Third Cinema revisited

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Al Momia / The Night of Counting the Years, Egypt 1969

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016


This is a classic Egyptian film that was restored by the World Cinema Foundation at the Cineteca di Bologna and screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009. It was the only feature film to be made by the writer and director Shadi Abdel Salam, though he did make a few short documentaries. The film credits bear the title ‘sponsor Roberto Rossellini’. Apparently Salam visited Rossellini and asked him to direct the film, but Rossellini persuaded Salam to direct it himself.

The film dramatises events that occurred in 1881, when it was discovered that precious archaeological treasures from one of the tomb of an ancient Pharaoh were being sold to foreign collectors. This was the Deir el-Bahri cache, a tomb shaft that contained over 50 mummies, unusually, from five separate dynasties. These had originally been moved and secreted by priests to prevent looting as the Egyptian Empire collapsed. The cache was sited in cliffs away from the famous Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile. It is worth noting that 1881 was the year that a nationalist rebellion broke out against the colonial domination of Egypt. In 1882 the British fleet first bombarded Alexandria and then occupied the country.

Salam turned the events surrounding the hidden cache into an evocative and haunting tale. In the film a local tribe, the Horabat, are secretly raiding a lost tomb near Thebes. The Egyptian Archaeological Society sets out to disrupt this illegal trading and find the actual location. However, the bulk of the film focuses on the activities of the Horabat tribe and dissension amongst its members.

The film is slowly paced and has a poetic feel. Martin Scorsese writes:

Frequently an event seems disconnected from its predecessor. The film often uses tracking shots, mainly forward or reverse, which are grimly slow. The colours are mut

“Al Momia has an extremely unusual tone – stately, poetic, with a powerful grasp of time and the sadness it carries. The carefully measured pace, the almost ceremonial movement of the camera, the desolate settings, the classical Arabic spoken on the soundtrack, the unsettling score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene – they all work in perfect harmony and contribute to the feeling of fateful inevitability.” [Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2009).

The scenes are presented one by one, without transition shots. ed and many scenes are fairly dark. Daylight is opaque and night-time or interiors have great blocks of darkness. The use of classical Arabic is unusual, even in Egyptian films. There is an almost dreamlike quality, appropriate to the themes of death, memory and the past.

The English language title of the film is set out in the first scene at a meeting at the Cairo Museum. Professor Raspére presents a quotation to his colleagues from the 3,000 year old ‘Book of the Dead’. He offers an incantation that:

“. . . restores to the dead the power to remember his name. A spirit without name is doomed to wander in perpetual anguish.”

This sets up the major themes of the film, names and identity, memory and the past. It is worth noting that a number of key characters in the film are not identified by name. These include the leader of the Society’s expedition: one of the brothers in the tribe, his mother and the elders: and the officer of the Egyptian militia.

Professor Raspére also shows his colleagues a parchment that has been illegally trafficked to the West and which relates to an unknown tomb of a Pharaoh. This leads to the Archaeological Society visiting the valley near Thebes, out of season, hoping to catch the grave robbers unprepared. The only support for these effendi [as the locals call them], after a steam journey up the Nile, is a group of the Guards of the Mount of the Dead.

The viewer’s first encounter with the Horabat tribe is the funeral procession for the dead leader, Selim. The procession ends at a circle of white funeral obelisks. Here, Selim’s two sons are taken apart by tribal Elders and informed that they must take responsibility for a secret held by their father. This is the secret cache, which is regularly raided for valuables that are sold to a middleman, Ayoub. The sales appear to be the main source of income for the tribe.


The stealthy journey to the cache leads us through a chain of mazes and labyrinths. Such labyrinths recur throughout the film, in rock defiles, caves, and ruined palaces. At the end of these is the treasure. However, there is also a monster – desecration of the dead motivated by greed – which leads to the death of the elder brother.

This brother had told the elders that they should ‘leave the dead in peace’, and refuses to continue the robberies. The younger brother, Wannis, is confused and uncertain. But their mother sides with the elders, and tells the older brother, ‘I no longer have a name to give you.’ This brother attempts to leave Thebes, but is killed on a boat, which bears a mysterious sign, ‘two hands in the shape of a butterfly’. This probably has some meaning in Egyptian culture, but certainly for foreign audiences it feeds into the overall ambiguity that envelops the film.

For much of the film the younger brother Wannis is torn between loyalty to his tribe and his revulsion at the grave robbing. He is subjected to a series of temptations, by the elders, and by Mourad, an accessory of Ayoub, who wants to take up dealing himself.

Finally Wannis visits the Society’s steamer and discloses the site of the cache. Guarded by the guards the 40 odd mummies are transported to the steamer, which then sets off to Cairo and the museum. The ending resolves the problem of the film in one sense; the cultural treasures are passed into safekeeping. And it resolves one problem regarding names and identity.

“Rise you will not die out. You will be called by your name. You are given new life.”

However, the film’s ending has a desolate tone. Still bruised from an attack Wannis wanders away along the banks of the Nile. And the gulf between the tribe and their desolate area and the elite in their metropolitan city appears as wide as ever.

In colour. Arabic with English subtitles.



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The Idol / Ya Tayr El Tayer Palestine 2015

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2016


This film was screened at the Leeds Young Film Festival. It does not have a UK release and the only other screening in Britain was at the London International Film Festival. It really deserves wider exhibition, both because it is a very well-done biopic and because it deals with the major contradiction in the Middle East, Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

The central character is Mohammad Assaf, born and bought up in Gaza, in 2013 he was the winner of a major Arabic Television competition, ‘Arab Idol’. He has since become a popular singer across the Arab world and also have been made a UN ‘goodwill’ ambassador.

The film opens with Mohammed in 2005. Mohammed, along with his sister Nour and two male friends, has an amateur band with him as lead singer. Scrimping and saving they buy second hand musical equipment and start to perform at local weddings. Their budding career is interrupted when Nour develops a failing kidney and has to undergo Kino therapy. The alternative of a kidney transplant is beyond the family’s scarce means. They and Mohammed are distraught when Nour dies.

The film moves forward to 2012 when Mohammed is working as a taxi driver in order to fund his University studies. With the help of friends and Gazans involved in illicit smuggling he is able to leave Gaza for Cairo and enter the prestigious competition. The film ends with his success, the start of a popular career and the celebrations among people in Gaza at his victory.

The film presupposes some acquaintance with the popular culture in the region. So I had to look up ‘Arab Idol’ after seeing the film. The programme, ‘Arab Idol : Mahboub El Arab’, was based on the British TV programme ‘Pop Idol’. It commenced in 2011, following on from an earlier set of programmes, ‘Super Star’. Mohammed’s audition was in Cairo but the actual contest takes place in Lebanon. Applicants who passed the auditions compete over a series of weeks as, one by one, some are eliminated through audience voting. The finale presents the winner. Mohammed was successful in the second series in 2013.

Effectively the film falls into three parts. Mohammed’s early life in Gaza in 2005. Then his adult life in Gaza around 2012. And finally the television competition. In the 2005 sequences Mohammed is played by Qais Attallah.  I found the first part the most interesting and affecting. This is very much down to the character of Nour (Hiba Attahllah). She is the most dynamic character and something of a tomboy. And she is at this point in the film enjoys equal attention with Mohammed. The memory of her remains an important motivation for Mohammed later on.

The 2012 Gaza sequences emphasise the effects of the Israeli blockades and attacks. There is equal emphasis on the effects of Hamas rule. One of Mohammed’s erstwhile friends and band members is now a convinced member of the Islamic organisation, The film does generate a sense of Mohammed (Tawfeek Barhom) caught between the Israelis and Hamas. There is a despairing quality about his attempts to leave Gaza, very different from the élan of the youthful band seven years earlier. There is also a slight romantic interest in the character of Amal (Dima Awawdeh) who he met in the hospital where she received the same treatment as Nour.


