Third Cinema revisited

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Omar, Palestinian territories, 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on July 18, 2014


Interrogation of Omar


This is the latest feature directed by Hany Abu-Assad: he also produced and scripted the film. His earlier feature Paradise Now (2005) concerned suicide bombers against Israel. In this film a young Palestinian involved in resistance is imprisoned by the Israeli’s who set him up to be an informant. One can see thematic parallels between the two films which depict the brutal occupation by the Zionist regime bur which also explore the political and personal problematic of Palestinians involved in their struggle for freedom. This new film is well produced and the story holds one’s attention. It also depicts the violence and repression suffered by Palestinians under occupation. Hany Abu-Assad, who has made several features and shorts, would seem to be a key figure in the construction of a Palestinian National Cinema. That he has chosen to work within the severe restrictions of the occupied Palestinian Territories is expressive of his stance.

My sense was that this new feature is the more conventional film. The Palestinian relationships revolve around a triangle of Omar (Adam Bakri), Nadia (Leem Lubany) and Tarek (Eyad Hourant). These are convincing, as is the key Israeli security character Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter). Zuaiter). And the film makes good use of the topography of the occupied territories [using Nazareth and Nablus as locations) and in particular the separation [or ‘isolation’] walls constructed by the Israeli’s.  And the operations, both of the resistance group and of Israeli security are convincing. However, the plotting of the personal relationships becomes more conventional as the film progresses and this conventionality shades over into the film’s resolution, especially in the final shot.

One matter that caught my attention was the oddities around the attribution of origin. The National Media Museum listed the Palestinian territories and this designation is also used by the Hebden Bridge Picture House [who screen the film on the 29th and 30th of July]. However Sight & Sound lists‘Israel [Palestine] / United Arab Emirates’. The Press Notes from the distributor Soda do not give a country of origin? In fact the film was nominated by the Palestinian Authority for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and accepted by the Academy on that basis. Given the Hollywood’s history of pro-Zionist films this is a welcome change of heart, and bizarrely the Academy appears more liberal than the British Film Institute. The status of Palestinian lands has been a crucial battle in the media and the wider culture. As far as the imperialist  [known euphemistically as the International Community] are concerned they have supported the illegal designation of the lands as Israel. It creeps into cinematic offerings: so The Battle of Britain (UK 1969) before the end credits lists the various groups who were among ‘the few’. And this list includes two whose origin is given as ‘Israel’! That is before the settler regime and its state had even been constituted. It is a sign of the growing support for the Palestinian struggle that there are breaches in this linguistic wall.

It is worth noting that among the other films in that category for 2014 was a feature nominated by Israel, Bethlehem (2013). This film also details the relationship between an Israeli security officer and a Palestinian informant. This is clearly an important aspect of the current struggle.

I actually saw the film at the Vue cinema in Leeds Light. Since this chain no longer produce printer programmes I am not sure if they gave a derivation or what it might have been. However, a couple of other points need to be noted. Omar ends with a several close-ups and then a cut to a black screen. At this point at the Vue the auditorium lights came back up – not gradually on a slider but abruptly. I did have a word with the manager afterwards and pointed out how insensitive this was for any feature, but especially one as important as Omar. The other point I noted was the DCP was sourced from a version with ‘edited credits’, which also seemed a little odd.


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Spring in a Small Town, (Xiǎochéng zhī chūn) China, 1948

Posted by keith1942 on July 14, 2014


This film released was filmed at a Shanghai Studio and directed by Fei Mu; [one listed running time is 98 minutes. The current available version, distributed on a DCP by the bfi, runs 93 minutes and had English subtitles for the Mandarin dialogue]. The film was based on a short story by Li Tianji, and was produced by the Wenhua Film Company. It is variously hailed as ‘one of the most popular ‘ and again as ‘one of the greatest’ of Chinese films. In 2002 the film was remade by the China Film Group Corporation, financed by companies in China, Hong Kong and France, as Springtime in a Small Town (Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun). The film was directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang and the screenplay was written by Ali Cheng, based on the 1940 screenplay and the original short story. The remake follows the original film very closely.

