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West Indies, France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979.

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2017

The film was adapted by Med Hondo from a stage play by Daniel Boukman written in 1972, ‘The Slavers’. Boukman is a Martinique writer, apparently little known outside the Caribbean as it would seem is his play. He is noted for using a carnivalesque form, full of irony and parody, and aiming at ‘distance’ in the sense theorised by Bertold Brecht. Boukman receives a credit for dialogue in the film so it would seem that the film relies extensively on the theatrical original. To what degree the film also follows the staging of the play is unclear but certainly it also relies on a carnival atmosphere and on ironic detachment. It is suggested, [in ‘Daniel Boukman : A Poetics of ‘Detour’] that Boukman’s narration resembles the function of the ‘griot’ in African cultures. And that too applies to the film. Hondo had already staged the play in 1972 with the theatrical company he had co-founded before commencing work in film.

The screening at Il Cinema Ritrovato was introduced by Med Hondo himself. He advised us that this print ‘used the final cut’, which suggests that the filming suffered from restraints by producers or by censors. Th. Mpoyi-Buatu [in an article in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, 1987] writes that it took seven years to raise all the funding, including individual contributions from Africans. He also gives

‘The film’s full title is this: West Indies or the Nigger Maroons of Freedom.”

Attributing g the main title to the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén and explaining the term ‘maroon’ as

“a term used in Jamaica for slaves who ran away and founded their own independent villages and settlements in remote areas as far from the Europeans as possible.”

I did not note any reference to this sub-title at the screening but the film certainly refers to the phenomena cited by Mpoyi-Buatu.

The setting for this historical parable is a sailing ship, one that is of the type that carried the kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic to slavery. A colleague thought that Hondo had had this set created in the Gare d’Orsay where Orson Welles filmed much of his 1962 version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. 1978/9, the time of filming, was just before work started on converting the disused railway station  into what is now a prime art gallery, Musée d’Orsay.

“The ship’s different levels indicate rather well the strata of Caribbean society: the slaves, the people, in the old; the middle classes, the assimilated, on the lower bridge; the masters, the colonists, on the upper bridge.” (Th. Mpoyi-Buatu).

Like his earlier Soleil Ő this film relies on a form of montage, cutting between different sites and periods and with a tone that is both ironic and sardonic.  The film commences in the 1960s or early 1970s and on a Caribbean Island: not identified but clearly one of those colonised by the French [Guadalupe, Dominica, St Lucia, ….Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti are directly named in the commentary]. The narrative then moves back and forth to various stages in the development and exploitation of Africans kidnapped into slavery and transported to both the Caribbean and mainland Americas. Dates, names and places are indicated by titles onscreen. A narrative voice both provides information and comment. The chronology runs from 1640 with the arrival of the sugar cane crop on the Islands; the development of an enslaved labour force transported from Africa by the British, French, Dutch and Danish; the events following the Revolution of 1789; the subsequent uprisings, including the successful rebellion in Haiti; the re-imposition following the Napoleonic coup-d’etat; the gradual abolition of the trade and of slavery; and then the post second World War reverse movements up until the 1960s.

Whilst the cast act, speak, sing, dance and perform in various guises, they appear as ‘types’ rather in the style of early Soviet cinema. These song and dance sequences are vibrant and colourful, sometimes celebratory, sometimes dramatic. There are both crowd scenes and individual actors, though the latter are not psychologically individualised.

The opening of the film introduces the audience to a group of bourgeois Caribbean politicians and bureaucrats meeting in a large cabin below deck and this is intercut with footage of ordinary African slaves working on harvesting sugar cane. The bourgeois meeting is concerned to avoid economic problems by encouraging emigration from the Caribbean to metropolitan France: a reversal of the voyages of transportation that bought the Africans across the Atlantic. This is the basic premise of the film, an inversion of the original enslavement.

The upper bridge offers a succession of French colonial rulers and French settlers who lord over the central deck space. Here are the masses of the people, and here are presented the songs, dances, mimes and crowd actions. The dancers frequently used masks and the props vary but include both torches and at one point machetes. Below them,  in a stairwell, are a small group of radicals who constantly oppose the dominant politics above with lines of resistance. Their props include machetes and a candle; the extinguishing of the candle light is a sign of the triumph of the dominant values.

Intercut with the varied performances on the several decks are footage of the slaves transported across the oceans; and of ‘maroon’ settlements where some autonomy is possible., One particular ‘maroon’ is an old man seated by a tree; the tree has a particular resonance from African culture.

“The Ancestor, in West Indies, is the tribe’s legitimacy figure. He does not possess the secret of survival, but a least he demonstrates the positive existence of an opposition force.” (Th. Mpoye-Buatu).

This character uses ‘peasant Creole’, and the film also features ‘immigrant Creole’, ‘pidgin-English’ and French: the languages marking, along with other devices, the classes and strata presented in the film.

The time and spatial span of the film together with the intercutting between these settings makes for a more complex film than Soleil Ő. The film also enjoys higher production values, fruits of the long pre-production work . The staging, in the single and impressive set, is excellent. There is no credit for the choreography, and presumably this was also directed by Hondo.  François Catonné’s cinematography captures the vibrancy of the performance, both in the use of tracks and dollies and at certain points fluid long takes. The editing by Youcef Tobni is at times relatively fast but maintains a coherent if elliptical narrative line. The music offers composition by Georges Rabol and Frank Valmont whilst also using traditional and popular songs and music.

It is difficult to take in all the aspects of the film at one viewing: it is certainly a film that would/will repay further viewings, if and when possible. What it does do is draw together sets of social action of domination that, at a surface level, appear discrete but which are manifestations of the same underlying exploitation and oppression: the manner in which colonial relations have transformed into neo-colonial relations. Importantly the film is constructed to prompt viewers to reflect as they witness the drama unfold. Th. Mpoye-Buatu finally comments:

“So, then, the aesthetic intention is sustained by a critical process of a kind which neither mystifies that process, nor the spectacle presented, nor those to whom it is presented. It is for that reason that … West Indies is a film of ambition, both in its magnificent spirit and in its aesthetics: its corrosive quality only matched by the effectiveness of its strategy. The strategy itslef is simple: to know all the devices of slavery and to combat them by every means.”

The screening was a 35mm colour print running 110 minutes. this was the French version with English sub-titles from the Havard Film Archive.

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Soleil Ȏ / Oh, Sun, Mauritania 1970.

Posted by keith1942 on July 25, 2017

This key film and the filmmaker Med Hondo featured at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. The film has been restored as part of the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. As is their practice the new version has been restored from existing 35mm and 16mm prints and made available on a DCP in the original French and Arabic with English sub-tittles. The digital version is presumably to aid distribution though whilst I have seen a number of their restorations at Festivals they do not seem to reach ordinary exhibition in the British/Irish territory.

The filmmaker Med Hondo was also invited to the Festival and we also had the opportunity to see two of his other films. He received a warm reception and was visibly moved by this. He also retained and voiced the passionate political commitment which is apparent in his films.

Hondo’s film work is experimental, didactic and sardonic. His tone is exemplified by the opening of Les Bricot Negres in which a smiling black African man, in close-up, addresses the camera directly:

“So you have come to the cinema —But certainly we all love the cinema very much, don’t we? … the camera, the film, the projectors, the techniques, who invented all this? Not us certainly. —

So, to provide us with entertainment – and also to take from us a little dough – sorry, a little money – the “Toubabs” [Westerners] have built theatres for us, they installed their machines,, and we, curious as we are went to see the CI-NE-MA.” (Prologue printed in ‘Framework’ Spring 1978).

It is clear that Hondo’s film provide a directly oppositional cinema to that kindly provided by the benefactors from Europe and North America.

1970 was the release date of this film when it played at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Hondo, who wrote the story and directed the film, had commenced it in 1965 and completed it by 1967. But finding distribution was as difficult as it had been earlier to find funding. Hondo and his collaborators basically made the film on their own for about $30,000. Much of the money was raised buy Hondo who worked dubbing US films into French. Hondo later wrote of the production:

“it was purely by chance that we ended up being artists ‘of colour’ as the term usually used. In Paris together for basically the same reasons, Bachir, Touré, Robert [Liensol] and I found ourselves right in the middle of a country, a city, where we had to get by, for lack of better words, where we had to work: being an actor, a musician, a singer. And where we realized immediately the doors were closed […]. As a solution we thought of creating a theater group and, in the meantime, we all made Soleil Ȏ.” ( Med Hondo in 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The film is best conceived as agit-prop. Whilst the narrative is fictional, it is expresses the experiences of black Africans in Paris and is predominately shot in actual locations. The film weaves of complex tapestry of characters, settings, scenes and actions and discussions. These are not presented in a linear fashion; the film constantly cuts between separate scenes, many of which we return to several times. The basic form of the film is montage in the sense developed by the Soviet pioneers. So not only does the film constantly cut between separate characters and settings bit it is full of discontinuities. Equally the sound follows the manifesto produced by Sergey Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Aleksandrov,; whilst dialogue scenes mainly used synchronisation the soundtrack frequently features dialogue, music and noise that appears asynchronous. This is especially so as the film moves towards its climax.

The film opens with ma pre-credit sequence of Africans playing and communing by a river followed by a cut and film of Africans in Paris. This sets up the contradiction between Africans own cultures and their experiences under colonial domination, be it at home in Africa or when they sits the ‘mother-country’.

After the credits there is an animated section. Then film set in Africa with a dramatised but symbolic treatment of the oppression of Africans by European cultural forms. Africans are shown dominated by European religion: they are accorded identities through baptism and naming with European names. This is followed by  a procession with wooden crosses. In a sardonic move the crosses are inverted and Africans become soldiers/servants in military service: a service that involves fighting amongst themselves. This is pure agit-prop and sets up the cultural dominance that the film portrays.

We then move to a large city, Paris where an African migrant arrives, The rest of the film is a series of dramatised sequences but shot in actual locations and, at times, using actual footage both of the white French natives and the visiting Africans. These separate sequences are constantly intercut and for most of the time a particular action or discussion is not completed, but returned to later in the film.

So we have an African seeking a place to live: mainly suffering racist rejection.. An African seeking work: and suffering racist responses that range from outright rejection to paternalistic employment. The latter is represented by a factory class for African recruits where the white teachers assume that these ‘foreign’ workers re naïve and possibly illiterate. There is a recurring discussion between an African man and a an employer where the latter appears at times sympathetic but take position that such exploitation is necessary.