The third sequence commences in 2012 as Mohammed manages to leave Gaza and arrives in Cairo for the ‘Arab Idol’ auditions at the city’s Opera House. He has to overcome a succession of obstacles but succeeds and we then watch the succeeding stages of the competition. As Screen International commented this is the most ‘formulaic’ part of the film. There is intensive parallel cutting between the television auditorium, watching audiences in Gaza and elsewhere in Arabia and the situation of Mohammed, psychologically divided after his earlier travails. There are also several scenes on beaches or waterfronts, paralleling earlier scenes in  Gaza. In one of these we see a flashback montage to his early years, Nour and the band. It is now that he finds the resolve to carry on. As we view these final scenes and move into the end credits the actor of Mohammed is changed to the actual real-life singer.

The film is directed by Hany Abu-Assad who also wrote the screenplay together with Sameh Zoabi. Abu-Assad is a Palestinian director with an impressive output. His earlier films include Omar (2013), Paradise Now (2005) and Rana’s Wedding (2002). His films tend to dramatise the lives of ordinary Palestinians and this is true of The Idol. Whilst the focus is Mohammed, now a celebrity, much of the film presents the situation and settings of Palestinians in Gaza. Whilst the Israeli blockade and regular assaults are hardly mentioned in the dialogue, there are frequent references in the mise en scène. These include the security installations and fences that surround Gaza: the landscape full of destroyed buildings: and Palestinian victims like one man who has lost his legs.

Abu-Assad and his crew are also technically accomplished. The cinematography by Ehab Assal is well judged and impressively mobile. There are frequent tracks using a Steadicam. The film opens with a fast-paced race by Nour, Mohammed and their two friends across houses, constructions sites, balconies and walk-ways. [The sequence does look a little like the opening sequence of Skyfall (2012) where James Bond (Daniel Craig) chases down a character]. There are a number of repeat sequences of this type, including a delightful track along an underground  tunnel as a boy delivers food from Egypt’s WacDonalds. And when Mohammed arrives for the auditions in Cairo there is a similar sequence as he manages to ‘break in’ to the Opera House.

So this is a well-judged and very stylish portrait. The latter stages of the film are more conventional as the writing aims for the final ‘feel-good’ factor. We have the conventional plot point where a friend, now a member of Hams, waives his duty to help Mohammed. And this reduces the impact of the political side of the film. I felt that Abu-Assad was definitely criticising Hamas, and given this is Gaza there is no equivalent address of the problematic around Fatah. In the early part of the film the mise en scène frequently contrasts male dominated actions with watching women. We see this in the wedding sequences where it is the men who dance to the music and the women sit and watch. meanwhile Nour is hidden from the view of the audience as she plays in the band. And we see it again at Nour’s funeral where the coffin in followed by a male cortege. There is a contrast late in the film during ‘Arab Idol’ where the westernised audience and staff of both sexes mingle easily.

The oblique style of the references to the Israeli occupation are effective. But the final success of Mohammed and the response among Palestinians suggest a cultural avenue which seems unlikely to succeed. Mohamed does state at the finale of ‘Arab Idol’ that that he entered the contest because he wanted the Palestine’s voice to be heard. This stance is somewhat belied by the his expressed motivation in the days before when he was planning his ‘escape’ from Gaza. And the competition, a copy of that in neo-colonial Britain, emphasises individualism rather than community. Something which the frequent cutaways to celebrating Palestinians fails to counter. And the idea of UN ‘goodwill ambassador’ hardly seems to address the ferocity of the regular assaults on Gaza.

Audience, Idol

Abu-Assad’ s films tend to treat the armed struggle as problematic, witness Paradise Now and Omar. His work can be seen as part of a movement to build a Palestinian Cinema, in other words a ‘second cinema’ for the Palestinians with a touch of the auteur. So the film lack the direct and powerful opposition of films that focus primarily on the struggle, say Five Broken Cameras (2011). But they do, as with this film, offer powerful representations of Palestinians and they now offer the level of production values common across the world of ‘Festival’ cinema.


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The Easter Rising 1916

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2016


The famed Easter Rising [Éirí Amach na Cásca ] against the British occupation of Eire actually took place later than Easter in 2016, from the 24th [Easter Monday] to the 29th of April. Whilst the insurrection failed and was brutally suppressed by the British forces of occupation, there is general agreement that this act of resistance fuelled the nationalist feeling that led to the partial success in the War of Independence in 1921.

There are a number of screenings of films that in some way commemorate these events: see online for events in Belfast, Boston, Dublin and London. There are also two new films due for release in the centenary year that focus on these events. Twelve Days in May (Liffeyside Productions) tells of the execution of James Connolly by the British for his part in the uprising, May 12 1916. Connolly was one of the most important leaders in the rebellion and the most politically conscious, a member of a number of socialist organisations. He was a Union Organiser and a leader of  the famous workers’ resistance to the Dublin lockout of 1913.

The other film is The Rising (2016, Production Co: Maccana Teoranta) which has a US release date but not yet one for the UK. The key protagonist is Seán MacDiarmada who was one of the organisers of the uprising. The film will [apparently] follow his actions from preparation to actual action in The Rising

There are already a number of filsm that feature the Easter Rising directly and indirectly. The War of Independence [Cogadh na Saoirse ], which followed, was waged by the Irish Republican Army (Óglaigh na hÉireann) from 1919 to 1921. This was a guerrilla war and ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty between the Irish Free State and Great Britain. However, the Treaty excluded the six counties in the north, which remained occupied. This was the main cause of a civil war [Cogadh Cathartha na hÉireann]  between those who supported the Treaty and those who opposed it. This civil war ran on through 1922 and 1923.

Hopefully there will be opportunities to see some of these films this year. The Topical Budget newsreel had footage of the aftermath of The Rising showing ruined buildings and the British Army.

The earliest feature that I have seen is The Informer (UK 1929, British International Pictures). This an adaptation of the novel by Liam O’Flaherty set after the civil war that followed the settlement of the War for Independence. This version was directed by Arthur Robinson and is [for me] superior to the RKO sound version directed by John Ford in 1935. In both versions, set in 1922,  a volunteer betrays a comrade to the police and is then hunted down by members of the Republican movement.


John Ford also directed a version of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1936). The play and the film conclude during the actual Easter Rising. O’Casey’s play was part of a trilogy. Shadow of a Gunmen is set in 1920 and has been adapted on Television but not film. The third, Juno and the Peacock, is set during the Civil War. There is a film version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock for British International Pictures. It is not the sort of drama that suits Hitchcock’s talents. BIP seem to have been sympathetic to Irish subjects. This was unlike the British Board of Film Censors who vetoed a projected film about Michael Collins.

Hollywood had no such inhibitions. Samuel Goldwyn produced Beloved Enemy (1936) in which Brian Aherne plays Dennis Riordan, a Collins-style leader of the Irish Republicans. However, rather than focus on the armed struggle the film is mainly concerned with the romance between the Irish leader and an aristocratic Englishwoman Helen Drummond (Merle Oberon). The original release version followed the logic of actual events and had Riordan shot at the end. However poor box office led to the substitution of an alternative happier ending.

One that would be a real treat to see is The Dawn (1938) an independent film shot in Killarney and dramatising the actions of the Republican volunteers in the War of Independence. The film was made by inexperienced hands and has a raw quality, but it also uses character and plot devices that recur in Irish film. There is an ambush of the British irregular ‘Blacks and Tans’, the British brutality, betrayals and punishment and the supporting endeavours of civilians. Some of the sequences in the later The Wind That Shakes the Barley suggest that it makers viewed this film.

The much later Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) was produced in Ireland with support from United Artists. Here too there is a cross-conflict romance, between Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray) and an English hostage of the Republicans Jenifer Curtis (Dana Wynter). But the film is dominated by James Cagney as the Republican leader Sean Lenihan. The film actually includes the issue of a partial peace offering by the British. However, Lenihan is played like one of Cagney’s US gangster roles and he is increasingly portrayed as psychotic. The end involves O’Shea turning against his own leader.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970) has Robert Bolt and David Lean taking Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and setting it in the period of The Rising. There is a sterling performance by Barry Foster as the Republican leader Tim O’Leary. And there is a magnificent sequence, filmed by Freddie Young, of the villagers braving a great storm to rescue arms and munitions for the Republicans. It seems that the old school house built as part of the village set, on the Dingle Peninsula, was [and possibly is] a tourist attraction.

