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Al Nakba, Al Jazeera 2008.

Posted by keith1942 on May 19, 2015

AlNakbaExpulsion2

I have been meaning to post on this four part documentary for some time. Now I see that it is being repeated on the UK channel, [Freeview 133}.  It is not that easy to access detailed listings for the Channel, but the UK TV Guide gives days and times but not which episode. I assume [and hope] that it is available elsewhere on Al Jazeera, it was showing on the Arabic channel. This is a documentary film about ‘the catastrophe’ that befell the Palestinian people in 1948. It traces the history of the colonial policies and actions that led to their expulsion from their homeland. It was made by Palestinian filmmaker and journalist Rawan Damen in 2008 and transmitted on the Al Jazeera Arabic network. Now an English-Language version is screened in the UK, with other language versions also available. It runs for 200 minutes and is going out in four parts. The episodes already transmitted are repeated several times.

Rawan Damen’s film is a fairly conventional television documentary using ‘talking heads’ and film and photographs. Much of the material and comment has been available in academic and historical publication. But now it is being presented in a fairly popular medium and it has the advantage of using visual material, which brings an increased power to the story. The film starts with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, a key event that was analysed by the Palestinian writer Edward Said in his great work Orientalism. The first two episodes address the British occupation and Mandate of Palestine following the First World War. In was in that conflict that the new Zionist Movement achieved its coup of the Balfour Declaration – the British support for a Jewish State was seen as a way of ensuring the British presence and it’s interests across the Middle East. It is difficult to decide which was more objectionable: the British colonial manipulation of a people and its lands, or the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the Zionist in pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel’. Certainly the policies and practices of each have much in common. The British Mandate saw the use of house arrests and executions, concentration camps, house demolitions, the exiling of leaders and the harassment and dissolution of Palestinian institutions. Just as British laws from the Mandate still serve the Zionist State, so do the brutal methods pioneered by the British.

Episode two focuses on the Palestinian resistance and revolution from 1936 to 1939. This is a part of the tale which gives lie to Zionist clams of  ’a land without people'; and claims that a Palestinian nation did not exist. It also highlights the weakness and limitations of the Palestinian and Arab official leaders. Their failings were to be an important aid to the Zionist take-over in 1948. The other was the development of the Zionist military forces, which were happy to use actions now loudly condemned as ‘terrorism’ by Israel.

Episode three deals with the year of Al Nakba itself, 1948. This is full of scenes of violence and the stream of disposed Palestinians. With film and commentary it presents the actual events rather than the myths which have become commonplace. There is the United Nations, where the USA and President Truman, pressurize and buy a majority for the partition of Palestine. A vote that contravenes the UN Charter. Then there is the British State and Military. Shamefully, the Labour Government continues the aiding and abetting of the theft of Palestinian lands by the Zionists. Meanwhile the British military sits passively by whilst the Zionist start their takeover: the only British contribution is to prevent any intervention by the Arab States. There are the heroic Palestinian fighters, outnumbered, outgunned and with poor leadership at the top: in Jaffa the resistance was led by a woman fighter. Then there are the Zionists, about 40,00 in number and well armed, partly by contributions from around the world. Both Palestinian and Israeli historians argue how the plan to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the land of Palestinians was prepared in advance and ruthlessly implemented. The implementation included atrocities, massacres and the killing of women and children: all designed to drive the Palestinians from their land. Finally there are the Arab armies, poorly led and disunited. The best organised army, that of Jordan, was led by a British Officer, and the Jordanian Government was bought off by the effective acquisition of the West Bank. This narrative is filled out by the voices of the surviving refugees who still hunger for their land. It is a sad and disconcerting tale, but essential viewing for an understanding of contemporary Palestine and the Middle East.

Episode 4, the final chapter, follows on from 1948 and briefly travels to the present-day, [2008]. The years immediately following Al Nakba saw the Palestinians sold out by the Arab states and by the UN. The film addresses the murder of the UN representative Count Bernadotte by the Stern Gang: then conveniently swept under the carpet. And there is a self-serving interview from the time with Ralph Bunce. The film emphasises how the Zionist project for a ‘Greater Israel’ has been pursued over the years. There is not enough time for either the Suez war or the several invasions of Lebanon. But the key year of 1967 is addressed. And the film comes up to the near present when five to six million Palestinians are in exile, in Gaza, the West Bank, in refugee camps and around the world.  In the final sequences there are telling comments from both Palestinian and Israeli voices. One voice points out how in 1948 the Palestinians were misled by the feudal landowners now by the bourgeoisie. Several point out how the Zionist drive continues, in the West Bank and even more brutally against Gaza. And whilst some voices wonder if the dream of return will ever be achieved another points out that ‘Israel will not be around for ever.’

This last point is important. The myths perpetuated around Al Nakba have, to a degree, been dispelled. The current violence by the Israeli state against Palestinians could well be the paroxysms of a state that sees it dominance slipping away. As the US superpower declines one doubts that any other protector will emerge. Even so the struggle remains long and hard. To paraphrase a much quoted wrier Clausewitz, ‘Israeli policy is the continuation of Al Nakba by other means’.

Rawan Damen has added an impressive range of commentators, including both Palestinian and Israeli historians, and ordinary Palestinians including refugees from Al-Nakba. This and the impressive array of actual film from the period really create its effect. There has been excellent research to retrieve film that has not been seen for a long time, including material in the British Archives. This is both an important documentary film and contribution to the struggles of the Palestinian people. Fortunately Al Jazeera tend to repeat their programme several times. Definitely tune into Al Jazeera –  the channel is worth watching for a different slant on the news.

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Redes, (The Wave, Mexico 1936.

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2015

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This 61 minute docu-drama was restored by The World Cinema Foundation and then screened at the 2009 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

The film was made by Mexican and US filmmakers for the Secretaría de Educación Pública of the Mexican Government. The story is set amongst a small fishing community and shot on location in Mexico at a river mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The film is in black and white, with Spanish dialogue and English sub-titles. The film was among the early credits of Paul Strand and Fred Zinnemann.

Strand was a photographer who had worked in the National Film and Photo League. He had also worked on two experimental silent films. He was to become the central figure in a group of progressive filmmakers in the USA committed to politically informed documentaries. His later work included the photography for The Plow That Broke the Plain [1936] and the radical Native Land [1942].

Zinnemann had migrated to the USA from Germany where he had worked as an assistant cameraman, and was part of the team that produced Menschen en Sontag [1929]. Redes was his first directing credit and he later achieved success in this role in Hollywood. The two Mexicans who were important in setting up the project were Carlos Chavez, who was a noted composer, and Narciso Bassols, the Secretary of Educación Pública.

The simple story follows a fisherman, Miro, who is exploited by a local entrepreneur. The latter controls the fishing boats and access to markets. Miro becomes more radical when his son dies because he cannot afford medical care. He leads the fisherman in a revolt. But he becomes a martyr when his death is organised by a politician in the pay of the entrepreneur. The end of the film suggests the fisherman will fight on.

We enjoyed a 35mm print when the film was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009. The Catalogue included memories of Zinnemann on the film:

The film – the first and last of its kind – was expected to play a small part in the Government plan to educate millions of illiterate citizens throughout the enormous country and bring them out of their isolation…

We had recruited practically all “actors” from among the local fisherman, who needed to do no more than be themselves. They were splendid and loyal friends, and working with them was a joy. In addition to acting, they carried all the equipment, rowed the boats and did a multitude of other jobs, earning more money than ever before – forty-five cents per day, per man – and enjoying themselves hugely …”

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Visually the film is in a style already familiar in Mexican cinema: using the landscape to create a sense of belonging. The figures are frequently posed against water, clouds, their thatched huts and the implement of fishing. The use of camera angles suggests the influence of Sergei Eisenstein, who had worked in Mexico on the unfinished Que Viva Mexico between 1931 and 1932. This is also true of the editing which cuts between characters and actions to create meanings after the style of Soviet montage.