Later in the film we examples of African workers being housed in Gerry-built buildings, in excessive numbers and the profits that exploiting landlord can make. There are also scenes where sexual exploitation is addressed. There is a sardonic episode where a visiting African President, clearly corrupted by the colonial situation, uses a white French prostitute.

There are signs of solidarity. At a garage regarding a vacancy the proletarian working there advised and assists the African. But later another sardonic episode shows the competing left groupings, basically sectarian, offering rhetoric rather than actual support for African fighting racism.

Actual solidarity occurs in a sequences where we see African socialising together. There are several set in a restaurant where the Africans eat, drink and socialise. There is also a singer there: note, not all the lyrics are translated. One is ‘Soleil Ȏ’, a song from slaves in the West |Indies, which provides the title of the film.

The film develops a crushing weight of racism, discrimination and oppression alongside the exploitation which is the norm in a capitalist society. As we watch the end of the film the protagonist runs through a series of settings, desolate waste land, railways, motorways and more desolation in a forest. Flames appear on the screen and images are superimposed on the frame, of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Mehdi Ben Barka and Patrice Lumumba. The protagonist grasps and armalite rifle. This is accompanied by increasingly strident screams, drums and percussive noises. The film ends with the onscreen title ‘To Be Continued’.

That continuation could be seen in the other titles screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Soleil Ȏ set up a radical discourse that continued in West Indies (1979) and Sarraounia (1986). The film shares a common influence from the ideas and writings of Franz Fanon found in other African directors, for example Ousmane Sembène. There is also the influence of Soviet montage, Neo-realism and European Cinéma vérité. All are combined in a distinctly radical cinematic expression.

Hondo later critically commented, in an article ‘The Cinema of Exile’ (in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, Automedia 1987).

The approach in Soleil Ȏ had been constructed from a very elaborate script, and improvisations had remained limited and always under constraint.”

He comments more generally,

“Were I to make a film in Mauritania tomorrow, my film language would not be the same.”

And developments can be seen in his later films screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato. So Soleil Ȏ is a film of a certain time and place. But it is also a key film in developing an African and African Diaspora cinema. The good work of the World Cinema Project is welcome: let us hope the film is widely seen and discussed.

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The Film Foundation World Cinema Project – 2017

Posted by keith1942 on July 9, 2017

Med Hondo introducing his film

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project is now an established event at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Over a number of years we have enjoyed fine restorations of key films at this Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa: there are now eight features restored and available . So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor: he has done extensive work dubbing voices in films. Since 1967 he has been able to make nine films, seven features and two documentaries: like his fellow African film pioneer Ousmane Sembène his output has been limited by the commercial restraints in world cinema and especially in Africa.

The Foundation has produced a restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Oh Sun, Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.

“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.

The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents

“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).

Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th led by Queen Sarraounia in the Niger. The film  had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Techovision. Using African locations [but Burkino Faso not Niger], African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and African resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.

Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect.

The Foundation, as is its custom, has produced the restorations on DCPs. I assume this is to assist in circulation. However, to date, there seems to have been few cinematic screenings in Britain. I think only Soleil Ȏ has been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Academy ratio.

The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film, directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted  by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.

“Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).

There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The latter film bears some comparison with films by Luis Bunuel, though without his visceral tone. Here a bourgeois family attempt to avoid the expropriations bought about by the 1959 revolution and retreat into their plantation. The results are as sardonic as many presented by Bunuel.

The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by ina.fr and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main  reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.

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Neruda – poetry – Chile.

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2017

Pablo Larrain’s new film Neruda is an internationally funded film with investment from Chile, Argentina, France, Spain and the USA. The credits offer a long list of production companies including Fabula, which has produced all of the films by Larrain, together with a number of commercial companies and also a number of state funding institutions. As a recognised ‘auteur’ one expects that Larrain has a degree of latitude in his work but that also the pitch for the film will have had to satisfy these varied interests.

The film has taken about $900,00 in the USA. Its opening weekend was limited to three screens. In Italy 73 screens. In Britain it has had a limited national release taking the equivalent of $50,000. To date the worldwide box office is equivalent to $1.500,000.

The film enjoyed a slot in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ at the Cannes Film Festival. it was also nominated by Chile for the Best Foreign Language film at the Aacademy Awards. Responses by critics in the UK have been generally positive. Maria Delgado praised the film and offered an interesting commentary in the May Sight & Sound. However, what has been overlooked by many is that this is the second film about the poet Pablo Neruda produced in Chile in just two years. The other, written and directed by Manuel Basoalto, has the same title. Moreover, it appears to dramatise a similar period in the life of the poet. However, this version has not enjoyed a release outside of Latin America, so the chances of seeing it soon are slim.

Both films focus on events in and around 1948. This includes Neruda’s role as a Senator in the Upper Chamber of Chile’s National Congress. Threatened with arrest Neruda, with the assistance of the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile) of which he was a member, went into hiding. Later he managed to escape across the border into Argentina and then into exile in Paris. In this period he composed one of his most famous works, ‘Canto General’. The 2014 Neruda presents this narrative as flashbacks by Neruda when he received the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. The 2016 version has a rather different approach which I will discuss below.

First though it is worth placing the film in the overall output of Pablo Larrain. He work includes producing, directing, and scriptwriting for both film and television. But the key works would seem to be the series of fictional feature films that he has made since 2006.

The first was Fuga (2006) which I have not seen. Larrain both co-scripted the film with Mateo Iribarren and directed. it is apparently set in the Chilean city of Valparaiso and concerns music and insanity, [Ken Russell territory].

Then came Tony Manero (2008). Larrain contributed to the script by Alfredo Castro;  Mateo Iribarren also scripted the film and worked as camera operator. The film takes place in Santiago and the main character is Raúl Peralta  (Alfredo Castro).  Raul is an odd character. He is obsessed with the character of Tony Manero, played by John  Travolta, in the film Saturday Night Fever (USA 1977). At one point he performs an impersonation for a television ‘opportunity knocks’ show. However, the focus of the film is in Raul’s life in a shanty town. We are in the period of the Chilean Junta and its leader Augusto Pinochet. The repression and the secret police are here and two other would-be performers are also involved in secret opposition to the regime. Raul emerges as a really nasty character, it is difficult to think of equivalent unsavoury types outside of depictions of fascism . He exploits everyone around him in his pursuits of his obsession. He abuses women, steals including from corpses and commit murder.  The film is shot like a noir thriller. The cinematography is by Sergio Armstrong, who films the majority of Larrain’s work. The chiaroscuro adds to the unsettling feel of this dark and disturbing world.

Larrain’s third feature is Post Mortem (2010). This time the script is by  Eliseo Altunaga with contributions from  Mateo Iribarren  and Larrain. This film is set in the last days of the Presidency of Salvador Allende and the military coup. The protagonist, Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro) works in a morgue. The object of his fantasy, Nancy Puelma (Antonio Zegers ) a burlesque dancer, disappears in the crackdown. In as obsessive a manner as Raul Mario commences a search for her.

Tony Manero and Post Mortem are reckoned to form a trilogy with Larrain’s next film No (2012): all films being set in a Chile ruled by the military Junta. In 1988 Pinochet called a referendum on his role as President, a National Plebiscite. A coalition of opposition parties organised an advertising campaign to call for a ‘No’ vote. The Pinochet regime, under pressure from International forces, allowed equal access to the media for its supporters and the oppositional; the latter included liberal and left parties including the Communist Party of Chile. However, the other factors in this event were the increasing opposition by the working class. The control by the Junta at the end of the 1980s was shaky to say the least.

No focuses on the Advertising Campaign organised by a coalition of opposition forces and the story centres round the advertising expert bought it to run the campaign, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal). In the film Rene is shown as persuading the political leaders to focus the campaign on a positive stance, epitomised by the slogan “happiness is coming” to challenge concerns about the dangers or irrelevance of voting. The audience see short films that display the brutality of the regime but these are not included in the campaign. Those used  looks suspiciously like the standard fare on the medium in the period. One shows a happy family on a picnic. There is a note of irony, since the baguette amongst the food is an anachronism as one character point out. But it is the ‘happiness’ theme that dominates and appears to convince the voters.

Whilst the film includes footage of the repression by the regime there is no representation of the organised resistance of the period. And the adverts that dominate the story deliberately avoid political statements and slogans. The narrative is also dominated by Bernal’s Rene. The personal drama in the film is very much his. This does include a partner who is strongly critical of the approach taken in the campaign, but Bernal dominates in screen time and drama. In this way the films follows the tropes of star power in telling the story. And indeed the tropes of the advertising industry seem to dominate the film visually. Notably Larrain and his cinematographer recreated the adverts, including their academy ratio, by using an old and now redundant video system.

The Club / El club (Chile 2015) is set in a coastal retreat for priest suspended for misdeeds which include paedophilia and removing babies form unwed mothers. The film follows the conflicting relationships among these ne-er -do-wells. An important part of the plot is their interest in dog racing and the associated betting. This film has a similar noir look to Tony Manero and the actions of the protagonists are equally unpleasant. One senses that the film offers metaphor for the amnesia over past crimes in Chile, but this is not spelt out explicitly.

Jackie (2016) is a co-production involving the USA, Fox-Searchlight. The script is by a US-based writer, Noah Oppenheim, who has previously worked for US television. The leading players are all Hollywood actors. It would appear that Larrain directed this project because of his increasing international stature: it may also be that the expertise with old-style .1.37:7 framing was a factor, as this film also uses that ratio to recreate the famous CBS programme hosted by the protagonist of the film, Jackie Kennedy, i.e. the wife of the famous and mythologized US President John F. Kennedy.

The film opens on an interview given by the now widowed Jackie Kennedy to an unidentified reporter. She recounts the events in Dallas and the subsequent preparations and funeral of her dead husband. This involves frequent flashbacks but also extracts from the CBS Programme, a tour of the White House with the ‘First Lady’. The recreation of the actual moment of assassination and the subsequent traumatic experience for the surviving Jackie is done with expertise and real drama. I did wonder about how accurate it was. When the Air Force I returns to Washington with the corpse of the dead President Jackie is shown still wearing the blood-spattered pink suit; this seems to be accurate. But she also, at this point, wipes the specks of blood from her face, which I found unlikely.

