turn in part on the language one uses. Rather than ‘less than human’ I would use ‘inhuman’. That is, ‘brutal, unfeeling, barbarous’. In fact, such actions treat the recipients as ‘less than human’.

One of the most positive aspects of this film is the extent to which Emad Burnat, as an ordinary working farmer, has been enabled to develop a cinematic voice.

“There is a widespread tendency in modern art to make the spectator participate even more fully. If he participates to a greater and greater degree, where will the process end up? Isn’t the logical outcome – or shouldn’t it in fact be – that he will cease being a spectator altogether?”

My more serious concern with the film’s lacunae is the absence of a larger contextual aspect. The policies of the Israeli State are absent: and more importantly, the complicated nature of the Palestinian forces and resistance is not presented.

“We maintain that imperfect cinema must above all show the process which generates the problems. …To show the process of a problem … is to submit to judgement whiteout pronouncing the verdict.” And, in fact, Five Broken Cameras ends with the historical verdict remaining open. But its powerful presentation of Palestinian struggle makes it a very effective agitational work. The film is definitely a key expression in the increasing catalogue of Palestinian film.

Quotations from For an Imperfect Cinema by Julio García Espinosa, translated by Julianne Burton.

Posted in Arab Cinemas, Films of Liberation, Writers and theorists | 2 Comments »

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia / Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da

Posted by keith1942 on July 28, 2012

A friend identified this film [directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan] and the 2011 Iranian film Nader and Simin A separation as the outstanding releases of the last two years. I was so impressed with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia that I saw it three times and I now think it is the outstanding film so far of the century. Like Nader and Simin it is a film about the human process: beautifully crafted and full of complexities that repay several visits. However I think Anatolia has the greater complexity of the two films, especially in its address of class. The film comes out of the director Ceylan Bilge own experiences in the area of Anatolia in modern Turkey. However, it is not actually set in the past [even if the time is indeterminate}: a misapprehension created by the UK trailer for the film.

The plot is simple: we follow a Prosecutor with a police team and army personnel as they drive round the countryside with two prisoners seeking the grave of a murdered man. The drive is interrupted at one point when the men stopped at a village for rest and refreshment. When the body is finally found the group return to the nearby town where the suspects are imprisoned and an autopsy is carried out on the body.

These events in the plot are the occasion for a close scrutiny of the main characters, who themselves offer a reflection on the larger Turkish society. They include Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), who has moved from larger city to work in this relatively remote area. He talks frequently with Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), the most important official here, and a man who we learn is haunted by the past. The Police Commissioner Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) also has a burden, a son with an unidentified but serious illness and disability. Naci has an assistant Arap Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), who has married a woman from the village that they visit. And there are the prisoners, two brothers, Kenan (Firat Tanis) and Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz): Ramazan is clearly slow-witted. There are several assistants and a jeep of Gendarmes. Finally there is the corpse Yasar (Erol Erarslan), about whom we learn quite a lot in the course of the search.

This group offers a cross-section of the local society – bourgeois, petty bourgeois entrepreneur, state functionaries, urban and rural proletariat. Class differences clearly impact on their relationships, though these are also affected by ethnic and regional factors. There is deference shown, but social antagonism also seep into actions. But parallels also cross the class divide: there is a potent shot of Kenan in the rear sit of the police car which is matched in framing and lighting by one of Prosecutor Nusret much later in the film.

And gender is another potent factor. For what is immediately apparent is that the main characters are all male. Women do appear, and in fact, they are central to the focus of the story. But they are always presented as subordinated to the men. In fact, the four important women in the narrative hardly speak at all. The only words by a woman are from the wife of the murdered man, Gülnaz (Nihan Okutucu): a yes and a couple ‘ah-hums’ in response to questions at the autopsy. All the other women are kept both completely silent and mainly hidden from view. Cemal’s love, from whom we learn he is now divorced, is seen only in some old photographs. Nusret’s wife appears merely in his reminiscences, though he tells Cemal [and us] what she said and did. And Naci’s wife is only a voice on the other end of a cell phone.

The one other woman that we actually see is Cemille (Cansu Demirci), the daughter of the Mayor or Mukhtar (Ercan Kesal) of the village where the team and their prisoners stop for refreshments. They [and we] see her only by the light of a lamp as she serves drinks: then briefly in the dark outside. She is beautiful but mysterious. She is in fact the first woman seen onscreen in the film. And her appearance launches and demonstrates how potent is the suppressed femininity of this society. Following her appearance Kenan sees an apparition of the murdered man. This is followed by a fuller confession by him to the Prosecutor and the Police Commissioner. A sort of motive emerges here for the crime, as Kenan claims that he is the father of the son born to Yasar’s wife. Ceylan’s film offers seemingly unrelated incidents that are full of allusions: during this sequence Arap sits by a fire, behind him a moth circles and then flies into the lamp previously held by the mayor’s daughter.

Similar opaque allusions occur during the drives and search for the corpse. At one point Cemal walks up a hillside as thunder and lighting crackle overhead. The flashes reveal a large carved headpiece on a small rock wall. All we learn is from Arap, who remarks that they are common in the area. At another point the convoy stops above a slope with several trees and a small stream running through them. After an important conversation between Cemal and Nusret [in term of the plot] the Prosecutor has to upbraid Naci who loses his temper with the prisoners. Meanwhile Arap surreptitiously picks apples from one of the trees. His actions cause several apples to fall to the ground: one slowly rolls down the slope and a little way along the stream. The camera carefully follows its roll: it is an exquisite shot, which seems to speak volumes on the protagonists and their activities.

Whilst the film is extremely serious, it also offers moment of humour and irony. Early in the drive Naci and the other policemen discuss the qualities of ‘buffalo yoghurt’. At the place where they finally find the corpse there is an argument over who has forgotten the body bag, resulting in it being wrapped in a car blanket. The team has a struggle to fit it into the boot of one of the cars. Then, Arap who has picked up some melons in the field nearby surreptitiously places these alongside the corpse in the boot.

The Sight &Sound review remarked that the film was more ‘talky’ than Ceylan’s earlier work. And the conversations between the characters are absorbing and extremely important in interpreting the film. However, Ceylan and his team also raise ambiguities about these. There is an extended conversation between Cemal and Arap at one of the sites searched. Cemal sits by a car door, Arap stand alongside the vehicle. When I saw the film again I realised from the camera angles that they do not actually appear to be talking to each other. Is this a reverie by one character: are there two separate internal monologues: or is Ceylan positioning us to have to rethink our response. There is a similar moment at the hospital. Cemal is waiting to commence the autopsy and he is remembering times past. Suddenly, with a cut to a new shot, he is talking with Nusret who sits opposite him. Is this an ellipsis? Is Cemal really talking to Nusret? By the end of the film it is the past that haunts Nusret that seems to figure largely in the film’s resolution. However, it is clear from the sequence where Cemal looks at old photographs that he is too haunted by a past. The line that elides the memories of Cemal and Nusret seems rather ambiguous.