The film’s social consciousness is presented in a narrative that follows many conventions of the Hollywood model. We have an individual hero, and a linear plot, with clearly delineated morals. This is the limitation of a certain sort of cinema. I felt that the film did not present the indigenous culture in the way that [for example] Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1947) manages. The key filmmakers are the two from the USA, though a number of the team are Mexican. In this period colonialism was still a major contradiction round the world, along with a developing neo-colonialism. In the case of Mexico the USA exercised dominance in line with its infamous C19th ‘Monroe Doctrine’. But in this film the exploitation and oppression of the fishermen is vested in an individual capitalist and a corrupt politician: the film lacks a sense of the wider capitalist mode or indeed of the neo-colonial relationship between Mexico and the USA. In fact Mexico already had a vibrant national cinema. It would be interesting to know the factors that governed the choices made by Educación Pública.

From that point-of-view of workers struggling against both exploitation and oppression the film seems to look forward to another set of filmmakers, Herbert Biberman and Paul Jarrico. Their Salt of the Earth, [1953] was set in New Mexico and dramatised a strike by Mexican migrants working in the mines. My memory of the latter film is that it has a more developed sense of communal struggle. The pair of films would make an excellent double bill.

Recently some of the restored films have featured on multi-DVD collections. Unfortunately for reasons to do with copyright the UK version from Eureka does not have Redes included. The French version does but lacks English subtitles. There is a US version which I have not yet been able to check.

Directors: Fred Zinnemann, Emilio Gómez Muriel. Scenario: Augustin Velázquez Chávez, Paul Strand, Emilio Gómez Muriel, Fred Zinnemann, Henwar Rodakiewicz. Photography Paul Strand. Editing Emilio Gómez Muriel, Gunther von Fritsch. Sound Roberto, Joselito Rodriguez. Music Silvestre Revueltas.

Cast: Miro – Silvio Hernández. Entrepreneur – David Valle Gonzalez. Politician – Rafael Hinojosa. El Zurdo – Antonio Lara. With a supporting cast local fisherman.

 

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Titas Ekti Nadir Naam / A River Called Titas, Bangladesh 1973.

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2015

Titas

Written and directed by Ritwik Ghatak.

Restored in 2010 by the World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna. 158 minutes, in Bengali with English subtitles, black and white, 1.37:1. Available in 35mm and High Definition versions.

“If you were eighteen years old, growing up in New Delhi, a student of cinema, a cinephile or a plain film snob, it was given that you would swoon over the film-maker Ritwik Ghatak and spend endless hours in the Delhi University canteen discussing his film, his alcoholism and his eventual death from Tuberculosis. … years later when I saw his epic, A River Called Titas, [that] I swooned for different reasons. The film is a work of pure genius. A passionate elegy for a dying culture, it moved me profoundly, and continues to haunt me to this day.” Deepa Mehta in Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue, 2010.

Ghatak is a key filmmaker and influence in Indian cinema, but is much less well known in the West: David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary omits him completely. Apart from a series of nine feature films Ghatak was also Professor of Film Direction at the Film Institute of India from 1965 to 1967. Here he influenced a generation of young cineastes, including a number who were to become important in Independent Film production.

Ghatak was born in East Bengal in 1925, then part of the Britain’s Indian Empire. Later East Bengal was included in the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. After the 1971 war of secession it became Bangladesh. Whilst he was young Ghatak’s family moved to Calcutta. In the 1940s he became politically active and worked in the Indian People’s Theatre Association. This was a radical cultural organisation associated with the Communist Party of India. It was very influential in the early years after Independence including in mainstream and independent filmmaking. Ghatak [among other works] staged plays by Bertold Brecht, who was an influence on both his stage and film work. Ghatak started work in Indian mainstream cinema as an actor. He became a scenarist at the Bombay Filmistan Studio in the 1950s, working with the major film director Bimal Roy; [Roy’s most famous film is Do Bigha Zameen (1954) which was seen as influenced by neo-realism].

Bengal was not only the scene of strife in the dismemberment of India. It had suffered badly under British colonial rule, especially in the major famine of 1943. This social and personal history left a strong mark on Ghatak’s work. The sense of loss, exile and conflict are powerfully felt in his films. Bengal was also the home of Satyajit Ray. However, whilst both filmmakers use a form distinct from popular mainstream films, they are themselves rather different. Both filmmakers often create a documentary look, and show the influence of neo-realism. And Ghatak shares with Ray an ability to integrate characters with landscapes, and they also make compelling use of indigenous music. However, Ghatak uses songs rather than instrumental pieces, and these offer a commentary on the characters and events. Moreover, Ghatak favours a style which included the melodramatic, a staple of popular Indian films. His work offer frequent dramatic close-ups where the emotions and conflicts experienced by the characters are powerfully presented. But these are often counterpoised with long shots and long takes, creating a sense of distance from the scene. Ghatak tends to a style which might be term Brechtian, in the sense that it not only encourages the viewer to stand back a little, but also to consider and appraise the events in the film story. The overall style tends to the elliptical; both the overall narrative and individual sequences are often disrupted by abrupt changes due to visual and sound edits. The soundtracks in Ghatak’s films are especially noticeable, with both songs and noise changing abruptly.

A River Called Titas is typical of this approach. The film is adapted from a classic Bengali novel of the same name by Adwaita Mallabarman. The film is structured as much by symbolism and myth as it is by the development of a plot. Especially on first viewing the progress of character and plot can be difficult to follow.

[The following contains general plot information].

The tale is set among the Malo fishermen who toil on the waters of the Titas. The community includes both Hindu and Muslim families, though Hindu characters dominate the narrative. The central figures are Basanti, a young girl: Kishore, a fisherman: Rajar Khi, Kishore’s bride; and Ananta, Rajar’s son. We first see Basanti as a young girl in the village. Kishore and his brother Subol go on a fishing trip. It is on this trip that Kishore meets Rajar, whom he rescues in a village conflict. He then marries her and takes her back to his village. However, river bandits abduct her and this drives Kishore crazy. Basanti, who envisaged marrying Kishore, marries Subol instead, but he is drowned on the day of the wedding. There is an ellipsis of ten years.

Titas 2

Rajar with her son Ananta arrives in the village seeking shelter. Neither she nor Kishore recognise each other. The situation creates conflicts over traditional values regarding marriage and child rearing. Kishore is attacked and dies, and Rajar drowns alongside him. Basanti now takes care of Ananta; a situation objected to by Basanti’s parents. More village and domestic feuding lead to Ananta leaving to live with another family. Meanwhile the Brahmin landowners stir up conflicts and demand the repayments of loan from the fishing and farming families. At the end the river dries up [partly due to a scheme engineered by the Brahmin landowners]. The village falls apart.

The tragic end of the film is signalled in the opening shot, a dried up river ravine, which re-appears at the end. A Bengali song is heard on the soundtrack, which includes the following lines:

“I fear I see the Ganga waters rise to fill the blue sky

I fear I see the boats aground on the dry river bed.”

The dried up ravine re-appears in the film’s final sequence. Women are reduced to begging: a father dies of starvation: fishermen and farmers fight over the dried up riverbed. Basanti sits disconsolate outside a hut and a voice-over informs us:

“The River Titas flows on but tomorrow it may be bone dry.

It may not even have the last drop without which our soul cannot depart.”

We then see Basanti stagger through an arid desert where she digs for water. Dying she has a flashback or vision of a young boy running in green fields, [possibly Kishore], and the film ends on a freeze-frame of her.

The film seems full of Bengali and Indian cultural references: many of which are probably not apparent to western audiences. However, there are two important references, which are common to the art and culture of the sub-continent. Kishore appears to be related to the mythical figure of Krishna. He is a godlike figure found in classic mythical writings. He fought great battles and ruled over a kingdom and finally ascended into heaven. His romantic life was also important and he married a princess, but he had other romances, the most important being Radha. This aspect of the myth is explained in the film Lagaan (2001), where another Krishna-like Hindi hero Bhuvan [Aamir Khan] offers an explanation to Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) at the Temple to Radha and Krishna,

“Krishna was married to Rukmini and Radha to Anay …But the deep love they had for each other set an ideal … neither united nor separated, They’ve been worshipped together for ages.”