The film focuses on Jackie’s trauma and her resistance to the manipulation of the new President Lyndon B. Johnson and the White House apparatchiks. The main sympathetic person is Kennedy’s surviving brother Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), her companion Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and her Roman Catholic confessor (John Hurt). Her resilience and steely determination is impressive. But, rather like No, this is a one-sided portrayal. There is a lack of critical treatment in the echoes of the Kennedy legend. The film uses the title song from the stage musical ‘Camelot’, but with an apparent lack of irony. it rather reminded me of the parallel uncritical representations when the British royal member Diana passed on.

So we come to Neruda (Chile Argentina, France, Spain, USA 2016). Rather like Tony Manero or The Club this is not predominately a film about events and characters in the history of Chile. There are more well known historical figures in this film than in those. And the plot of the film features the series of events involving Neruda that are well known. But these struck me as surface gloss. The deep focus of the film is the relationship between the poet and the policeman who is trying to catch him, Gael García Bernal as Oscar Peluchonneau.

The film is introduced by the voice of Peluchonneau [though he is only identified later] as the audience are shown Neruda’s situation; A Senator who is in conflict with his peers; who is a trenchant critic of the President, whom he once supported; and a literary darling with connections to the Communist Party. Peluchonneau provides a commentary on the characters and the actions. We see him meet President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro bringing overtones of earlier films) and hear his scathing comments on Videla as a puppet of US interests. This explains the anti-communist policy of the Government and Neruda’s volte face on the President. But in a nihilistic fashion Peluchonneau is equally scathing on the Communist Party and on Neruda himself, who he sees as a political dilettante.

The portrait of Neruda accompanies a party at his villa where Neruda dresses up in Arab garb [as Lawrence of Arabia] and recites lines from one of his most famous poems:

“Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” (From ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair).

This line recurs a number of times in the film suggesting an artist resting on his earlier laurels. We also meet Neruda’s second wife, Mercedes Morán as Delia del Carril, a painter and a bourgeois. Neruda himself came from a lower class family; his father was a railway employee and his mother a teacher.

The bulk of the film is concerned with Neruda going into hiding after learning he is to be arrested and then his journey into exile. In this he assisted by friends and by members of the Communist Party. The latter is also declared illegal by the President. The film cuts between Neruda in hiding and Peluchonneau on his trail., This is not a exciting cat and mouse pursuit, more a playful game between the two protagonists. Neruda constantly leaves copies of paperback thrillers for the policeman to find, with clues included in the volumes. Peluchonneau either fails to decode these clues or does so too slowly. After a failed attempt to leave by sea Neruda sets off across the border mountains to Argentina. It is in the high snowy wastes that the policeman finally catches up with both his quarry and his nemesis. However, by this stage it is clear that the detective is actually a creation of Neruda’s imagination; a way of dramatising his journey into exile.

It is also clear by this stage that the film is less a study in Chilean history or a study of a national poet. It seems that Larrain has described the film as an ‘anti-biopic’. This is a fanciful creation that allows the filmmaker to explore the mythologizing impulse found in the earlier ‘Jackie’ in the context of his native land. As with No the film appears more concerned with the conceits of the nominal hero than with the actual context for the character and his actions.

At one point we see a shot of a desert-based prison/torture camp for working class militants presided over by one Augusto Pinochet. The camp was reused after the 1973 military coup. And the actual flight of Neruda appears to stick to that recorded in Neruda’s ‘Memoirs’ (‘Confieso que he vivido: Memorias’ Translated by Hardie St. Martin, 1976).

“I moved from house to house, every day. Dozens opened to receive me everywhere. It was always people I did not know, who had somehow expressed their wish to put me up for a few days. They wanted to offer me asylum even if only for a few hours, or for weeks. I passed through fields, ports, cities, camps, and was in the homes of peasants, engineers,, lawyers, seamen, doctors, miners.”

The film does condense this journey but it also includes actual events in its key moments. This included the meeting with and protection by the capitalist/owner of the land in which he is secured.

“A man who was both mature and youngish, with graying hair and set features, got out of the jeep with my friend Bellet. The first thing he said was that, from then on, he would be responsible for my safety. Under those circumstances, no one would dare try anything against me.”

There follows Neruda’s account of crossing the Southern Andes, through the high level snow and own into Argentina.

However Neruda does not record a meeting in the snow with his police nemesis, or indeed any of the police and security people searching for him. This is Lorrain’s invention. A sort of double with whom Neruda can play out a game of ‘hide and seek’. Games would seem to be a central pre-occupation in the film: witness the play with the paper-back thrillers. So rather than a political conflict this becomes a puzzle which the protagonists, and the audience, are invited to solve. This seems to be an increasing tendency in Larrain’s output, and one which is discernible in his earlier films. So Tony Manero is constructed around the television talent show that Tony enters. No is about television advertising, rather than advertising in general. The Club has a focus on dog racing and betting. And Jackie is taken up with television. Rather as if Larrain actually believes Marshall McLuhan’s’s claim

‘the median is the message.’

A rather different approach to the political history of Chile is found in the films of Patricio Guzmán. His most famous work remains the epic trilogy La Batalla de Chile: La insurrección de la burguesía (1975), La Batalla de Chile: El golpe de estado (1977), La Batalla de Chile: El poder popular (1979). But Guzmán has continued his film work and since the end of the Junta he has been able to work in Chile once again. His two most recent films offer an engagement and analysis with the politics and history of Chile and offer this through the medium of cinematic poetry.

Nostalgia for the Light / Nostalgia de la luz (Chile, France, Spain, Germany, USA 2010) is a documentary set mainly in the Atacama desert. The film presents astronomers using telescopes to search the heavens above and enjoying the clarity that the dry desert environment offers for these observations. Counterposed nearby are women who search the desert for remains of their loved ones, victims of the military junta who were murdered under the Pinochet regime. An old mining camp was turned into a prison; after execution the bodies were buried then un-interred so that the remains could be scattered, wasting the evidence.  Guzmán combines personal history, archive material, interviews, sequences showing the women searching and the astronomers observing and fills in the ‘back stories’ of these. The film also references his earlier work: indeed the Atacama desert featured in his epic The Battle of Chile and in the more recent film The Pinochet Case  (France, Chile, Belgium, Spain 20011).

In an interview in Sight & Sound (August 2012)  Guzmán explains some of the combination in the film:

“But in Nostalgia there is, of course, an element of philosophical reflection on the relationship between human life and the life of the cosmos, on human memory and the memory of the stars, of infinity. It’s a film about the past, a demonstration that the most important thing in life is the past, because the whole territory of the past is fundamental for people and the future. In as much as we are human beings, we are the inheritors of generation upon generation going back to pre-history, and the matter of our bodies is the matter of the stars.”

Guzman also explains that the film is not a typical documentary, but falls somewhere between a documentary film and film essay: [shades of Chris Marker]. It certainly has the poetry often found in essays. The author translating records and testimonies into artistic expressions that heighten the content. The filmmaker also explained that he had problems getting funding, partly because potential investors found the proposed film difficult to comprehend:

“Yes. Everyone said to me, “Mr Guzman, what are you doing here? It’s a melange of anthropology, archaeology, cosmology and human rights. What is it?”

I did think that the film stretched its use of metaphor, especially astronomy, too far: the relationship between the two main subjects at times challenged the viewer to make the connection. However it remains a powerful and moving study. Unfortunately, despite strong critical comment, the film has struggled to reach substantial audiences. In the UK the DVD issue was in 2011 but a cinematic  release only happened in 2012.

Guzman’s most recent release seems to me to provide the metaphor that illuminates the history, the events and the testimonies offered. The Pearl Button / El botón de nácar (France, Spain, Chile, Switzerland 2015) presents the long ocean border of Chile and, in particular, the southern extremities where an archipelago with vast amounts of water occupies much of Patagonia. In these seascapes and landscapes the film examines the history and focuses especially on the exploitation and oppression of the indigenous peoples: [Kawésqar, Selk’nam, Aoniken, Hausch and Yáman] by C19th European colonialists. To this are added yet more victims of the Pinochet regime who were murdered in the region and in many cases their bodies were dumped in the sea. The ‘pearl button’ of the title is a relic of one of these victims found in the sea.

There are clearly parallels between this film and Nostalgia for the Light, but there is also a not just distinctive histories but a distinctive metaphor. In the same interview Guzmán explained his plan for a ‘diptych’ which became The Pearl Button:

“The sea is a kind of planet within our planet, which preserves memory, which is interesting because water arrived from space; comets brought it. It was probable that life came from beyond the earth, which is fascinating. It’s a possibility, it’s not proved scientifically, but many astrophysicists are thinking about the possibility that life could have come from somewhere beyond the earth. We’re very close to proving this with planet sections. I think it’s a magnificent subject to treat, the earth’s memory. And because Chile has many huge coastlines I’ll no doubt shoot it there.”

The two films are linked as opening shots of the Atacama desert lead to the coastline; following this down the film arrives at the Patagonia, a immense but sparsely populated territory of water, islands, mountains and glaciers. As with Nostalgia for the Light the images presented  are beautifully shot and framed. The archive material fills out the ‘back story’ of the region . And the editing relates the two murderous crimes of the ruling classes together and to the land, to the sea and to the peoples. Again this is a powerful and moving film and the aptness of the main metaphors offers an illumination rare among documentaries.

The period covered in Larrain’s Neruda is when  the poet was writing a long poem, ‘Canto general’ (1950). This includes

‘El Fugitivo X!!’, ‘To everyone, to you’.

The last stanza runs,

“To all and everyone

to all I don’t know, who’ll never

hear this name,  to those who live

along our long rivers

at the foot of volcanoes, in the sulphuric

copper shadow, to fishermen and peasants

to blue indians on the shore

of lakes sparkling like glass,

to the shoemaker who at this moment questions,

nailing leather with ancient hands,

to you, to whomever without knowing it has waited for

me,

I belong and recognise and sing.”

(From ‘The Essential Neruda Selected Poems’ Edited by Mark Eisner with English translations).

