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Hannah Arendt, Germany / Luxembourg / France / Israel 2012.

Posted by keith1942 on November 15, 2014


This is an interesting film because it has aspects that fall within all four of the categories set out by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in their manifesto Towards a Third Cinema. The film was directed by Magarethe von Trotta and co-scripted by her with Pam Katz. Thus it can be placed in the first cinema or ‘authors cinema’. It is as a work by a noted European filmmaker that the film is marketed and distributed. And it bears the marks identified by Cahiers du Cinéma as a work by an established auteur. It is also an example of the second cinema filmmaker, i.e. ‘trapped within the fortress’. It focuses on Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann by the Israeli State in 1961. It is also part funded by Israeli institutions. So it relates to attempts by the Zionist State to develop a ‘national cinema’: despite actually comprising a settlement on the land of an oppressed nation. And, finally, because much of the film is set in Palestine, it also relates [negatively] to the developing Palestinian cinema. This setting of the film, in the occupied territory of the Palestine, would be properly addressed by a Third cinema approach, i.e. a film ‘that directly and explicitly sets] out to fight the System’. The system is, of course, neo-colonialism.

The film has been produced in an English language edition with some non-English dialogue and sub-titles. Its style bears the hallmark of mainstream commercial cinema [i.e. the dominant mode in the industry], notably in the treatment of archive footage: much of the archive material from the 1960s period [including televised material] has been cropped and possibly occasionally stretched to fit the modern ratio of 1.85:1. This particular technique is presumably used for another exhibition life on video and television.

In one sense the film is a biopic, of the famous German and Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt. But the plot focuses on a short period in 1961 when Arendt was commissioned by ‘The New Yorker’ magazine to cover and write a series of articles on the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was part of the Nazi administration responsible for organising the mass murder of millions of Jews, both from Germany and other European countries occupied during the war. Her articles were later published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).

The press room for the trial

The press room for the trial

Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover in 1906. She studied philosophy at University. In 1933 she had to flee Germany and later settled in the USA where she became a citizen in 1950. She was married to fellow philosopher and German refugee Heinrich Blücher. At the time of her ‘New Yorker’ commission she was a visiting fellow at Columbia University. She was also extensively involved in Jewish organisations, including those assisting immigration to Israel. She had already written on the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. Her most famous work popularised the notion of ‘totalitarianism’.

The film follows events round the commission and trial and subsequent controversy when the articles appeared. It also details her relationships with her partner and with Jewish friends in the USA and in Israel. The majority of the latter take exception to the stance in her articles, in particular to her open criticism of the collaboration of Jewish organisations with the Nazi regime. In the 1960s this was a fairly courageous stance to take: whilst she was factually correct this was something that was extremely difficult for Jews as well as Zionists to admit. Less clearly expressed in the film were her questions about the legitimacy of the trial: Israeli agents secretly kidnapped Eichmann who was taken to Jerusalem and tried by the Israeli State, a state that did not exist when the crimes were committed and which were committed in Europe.

The film also includes flashbacks, in particular to her relationship with her philosophical mentor, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger later acted as an intellectual front for the Nazis. This aspect of the film fills out the psychological and intellectual portrait of Arendt. It suggests both a sense of guilt felt by many Jewish survivors over the millions who died. But it also sets out intellectual principles that motivated Arendt, including her writings on the Eichmann trial.

Arendt is played by Barbara Sukowa, a regular collaborator with von Trotta. And the film is recognisable in the style of that director’s work. It has a fine mise en scéne, which adds to the sense of the characters: Arendt and her partner clearly have a comfortable life style in the USA. And the placing and filming of characters is carefully judged to develop their emotional stances. Thus Arendt’s partner [Blücher – Axel Milburg) seems to have a more openly critical stance on the Israeli trial than Arendt and in several shots she is positioned midway between him or her more pro-Zionist friends. The conflicts are even more noticeable when she visits Israel: a scene of welcome in a comfortable Israeli home of Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) is different from a post-article visit where her dying friend lies in a sterilised hospital environment.