This is not to suggest that Ceylan’s film offers a resolution that can be read innumerable ways. During the autopsy there is a discovery by the technician Sakir (Kubilay Tunçer) and Cemal that alters their [and our] perception of the crime and the perpetrators. Yet this is followed by a series of relatively long takes as Yasar’s widow and her son leave the hospital and return home. Whatever the men have decided has to be seen against the context provided by gender and class. This ending has all the resonance that was also created in the final long take of Nader and Simin: an ending that positions the viewer to consider carefully the story and characters they have watched over two hours.

The film is also graced by exceptionably fine anamorphic cinematography and sound design: Gökhan Tiryaki and Thomas Robert respectively. The films open with a pre-credit sequence, the only scene where we see Yasar alive, drinking and socialising with Kenan and Ramazan.  The sequence of shots shows us the trio through a window, then an interior mid-shot, and then exterior long shots. The dark gloomy atmosphere is depicted in shadowy twilight images with the ever-present thunder rumbling on the soundtrack. A passing lorry on the road effects a cut as the credits roll. Then the main narrative opens as the headlights of the convoy are picked out in a dusky road and darkened landscape. The effect is luminous. The film is shot on 35mm though some reviews suggest digital: in fact the film has circulated on DCP in the UK.

If the style of the film illuminates the landscape and setting’s then the scripting illuminates the characters and their situations. The screenplay was written by Ercan Kesal, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the latter’s wife Ebru Ceylan. I find it difficult to believe that the film could deal so directly but deftly with gender with out her input. All the major characters face a crisis of emotion and conscience in the film: in particular Nusret and Cemal find that the past is inextricably connected to their actions in the presence. Ceylan in interviews has mentioned his admiration for the writer Anton Chehkov. In fact, whilst watching the film I was reminded once or twice of one of Chekhov’s masterpieces, The Seagull. Late in that play Kosta tells Nina “You have found your right path, you know which way you are going – but I’m still floating about in a chaotic world of dreams and images, without knowing what use it all is …” [translation by Elisaveta Fen].  One feels that several of Ceylan’s characters could utter this line, though by the resolution there is a suggestion that one or more has found [like Nina] the ‘right path’. The reviews of this and earlier films clearly place Ceylan as an auteur. However, it should be noted that his films cross over strongly with other work from Turkish cinema. Kosmos [2010] shares the terrain with Ceylan’s earlier Climates (2007): and there are parallels in it exploration of region, class, gender and ethnicity. Both these films also seem to reference the work of Yilmaz Güney, in particular his 1982 film Yol. Turkey is a society involved in rapid change and development where social contradictions and social values are thrown up in the air: I feel sure that this is one factor in the quality of much of its recent cinema.

Posted in Arab Cinemas, Auteur cinema | Leave a Comment »

The Silences of the Palace / Saimt el qusur

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2012


I want to discuss this Tunisian film with some comparisons with a Senegalese film. Moufida Tlatli’s film appeared 20 years after Ousmane Sembène’s Xala. The changed context is clearly responsible for many of the differences. Silences is a French / Tunisian co-production and has circulated in the European and North American art cinema circuits. Tlatli herself studied at the IDHEC, the Paris film school. In her interview [see Sight & Sound, March 1995], whilst the film is obviously seen a part of Arab cinema there is also a concern with the western audience. The last is a funding factor. From critical responses it would appear that many people have perceived it not as a Third Cinema film but as a feminist text.

Ella Shoat writes; “Moufida Tlatli’s Silences of the Palace … break away from the earlier meta-narrative of anti-colonial national liberation. Rather than a unified, homogeneous entity, these films highlight the multiplicity of voices with the complex boundaries of the nation-state.” [In Givanni, 2000]

She goes on to draw critical comparisons with The Battle of Algiers. The exploration of feminist readings of the film is a fertile area, but other readings would equally address the national and class dimensions found in the film.

The film open with the main character, Alia, beset by professional and personal problems. She is living with, but not married to, a member of the nationalist elite, Lotfi: she is also pregnant. Her memories take us back to the 1950s, when Tunisia is still under French colonial rule, though this is exercised partly through the traditional ruling family of the Bey. The central narrative charts Alia’s exploration of her early life and the rediscovery of her mother’s. She was raised by her single mother, Khedija, in the Palace of the Beys. Khedija is a prime example of the double oppression of the Palace serving women, economic exploitation, in her case she was bought as a slave: and sexual oppression. It is clear in the film that Khedija co-operates, at least in the early stages, in her sexual exploitation. Alia herself is divided, as Lotfi points out, partly attracted and partly repelled by the world of the Beys: she thinks her father was Sidi Ali, head of the ruling family. The film evocatively uses sound and silence to chart the changing positions and relationships within the Palace. Likewise, mirrors provide visual metaphors for the two worlds, opposite but totally interlocked.

mother and daughter

These enclosed worlds are only faintly invaded by the turbulent events outside [a growing nationalist movement], but these contacts provide poetic comment. Lotfi’s, a nationalist and activist, hides out in the Palace where he provides a contact for Alia with powerful repercussions. It is his influence that causes her to launch into a banned nationalist song at an engagement function. Alia’s nationalist song provides a musical accompaniment to Khedija’s tragic end, resulting from an amateur abortion. The metaphor is clear? The liberation that should free her destroys her?

Khedija’s fate in the film stems from two contradictory impulses. Firstly her co-operation in her own exploitation, which would appear fuelled partly by the favours it produces, but also partly by the status she supposes it awards her. But the increasing likelihood of her daughter sharing this fate makes her conscious of the negative side of her situation. Desperate because of her new pregnancy, [possibly due to the rape by Si Béchir, brother of Sidi Ali] she resorts to traditional remedies. In one sense her estrangement from the liberation movement is her downfall. Walled up in the Palace, and in traditional mores, she has access to no other options.

Alia, in post-independent Tunisia, suffers from the same imprisonment. Her singing at the wedding reception which opens the film is a reprise of her position in the Palace. She is subject to the same condescension as then. And the insults that stem from her unmarried status replicate her mother’s experience. Notably, Lotfi appears not to suffer the same problem. And, finally, she is about to repeat the tragic experience of her mother in having an abortion. The sense of liberation at the end of the film is Alia’s decision to take a stand and change things.

The central thrust of the narrative posits the continuing problematic for women. Oppression under colonialism, oppression under independence. However, such a position leaves unanswered questions about the actual independence situation. Silences concentrates on the world of the women. The viewer’s portrait of the world of the Beys is the subjective view provided by Alia. We know even less about the nationalist world represented by Lotfi. Intriguingly, the reception that opens the film appears a mirror image of that which closes it. If Alia’s position appears to have little changed, neither has the world in which she moves. The parallel movement by the camera towards the viewing of Alia’s singing by both Sidi Ali and Lotfi at the engagement party are a part of this. Yet the film is clear about the class divide that exists between the Bey family and their servants. Just as vicariously we become aware of the gap between the colonialists and the nationalist Tunisians. To adequately read Alia’s position under independence we need a statement of the class alignments. This is only suggested by the parallel condescension by the two sets of guests for whom Alia’s sings and, by, for example, the fact that Lotfi has to wait outside in the car to take Alea home. In Xala Sembène also deals with gender politics. And in these, as in the class depiction’s, the film explores both worlds. So we, as viewers have a strong sense of the world of male and female: of bourgeois and proletarian. Sembène’s narrative is Brechtian in its invitation to the viewer to both understand and evaluate the conflict of these worlds. It is an ‘epic’ and symbolic cinema. Silences of the Palace is much more subjective film, and closer in its psychological portrayal to art cinema [auteur's cinema].