This seems to refer to Neruda’s journey as he flees the repressive arm of the Chilean state. It is far removed from the representation in Lorrain’s film. However, Guzmán’s films addresses the very people who Neruda was addressing; Indians, peasants, workers like shoemakers and fishermen. There is a a compatibility between the politics in Neruda’s poem and Guzmán’s films. Whereas there is an incommensurability between that of Larrain and Neruda. Larrain’s films fall within the ‘first alternative’ described by Solanos and Getino in ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, ‘author’s cinema’:

‘a step forward inasmuch as it demanded that the film-maker be free to express himself in n nonstandard language and inasmuch as it was a step at cultural decolonisation.”

They go on to point out that;

“such attempts have already reached, or about to reach, the outer limits of what the system permits.”

I would add that it is debatable how far Larrain’s film expresses ‘cultural decolonisation’. There are passing references to the reactionary Chilean state, and indeed to Pinochet and the military. But the film, like especially ‘No’, foregrounds the dominant global values rather than specific values of Chile and resistance. Guzmán’s films on the other hand fir the ‘real alternative’ cited by Solanos and Getino.

“making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System”

Hence Lorrain’s films seem to find funding relatively straightforward and they enjoy a wider and fuller distribution in a world system that is tailored as representing capital and commodities. I have not found the returns for Guzmán’s films, but then box office receipts are not an apt valuation of these art works.

 

Posted in Auteur cinema, Latin American film, Political cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

No, Chile, France, USA, Mexico 2011

Posted by keith1942 on June 18, 2017

This commentary was originally posted on ITP World. I have reposted it her with some of the comments that followed. I want to write about Pablo Larrain’s new film Neruda and this film is part of the context.

Like the Chilean director’s earlier films, No is set during the military dictatorship presided over by General Pinochet. We are right at the end when the Junta bowed to both internal and international pressure and organised a National Plebiscite/Referendum. To the surprise of the military, observers and many Chileans it lost this plebiscite. An important factor was the campaign, fronted by fifteen minutes daily on national television, to vote ‘No’. The campaign relied to a large degree on professional public relations experts. It is that campaign that is the central focus of this film.

It is a film definitely worth seeing. At times humorous, at time dramatic, it has an excellent cast headed by Gael García Bernal as René Saavedra, the advertising expert recruited by the ‘Vote No’ Alliance. The film includes footage showing the coup and the brutal repression of the Chilean working class and their organisations and parties. It also uses the actual television material from both right and left in the Referendum campaign: at times impressive, at times banal, and at time almost surreal.

The film used a 1983 U-matic video system, which gives a fairly uniform appearance to both the filmed footage and the archive material, mainly the advertisement featured. . The whole film has a sharp, tawdry look due to this. In fact, Pablo Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero had a low-budget tawdry feel which also matched its subject matter. The cinematographer on the film is Sergio Armstrong and he has done excellent work in producing this visual consistency.

My major reservation was a rather lightweight political stance. This seems to follow on from the approach that was adopted in the actual television campaign in 1988. And there are clearly strands of irony in the presentation. But there is not a developed sense of the politics of the different class fractions and factions involved. Terms like ‘communist’, ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ recur frequently. However both the left and the right at this moment were somewhat disparate coalitions of differing social forces, and this the film misses out on illuminating this. Certainly other films from Chile have managed to deal effectively with the political landscape under the dictatorship. I also felt that the film subscribes to a view that probably over-emphasises the contribution of the television adverts: but the absence of other factors in its plotting also contributes to this lack of overall illumination.

There is a trenchant set of criticisms by The Socialist Party [formerly Militant].

The Centre to which they are affiliated, Committee for a Worker’s International, had an organised presence in Chile in this period. The article lists some of the serious omissions from the film. The major problem is the absence of organised resistance by the working class. One telling example is the demonstrations outside the Presidential Palace as Pinochet and other military leaders wrestled with a response to the vote. The film suggests that it was plain sailing once the result was announced, when in fact there was a covert and overt class struggle over its implementation.

My other reservation was technical and may only apply to the UK release. The U-matic video format gives an aspect ratio of 1.33:1: the ratio that preceded sound film, when the addition of an optical track produced 1.37:1. In the UK (and presumably in most territories) the film is distributed as a Digital Cinema Package. This comes in a standard 1.85:1, with other ratios printed within the standard format. For 1.33 or 1.37 you get the central image bordered by black framing. On 35mm the projectionist could adjust the framing to the ratio: on DCP it comes ‘baked in’. Good quality cinema presentation involved bringing in the black masking to frame the appropriate ratio. This is what usually happens at the Hyde Park Picture House where I viewed this film. They also continue the honourable tradition of opening the curtains at the start of the screening. Not so with No. For some odd reason the subtitles (in yellow) have been printed so that they frequently extend beyond the 1.33 ratio into the black borders. This means the black masking is unusable. Why, I don’t know, though it did seem that the font of the subtitles was larger than usual. I found this very distracting. I can usually flick my eyes up and down to accommodate both the image and the titles: with this film I had to flick to left and right to read all of the titles. I actually missed a few. The film is distributed by Network Releasing, but I could not see an end credit for titling, so I am not sure who is responsible.

So I feel it is a bit of a problematic movie, certainly in the UK. But it is still worth seeing. It is a distinctive film with a distinctive subject matter.

Director Pablo Larrain. Screenplay adapted Pedro Peirano from the play ‘Referendum’ (‘El Plebiscito’, unpublished) by Antonio Skarmeta.

Comments on ITP World:

keith1942

Further to the subtitles. It seems the UK distributor has advised that the filmmakers requested that the 1.33:1 frame was projected within the larger 1.85:1 frame of the DCP. And that they set the subtitles to extend beyond the frame of 1.33:1.

I have not been able to find an explanation of this anywhere. And I cannot think why they would want this. Any suggestions.

Reply

Roy Stafford

I didn’t find the subtitles to be a problem as such, but I agree that being unable to mask the image is not a good thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and though I agree with you that the political situation was not explained properly, I think that was to some extent deliberate so that the focus is on Rene (Gael García Bernal) and his position caught between his ex-wife, his father’s legacy, his own fatherhood and his professional ambitions and creativity. For that reason, I think it’s important that the film is shown to as many media students as possible and then discussed in detail. It’s a wonderful film for teaching.

Reply

keith1942

Roy is right that the film focuses on Rene, but this would seem to be an aspect of the way that ‘star power’ can produce its own distortions. There is a review of the film by the Socialist Party – http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/16112 – which fills out some of the aspects of class struggle in the late 1980s which NO overlooks or ignores. I think if it is used with media students then the sessions need to include other material which gives contrasting pictures. The film is ‘ideological’ in the sense that it offers the surface appearance, but it seems not the underlying social reality.

I have also looked at a few reviews and they all seem to think that the film used U-matic and the U-matic camera.

Reply

Roy Stafford

U-matic is a videotape format. A U-matic video recorder could receive an analogue video signal from any suitable camera. Before there were ‘camcorders’ with the tape machine physically part of the camera, the video camera was linked by cable to a separate recorder. The Press Pack for No does indeed state that they used ‘U-matic cameras’ (Ikegami tube cameras to be precise). However, I think that calling something a U-matic camera is misleading. Whereas a 16mm film camera shoots images on 16mm film, any video camera could be put directly through a mixing desk and the output recorded to any analogue video format. It’s the video recorder which is U-matic not the camera. A minor point I grant you and not that important perhaps, but it is revealing just how quickly people forget how these technologies were used.

Re the ideology of the film and its suitability for students, of course it needs other material. My point was that the film reveals the dilemmas of a bourgeois character caught between different forces and deciding to follow his ‘professional’ instincts, which is a common occurrence in media industries in capitalist societies. I don’t think the film attempts to explain the politics and I don’t think it is deliberately misleading, but it is disappointing to read in the Press Pack that the campaign was ‘instrumental’ in deposing Pinochet. My impression was that the film was much more circumspect about how valuable the campaign was. Which, I guess, just goes to show how things can be read differently.

Reply

keith1942

Maybe ‘camera’ was a short hand, and maybe they have never used the format.

My memory of it was always using the umatic’s camera.

More to the point I think you are being generous to the film. I cannot quote now, but my strong impression at the film’s conclusion was that it presented the advertising as a crucial factor. And it a sense that is reflected in a number of reviews.

My original comments about the film ‘lacking substance’ is in part that the film is rather like the adverts that it features. Rather long on gloss.

And I am afraid that it is likely that studies of the film will focus on the film itself and less on the wider context. While many people are aware of the dictatorship the context around the referendum is much less widely known. I have talked to several people who viewed it and their recurring comment was that they were not familiar with the event or period in Chile.

Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero presented politics at a tangent, but there was a clearer sense of the range of views and class forces.

Reply

keith1942

This film was screened on the UK Channel 4 last week. I have already noted the political problems with the film, which remain problematic at a second viewing. However, there was also the oddity of the digital version distributed in the UK, a 1.37:1 image letter-boxed into a 1.85:1 frame: and unalterable even in projection because of the yellow sub-titles that ran all across the larger frame. [A correspondent to Sight & Sound actually liked the use of yellow]. Channel 4 also letter-boxed the film, but into 16:9 frame [approximately 1.78:1] which was slightly less obtrusive. More importantly, the subtitles were white and contained with the original 1.37:1 image – so one could watch it in the 4:3 ratio on the television.

This mini-industry narrative grows odder and odder.

 

Posted in Latin American film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Letters from Baghdad, Britain, USA, France.

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2017

This film is presented as a documentary about Gertrude Bell, an outstanding and fascinating woman whose life and career ran from the late C19th through till the mid-1920s. She was a traveller, writer, mountaineer, archaeologist, multi-linguist and a skilled and astute ‘Arabist’. The most famous aspect of her life was her involvement in the British political and military activities in the Middle East during and following World War 1. She was an important and influential female member of the British political elite in this region. More notable, she is one of the few British officials whose reputation amongst Arab was at least partly positive.

The film presents a biography of Bell but the prime focus are her activities in the Middle East and in particular in Iraq which emerged after World War I as a British ‘protectorate’ and then as an ‘independent’ kingdom under British tutelage. At various points in this narrative Bell appears as a traveller and student across Arabia; as an archaeologist; as a spy and political adviser in wartime; as a political adviser in post-war construction; and [seemingly] as an adviser and mediator and official in the newly formed Iraq kingdom. It is worth remembering that she came from an upper class family and that she received an upper class education, gaining a First in History at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. What is notable about her is that, whilst she shared many of the colonial values of the time in British politics, she genuinely believed in some form of self-government for Arabs.  In her activities in Arabia she supported the interests of the Hashemite royal family. And she was sceptical of the Sykes-Picot plan and of the Balfour Declaration.

