This article was written in the 1990s as a study of a cycle of films that predominately featured in the 1980s. The article uses the term ‘Third World’, a problematic term. What is being discussed are the experiences among the oppressed peoples and nations. However, ‘Third World’ was a common term at the time and frequently figured in the comments on these films. As is often the case it did not always carry the same meaning: but a common usage was that ‘1st’ meant advanced capitalist countries; ‘2nd’ countries identified as socialist; ‘3rd’ countries under colonialism or neo-colonialism. In that sense the films I discuss are ‘1st’, and the targets are ‘3rd’. Note also this is not the same as the terms used in Third Cinema. The films I disucss below are all part of the dominant cinema.
I tried to publish this article several times and failed. So to the Blog: because it is quite long I am posting it in chapters.
The depiction of those exotic lands beyond the imperialist homelands is a long established stock in trade of European and North American films. From the earliest days of the movies their makers have titillated audiences with images of the “dark continents”, the “strange, different peoples”, and their “unusual, bizarre, and often violent” cultures. Over its century of history and development the dominant cinema, sited in those capitalist countries lying either side of the Atlantic, has been an important source for the preconceptions and prejudices held by the mainly white populations of the major imperialist powers. The heyday of this imperial cinema was in the 1930’s. Then, in both England and the United States, a steady stream of cinemagoers watched films like Sanders of the Rivers [UK 1935], in which the calm but authoritative white colonial administrator dominated the loyal black chiefs and the black dissidents who dared to oppose him. Or they sat through Gunga Din [US 1939] in which the equally calm, but much more dashing army sergeants, with their sycophantic Indian underling, defeated the black and malevolent rebels on the frontier. These films presented unquestioningly to the audience the values which expressed the economic and political dominance of white Europe over its black empires. This viewpoint was viciously racist, regarding all black, yellow, brown and red peoples as intellectually inferior, prone to unthinking violence and in need of both stern supervision and clear guidance. By 1945 a slight change is visible. In Men of Two Worlds [UK 1946] the central figure is a black musician, Kisenga [Robert Adams], but, although educated in Europe, he is still not totally free from the influence of superstition. At the crisis point of the film his life is saved from the menace of a ju-ju when the villagers sing Kisenga’s own music, but the choir is organised by the white district officer. When the same tribe move off to the happy ending in a new, tetse fly free village, it is a home selected, organised and ruled by the white colonial system. The independence the film attributes to the black African tribe is strictly circumscribed. And the representation of black people is only less obvious in its racism, in the supposition of their superstitious ignorance and childlike misunderstanding of the modern world.
Such a film provided a reflection of changing economic and political realities as colonialism gave way to neo-colonialism. And as direct rule was replaced by the home grown puppets, and military occupation by economic dictat, so the fictional world of film acquired its black leaders (The Wild Geese UK 1978), and the black and white co-operative venture (The Wilby Conspiracy UK 1975). By the 1980’s the sympathetic portrayal of black heroes and heroines from amongst the oppressed peoples was approaching a norm, and thus we enjoyed an abundance of films which centred on the so-called ‘Third World’, and appeared to view it in a supportive way. I want to argue that many of these liberal (a common description) movies, whilst they appear to be a great advance on the 1930’s, are under the surface still imperialist and racist. They have merely changed the form of representation in line with the changed but continuing exploitation of the oppressed peoples. I have selected a cycle of films that appear to share not only this value system but also a common narrative structure, plot devices and representations (see references). In each of the films the audience is presented with a story of oppression and resistance sited in a ‘Third World’ country. The guide to this story is a westerner, a white, male journalist. He arrives, becomes involved, in some way helps the oppressed in their struggle, then he leaves. In the course of the struggle both innocents and/or a leader die in the cause. These stories are thus melodramas of protest, with
“the blood of the martyrs sewing the seeds of resistance” (Michael Walker in Melodrama and the American Cinema in MOVIE Issue 29/30, 1988).
The melodrama of protest is the classic structure for depicting and condemning oppression and for eliciting sympathy and defiance on behalf of the oppressed. In such structures we are encouraged to identify with victims of oppression, the outrage engendered by their suffering moves us to support defiance and resistance to the oppressor, [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, US 1975 is the example that has enjoyed the greatest box-office success]. Yet in the movies discussed below the oppression is suffered uniformly by black people whose rescue is effected by whites. The lynchpin of these stories is the intervention by the western journalist. Where there is a success, the actions of the journalist are a key factor; where there is defeat the journalist leaves, taking the narrative with him. It is an image of liberation wholly centred on the viewpoint of the west. It directly contradicts the ideas generated in the struggle by some of the most noted leaders involved in Liberation, like Steve Biko, Pablo Freire and [most importantly Franz Fanon]. Yet the films use some of these icons as part of the story-line; Steve Biko is supposedly the subject of Cry Freedom (UK 1987) ; Salvador, USA 1985) features a literacy class obviously modelled on Friere’s work.
