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Waltz With Bashir, (Israel/France/Germany/US/Japan/Finland/Switzerland/Belgium/Australia 2008)

Posted by keith1942 on June 25, 2015

waltz with bashir 2

Directed and written by Ari Folman. 90 minutes. Certificate 18. In colour with English subtitles.

I posted a review of this film on ITP World on its release. Much of that review is recycled below and is very critical of the film. The post provoked what I think was the longest and most vitriolic debate on that blog. Much of the debate was not directly about the film but about the larger conflict, one episode of which was depicted in this film. The wider context is dealt with to some degree in Al Nakba. But I have also added comments stimulated by the debate on ITP World.

This film received glowing reviews, frequently using the phrase ‘anti-war’. It is a powerful and imaginative documentary film, though it feels and looks much more like a fictional dramatisation. This is mainly due to the animation techniques, which are used to great effect. The style of animation reminded me of that used in video games: Roy on ITP thought he detected the influence of manga. Either way it gives the film a distinctive visual appearance: and as the film deals with memories and flashbacks this is very effective. It is a film to be seen, and preferably in its proper format on a cinema screen

The film treats of the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Chabra and Chatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. An invasion astutely launched to overlap with the neo-colonial war by Britain over the Malvinas. So the powerful emotional responses that the film is likely to generate also need to be analysed. Whilst I feel that this is an impressive treatment for an Israeli artist, I still find the film is problematic and shot through with contradictions.

In a seminal article on Hollywood films and Vietnam the sadly deceased Andrew Britton wrote:

“The ‘anti-war’ film tends to protest against war as such from an abstractly moral point of view, in the name, frequently, of a humanist idea. . . . war is extrapolated from its socio-economic causes and functions and we are confronted with its ‘horrors’ – horrors which, given the vague definition of their origins, and the status of the protagonist(s) as victim (s) seems both intolerable and irremediable.”  [Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam, in Movie, 27/28, 1981].

These were comments that seemed to me apposite for Waltz with Bashir.

The opening credits are followed by a placing statement, which refers to the ‘war between Israel and Lebanon’. Already this is problematic. This was not a war in the sense of a two-sided conflict; Israel invaded Lebanon with no justification. And that is true of the earlier attacks on Lebanon and of the more recent invasion, none of which receive mention in the film. This is despite the film being completed in 2008, that is, when the more recent atrocities were well-known.

The film uses dreams, interviews with participants and flashbacks to the actual events of 1982. The latter in particular reminded me of the well-known Hollywood film set in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now [a film that Britton’s critically discusses in his article]. There is a similar noirish atmosphere, similar sequences of ‘shock and awe’, and a similar overwhelming sense of masculinity. The few females in this film comprise a woman in a porn film excerpt, a fantasised sex-cum-mother icon, a girl friend who dumped the narrator, and, finally, the women in the Sabra and Chatila camps. I do not recall any female soldiers, though we are constantly informed that women serve in the Israeli Defence Force.  The one woman who has a voice is a psychologist treating Folman. With her exception these are fairly stereotypical characters in war movies.

The film’s focus is on the combatants. These are Folman and his friends and colleagues. Troubled by dreams and memories he seeks out friends who participated in the invasion and also counsellors and psychologists for comment and advice. Thus it is these Israeli voices that present and contextualise the events that unfold. In Folman’s case he finds he does not remember the actual events of the invasion, hence his search to both recover and understand.

Bashir dogs

The first ‘dream’ in the film portrays a group of snarling dogs running through streets and baying at a face in a window: [‘dogs of war’]. We learn that this dream connects to an experience  in the war: the shooting of dogs during the invasion to prevent their barking warning the inhabitants of Lebanese villages. Another harrowing dream  of one character concerns the corpses of horses, [that] ‘broke my heart’. There is always something  problematic about sentiment over animals amidst the corpses of humans.

Clearly the climax of the film is the massacre in the camps: actually perpetrated by Christian Phalangist militia. At the time the Israeli authorities professed ignorance of the appalling atrocities that were perpetrated, but subsequent investigation has clearly exposed their complicity in the horrors. In the case of Folman and his friends, ordinary soldiers, they still maintain that they were unaware until the massacre was already underway or finally ended. Whilst some reviews echo this claim, I found the film very ambiguous on this point. In the flashbacks the Israeli soldiers are clearly seen almost on top of the camps, they stand and watch as the Phalangist militia enter the refugee camps, and there are regular mortar flares fired into the sky by Israelis: illumination by which the massacre is carried out. I was unclear as to whether Folman was in denial as to the crime, or whether the mise en scène subverts the claims of ignorance. And who was being subverted – the filmmakers, the audience, or both?