The film, which runs for 95 minutes, treats some aspects of this briefly but dwells on her activities in the Middle East and in particular the lands of Iraq. It seems that the filmmakers

“[They] collected some 1,200 archive film clips and several thousand still photographs, many taken by Bell herself. Much of the material came from the Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University. They collected together Bell’s letters and diary entries and also the statements made by many of the distinguished figures who knew her. In an interview with Anne-Katrin Titze, Sabine Krayenbühl says that the aim was to imagine that these statements were made for a documentary just two or three years after Bell’s death in 1926. The ‘witnesses’ are played by actors in appropriate period costumes who read out the statements as if they were appearing in a modern-style documentary.”

[Review by Roy Stafford].

The machinations of the British, with the French, in the region are clearly explained. There is also a brief reference to the activities of US oil companies. The war on the Iraqi people by the British in the 1920s is presented. However, the political context of the installation of a Hashemite ruler is not fully detailed and the transition to an independent kingdom seemed somewhat confused: I was not clear if Bell’s archaeological activities were presented as during the British protectorate or later under in the Hashemite Kingdom.. The regional collaboration between the British and the French, i.e. Sykes/Picot, really needs a fuller treatment. And the question of the Balfour declaration and the British connivance of Zionist colonisation Palestine is wholly absent; as are the earlier Armenian massacres witnessed by Bell.

An opening title informs us that the film is ‘based’ [I think that is the term] on primary sources. It is true that the film is composed almost completely of archival material, written documents, including personal items such a letters and diaries; official in terms of memorandum, a white paper written by Bell; and secret documents such as security files. To this are added archival photographs and film. But these sources are not presented in the primary form. The written documents are presented to us with professional actors in monochrome shots speaking the text, in some cases in the original Arabic or other language with English sub-titles. The photographs are presented in a variety of forms. Some are placed within the frame in their original ratio, in some cases in a photographic frame. Some are reframed for the widescreen image. And in some cases the images are from a rostrum shot, focusing in on a particular character, object or text. The film comes off worse of all, though most of the clips retain either their black and white, tinted or toned, or colour form. However, nearly all of the film footage is reframed to the widescreen; here the television ratio of 1.78:1. In a number of cases there is added sound to what was originally ‘silent’ footage. There are only three clips presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Two of these feature title cards, presumably the rationale. And one fictional clip illustrating a film presentation by Bell to Iraq women. It is a Mary Pickford extract, which seems unlikely.

Much of the material is indexical in the sense of

“the phenomenon of a sign pointing to some object in the context in which it occurs.”

The written texts relate to the time, place and character that is featured. The majority of the photographs also appear to relate to the time, place and characters featured. However the film extracts frequently are from a different time and place and are of characters separate from those featured in the film, that is they are not indexical: at least two [apart from the |Pickford clip] are from fictional features.

I am always concerned when archive film is presented in some changed form. Commonly we get film shot in 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 ‘reframed’ to 1.85:1 or even [in extreme examples] to 2.35:1. This ignores the point-of view of the original filmmakers. This seems to assume that the cameraman and/or director just set up the camera and filmed. This may have occurred in some cases but mostly it seems clear that these filmmakers chose their position, distance and angle [as well as the various lenses and accessories] deliberately. Moreover, this expresses not just their look but their material interest, something that in this film is clear from the texts presented. My concern is not just over the filmmaker who perpetrate this, often filmmakers with an ‘auteurial” stance which should be extended to the filmmakers they are treating. I also have concerns about the archives who co-operate in this. The end credits for this film include the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum. Both institutions should be guardians of this historical resources but they appear happy to allow other media [and this seems to be mainly for the benefit of television] to play fast and loose in the archives.

What seems to determine this representation of Bell, the times and, importantly, struggles against colonialism, are the points-of-view and material interests of the western archivists and historians and the western audiences for whom the film is primarily produced. A treatment of Gertrude Bell on film feels timely. However, the biography and contextualisation remain mainly within the value system under which Bell operated. For all her empathy and sympathy for Arab peoples her actions worked within the colonial limits of British imperial policy. At one point the film registers her reservations about an Iraqi border that she worked on: but the border was placed and remains part of the colonial and problematic legacy in the region. Added to this is what I find a rather suspect approach to the historical artefacts with which her story is told. One of the sources for documentaries on the history of Arabia has been the Al Jazeera Television network. Whilst they do not do it consistently, in many of their films/programmes the archive footage is presented as it was filmed and screened in the period. This is not just a technical question about the form of this material. It is, as FIAF recommends with archive film, that it should be presented in the form in which it was filmed and shown in its original time.

This film biopic is well made and is a fascinating address on the subject. However, it is produced by the industries of the states that exploited and oppressed the territories and peoples that Bell clearly cared about. And I think the filmmakers have failed to critically reflect on assumptions in such industries about how characters, places, times and actions should be filmed.

Posted in Colonial history, Documentary | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Viceroy’s House, Britain / India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2017

This is a new film directed by Gurinder Chadha and scripted by her partner and regular collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges. It is set in India in the months in which the British colonial rulers partitioned the sub-continent as they claimed to be giving it freedom. The film deliberately limits itself and is almost completely set in the official residence of the Viceroy; newly arrived Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela ( Lily Travers). Fairly obviously the film is restricted to a rather partial presentation of this seismic and violent event.

The film was immediately taken to task in an article in The Guardian newspaper by Fatima Bhutto. She is a writer, poet and a member of the famous ruling family who have been key players in the history of Pakistan. Her article is a fierce denunciation of the film which includes the following paragraph:

“Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims is spoken of by the Mountbatten’s and other Raj imperialists as though it were a cyclone, arriving in India from some unknown provenance, moved by an unknowable science. Divide and rule, a staple of British colonial administration, is given no credence. Three hundred million Hindus and Sikhs want a united India, she informs us via Raj interlocutors; it is 100 million Muslims who do not. Mirroring the fractures of modern nationalism wrought by India’s partition, Chadha seems to take pleasure in laying the bloodshed and brutality of 1947 at the feet of two particular villains: Muslims and Jinnah.”

Fatima Bhutto was clearly outraged by the film and I would agree with many of her strictures. However, her article does not really address the work as cinema. She relies partly on points regarding plot and dialogue and only briefly discusses the representations. I suspect she became angry early in the film because later on she makes some problematic claims: she gives an example of negative representation by referring to a Muslim father:

“Amid the chaos of partition, Chadha shows a kindly elder Sikh lady who has brought a Muslim woman to the police. The Muslim woman is black and blue. Her father, the old woman tells the cop, threw her under a train, but she would like to adopt her. The crudeness of this moment is painful and sad to behold. Even a (pointedly non-Muslim) stranger is more nurturing than a Muslim parent.”

More importantly she ignores or fail to note an important scene where Lord Mountbatten has a disagreement with a General Ismay (Michael Gambon) after discovering that the line of partition has apparently been set up in advance of negotiations.

Unsurprisingly Gurinder Chadha responded in the pages of The Guardian:

“My film does not ignore the freedom struggle – it celebrates that struggle. (“The British empire brought to its knees by a man in a loincloth,” as Lady Mountbatten comments.) It does not ignore the colonial policy of divide and rule, but challenges it. (As Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru comments to Lord Mountbatten: “You have divided us and now you ask us for a solution.”) Above all, it does not show the Muslim community as sole perpetrators of violence.”

She points out in particular the glaring error made by Bhutto:

” In her most inflammatory allegation, Bhutto writes that the film depicts a Muslim father throwing his daughter from a train, only for her to be saved by a Hindu woman. She asserts that I do this to show that “a (pointedly non-Muslim) stranger is more nurturing than a Muslim parent”. In fact, what the film depicts is a Hindu mob attacking a train of Muslim families – the father pushes his daughter from the train to save her, not to kill her. “

She also claims that Bhutto article defames the film by claiming that

” My film has been wilfully misrepresented as anti-Muslim “

In fact Bhutto claims that the film represents Muslims and the Leader of the Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah ‘as villains’. That is not quite the same thing. Whilst Bhutto does exaggerate the representations in the film I think she is correct when she argues that the film more frequently points the finger at the Muslim League than at the Congress leaders. And I also agree that the film fails to nail the manipulative and racist conduct of the British.

What is missing from the film is the historical context. There are some lines of dialogue that refer to the recent history of the sub-continent, such as those quoted by Chadha. But this not a substitute for setting out the context in an understandable fashion in the script. What is presented and dramatised  to the viewer is mainly events and discussions in the British residence: one building in the whole teaming and [at this time] volatile sub-continent. And as a mainstream film the emphasis is on actions rather than discussion: and the critical dialogue is submerged in a plot that centres on a benevolent British hero, Mountbatten.

In an excellent article, also in The Guardian (‘The myth of Britain’s gifts to India’), Shashi Tharoor has taken the supporters of British imperial history to task with specific reference to the sub-continent. He makes the point that what is termed ‘communalism’, [a misnomer for descriptions of actions seen as sectarian] is the result of British colonial practice. A prime example is the 1905 partition of Bengal by the then Governor-General Lord Curzon,  which resulted [among other aspects] in conflict between Hindus and Muslims. It is worth noting that the subsequent letter page of ‘The Guardian’ contained a slew of letters criticising Tharoor and defending the British role in the sub-continent. This is an example of the British failing to face up to their history: a problem that is part of Viceroy’s House.

Also missing is from Viceroy’s House is any reference to the Indian National Army. These Indians fought alongside the Japanese against the British in India on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. In 1946 the British colonial administration prosecuted a number of the INA leaders. This sparked popular outrage and both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League opposed the trials. It seems that this uproar hastened the British recognition that colonial rule must end. [See Rangoon (2017) for the INA in a film).

Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges have collaborated on a number of films. Essentially they are upbeat family dramas, Bend it Like Beckham (2002), the most successful, is a good example. The one film directed by Chadha that addresses in serious fashion social and political contradictions is Bhaji on the Beach (1993). But the content of this film would appear to owe most to the writer Meera Syal.