The major style problem with the film seems to be the abuse of archive footage. Cropping the 1960s material to 1.85:1 is very noticeable. Much of it is taken from the television coverage of the actual trial: in the 1960s this was still very similar to the Academy ratio, 1.37:1. And one particular shot emphases this. As an accredited journalist Arendt is able to watch the TV footage from a pressroom. At one point we have a close-up of Arendt followed by a point-of-view shot of the television footage, in 1.85:1. The technique is partly occasioned by there being one scene reconstructing the trail in colour and widescreen: but the majority of the coverage is in the black and white ‘4 x 3’. This seems to me to be a political as well as an aesthetic problem. How you treat not just the past but the artefacts of the past speak volumes about the historical stance taken.

But my major problems with the film are political. I should first allow the point that as a Marxist I do not agree with much of Arendt’s writings. Her famous concept of totalitarianism does not take account of political economy. Her conflation of the Soviet Union with the Third Reich does not address the different economic structures of the two societies. In fact, Arendt writes philosophically and historically, but she does not discuss in any detail the economic base. Moreover one of her main points regarding a totalitarian society is the claim that there was or is, ‘An Alliance Between Mob and Capital’. This begs the question of ‘class’. A historical account of the Third Reich shows that class was central to its mode of operation: indeed one of the points that Arendt makes in Eichmann in Jerusalem is the difference in treatment by the Nazi of ordinary Jewish people and ‘prominent Jews’. However, Arendt’s style tends to the discursive so it is tricky to pin down her thought and argument in pithy quotes: and her writing tends to lack, simple definitions.

Richard J. Evans provides a summary of her critical position in the Eichmann articles in a Guardian book review:

“Time and again she raises questions that provoke and disturb. The abduction of Eichmann from Argentina was illegal; the trail was a show-trial; Israel’s marriage laws were similar to the racist Nuremberg laws of the Nazis; Eichmann’s crimes were crimes against humanity, so international law should have dealt with this case.” (Reviewing Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Betina Stangneth, October 18th 2014).

So in Eichmann in Jerusalem early on we read a paragraph that follows caustic comments on Ben Gurion’s ‘show trial’.

“Hence the almost universal hostility in Israel to the mere mention of an international court which would have indicted Eichmann, not for crimes “against the Jewish people,” but for crimes against mankind committed on the body of the Jewish people. Hence the strange boast: “We make no ethnic distinctions,” which sounded less strange in Israel, where rabbinical law rulers the personal status of Jewish citizens, with the result that no Jew can marry a non-Jew: …there certainly was something breathtaking in the naivete with which the prosecution denounced the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which prohibited intermarriage and sexual intercourse between Jews and Germans.” [Arendt, 1963: actually she presumably means between ‘German Jews and Non-Jewish Germans’].

I do not think that the film gives a proper account of Arendt’s analysis and arguments in the articles. One point is the question of the legitimacy of the Israeli trial. In the film the points on this are made by the partner. Arendt seems to be sympathetic but does not voice agreement. One example is the scene that has her sited midway between Blücher and Jewish and pro-Zionist friends Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen) and Lore Jonas (Sascha Ley).

Another scene with Heinrich on the left and Hannah on the right.

Another scene with Heinrich on the left and Hannah on the right.

Of even more concern is the almost total absence in the film of Palestinians. There is one shot outside the courtroom of an elderly man [likely a Palestinian] with two youngsters listening to a radio, apparently providing coverage of the trial. That is it. Yet the film does include comments on the racism of early 1960s USA. The house servant in the apartment block where the couple lives is an Afro-American, . We see him on three occasions and his repeated appearances seem a subtle comment on the way that the contemporary USA treated its black citizens; Arendt and Blücher always treat him courteously. Palestinians receive no equivalence.

But Arendt must have been aware of the Palestinian refugees and the requirements on Israel by the United Nations to permit the return of the refugees driven from their homes. This is an issue she does not discuss or possibly deliberately avoids in the book. But her references to the ‘marriage laws’ clearly relate to the ‘apartheid’ style discrimination of Palestinians.

As the credits note the film is jointly funded and produced from Germany, Luxembourg, France and Israel. Germany is, of course, von Trotta’s home state: and European co-productions are common. Among the ten production companies given in the credits we find the Israel Film Fund and the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund. One can understand the interest and financing from these two agencies: and the film uses Jerusalem as a major location. But as agencies of the Israeli state they would seem to be tied to the particularly interpretation which is essentially Zionist. And it is difficult not to deduce that this had a major impact on the stance taken in the film.