The Radha/Krishna/Rukmini relationship seems to parallel that in Ghatak’s film between Basanti/Kishore/Rajar: [and also relates to the romantic triangle in Lagaan].

Another marital aspect of the Krishna myth includes thousands of maidens who he rescued from captivity and married in order to save their honour. This clearly relates to the situation of Kishore and Rajar after her kidnapping.

There are also mythical parallels to a Hindu goddess. Rajar and Ananta are seen before a shrine to Bhagwati [another name for the Durga, the ‘Mother Goddess’]. Later in the film Basanti is also associated with Bhagwati. This seems a clear parallel for the important theme of motherhood in the film.

Ghatak combines national themes with oppositional themes in his films. But of the films of his that I have seen [five of the nine completed features] this has the strongest element of critical and oppositional standpoint. As in most of his films the story centres on the (at times) melodramatic tale of key individuals: but more explicitly than elsewhere this is grounded in a set of social relations: both exploitative and oppressive. At the end of this film the harsh images expose the way that even after the end of colonialism the struggle against a vicious system goes on.

There is a lot more complexity in the plot and characters of the film, and I think Western viewers will probably need more than one viewing to assimilate all of this. There is also a rich palette in the film’s visual and aural style. Ghatak has a great command of camera and mise en scène. There are numerous fine sequences. In particular late in the film there is a boat race on the river, which is enthralling in its presentation. This is a film which one should encourage local exhibitors to book and screen.

Two online reviews, which I found especially interesting, are one on Hobgoblin Reviews by Lynda Parker. This has informed comments about the political context for Ghatak’s film. And ‘Journey through Bangladesh’ by Audity Falguni relates the source novel to the area in which it [and the film] is set.

Note, film quotes taken from the English subtitles.

Originally posted on ITP World.

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And Quiet Rolls the Dawn (Ek Din Pratidin, India 1979)

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2015

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Directed by Mrinal Sen. In Bengali with English subtitles.

The article contains plot information, however the plot is not the main focus of the film and its ending is ambiguous.

Mrinal Sen is among the leading independent Bengali directors, along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Like Ray he was involved in the Calcutta Film Society: and like Ghatak he worked in the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association. However, he has his own distinctive themes and style, and he was a pioneer in what became known as the Parallel or New Indian Cinema in the 1970s. The major political influence is less Partition [which was central to the films of Ghatak] and more the Naxalite Movement of the 1960s. This was a Marxist-Leninists grouping that split from the official Communist Party of India. Their popular name came from actions in Naxalbari in Bengal in 1967, where peasant seized lands and dispensed ‘people’s justice’. Though the movement was suppressed, its political influence and ‘Naxalite struggles’ continue in the sub-continent. These politics are clearest in Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy, especially the second film Calcutta ’71 (1972).

Ek Din Pratidin is less overtly about politics, but it displays the stylistic stance that Sen favoured in his early career. This film also fits into a trilogy, essentially of family melodramas. The other two titles are Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly One Day, 1989) and Mahaprithivi (World Within, World Without, 1991). “The three films under discussion all dramatise the bourgeois nuclear family”. [Bishnuptriya Ghosh, 2000]. In each of the three films a crisis occurs when a family member goes missing or dies, though the plots never fully explains what has occurred. In Ek Din Pratidinit it is the eldest daughter, also the family breadwinner, who fails to return home one evening after work.

In this film the family is described as lower middle class. However, the English term is somewhat vague and probably fails to define the particular cultural and economic situation of the film.

The family in question has seven members: the father, Rishikesh Sengupta (Satya Bannerjee); the Mother (Geeta Sen); the eldest son Tupu; his younger brother Poltu; the eldest daughter Chinu (Mamata Shankar); her younger sister Meenu (Sreela Mujundar); and the youngest daughter Jhuna. Rikeshesh’s status is identified by the address Rikisheshbabu. Babu can be translated as ‘sir’: “babu culture (the well-educated, cultured, polite middle class who retain a certain Victorian Eurocentrism).”  In the Bengali context this is known as ‘bhadralokculture’.

“Bhadralok sometimes designates education or the kind of labour in which one is engaged; at other times, it is used to demarcate literacy or participation in high culture; at yet others, it creates a marker between immigrant and non-immigrant communities. One’s level of education, accent, emotional restraint, distaste of admitting to material constraints and/or exploitation, and controlled sexuality are some of the classic features of this concept used in gender and class relations as a sign of civilisation.” [B. Ghosh, 2000].

So we are presented with this consciously civilised family set in a context where such values are of great importance. However, the family’s economic situation no longer corresponds to such class values. The father is in receipt of a pension, which is inadequate for the family needs. The son, college educated, cannot find a suitable job but will not undertake manual labour. The three youngest children are in education. Chinu, the eldest daughter. contributes the major income. She has an office position which brings in [with pay and extras] over 500 rupees a month. However, this economic achievement brings with it cultural conflicts with the traditional values relating to gender.

It fact the family hangs over an abyss, likely to slide into the world of the proletarian and lumpen proletarian masses of the city. Their situation is dramatised by their position in the house in which they reside. This is an old C19th mansion owned by Darikbabu and whilst he resides on the top floor the rest is rented out to families. Significantly the Sengupta family are on the ground floor, alongside the communal courtyard and by the entry door. Darikbabu`s lofty position is reflected in his treatment of his tenants. He acts as a lord, berating them over the careless use of water and electricity. He also upbraids the family over the question of traditional morals.

Tilt

The mise en scène and camerawork of the film reinforce this hierarchical relationship. A recurring shot is a low angle from the courtyards and taking in or tilting up the mansion, towering above. Camera tilts down the building emphasise the cultural descent implied in its layout. The family’s reduced circumstances are also depicted by the cramped constraints of the rooms which they inhabit, emphasised by tight angle shots of groups and individuals within. There are frequent slow pans across groups of faces and tracks across the setting. There is a feel of entrapment, added to by shots through doorways, grills and bars.

The film’s plot covers only one night. The pre-title sequence introduces us to the locality and includes a school accident to Poltu. He is tied to his bed for the rest of the film. The narrative is also partly restricted to the confines of the family space. When characters venture out into the city it is predominantly at night, adding a noirish feel to the film. The sense of an alien and dangerous space beyond the home adds to the feeling of paranoia.

The main action covers the point in the evening when it becomes apparent that Chinu is late home from work. Immediately the repressed fears of the family start to surface. This angst is fuelled by the mainly unsympathetic interest taken by the neighbours, both in the courtyard and the house. These fears concern the sexual and economic dangers that may have befallen Chinu and may befall her family. But they are also expressions of the traditional values of bapu culture, a culture that provides the uncertain foundation for this community.

There are sympathetic characters in the house. Shyamalbabu lives one floor above the Sengupta family. This is a sign of his greater affluence as he is still in employment. He actively helps in the search for Chinu. A young girl, Lilly shows empathy for the situation of the women: she challenges the moralistic comments of her elders. But others, especially the landlord, exude strong disapproval.

As the night progresses the fears and angst of the family increase. Early on Meenu tries to phone Chinu’s office from the local surgery, without success. Then Tupu, helped by his friend Amol [who owns a motorcycle and seems to be a bit of a ‘wide boy’] visits first the police station and then the local morgue. As these actions develop the encircling darkness becomes more obvious and dissension increases within the family.

Later the police call at the house. A young woman has attempted suicide: she is pregnant. Rikishesh, accompanied by Tupu and Shyamal visit the hospital. There a group of possible relatives wait for news. The fears and angst of the Senguptas equally consume all. The woman dies and the relatives have to inspect the body: It is not Chinu.

Then in the early hours of the morning Chinu returns by taxi. The audience has in fact greater knowledge than the family. We saw a sequence earlier where she boarded a crowded tram. Another sequence showed an unanswered telephone call at the local surgery: presumably Chinu trying to contact her family. Whilst her safe return assuages the surface fears of the family it does not resolve the repressed fears. The family members show little relief and Chinu herself asks “Do people have no faith in me at all”.  The repressed nature of the fears is emphasised when none of the family can bring themselves to ask Chinu where she has been. And this repression recurs later when none of the other tenants can bring themselves to ask the family a similar question.