Mountbatten, Lady Edwina and their servants

Viceroy’s House, to a degree, fits in this pattern whilst at the same time it is also an example of ‘a heritage film’. Chadha commented that the film was an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ drama: that is the long-running British television series constructed around a bourgeois family [upstairs] and their retinue of servants [downstairs]. That series, and a comparable more recent success ‘Downton Abbey’, rely on careful historical recreation in terms of sets, props and costumes. They are well served by the tradition of British character acting. At the same time they clearly relish the trappings of bourgeois life, a presumably vicarious experience for much of the audience. And they undoubtedly are dominated [as society generally] by bourgeois values. The ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ series ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975. The key member of the household was the Butler, Hudson, played by Gordon Jackson. He acted as both a enabler between the class divide in the house and normally brought the downstairs working class servants into line with the ‘upstairs’ bourgeois family values. An instructive episode was the one concerning the 1926 General Strike. Here whilst the members of the ‘upstairs’ supported the Government and actively participated in anti-trade union actions the ‘downstairs’ were sympathetic to the strikers. The family patriarch, Richard Bellamy (David Langton), actually took an apparent ‘middle’ or ‘compromise’ stance, which was picked up by Hudson. By the end of the episode Hudson has bought the servant quarters into line with ‘upstairs’ as represented by David Bellamy. But as the two representatives of the miners left the house, isolated in the street, the actual stance was one of working class defeat and bourgeois victory.

In Viceroy’s House the 1940s is recreated with careful attention to detail,  The casting of Hugh Bonneville, who plays a key character in the television series ‘Downton Abbey’, as Lord Mountbatten, reinforced this. In this television series he plays, Robert, Earl of Grantham. He is thus the patriarch and equivalent of Richard Bellamy. Whilst he is an aristocratic bourgeois he is also presented as a liberal figure; one of a number of aspects carried over into Mountbatten. Mountbatten is, to a degree, separate from the British establishment. And he was perceived so, especially by the leaders of Congress. The actual Mountbatten, according to memoirs by people who knew him, was a rather different type of figure. Chadha’s film does catch certain character aspects, such as his vanity and love of regal uniforms.

Lady Edwina acts the Hudson role, mediating both with the Viceroy’s household and with refugees from the violence. In a key scene she advises the kitchen staff that they need to accommodate Indian cuisine. Later in the film we see her working to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the violence. There is only a subtle reference to her well-publicised affair with Nehru: a two-shot of them as they and Mountbatten share tea.

Lady Edwina, Mountbatten and General Ismay

As the chief onscreen villain we have Michael Gambon as General Ismay: previously he was the misanthropic landowner in the satirical take on the ‘country house’ cycle Gosforth Park (2001). The other key member of the British ruling elite is Cyril Radcliff (Simon Callow), another player from the heritage film cycle. The presentation of the Indian characters is problematic. The ones who are substantially developed are the two ‘star-crossed’ lovers, Jeet Kumar ( Manish Dayal) and  Aalia Noor (Huma Qureshi). The leading Indian characters – Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi),  Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) – are tokens, as one can tell by their position in the credits.

The settings, sets, props and costumes are lovingly and [as far as I can tell] accurately recreated. Their presentation is in keeping with the heritage genre. Long shots and dramatic high angle shots present the impressive and richly furnished residence. Sequences frequently dwell on the impressive costumes and props. There is a contrast between the luxury of the British elite and the dwellings of the Indian servants, but the key British character are shown as sympathising and crossing this divide.

Early in the film we see Mountbatten and family flying into Delhi. Literally coming down to earth from out of the clouds like Gods in a Greek tragedy. We see Mountbatten vainly adjusting his uniform in a mirror. The film cuts to their arrival at the Viceroy Palace. Long shots and high angle shots present the impressive building and ceremony. A low angle shot emphasises Lord Mountbatten and Lady Edwina’s entrance into the palace.

Another early scene has Mountbatten donning his impressive all-white colonial uniform. Fatima Bhutto comment sharply on this sequence:

” In one of his first scenes, Mountbatten instructs his Indian valets that he never wants to spend more than two minutes getting dressed – fitting for the man who dismembered India in less than six weeks. As always, it is the Indians, not the British, who fail in the simplest of tasks set out for them (they take 13 minutes).”

The actual India, including the increasing violence between communities, is firmly outside the residence. The British, together with the audience, view this in the official private cinema, in newsreels. The first such insert was presented as the British sat looking at the cinema screen: thus in the correct 1.37:1 ratio. I thought at least the film get this right. But from then on in the various newsreel footage was cropped and stretched into the film’s 2.35:1 frame. Moreover this footage had been ‘treated’ with [what I assume was] CGI to include the cast members in the footage. The treatment of archive film in mainstream cinema continues to deteriorate. Later we watch recreations of contemporary newsreels followed by the actual news reel, again reframed and [I think] colourised..

The film actually opens with an introduction to the Viceroy Palace. A long shot pans across buildings to the Palace and then we enter to watch the servants [apparently 800] preparing for the arrival of the new Viceroy. This is typical heritage film, indulging in the impressive building, rich fittings and luxurious props. The dialogue by the servants and white colonial managers introduces the subject of independence: including some caustic lines on the British:

“war has exhausted them.”

This sequence also introduces the star crossed lovers, Jeep and Aalia. They are both from village in that key province, the Punjab; he a Hindu, she a Muslim. In fact they are a recurring presence in the film. Both adding to the plot but also providing a link across disparate sequences and, it would seem, a commentary on the key relationships between Muslim and Hindus.

Jeep and Aalia

Whilst the film does show both sides of the conflict the emphasis definitely seems to be on the problematic of the Muslim position. The earliest example of conflict is at an evening social for the servants where there are Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs enjoying music, singing and dancing. However, when Jeep attempts to dance with Aalia a fellow Muslim angrily demands that

‘you dance with your own kind’.

Later the earlier reports of communal violence is that instigated by Muslims against Hindus.

These antagonism and conflicts spread among the servants, who include all the of the main ethic/religious groupings: though there was no obvious sign of any dalits [untouchables] here. In one powerful sequence, using conventional montage, whilst Gandhi gives voice to his fears about conflict the servants, listening on the balcony, break into physical conflict.

But the conflict is always personalised in the characters of Jeep and Aalia. When Mountbatten returns from a visit to London to seek approval for partition Edwina sadly criticises the plan. Outside on the balcony Jeep and Aalia listen in dismay. As the servants lined up later to choose between the new India and Pakistan we see Jeep and Aalia embrace. There follows a series of scenes in conventional montage as the division of the property in the Palace takes place. At one point two librarians argue over Jane Austen novels. But this series is intercut with scenes of Jeep and Aalia high up in the Palace. They hold hands and he gives her a bangle to

“show out unity.”

They embrace and then go to seek permission from Aalia’s father for their union. The father (Om Puri) is a  Muslin but also a member of Congress. he is against partition but feels he must choose Pakistan. When Jeep and Aalia arrive they discover that Aalia’s official fiancé, Asif, has returned. He has been fighting for the British in the European war. He is also now the driver of Jinnah. Jeep and Azalea’s plans vanish.

The film’s central ‘upstairs’ plot is the dealing between the British, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. There are also dealings between the resident British elite and the newly arrived Mountbatten. The key relationship/confrontation is with General Ismay. To this is added Cyril Radcliff’s work in drawing up the line of partition. This triangle comes to a climax when Mountbatten discovers that there is a secret plan drawn up in 1945 by Winston Churchill which includes a map for a line of partition between Muslim and Hindu areas. The rationale behind this is Britain interests in a buffer zones between itself and the Soviet Union and the importance of oil supplies in the Middle East.

Here the film relies on a key study, based on Narendra Singh Sarila’s 2006 book ‘The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition’. The author was Mountbatten’s aide-de-camp and more recently researched the archives of the British Foreign Office. The plan in the ‘secret’ document is one drawn up by the previous Viceroy, General Wavell; though this is rather lost in the dialogue. However, in the film we have Radcliff telling the ‘secret’ to Mountbatten and then a confrontation between Mountbatten and Ismay. I rather doubt that this scene actually occurred and it seems unlikely that Mountbatten could have been completely ignorant of the plan.

Other historians record that there were plans, possibly several, for partitioning India: some dating earlier than 1945. Lord Wavell, the previous Governor-General, had the ‘breakdown plan’. Mountbatten himself produced a ‘first draft’ plan for partition rejected by Nehru, ‘Plan Balkan’; enough said! The film has a character explain that Jinnah knew of the 1945 version and this explained his intransigence. But both sides knew of these, as they had ‘moles’ reporting back to them on the British preparations and plans. The scene in the film is typical of melodrama, reducing events to individual characters and their actions: whereas at the time this was a policy of the British Government. Ismay tells Mountbatten in the film that the ‘secret plan’ was drawn up by Churchill. There may have been such a case, but what is well recorded is the close attention that the then current Prime Minister, Clem Atlee, paid in overseeing Mountbatten and the policy in the sub-continent. The aforementioned scene presents Mountbatten as innocent, if naïve. Descriptions of his contemporaries exclude any sense of naivety. And his knowledge of much of the preparation for partition deny him innocence. The films seems determined to present Mountbatten as a liberal, well meaning figure.

Mountbatten, Jinnah and the Press

Bhutto comments:

“The benevolence of the Mountbattens and, by association, the British Raj is laced throughout Chadha’s film'” [Here we had a Guardian misspelling, ‘Chanda’ not ‘Chadha’].

In line with film melodrama we have a hero and villains: to varying degrees, Ismay, Churchill and Jinnah. Bhutto comments on the last representation:

“Jinnah is at his Bela Lugosi finest, dark circles around his eyes and his silver hair roguishly slicked back. To divide India is a tragedy, Mountbatten sighs, how can we convince Jinnah not to? well, according to Chadha, you can’t. Jinnah, a successful barrister and leader of the Muslim Leaguer, is simply introduced to use a s “trouble maker”.”

Bhutto exaggerates again, but the representation of Jinnah is different from that of the Congress leaders. The meetings involving him are relatively formal, as his behaviour. We see Nehru relaxing and socialising with Mountbatten and Edwina. And when Gandhi appears the servants gather to pay him homage. Following which he offers Mountbatten some goat curd as a ‘treat’.