But the film also suffers from mainstream conventions. Von Trotta has addressed the European Holocaust in an earlier film, Rosenstraße (2003). This also dealt with the marriage laws of the Third Reich and involved an investigation into the situation of non-Jewish women married to German Jewish men. The film is structured around flashbacks to the protest in 1943 by the women when their husbands are arrested and taken away to the extermination camps. The flashbacks are from the point of view of survivors now living in New York. And one of her other major films dealt with Rosa Luxemberg (1986), a major communist intellectual and activist in Germany in the first part of the C20th. Both the earlier films seem to have a different agenda from Hannah Arendt. Moreover both the earlier films follow the conventions of European art cinema: Rosenstraße uses a quite complex flashback structure to present the story: and Rosa Luxemberg relies on montage in the Soviet sense. But the three flashbacks in Hannah Arendt are far more conventional, detailing the ‘patriarchal’ influence of and sexual adventure with Heiddeger. Moreover the film opens with a dramatic version of the kidnapping of Eichmann in Argentina by Israeli agents: drama to open the film. This is the sort of ‘art’ cinema produced by the Weinsteins.

At the climax of the film Arendt (Sukowa) makes an impassioned defence of her articles and her arguments in the articles. Several Jewish characters walk out. However, we also get close-ups of a young woman student following the lecture. The camera returns to her several times. A ploy that proposes a relationship of mind and values that supports Arendt: a common trope in certain mainstream films.

Hannah Arendt is a fascinating portrait, which brings out the intellectual character of its protagonist. But politically it remains within the dominant cinema: and it has to remembered that this cinema, especially Hollywood, has fairly uncritically presented the Zionist representation of the Palestinian occupation.


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Two films by Mira Nair.

Posted by keith1942 on October 2, 2014

Krishna and Manju in Salaam Bombay

Krishna and Manju in Salaam Bombay

This article is part of the argument set out in Diaspora Cinema and globalisation.

Mira Nair was born in India, but had studied documentary in the USA. She made several short documentaries, which dealt both with India and with the diaspora in the USA. Her first feature,  Salaam Bombay! (1988), was jointly funded by the National Film Development Corporation of India in conjunction with Doordarshan (the State-owner Indian Television Network), Channel 4, and supported by grants from the Pinewood and

and Rockefeller Foundations. Mira Nair started the film’s Production Company, Mirabai, Films Inc. Since its inception, Mirabai Films Inc. has produced the following of Nair’s films, Mississippi Masala, The Prez family, Kama Sutra, My Own Country, The laughing Club of India and Monsoon Wedding. Salaam Bombay won the prestigious Camera D’Or and Prix du Publique at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.

Salaam Bombay! tells a fictional story, the experiences of a young boy, Krishna, in the slums of Bombay. Parts of the film are quite melodramatic in a manner not that distant from mainstream Hindi cinema. Thus, the narrative involves Krishna in the fate of women caught up in prostitution. One is Rekha, mistress to a district drug baron, Baba. Her daughter Manju is one of Krishna’s earliest slum playmates. The other child/woman is Solasaal known as ‘Sweet Sixteen’, a Nepalese virgin being groomed for sale. Their dramatic situations and fate are important in the narrative.

Other parts of the film are much closer to western docu-drama, as the audience is invited to follow an observational camera. This is especially true of Krishna’s involvement with a group of street boys, who sell, barter, and occasionally steal to survive in the slums. The theft leads to Krishna being placed in a children’s remand centre. The Remand Centre, like the brothel used in the film, was an actual one in Bombay. And in a similar fashion most of the street boys were actual street children from the city. Mira Nair used a workshop approach to develop the children’s performances in the film. Scenes, such as the occasion when the boys act as waiters and helpers at a sumptuous wedding reception, emphasise the poverty, hardship and the social chasm of their situation. The final credits carry a dedication to the street children of Bombay. These aspects of the film stress the sense of presenting and commenting on an actual world of deprivation and exploitation.

The film’s climax is more dramatic, using conventional scenes familiar from mainstream film stories. Krishna escapes from the remand centre and returns to find Sweet Sixteen, now fully trained, being despatched to a customer. Rekha has lost her daughter, who has been placed in a female remand centre. She decides to leave Baba, and when he attempts to stop her, Krishna knifes him. Rekha and Krishna are parted and she is lost in a surging street crowd. The film ends on a close-up of Krishna, alone and presumably fated, a shot that echoes The 400 Blows.