The film that covers the most ground in terms of plot is Michael Collins (1996), a joint US/Eire production. The film is essentially a flashback, running from the end of the Easter Rising until Collins’ death during the Civil War. Collins is played by Liam Neeson and the film is essentially a biopic of this leader. One other key character is Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) but the film comes down on the side of Collins in the conflict over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The film is weak on the politics of The Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. It also ends on a reformist note, crediting Collins with attempting to ‘remove the gun from Irish politics’.

Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins as portayed ..

Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins as portayed ..

These political failings are addressed in the most recent film on these events, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). The film, directed by Ken Loach from a script by Paul Laverty, relies on extensive research into the events of the period. The focus is the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. There are the most explicit scenes that I have seen of the brutality of the irregular Black and Tans used by the British forces of occupation. And there are, typically in a Loach film, scenes that directly voice the politics of the struggle. This includes a welcome reference to the importance of  James Connolly. And when the Civil War arrives the film also clearly defines the different sets of politics that drive the opposing sides: narrow nationalism versus a socialist approach. The film ends in death and tragedy, a reflection of the historical realities. One other point is that, unlike the other films, this is not a male dominated story. There are women as victims but also women as active members of the Republican movement.

There are other films that deal with this period in Irish history and films that deal with different aspects of the long occupation of Eire by Britain and the long struggle of resistance. There is a Irish documentary A Terrible Beauty (1913) based on interviews and records of participants. Young Cassidy (1965), based on the early life of Sean O’Casey, deals briefly with events, mainly off-camera. And, given the paucity of presentations of women in the struggle, there is one other film we should remember. This is Anne Devlin (1984) produced by Aeon Films and written and directed by Pat Murphy. Devlin (Brid Brennan) was  a participant in the failed rebellion led by Robert Emmet in 1803. Unfortunately, like the best of the films treating The Rising and the other major episodes of anti-colonial resistance to British occupation, it is little seen.


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Reports from the ‘Third World’!

Posted by keith1942 on January 9, 2016


This article was written in the 1990s as a study of a cycle of films that predominately featured in the 1980s. The article uses the term ‘Third World’, a problematic term. What is being discussed are the experiences among the oppressed peoples and nations. However, ‘Third World’ was a common term at the time and frequently figured in the comments on these films. As is often the case it did not always carry the same meaning: but a common usage was that ‘1st’ meant advanced capitalist countries; ‘2nd’ countries identified as socialist; ‘3rd’ countries under colonialism or neo-colonialism. In that sense the films I discuss are ‘1st’, and the targets are ‘3rd’. Note also this is not the same as the terms used in Third Cinema. The films I disucss below are all part of the dominant cinema.

I tried to publish this article several times and failed. So to the Blog: because it is quite long I am posting it in chapters.

The Back-Story

The depiction of those exotic lands beyond the imperialist homelands is a long established stock in trade of European and North American films. From the earliest days of the movies their makers have titillated audiences with images of the “dark continents”, the “strange, different peoples”, and their “unusual, bizarre, and often violent” cultures.  Over its century of history and development the dominant cinema, sited in those capitalist countries lying either side of the Atlantic, has been an important source for the preconceptions and prejudices held by the mainly white populations of the major imperialist powers.  The heyday of this imperial cinema was in the 1930’s. Then, in both England and the United States, a steady stream of cinemagoers watched films like Sanders of the Rivers [UK 1935], in which the calm but authoritative white colonial administrator dominated the loyal black chiefs and the black dissidents who dared to oppose him.  Or they sat through Gunga Din [US 1939] in which the equally calm, but much more dashing army sergeants, with their sycophantic Indian underling, defeated the black and malevolent rebels on the frontier. These films presented unquestioningly to the audience the values which expressed the economic and political dominance of white Europe over its black empires.  This viewpoint was viciously racist, regarding all black, yellow, brown and red peoples as intellectually inferior, prone to unthinking violence and in need of both stern supervision and clear guidance. By 1945 a slight change is visible. In Men of Two Worlds [UK 1946] the central figure is a black musician, Kisenga [Robert Adams], but, although educated in Europe, he is still not totally free from the influence of superstition.  At the crisis point of the film his life is saved from the menace of a ju-ju when the villagers sing Kisenga’s own music, but the choir is organised by the white district officer.  When the same tribe move off to the happy ending in a new, tetse fly free village, it is a home selected, organised and ruled by the white colonial system.  The independence the film attributes to the black African tribe is strictly circumscribed.  And the representation of black people is only less obvious in its racism, in the supposition of their superstitious ignorance and childlike misunderstanding of the modern world.

The Wilby Conspiracy

The Wilby Conspiracy

Such a film provided a reflection of changing economic and political realities as colonialism gave way to neo-colonialism. And as direct rule was replaced by the home grown puppets, and military occupation by economic dictat, so the fictional world of film acquired its black leaders (The Wild Geese UK 1978), and the black and white co-operative venture (The Wilby Conspiracy UK 1975). By the 1980’s the sympathetic portrayal of black heroes and heroines from amongst the oppressed peoples was approaching a norm, and thus we enjoyed an abundance of films which centred on the so-called ‘Third World’, and appeared to view it in a supportive way. I want to argue that many of these liberal (a common description) movies, whilst they appear to be a great advance on the 1930’s, are under the surface still imperialist and racist. They have merely changed the form of representation in line with the changed but continuing exploitation of the oppressed peoples. I have selected a cycle of films that appear to share not only this value system but also a common narrative structure, plot devices and representations (see references). In each of the films the audience is presented with a story of oppression and resistance sited in a ‘Third World’ country. The guide to this story is a westerner, a white, male journalist. He arrives, becomes involved, in some way helps the oppressed in their struggle, then he leaves. In the course of the struggle both innocents and/or a leader die in the cause. These stories are thus melodramas of protest, with

“the blood of the martyrs sewing the seeds of resistance” (Michael Walker in Melodrama and the American Cinema in  MOVIE Issue 29/30, 1988).

The melodrama of protest is the classic structure for depicting and condemning oppression and for eliciting sympathy and defiance on behalf of the oppressed. In such structures we are encouraged to identify with victims of oppression, the outrage engendered by their suffering moves us to support defiance and resistance to the oppressor, [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, US 1975 is the example that has enjoyed the greatest box-office success]. Yet in the movies discussed below the oppression is suffered uniformly by black people whose rescue is effected by whites. The lynchpin of these stories is the intervention by the western journalist. Where there is a success, the actions of the journalist are a key factor; where there is defeat the journalist leaves, taking the narrative with him. It is an image of liberation wholly centred on the viewpoint of the west. It directly contradicts the ideas generated in the struggle by some of the most noted leaders involved in Liberation, like Steve Biko, Pablo Freire and [most importantly Franz Fanon]. Yet the films use some of these icons as part of the story-line; Steve Biko is supposedly the subject of Cry Freedom (UK 1987) ; Salvador, USA 1985) features a literacy class obviously modelled on Friere’s work.