This is apparent not only in the form and narrative of the film but also in its style. Whilst the characters and some of the mores the film are unfamiliar to a western viewer, the form is accessible. The film’s reliance on close-up, directed lighting and constructed mise en scène is most similar to art cinema conventions. The differences from these conventions, the editing and the soundtrack, both work to re-inforce the subjectivity of the narration and the linearity of the narrative.

Silences of the Palace does provide a critique of both post-independence Tunisia and gender discrimination. It certainly goes beyond the ‘content to recall’ category posited by Fanon. But it does share attributes with the first category posited by Solanas and Getino, auteur cinema and with the second or national cinema. I would suggest this is not to do with the film’s feminism, which makes point also made by Sembène [for example] in Xala. It is that this film is less clearly demarcated from the conventions of western art cinema, most especially in the subjectivity of its stance.

Some sense of this divide can be found in the interview taken from Sight & Sound. Most revealing is the comment by Laura Mulvey in the introduction to the Tlatli interview,

“The polarisations of gender, which had formerly co-existed with a world divided by class, have once more risen to the surface.” [Though Mulvey’s stance in the interview is not neutral, she awards herself a final comment after Tlatli].

This would appear to suggest an expectation that class is not relevant in the neo-colonial society. Whereas, as Sembène clearly shows, neo-colonialism restructures class divides, it does not rise above them. Silences of the Palace would appear to adhere to the western feminists’ aphorism, ‘the personal is political’. Xala illustrates the converse, the political is personal. And this is Lotfi’s failure in the film, the political has not become personal.

father and daughter



There is no doubt that both Xala and Silences of the Palace are challenging films. They confront dominant ideologies and their manifestations, and at the same time [to different degrees] they work against the conventions of the dominant cinemas.  So, how do they fit into the systematic and worked out model offered by Teshombe Gabriel in his study of Third Cinema [Towards a Critical Theory of Third World Films in Questions of Third Cinema edited by Jim Pines and Paul Willemen, 1989].

Gabriel’s model is complex and multifaceted. It really requires a hologram so that the different ways of regarding Third Cinema are clear. He posits several interlocking sets of concepts, including:

Film / text                     Production                    Audience

Assimilationist.          Remembrance.              Combative. 

Whilst the film text, Xala, can be placed under combative in an unqualified manner, the positions of Production and Audience are more contradictory. Xala was produced in a period when Senegalese cinema was unusually productive. This was due to the introduction by the state of the Société de Cinéma. However, whilst his providing funding, it did not develop production resources and the increase in films was short-lived. This meant, that as was the norm, Xala was dependent on production support from the French Aid, the Ministère Coopération. Equally, as Senegal had not taken control of exhibition and distribution, the film relied on foreign control to circulate to an audience. Ad additional barrier was the censorship imposed on the film by the State: a later film Ceddo was banned. Sembène himself has been involved in rural screening so some of these films, which seem to include discussions with the audience. But in the early 1990s he was still meeting young people who had not heard of Xala until then.

Silences of the Palace is one of those films dependent on western finance and the western system. It is clear that even now, Africa has not been able to develop a self-sufficient cinematic apparatus, and Tlatli relied on the same Paris-based film school, as did the pioneer African filmmakers in the 1950s. The production itself was reliant on the French Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Culture, Canal and Channel 4. Canal, in particular, is increasing dominant in that sector of the art cinema market where ‘Third World’ films circulate. Like Channel 4, through Canal-plus, it is a major consumer of such films for its television channel. The increasing range of Film Festivals provides a circulation for such films. The varied awards a marketing device for such as Canal. It can be argued that films in this situation, whilst critical in the way that western independent films often are, lacks the direct and combative stance found in directors such as Sembène.

Unlike the situation in Cuba [for example] the African arena appears to rely heavily on the individual artist. Senegal cinema’s own development would appear to be disproportionately influenced by individuals. The question need to be put as to wherewith the combative phase has been achieved in the arena s of production and audience. Certainly despite the work of FEPACI and the collective work at the Festivals, African cinema still appears in the west as a cinema of auteurs.

The Silences of the Palace Les Silences du palais Saimt el qusur 1994.

Direction, screenplay and editing by Moufida Tlatli, who earlier had worked as an editor. Adaptation and dialogue Nouri Bouzid. Director of Photography Youssef Ben Youssef. Music Anouar Brahem. 127 minutes, in colour, with English subtitles.

Cast: Ali – Ghalia Lacroix and Hend Sabri as her younger self. Khedija – Ahmel Hedhill. Lotfi – Sami Bouajila. Sidi Ali – Kamel Fazaa, Si Béchir – Hichem Rostom.

Posted in African Cinema, Arab Cinemas | 1 Comment »

The Echo of Pain of the Many

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2012

The title of the film is a line taken from a poem, ‘They dressed Me in Mourning’ by the mother of a ‘disappeared’ in Guatemala’s long and brutal war against its own people. The line was chosen by the writer, director and narrator of this powerful film, Ana Lucia Cuevas. Ana Lucia lost family members to the secret death squads operated by a military dictatorship, supported by the US Government and the CIA. It one sense it is a familiar and sobering story from the Latin American continent, but it also brings a distinctive and effective narration to a recurring set of tragedies.

Guatemala is a relatively small country with a population of over 13 million. It is situated between Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, the last-named country having received most attention in the media. Colonised as part of the Spanish Empire, the country achieved full independence in 1839. The population includes the India people descended from the Mayan nation and a mixture of Europeans, Black African descendants and mestizos: the Indian population is found predominantly in the countryside. There were a number of dictatorships in the years following Independence. In 1944 the election of a reforming president initiated a period of social reform including land re-distribution.  Agriculture is a substantial sector of the economy with up to 50% of its exports dependant on the USA. This included plantations owned by the United Fruit Company [a familiar player in neo-colonial relations in Latin America]. A CIA- backed coup took place in 1954. Over the next 40 years military dictatorship were interspersed with civilian rule, but all directed towards the interests of the wealthy, the landowners and US State and Corporations. There was an intermittent but ongoing civil war from 1960 to 1996. Then a peace treaty bought a return to civilian rule and a greater degree of the rule of law: though the Presidents have continued to be representative of the right wing. The current is an ex-General.

The Cuevas family – Carlos and Rosario lower left – Ana upper left.