Mira Nair’s film, Monsoon Wedding, won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. It has been a crossover hit in India, in Europe and the US in both Art House Theatres and in Multiplexes. The script was written by a student Mira Nair met on a Columbia University Masterclass in Film Direction that she taught. The cast mixed established film actors, pop stars and non-professionals, and Nair once again used workshop methods to develop their acting.

If the railway is a central motif in Salaam Bombay! then Monsoon Wedding is very much set on the other side of the track. The celebration is that of an upper middle class Delhi family. The wedding and its preparations take up the whole of the narrative. Nair and her production team created a world of vivid colour for this ritual. They use some conventions of Hindi

popular film music to good effect, whilst avoiding the mere recreation of masala musical numbers. And the complex web of characters and relations in the film is filled out with vivid detail.

The Vermas are preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter, Aditi. The bridegroom to be is Hemant, a young engineer from Huston. Aditi, who has already enjoyed an affair at the TV studio where she works, is uneasy about this arranged marriage. The celebrations are truly global, including relatives from the USA, Gulf and Australia. Among these is an affluent brother-in-law, Tej, who helps Lalit financially, and who is contributing to the costs of the forthcoming wedding. In the past he made abusive advances to Lalit’s nice Ria. Now adult, Ria’s lack of involvement in men would appear to result from this early trauma and the more recent death of her own father. She observes what appears to be a repetition of her own experience in Tej’s interest in the 10 year old Aliya.

These tensions and contradictions are resolved when Aditi confesses her affair to her fiancé. Initially angry, Hemant accepts her regrets and an arranged marriage becomes a love match. Ria exposes Tej’s paedophile proclivities and Lalit, despite the financial consequences this will involve, orders him to leave the ceremony. The wedding proceeds as the Monsoon breaks. The final reception shows the Verma family celebrating as the rains fall.

Unlike Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding offers little sight or sound of the poor and dispossessed of the great city. The plot does include a romantic interest between the maid Alice and Dubey, the contractor organising the wedding preparations. Dubey lives in the slum area of the city. But his appearances in the film are mostly restricted to his official and unofficial activities at the Verma house. The one sequence in his own house follows a setback in his wooing of Alice. While he is disconsolate, his mother discusses whether or not to sell their shares. He and Alice form a second wedding couple at the film’s end. But their future would seem to be on the Verma’s side of the track.

Even when the family go shopping in the central urban area, they (and we) glide past the rich mix of classes, urban bustle and slum poverty in a series of tracks and pans. Our focus is firmly on the upper side of the track. And whilst Lalit has to make a difficult decision regarding his wealthier but more corrupt brother-in-law, it no way matches the stark choices faced by Krishna and Rekha in Salaam Bombay!

The feminist perspective is stronger in this later film than in Bend It Like Beckham, As with Salaam Bombay! The narrative centres on the sexual exploitation of women. Young Aliya is saved from a fate parallel to that of Solasaal. In some ways, Ria’s actions in facing up to Tej’s oppressive behaviour play a narrative role similar to Rekha’s. But this safely constrained with a world that remains patriarchal. The film parallels Bend It Like Beckham in the actions of the father. He is crucial in overcoming the central problem, in this case faced by Ria. A key moment is when Lalit embraces Ria, acting as substitute father, with that familiar phrase, ‘let’s go home.’ And in similar fashion this film manages to combine the tradition of arranging marriages with the more western notion of a love match.

Monsoon Wedding does offer something for its women characters. There are a number of important scenes for female bonding and female support. More so than in the UK film. Monsoon Wedding’s complex narrative is closer to that of Art Cinema and offers space for multiple strands. Bend it Like Beckham clearly follows that familiar to multiplex audiences, clearly linear and tightly focused on the actions of the heroine. But Monsoon Wedding still creates a world of the family that is to a great degree divorced from the social network and the city. In some ways the characters and their actions are more influenced by the impact of the relatives from abroad, especially the USA, than by local forces. Indeed, Hemant and Aditi intend to make their new life in the USA.