The fact that they treat of such historical figures and of well-known historical events is yet another problem. Regardless of disclaimers (like those made by Richard Attenborough at a screening in 1987) audiences are encouraged on entering the cinema to see the films as dramatisations of real-life events. The publicity for the films emphasise this angle; The Year of Living Dangerously (Australia 1982) poster tells us “Jakarta May 11 1965”; and Cry Freedom’s marketing laid great stress on the story of a friendship between two men, one still living. The latter’s marketing was assisted by two TV programmes about Steve Biko and five freshly printed paperbacks on him or Black Consciousness. The use of the media as a central device adds to this pressure. The films are full of recognisable media techniques, photographic stills in Under Fire, teleprinter titles in Cry Freedom and the TV news’ rhetoric of The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields (UK 1984). Whatever the intentions of their makers, these films to greater or lesser degree blur the distinctions between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Yet, while not all the film’s content is total fiction, neither is much of it an uncontested record of events.
Most importantly the films present themselves (in the manner of classic narratives) as unproblematic, disguising their exaggeration, compression and distortion of events with a seamless development built up by sophisticated techniques of story telling, of use of camera, of sound. The position they offer the audience defines good and evil, hero and villain, right and might without the difficulties of counter argument. They are entirely innocent of an awareness of their own set of values, not necessarily shared by others. They certainly fail to reflect the very different values held by many people among the oppressed they claim to sympathise with and support. Whilst working within mainstream cinema conventions, it is clear that these films are not to be treated as mere entertainment. Many of the reviews discussed both their ‘political message’, and their ‘historical veracity’. They have an overt political content unusual for commercial cinema. This was probably one factor in their limited box-office success, only The Killing Fields was an international hit. But while they did not equal the audiences for Spielberg-style movies, they did appeal to a specifically critical group of viewers. In cinema, and later on video, cable and television, they were marketed to a politically literate audience. UIP, for example, commissioned a survey on the awareness of apartheid in the USA before the production of Cry Freedom. The media attention connected with the films’ overt political projects included TV programmes exploring aspects of their version of history. The Killing Fields is a notable example and its title has entered popular language as a clinched description. Yet, with few exceptions, this critical discussion has not analysed how the film’s entertainment conventions affect these political discourses. The cycle appears to end, or at least change its form, by the end of the 1980s. The explanation for this would seem to lie in the internal collapse in the Soviet Empire and the consequent unfettered policing of the world by the USA. The Gulf War is the most notable and vicious example of such policing. With no imperialist power remotely approaching its dominance, the USA ordered, cajoled and bullied a line-up of states into the assault on Baghdad. This included both ’Third World’ states and Arab states, the much-vaunted ‘third way’ appears to have collapsed without Soviet support. The cultural effects of these changes go beyond the cycle I describe, for instance, into ’Third Cinema’. So in a subsequent essay I shall detail examples of both ‘third cinematic’ treatments of these stories, an alternative: and examples from the mainstream in the 1990s, which, I believe, have important differences.
The clearest generic expression is found in Under Fire, a 1983 film from the USA. Photojournalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte) goes to cover the war against Somoza’s dictatorship in Nicaragua. He is an ace professional photographer, announced by his colour photo cover on Life magazine, and, “I’m not taking sides, I take pictures..” However, Nicaragua is different, so he breaks his rules – by taking a photograph of the dead Sandinista leader Rafael, in order to convince the world that Somoza has not succeeded in eliminating him. Strengthened by this device the Sandinista’s army of freedom approaches the capital. Russell again takes a picture of a dead man, his journalist friend Alex (Gene Hackman), shot by Somoza’s National Guard. Pursued by Somoza’s army, his girlfriend Claire (Joanne Cassidy) and a young Nicaraguan help by carrying the roll of film to Russell’s hotel, and the appearance of the story on TV signals the end for Somoza, who flees the country. Russell and Claire leave after watching the triumphal entry of the Sandinista into Managua. The story’s structure clearly shows how the film presents this white, male, western journalist as the key to the success of the struggle. In the course of the film we see his conversion from a detached professional to committed sympathiser. It is his actions that drive forward both the story-line and the filmic struggle against oppression. Thus at the film’s end he can leave having help make possible liberty and democracy, both ideals that the western media regularly presents as the preserve of the west.
In Cry Freedom it is the editor Donald Woods [Kevin Kline] who fulfils this role. At the end of the film we see him flying from South Africa carrying his book which will tell the world about Steve Biko and his death, the implication being that by this act change will be bought to the suffering masses of South Africa. This point is confirmed with the roll call that follows of black activists murdered by the Apartheid State, of the black leadership dead or imprisoned. The only remaining hope is our planeload of white liberals.
In Circle of Deceit (West Germany/France, 1981), Salvador and War Zone the journalists leave peoples still divided and suffering, but they also leave with a scoop, either a news-story or unique film footage. It is as if only by telling the story does this suffering really exist. In The Year of Living Dangerously the hero, Guy Hamilton [Mel Gibson], also leaves Jakarta bloody and under military dictatorship, he carries no story but the equal prize of a beautiful heroine. Thus the 1960 slaughters of the archipelago are converted into a darkly romantic backdrop for these media tourists. In The Killing Fields Schanberg leaves and returns, to witness the escape of his Kapuchean buddy from imprisonment. In this version the “Third World” is graphically depicted as a place of violence and suffering, from which not only westerners, but the indigenous people flee.