Ana Lucia’s film takes the form of a journey, a familiar narrative strategy for investigating and presenting events. In this case it is a journey into the past, and into the memories of the people of Guatemala.  Her own journey is to discover the truth about the death of her brother Carlos, a political and human rights activist murdered in 1984. But as she explains she discovers that her personal pain is part of the much larger national pain. In the course of the film she sketches in the outline of the events in Guatemala since the changes of the 1950s. Here the film uses archive film and photographic material: testimonies from survivors: her interviews with people: and information in titles. As in other countries on the receiving end of US imperialism, this tale features secret and subversive machinations: extreme and often systematic brutality: surveillance, harassment, rape, murder and genocidal actions. Even though I have seen such scenes played out in films from other countries in the continent, the events are often shocking. The film uses frequent cuts to a black screen – offering pauses where one can momentarily consider the revelations and then follow the tale further.

The statistics provided in the film are appalling. There were 200,00 victims in the 36 years of civil war. The number disappeared by secret squads is about 49,000. We hear that even now 20 to 30 years on families are still waiting to discover the truth and the remains of lost members. Many were civilians, often activists, and they included men, women, pregnant women, the elderly and children. Carlos’s wife Rosario and his young son were abducted tortured and murdered. This is a level of indiscriminate violence that even now is difficult to comprehend. Ana Lucia narrates how only now are the secret police and military papers being unearthed, as are the unidentified remains of victims. She observes the researches into the records of the dictatorship: tellingly a key Military ‘death diary’ is lodged in Washington. More painful, along with other bereaved women, she observes the excavation of mass graves and the painstaking forensic work to identify the victims.

The film opens with a series of testimonies of survivors from the war years. These include Mayan peasants from the countryside. Later in the film Ana Lucia attends a trial in 2009 of former military officers involved in a massacre at the village of Choatalúm. This was part of a ’scorched earth’ policy to eradicate support from the rebels fighting the government. The forces were trained and equipped by the USA. There were numerous massacres, villages were destroyed and the communities forced to flee to the mountains, and then re-housed in carefully controlled newly built villages. The Choatalúm trial is important in that it is the first time that any military personnel have been held accountable for atrocities. The conviction and sentencing of one of the former commanders is a key event in the changing response to the war. Earlier times saw an enforced silence, a silence that attempted to suppress criticism and pain. So the film stresses the importance that the opening up of memory brings to the survivors.

It is clear in the film that whilst here is now a continuing opening up of the past and increasing judicial treatment of the crimes that this has definite limits. Two of the Generals who supervised the criminal activities in the war are seen campaigning for the Presidency. We also see an interview with a right-wing leader lauding his Christianity at the same time as he vows to deal with ‘subversives’: a moment as chilling as any scene in the Hollywood melodramas set in the region.

Ana Lucia is though, positive at the end of the film. A trial of a commander involved in the murder of her brother Carlos has begun. A large public meting applauds the memory of him and other victims: she suggests that though small these are actions that have ‘never been before’, that there is a recovery of hope.’

I found the film compelling and at time moving. It manages to be informative about a neo-colonial war that is little known. Yet is does this without overburdening with historical explanation: the inferences are there, as in the telling photograph of US President Eisenhower with CIA-Chief Allen Dulles. The treatment of the long war is similar; the criminal events are presented simply without to large an emphasis on the awful statistics. The film melds very effectively the personal and the political. And what is most memorable is the restraint and dignity of the many survivors as they recount another unacceptable chapter in recent history. The parallels with other struggles, not just in Latin America, but among other oppressed peoples are clear. The producer told me that they recently screened the film to an audience in Cairo and a member immediately spoke of the parallels with their own experiences.

Armadillo Productions 2012.

There is a screening of the film at the WFA in Manchester on May 19th 2012.

Posted in Documentary | 1 Comment »

The Battle of Algiers

Posted by keith1942 on November 29, 2011



Made in 1966, the film has remained a classic of political cinema. It is one of the most powerful records on film of a people’s struggle to be free. And it has continued to exert a strong influence on filmmakers in mainstream and alternative cinemas. The varied audiences over the years have included the Black Panthers in the USA: and from the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Pentagon. The film sets out the struggle, the violence and the suffering,  ” the pains and the lacerations which the birth of the Algerian nation brought to all its people” [Hibbin, 1981] Today, even for viewers who know little about the actual historical events depicted, it remains an enlightening experience. Its continuing relevance is in part due to the film being much copied, but its content, form and style are the outcome of the specific context of 1960s.


From 1954 to 1962 there was a war in Algeria against the French occupation of that country. It was led by the Front de Libération Nationale [FLN], a coalition of nationalist forces. The film’s particular focus is the on the battle in the city of Algiers, between the FLN, organised in the Casbah, and the French paratroopers. The film is set in the city between 1954 and 1960, a period of intense violence in the struggle between the Algerian and the French colonial rulers.

The film opens in 1957 as French paratroopers use torture to discover the hideout of the leader of Algerian resistance in the city, Ali la Pointe. Ali and three comrades are trapped in their hideout and a flashback returns us to 1954. The plot follows the development of armed resistance organised by the FLN and Ali’s recruitment and training as a volunteer. The City-based resistance is centred in the Casbah, a tightly packed warren of streets and buildings. The FLN strike at the colonial police, who retaliate by using bombs that target Algerian civilians. The FLN then organises bomb strikes against French targets in the city.

The French bring in the elite paratroopers under the command of Colonel Mathieu. During an 8-day strike organised by the FLN the paras go on the offensive. The Paras identify the pyramid structure of the FLN organisation and they use torture to extract information from suspects. Gradually they identify and capture the FLN leadership in the city. By 1957 Ali is the sole leader at liberty and he is executed when the paratroopers blow up his hideout.
The FLN rebellion seems defeated but a coda in 1960 shows the mass demonstrations erupting from the Casbah onto the streets. And a voice-over announces that independence was achieved in 1962.

The Algerian War of Independence.

Algeria was colonised by the French in the early C19th. After a rebellion in 1871, Algeria was incorporated into Metropolitan France and maintained a large French-speaking settler population among the indigenous Arab and mainly Muslim people. A rising tide of National Liberation dominated the world following the 1939 – 1945 War. In 1945 there was a large-scale massacre by the French of Algerians demonstrating for greater freedom and civil rights. The most notable nationalist force was the Algerian People’s Party, committed to legal means in its struggle. Disillusioned with such tactics, a small group launched an armed rebellion in 1954. The rebels formed a coalition of groups into the Front de Liberation Nationale, the FLN: though there were also opposing organisations like the M.N.A. [Mouvement National Algérien]. There were different political strands within the FLN, notably a secular, socialist oriented faction, and those with a more traditional Islamic orientation. And there were violent vendettas between the FLN and the M.N.A., and within the FLN. However, the FLN became the leading organisation in the liberation struggle, and was seen as the representative of the Algerian people. Their initial successes bought a brutal response from the French colonialists, who used modern military technology such as aircraft and tanks combined with surveillance and torture. Probably the most vicious example of this was the suppression of the Casbah-based resistance in Algiers itself by the elite corps of paratroopers. But the contradictions of the French repression created both protests and conflict within France itself. There was always leftist opposition to the colonial policy, and organised support by Algerian migrants living in metropolitan France. Rebellions by right-wing army and settler groups aimed at preventing a negotiated peace led to the ascent to power in France of General Charles de Gaulle. Whilst the FLN was unable to defeat the French directly in battle, the French could not suppress the rebellion. Support from other Arab countries, especially Tunisia, Morocco and Nasser’s Egypt was important. In 1962 a cease-fire was agreed and full independence was achieved on July 3rd 1962.