Cry Freedom

Cry Freedom

The fact that they treat of such historical figures and of well-known historical events is yet another problem. Regardless of disclaimers (like those made by Richard Attenborough at a screening in 1987) audiences are encouraged on entering the cinema to see the films as dramatisations of real-life events. The publicity for the films emphasise this angle; The Year of Living Dangerously (Australia 1982) poster tells us “Jakarta May 11 1965”; and Cry Freedom’s marketing laid great stress on the story of a friendship between two men, one still living. The latter’s marketing was assisted by two TV programmes about Steve Biko and five freshly printed paperbacks on him or Black Consciousness. The use of the media as a central device adds to this pressure. The films are full of recognisable media techniques, photographic stills in Under Fire, teleprinter titles in Cry Freedom and the TV news’ rhetoric of The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields (UK 1984).  Whatever the intentions of their makers, these films to greater or lesser degree blur the distinctions between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Yet, while not all the film’s content is total fiction, neither is much of it an uncontested record of events.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

Most importantly the films present themselves (in the manner of classic narratives) as unproblematic, disguising their exaggeration, compression and distortion of events with a seamless development built up by sophisticated techniques of story telling, of use of camera, of sound. The position they offer the audience defines good and evil, hero and villain, right and might without the difficulties of counter argument. They are entirely innocent of an awareness of their own set of values, not necessarily shared by others. They certainly fail to reflect the very different values held by many people among the oppressed they claim to sympathise with and support. Whilst working within mainstream cinema conventions, it is clear that these films are not to be treated as mere entertainment. Many of the reviews discussed both their ‘political message’, and their ‘historical veracity’. They have an overt political content unusual for commercial cinema. This was probably one factor in their limited box-office success, only The Killing Fields was an international hit. But while they did not equal the audiences for Spielberg-style movies, they did appeal to a specifically critical group of viewers. In cinema, and later on video, cable and television, they were marketed to a politically literate audience. UIP, for example, commissioned a survey on the awareness of apartheid in the USA before the production of Cry Freedom. The media attention connected with the films’ overt political projects included TV programmes exploring aspects of their version of history. The Killing Fields is a notable example and its title has entered popular language as a clinched description. Yet, with few exceptions, this critical discussion has not analysed how the film’s entertainment conventions affect these political discourses. The cycle appears to end, or at least change its form, by the end of the 1980s. The explanation for this would seem to lie in the internal collapse in the Soviet Empire and the consequent unfettered policing of the world by the USA. The Gulf War is the most notable and vicious example of such policing. With no imperialist power remotely approaching its dominance, the USA ordered, cajoled and bullied a line-up of states into the assault on Baghdad. This included both ’Third World’ states and Arab states, the much-vaunted ‘third way’ appears to have collapsed without Soviet support. The cultural effects of these changes go beyond the cycle I describe, for instance, into ’Third Cinema’. So in a subsequent essay I shall detail examples of both ‘third cinematic’ treatments of these stories, an alternative: and examples from the mainstream in the 1990s, which, I believe, have important differences.


A shot and Russell Price will pick up the gun

A shot and Russell Price will pick up the gun

The clearest generic expression is found in Under Fire, a 1983 film from the USA. Photojournalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte) goes to cover the war against Somoza’s dictatorship in Nicaragua. He is an ace professional photographer, announced by his colour photo cover on Life magazine, and, “I’m not taking sides, I take pictures..” However, Nicaragua is different, so he breaks his rules – by taking a photograph of the dead Sandinista leader Rafael, in order to convince the world that Somoza has not succeeded in eliminating him.  Strengthened by this device the Sandinista’s army of freedom approaches the capital. Russell again takes a picture of a dead man, his journalist friend Alex (Gene Hackman), shot by Somoza’s National Guard. Pursued by Somoza’s army, his girlfriend Claire (Joanne Cassidy) and a young Nicaraguan help by carrying the roll of film to Russell’s hotel, and the appearance of the story on TV signals the end for Somoza, who flees the country.  Russell and Claire leave after watching the triumphal entry of the Sandinista into Managua.  The story’s structure clearly shows how the film presents this white, male, western journalist as the key to the success of the struggle. In the course of the film we see his conversion from a detached professional to committed sympathiser. It is his actions that drive forward both the story-line and the filmic struggle against oppression. Thus at the film’s end he can leave having help make possible liberty and democracy, both ideals that the western media regularly presents as the preserve of the west.

In Cry Freedom it is the editor Donald Woods [Kevin Kline] who fulfils this role. At the end of the film we see him flying from South Africa carrying his book which will tell the world about Steve Biko and his death, the implication being that by this act change will be bought to the suffering masses of South Africa. This point is confirmed with the roll call that follows of black activists murdered by the Apartheid State, of the black leadership dead or imprisoned. The only remaining hope is our planeload of white liberals.

In Circle of Deceit (West Germany/France, 1981), Salvador and War Zone the journalists leave peoples still divided and suffering, but they also leave with a scoop, either a news-story or unique film footage. It is as if only by telling the story does this suffering really exist. In The Year of Living Dangerously the hero, Guy Hamilton [Mel Gibson], also leaves Jakarta bloody and under military dictatorship, he carries no story but the equal prize of a beautiful heroine. Thus the 1960 slaughters of the archipelago are converted into a darkly romantic backdrop for these media tourists. In The Killing Fields Schanberg leaves and returns, to witness the escape of his Kapuchean buddy from imprisonment. In this version the “Third World” is graphically depicted as a place of violence and suffering, from which not only westerners, but the indigenous people flee.

What is common about all these story-lines is the negative presentation of the “Third World”, from which all the main characters exit, by choice or by death. Of course, oppressed countries are places of poverty, violence and suffering, but in each case these are specific to particular exploitative relations, usually with the very country from which the film’s hero comes. In The Killing Fields its makers specifically chose to play down the role of US military intervention;

“He [Roland Joffe – director] also went to some lengths to strip out any anti-Americanism which inevitably colour any consideration of South-East Asia. He points out that, although the American bombing clearly boosted the power of the Khmer Rouge, the Americans had no part in the murderous ideology which the Pol Pot regime proceeded to implement.” [BFI]

While the CIA’s well-known misdemeanours are featured in Under Fire and Salvador, The Year of Living Dangerously blithely passes over this. A similar problem is found in the absence of any reference in Cry Freedom of the West’s support for the Apartheid regime. What we get is a sympathetic embassy official [Alec McGowan] offering the fleeing Woods’ family “a cup of tea”.

Melodrama frequently waters down the political edge of stories by a concentration on the individual and personal; thus, these films treat the larger questions very selectively. The most positive of the cycle is Salvador where visceral images of violence and death are counterpoised with explicit denunciation of USA policy. However, even here the film in the end comes down to the Yankee point of view;

“I don’t want to see America get another bum rap [the first being Vietnam!]”.[the film’s hero Richard Boyle].

This viewpoint is endorsed by the film when in its later stages, it equates guerrilla ‘atrocities’ with those of the Salvadoran army.

Reporters in Salvador.

Reporters in Salvador.

The same simplification applies to the little political analysis found in the films. In Under Fire Russell and Joanna attempt to explain to Alex their sudden active sympathy for the rebels. To do so they break curfew and show Alex a statue of Somoza in the main square, explaining it is actually of Mussolini, bought cheap in Italy and subjected to a head transplant.  This feeble equation of very different fascists regimes entirely misses the point about the political economy of Nicaragua. Hollywood has always had problems delineating political positions, hence the device [common to such films] in Cry Freedom of turning Biko’s explanation of Black Consciousness into a series of edited phrases dwarfed by the photogenic location. In none of the films is the viewer ever given a substantial detailing of the character’s political positions; we are expected to judge them by their actions.


Black people in these films are associated with lack of autonomy and the experience of being victims. Worse, the films uniformly see these oppressed countries as sites of mindless violence. Thus The Killing Fields publicity hand-outs state;

“The war unleashed an underlying savagery in the Cambodians that had lain dormant for centuries. Indolent, gentle and smiling the Khmers may have seemed, but as Bernard-Phillipe Groslier, the distinguished French archaeologist observed: ‘Beneath a carefree surface there slumber savage forces and disconcerting cruelties which may blaze up in outbreaks of passionate cruelty.” [BFI]

Stereotyping peoples in this way inevitably leads to the narrative flight that ends most of the films. Historically westerners have fled many of these countries, quite often chased out by the oppressed. But a supposedly sympathetic view should offer something more.