In both films we have five main characters who are the almost total focus of the plot. There is the husband or ‘young master’, Dai Liyan; his wife or the ‘young mistress’ Yuwen [by an arranged marriage]; Liyan’s younger sister Dai Xui; a visitng friend and doctor Zhang Zhichen; and the older family retained Lao Huang. Liyan has inherited the family war-damaged property, and Zhichen is an old school friend. However the viewers soon realise that Yuwen and Zhichen also know each other and have had a romantic relationship in the past. The interaction is complicated by Liyan health, he has a long-term ‘weak chest’, and also by Xiu’s attraction to Zhichen.

The most obvious difference between the films is that the 1948 version is shot in black and white and academy ratio: the 2002 version is filmed in colour and in new academy ratio. Moreover, whilst the earlier version was mainly filmed in a studio and relied on a rather primitive sound system, the remake relies mainly on locations and has a rich sound palette. Also, the new film, despite following the early plotting, is at least 20 minutes longer. The latter film has a tendency to linger on the mise en scène. It also uses a much more mobile camera, and has a particular penchant for lateral tracking shots.

In terms of interpreting the story Spring in a Small Town offers the subjective memories of the heroine. The film opens with Yuwen’s voice over setting the scene and the film then goes into a flashback mode. So we see the characters and their actions and interaction from her point of view. This gives the film a particular dramatic emphasis. The voice over is most noticeable in the film’s opening half an hour; it diminishes to a degree after that. The 1948 opening is also leisurely as we meet Liyan, Huang and Yuwen and various spaces within the house and garden before we witness the arrival of Zhichen. Surprisingly the conclusion of the film does not return us to the voice of the heroine: the scene is accompanied by emphatic brassy music, all the more noticeable as this film is restrained in the provision of accompaniment.

Springtime in a Small Town completely eschews the narrative voice.The opening is shorter and sharper – we cut between Liyan, Yuwen and then Zhichen, and almost immediately are into the main plot. Without the voice over there is a more detached observation of the characters. I felt that this lessens the dramatic quality in the film: it also weakens considerably the possibility of the woman’s viewpoint. The characterisations by the two actresses – Wei Wei in 1948, Hu Jingfan in 2002 – are also rather different. Both actresses give a sense of the divided feelings that flow from Yuwen’s situation. However, Wei Wei makes the division more obvious and also projects a sensuous feeling towards Zhichen.

In both films the walls of the town are an important setting: we actually see almost nothing of the town itself. The 1948 film opens and closes with Yuwen on the walls. The other main characters also visit this site: and Yuwen and Zhichen have two trysts there. In the earlier film Xiu tells Zhichen that they are ‘the only place of interest here’. This point is missing in the new film. So that film relies more on the feel of the walls as a setting. Moreover, at the conclusion of the 2002 film we no longer see Yuwen alone on the walls – now she is in her room with her embroidery. This struck me as re-inforcing the shift away from her viewpoint.

The common point in both films is the lack of reference to contemporary events in wider China. The ‘war of resistance’ against Japanese occupation had ended, but the civil war between Guomindang and the Communist Party was already underway. But the 1948 film only mentions ‘the recent war’ whilst the 2002 film actually identifies ‘the war of resistance.’ Neither Yuwen nor Liyan have seen Zhichen for ten years – and it is clear that he has travelled extensively in the intervening years, and a line suggests that he has been near or in the front line.

It is worth noting that after liberation and the victory of the Communist Party that the 1948 film was regarded as ‘rightist’. It does not appear to have either had wide circulation or much attention in that period. In the 1980s the film was re-printed and distributed. And it seems that its reputation stems from that period. Examples of proclaiming it the ‘greatest Chinese film of all time’ were The Hong Kong film critics in 2002 and then at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005. Where that that situation differs from 1948 but is common to the 1980s is the triumph of the bourgeois reformist view over the socialist view.

