Third Cinema revisited

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Grupo Ukamau

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2014

Blood of the Condor

Blood of the Condor

This is a film collective based in Bolivia and unfortunately their work is very difficult to see in the UK. It was formed in 1968 and included Jorge Sanjinés, director: Osca Soria, scriptwriter: Antonio Eguino, cinematographer: and Ricardo Rada, producer.  Bolivia is a land-locked country in the central Andes, named after the great Liberator Simon Bolivar. The population is divided between Quechua and Aymara Indians, mestizos [of mixed European and Indian descent] and a small elite of European descent. Soon after the Spanish conquest silver was discovered. Mining became and has remained the most important economic activity, though natural gas has joined this in recent decades. As is the case elsewhere in Latin America the modern period has alternated between military coups [apparently 189 by 1980] and ‘democratic’ government,

The Grupo Ukamau took their name from a film made for the Bolivian Film Institute. It dramatised the exploitation of the indigenous Aymara Indians through the tale of revenge by an Indian on a mestizo [a petit bourgeois] who raped his wife. The final confrontation takes place on the Altiplano, the high Andean plateau. Whilst this involves just the two men [shades of Greed, 1923] it quite clearly involves class and ethnic conflicts. It was certainly seen as critical by the then military government who dismissed the group members who then developed independent film production.

In 1969 the group made what is probably their most famous film, Blood of the Condor (Yalwar Mallku). Filmed in black and white it recounted actual events when members of the US ‘Progress Corps’ [‘gringos’, also known as the Peace Corp] were secretly sterilising Quechua women under the guise of medical aid. The film was initially banned but aroused great interest and in 1971 the Peace Corp was expelled from Bolivia. The film also attracted international attention and was seen as part of the New Latin American Cinema emerging across the continent. Whilst the film was made with the help of the Indian villagers who appear in the film, its form is recognisably similar to western art films. There is a complex use of flashbacks and overall the film fits into the melodrama of protest mould. One obvious influence is Soviet Montage, and the final freeze frame of the film with upraised rifles appears to homage October 1927. Both this film, Ukamau and later films make use of the quena or Indian wooden flutes.

The Grupo members became critical of their own approach and the form of their next major feature, Courage of the People (El coraje del pueblo, 1971), was different. The film dramatised the massacre of striking miners in 1967. Witnesses to these events provided the substance of the film and appeared in it. The Grupo members took care to discuss both the form and content of the film with this community as it was made. Noticeably the film eschews the use of flashbacks [which some Indians found confusing] and of close-ups, tending to the long take. The witnesses provide multiple narration of the events: and the form of the film is elliptical and still complex. The focus shifts from the individual protagonist familiar in dominant cinema to ‘the solidarity of the group’.

A period of exile split the group and two further features were made outside Bolivia by Rada and Sanjinés. The Principal Enemy (El enemigo principal, Peru/Bolivia 1973) describes events in Peru in 1963 when an Indian community struggled for justice. The film includes the recollections of a community leader setting out the long struggle of the community from the time of the Spanish invasion onwards.  Get out of Here! (Fuera de Aqui, Bolivia/Ecuador 197) recounts a struggle by Andean Indians to protect their land from a multi-national corporation. In a parallel with Blood of the Condor a US religious sect is part of the process of expropriation.


Two more films were then made in Bolivia and in colour. Banners of the Dawn (Banderas del amanecer, Bolivia 1983) is a documentary tracing democratic struggles against dictatorship between 1978 and 1983. And there is what appears to be the last film by Ukamau to get a substantial release in Europe, The Clandestine Nation (La nación clandestina, Bolivia 1989 with funding from the UK/C4, Spain, Germany and Japan). The film recounts the journey, physical and mental, of an Indian representative who is corrupted by dealings with a US food programme. His journey is one of repentance and expiation, but it is also an exploration of the community values and rituals. Sanjinés, and his cinematographer César Pérez, adhere to the practice of long takes or sequence shots, emphasising the community and the landscape in which it lives. The film does return to the use of flashbacks, but these are integrated into the contemporary as the camera ‘pans’ rather than cuts from past to present. This is effectively a type of complex montage similar to that seen at work in Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (1946).