Beirut in Circle of Dec eit

Beirut in Circle of Deceit

An equal penchant for savagery typifies the films set in the Lebanon. A gunman casually offers to shoot a passer-by by for photojournalist Hoffman [Jerry Skolimowski] in Circle of Deceit. The virtual remake, War Zone, has an Israeli Officer trying to warn the Palestinians of the Camp massacres by the Phalangist. The violence is attributed to the oppressed, western [e.g. Israeli] violence glossed over.  What the cycle of films fails to offer is any understanding or explanation for the popular support and participation these struggles enjoyed. In Palestine the Intifada was driven forward by the mass of the people, with the PLO struggling behind. Similarly, in the black African townships of the late seventies rebellious youth was far more radical than the formally organised movements like the ANC. No such ethos is apparent in these films. The masses provide cheering, suffering or dying support for the chosen individuals celebrated by the media: suitably cleaned up and dressed up, as in the Swot demonstration sequence from Cry Freedom. The self-activating action preached by Biko, Freire and others never surfaces.


Salvador, the woman's typical place!

Salvador, the woman’s typical place!

If black people get a raw deal in these movies so do women, even those selected as heroines. They are very much the emotional and political handmaidens of the male heroes. In The Year of Living Dangerously it is Jill [Sigourney Weaver] who makes the mistake, Guy who discovers it. Claire in Under Fire reports all the stories that Russell photographs, but while we see his photos we never hear her stories.  Most markedly in Cry Freedom we have a powerful scene where Donald and Wendy Woods [Penelope Wilton] argue over his decision to leave South Africa; her arguments are about home and family, his about politics.  Yet it was Wendy Woods who first took an interest in Black Consciousness and Steve Biko; her feminism made her more open to these new and threatening ideas than her husband (Farrar, 87). Some awareness of the problem does creep into the better films, thus in Salvador the film opens with the enforced leaving of the USA of Boyle’s Italian wife [Maria Rubell]; at the film’s end his new women, Maria [Elpedia Carrillo], is dragged from a bus by US immigration – obviously the USA is a bad place for black women. But even here the casting of Carrillo, who played a similar role in The Honorary Consul [UK 1983], reinforces her image as an object for Boyle and other men. Overall, these films never get to grips with the subordination of their women, despite their supposed fight against oppression.


The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

The subjects of this film cycle are very much those on the agenda of the western media; South Africa, Latin America, the Lebanon and Kampuchea. Indonesia gets coverage, but not East Timor; and the 30-year struggle in Eritrea failed to make it. Vietnam, where the imperialist power lost, has films with reporters but they either fall outside this cycle or treat the journalists differently. Thus The Green Berets (1968) has the journalist validating the military. And in Full Metal Jacket (1987) the reporter is actually serving in the US Army.

Even in the countries featured there is a problem. The critical strand in these movies is directed at the media, not the imperialism it serves. Early in Cry Freedom Steve Biko criticises the affluent life of Donald Woods and invites him to see the reality of the Black township. Similar contrasts are made regarding Schanberg and Boyle. The style of the films re-inforces this, comparing the luxury hotels of the journalists with the stark poverty of the indigenous people. Russell Price and John Cassady [John Savage, the photojournalist with Boyle in Salvador], not only incessantly drive round in cars, but on every occasion of death and destruction leap for their cameras. This is at its most repellent as Boyle and Cassady discuss taking photographs against a grisly pile of murdered Salvadorans. Its extreme symbol is Guy Hamilton, whose blindness to the local world he passes through is epitomised by the loss of sight in one eye. This film is full of characters who hide behind dark sunglasses, their vision impenetrable to the onlooker.

Such criticism fails to grapple with the actual role of the western media, whose relationship with the oppressed is not just distant or unsympathetic, but actively justifies imperialist relations. Both the recent Gulf War and the occupation in Somalia are graphic demonstrations of this. Moreover, the films let the heroes off the hook by a melodramatic conversion that turns them into good guys. So Russell Price fails to tell the Sandinista of a hidden US mercenary, who, minutes later, shoots a youth in the back. For the first time in the movie Russell reaches not for his camera, but a gun. Guilt has made him change sides. In the same way Woods and Boyle change their allegiance, and Schanberg attempts atonement. Not one of these acts addresses the actual social relationships that engender the oppression, or that are likely to end it.

Alternative films

There are other western film with a sharper political edge. One of the earliest was Costas-Gavros’ Missing [1982] about the US backed coup in Chile. Here the hero is not a journalist, but a father seeking his lost son. While the film is powerful both on the vicious repression and US involvement, it avoids the issue by its failure to identify Chile in the text. Circle of Deceit is an art-house film, with a fittingly ambiguous narrative. However, despite lacking a Hollywood style closure at its end, it does share the negative representations of the mainstream films. Some other independent productions grapple more successfully with an alternative set of values.

Hidden Agenda

Hidden Agenda

Hidden Agenda (UK 1990) has an investigation by lawyers [rather than journalists] of a ‘shoot to kill’ incident in the occupied north of Ireland. Here the media devices appear in the shape of tapes, photographs and reports. The film does point to the British occupation of the six counties in northern Ireland, but it fails to grapple with the real issues. Republicanism and Unionism are reduced to stereotypes; the fears of the plot are mainly about the British State, not British colonialism. What the film does do is centre on a woman as the narrative figure fighting oppression. This gives a political edge, to both the story and the characterisation, missing from the main cycle.

Another fine protest melodrama, the Canadian Diplomatic Immunity (1991), also uses gender to increase its political edge.  In the flashback by a journalist we hear the story of a woman diplomat Kim [Wendel Meldrum] in El Salvador; she tries to use an aid project to really help the ordinary local people, mainly women and children whose husbands are dead or imprisoned. By the climax of the film she is forced to choose between her western aid methods and direct action by the people themselves. In a moving sequence she joins them in a besieged church, and with the western media, witnesses the state’s and the army’s capitulation – the people are returned to their own village in guerrilla-occupied territory. The final twist sees her Salvadoran soul-mate Sara [Ofelia Medina] executed and her own exit from El Salvador and diplomacy. Yet even here, as in Hidden Agenda, the politics of liberation receive little serious consideration, and the film plays to its audience through the centrality of the Canadian heroine and her English-speaking middle class friend. The film’s very concentration on gender means that it fails to give due attention to anti-imperialism. All three films fail to break out of the dominant mould.

For films that address these struggles from a radically different perspective we need to turn to the oppressed peoples themselves. While many utilise indigenous narrative forms to tell their critical stories, a number have made good use of the melodrama of protest format. A Place for Weeping (South Africa 1986) is one of a number of films produced by Anant Singh and directed by Daniel Roodt. The films tend to a reformist stance but are notable for engaging with the struggle of the oppressed black majority under the Apartheid State. In this film an Afrikaan famer, out on the remote Veldt, beats one of his black workers to death. His colleagues and family are cowed, but one local woman, Grace (Gcina Mhlope, tries to persuade them to report the murder to the police. Into this situation comes journalist Philip Seago (James Whylie), sent out in the sticks to cover a story about ‘faction  fighting’ amongst Zulu and other black communities. This seemingly conventional plot situation is undercut by Seago’s ineffectualness in assisting Grace and his naive trust in Afrikaan officials. And then the armed ‘faction’ turns out to be armed rebels planning to wage conflict against the white racists. There is a scene where its leader and Grace argue about armed versus peaceful struggle. By the film’s climax Seago has been badly beaten up by the local farmers and Grace and her one witness murdered. The final scene shows the farmer’s car halted by the armed black rebels. There is the sound of a gunshot as the screen goes black. A powerfully different moment from the  mainstream dramas.



One of the most interesting filmic alternatives was made in South Africa in the same period as the above film and Cry Freedom, Mapantsula (1988) deals with life in the black townships, a township rebellion, and the treatment of black people by the South African State. It is also centrally about Black Consciousness, allowing one to read any number of parallels with Attenborough’s anti-apartheid movie. The film’s title translates as ‘wide boy’, and tells the story of a small-time crook in a complex flashback structure, so that the audience is only able to slowly unravel the plot.