The film appears to lay the blame on ‘higher authorities’, military commanders or Israeli politicians. We twice see instances where a junior officers reports suspicions of something awry, and then are fobbed off. There seems to be an element of truth in this. But the feelings of guilt that run through the film, and which appear sincere, suggests the characters are not at rest with this. There is one reference in the film to the Nazi Holocaust. It is interesting that the victorious allies at the end of World War II at the Nuremberg Trials and subsequently have not countenanced a defence of ‘following orders’. And, as Hannah Arendt noted, this was not a defence allowed for Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Israel. But to date no serious attempt has been made to try the war crimes in Lebanon or elsewhere in this conflict.

In fact, what the viewers see is not a record of events, but recovered memories of the events. Our final glimpse of Folman is at the end of the last flashback, as his face shows shock as he [apparently] realises the horror that has occurred. The psychologists [or psychiatrists] offer some analysis of these memories – ‘dissociated events’. This phrase by the female psychologist adds an example of a photo-journalist who remained detached until his camera was broken: then the events became ‘traumatic’. This offers a critical avenue for exploring the medium of film itself, but it is not followed up.

There is the reference to the Holocaust in Germany in World War II. This seems to be one of those automatic and defensive references that Israelis offer when their actions are criticised. The psychologist suggests that Folman could be taking on the role of a Nazi: a type of sublimation? This would seem to miss the point, because the parallels are not with Nazi Germany but with the Apartheid [settler] regime in South Africa [and other settler states]. So the absence of the settler set of values, a cause and a factor, reinforces the sense of nameless horror.

This is worth an aside. Through the late C19th and early C20th European powers carried out lesser and even equivalent holocausts across Africa: and indeed elsewhere among the oppressed people and nations. Key powers involved were Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and Holland. Historians tend to identify the European Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s as a ‘unique event’. But in fact what was unique was that the actions normal for colonial occupations were carried out in  a European heartland. And in fact the methods of these actions were those developed against the colonised peoples: notably in South Africa / the British; Angola and Namibia / Germany:  the Congo / Belgium. One can argue that an important aspect of the Nazi discourse was to represent the Jews as a ‘colonial other’. Indeed the largest and most horrendous killings took place in Eastern Europe where there were also massacres of non-Jewish inhabitants – the Nazi Lebensraum has strong associations with colonialism.

The absence of the context is again a parallel with Apocalypse Now . The latter film totally fails to deal with the factors for the US presence in Vietnam. Folman’s film never attempts to explain the Israeli presence in Lebanon. And, like Apocalypse Now, the ‘enemy’ is shadowy and predominately depersonalised. There are no Palestinians or Lebanese in the contemporary sequences. And in the flashbacks, for most of the time, we see only fighters, termed ‘terrorists': and victims of the Israeli actions. Andrew Briton also critically comments on the source novella for Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Whilst that novella does detail some of the crimes against the Congolese, [fictionalising actual historical horrors], the title indicates how Conrad failed to overcome the ‘otherness’ that the colonialists attribute to the natives.

waltz camps

Real Palestinians do appear at the end of the film when the animated flashback is transformed into actual footage as the survivors of the massacre finally leave and then return to the camp. This is shocking horror. Unfortunately whilst powerful, I find it [as Britton did in the Vietnam films] ‘both ‘intolerable’ but ‘irremediable’. Roy on ITP World made the point that the use of actuality footage for this sequence can be seen to re-enforce the documentary factuality of the animation. As is so often the case, even in liberal Israeli films, we never hear the voice of the Palestinians. They are either terrorists or victims: they remain the other.

The problem with this is highlighted in a stanza by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish:

 You standing at the doorstep, enter

And drink Arabic coffee with us

(you might sense you’re human like us)

you standing at the doorstep of houses,

get out of our mornings,

we need reassurance that we

are human like you!

[State of Siege, translation Fady Joudah, 2007].

How rare is any sense of Palestinian humanity in the dominant discourses of Israeli society. Apparently Folman’s liberalism and guilt do not extend that far. In fairness they do extend some way beyond that of most Israeli artworks. Whatever its limitations, Waltz with Bashir shows a welcome confrontation with one of the darker passages in Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. So this is definitely a film to see and to ponder. But audiences will ponder in terms of the experiences, attitudes and values that they bring to the film. It was clear in the ITP World debate that some people did not share my response and, indeed, took a fairly antagonistic one.