The landlord does descend to the courtyard and threatens the family with eviction: making vague allusions to morals. He is confronted by Tupu who nearly comes to blows with him. Tupu also re-imposes masculine authority by ordering Chinu back into the house. One senses that the landlord will be unwilling or unable to enforce his threat. Morning sees a veil of normality over the courtyard as the house rises. The mother prepares food as on the previous day, though pointedly, the final shot is through the bars of a window.

window

The narrative of the film is predominantly linear and naturalistic. There is one flashback to an argument between mother and son. However, at several points Sen uses what are usually described as Brechtian techniques: distancing devices. The film’s opening, and a later sequence panning over the city, have titles in Bengali, which appear to offer comment. Unfortunately these were not translated in the recent version that I have viewed. Then on three occasions an authoritative voice-over informs the viewer about contextual matters. In the first we are introduced to the history of the house, its tenants and the Sengupta family. The comments conjure up the original East India Company and the C19th Raj, when Bhadralok culture developed, with its co-operation with the British occupation. It also refers to the partition of traditional Bengal in 1947.

The second sequence explains to the audience Chinu’s importance in the family economy as she travels home. In a third sequence a voice over accompanies an insert shot of Chinu, and the competing voices of the junior family members, asking for gifts from her income. Importantly Meenu does not make such a request; indicative of the empathy she shows for Chinu’s situation. Later she challenges the family’s narrow and selfish fears over the incident.

Another sequence with distancing techniques occurs in the hospital scene. The camera prowls round as the waiting relatives voice their fears about the young woman in care: several of these are addressed direct to camera, once more encouraging the audience to consider both the words and what they represent.

The soundtrack reinforces the paranoia of the film. There are a couple of melodies but most of the time this consists of modernist music and accompanying discordant sounds. There feel is both unsettling and indicative of the underlying dread felt by the characters. A sound reproducing a ticking clock accompanies the main titles and recurs throughout the film, emphasising the slow passing of time as experienced by the characters.

Though only 91 minutes in length Ek Din Pratidin is a powerful film, developing a melodramatic situation, fraught with perils for the characters. Yet it also encourages the audience to step back and consider the economic and cultural forces that develop the melodrama in a particular way. Apparently family melodramas were a popular genre in the Bengali cinema of the 1950s and 60s and they generally supported the dominant bhadralok culture. [B. Gosh, 2000]. Sen beautifully subverts this type of story and situation, but allows the audience to both involve themselves in that story whilst [possibly] considering and understanding its position in the larger social scheme. Note, Sen was strongly influenced by Ritwik Ghatak and one of his major films The Star Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960) focuses on a family where the elder daughter is the main breadwinner. This is another terrific Bengali film.

Mrinal Sen with his cinematographer

Mrinal Sen with his cinematographer

The Bengali filmmakers have been an important part of the Indian cinemas, especially in what we would call art or political filmmaking. There is Satyajit Ray, the best known of Indian filmmaker. His work is often discussed in terms of the auteur cinema but I think it equally is an expression of a national cinema. One of the most explicit expressions of this is in Ray’s fine period drama, [set during the British Raj]. The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari, 1977). Then we have Ritwik Ghatak, who through his films and his tenure at the Film and Television Institute of India exercised a major influence on a new generation of filmmakers. His work crosses between the national and the anti-colonial: his A River Named Titash (Titash Ehti Nadir Naam 1973) expresses a national question in a complex manner but also addresses a class and oppositional questions. One can see the national problem again in this film by Mrinal Sen, but the focus is also on the class question and the social exploitation, itself informed by continuing neo-colonial forces.

Shubhajit, in a helpful comment, explains that “Ek Din means one particular day, while pratidin means everyday, so the wordplay Sen used in the title is quite obvious & ironic”.

Bishnupriya Ghosh, Melodrama and the bourgeois family: notes on Mrinal Sen’s critical cinema in The Enemy Within The Films of Mrinal Sen, edited by Sumita S Chakavarty, Flicks Books, 2000.  The article and the book are rather academic. I also think some points on the film are mistaken. However, there is a lot of useful comment on the context, including on Bengali cinema.

The film has been distributed in the UK and was screened on UK television [I think C4] in the 1980s. Currently available on Angel Digital DVD. Unfortunately the colour is now very washed out and night-time scenes are pretty dark. The subtitles probably contain errors. A translation of a comment reads, “1897 … the revolutionary year of the soldiers.” This is a reference to the Gadre or Great Rebellion, which occurred in 1857.

 

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Honour Killings (God Forgive Them Rubba Maaf Kareen), UK 2015

Posted by keith1942 on March 16, 2015

The actual 'message' of the film.

The actual ‘message’ of the film.

 

I went to see this film, about which I knew nothing but the title, in a week where there was not a lot of film choice. It turned out to be a sort of ‘Bollywood’ film produced and shot in England. The dialogue is in English, Hindi and Panjabi. The writer and director is Avtar Bhogal and the Production Company is Ek Onkar Films Ltd. The title suggests the focus of the film.

The film’s plot is built around three friends, all now living in England: Harjinder Singh (Gulshan Grover), Badshah Khan (Javed Sheikh): Mr. Smith (Tom Alter)

Thus we have a Sikh family, a Muslim family and an English family, but the latter with a father who knows India and speaks the languages and who is married to an Indian woman. The film’s plot revolves round the parent’s opposition to their children marrying someone from another ethnic/religious group. So we have Sameera Khan (Zara Sheikh) in love with Sunny Singh (Sandeep Singh). To complicate matters, in an earlier generation such a proposed union led to the ‘honour killing’ of a daughter in the Singh family and her father [now the grandfather of the family] being imprisoned under British law.

The intricacies of the plot are fairly interesting and the film’s topic is an extremely relevant one. Here in the UK there have been several recent cases of families oppressing and even killing daughters in order to prevent such unions. However, this is not well delivered in this film. In fact I think it is the worst film that I have seen in several years. It was only my interest in how the film treated its subject that kept me in my seat.

This is partly down to the script, which is very conventional with developments signalled well in advance. The cinematography is reasonable for some of the film but there are some problems with focus and placement. The sound track is a real problem, as we appear to have an Indian cast and whilst the Hindi and Panjabi seemed OK to my untrained ear, the English was noticeably anachronistic. This is exacerbated by the settings, mainly set around Southall in Middlesex. If you know the area, know institutions and know contemporary social habit and mores, this film is full of anachronisms.

Of course, this is not necessarily a final criticism. In one sense the film replays the stereotypes of the British as a response to those of India in British films – I reckoned the English anachronisms were not much worse than the Indian anachronisms in a film like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

However, my greatest concern was in the values presented by the film. In what appears to be an attempt at balance we have two killings by Sikh families on the basis of honour: and an attempted killing and an actual killing by the Muslim family on the basis of honour. However, the treatment is seriously different. The two Sikh family killings both occur in part one of the films, the second just before the intermission: both use the traditional Sikh sword in this action. Those relating to the Muslim family follow in part two. The attempted killing occurs when the grandfather has been released from jail, ‘seen the light’ and the marriage between Sikh and Muslim is prepared. We then see a die-hard Muslim traditionalist attempt to disrupt this wedding. He appears with a body bomb strapped on which he plans to explode outside the wedding venue, thus endangering not just the family and friends but other civilians nearby. He is thwarted, but the films end with a Muslim sniper, with a high velocity riffle, gunning the now married Sameera and Sunny down in their garden.

So the Muslim attempted killing and killing play into the caricatures of ‘Muslim terrorists’. This is a long way away from the traditionalist violence that we see from the Sikh family. One wonders what the filmmakers thought audiences would take from these representations.