Much of the film is set in a police detention block, where it is apparent that the political prisoners despise the hero, Panic [Thomas Mogotlane]. Gradually we discover how Panic is drawn into township resistance as his girlfriend Pat [Thembi Mtshali] becomes politicised. Towards the end of the film we watch as Panic, against the mores of his trade, helps in a mother’s search for her child, probably murdered in a police round up. In this way the film involves the audience in Panic’s growing commitment to Black Consciousness. In the final scene Panic, though threatened with prison and death, says no to his white captors and their inducements to act as paid informer. It is a gesture of suicide, but also of black solidarity. Having followed Panic through his trials and his conversion I find this moment one of great uplift and emotion [it is also strongly reminiscent of Eisenstein’s Strike (Stacha USSR 1924), and the flashback structure would seem to be a modern version of Eisenstein’s precepts for montage and the soundtrack follows, in part, the behests of the Sound and Image manifesto of 1928].]. What is equally important is the force of the moment, the audience know with Panic what his captors do not; that the video screened by the police as incriminating evidence is actually evidence of his conversion. In this way the changes in Panic are given a political context. Mapantsula was made covertly by black people in Soweto. The film’s viewing in Azania was limited to video with an age restriction on the grounds,

“younger viewers lack the ability to distinguish between propaganda and all the relevant facts of the situation.”

Of course, all the films discussed in this article are propaganda in the sense given by common usage], but that is a fact rarely admitted by the makers, the censors or the media critics who tend to discuss such artefacts at some distance from the class struggle reality which the people involved experience. As propaganda in the socialist sense (a complex treatment for engaged audiences] Mapantsula can be justly criticised on several points, most noticeably on its failure to deal with the different political tendencies in the South African struggle; differences which have been a crucial factor in the direction of that struggle. However, even with its limitations, Mapantsula is political light years away from Attenborough and company.

So are the many other fine films from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately, the nearest an audience often gets to them is in some scene or motif lifted by a western variant. Both Under Fire and Salvador use sequences which certainly look modelled on the earlier work of the revolutionary film-maker Jorge Sanjines [in particular The Principal Enemy / Jatun auka 1974 ]. At least television, in particular Channel 4 has made some recompense by screening such films for the late night audience. One of the more progressive activities liberal cineastes could perform would be to assist these films to a wider audience. When this point was put to Sir Richard Attenborough by a young black woman at a London Film Festival screening of Cry Freedom, he replied

“it was no use showing films in an art house cinema to two men and a dog” (Attenborough, 87).

He would do well to note that despite censorship films like Mapantsula have enjoyed large, popular audiences.

Sanjines writes in the Theory and Practice of a Cinema with the People,

“We can no longer make films that, though they may look upon the culture of our peoples with respect, actually prevent them from fighting back. Our work must not only be in support of the people, sympathetic in parallel fashion, but it must also enter into dialectical interaction with them, because culture and tactics are woven together to form the strategy of the anti-imperialist struggle.” (Sanjines, 1989).

Sanjines and his comrades also build on the practice of Eisenstein and the revolutionary soviet filmmakers. Like them their film practice includes the screening and discussion of films with the workers and peasants, using among other instruments, a portable generator. Watching films like Attenborough’s in the new multi-plex may be very comfortable, but the work of film-makers like Sanjines is better for your mental health. Other examples use the tools of media investigation but remove the western journalist figure; freeing themselves to suggest other approaches to investigation. A powerful example from Argentina, in the tradition of the New Latin American Cinema, is Buenos Aires Vice Versa [1995]. Daniela and Mario are children of the disappeared. Daniela uses a domestic Hi-8 camera to record the city as it is now, but her filming leads her and us into a series of stories that can only be understood with reference to the violent past. These include an obsessive TV viewer, a blind girl, and an ex-policeman. After an hour of ambiguity Argentina’s past in the junta and the disappearances suddenly assumes centre stage. The climax confronts both that past, the present, and the media’s role between. It is a film that combines what is usually referred to as `Brechtian` narration with an absorbing and emotionally powerful drama.

Foreword and afterword

There are films whose plots fit this cycle but which fall outside the 1980s. The most interesting are two films, taken from the same source, but made years apart: in the 1950s and in the new century. The source is the novel by Graham Greene set in Vietnam in the 1950s, The Quiet American. This was the period when the French were still vainly trying to re-impose their colonial control. Kicked out by the Japanese in World War II they had managed to sneak back with the connivance of the British at the end of that conflict.

The heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people, under the leadership of Ho Chi Mien, is one of the most inspiring and most telling of the anti-colonial struggles of the period. Typically, whilst Greene’s novel treats the French and other transatlantic colonialists with a sardonic gaze, he does not really engage with the Vietnamese struggle. There is a sense of orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, in his original novel. The main protagonist is a typical Greene hero, Fowler, a disillusioned and disengaged British journalist stationed in Saigon. His foremost pre-occupation in his Vietnamese mistress Phuong. Fowler has a romantic view of Vietnam, even though he believes he s not a romantic but a cynical reporter. So he fits into a long line of European and especially English characters smitten by a love of the orient. This stance is also there in his representation of his mistress Phuong. She seems to be a more complex character than Fowler realises. Whilst he treats her as an autonomous character, at the same time he sees her, and the class of women to which he assigns her, as not exactly innocent, but lacking in sophistication. Note in the novel Phuong has very little English, speaks but does not write French,

The key aspect of the plot is that Fowler has his acquaintance struck up by the ‘quiet American’, Pyle. [Note it is Phuong who first describes Pyle as ‘quiet’]. Pyle is a typical Greene yank: naïve, ill informed of the world beyond the border of his country, and full of well-intentioned and misguided illusions regarding the Third World. The drama of the book develops as Pyle takes a shine to Phuong and offers her the marriage that Fowler is unable to offer. These personal relationships are complicated when Fowler discovers that Pyle is a CIA agent [the agency had only just acquired its new name] working with a ‘third force’ inside the South Vietnamese state. The outcome is partly tragic party ironic, again typical of Greene.

Pyle and Fowler - 1958

Pyle and Fowler – 1958

The first film adaptation was made in 1958 by an independent production Company, Figaro, though United Artists distributed it. The film was written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. He also produced the film, though unaccredited, and Figaro was his own production company. Mankiewicz started out as a screenwriter and progressed to direction. His output included 67 script credits, 22 directorial credits and 23 producer credits. He was very active in the 1950s, but there is not really another film in his output that parallels this work. I do not have a sense of why Mankiewicz and his colleagues adapted the book to film, though it was a successful novel. However, given the political climate of the time it does not appear to be an obvious choice for adaptation. The UK release was eleven minutes shorter than the US original but I have not found out what was cut or why.

At the time of the film’s release Greene was extremely critical:

Greene was furious; he called the 1958 film “a complete travesty”, “incoherent” and “a real piece of political dishonesty”. He also spoke of Mankiewicz’s “treachery”.

This was the period following the HUAC investigations of Hollywood and the blacklist was till in operation. Unsurprisingly Greene’s critique of US neo-colonialism was changed and distorted in this film.  The US involvement in Vietnam was still mainly covert. However, the dominant political line, articulated in Allan Dulles’ ‘domino theory’ saw US interests in attacking South East Asian liberation movements. Fowler spells out the ‘domino theory ‘ at one point in the book.

The film changes the representation of Phuong, who is played by an Italian actress, Giorgia Moll. Fowler describes her as ‘child-like’ to Pyle and seems to assume that she is both naïve and innocent. Also, Fowler’s indulgence in smoking opium is excised. Pyle is known only as the ‘young American’. This was probably due to Mankiewicz receiving advice from a CIA operative who may have been a model for the character in the book.

In other ways the film follows the main plot of the book. Indeed for the first 100 minutes viewers are likely to find Pyle exactly as Fowler describes him. And as Fowler starts to discover the covert activities the film appears to follow the direction of Pyle’s guilt. Then in a turn-around Fowler is confronted with the ‘truth’. That in fact this quiet American was innocent and was set up by the Vietminh who used Fowler to eradicate him. The supposition seems to be that Fowler’s jealousy of Pyle is the main actor in his death.

One can understand Greene’s response. The resolution is heavy handed. It plays exactly like the sort of endings that were imposed under the Hay’s Code, which in fact was in its last years at this stage. This is a world away from the other film adaptations of Greene’s novels, The Third Man (1949) and Our Man in Havana (1959) where US naivety is pilloried. However, the film is unable to invoke the usual rescue by the westerner. At the film’s end, Pyle is dead, Fowler is guilt ridden and has lost Phuong. But he shows no sign of returning to his home in the west.