These include interpretations of the film and its techniques. One sequence that was critically applauded in some reviews was an animated sequence of an Israeli soldier’s actions. which also provide the film’s title. His ‘waltz’ is a skilful dance between live firing, and looks rather like a sequence in some computer games. This again is a parallel with Apocalypse Now, especially the notorious ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ sequence’. That is, war as spectacle. Such visual and aural imagery offers a depoliticised version of wartime events. In Coppola’s film we do see the bodies of the slain civilians, something that only appears at the end  of Waltz with Bashir.

Waltzing

Some comments argued that the film offered a ‘subjective’ view of the experiences and events and that therefore the more critical stance is,

outside the remit of the film which filters events, literally, through the subjectivity of the participants.

I do not think this is accurate. It is true that the narrative is constructed around the search by Folman and his friends to reconstruct their memories and the events from their past. But as is often the case when films use subjective sequences and flashbacks what actually appears is rather more objective, the omniscient viewpoint which shows events, including those that particular characters presumably did not see or even hear. The importance of the soundtrack is that we hear only the voices of the Israelis’. There is also what seem to be rather ironic use of music. This is the case with the song ‘Good Morning Lebanon’. However we also hear a Chopin Waltz and a work by Bach, both rather puzzled me. The magisterial The Battle of Algiers uses Bach to parallel the humanity of both sides of the conflict, even when we see the use of  ‘inhuman tactics’.

A phrase that also occurred in the debate was that of ‘the burden of representation’. This phrase has occurred a number of times in discussions and arguments between myself and others over criticisms of films. It is the idea that , as one comment penned,

I think the film clearly show Israeli complicity in the massacre and we can ask for no more than that (except for the opportunity for Palestinians to have their say).

I certainly ask for more. This is that peculiar British disease of balance, so beloved by the BBC. Balance ‘perhaps like beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. This is, of course, a question of ideology. That is a term that I now use sparingly because it usages are so varied and so contradictory. Marx penned two important aspects to ideology. One is the dominance of certain ideas and interests: Zionism certainly gets this through its support by the dominant power, the USA. But equally ideology is about a surface view, that fails to discern the underlying social relations. In the case of Zionism, this film and its supporters fail to discern the neo-colonial relations of the Israeli state vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Israel is a settler regime: note the UN recognition specifically ignores one of the basic tenets of its own Charter.

Article 73

Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end:

  1. to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses;

  2. to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement;…

The words of Franz Fanon are so obvious applicable to the Zionist ‘homeland’ and the occupied territories:

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone in habited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the princi0le of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous. The settler’s town is a strongly-built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly-lit town; the streets are covered in asphalt, and the garbage-cans can swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about …

The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill-fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. …. (Concerning Violence in The Wretched of the Earth, Trans. Constance Farrington, 1967).

Palestinian camp

Palestinian camp

I would add, that as with the ‘war’ between Israel and Lebanon, matters are not equal in any sense. Waltz with Bashir received festival screenings, a number of Awards and a fairly extensive cinema release – takings surpassed $12 million. Whilst Palestinian films have flourished in recent years they are by comparison ‘mégotage’  [in the words of Ousmane Sembène]. One only has to compare the Film Industries that lined up to fund this Israeli production. A friend of mine frequently uses a ‘what if …’ scenario. I have reservation about this tactic but certainly ‘what if’ we had a film of memory recovery by a German involved in camp atrocities in the 1940s. The film would have to negotiate the limitations [some legal] in addressing the values of the Fascist regimes. A film that addressed this issue partially, The Reader (2008), evoked praise but also questioning, as with this by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian (2nd January 2009),

Everyone involved in this film is of the highest possible calibre, but their combined and formidable talents could not annul my queasiness that the question of Nazi war guilt and the death camps had been re-imagined in terms of a middlebrow sentimental-erotic fantasy. This was, I admit, a problem I had with the original novel, and the movie treatment has not alleviated it.

But on Waltz with Bashir, though he has reservation, he ends:

This is still an extraordinary film – a military sortie into the past in which both we and Folman are embedded like traumatised reporters.

Presumably not as traumatised as the Palestinians.

There were also debates about contextual issues. At one point I bought up the Zionist rhetoric of  ‘a land without people’. In fact, it seems that this is an area of debate between Zionists and anti-Zionists over the extent to which this was ever widely used. I have certainly heard or read it in Zionist publicity. More to the point it was and remains the object of Zionist strategy. So Al Nakba demonstrates how before and during 1948 the Zionists attempted to empty the land of Palestinians. And the example of the settlement programme, blockades and barriers can be seen as an extension of this.