The film was produced in Shanghai, where in the 1930s there were a series of great political melodramas: notable for their emphasis on communal action. This theme returns in 1949 in another Shanghai film Crows and Sparrows (Wuya yu Maque). I would rate that film over Spring in a Small Town, which I thought was itself the better of the two film versions of Li Tianji’s story. But one intriguing difference is an additional scene in the remake. The earlier film shows us Xiu dancing for Zhichen during an outing on the walls. In the new film we actually have a scene at the school were we see Zhichen teaching new dances to the school students.

My knowledge of Chinese culture and cinema is rather limited. But I did wonder if the 1948 version possibly offered a parable for the times. Liyan could be a metaphor for ailing and damaged traditional China: whilst Yuwen caught between that tradition and modernism represented by the doctor. These metaphors are reinforced by the references to ‘spring’ in the title and plot – a time of awakening, of new things. In which case the film would appear to come down firmly on the side of tradition and conservatism. This is a set of values that the new version would also seem to reprise.


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79 Springs / 79 primaveras, Cuba 1969.

Posted by keith1942 on May 7, 2014

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh

Today, May 7th, is the 60th anniversary of the historic defeat of a French colonial army by the People’s Liberation Army, the Vietminh, at Dien Bien Phu.  This was a victory bought with the blood and sweat of thousands of Vietnamese patriots. Much credit must go to the skilled military leadership of General Giap. However, praise is most due to the architect and leader of the Vietnamese National Liberation Movement, Ho Chi Minh. So it is an appropriate day to pay tribute to one of the revolutionary Cuban films from the 1960s, a film that is a eulogy to the Vietnamese leader.

The film was made by the Cuban documentary and newsreel filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. Alvarez is not that well known outside of Cuba or of radical film circles. However he was one of the outstanding contributors to the flowering of radical film in liberated Cuba. His films, usually relatively short and in black and white [often on 16 mm], offer exemplary use of montage in the sense that it was developed by the great Soviet filmmaker of the 1920s. Michael Chanan has a chapter devoted to his film output in his excellent The Cuban Image (BFI 1985).

The title of the film relates to the age of Ho Chi Minh when he died. The film only runs for twenty-five minutes but it manages to pack an awful lot of material and political comment in that time. The film is a mixture of biography, history of the Liberation struggle and a critique of the colonial wars waged first by France and then by the USA. It uses a mixture of found footage, title cards and titles, poetry, and process effects. The sound matches this using accompanying sound, accompanying music, singing and protest pop songs. At times the films cut from fairly elegiac titles to shocking film of war and wartime atrocities. The sound equally cuts from sombre music to the discordant noises of battle.

At its climax the film moves beyond this montage to a sequence that appears to attack the film itself: ending with a burning frame. At the same time the rhetoric of the titles moves beyond the tribute to Ho Chi Minh and the accompanying attacks of the US Imperialist to comment on the International Liberation Struggle.

The film offers a bricolage of materials and comment, [but not a post-modern one]. Alongside the tribute to Ho Chi Minh is a scathing criticism of the USA’s war against the Vietnamese people. Of the films of Alvarez that I have managed to see this is my favourite. It is both emotional and powerful, but it is also propaganda in the sense of offering a clear political commentary. I am sure that Franz Fanon would have considered this a fighting film, “a true invitation to thought, to de-mystification and to battle.”


Posted in Cuban film, Documentary, Films of Liberation | 1 Comment »

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’.

Posted in Manifesto, Writers and theorists | Leave a Comment »

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 oppositional 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.

Posted in African Cinema | Leave a Comment »


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.

Posted in Indian cinema | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Auteur cinema | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Auteur cinema | 1 Comment »

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 »


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