In terms of her career Mira Nair has been more successful than Gurinder Chadha has been. She has made a number of mainstream films involving Hollywood money and stars. She has also more films to her credit. More recently she has directed several literary adaptations. There was Vanity Fair (2004), a major production with stars like Reese Witherspoon and Gabriel Byrne. Then there was The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013), a film I thought fairly reactionary in its treatment of the neo-colonial situation in Afghanistan. All these films are resolutely mainstream offerings: they still offer some strands reminiscent of the films and cultures of Asia, but their values are resolutely Western. The exception is 11’ 09’ 01 / September 11 (2002), Alain Brigand’s portmanteau film which offers a response to the general run of media coverage of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Like the other films in this compilation Nair’s contribution critiques the chauvinist and at time xenophobic focus of mainstream films However, this is an independent which offers a different approach both in style and content. It also has a different sense of the Diaspora from dominant cinema

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Two films by Gurinder Chadha.

Posted by keith1942 on October 1, 2014

Bhaji on the Beach

Bhaji on the Beach

This article is part of the argument set out in Diaspora Cinema and globalisation.

Gurinder Chadha had already made a short documentary about Asian women when she came to direct her first feature-length film. Bhaji on the Beach was released in 1993. Meera Syal, (an auteur in her own right) scripted it from a story by both Chadha and Syal. The film was produced in association with Channel 4, with its connotations of independent film, new voices and offbeat stories. It centres on a day trip to Blackpool organised by the Saheli Women’s Centre in Birmingham. The female day-trippers provide a cross section of Asian women, and of the problems faced by Asian women in Britain. Among the central characters are Hashida, a teenage girl about to start at medical school. She has just discovered she is pregnant by her African Caribbean boyfriend, Oliver. There is Ginder, who after physical abuse by her husband Ranjit has taken sanctuary in the Women’s Shelter with son Amrik. And there is Asha, who despite her earlier university education, is married and tied to a newsagent’s shop.

The varying contradictions and problems faced by the women unravel during their day at the coast. At the climax of the film Ranjit, with his two brothers, attempts to wrest Amrik from his mother. The action of the women and the men’s own conflicts sabotage this attempt. The bus leaves with Ginder’s situation unresolved, but with her supported by the group. Meanwhile, the bus passes Hashida and Oliver putting together their relationship and future.

One of the pleasures of the film is the way it takes a fresh look at a very traditional British icon, the seaside. The confrontation between Ranjit and Ginder takes place under the pier, on the beach. All of the women have various minor adventures in the entertainment environs of the resort. The film mixes British social realism, the observational depiction of Blackpool and its frequenters, with a more fantastic Bollywood element, a series of dreamlike sequences fantasised by Asha. The values of the film privilege the interests of the women over the male characters. Our sympathies are definitely with them in their struggles with tradition and patriarchy. Crucially the resolution of the film depends on the rest of the group coming to the support of Ginder. This reverses an earlier breach, between the younger women who are striving to break out from traditional Asian mores, and the older women who are upholding them. As the coach leaves Blackpool there is active support for Ginder in breaching

convention by leaving her husband’s home. The acceptance of Hashida’s situation, pregnant and joined to someone from outside the Asian community, is more fragile, witnessed by her absence from the bus.

The men, as is frequently the case in today’s films, are threatened and in crisis. In fact, the review in Sight and Sound commented in somewhat over-the-top fashion, “Syal clearly has an axe to grind about Asian men – ideally against their testicles.” (Farrah Anwar, February 1994) Among the male characters Oliver seems the most positive as he accepts his responsibilities to Hashida and the unborn child. And Manjit, the youngest of Ranjit’s brothers, also emerges in a positive light when he finally takes action against his macho eldest brother Balbir.

bend it like beckham - cinema quad movie poster (1).jpg

Nine years later Chadha directed Bend It Like Beckham, which she also jointly scripted. This has a rather different place in the British Film Industry. It was part-­funded by the newly-formed Film Council and BSkyB, with additional public funding from Hamburg; (there is a sequence in the film set in that city). It received full distribution in the multiplex circuits, and has now appeared on retail and rental DVD. Its mainstream credentials can be gauged by the use of Britain’s major sports icon, David Beckham, in both the title and the story line. In this case, Jess Bhamra, from a Punjabi Sikh family, dreams of becoming a professional footballer