Ukamau have made further films since then [Para recibir el canto de los pájaros (1995), released in Bolivia and Germany; Los hijos del último jardín (2004), released in Bolivia and Japan] but they do not appear to have circulated Europe. The most recent film Insurgents (2012) has only enjoyed releases in Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico.

Apart from the film work Sanjinés and the Ukamau Group have produced agitational and theoretical material. The major work is a set of Manifestos, ‘Theory & Practice Of A Cinema With the People’.  The carefully worded title is important. One of the developing emphases in Ukamau’s work is giving cinematic voice to the subjects, transforming them from the objects of dominant cinema. In Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema:

A film about the people made by an author is not the same as a film made by the people through an author. As the interpreter and translator of the people, such an author becomes their vehicle. When the relations of creation change, so does content and, in a parallel process, form.“

The point is illustrated by comparisons drawn between Blood of the Condor and The Principal Enemy.

When we filmed Blood of the Condor with the peasants of the remote Kaata community, we certainly intended that the film should be a political contribu­tion, denouncing the gringos and presenting a picture of Bolivian social reality. But our fundamental objective was to explore our own aptitudes. We cannot deny this, lust as we cannot deny that our relations with the peasant actors were at that time still vertical. We still chose shots according to our own personal taste, without taking into account their communicability or cultural overtones. The script had to be learned by heart and repeated exactly. In certain scenes we put the emphasis entirely on sound, without paying attention to the needs of the spectators, for whom we claimed we were making the film. They needed images, and complained later when the film was shown to them. …

During the filming of Courage of the People, many scenes were worked out on the actual sites of the historical events we were reconstructing, through discussion with those who had taken part in them and who had a good deal more right than us to decide how things should be done. Furthermore, these protagon­ists interpreted the events with a force and conviction which professional actors would have found difficult. These compañeros not only wanted to convey their experiences with the same intensity with which they had lived them, but also fully understood the political objectives of the film, which made their participation in it an act of militancy. They were perfectly clear about the usefulness of the film as a means of declaring throughout the country the truth of what had hap­pened. So they decided to make use of it as they would a weapon. We, the members of the crew, became instruments of the people’s struggle, as they expressed themselves through us!

This is notable both in the visual and aural style of the film.

Our decision to use long single shots in our recent films was determined by the content itself. We had to film in such a way as to produce involvement and participation by the spectator. It would have been no use in The Principal Enemy, for example, to have jumped sharply into close-ups of the murderer as he is being tried by the people in the square, because the surprise which the sudden introduction of a close-up always causes would have undercut the development of the sequence as a whole, whose power comes from within the fact of collective participation in the trial and the participation by the audience of the film which that evokes. The camera movements do no more than mediate the point of view and dramatic needs of the spectator, so that s/he may become a participant. Sometimes the single shot itself includes close-ups, but these never get closer to the subject than would be possible in reality. Sometimes the field of vision is widened between people and heads so that by getting closer we can see and hear the prosecutor. But to have intercut a tight close-up would have been brutally to interpose the director’s point of view, imposing mean­ings which should arise from the events themselves. But a close-up which is arrived at from amongst the other people present, as it were, and together with them, carries a different meaning and expresses an attitude more consistent with what is taking place within the frame, and within the substance of the film itself.

Distribution and exhibition were equally seen as essential aspects of film work.

In Bolivia, before the appalling eruption of fascism there, the Ukamau Group’s films were being given intensive distribution. Blood of the Condor was seen by nearly 250,000 people! We were not content to leave this distribution solely to the conventional commercial circuits, and took the film to the countryside together with projection equipment and a generator to allow the film to be shown in villages where there is no electricity.

The article also refers to similar practices by other groups of filmmakers in Argentina, Chile [before the coup], and Ecuador. The Manifesto clearly falls within the wider ambit of the New Latin American Cinema that arose in the 1960s. One can see crossovers between this statement and analysis and other works like ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ and ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’.

The prime focus of Ukamau is the Andean Indian communities who are the subjects of their films. But their work also offers an important example for other filmmakers. I went back and revisited their work after critically viewing two Palestinian films.