Here again we have an area of omission. The film  frequently provides testimony from the Israeli soldiers, who appear young, inexperienced and out of their depth in the conflict. This rather contradicts the publicity one sees of the Israeli Defence Force as a crack hard-line military force. And it also begs the education [in the broad social sense] of Israel’s citizens and soldiers. There is plenty of evidence that the attitude of a majority of Israeli/Jewish citizens have a racist attitude to the Palestinians. Since the most recent war against Gaza courageous Israeli anti-Zionists have published online commentaries by soldiers involved. Many of them clearly treated the Palestinians as some species of animals rather than as fellow humans.

The Palestinian film Five Broken Cameras shares with Waltz with Bashir a subjective and distinctive cinematic treatment of memories and experiences. However the Palestinian film also features the enemy, visually and orally. A commentator thought this the film managed to do this only negatively. But my sense of the Palestinian film is that the Israeli’s are the enemy not the ‘other’. The latter are exactly what Palestinians are in Zionist discourse and in Waltz with Bashir. Of course this is an honourable representation which they share with Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Vietnamese and many other oppressed groups and peoples. I would be happier if I thought a larger section of the audience carried an awareness of this into the cinema.

Posted in Documentary, Political cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

We Are Many, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on June 2, 2015

we-are-many-banner

This film returns us to the opposition to the war against Iraq waged by the USA and the UK in 2003, with a very few allies. The opposition crystallised in large demonstrations against the impending war in many cities round the world and with impressively large numbers of participants. I would not want to be disrespectful to the millions of people who sacrificed time, income, sometimes others’ goodwill and even suffered persecution and violence. It is just because so many people took the time and effort to participate in a principled anti-war stand that I found this film so disappointing.

Firstly there is the overall form of the film, which is extremely conventional It is basically a series of talking heads interspersed with ‘found footage': much of it from the mainstream media. Even more disconcerting is that the ‘talking heads’ mainly consist of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois people: frequently celebrities like musicians, writers, artists and so on, [note the poster]. I realise that many of these themselves took a principled stance on the war; but the misconception that they somehow speak for the mass of ordinary people is dangerous. We also see and hear leaders of the opposition organisations and groups. There are even a few more radical voices: Tariq Ali, three times, Noam Chomsky, once. But in the manner of the talking head conventions they only get one or two sentences. Certainly at no point in the film do we hear a sustained and coherent argument about the causes and functions of the war. Moreover, we frequently also hear from the representative of the dominant faction in the ruling class; [as with George Bush] the clips are designed to expose or mock them. I think it has to be said that George Bush was likely a lot smarter than his public persona allowed.

Certainly the war against Iraq was not some trumping of so-called ‘ideology’ or dogmatic political values. This was a war, as is demonstrated on some of the placards seen at the demonstrations, to forward the strategic interests of the US superpower and its allies.

The film commences with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. We see and hear people who lost relatives and friends and who later joined in the anti-war movement. This is short-term evaluation. The rationale behind the recent wars led by the USA have their roots far back before 2001. The USA and UK were bombing Iraq all through the 1990s. The film has no sense of imperialism or neo-colonialism: the actual strategic movements that have dominated the world since 1945 and has taken on a particular form since the end of Soviet regime in 1989. The particular form of the wars against Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now the ISIS state [plus numerous slighter military adventures] are to safeguard the global rule of capital, invested in its leading proponent, the USA.

The war against Afghanistan that followed on from 2011 is dealt with extremely briefly. The film fails to provide a sense of the opposition to that imperial adventure, and also fails to note the parallels of interest between that and the larger conflict in Iraq.

There follows a count-down of important dates in the period leading up to the launching of the war. These include UN  sessions, Government propaganda and organising by the anti-war groupings.  With the war almost upon them the 15th of February 2003 is picked for a global demonstration. A series of media clips take the viewers round the world in a chronological sequence. However, the emphasis is very much on the advanced capitalist countries, which are also countries dominated by white populations. After Australia we briefly visit Indonesia, Malaya, India and Russia. Then there is a fuller coverage of Europe and relatively long coverage of the UK and the USA. This is in line with the overall emphasis of the film. Whilst the war is to be prosecuted against an oppressed people, the oppressed people’s and nations  are decidedly kept in the background.