Pontecorvo with the production team on set.

The Property. 

The initial source for the film is a memoir by a participant in the Algiers resistance, Saadi Yacef, Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger, [1962]. After Independence, with the support of the new Government, Yacef set up Casbah Films with the idea of turning his memoir into a film. An aide, Salah Baazi, took a script to Italy, seeking technical and artistic help. One possible director for the film was Gillo Pontecorvo. He had already visited Algiers in 1962 and together with his collaborator Franco Solinas, had an idea for a film set during the War of Independence. The two approaches were rather different. Yacef envisaged a heroic portrayal of the FLN resistance: Pontecorvo a story about a French photojournalist and ex-paratrooper, possibly using a Hollywood star.

However, the two sides came together and Solinas produced a new script, which used Yacef’s memoir as a staring point. But there was also extensive research on the ground. Pontecorvo and Solinas spent several months interviewing participants in Algeria, [about 10,000 eyewitnesses]; they also visited Paris and interviewed members of the military who had served in Algiers.  Apparently there were five major revision of the script before both the sides were satisfied. The finished film closely follows this final script. The funding for the production was partly provided by Casbar Films and partly by funds raised in Italy by Pontecorvo. The Italian producer Antonio Musu, involved in Pontecorvo’s previous film Kapó, was key to raising the money and enabling the final production go-ahead.

Preparing a scene.


The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, bought a small team with him from Italy, including his fellow scriptwriter Franco Solinas and cameraman Marcello Gatti. But the bulk of the production and practically all the cast were local people. The film was co-produced by the Casbah Film Co. headed by Yacef Saadi, who had been the organiser of the Casbah resistance. During filming Gatti was giving lessons in cinematography to Algerian after the day’s shoot. The controlling hands of Pontecorvo [in particular] and Solinas is evident, but the film is also the product of a collective memory and a collective viewpoint.

The only professional actor in the film is Jean Martin who plays Colonel Mathieu. His distinction included experience in French film and theatre, but also being a signatory to an anti-war letter by French artists. Inhabitants of the Casbah play the Algerians. Saadi Yacef plays himself in the film. Pontecorvo recruited the other lead actors. He tended to use typage, a technique developed in Soviet cinema, where performers are chosen because their looks seem to represent the ‘type’ in the story. Western tourists in the city were recruited to play the parts of Europeans.

Pontecorvo aimed to produce a visual style to the film that resembled documentary or newsreel footage. He had experimented with these techniques in his previous film, Kapó, set in a Nazi Concentration camp. The Battle of Algiers was shot in 16 mm and then dupes [duplicates] were made of the negative. This produced the grainy effect associated with newsreel. However, it also tended to exaggerate contrasts, so a very soft focus film stock was used and the camera apertures were stopped down [reduced]. The whole process tended towards a rather flat image, and because of the bright sunlight in which most of the film was shot, even open-air sets tended to be covered in white sheets [or scrims] and filters placed over the camera lens to reduce the light.

Pontecorvo also wanted to mirror the position of the newsreel camera and produce a sense of distance in the audience. [An approach he calls the ‘dictatorship of truth’]. Much of the filming used a telephoto lens to effect this, though such a lens also foreshortens the seeming distance between characters and between objects. The film utilises the long shot [distance] and the long take [duration], but also sequences of relatively fast editing and close-ups for particular characters or gestures. The camera is mostly handheld; this was not just an aesthetic choice, as the narrow streets of the Casbah did not allow the use of a dolly [mobile camera platform]. The camera is always on the move, creating a dynamic sense of movement and action.

There are a large number of scenes in the film involving multiple characters. Since not all the crew and very few of the cast had professional experience, this demanded careful planning and organisation. This generated much noise, including the use of megaphones to orchestrate performers. But the actual sound during filming was only used as a cue track and the dialogue, effects and music dubbed on later. This practice was common in Italian Cinema in this period.

Several key scenes proved difficult to capture in the style Pontecorvo wished. The dramatic scene where the Algerian women change into European clothes before their mission to plant the bombs was originally written with dialogue. But instead, Pontecorvo used a musical accompaniment [a 'baba saleem,' Arab music with a strong percussion element] that was played as the women performed to create the particular tense sequence. The final demonstration, when a single woman dances out from the crowd was shot three times, finally uses drifting smoke to create the desired visual effect.

There were a few post-production effects; one important one being the optical dissolve that is achieved as a close-up of Ali La Pointe changes to the flashback of 1954. There was, of course, the soundtrack work, and the title cards that frequently add to the visual information. Mario Serandrei commenced the editing whilst waiting for Pontecorvo in Rome. The latter discovered on viewing two reels that Serandrei was following the conventions of mainstream continuity, which Pontecorvo wished to avoid. In fact, Serandrei was taken ill and died suddenly. Pontecorvo worked with the assistant editor, Mario Mura, on those two reels and the rest of the film. He also worked with the composer Ennio Morricone to develop the score, which is such an important part of the film. The use of chorales by Morricone as viewers contemplate the chaos and death after the bomb explosions are key emotional points in the film. Pontecorvo [as in all his feature films] also composed themes used in the film, and chose some of the music.

11th December 1960


The Battle of Algiers would seem to be informed by the challenging and passionate dictates of Frantz Fanon.

“To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible. There is no other fight for culture, which can develop apart from the popular struggle. To take an example: all those men and women who are fighting with their bare hands against French colonialism in Algeria are not by any means strangers to the national culture of Algeria. The national Algerian culture is taking on the form and content as the battles are being fought out, in prisons, under the guillotine, and in every French outpost which is captured or destroyed.” [Fanon, 1961].

Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo’s script organises events into an episodic plot, with linkage provided by on-screen titles and voice-overs. This structure effects one of the maxims of Bertolt Brecht, that the potential to re-arrange events in the plot is one way to contest conventional narratives. It also mirrors the ebb and flows of the struggle in Algiers and in the city. The alternation of the European and ‘native’ city, a distinction from Fanon’s writings, is reinforced in the mise en scène. This is also true of the characters’ dialogue, direct and committed on the part of the Algerians, conversational and sometimes circular on the part of the Europeans. The film presents two opposing cultures, crucially centred on the figures of Ali la Pointe and Colonel Mathieu.