Five Broken Cameras is a record of a village under occupation by Israel as it constructs the ‘separation wall’. The filmmaker and major protagonist in the film, Emad Burnat, was assisted in producing the film by Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. What emerges is the voice of this Palestinian farmer: given voice in part through the cinematic skills of the Israeli filmmaker. The film’s power resides mainly presenting this voice and this experience. The major weakness in the film is a lack of an analytical overview: something that I have noted in a number of documentaries set in Palestine. The work of Ukamau offers an example of both giving voice but also drawing out the actual overall social relations at work.

The second film is Apples of Golan. This is a documentary made by two Irish filmmakers in an area occupied by Israel along the Golan Heights, bordering Syria. This film is also very effective but a major weakness is a rather confused presentation of the politics of the people. Whilst the local population oppose the Israeli occupation there is also a strong sense of support for President Assad in Syria, who is seen as a protector. The filmmakers obviously found this a problematic aspect. And the film does not really present a clear sense of the community’s take on this. In fact, in a Q&A, it transpired that the editing took place in Dublin and that the ‘form of the film’ emerged in this process. This is the opposite of the methodology developed by Ukamau and would seem to explain the lack of clarity.

Theory & Practice appeared in Spanish in Siglo XXI Editores in 1979. A translation into English by Richard Schaaf was published in the USA by Curbstone Press in 1989. In 1983 a translation by Malcom Coad of Problems of Form and Content appeared in a BFI Publication for Channel 4, Twenty-five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan.

The Workers Film Association Media & Cultural Centre in Manchester had Ukamau films in its catalogue, so it is worth checking with them.

Posted in Latin American film, Manifesto, Palestinian films, Political cinema | Leave a Comment »

Apples of the Golan, (Austria, Ireland, Syria, Israel 2012)

Posted by keith1942 on August 19, 2014


This is a documentary filmed in the occupied Golan Heights between September 2007 and July 2012. It was filmed, directed and edited by Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth, with Keith on camera and Jill on sound. The film is centred in the village of Majdal Shams, which is a Druze village which before 1967 was part of Syria. Israel invaded the territory and has occupied it ever since. The Druze are found across the area in Palestine and in what is now Lebanon. In 1982, in defiance of international law, Israel annexed the territory. Most of the residents have refused Israeli citizenship and their ID cards bear the code, ‘undefined’. The film shows us the place and the inhabitants. One of its strengths is the variety of voices it offers. We see and hear men, women, old and young, committed nationalists and members more divided over their situation. We also see ex-prisoners from the resistance to occupation. We do see one member of a Zionist settlement – revealingly an Argentinean immigrant. The film suggests a generation gap on the issue of Syria as a ‘homeland’. But at the same time there seems to be a fairly solid consensus of opposition to Israeli occupation.

The film is both thoughtful and complex. The editing in particular cuts between different viewpoints and different times in the filming. This suggests some of the ambiguities that the filmmaker identified. It is also a film that uses a rich mise en scène and sound design to add comment. Thus at two points we hear a local piece of hip-hop. A recurring shot of mist floating over the town and the heights is also extremely suggestive. The apples are the most compelling symbol, one for the Druze that is also economic. One local refers to the ‘roots’ of the apples trees and of the local inhabitants.

After a screening co-director Keith Walsh in a Q&A talked about the filming and answered questions from the audience. Jill and Keith first heard of the situation in 2006 from a colleague in Galway. After raising funds they commenced their project in 2007. Over the five years they visited the area eight or nine times. At first they got the feel of the place, talked to ‘official’ voices and developed a sense of confidence with the community. Interestingly, apart from two occasions shown in the film, they had few problems with the Israeli authorities or the military. Surprisingly the Golan Heights are popular tourist attraction in the area.

They recorded some two hundred hours and film and sound. Keith explained that the editing emerged out of the footage. When he or Jill had different proposals they ‘parked’ the issue. Usually when they returned later the best course was clear. He also noted that the style changed to a degree over the filming period. There are signs of this but the film uses a complex time order which is very effective in suggesting ambiguities but also in developing the impact of the experiences of the village.