I have to add that the film also displays an excessive lack of restraint. The second Sikh family killing occurs right at the intermission: red blood rolls down the screen to form the letters of ‘interval’! And there are number of other such lapses in the film of a similar sort. I suppose making a poor quality film is bad enough, but playing into reactionary stereotypes in the manner of this film is far worse.

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When I saw You, Palestine 2012

Posted by keith1942 on January 15, 2015

when-i-saw-you

I saw this film in a digital version at a new film forum, Cinémathèque Bradford . This will offer fortnightly screenings of films from art and political cinemas. It is based at the Kala Sangam South Asian Arts Centre, which is right near the Bradford City Cathedral and marked on the helpful council signposts. The film series is jointly organised between the Centre and Reel Solutions. This opening film had an audience of about fifty, a good start.

Roy Stafford or colleagues, long experienced in the Film Extra programmes at the National Media Museum, is providing introductions before the films. For this event he talked about the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, who was bought up in the USA in a family made refugees during al Nakba. Jacir started out with short films and then worked on a 2004 documentary set in the Second Intifada, until when. Since then Jacir has made two features, Salt of this Sea (2008) and this more recent release. Roy filled in Jacir’s career with extracts and also talked about Palestinian cinema.

Whilst Salt of this Sea relied partly on European funding When I saw You enjoyed support from film funds in Jordan and the Emirates. It has been released and exhibited in Palestine and Jordan.  The occupied territories have only a few cinemas though the film has also been seen in alternative venues. Roy made the point that Arab funding had allowed Jacir to make a film that was primarily directed at Palestinian audiences.

The film opens as Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) and his mother (Rubal Bial) arrive in a refugee camp in Jordan in 1967. The 1967 Israeli invasions led to a fresh flood of Palestinian refugees, but notably it also gave rise to an armed resistance against the Settler State and its colonial occupation. Thus the film plays into memories that would be very powerful for Palestinian audiences.

Tarek is determined to return to his home and to his father, missing. Setting out he ends up in a training camp for the fedayeen, the new fighters in a national liberation struggle. Searching for her son the mother also arrives at the camp and both are taken in by the fedayeen.

The director has accepted that the representation of the fedayeen camp is ‘romantic’, in a sense we see the camp and its fighters through the eyes of Tarek. But it has also been carefully researched in terms of the weapons, training and routines. And the leader at the camp, Abu Ahram (Ali Elayam), talks in the recognisable resistance language of the period.

Any violence takes place off-screen. However we hear reports of both actions against the Zionists by the fedayeen and of atrocities committed by the Israeli military.

The film follows the logic of Tarek’s determination, though the ending is open – a freeze frame. Here the film obviously taps into the long delayed liberation, which in the film is an expectation held by the fedayeen and by other Palestinians.

Roy made the point that Palestinian films have a higher level of awareness in International cinema that any other Arab industry, [unfortunately it is fairly difficult to see Arab films]. Whilst there is a lack of production and infrastructure facilities there have been a number of successful Palestinian films in recent years, both circulating to Festivals and winning awards. Annemarie Jacir was herself involved in setting up the Palestinian Film Festival in New York. We seem to have a bona fide national cinema, even if the Palestinians do not yet a have a nation state in which it can be sited. Certainly When I Saw You, like a number of Palestinian films can be placed in Solanos and Getino’s category of second or national cinema. Roy remarked that the fedayeen in 19167 were part of an ‘international opposition to colonialism/imperialism – and Zionism’. Whilst this film makes the point that the conflict is a neo-colonial conflict, the place of Israel within neo-colonialism is not clearly spelt out. In that sense, as with several other films, it endures the limitations pointed out by Solanos and Getino. It has to be recognised, of course, that it provides an important contribution to Palestinian consciousness as the struggle continues. For Western audiences it provides a really interesting insight into an aspect of the struggle that is probably little known.

The film has not had an UK release and outside Arabia seems mainly to have been seen at Festivals. There is a North American DVD.

 

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Concerning Violence with a Q & A.

Posted by keith1942 on December 16, 2014

620x465xConcerning-Violence_jpg_pagespeed_ic__RFxlEzYgK

This was my second viewing of the film at the National Media Museum followed by a Q & A with three members from the Peace Department at Bradford University. I think there were about fifty members in the audience, some students from the Peace Department. There was half-an-hour after the screening for the discussion, which proved to be a little short for the occasion.

Revisiting the film enabled me to sort out some of my responses to it presentation of archive material and the use of the writings of Franz Fanon to provide a set of meanings to the struggles illustrated in the film footage. Apart from an introduction in 1.85:1 the archive material was all in its proper ratio of 1.37:1. This illustrated a respect for the archive material which seems increasingly rare in contemporary documentary. Göran Olsson, the director, previous film was The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975: he clearly has a particular interest in such political discourses. The BBFC rated the film 15 with the comment ‘strong images of real injury and dead bodies’. This is the case. One haunting image is of a mother and child, both of whom have lost a limb from colonial violence.

The introduction by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak still seemed to me to place incorrect emphasis on the ideas in Fanon’s writing. She did emphasise the way that Fanon’s position on violence has been distorted. He does not advocate violence per se but argues that:

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.

And I did note that Spivak used the phrase ‘supposed post-colonial’, which is the way I think this concept should be treated. However Spivak also makes the comment re ‘rape’ that this type of violence against women is found both in colonial and anti-colonial movements. I’m am sure she could quote examples of both, but in the unqualified manner that she delivered it the phrase is both a misnomer and ignores Fanon’s treatment of anti-colonial violence. It struck me even more forcibly this time that the introduction is at odds with the treatment in the main body of the film: there are a number of sequences in vision and sound of women members of the liberation movements. This is a rather different treatment of the contradictions involved in gender. I also noted that the English commentary is spoken by an Afro-American, and the subtitles into English use US spelling. I rather suspect that the introduction is an ‘add-on’. There are various language versions of the film available and it seems that each version uses a different person to provide the commentary.

There are ‘nine scenes from the anti-imperialistic self-defence’.

  1. Decolonisation uses film of the MPLA in Angola.
  2. Indifference uses mainly an interview with an activist imprisoned in Rhodesia / Zimbabwe by the colonialist.
  3. Also uses footage from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, mainly of the white settlers.
  4. A World Cut in Two includes an interview with Robert Mugabe of ZANU, apparently in the interim between the settlement with the British Government and the inauguration of black majority rule. This interview was a point that was bought up several times in the Q & A. But Fanon was under no illusions about the pitfalls of notional independence: he writes

The apotheosis of independence is transformed into the curse of independence and the colonial power through its immense resources of coercion condemns the young nation to regression.

  1. Uses Swedish film footage from 1966 of a strike involving Lamco in Liberia The film exposes the brutal treatment of the union activist by the firm with the co-operation of the black ruling class and President Tubman. At one point, a family including a pregnant woman is dumped in the bush and even made to sign a receipt for the transportation.
  2. That Poverty of Spirit offers a portrait of the white settlers in Tanzania in the 1960S. Their ‘care’ of the colonised natives includes the building of a church – before any schools, hospitals or other basic necessities.
  3. The FIAT G96 is set among Frelimo in Mozambique in 1972. The title is explained when a guerrilla leader talks about how the colonial military use the plane against the liberation fighters. More interesting are sequences when women fighters talk directly to camera about their motivation and contribution to the struggle, ending with an armed woman who states ‘we are on the same level as men.’The women also sing a song which runs over footage of guerrillas in the jungle. Unfortunately this and another song are not translated.
  4. Defeat shows Portuguese colonial military suffering sets back against the liberation fighters in Guinea-Bissau. There is also footage of the leader Amilcar Cabral at a liberation event with both armed men and women.
  5. Raw Material addresses tine underlying social relations of exploitation, first by the capitalist expropriation of resources and then by the reduction of the colonial population to as market for colonial exports. As Fanon wrote, ‘Europe was a creation of the Third World`. There follows a

Conclusion which uses Fanon’s phrases on how the ant colonial struggle is about re-inserting the ‘human and humanity’ in replacing the colonial world. The last sentence of Concerning Violence makes the important point that:

To achieve this, the European peoples must first decide to wake up and shake themselves, use their brains, and stop playing the stupid game of the Sleeping Beauty.

concerningviolence613x463

What struck me on this second viewing was how the visuals in the film not only illustrates but also suggestively extends the analysis of the film. I think this is deliberate. Certainly it seemed to me to raise issues of gender, class and transformation which are central to the project propagandised by Fanon. The craft with which the archive material has been edited together, along with the commentary and the judicious use of non-diegetic music is impressive. And one point need Fanon’s actual writings needs to be made: whilst he uses male nouns and pronouns extensively he also writes:

In an under-developed country every effort is made to mobilize men and women as quickly as possible; it must guard against the danger of perpetuating feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

I found the Q&A following the screening somewhat frustrating. This was partly because I had serious issues with the comments made about Fanon and his writings. But it was also due to the format. David Francis chaired the discussion, fairly effectively I thought. However the form was three questions from the audience followed by comments by the three panel members. David Francis managed to be concise in his comments and he struck me as having the fullest command of the writings of Fanon. Both Catherine Howard and Owen Greene talked at length and usually with a certain amount of padding. Howard was preoccupied with the issue of violence and I did not think she had really grasped Fanon’s line on its use. Greene did offer some support for the armed struggle but he did tend to pacifism. He also remarked that it was a considerable time since he had read Fanon. I have to say that I immediately commenced re-reading The Wretched of the Earth after the first screening: and continuing my reading was part of my preparation for this event.

In fact I was first out the block and I suggested that the film only offered a partial view of Fanon’s writings and also queried where the Introduction fitted into the film. On the latter point David Francis suggested that the documentary mode tended to such ad hoc structures. I have to say that I disagree with this. To take to important documentary filmmakers, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, their films are carefully structured and this is one of their merits. I thought once we had finished the Introduction Concerning Violence was a very carefully constructed film.

Other members made points or asked questions. One black student suggested that more African faces on the panel would be an improvement. My memory is that the actual questions tended to agree with the pacifist tone of the panel members. Apart from David Francis the panel members tended to restate their criticisms of Fanon. Greene suggested that changes in the world meant Fanon’s writings needed reviewing. Howard spoke at length about violence in post-colonial Africa. Francis did add that neo-colonial was a more accurate representation than ‘post-colonial’.

Towards the ending there were several longer contributions from audience members that raised critical points on the discussion. I returned to emphasise how Fanon’s discussion of violence has to be seen in the context of national liberation struggles: that he also writes extensively about culture: and that an important omission in the film is the question of the class contradictions within the anti-colonial movement and how that impacts on decolonization. The interviews in the film with Robert Mugabe, President Tubman and Thomas Sankara all provided relevant material for such comment.

A woman queried the idea of the post-colonial referencing in particular the case of Palestine. And a man made similar comments referencing the imperialist actions in Iraq. As the Panel members geared up for comment the ‘voice of god’, [actually the projectionist] bought proceedings to a close. The audience for the next screening were waiting at the door.

The cinema programme at the National Media Museum is now run by the Picture House Company. They appear to have a more efficient service. The programme looks less varied than before the changeover, but it is positive that they have continued with events like this screening and Q & A., We could have done with more time, and I think a brief introduction before the film would have be better. As it was we got adverts and trailers.

Regarding the film and the discussion, this was a rather academic exercise. I sympathised with the young black student, but I would have liked to see one panel member who was a committed proponent of the political line in The Wretched of the Earth.  Despite comments to the contrary, a cursory glance round the world scene – Palestine, Cuba, the anniversary recently of Bhopal … – show that Fanon’s work remains as relevant as ever. I had forgotten, not just how powerful are the politics of Fanon’s book, but with what commitment and elan he writes about the struggle of the oppressed peoples and nations. In paperback The Wretched of the Earth is a mere 250 pages. It sets out not just a path for national liberation but in The Pitfalls of National Consciousness provides an analysis that explains the type of problems that so occupied Catherine Howard. On National Culture provides the ideas that are central to the concept of Third Cinema. This is the essential political reading.

wretchedearth

Quotations from The Wretched of the Earth Translated by Constance Farmington, Penguin edition 1990.

 

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‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Posted by keith1942 on December 9, 2014

West Indies 'smash' English wickets.

West Indies ‘smash’ English wickets.

Introduction:

The categories of film in Solanas and Getino’s Towards A Third Cinema are dynamic. Films often hover between the different categories. This is true of their subject matter as well and it is interesting to chart treatments of a particular topic across several different categories. Sport provides a popular an enduring topic for entertainment films: though surprisingly England’s traditional sport of cricket has had only a limited number of outings. It has however provided an effective topic for other cinemas separate from that of the UK.

Cricket on film

In 1984-5, and again in 1985-6, the West Indian cricket team scored a ‘blackwash’ over the English team: i.e. a five to nil series victory. The success was enjoyed by, among others, many West Indian migrants now living in the UK. This was ‘turning the tables’ with a vengeance. It upset the established order of the game. Cricket has always seemed intensely English pastime. Traditionally it is only partially British, played in Wales, but not so much in Scotland. However, it was taken round the British Empire and established there mainly by the colonial rulers. It remains the main sporting focus across what is now called the Commonwealth. Football, rugby and other sports have particular competitions but it is the arena of Test Match cricket and now the International shorter forms where rivalry is most intense. Meanwhile the arrival of large numbers of people from the ex-colonies has changed cricket at home.

There are not that many memorable cricketing moments in British film. (Wikipedia has a page on Cricket in Film and Television). However, sport is not generally a dynamic feature in British cinema, For a long time the best footballing feature was Hollywood’s Escape to Victory (1981). Bend it Like Beckham (2002) does offer a successful contemporary footballing story, though it relies heavily on the modern celebrity aspects of the game. When cricket has been addressed in British film the stance has frequently been individual dramas. Thus The Final Test (1951) is centrally about a father/son relationship. Sam Palmer (Jack Warner) is making his final appearance in an English test team, playing the ‘old enemy’ Australia. However, his son Reggie is more interested in writing poetry than watching his father play. So the film also offers an opposition between art and sport. This divide is bridged by Reggie’s poet-hero Alex Whitehead (deliciously played by Robert Morley) who turns out to be a cricket-mad artist. The film is graced by appearances by several famous cricketers, including Len Hutton. Even more beguiling, we hear commentary by John Arlott. However, the bulk of the film is focused on the conflict between father and son: with a sub-plot about widower’s Palmer’s tentative romance with a barmaid in the Local. The central value of the film is patriarchy. Palmer is at first undermined, but finally reinforced in his role as head of the family. And the female interest is clearly subordinate. In fact, a scene, which has Palmer laying down the moral code of the period, feels rather embarrassing today.

'Backyard' cricket in Wondrous Oblivion

‘Backyard’ cricket in Wondrous Oblivion

The 2003 film Wondrous Oblivion [scripted and directed by Paul Morrison] brings a greater sensitivity to issues of gender and ethnicity. It takes a parallel situation to that in The Final Test: in this case it is the son rather than the father who is the cricketer. And the film addresses this through the discourse of a multicultural Britain. The film is set in London of the 1960s. David Wiseman belongs to a Jewish immigrant family. His father, Victor, works long and hard at his tailoring business. His mother, Ruth, is caught in domestic repression. David attends a middle class school, but his ineffectual performance on the cricket pitch restricts him the lowly position of scorer for the school team.

Then Jamaican Dennis Samuels and his family move in next door. Dennis’ first act is to erect a cricket net in his backyard. It is here that he develops David’s cricketing skills and lays the basis for a developing relationship between the two families. Denis’ coaching transforms David performance and he becomes a star player in the school team.

But serpents soon disrupt the little Eden. Ruth develops an attraction for the vibrant Denis, and he has to gently dampen her approaches. A more serious snare has David succumb to his schoolmate’s prejudices and snub Dennis’ daughter Judy on the occasion of his birthday party.