Whilst the main narrative privileges Ali La Pointe as an individual hero and draws out the emotional sympathies of the audience, the opening and closing codas are crucial in suggesting the full meaning to us as viewers. We open in the territory of established society and cinema, as the controlling French paratrooper use torture to break the resistance. With the closing coda the Algerian people, ‘a choral personage’ in Pontecorvo’s word, have taken control. Seemingly spontaneous demonstrations throw down a fresh challenge to the French occupation. Hence the power as we see the bemused French policeman with his loudhailer whose uncomprehending question ‘What do you want?’ receives its dramatic answer in actions of the demonstrators and their calls of “Independence. Our Pride. Freedom!”.

The importance of the involvement of the people in the resistance is stated in the dialogue, by Ben M’Hidi, but reinforced visually by the way the lead characters and their actions are placed in the wider world of the Casbah and Algiers. The film develops a clear and supporting relationship for the FLN among ordinary Algerians. It is this relationship that an audience is meant to see as the basis for the apparently spontaneous fresh uprising in the film’s coda. Leading to the statement that ‘an Algerian Nation was born’, the resolution is clearly the triumph of the people’s struggle.

As leaders of this struggle the FLN are the good guys in this film. But Pontecorvo and his colleagues achieve a dispassionate gaze that has continually evoked praise over the years. The fact that the French colonialists are in the wrong is signalled by the racism experienced by Ali. This is reinforced when the French police are the first to target civilians. And then by the brutal methods of the paratroopers who use of torture during the campaign. However, the film does not counterpoise a heroic to a non-heroic mode. Both sides are clearly involved in actions against civilians and the victims on each side are treated with comparable dignity. This is made especially powerful by the use of a chorale after both acts of ‘terrorism’, but also accompanying the scenes of torture by the French paratroopers.  Whilst Pontecorvo may evoke the sympathy of the audience for both sets of victims, the film is clearly unwavering in the rightness of the FLN’s cause.

Paisa – people watch on the bank as the corpses of the Partisans float pass in the River Po.

The Battle of Algiers is clearly influenced by the movement known as Italian Neo-realism. Parallels can be seen both in the production process followed and in the style of the finished film. Neo-realism was coined in 1943 by the scriptwriter Antonio Pietrangeli when talking about the film Ossessione, directed by Luchini Visconti. Influenced itself by French poetic realism of the 1930s, full-flowered neo-realism had a documentary feel with non-professional actors, location shooting and the frequent use of the hand-held camera. This was a reaction against both the studio based artificial melodramas of mainstream Italian film and against the Fascist politics that dominated Italy up until 1944. Neo-realist directors like Roberto Rossellini and Victoria de Sica aimed to show a ‘slice of life’, social reality, in particular the condition of ordinary people, the working classes. Neo-realism had a considerable impact outside Italy, both because it offered a differing filmmaking process from the studio system that dominated popular cinema, and also because its style offered a sense of authenticity lacking in mainstream features. Neo-realism was to influence the new cinemas in ex-colonial countries. A number of young filmmakers trained at Cinecittá in Rome and took the ideas and practices of neo-realism back to their own cinemas. 

Pontecorvo has recounted how he was struck by a screening of Rossellini’s Paisa. Not only can one see the approach of neo-realism in Pontecorvo’s film. There is a particularly strong sense of the style of the final episode of Paisa, which recounts the doomed resistance of Italian partisans against the occupying Germans late in W.W.II.

People watch as the paratroopers ‘execute’ an FLN cell.


If The Battle of Algiers remains a widely acclaimed and seminal film it has also had its critics. One recurring reservation is the way it uses mainstream narrative form and style to present the drama to an audience.  Some argue that to ‘make films politically’, [as advocated by Jean-Luc Godard], requires a different set of conventions, for example, in the fashion of Brecht’s theatrical work. One critic quoted by Joan Mellon criticised the film’s use of Ali La Pointe as a ‘hero’, “The presence of a hero “becomes a barrier to the clarity of what is politically, as opposed to romantically, significant. ” Pontecorvo responded to such criticisms, “It [also] seems to me that to renounce films that are made for the normal market in the normal way – narrative, dramatic, etc – to consider them not useful is a luxury of the rich, of people probably not really interested in political results. … If you consider this problem [the alliance of the working class with other classes] to be one of the most important, you must also see that it’s important to make films for the normal channel.” [Pontecorvo, 1984]. And Ali La Pointe is certainly not a conventional hero. Edward Said has argued that the heroes of the film are the oppressed Algerians. The Battle of Algiers certainly tends to arouse an audience by identification and passion on behalf of the oppressed Algerians, [a classic protest format].

There is a little space dedicated to questions of analysis in the film: [see below]. The Battle of Algiers has frequently been described as propaganda, usually in a conventional sense of supporting a particular point of view. However, in Soviet politics a rather different meaning was used. Propaganda was complex material and analysis for the more advanced stimulating ideas and analysis. This was counterpoised to agitation, less complex material that roused emotional involvement. Pontecorvo’s film is closer to agitation, and this would seem to be the intended function of the film. But whilst the film does operate through arousing emotions, it also has sequences that tend to create a more dispassionate distance for the spectator. The Battle of Algiers is an agitation for the values of Liberation, both for the Algerian people and, in a wider sense, for the all those oppressed by colonialism. In the context of the reactionary stances in most western countries, which were also deeply racist, The Battle of Algiers provides an affirmation of the struggle. This aspect is less powerful forty years on, just as the torture scenes are less shocking for most modern viewers. Developing conventions and other film’s use of similar techniques mean our susceptibilities are different from the 1960s.

In terms of analysis the film does pass over, without comment, important issues. The film does not address the contradictions within Algerian resistance, including opposition by some groups to the FLN. There is no real focus on the struggle in the countryside, which continued after the defeat in Algiers. The society of the occupation, and the settlers are not seriously analysed.

Actually there were considerable contradictions of class, gender and religion. Some criticism has especially focused on the question of women’s role in the struggle. But the film does include active women who are important in the struggle. What is missing is an examination of the particular problems for women that need to be faced: an obvious question would be the influence of Islamic mores typified by the veils that so many of the women wear. This contradiction underlies the powerful scene where the women dress in European style, but it is not examined elsewhere. Pontecorvo, aware of this contradiction; chose to ‘end the film symbolically, with one woman!’ That the film does not actually analyse this is partly a question of context. The film is reflecting the politics of the movements. These stressed the unity across struggles in a popular front against French colonialism. Thus the FLN members in the hideout are a young married man, a women, [probably unmarried], a young boy, [possibly an orphan] and an ex-criminal.  The very stress on the unity of these disparate characters precludes the examinations of what divides them. The subsequent history of politically independent Algeria points to the problematic this creates, but this is something that is more easily addressed with hindsight.