like her idol Beckham. Despite her parent’s opposition to such a breach with tradition, by the end of the film she has achieved her first step on the ladder of this ambition. The wedding in the film is that of her elder sister Pinky, an arranged Asian marriage. However, Pinky and Taz’s relationship is actually one of choice, and is sexually active in a very untraditional manner, though this is kept secret from the parents. Bend It Like Beckham crosses over with the earlier Bhaji on the Beach in highlighting the problems for British Asian women caught between tradition and modernity. It also crosses over in other ways. There are dream sequences that echo Asha’s in Bhaji on the Beach. These though, resolutely follow mainstream conventions. So the scene when Jess imagines her female relatives guarding the goalmouth in a crucial game is shot as a subjective image, whilst Nessun Dorma plays on the soundtrack. Another scene in Bhaji on the Beach featured Ginder treated to a hairdo and new clothes. In this film it is an assertion of her personality as a woman. In Bend It Like Beckham Jess has her appearance transformed by a team-mate. This is so she can attend a disco celebration during the team’s trip to Germany. But here her transformation acts to catch the eye of Joe, the team coach. He and Jess develop a romantic relationship. Another breach with the traditions favoured by her parents.

This romance creates conflict with her friend Jules, a star player in the girl’s football team. These romantic problems and feuding add plot problems to the later part of the film. They are resolved and Jules and Jess renew their friendship. Joe gets a kiss from Jess in an Airport scene. The plotting in of an appearance by David and Victoria Beckham distracts the parent’s attention at this point.

The conflict between Jess’ passion for football and her parent’s opposition is resolved during her sister’s colourful wedding celebrations. Jess’ father’s opposition is in part based on his own youthful problems in Britain, when he was barred from playing cricket by the game’s covert racism. Struck by her misery, he relents. He even attends the match and sees her score a winning goal. This match results in Jess and Jules being offered US sports scholarships.

The crucial difference between the two films is in this resolution of conflict. Bhaji on the Beach foregrounds women’s solidarity. Bend It Like Beckham relies on the more traditional and conventional change of heart by a father. His acceptance of Jess’s desires and ambitions allows Jess to pursue her own choices. The acceptance and embrace by a father of his daughter is a powerful, and usually conservative, closure to many narratives. There is also much less emphasis on the female group in Bend It like Beckham. The film’s focus is on Jess and her close friend Jules. The rest of the football team are ciphers. The Sight and Sound review featured a shot from the film of Shaznay Lewis (who plays Mel, team captain) in football kit. This is presumably because she features on the film soundtrack, as does Victoria Beckham). But Lewis has little to do in the plot, and her presence in the film would seem to be part of the marketing. Bhaji on the Beach leaves the audience as the women express their solidarity with Ginder. In Bend it Like Beckham, the only member of the football team who comes to see off Jess and Jules is the coach Joe, for his token kiss. These rather differing closures speak volumes about the films.

Further both films feature peripheral female characters, Asian girls who pursue western styles and romance. In Bhaji on the Beach, the pair of Ladhu and Madhu do provide humour but they also fill out the action and the group dynamics. ­ In Bend It Like Beckham the equivalent trio of ­Bubbly and her friends are stereotypical and their sole function seems to be ­ humour. The film hints at lesbianism in its depiction of Jules and provides Jess with a gay friend, Tony. But Jules soon proves to be heterosexual and Tony is just nice and not very sexual. I also felt scenes set in the team’s dressing room, with ample display of young women in their lingerie, could be read as just titillation.

Gurinder Chadha’s more recent films have continued to be sited in the mainstream. Bride and Prejudice (2004) is an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, filmed using many of the conventions of Hindi or ‘Bollywood’. However, the film lacks the irony that suffuses the Austen novel. More recently we have It’s A Wonderful Afterlife (2009), a nice combination of comedy and black humour. The film does focus on the problems of women and in particular Asian women. But a number of the characters seem rather stereotypical. And the unlikely romantic resolution of the film tidies away some of the problems that arose in the story. Gurinder Chadha remains a successful director whose films are always entertaining. But they are resolutely mainstream, partly generic and not unsettling in the way that Bhaji on the Beach seemed.

This was originally part of a longer article in the Media Education Journal, Spring 2003. My thanks to the Editor for agreeing to this posting.