I think it is fair to state that partition was a reactionary policy and that the Muslim League bears much of the responsibility for this; in particular the ill-conceived ‘Two Nation Theory’. However, by 1947 the leaders of Congress, with the exception of Gandhi, had accepted that partition would happen; some of them supposing [ erroneously] that such a state would prove unviable and finally return to the Indian fold. But this type of complexity is beyond the films ability to address.

It is worth adding that it is clear in the film that Mountbatten and his advisors knew full well that the British intended to depart the sub-continent at formal independence with complete disregard for the growing violence across the sub-continent. Whilst film mourns the one million or more dead, it fails to ask why the British did not fulfil their obligations. i.e. dealing with a situation that they had created. The parallel with Palestine, where the British ‘divide and rule’ resulted in a settler regime, war and dispossession is glaring. And both partitions continue to haunt the contemporary world.

There are some well-praised scenes showing the decision of ‘spoils’ as the British prepare to leave; in particular dividing up the household goods in the Viceroy Palace. What gets little attention in the division of the armed forces between the two new states. This was completed in four weeks. A major factor in the military’s inability to stem violence. In fact, there are recorded cases in the Punjab where swift action by British troops and officer did forestall violence. But the precipitous disengagement of the British undermined this.

Refugees – a contemporary record

Films like Viceroy’s House give the impression that India was a seething cauldron of violence during Partition. The generality conceals a more complex situation. In fact, the most extreme violence occurred in two  disputed territories.

“By far, the most serious devastation took place in Punjab and Bengal. Elsewhere, events were of a lesser scale and simply incomparable to Punjab’s misery. Yet beyond the Punjabi epicentre, rioters wreaked havoc in many cities including Delhi, Bombay, Karachi and Quetta.

A few outbreaks of Partition violence even occurred in the south, which usually stayed remarkably untouched by the conflict unfolding in the north. Prince-ruled territories, especially Kashmir and Hyderabad, were afflicted, as well as the directly controlled British locales. This was nothing short of a continental disaster.” (The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan, published by Yale University Press. 2007.)

The violence was not always spontaneous. There is plenty of evidence that violence was instigated and orchestrated by members of both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. The main intent is what we would today call ‘ethnic cleansing’, in order to create a majority for one side.

The film avoids this sort of analysis and favours doctored news reel and scenes of the refugees arriving at the Place. Here again Jeep and Aalia provide personal identification. And Lady Edwina and Lady Pamela show the British caring and attempting to alleviate suffering.

The film shows the Independence ceremonies for both India and Pakistan; some of the few sequences away from the Palace. There are also long shots of the refugee columns across the border areas. By this time Jeep has learned that Aalia apparently died in a train massacre. The film closes in a refugee camp, presumably in Delhi. The Mountbatten are there as is Nehru. He is assaulted by one distressed refugee: a scene to which Bhutto took particular objection. We see  Hindu woman arrive with a stretcher. This is Aalia, rescued from the train massacre in the manner argued over by Bhutto and Chadha. Just to heighten tension Jeep at this point is leaving the camp. Aalia, desperate to find him, grabs a microphone and calls him  over the loudspeaker system; the lovers are re-united. This trope is clearly designed to provide an slightly upbeat ending to a film about a major tragedy.

Clearly the violence was dreadful, over a million died; millions were dispossessed and turned into refugees. But the film’s depiction suggests a catastrophe and one with little explicit causation. As the great historian Eric Hobsbawm opined:

“This time it can be truly said that Britain ‘divided to rule’. (‘Age of Extremes’, 1994).

The rather one-sided study is strengthened in the end credits where a series of photographs and titles show that the director’s, Gurinder Chadha, grandmother and family were caught up in partition. She left the Punjab and was finally re-united with her family in an Indian refugee camp. This seems to subtly reinforce the sense that Pakistan is the problem. In retrospect Chadha would have better served the subject by dramatising her own family story. As it is we have an epic subject in the form popular on the small screen. Bhutto compares this film unfavourably with the earlier Gandhi (1982). That film does have the epic treatment the subject requires. I think it also has a better and more intelligent script. However Gandhi also presents Jinnah as the problem. And it also fails to demonstrate the British failure and oppression. The film does include the infamous Amritsar massacre, but like Viceroy’s House, it relies on a British actors and language, and frequently a British point of view. At one point Gandhi (an excellent Ben Kinsley) tells the Viceroy,

‘when the British leave we want you to leave as friends’!

It is worth noting that some of the footage of refugee columns looked as if it was taken from the sequences in Gandhi. The Hindu woman with a Muslim ‘daughter’ reminded me of the excellent Bombay (1995). And the use of the microphone by Aalia irresistibly reminded me of a far better sequence in The Battle of Algiers (1966): that a film that understands colonialism.

There are two important omissions in the film. One is any reference to the Indian National Army. And the other are the ‘prince-ruled’ territories referred to in the earlier quotation also omitted from the film. But here the recorded history shows that the British, including Mountbatten, were just as manipulative. And these actions exacerbated the situation. A key territory was Kashmir, whose allegiance was decided by the single ruler. Thus a conflict zone between India and Pakistan was crated and still today the people of Kashmir await self-determination.

Bhutto concludes her attack on the film with this comment:

“Viceroy’s House is the film of a deeply colonised imagination'”

One assumes that she is referring to the writings of Franz Fanon: in particular to ‘Black Skin White Masks’ (1967) and ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (1961). In the latter, in ‘On National Culture’, Fanon writes:

“If we wanted to trace in the works of native writers the difference phases which characterise this evolution we would find spread out before us a panorama on three levels. In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power.”

To be fair to Gurinder Chadha she is not ‘a native intellectual’ of the sub-continent. However, she clearly feels an involvement it its history, especially the period of partition. Moreover, in some ways the film is part of what has become known as ‘Diaspora cinema’: art works that give, or attempt to give, expression to a heritage culture. However, as is so often the case, the dominant culture of the imperial power are the ruling ideas.

Finally there is the BFI who contributed to the production funding. One circular publicising a season commemorating Indian Independence 75 years ago was highlighted by a plug for Viceroy’s House. ‘Bollywood 2.0’ and the accompanying ‘Song and Dance’ are programmes of cotemporary Indian cinema at the BFI Southbank in April and May. Meenakshi Shedde has discussed this cinema and the programmes in an article in the April Sight & Sound, ‘A World Within: The Other Indian Cinema’. It is not clear yet whether audiences in other parts of the territory will get to see these films? Among the offering are Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and Firaaq (2008), both films that address more recent communalism than the 1947 partition. The British heritage version seems a somewhat inapt trailer for these.

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3000 Nights / 300 Layal / 3000 Layla, Palestine | France | Jordan | Lebanon | Qatar | United Arab Emirates 2015

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2017

This is a powerful addition to the growing body of Palestinian films. It seems that previously it has only been featured at the London Film Festival in 2015 and it has not been certificated by the BBFC. Now the Showroom in Sheffield, working with other exhibitors and some local Palestinian support groups, has made the film more widely available. I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House, supported by Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. The film is in colour and the dialogue is in both Arabic and Hebrew [and possibly some French] with English subtitles. The film is almost entirely shot within the confines of a prison. It was filmed in Jordan, unlike some of the recent titles produced in the occupied West Bank: the subject matter would have made that difficult.

The film opens in a van where blindfolded Palestinian prisoners are being taken to an Israeli jail. This is a suitably dark, noir sequence. An onscreen title informs us that it is 1980. Among the prisoner is Layal (English variant Layla – Maisa Abd Elhadi). She has been arrested on the charge of helping a Palestinian ‘terrorist’; The events are never fully explained but it seems that she gave a lift to a young man who is accused of shooting an Israeli. The Israelis never produce any evidence to support their charges.

Once in prison Layal is tortured, interrogated and denied access to friends and family. Then she is incarcerated in a large cell in a women’s prison with Israeli criminals; these include a drug addict and an obviously racist woman. Layal is immediately subjected to harassment by the other prisoners. The warder and the guards are not just unsympathetic but actively aid the persecution. Then Layal discovers she is pregnant. She is now moved to a cell with Palestinian women. However, the woman Governor tries to persuade Layal to have an abortion,. Her husband, when he is finally allowed to see her, adds his voice to this.

When Layal is bought before a military court there appears to be no convincing evidence against her. At one point the young Palestinian accused of the shooting is bought into court and Layal is pressurised to claim that he threatened her; she refuses. Her lawyer, a sympathetic Israeli, tries to get her release but she is declared guilty and given an eight year sentence.

The film follows her experiences of imprisonment. At first the other Palestinian women in the cell are suspicious of Layal, partly because she has been allowed family visits: a way used by the Israeli guards to pressurise prisoner into co-operation. On particular one prisoner, Sanaa (Nadira Omran), who is a freedom fighter locked up for fifteen years, suspects Layla of such co-operation. Despite these pressures, and those applied by the guards and her husband., Layal is delivered of her baby. This sequence shows her handcuffed and leg-cuffed to a bed for the delivery!

With the arrival of a son, Nour, her situation and the tone of the film brighten. The other Palestinian woman assist Layal in the care of her child. We watch this process as Nour passes his first two years. In 1982 the prisoners hear of the \Israeli invasion of Lebanon, followed by the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps. The women commence a hunger strike and also refuse to do the work for the Israeli guards. The Palestinian male prisoners, in a adjoining compound, follow suit. As the conflict escalates Layla is removed from the cell and locked up alone with Nour. A second Palestinian woman joins her and persuades her to drop the strike for the sake of Nour. When Layal realises that she is a collaborator she rejoins the strike. As punishment Nour is taken away; [we will realise later that he has been placed with Layal’s family’]. Despite this Layal continues to support the strike. There is a brutal sequence where the Israeli guards break up a protest and shoot a young Palestinian woman. Then they use tear gas on the prisoners and savage them in the cells. The woman continue to resist. Now comes news that the ‘resistance’ has kidnapped six Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. This leads to prisoner swap [six for over 4,000] and Sanaa is one of those released.

Layal has to continue to serve her full eight years. Finally she is released. The last shot shows her re-united with Nour outside the prison. On screen titles then inform the audience of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners who have been incarcerated by the Israelis, including currently six thousand men, women and children.