The film was launched in Dublin in late 2012. Keith commented that interest took a sudden increase when the USA was considering ‘bombing Syria’. Since then it has won the Jury Prise at the Baghdad Film Festivals.

The people suffering under the Israeli occupation have enjoyed some excellent film attention in recent years. This documentary is another strong account of a particular people who usually enjoy limited attention. One weakness would be that the underlying historical and political relations are rather taken for granted. And pragmatically I had to look up the village on the Internet to get a clear sense of the topographywhich is important in the film [See this, in the top, centre quadrant].  But the film brings a complexity to its treatment of the situation, which is rare in documentaries.

The other major weakness is in the presentation of the indigenous communities. One senses that there are divisions with reference to the situation in Syria, where a civil war wages. This also seems to affect the stance that is taken against the Israeli occupation. My feeling was that the film needed a debate between the different groupings, whereas what see and hear is the variety of opinions presented by the filmmakers. The final form of the film was clearly determined by the filmmakers after the actual filming, miles away in Dublin. So there is not a sense of ‘authorship’ by the indigenous communities. This is an outsider view, though it is sympathetic and attempts to be empathetic.

It is interesting to compare this film with another documentary set among peoples occupied by Israel – Five Broken Cameras. In that film the record and the standpoint are provided by the Palestinian farmer cum filmmaker. This not only provides a greater sense of immediacy but also offers the indigenous people’s attitude to the struggle, including the differences that are found within it.

I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House, together with the Q&A, as part of the Leeds International Film Festival.


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Sosialismi / Socialism, Finland 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on August 2, 2014

The Communards in New Babylon

The Communards in New Babylon

This is a montage film by Peter von Bagh screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. It is a documentary, though not all critics might accept that label. Certainly it does what Andrew Britton argued for in his Invisible Eye (Sight & Sound 1991):

they [truly great documentaries] are engaged, in the sense that they lay no claim to objectivity, but actively present a case through their structure and organisation of point of view. …

The Catalogue notes by Olaf Műller state the subject:

Socialism, the 20th century’s greatest dream and source of some of its darkest nightmares.

In fact the film takes up back to deep into the C19th, to the Paris barricades and the drafting by then two little-known activists and theorists of The Communist Manifesto (1848). The film emphasises the internationalism of that founding document right at the start – The Paris Commune in The New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon, 1929): Vietnam in Hanoi 13 Martes (Hanoi Tuesday 13th, 1966) and Chile 1973 in The Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile, 1977) Later it takes in the Industrial Workers of the World [The Wobblies], The Soviet Revolution, 1917; the failed revolution in Germany, 1919; and the capitalist counter-attack and the problematic decade of the 1930s. including Spain and the Republican struggle. The film presents events up until the fall of ‘The Wall’ surrounding East Berlin in 1989. There is an overall chronology, but the film also draws parallels across movements and events as edits jump between decades and territories.

The film does focus primarily on the European theatre, but there is a section on ‘Socialism and the Third World’. We encounter the Chinese revolution, the rather different revolutions in Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Chile. Also included are darker passages from the past – the Soviet show trials, the Stakhanovite movement and the non-proletarian dictatorships in Eastern Europe post W.W.II.

The structure of the film offers eighteen sections; each introduced by a caption and a quotation from noted political leaders, activist, writers, artists and thinkers. Marx is here, along with Maxim Gorky, John Reed, Bertolt Brecht, Andre Malraux and Jack London. Each section is titled, for example:

`II Age Old Dreams’ – ‘v Before the Revolution’ – ‘XII Life as it could be.’ ‘XVIII Long Goodbye.’

Each is accompanied by one of the quotation against a red background. The sections are short, averaging 4 to 5 minutes though they vary considerably in length, and the montage is rapid. At time I found it difficult to take in all the quotations and comments that accompanied some of the film clips. The film clips themselves vary in quality, and whilst most are in the original format, there are one or two clips that are stretched – I assume that this is due to the source material that was available.