What is common about all these story-lines is the negative presentation of the “Third World”, from which all the main characters exit, by choice or by death. Of course, oppressed countries are places of poverty, violence and suffering, but in each case these are specific to particular exploitative relations, usually with the very country from which the film’s hero comes. In The Killing Fields its makers specifically chose to play down the role of US military intervention;
“He [Roland Joffe – director] also went to some lengths to strip out any anti-Americanism which inevitably colour any consideration of South-East Asia. He points out that, although the American bombing clearly boosted the power of the Khmer Rouge, the Americans had no part in the murderous ideology which the Pol Pot regime proceeded to implement.” [BFI]
While the CIA’s well-known misdemeanours are featured in Under Fire and Salvador, The Year of Living Dangerously blithely passes over this. A similar problem is found in the absence of any reference in Cry Freedom of the West’s support for the Apartheid regime. What we get is a sympathetic embassy official [Alec McGowan] offering the fleeing Woods’ family “a cup of tea”.
Melodrama frequently waters down the political edge of stories by a concentration on the individual and personal; thus, these films treat the larger questions very selectively. The most positive of the cycle is Salvador where visceral images of violence and death are counterpoised with explicit denunciation of USA policy. However, even here the film in the end comes down to the Yankee point of view;
“I don’t want to see America get another bum rap [the first being Vietnam!]”.[the film’s hero Richard Boyle].
This viewpoint is endorsed by the film when in its later stages, it equates guerrilla ‘atrocities’ with those of the Salvadoran army.
The same simplification applies to the little political analysis found in the films. In Under Fire Russell and Joanna attempt to explain to Alex their sudden active sympathy for the rebels. To do so they break curfew and show Alex a statue of Somoza in the main square, explaining it is actually of Mussolini, bought cheap in Italy and subjected to a head transplant. This feeble equation of very different fascists regimes entirely misses the point about the political economy of Nicaragua. Hollywood has always had problems delineating political positions, hence the device [common to such films] in Cry Freedom of turning Biko’s explanation of Black Consciousness into a series of edited phrases dwarfed by the photogenic location. In none of the films is the viewer ever given a substantial detailing of the character’s political positions; we are expected to judge them by their actions.
Black people in these films are associated with lack of autonomy and the experience of being victims. Worse, the films uniformly see these oppressed countries as sites of mindless violence. Thus The Killing Fields publicity hand-outs state;
“The war unleashed an underlying savagery in the Cambodians that had lain dormant for centuries. Indolent, gentle and smiling the Khmers may have seemed, but as Bernard-Phillipe Groslier, the distinguished French archaeologist observed: ‘Beneath a carefree surface there slumber savage forces and disconcerting cruelties which may blaze up in outbreaks of passionate cruelty.” [BFI]
Stereotyping peoples in this way inevitably leads to the narrative flight that ends most of the films. Historically westerners have fled many of these countries, quite often chased out by the oppressed. But a supposedly sympathetic view should offer something more.
An equal penchant for savagery typifies the films set in the Lebanon. A gunman casually offers to shoot a passer-by by for photojournalist Hoffman [Jerry Skolimowski] in Circle of Deceit. The virtual remake, War Zone, has an Israeli Officer trying to warn the Palestinians of the Camp massacres by the Phalangist. The violence is attributed to the oppressed, western [e.g. Israeli] violence glossed over. What the cycle of films fails to offer is any understanding or explanation for the popular support and participation these struggles enjoyed. In Palestine the Intifada was driven forward by the mass of the people, with the PLO struggling behind. Similarly, in the black African townships of the late seventies rebellious youth was far more radical than the formally organised movements like the ANC. No such ethos is apparent in these films. The masses provide cheering, suffering or dying support for the chosen individuals celebrated by the media: suitably cleaned up and dressed up, as in the Swot demonstration sequence from Cry Freedom. The self-activating action preached by Biko, Freire and others never surfaces.
If black people get a raw deal in these movies so do women, even those selected as heroines. They are very much the emotional and political handmaidens of the male heroes. In The Year of Living Dangerously it is Jill [Sigourney Weaver] who makes the mistake, Guy who discovers it. Claire in Under Fire reports all the stories that Russell photographs, but while we see his photos we never hear her stories. Most markedly in Cry Freedom we have a powerful scene where Donald and Wendy Woods [Penelope Wilton] argue over his decision to leave South Africa; her arguments are about home and family, his about politics. Yet it was Wendy Woods who first took an interest in Black Consciousness and Steve Biko; her feminism made her more open to these new and threatening ideas than her husband (Farrar, 87). Some awareness of the problem does creep into the better films, thus in Salvador the film opens with the enforced leaving of the USA of Boyle’s Italian wife [Maria Rubell]; at the film’s end his new women, Maria [Elpedia Carrillo], is dragged from a bus by US immigration – obviously the USA is a bad place for black women. But even here the casting of Carrillo, who played a similar role in The Honorary Consul [UK 1983], reinforces her image as an object for Boyle and other men. Overall, these films never get to grips with the subordination of their women, despite their supposed fight against oppression.