Another issue raised in criticism is the film’s treatment of Islam.  Such criticism seems to comment on the film from the standpoint of the present. In the 1960s liberation movements were more secular, more influenced by ideas and practices from the Soviet Union and China, rather than religious ideas, including Islam. Still, Islamic culture was fairly strong in Algeria. Saadi Yacef explained about the ‘tensions’ between religion and secularism within the FLN. “It’s the fault of the French who, since 1830, had discriminated against the Islamic religion. During the war, Islam was legally pushed aside, in a situation similar to apartheid. People conserved all the practices of the religion …and that remained constant.” Pontecorvo added, “At that time, the presence of religious beliefs in their revolutionary political ideology was extremely positive because it gave a solid foundation to that struggle.” Fanon’s idea of ‘building a national culture’ was to be inextricably entwined with traditional patterns including Islam. This was one factor in the internal struggles in the FLN. But the film passes over those during the battle and subsequently after independence. In fact, a coup by the military wing of the FLN deposed President Ben Bella whilst the film was in production. One scene does, though, present Ben M’hidi telling Ali that “once we’ve won, the real difficulties start.”

A recent book on Pontecorvo has suggested a critique of ‘terrorism’ in his work. Carlo Celli’s title ‘From Resistance to Terrorism’ gives flavour of his argument. However, contemporary ideas of terrorism are very much post-1960s and post-Battle of Algiers. Celli includes comments on Pontecorvo’s final feature film Ogro. This dealt with the Basque separatist Movement ETA. After finishing the film Pontecorvo made public self-criticism. However, this would seem to have much to do with Italian politics in the 1980s as with the Basque question. This was the period when there were the events involving the Red Brigade, right wing terror groups and the death of Aldo Moro. The content for Battle of Algiers was the wars between colonial powers like France and Britain, and the indigenous peoples fighting for freedom. As the film itself shows and Ben M’hidi explains to the journalists, the F.L.N. fought bombs with bombs. Many Algerians had been recruited into the allies’ World War 11 armies, where violence against civilian populations was endemic on both sides. Ben M’Hidi’s has another line in the film, “Wars aren’t won by terrorism, neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is a beginning but afterward all the people must act.”

In an interview Franco Solinas commented, “the most important fact among all others, which the film intends to emphasise, is the reason for Algeria’s final victory – armed struggle. I am convinced that Algeria did win with its own means because if the Algerians had not acted as they acted, suffered as they suffered, resisted and fought as they did, then Algeria might still be French today.” [On Criterion DVD].

The Paratroopers in the opening sequence.

Placing the film.

The Battle of Algiers does not fit easily into the familiar film genres. If it is a war movie, then it is a very unusual war, and of a type that mainstream cinema rarely offers. It does however use some common generic characteristics. In particular, whilst the film offers a ‘choral hero’ of the people, the plot does use the conflict between to opposing figures, Ali the revolutionary and Mathieu, the soldier. This was a familiar trope in Italian westerns, in which Franco Solinas also worked. And there are echoes of this conflict relationship in Pontecorvo’s subsequent film Queimada! ! [Burn 1968], also featuring a black revolutionary and white European adversary – Jose Dolores played by Evaristo Márques [a non-professional] and William Walker, played by Marlon Brando. 

One type of film narrative, possibly a genre, which does link with The Battle of Algiers, is the melodrama of protest. The influential Soviet classic The Battleship Potemkin is a melodrama of protest, and there are clear influences in Pontecorvo’s film. A recent example would be Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley [dealing with the Republican forces in the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Civil War].

There is an alternative category of film in which Battle of Algiers can be placed. Two Argentinean’s, Fernando Solanas and Octave Getino argued in an important political manifesto [1983] that there was the dominant cinema Hollywood and then there were three types of cinema: ‘first cinema’, artistic films by auteurs; ‘second cinema’, national or independent cinemas separate from the dominant cinema; ‘third cinema’, direct oppositional film. Where might we place The Battle of Algiers in this typology? Fairly clearly, whilst the film’s narrative form and style are accessible to a mainstream audience, the film is very different from mainstream film, both in style and content. It does, as Solanas and Getino advocate, ‘directly and explicitly set out to fight the system.’

What about as an auteur film? Whilst Battle of Algiers is most frequently referred to as ‘a film by Gillo Pontecorvo’ in fact, it is the result a combination of different viewpoints, both Franco Solinas and Saadi Yacef being important contributors. Yacef’s role has often been overlooked, and not all versions of the film credit his source memoir. This and the participation of ordinary Algerians suggest both a ‘national’ cinema and an independent cinema. Many critics draw comparisons with Pontecorvo’s other films as exemplifying a pattern of ‘auteur’ filmmaking. Some of these can be attributed to Franco Solinas. And there are also striking differences with the other films. Notably there is the absence of a Hollywood star actor: the use of which created problems in Pontecorvo’s other films. This can be seen in Queimada where Marlon Brando famously fell out with the director over having to work with non-professional Evaristo Márques. Another aspect of Queimada! is that the ‘choral voice’ of the people seems much less developed than in The Battle of Algiers. Whilst the latter film ends on the mass demonstrations of the people of the Casbah, Queimada! ends with the death of the main protagonist, William Walker: a rather conventional motif.  Collective action is a feature of all of Pontecorvo’s feature films, but none seem to dramatise this as powerfully and centrally as The Battle of Algiers.

This last point would introduce a qualification about assigning the film unproblematically to Third Cinema. In a parallel manifesto another Latin-American filmmaker, Jorge Sanjines argued forcibly for the involvement of the participants in creating film records of events. Sanjines worked as director on films made by the Ukamau film collective with Andean Indians:

” … many scenes were worked out on the actual sites of the historical events we were reconstructing, through discussions with those who had taken part in them and who had a good deal more right than us to decide how things should be done.” [Sanjines, 1983].  Pontecorvo was clearly the deciding voice on the film, and in that sense the film is still an authorial product, and it is in this sense that it circulates, as ‘a film of Gillo Pontecorvo’.  Solanas and Getino [following the ideas of Frantz Fanon] also placed much emphasis on films by people fighting colonialism and neo-colonialism. To a great degree The Battle of Algiers was in the hands of the European crew of filmmakers, and it has circulated mainly under their auspices. There are other film dramatisations of the Algerian struggle. At the time of the release of Pontecorvo film there was an Algerian feature, Lakhdar-Hamina film, The Wind of Aurès. In fact, The Battle of Algiers was preferred over this Arab film for the prestigious Venice Film festival, where it won the award. And even now it is much harder to see Algerian films on this subject than Pontecorvo’s. Thus the film does not essay some of the conventionally very different formal and stylistic approaches to be found in films made by Arab and African directors.

The Battle of Algiers should probably be thought of as a transitional film. Whilst clearly embracing the value system of the oppressed Third World peoples it is still positioned within the cultural expression of the first and second cinemas. Originally Pontecorvo envisaged the film circulating in ‘film clubs and festivals’. Given that cinema was invented and generally controlled within the imperialist west this can be seen as a possibly positive step as the Third World filmmakers master and take possession of this cultural machinery. This would seem to be the attitude of the Algerians involved, as Pontecorvo’s film was also a training ground in cinema production and techniques.