The choice of film material draws a continuous interaction between cinema and socialism. Thus the film opens with the famous Lumière film of workers leaving their factory, (La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon, Workers leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895). Very quickly we are at the Paris Commune. Later there are extracts from films like Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) and October (Ten Days that Shook the World, Okltyabr, 1928), but also from D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Chaplin’s one and two reel comedies, J. B. Priestley’s They Came to a City (1944), Hollywood’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Mathew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, 1964), and The Red Detachment of Women (Honhse Niangzijun, 1961).

This is a powerful and, in many ways, inspiring film. It does what good political films should do – agitate, stimulate, question and inform. Andrew Britton also comments that great documentaries

are analytical, in the sense that they present the corner of reality with which they deal not as a truth there to be observed, but as a social and historical reality which can only be understood in the context of the forces and actions that produced it.

A film on ‘socialism’ always ran the risk of the very varied connotations that the term conjures up. In fact the film [deliberately] does not define socialism. In the sense of agitation [simple issues for the masses] this is fine: but as propaganda [complex ides for the advanced] it begs a central issue. ‘Socialism’, whilst more important as a term, shares with ‘ideology’ and ‘auteur’ the problem that there are so many different and contraries meanings in use. All three terms need to be defined by those using them.

Contemporary right-wingers [and some left wingers] often appear to believe that the British Labour Party is socialist! In a book review in The Guardian a writer suggested that, after its victory in the 1967 war Israel

has transformed a small, united and predominately socialist society into a colonial empire.  (Review, 19-07-14).

The film does address this issue – Section XVI and XVII pose rhetorical questions such as – ‘What would Lenin Think?’ and ‘What would Marx think?’ in counterpoint to film clips featuring Maoists, East European uprisings and the cults in Cuba. But I felt that it is possible to identify possible responses to these. Marx in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ (1875) has a clear definition of the socialist transition:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but ‘the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’.

The lack of definition of socialism is accompanied by a lack of analysis of the historical failings of the movements. The film at different points references Kronstadt, the 1930 Show Trials, the Nazi electoral success in Germany in 1933, Republican Spain, and people’s uprising in the German Democratic Republic in 1953, in Budapest, Hungary in 1956 and in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1968. Then in section ‘XVIII No Guarantees’ we revisit a film clip of workers in 1901, but this time with an enlarged focus on a scuffle that breaks out. The suggestion of divisions within the working class movement is valid. However, it fails to address the larger failings in history. Marx, in his Critique also writes:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

The failings in history are not mainly down to personalities but to economic and political forces and to errors in political line.

The penultimate section ‘Long Goodbye’ features film of several funerals – Stalin, Togliatti, and Tito. This tends to reinforce a sense of celebrating something that if not past, is considerably diminished. I think the most recent film in this documentary is from 1989. There are more recent films, which could have featured. Ken Loach would be one such filmmaker: the discussion on collectivisation in Land and Freedom (1995) or the discussion regarding the Irish revolution in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) both have merits. It may be the case that the production was not able to access some sources. But there is also a limited selection of films from what is termed The Third World. We had films from Latin America and from South-East Asia, but not, I think, from Africa or the Indian Sub-continent. From the Africa Sembène Ousmane would be an obvious example of socialism on film, say Camp de Thiaroye (1988) or Guelwaar (1992). In the case of India the same festival featured a number of Hindi, Tamil and Bengali films: Mother India (Bharat Mata, 1957) has peasants dancing to form a hammer and sickle in the wheatfields.

These criticisms need to be seen alongside the strengths of the film. This is an impressive selection of political film and the montage is very carefully and intelligently constructed. The film engages, celebrates but also questions 150 years or so of the main progressive movement in the world under capitalism. The film is absorbing and the use of accompanying music – including soundtracks, jazz, choirs and popular melodies – is an excellent example of sound montage. Several films are featured more than once, but I think only one sequence was presented three times. Finally, right at the end, we see again the opening shot from Part III of Battleship Potemkin, the harbour in the early morning mist. This is an example of the complexity of Eisenstein’s conception of montage but the Image also provides a metaphor for working class aims – arriving in the safe harbour of socialism and a new order.

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin

Note, unfortunately at present there is not a copy available for circulation – hopefully this will be possible in the not too distant future.




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Omar, Palestinian territories, 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on July 18, 2014

Omar still


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 | 3 Comments »

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 »


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