Now serious racial prejudice surfaces in the local community. Dennis’ house is set on fire by local thugs. It is David who raises the alarm and saves lives; but both the house and Dennis’ cricket net are destroyed. The neighbours stand idly by and the local police do not treat the incident seriously.  Victor is appalled by this passivity, and events also suggest a simmering prejudice against the Wisemans that until now has remained below the surface. David and his family help Dennis rebuild his beloved nets: Victor provides materials and Ruth labour. Other neighbours shamefacedly help repair the damage to the house. The new relationships are cemented at a picnic, which in a reversal of The Final Test, has David missing an important school match.

Clearly, like The Final Test, this film is about fathers and sons. Denis offers a surrogate father to the young David. However, by the closure of the film David’s own family and their relationships have been reconstructed. David has not only improved his cricketing skills but also matured in his handling of these relationships. Just as the film is notably more modern in terms of ‘race’, so its treatment of gender is more modern, David mother’s Ruth has a more prominent role and is able to develop as a person. However, her situation is still subservient to that of the males: it is patriarchy that is central in this film. And there is a class dynamic, though this is not developed fully. At the end of the film, the Wisemans’ are moving geographically to north London, socially upwards. Most notably, we meet members of the current West Indian Test team. But they appear at the picnic rather than in battle with the Empire team at home.

Television, which has featured slightly more outings for the game. seems to mirror this approach. Thus an episode of Inspector Morse features the hallowed game in ‘Deceived by Flight': Morse is essentially about a surrogate father/son relationship. In this drama Morse’s Sergeant Lewis has to play in the ‘old boys’ team. And during the play he is clearly seeking Morse’s approval. As usual Morse is distracted by a woman: in this case two, the traditional woman and the devious femme fatale.

A rather different focus emerges in a number of films made in the context of the colonial discourse which, whilst retaining overtones of father and sons, have more directly addressed and criticised the Imperial master. So films from colonial and ex-colonial territories frequently offer intriguing dramas.

bodyline_its_not_just_cricket_au

In the 1970s Australian Television produced a mini-series on the notorious Bodyline controversy. (There is a fairly detailed account of this 1932-3 British cricket tour of Australia in Wikipedia). In 1930, the Australian cricket team had toured England with the great Don Bradman. He averaged over a 100 and Australia won the series. The English team captain Douglas Jardine noted that Bradman was not that good at dealing with short balls. Short pitch bowling tends to bounce up directly at the batsman, who can be hit on the body by a ball that may travel at up to 90 miles an hour. Most of the modern protective gear, like helmets, was not available in the 1930s. Jardine worked out a strategy with his fast bowlers, which involved balls directed at the batsman, who was faced with either being hit or possibly nicking a ball which could be caught by a fielder. The tactics had an impact during the tour of Australia both on and off the field. A famous scene includes the lines: “There are two teams out there. One if playing cricket. One is making no attempt to do so.” The row became so bitter that it involved diplomatic exchanges and spontaneous boycotts of goods by fans in home countries. It remains the most controversial event in the history of international cricket.

The mini-series rather sensationalises history, but produces a powerful dramatic retelling. Central to the narrative is the conflict between the superior imperial British and the ordinary colonial Australians. This conflict is about class, but also about colonial dominance and resistance. The Imperial strand is evident early on in Part One. This presents the upbringing of the young Douglas Jardine. A key scene, set in the Indian Raj, has Lord Harris (one-time England captain, MCC President and Governor of Bombay) presenting the young Jardine with a cricket bat. The rich mise en scène emphasises the power and affluence of the Raj. Later, when Jardine joins the English cricket side there is a clear divide between the players like Jardine, who are comfortably upper-class, and the professional, like the fast bowler Harold Larwood, who comes from a mining community. There are also indications of Jardine’s ruthless streak. In one match he instructs his bowler to stump an over-eager batsman out of his crease. This is technically legal, but hardly within the much-vaunted ‘spirit of cricket’. The actual contemporary spirit of the British game is well shown in that Larwood the bowler became the scapegoat after the tour, he was never selected for England again.

The second part of the series follows the actual Bodyline matches. The varied scenes include actual match play: responses by both spectators and journalist: and behind-the-scenes discussions among administrators and politicians. Especially potent are the crowd scenes. These emphasise once more the more proletarian style of the Australian colonials. There are also running gags, one being a fan who smuggles his sheepdog into every game in a Gladstone bag.

All these different scenes emphasise the distinction between English ruthlessness and Australian sportsmanship. When the conflict reaches a climax we see the British government using economic power to face down the Australians. At this point the Australian team consider refusing to play another test: (a sort of prequel to the action by Pakistan players in 2007). Then in a key scene they decide to soldier on and face the British barrage. This is the point at which they acquire heroic status, becoming the representatives of Australian fair play and courage. Clearly in this drama the British are ‘not playing cricket’.

On field confrontation.

On field confrontation.- in PLaying Away

In fact, what is probably the best British film on cricket is Playing Away(1986). The 1980s were a decade when the problems of racist Britain were glaringly visible for all to see. This was a factor in the new, pioneering Channel Four, whose Film Four International produced the film. It was also the decade that saw the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies publish a collection on “race” and racism under the title The Empire Strikes Back (Hutchinson University Press, 1982). As an anti-racist poster of the period put it, “We are over here because you are over there.”

The film was scripted by Caryl Phillips and directed by Horace Ové, both important Black British artists of the period. Ové migrated to Britain in 1960 from Trinidad at the age of 20. Phillips was born on St Kitts, but most of his upbringing was in the UK. Both have produced important bodies of work that address the experiences of Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain.

The main plot mechanism is a cricket match held in the Suffolk village of Sneddington to round off a week of fund raising for the Third World. The village team is to play the Brixton-based Conquistadors in a Sunday league fixture. The film opens on the Friday evening as the two captains marshal their sides and preparations. Sneddington’s captain Derek (Nicholas Farrell, reprising elements of his character in Chariots of Fire, 1981), is a middle class migrant to the rural haven, where he has lived for 5 or 6 years. The Conquistador captain is Willie Boy (a typical Norman Beaton characterisation). He is a Jamaican migrant whose wife has already returned to the island, but who has not quite managed this himself. Horace Ové, in an interview in the Monthly Film Bulletin (December 1987) comments: “It is not the same for their parents – that generation of West Indians who came over in the 40s and 50s. They were encouraged to come here, like Willie Boy in Playing Away. They thought life was going to be great, they worked hard but today they feel outside the gates of society and many of them question what they are doing here and want to go home to the Caribbean. I’ve lived in two worlds ever since I’ve been here.”

The film immediately sets up a series of oppositions as it cuts between Sneddington and Brixton. Clearly there is the contrast between urban and rural culture. But there are also oppositions of “race” and ethnicity, class, gender and a generation gap. These contradictions are not just between rural Suffolk and urban London. They are within both communities. Derek, his wife and best mate Kevin, (the team fast bowler), are marked off from the more proletarian village natives (or Oiks). And Willie Boy has an argument with Errol (Gary Beadle), the young, virile team member who is also dating Willie Boy’s daughter Yvette (Suzette Llewellyn).

In fact, there are a number of sub-plots concerning personal dilemmas and problems. A key character is Godfrey (Robert Urquhart), whose wife Marjorie (Helen Lindsay) is clearly the main organiser of this event. Godfrey and Marjorie have travelled abroad and sojourned in Kenya for a time. However, Godfrey’s knowledge of and sympathy for the Afro-Caribbean communities is slyly undercut in the film. A slide show for the village members with pictures set in Africa clearly includes a still where Godfrey is standing in front of a matte rather than an actual place. (Much clearer in a 35-mm print than on video). Such subversions recur regularly in the film. Some of these character and plot mechanism appear rather like those of television soaps, a genre that Ové also worked in. The development of the sub-plots brings some members of the two groups together, but also exacerbates other tensions. These come to a head in the final match.