On a personal note, on once more revisiting this classic film I found it still extremely moving and inspiring. It is also a record of a historic event in the C20th anti-colonial struggle.


Roy Armes, Postcolonial Images Studies in North African Film, Indian University Press, 2005. It includes fair detail on Algerian cinema and the most notable films. Roy Armes has written a number of excellent books on North African cinemas, and other cinemas among the oppressed peoples. 

Carlo Celli, Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism, Scarecrow Press 2003. The book includes a biography of Pontecorvo and discusses all his major films.

Frantz Fanon, On National Culture in The Wretched of the Earth, [translated Constance Farrington] Grove Press, New York, 1968. There is a 1996 film Franz Fanon Black Skin White Mask [UK / France, director Isaac Julien, which combines documentary material with re-enactments, a unsatisfactory mixture that does not fully elucidate Fanon and his ideas, but is an interesting introduction. 

Sally Hibbin, Battle of Algiers (1966) in The Movie, Chapter 70, Orbis Publishing, UK, 1981.

Joan Mellon, Filmguide to The Battle of Algiers, Indiana University Press, Bloomington London 1973. Out of print, however there are copies in the British Library and the BFI Library. 

Fernando Solanas & Octavio Getino, Towards a Third Cinema, in Twenty -five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan, C4 TV / BFI, 1983

Jorge Sanjines, Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema, also In Chanan, 1983.

The Dictatorship of Truth, An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo by Edward Said. Cineaste, Vol. XXV, No. 2, 2000 

The Making of The Battle of Algiers by Irene Bignardi. Cineaste, Vol. XXV, No. 2, 2000. There is an abbreviated version of this at

Terrorism and Torture in The Battle of Algiers, An Interview with Saadi Yacef by Cary Crowdus. Cineaste, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Summer 2004 

Rear Window, 1992. Pontecorvo - The Dictatorship of Truth. Channel 4. A programme about Gillo Pontecorvo and his films presented by Edward Said.

NB Media Education Journal, Issue 42 will have an overview of the films of Gillo Pontecorvo by the author. 

There are a number of Websites that address the film and the filmmakers has an interview with Gillo Pontecorvo and a review. is part of a site on The War of Liberation and has an extract from Saadi’s Memoir. has a profile of Franco Solinas. an English version of the script for the film. 

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966).     Produced by Antonio Musu, Igor Films of Rome, and Saadi Yacef, the Casbah Film Company (Algiers). Filmed in Algiers in 1965. Screenplay - Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo. Direction -  Gillo Pontecorvo. Director of Photography   Marcello Gatti. Editing -   Mario Serandrei, Mario Morra. Art Direction -  Sergio Canevari. Music -  Gillo Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone. Special Effects      Tarcisio Diamanti and Aldo Gasparri. Algerian Assistants             Ali Yahia, Moussa Haddad, Azzedine Ferhi, Mohamed Zinet. Algerian "Opérateurs"       Youssef Bouchouchi, Ali Maroc, Belkacem Bazi, Ali Bouksani. In French and Arabic. Time: 123 minutes. 

CAST: Djafar -  Saadi Yacef [sometimes shown as Yacef Saadi]: Ali La Pointe  - Brahim Haggiag: Colonel Mathieu – Jean Martin: Captain Dubois -  Tommaso Neri: Le Petit Omar  -  Mohamed Ben Kassen: Hassiba -  Fawzia El Kader: Fathia  - Michele Kerbash

The film won the Lion of St Mark at he 1966 Venice Film Festival. It also received three Academy Award Nominations, Best Foreign Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay. It was banned in France for over five years, which also led to its delayed release in the UK.

Argent Films have a DVD version, which also includes an interview with Pontecorvo. At one point he illustrates the editing style followed in the film. Note the subtitles do not provide a complete translation of dialogue and text.

Criterion has a three-disc DVD set. Its version is the 1999 restoration, with excellent visual and sound quality. There are also fresh subtitles, which translate the entire main dialogue and text. Extras include a Making of…, Remembering History, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers in 1992 and a booklet with an excerpt from the script and an interview with Franco Solinas. 

Interesting companion films: There are several films made in Algeria about the liberation struggle. During the war a group of French supporters made Algeria in Flames [Algérie en flammes, 1959]. A documentary compilation Dawn of the Damned [L’aube des damnés, 1965] was directed by the Algerian filmmaker Ahmed Rachedi. The Wind from Aurès / Assifat al-aouras  [1966] by Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina was a fictional story set during the war, and follows a mother who seeks her son captured by the French. The Way / La voie [1968] Slim Riad deals with his experiences of the French policy of internment.  More followed in the 1970s, mostly treating the Algerian resistance in a heroic mode. However, except for Festivals, these films are almost never available in the UK. 

The Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin, USSR 1925. Sergei Eisenstein. The most famous example of Soviet Montage. The film, like The Battle of Algiers, is a melodrama of protest. It uses typage, and whilst there are individual leading characters, the heroes and heroines of the film are the mutinying sailors and the supporting townspeople of Odessa.

The Betrayal / La Trahison, France 2005. Phillipe Faucon. One of several French films that deal with the atrocities committed by French police against Algerian migrants demonstrating in favour of the Algerian resistance. Many innocents’ participants were killed. The subject was taboo in France for decades. The suppression of the event is one theme in Michael Haneke’s 2005 Hidden [Caché]. 

Days of Glory / Indigènes, France / Belgium / Morocco / Algeria, 2006. Rachid Bouchareb. North Africans from Algeria and Morocco serve in the French army in World War II. Whilst exposing European racism the film fails to fill in the North African context. A much more biting depiction can be found in Camp de Thiaroye, Senegal 1988. Ousmane Sembène.

Queimada / Burn, Italy / France 1968. Gillo Pontecorvo. Produced with funding from Hollywood, hence the star Brando. The distributors cut the film by 20 minutes. Both Solinas and Morricone contributed to the film. The plot follows a slave rebellion on a fictional Portuguese island. Jose Dolores, the leader of the rebellion, is clearly modelled on the great Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian revolution. William Walker is based on an actual C19th US adventurer in Central America. The film is more analytical than The Battle of Algiers, but offers less focus on the ordinary people.

Paisa / Paisan, Italy 1946. Roberto Rossellini. There are six episodes, which follow the allied armies in the liberation of Italy in 1943. The final episode, a masterpiece among war films, deals with the resistance of Italian partisans, assisted by US soldiers, as they fight and die in the Po marshes. 

Silences of the Palace / Saimt el Qusur, France / Tunisia, 1994. Moufida Tlati. Through flashbacks the film explores the situation of women in domestic service to the elite during the period of the Tunisian struggle against French Colonialism. A very different world from that of the Casbah depicted in Battle of Algiers.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley, UK, Eire, … 2006. Ken Loach.The national liberation struggle in 1920s Ireland. The film offers a firm commitment to the Irish rebels, but also shows ‘atrocities’ by both sides, and the new socialist culture developing during the struggle. Unlike The Battle of Algiers it also details the divisions within the rebels forces.

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