Fowler, Pyle and Phuong - 2002

Fowler, Pyle and Phuong – 2002

Unfortunately Graham Greene was not around to see the new adaptation of his book in 2002. This is much closer to the original: the plot is closer to the book in greater detail. Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle is at one the naïve yank in the East but also the action man who is capable of atrocities, bomb explosions that kill civilians. Phuong is much closer to the character in the book, and played by a Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen. She also has a greater command of English, presumably as an aid to audiences. And Michael Caine’s Thomas Fowler is recognisable as the cynical and also emotional protagonist of the novel.

By the end of the film we know that Pyle and his associates are involved in covert manipulations, which involves bombings depicted in graphic terms. And whilst Fowler’s motivations remained clouded there is not doubt that this CIA group are the sort of destabilising force that would haunt Vietnam for another decade and a half.

As in the book, Pyle dies, and Fowler regains Phuong, presumably to stay indefinitely in Vietnam.

Neither film fits the cycle in that [apparently] the western protagonist does not leave. And neither is the protagonist a heroic character who aids the oppressed. That Fowler aids the Vietminh in the recent adaptation is by their doing and his motivation remains ambiguous. Moreover, the latter film has little sense of a liberation struggle against western colonialism. Like Greene’s novel it is critical of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism without really taking sides. However, it is a long way in political representation from the mainstream films in the cycle.

The ‘ur’ text


One can trace many of the stories and tellings in this study back to one, classical work – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. His novella was first published in 1899 and was based on a journey he made in command of a river steamer up the Congo, which was then part of what was euphemistically called the Congo Free State. Even by the standards of European colonialists in Africa the operation that was ruled over by Belgium’s King Leopold II was horrific. Possibly seven to ten million Africans in this territory were slaughtered by the Association Internationale Africaine and Leopold’s Force Publique. And many more were maimed and brutally treated. The behaviour of the European colonialists in the Congo was already known at the time, and became an international scandal thanks to the sterling efforts of another anti-colonial fighter, Roger Casement: murdered by the British State for his struggles to free Eire.

In Conrad’s novella the tale is narrator by a seaman, Marlow, to friends whilst relaxing on a boat moored in the Thames. He recounts a journey up the Congo River and his encounter with an agent of the Colonial company Kurtz. Kurtz is noted both for his success in expropriating ivory from the territory and in the brutality of his methods. It is worth noting that Kurtz was also a journalist before becoming an agent in the Congo. The behaviour of the Europeans is both brutal but they are also characterised by their greed, dissensions and bizarre behaviour. Marlow sees little cohesion among the Europeans in the encampments and as the boat travels up the Congo Dutch passengers fire wildly into the bush on several occasions. Note that Kurtz dies in the Congo but Marlow returns to Britain.

The book is a much studied text and one that has evoked very differing responses. Chino Achebe, the great African writer, described the novella as racist, because it depicted Africa as the ‘heart of darkness’. Achebe’s criticism has a certain amount of justification. The Africans in the novella are denied a voice. However, the book also seems to draw a parallel between the darkness of Africa and the darkness of the colonialist homelands, including Britain. Certainly Marlow was horrified and jaundiced by his exposure to the colonials methods in the Congo. And Kurtz’s last word in the novella are

‘The horror, the horror’.

I tend to the view that Conrad’s writing reflect the prejudices and bias of the time. In that sense his books reflects the racism of the colonialist culture whilst at the same time critiquing the practices which this involved. This is also true of some of the works that follow in his footsteps including some the films studied here.

Conrad’s novella has been extremely influential. To take one example, one can see traces of the earlier work in Graham Green’s The Quiet American. In particular Fowler makes a trip to the city of Phat Diem to observe the war. His experiences on a night patrol carry a strong flavour of the descriptions in Conrad’s work.

However, this earlier masterpiece has not really been addressed by cinema. The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). However, this is a very free adaptation and is some way removed from the source. Moreover, the film is even less engaged with the indigenous people and far more orientalist than Conrad’s original.

Tim Roth as Marlow

Tim Roth as Marlow

There is a 1993 Heart of Darkness by Turner Pictures. But whilst this film follows the plot of the novella fairly closely it has none of the poetry or comment. This sense is clear in the IMDB comment, “Joseph Conrad’s classic novel about greed and insanity”, which is no way describes the novella. Unfortunately Orson Welles never managed his project on the novel: it would likely have been superior.

There is however an alternative vision to that of Conrad in the film Sarraounia (1986). This was written and directed by Med Hondo; produced by his own company with support from Burkina Faso, Mauritania and France.. The action of the film takes place in  the area now occupied by Cameroon and is set in 1899. A French column of troops set out to ‘pacify’ the country, killing, burning and looting. They are finally confronted and defeated by the wily tactics of the Aznas, led by their warrior Queen Sarraounia. However, in an echo of Conrad’s book, the French colonialist also collapse because of their internal dissension and psychotic behaviour.

The film was shot in Techovision and is in Dyula, Peul, and French. I imagine that is it very difficult to see. It had a limited release in the UK by ICA Projects and it was screened in the early days of Channel Four, when the film selection was far more varied than now. This demonstrates the problems of seeing alternative visions. And the 1980s were far better than in 2016 for independent, foreign language films at the cinema.

There is a more recent documentary film on the actual historical events in the Congo Free State, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (2006).  This is based on the book of the same name by Adam Hochschild (1996). The book has incited some controversy, especially regarding the estimates of the victims of the rapacious rule. The Belgians destroyed many documents when, under international pressure, the area was transferred from the personal misrule of Leopold II to the Belgium State. Undoubtedly there were massive casualties among the Africans from murder, torture, mistreatment and imported diseases. This truly was a holocaust, worse than, but qualitatively little different from the actions of other European colonialists, British, French, German and Portuguese.

Photographic record of atrocities

Photographic record of atrocities

Yet there are few features or documentaries treating these subjects across the various cinemas: and this applies equally to the earlier holocaust of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The comparison with the film treatment of the several European holocausts is instructive. After a decade and a half of silence that perpetrated by the Third Reich on Jews, Eastern Europeans, Romany and Socialists has seen at least one major film treatment practically every year. Yet the main distinction in the last is that the victims were Europeans. [There were also African victims but they are rarely mentioned: see Ousmane-Sembène‘s Camp de Thiaroye (1988). In other respects, both in the strategy and tactics involved, what occurred in Europe imported the methods that had been developed and honed to brutal perfection in the colonies. So however you characterise Joseph Conrad and his famed novella it would seem that his European readers have moved on little from his day.


Circle of Deceit, West Germany/France 1981, Director: Volker Schlondorf. Script: Volker Schlondorf + David Williamson, Book by Nicolas Born.

Cry Freedom, UK 1987, Director Richard Attenborough. Script John Briley, developed from the book by Donald Woods.

The Killing Fields, UK 1984, Director Roland Joffe. Script Bruce Robinson, story by Clayton Frohman.

A Place of Weeping, South Africa 1986, Director Daniel Roodt. Script Daniel Roodt. Story Les Volpe.

Salvador, USA. 1986, Director: Oliver Stone. Script: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle, developed from book by R Boyle

Under Fire, USA 1983. Director: Roger Spottiswoode. Script: Ron Shelton, Clayton Frohman.

War Zone. West Germany 1986, Director: Nathaniel Gutman. Script: Hanan Peled. [Deals with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Chatila Camp massacre].

The Year of Living Dangerously, Australia 1982, Director Peter Weir. Script David Williamson, Peter Weir and C. J. Koch from the latter’s novel.

Other Western Produced Melodramas.

Hidden Agenda, UK 1990, Director Ken Loach, Script: Jim Allen.

Diplomatic Immunity, Canada 1991, Director Stephen Gunnarson, script Jim Lucas.

Missing, U.S.A. 1982, Director: Costa-Gavras, Script: Costa-Gavras, Donald Stewart.