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Diaspora Cinema and Globalisation

Posted by keith1942 on September 30, 2014


Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed that “a zoom is a political statement': His comment may appear to have little relevance at a time when many films are seen as only entertainment. Yet it should be clear that even the most anodyne of action films do reflect and refract the values of their time and place. Unfortunately, the type of film Godard advocated is rare. That is, films where there is conscious articulation of political points of view. One factor, which explains this, is the growth of what we call the global economy and the global market. This is an era when the commodity dominates social life, when there is an economic and social emphasis on the individual consumer.

In The World Remade by the Market (in Race and Class, April 2002), Jeremy Seabrook offers a description of the new global dispensation, and comments:

“The richer we become in the market economy, the greater the space of individual self-expression. Sharper differentiation occurs between people. We no longer see our shared social predicament as a common fate. To get out, to be yourself, to locate a self that has become abstracted from place, becomes the aim of the young. Previously unseen barriers and separations divide generation from generation: new, impermeable divisions arise between those who had seen themselves as bound by a shared destiny. Members of the same family, who had always seen each other more or less as an extension of themselves, become aware of their own private, individual needs. They become preoccupied with their own uniqueness. They cultivate features and characteristics that distinguish them from others, rather than submerge these in a common pool of human belonging.”

For me, this paragraph immediately conjures up a host of films where the self rather than the social provide the dynamic. In this article I want to discuss films that seem to me in some way to illustrate this. I have taken two pairs of films by different directors. In each case, I feel that there has been a shift in thematic concerns between a film made late in the last century and one made early in the new one. The development that Seabrook discerns underlying the phenomenon of the new global world appears to provide an interesting perspective in analysing these films.

The first pair of films, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is Bhaji on the Beach (UK 1993) and Bend it Like Beckham (UK 2002). The second pair, directed by Mira Nair, is Salaam Bombay (India/UK 1988) and Monsoon Wedding (India/US/France/Italy 2002). All these films share common themes and motifs. Both earlier films deal with journeys, dislocation and the problems that Asian women face in the sexual arena. The latter pair share these themes to a degree and are both structured round the colourful rituals of a Punjabi wedding. Both these directors might be considered as auteurs. However, my argument is not directly concerned with the individual filmmakers, except in that they provide the ‘occasion’ for analysis. Whilst both directors clearly have a distinctive character, one can argue that career success has enabled them to ­develop that distinctive character: but careers bring their own pressures. Both directors are women, important in terms of the themes of the film. But the developments are not to do with gender but their professional environs. I would reckon one could analyse similar tendencies in male directors, for example, Abbas Kiarostami or Asghar Farhadi. We need to look at the films, the filmmakers and their context.

In their famous polemic for a political cinema among oppressed peoples the Argentinean filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio characterised an ‘authors cinema’ as only reaching ‘the outer limits of what the system permits’ (i.e. mainstream cinema and dominant societies). They foresaw it as becoming the institutionalised as ‘the youthful, angry wing of society.’ Whilst this suggests a cinema of protest, it also suggests a cinema that is constrained by the dominant values and which, in time, (like the bourgeois rebels of 1968) is accommodated within the system. My argument is less that such a development can be seen in the directors’ careers than that their most recent film work is within conventions that preclude certain concerns and approaches. Thus it is about industry and institutions socialising the filmmakers rather than the particular predilections of individual filmmakers.

Both of these filmmakers belong to another phenomenon of the global culture, Diaspora Cinema. That is, they relate both to the Asian culture, which is the object of Seabrook’s comments, and to the western imperialist culture, which is home to the contradictions driving these developments. Like ‘global’, ‘diaspora’ is an ambiguous term. When the BFI organised the ‘Imagine Asia’ celebrations the organisers tried to compile a list of films from the South Asian Diaspora: apparently the ensuing argument over definitions was never fully resolved.

In The Global Film Book (2014) Roy Stafford offers the following: “describes both the process of migration or ‘dispersal’ of large numbers of people from one country/region to another and the community of immigrants in the new host country.” Presumably films from the diaspora have a foot in both camps. But in a global world both camps are subordinate to world capital.  Certainly the two filmmakers discussed, and their four films, are clearly indebted both to South Asian Cinema and to Western Cinema. To varying degrees all the films display stylistic features and conventions from popular film in both cultures. The question is what values dominate these intertwined cultures and cinemas.