We are demo

The exception is Egypt: there are three sequences that deal with opposition among this people. We hear from several Egyptian activists, including two men titled Revolutionary Socialists. Whether they are or not is impossible to tell because we never hear any comments that are of a socialist standpoint. The first sequence notes that on the 15th there was no demonstration in Cairo as there were in many other major cities. Apparently Egyptian found out about the world-wide protests from coverage on Egyptian Television. Then on the day that the assault began on Iraq there was a fairly impromptu but very large demonstration of opposition on Tahir Square. The point is made that this opposition did not then just disappear, but was a factor in the re-emergence of demonstrations in 2011. So there is a line drawn from the opposition to the western adventure in Iraq to the People’s Revolution in 2011. My sense of the film is that it implies fairly strongly that a major spark was the impact of the 15th demonstrations. Whilst it may be true that this was a factor, it is fairly simplistic. The opposition to neo-colonialism in Egypt, to the rule of the indigenous bourgeoisie, and in particular the role of the security forces goes back a long way. Moreover, the People’s Revolution has, to date, only led to a replacement of one dictatorship by a military dictatorship.

After the February 15th demonstration there follows sequences on the prosecution of the war and continuing acts of opposition. As one would expect the film of the war against Iraq continues extremely violent images and statistics of appalling large casualties, mainly of Iraqis.

The final part of the film attempts to essay a retrospective summation: as the demonstrations, seen as the largest in world history, failed to stop the war. One positive spin offers comments about the fact that the British Parliament voted against military action against Syria: an action subsequently followed by the US Congress. This and the judgement on Egypt’s revolution were nicely summed up in The Guardian review:

“But Amir Amirani [the writer and director] makes a bold case for understanding the march: that over the next decade it -re-energised people power, sowed the seeds for Egypt’s Arab spring and laid the foundations for Labour’s sober, courageous refusal to countenance the attack on Syria.”

The latter argument is as pat as the one about Egypt. The problem is that the military actions against Serbia, Libya and Isis still took place. Added to this are the military actions that continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. There is an equal argument that Syria did not become the scene of serious military action because the bourgeoisie had learned from Iraq. The fundamental reason is that the USA is a declining superpower and is less and less able to act as an international policeman.

An important omission is serious direct action against the war. Such actions did occur, though only by a minority. There comparison with the movement against the US aggression against Vietnam is instructive. That movement had more radical politics and more direct action. Interestingly the most radical comments in this documentary occur in some film of US Vets Against the War: tellingly highlighting the class basis of the conflict.

The politics of the film are liberal and dismal, as I hope the arguments above demonstrate. And the conventional representation  is matched by the conventional style. There is some smart editing in the film: at one point cutting between an address by Conan Powell to the UN and  the paucity of actual, factual evidence. Later US administration comments are edited together with the visual evidence of the violence against the Iraqi people. But proper montage, in the sense of the classic Soviet films, is absence. One only has to think of the telling and moving editing by a filmmaker like Alain Resnais [Night and Fog / Nuit et Brouillard, 1955) to realise the difference. Equally there is the conventional use of musical accompaniment. At one point we hear a version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This land is my land’ over images of the marchers. The images of the violence in Iraq are accompanied by a string quartet. And the sequences attempting to draw a positive spin feature images of protesters dancing with the accompaniment of a waltz by Shostakovich; sadly far less effective than one of his film scores, [New Babylon / Novyi Vavilon, 1929].

The film has received a number of favourable reviews, [as with The Guardian]. Probably because many critics share the liberal nostrums offered in the film. It is worth looking at more extended critical analysis. Noam Chomsky has several articles on his website, you can read about an alternative film Iraqi Odyssey .

Posted in Documentary | 2 Comments »

Miners shot down, South Africa 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2015

miners-shot-down-5

This is a documentary about the killing of 34 striking miners at the Marikana mine by the South African Security Forces in 2012. It has been aired on the Al Jazeera Witness series:

An inspiring documentary series that brings world issues into focus through compelling human stories. Wednesdays and Sundays – Freeview 133 in the UK.

The film was written by  director Rehad Desai, and producer Anita Khanna for Uhuru Productions: it runs for 52 minutes. Rehad Desai was filming in the area in 2012 and has followed the events since. After the shootings the Farlan Commission of Enquiry was set up to look into the events. The film uses testimony to the Commission, interviews with survivors and the lawyers representing the families of those killed: but most tellingly police and news film footage which was released to the Enquiry.