Sneddington bat first and score 105. The Conquistadors chase this total but lose six wickets in the process and are clearly struggling. At this point two LBW appeals are turned down by the umpire, Godfrey. (The filming suggests Godfrey’s decision is possibly not impartial). The bowler Ian, (one of the Oiks) storms off the pitch, followed by five of his village mates. The pitch is now set for an easy Conquistadors victory. This is achieved by the partnership of Willie Boy and Errol. Errol, surprisingly, suggest that they take is easy and ‘make a game of it’, but Willie Boy scornfully counters that he is always ‘soft on the white man’.

Thus by late Sunday the Brixton West Indians are more united whilst Sneddington is in disarray. Charles Barr (In Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1987) made a good comment on this point in the film. “In his classic History of Cricket (1938, and much reprinted), H. S. Altham remarked that West Indian teams were handicapped by ‘temperamental weaknesses” when playing away, on tour in England; through all the shifts of on-and-off-field power that have occurred since, the stereotyped opposition of volatile black visitors and phlegmatic white hosts has tended to linger on.” Playing Away subverts it exuberantly, as the hosts from the picture-postcard village of Sneddington, heading for victory over their Brixton visitors on cricketing merit, blow the match through temperamental disintegration.”

Barr clearly identifies the way that the film subverts traditional sporting and media stereotypes. And this extends through the various subplots and characters. Playing Away is a work rich in contradictions. And it is rich in an irony that is usually lacking, not only in UK cricketing films, but UK sporting films more generally.

India seems to have produced more cricketing films than other countries playing the game. The titles include Awwal Number (1990) which combines a one-day series against Australia with a terrorist threat to spectators: and Iqbal (2005) which follows a rural deaf-mute boy who achieves cricketing prowess and a place on the national team. With Lagaan (2001), a major critical and commercial success, a larger dimension has been addressed. The film offers a historical, almost mythic confrontation between the British Empire and the subjugated Indian villagers in the form of a classic cricket match. The film is a star vehicle, produced by as well as featuring Aamir Kahn: plus a guest appearance by superstar Amitahb Bachchan as the film’s narrator. There are star ‘playback’ singers like Lata Mangeshkar, and the music is by the star composer A. R. Rahman.

lagaan2

The film is set in an ordinary village in the ‘heart of India’. It is 1893, the height of the rule of the British Raj. The film’s title, Lagaan, refers to a tax on the harvest of the villagers: officially paid to the Rajah, but mainly expropriated by the British, to whom the Rajah is subservient. And this year the hardship caused by the tax has been aggravated by the two seasons of the little rain. The conflict is embodied in the two leading characters: Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), the brutal and arrogant British commander, and Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a villager living with his widowed mother. Bhuvan is a typical Hindi hero, as central to Bollywood films as the ‘all-American action hero’ is to Hollywood. The film is also conventional in other ways, featuring six large-scale song and dance numbers; a traditional Hindi mother; and Bhuvan’s romance with fellow villager Gauri (Gracy Singh).

However, the plot also has distinctive elements. Captain Russell challenges Bhuvan and the villagers to a cricket match, and wages three years free of lagaan against a triple lagaan payment for the current year. Bhuvan’s task becomes to persuade the village to fight the challenge and to build a team capable of taking on the British. In the course of building the team Bhuvan constructs a representation of an India united against the British. So there are both Hindus and Muslims, and a Sikh member who has travelled to join the team in their fight. Finally, Bhuvan recruits a dalit or ‘untouchable’. Kachra has a withered arm, and (referencing more recent cricket?) has the ability to bowl almost unplayable spin. His recruitment sparks protests from the prejudiced villagers. However, Bhuvan rallies the team and village with a powerful speech: and a song and dance number gives expression to their new unity of purpose.

Bhuvan and the team are also assisted by Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). Initially, she helps the villagers out of a sense of fair play, but it is soon apparent that she is smitten with Bhuvan. This provides a romantic sub-plot, which brings in more conventional references, this time to the mythic story of Krishna and Radha, star-crossed lovers. There is another plot strand when the villager Lakha, jealous of Bhuvan and Gauri, works as a spy and saboteur for the British.

The village team members are subordinate to Bhuvan in the plot, but do develop individually. Like Kachra, most of them have particular cricketing skills. Deva, the Sikh, has played cricket before in the British army. Bhura, who spends his time chasing his chickens is a fine fielder. Bagha, who plays the drum before the village shrine, is a fine batsman. The contrast with the British is also one of class, as that team is composed solely of officers. At one point a vital and dazzling song and dance in the village is contrasted with the cool, formalised and affluent ballroom of the British.

The film climaxes in a three-day match between the British and the Villagers, watched both by the British colonial establishment and a mass of rural Indians. The match is commented on and explained (for both audiences) by Ram Singh, Elizabeth’s servant. The game runs for about 80 minutes of the overall film. And whilst the production has gone to great lengths to produce convincing period detail, the plot also plays on contemporary cricket lore. So, aside from Kachra’s spin. a British bowler indulges in ‘bouncers’ and ‘beamers’. Several village batsmen are injured, including Ismail, who is allowed a ‘runner’, This is the village youth Tipu, who is stumped in a similar fashion to the incident in Bodyline. There is frequent ‘sledging’ by the British officers. And in a moment of rage Captain Russell trashes the British dressing room.

Predictably, the villagers win, but the result is in doubt till the last ball. In fact this is a ‘no ball’, saving the wicket of Kachra, last man in. This enables Bhuvan to hit the winning six. He has, also, carried his bat through the innings. So whilst it is a team effort, the prime focus remains on Bhuvan the hero. The victory enables Bhuvan to win Gauri, and leaves Elizabeth to return to England sadder and wiser. Captain Russell is banished to the ‘Central African desert’, and one hopes that there are not more benighted villagers there to suffer his brutal domination.

The film not only uses the conventions of Hindi cinema, but also subverts those of the Empire cinema. It has a native hero who rallies the ‘troops’, aided by a lovelorn maiden, but a white maiden. And once more it is the British officers who show the least regard for the ‘spirit of cricket’.

These ‘colonial’ films clearly mirror the changing hierarchies of international cricket. But they also consciously dramatise cricket as a metaphor for the larger social and political conflicts.

Postscript:

The Final Test falls into an idea of a national cinema, though one that is most closely related to the dominant mainstream cinema. Wondrous Oblivion offers a much clearer and more autonomous representation of the national. Here we have an independent production that only partially adheres to the mainstream conventions, though its conclusion is not really radical. The Australian Bodyline to a great degree falls within the conventions of mainstream film, whilst at he same time treating critically values around empire without subverting them.

Lagaan clearly expresses an Indian national cinema, which confronts the colonial values. At the same time this national cinema follows the conventions of mainstream cinema.

Playing Away would seem to come closest to a film that dramatises cricket in a completely oppositional way. It is intriguing because it falls into a space of cinema known under the term Diaspora. These are works that follow the modern trails of migrancy. The black communities in the UK have both the cultures that they find here but also the cultures in their original homelands, be it Africa, the Americas, or the Indian sub-continent. Frequently films of this type appear to incorporate different strands of the dominant cinemas, or a mainstream strand and a national strand but with the mainstream dominant. Playing Away is one of the most subversive examples from that cinematic territory that I have seen.  It goes beyond some combination of dominant values. However, its primary focus is the class contradictions within British society rather than the national questions in the Caribbean. Horace Ové is an interesting example of oppositional filmmaking within the imperial base. His first full feature was Pressure (1975), which charts the politicisation of a young second generation Black British [Afro-Caribbean].

This article originally appeared on the ITP World Blog.

The Final TestPlaying Away and Lagaan are all available on region 2 DVDs. Bodyline is available on a Region 4 DVD.

 

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

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

Posted by keith1942 on November 15, 2014

hannah-arendt

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.

It is worth noting that Arendt signed a letter by Albert Einstein in 1948 to the ‘New York Times’ which opposed the visit of Menachem Begin to the USA because of his involvement in Zionist atrocities: the letter actually includes the term ‘fascist’. And 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.

 

Posted in Auteur cinema, Political cinema, Writers and theorists | 1 Comment »

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.

Monsoon-Wedding-1

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

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

 
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