The two more recent films by these filmmakers seem to privilege the family unit as the centre of their social worlds. Each film ends with the family united, having overcome the

contradictions that drive the earlier narrative forward. From this point of view they do not exactly fit the analysis offered in the quotation from Jeremy Seabrook. However, I would argue that these are families powerfully moulded by their function as consumption units. Both films include scenes of shopping, and what are presumably deliberate product placements.

The central ritual in both films, the Punjabi wedding, whilst embodying a long-standing tradition, is also the site of conspicuous consumption. This is especially true in Monsoon Wedding, where much of the narrative tension and humour arises from the problems in completing the preparations. Moreover, the narrative closures in both cases are posited on the virtues of the choice of the individual consumer. In Bend It Like Beckham, the two main women characters, Jess and Jules, are leaving for the USA to join both the world of education and the world of US commercial women’s football. And in Monsoon Wedding the final ritual joining of the central romantic couple, Aditi and Hemant, would seem to seal their position as privileged members of the new global elite. Whilst the serving couple, Dubey and Alice, appears destined to cross the tracks into this middle class milieu.

In is in their sense of closure that the recent films depart most clearly from the earlier pair. Bhaji on the Beach and Salaam Bombay! ended with unresolved contradictions and problems, leaving the audiences to consider the characters and their situations. Bend it Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding are much closer to mainstream conventions in the way that they carefully tie up the different threads of the narrative. In Bend it Like Beckham, the penultimate scene at airport not only shows Jess and Jules setting off to achieve their ambitions, but also offers the promise of a future romance between Jess and Joe [the football trainer]. Then, just before the credits, we see Jess’s father playing cricket with Joe. Joe has been accepted into Jess’s Asian family. It is also a compulsory scene for viewers, in the sense that it shows the father reversing his early exclusion and his own vow, ‘never to play cricket!’

Monsoon Wedding ends with the celebrations in the garden as the Monsoon rains fall. This eruption by nature is like a clearing of the air after the conflicts and problems within the family. As the rains fall the newly-married Dubey and Alice are invited into the wedding tent. Alongside this abolition of difference is even a hint romance for another family member Ria, as she exchanges glances with a late arrival, Umang.

Yet both closures are really about escape. Jess and Joe, Aditi and Hemant, are all leaving for the USA: Dubey will certainly leave the slums. The larger problems raised in the narratives have not gone away. The cultural and sexual conflicts remain. But they are outside the family units. And the protagonists have left them behind. Such a closure fits the films’ status as commodities. Having been consumed they have provided the expected value: nearly two hours in the cinema or in front of the television screen. Whilst the two earlier films also provided this to a degree, they resist being put away after consumption. Their social dimension is likely to remain with viewers for some considerable time after the completion of the act.

That this tendency continues can be seen in more recent examples. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami made a series of films that offered detailed examination of the culture but which drew in commentary of the larger culture. Through the Olive Trees (Zir-e darakhatan-e zeyton, 1994) follows a film production and focuses on a young couple in a rural area. The film ends in a long shot / long take of the couple about whom the audience must now decide. His most recent film, Like Someone in Love (France / Japan, 2013) is set in Japan. I found it lacking in that larger social dimension. The final shot of the film seems to sum this up – we see a window, hear an angry voice, but not one of the characters is visible onscreen. Asghar Farhadi achieved praise with two films, Nader and Simin, a separation (Jodaelye Nader az Simin, 2011 and About Elly (Darbareye Elly, 2009 – they were released in reverse order in the UK). Both films focus on the lies characters tell, lies that are symbolic of the larger society. But his most recent film, made in France, The Past (Le Passé, France / Italy, 2013) also featured lies but they seem to remain strictly at the personal level. One can see continuing themes in the work of both directors but the sense of the relevance of a specific time and place seems to diminish. There are films that provide a critical response in all parts of Diaspora culture, but there is a marked tendency for cinematic travel to lead to a greater degree of hegemony.

There are more detailed analyses of the films in separate postings. All of them are taken from an article published in Media Education Journal (Spring, 2003). My thanks to the Editor for the agreement to post these.


Posted in Auteur cinema, Films of the Diaspora, Indian cinema | Leave a Comment »

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. Sadly not yet.

Peter Von Bagh died from cancer in early September 2014, he will be missed both for his work and at a number of Film Festivals. Hopefully his final film will circulate at some point – a fitting memorial.




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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 »


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