This is the first full length drama involving the treatment of Palestinians seized and locked up by the Israeli state that I have seen. There are other films where prisoners are manipulated by Israeli’s but these were part of larger stories about resistance and the Israeli response. The fact that the film focuses on women adds to the emotional power of the film. The treatment they endure is draconian and racist: but this is the staple of the Zionist occupation. The film also shows Layal’s growing strength, determination and resistance. The pregnancy and Nour’s upbringing add lighter note but also impact on Layal’s response to her situation.

The film offers many tropes of the prison film genre. There have been several films in recent years that deal with woman and children in prison. Leonera (Argentina 2008) is a particular fine example. there are distinct parallels between that film and 3000 Nights. Whilst the protagonist in Leonera , Julia, is in prison for a criminal act, there is a similar growth in strength and independence and the final moment of freedom for mother and child.

3000 Nights also uses other tropes from prison films. there are several short sequences where Layal watches the birds that fly around the cages of the prison: a motif for freedom denied the prisoners. And later in the film there is a shot of Layal as she stands in the pouring rain but imbued with her sense of independence.

The film offers fairly adult viewing given the violence perpetrated on the women. At the same time it has strong sense of the politics of liberation. The events involving the ‘resistance’ [the PLO] are one aspect: but the resistance of the women to their situation is another. Even by the standards of prison films, say those sited in the USA or in a country like Brazil, the treatment of the Palestinian  women is disturbing. But this is par for the situation of people in a colonised situation. A parallel would be a film from Apartheid South Africa, say Mapantsula (1988), where racist treatment is also faced by a growing consciousness and resistance.

This is the first film I have seen by the writer and director Mai Masri. It is extremely well done. The development of the story and of Layal’s consciousness is well paced and convincing. The Palestinian characters are more than stereotypes as are the Israelis. The latter are predominantly negative but the script includes both a Liberal Israeli lawyer and an Israeli prisoner who has a change of attitude after an act of assistance. Layal’s husband leaves for Canada and there is a hint of romance with a male Palestinian prisoner/ medical orderly, which I found unnecessary. The film  is based to on the actual experiences of Palestinian women i imprisoned by the Israeli state, including those who had children in prison. This reality shines through in the film.

The quality of the production is really good. there is excellent cinematography and sound. And there is judiciously judged music. The supporting vast are convincing.

There are more screenings arranged in the UK and the internationally the film has been released in at least eighteen territories.

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Rangoon India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on March 6, 2017

rangoon-movie-posters

The nearby Odeon programmes Hindi language films or ‘Bollywood’ as it is popularly known. In the last week they had the above title, described in their publicity leaflet as follows:

“Romantic war drama film … a period film set in World War II and supposedly portrays the life and times of Mary Ann Evans aka Fearless Nadia, Bollywood’s first original stunt-woman still remembered for her fiery role[s]…”

I am a fan of classic Bombay cinema and I have seen and enjoyed a couple of the titles starring Fearless Nadia. There was the added prospect of recreations of the Bombay Wadia Studio of the period. To my surprise my pleasure was enhanced when the film opened with black and white footage and stills [mainly in the correct ratio] of Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. Bose led this army of Indians living in the captured Japanese territories or Indian prisoners of war in the conflict alongside the Japanese army and against the British occupation of India.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

Appropriately the original was in Sanskrit.

I have seen references to Bose and the INA in other films but this is the first [for me]  in which they played a substantial role in the plot. So this romantic melodrama offered over two hours of Indian song and dance, war-time recreations and a political and anti-colonial strand. On screen titles explained the situation of the INA, fighting under the umbrella of the Japanese: and the limitations of this situation for them. The film also drew attention to the female members of the army organised into the Jhansi ki Rani (“Jhansi Queens”) Regiment.

Bose and the "Jhansi Queens")

Bose and the “Jhansi Queens”)

The film’s central narrative opens as a Viceroy commissioned officer [i.e. an indigenous Indian] Jemadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor) is captured by the Japanese. We then moved to a Bombay film studio where Miss Julia (the Fearless Nadia character played by Kangana Ranaut) is performing a action-packed sequence for her latest film. The producer, an ex-film star and Miss Julia’s lover, is Rustom “Rusi” Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan). The two characters, Nawab Malik and Miss Julie, will meet later in the film and commence a romantic relationship.

The villains in the film are the British occupiers, personalised in the character of Major General David Harding (Richard McCabe). His is an Indiaphile: he speaks fluent Hindi and can play the harmonium whilst singing a classical Indian raga. He is however also a ruthless upholder of the Raj in its battle with the Japanese. He pressurises “Rusi” to let Miss Julia tour the front line, enthusing the troops; his weapon is the withholding of the rare film stock from the studio.

Harding and "Rusi"

Harding and “Rusi”

Much of the first part of the film, [which has an interval] is taken up with Miss Julia being parted from the military convoy. when Japanese fighter strafe the column, in which she is travelling to the front-line. She is rescued from Japanese soldiers by Nawab Malik. These two along, with a Japanese prisoner, travel through the jungle and are finally re-united with the British convoy. It is in this time that romance blossoms between Miss Julia and Nawab Malik.

rangoon-celeb-review-7591

In the second part of the film we see Miss Julia’s concerts to the troops, who are enthusiastically dazzled by the star. At the same time ‘moles’ within the convoy are planning to smuggle a valuable sword to the INA troops; who need funds to buy military equipment. It is the latter plotline that leads to the climax and resolution of the film. The plot has to deal with the historical realities of INA failure. So the ending is partly tragic, but Harding is outmanoeuvred by the INA supporters and the film ends with a celebratory still recording that the INA actually occupied Indian soil and hoisted the flag of Independence in 1944.

Rangoon is a typical product of modern Hindi cinema. There is high melodrama, songs and dances, and the plot is interlaced with partly comic support characters, such as the Japanese prisoner Horomichi (Satoru Kawaguchi). The plot also twins a typical Hindi film romance with a period drama including the conventional Hindi hero. So whilst Miss Julia is a feisty heroine, at one point she carries out a dramatic train rescue clearly modelled on a Fearless Nadia film, at key points it is the male characters who wield the gun. The film seems to be more explicit in terms of sexuality than is common: we see “Rusi” and Miss Julia sharing a bathtub [with plenty of bubbles] and in bed together [though properly clothed]. The film finally essays an Indian unity over against the British in its resolution; all the key Hindi characters come together in support of the INA. A trope that I have encountered in other Indian films.

The songs and dance numbers are bravura sequences. there is an early number on a moving train that seems to have been inspired by Mani Ratnam’s film Dil Se (1998). And there are several exhilarant performances by Miss Julia for the front-line troops. in keeping with the techniques of them period we see Miss Julia performing to ‘playback’ singer, who appears herself to an actual playback artist. The dance and choreography seem more typical of contemporary cinema than the films of the 1930s and 1940s when Fearless Nadia was a star.

rangoon-kangana-song

The film was directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. I had seen his earlier films and enjoyed Maqbool (2003) adapted from ‘Macbeth’, and Omkara (2006) from ‘Othello’. He has also adapted ‘Hamlet’, Haider (2014), which I have yet to see. Bhardwaj started out as a composer and progressed to direction. He composed the music in this film and two of his regular collaborators, the lyricist Gulzar and the playback singer Rekha Bhardwaj, feature in this film. The cinematography by Pankaj Kumar  is excellent. I had already seen Kangana Ranaut  in Queen (20140, an impressive and slightly unusual film for which she won Best Actor at the National Film Awards. Miss Julia in Rangoon gives her a great part which she plays to the full. There are action sequences, great dance numbers, moments of high melodrama and moments of intense romance; all of which she performs with real aplomb. She is the key to the film.

The reworking of Fearless Nadia, not that close to the actual star and her films, works very effectively. It seems that the contemporary Wadia Studio took out a legal action because of the resemblance to their one-time star. They seem to have lost this suit. It also seemed ill-judged: one would think this film could/would arouse fresh interest in Nadia. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the focus and time and space that it gives to the Indian National Army. As noted the film both opens and closes with footage of the INA. And whilst the film is a romance the motivation of the protagonists, both heroic and villainous, revolves round the INA fight against the British occupation . The title of the film, Rangoon [Yangon], the old capital of Burma, only features in the dialogue and seems to be a reference to the INA command being based there during the campaign. Apart from documentaries I have not seen of another film that devoted this much attention to the INA. It seems that the forthcoming Raag Desh will deal with the trials of INA members by the British at the end of the war. Wikipedia has a number of references to both documentaries and feature films that include the INA.

In its espousal of the anti-colonial struggle the film clearly expresses an Indian Nationalist discourse. Given its mainstream conventions this would place it in First Cinema. Presumably for Indian audiences more familiar with the issues around the INA and with memories or awareness of Fearless Nadia’s stardom, the film is partly nostalgic. But as we also approach the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence there is the prospect of moments of increased consciousness.

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The film is in colour and 2.35:1 ratio with English sub-titles. Unfortunately the UK release seems to have been cut by about twenty minutes.

 

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Cuban Cinema?

Posted by keith1942 on February 12, 2017

The proper place to obtain Cuban films.

The proper place to obtain Cuban films.

Normally when I check ouit a Film Festival I recommend a couple of films. But I received a shock when I looked at the Webpages for the Harrogate Film Festival.

‘Experience screening: Cuban Cinema’ is offering the Hollywood thriller Scarface (1983). This film has a fine performance by Al Pacino in the title role and bears the hall marks of the director Brian de Palma. It is in fact a remake of a Howard Hawks film from 1932. This bore some resemblance to the Al Capone era and had a psychotic Italian-American gangster as the protagonist. In the de Palma’s remake Tony is now a Cuban exile and is certainly more violent than the 1930s model: plus he has progressed to marketing and consuming drugs.

From memory the entire film is set in the USA. And it is debatable in what way people who fled the progressive revolution in Cuba to seek reactionary shelter in the USA can in any sense represent Cuba. If I had the time and money I would take up the case under the Bruitish Trade Description Act.

The screening seems to be organised in conjuction with Revolucìon de Cuba and is to be held in a ‘Latin inspired Rum Bar and Cantina’. I suspect that the ‘Revolucìon’ here bears at much resemblance to the actuality as the title does to Cuban film.

Rather sad as we have been starved of Cuban cinema for over a decade. Apart from Festivals the last time that I enjoyed a screening of a Cuban film was in the 1990s. Yet  it in its heyday it was one of the most dynamic, and inspiring cinemas around.

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