The film follows events from the start of the strike to the massacre five days later. The black miners all worked for the Lonmin mining company, a British based international company. There were numerous complaints by miners, but the key demands that led to the strike were parity in wage rates with other mines and proper safety levels. The exploitation of black miners goes right back to the foundations of the British colony in the South of Africa. Cecil Rhodes began his career in the mining industry. Later the mining sector was a crucial economic factor in the Apartheid regime: with global corporations involved in the extraction of precious commodities, the Marikana mine included the extraction of platinum. It was the international sanctions and their effect on this sector that was a powerful pressure leading to the settlement by the regime with the African National Congress.

The striking miners who took action had largely been represented by the National Union of Mineworkers: described by activists as

“in the pockets of management”.

An alternative union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, was developing support. The Lonmin management was unwilling to enter any sort of negotiations. So the miners took what was described as ‘unofficial action ‘. Almost immediately there was violence directed at the striking miners, first by the mine security guards and then by security men from the official Union. In the first couple of days there were fatalities on both sides. The miners developed their own unofficial leaders: one in particular, ‘Mambush’ was distinguished by the green blanket that he wore. He is now dead.

Increasingly the South African police became a presence. I described them as ‘security forces’. Their leaders bear military titles, e.g. General Mbomo.  Moreover, when you see them on the film they look like an army: automatic weapons, flak jackets, armoured vehicles and helicopters. And the footage of the violence against the miners could as easily come from a battlefield as from a picket line. In fact, there is not a picket line in the usual sense. The miners picked out a gathering place under  local kopje. And the confrontations mainly took place as the miners attempted to go to the mine to try and get a response from the management.

We actually see and hear little of the management. Overall they seem to have attempted to ignore the demands and force the miners back to work. The Commission brought to light emails and telephone calls between the mine management and members of the NUMW and the government. One example concerns Cyril Ramphosa. As leader of the National Union of Mineworkers he was a key figure in the struggle against the Apartheid regime. Like a number of figures involved in the leadership of that struggle, since independence, he has acquired interests in the capitalist firms that dominate South Africa. He now has a personal fortune in the millions. As the Al Jazeera WebPages note.

“What emerges is collusion at the top, spiralling violence, police brutality and the country’s first post-apartheid massacre.”

The massacre took place on the final day. The police attempted to corral the miners, using armoured cars and razor wire. Then the shooting started. 17 miners were shot dead, many more were wounded. A little later a second burst of firing opened and 17 more miners died. The Al Jazeera opening warns that some of the images are ‘distressing’. This is the case. Whilst the actual killings are not clearly seen in the police footage, the dead bodies are. Mambush’s corpse had 14 bullet holes.

Just as the leaders tried to cover up the machinations during the strike, so the police tried to cover up the unjustified violence on that day. The film actually has footage of the National Police Commissioner telling the assembled police cohorts that over the four days they had demonstrated the ‘best of responsible policing.’

The Farlan Commission has concluded its investigation, taking two years in the process. The final report has been presented to President Zuma, but has yet to see the light of day [it is promised in June]. Here in the UK the strike has faded from media consciousness. there has been little coverage of the Commission: as usual the exception being The Guardian. They had an article, based on interviews with survivors and their lawyers, which corroborates the view presented in the film. (Massacre at the mine Tuesday 19.05.15).

Both the film and The Guardian article suggest a problem in the New South Africa. Desai’s film sadly reflects on the day when Independence arrived and Nelson Mandela became president; a time of expectations. The Guardian points back to the alliance that provided the basis for that day – between the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Trade Union Movement.

This is a partial view and implicit [but not explicit] in the film is the recognition that whilst the new South Africa has bought political resolution to the oppression of the apartheid era the underlying exploitation continues. The developments since the end of Apartheid fit exactly into the analysis and warning provided by Franz Fanon in The Pitfalls of National Consciousness. Essentially the deal included not just the ANC and the Apartheid Regime but International Capital. The corporations that expropriated the surplus under Apartheid continue to expropriate under the new arrangements. The leading voice  on the side of the ANC in this settlement was Nelson Mandela: his stardom in the so-called International Community stems from this deal, which avoided a through-going expropriation by the South African majority. Marikana is an example that even now , two decades on, the methods used to enforce that expropriation still retain aspects of neo-colonialism. The film offers a timely and powerful reminder about the real South Africa today.

Al Jazeera has pages on the film and an interview with Desai.

 

 

Posted in African Cinema, Documentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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

Muriel_Zinnemann_Redes_bn_1

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 …”

Muriel_Zinnemann_Redes_bn_2

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

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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.

 

Posted in African Cinema, Documentary, Manifesto, Political cinema, Writers and theorists | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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