Alternatives from the Oppressed Peoples. (Personal choice)

Mapantsula, South Africa 1988, Director Oliver Schmitz. Script: Oliver Schmitz, Thomas Mogotlane.

The Principal Enemy, Bolivia 1971, Directors Jorge Sanjines + the Ukamau Group.

Sarraounia: The Warrior Queen. Mauritania + Burkina Faso 1986. Director Med Hondo. Script Med Hondo.


Mike Walker in Movie, Issue 29/30. On popular film melodrama, but the best writing on the Melodrama of Protest.

Richard Attenborough’s comments were made at the London Film Festival School screening 1987 and taken down by author. Max Farrar in a 1987  interview with Wendy Woods made the point regarding her politics.

Jorge Sanjines and the Ukamau Group Curbstone Press 1989. Theoretical writings and background on the cinema in Bolivia.

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Notes on Palestinian Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on January 2, 2016

Palestine film Fest1[1]

Leeds enjoyed the first Festival of Palestinian Film in the City in November and December 2015. In all seven films were screened at various venues round the city, opening with a screening of The Wanted Eighteen as part of the Leeds International Film Festival and closing on December 15th at the Hyde Park Picture House with Open Bethlehem.

Palestine is a frequent presence in film: both dramatic features and documentaries. There are of course those produced in Hollywood. There are the several inexorable dramatisations of events at Entebbe. Then there are the equally reactionary treatment in films like Exodus (1960) and Judith (1966). Spielberg’s more recent Munich (2005), despite the attempt at a critical ending, offers much the same.

A slightly more complex view is offered by Oliver Assayas; Carlos (2010). The fil recounts actual events with some attempt at veracity. However, it offers little sympathy or empathy for the Palestinian characters. Better are the growing number of documentaries financed and made by western filmmakers. A good example is Two Blue Lines (2015) by Tom Hayes. Here Israeli voices are seen and ehard commenting on the long struggle, going back to Al Nakba. Another documentary is Apples of the Golan (2012). Made by two Irish ` it studies the situation of a Druze villeage close to the Israeli/Syrian border.

I should also note films with an opposing political line such as One Day in September (1999), focusing on the Munich staging of the Olympic Games, it echoes the stereotypes of mainstream film.

The Palestinians also appear in films made by other countries in Arabia. An early example is The Dupes (Al-makhdu’un Syria, 1972). The film was produced by the Syrian National Film Organisation and directed by Tawfiq Saleh, who adapted the story from a well-known novel. Saleh was an Egyptian filmmaker but he had encountered continuing problems of censorship in his home country. The three main protagonists are Palestinians trying to smuggle themselves into Kuwait from Syria in order to find work. They are Abou Keïss (Abderrahman Alrahy), Assaad (Saleh Kholok) and Marouane (Thanaa Debsi). And there is the smuggler Abou Kheizarane (Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala), who is also Palestinian. This is a bleak film, shot in black and white and Academy ratio. Much of the location work is in the desert, hot and desolate. But we also see the flashbacks of the Palestinians, recounting how they arrived at their situations. Here we see images of Al Nakba: in a montage of actual photographs. And we see recreations of the expulsion of the Palestinians by the Zionists and their life in refugee camps. This is a woeful rendering, made bleaker by the opportunism and greed that the refugees encounter from fellow Arabs.


There are films of the Palestinians and their struggles going back to before Al Nakba. These are rarely seen but much footage can be found in Al Nakba, made for Al Jazeera by Rawen Damen in 2008.  This is a 200 minutes documentary in four parts. There is footage shot by the occupying British, the Zionist Settlers and then the Israeli occupiers: but there is also film shot by Palestinians and by Arabs. Much of this is newsreel but there were also documentary film and even a feature made, but lost during Al Nakba. In a demonstration of the effects of occupation the Zionist film has its own special archive, The Stephen Spielberg Jewish Archive, whereas Palestinian film is either scattered or lost.

Following the Israeli occupation of much of Palestine Palestinians either lived under Israeli occupation or became refugees. Some Palestinians worked on films made by Arab filmmakers. With the development of an active resistance represented by Palestine Liberation Organisation there were attempts to produce Palestinian film. There was a Festival in Beirut and a film team set up by the PLO. The latter developed an archive of film which was lost when the Israeli’s invaded Lebanon in order to expel the PLO. By now the Israeli’s had extended their occupation to cover the whole of the West Bank.

It was in this situation that the first surviving Palestinian feature film was made. This was Wedding in Galilee (Urs al-jalil 1987), produced by Israel, France, Belgium, and Palestine. The film was in standard widescreen and colour and in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish. Intriguingly the version released in Israel was about thirteen minutes shorter than that released internationally.


The film is set in a Palestinian village as the headman seeks permission from the Israeli Governor for permission to celebrate his son’s wedding. The Governor attends with aides and as the day progresses the contradictions heighten. The director and writer, Michel Khleifi, was born in Nazareth but lived in exile in Belgium, He had already made a documentary and short film: and all three films have a central focus on Palestinian women, whose situation and conduct is an important aspect of the story.

In the 1990s another Palestinian filmmaker made a documentary, Chronicle of a Elia Disappearance (1996). Suleiman is also from Nazareth comes from the Greek Orthodox community. He lived in New York for a time then returned to Ramallah in the West Bank. Suleiman is an ironic director with a taste for the absurd and surreal. This documentary offers a very distinct and unconventional journey through occupied Palestine. Importantly, the film won an Award at the Venice Film Festival.

In 2002 Suleiman made the feature Divine Intervention / Yadon ilaheyya. The film was produced with funds from France, Morocco, Germany and Palestine. This was after the Oslo Accords and the film therefore was made under the remit of the Palestinian Authority. Following on the film was then submitted for the Best Foreign Language Category at the Hollywood Academy Awards. There appear to be different versions of what occurred: but an argument against its inclusion was that the Palestinian Authority did not qualify as a state. Clearly that argument was cover to more political objections. Interestingly the film was resubmitted in 2003 by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture and accepted by the Academy.

The film again has an oddball narrative. The threads that bind it together are the declining health of Suleiman’s father and a relationship with a woman from the other side of the barriers surrounding Palestinian controlled territory. The trysts of the couple take place alongside an Israeli checkpoint: and there are a variety of sometimes-bizarre sometimes-oppressive scenes here. One glorious sequence has the Israeli soldiers perplexed when a balloon bearing the visage of Yasser Arafat floats threateningly towards their control tower. Another depicts the conflict between Palestinian and Israeli as a variant on the Hong Kong martial arts conventions.


Since then several films produced by some combination of Palestinian and other state funding have been submitted by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture and included and accepted for the Academy Award listings.

In 2004 there was The Olive Harvest, written and directed by Hanna Elias. In this film two friends, one of whom has been in an Israeli prison, are in love with the same woman. The film dramatises the different political trajectories they follow.

In 2005 it was Paradise Now (Palestine, France, Germany, Netherlands, Israel 2005), written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Two childhood friends are recruited for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv: Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). Their mission goes wrong and the film tends towards a critique of this type of action. In 2013 another film by Abu-Assad was submitted to the Academy, Omar (Palestine 2013). A young Palestinian freedom fighter agrees to work as an informant after he’s tricked into an admission of guilt by association in the wake of an Israeli soldier’s killing. There is an Israeli film with a similar plot.These are the only two films that made it through the Acedmy process to Nomination.

In 2008 the film submitted was Salt of the Sea (Milh Hadha al-Bah) written and directed by Annemarie Jacir. Soraya (Suheir Hammad), raised in the USA, returns to Palestine in an attempt to reclaim her family’s lost heritage. More recently Jacir wrote and directed When I Saw You (Lamma shoftak). This film treats the same issues but is set in 1967. Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) is forced into exile in Jordan with his mother. He becomes friends with a group of Palestinian freedom fighter. This film was submitted in 2012.


The Wanted 18 (Canada, Palestine, France 2014) was the most recent submission in 2015. This film was made jointly by Paul Cowan, a Canadian filmmaker, and Amer Shomali, a Palestinian artist. During the First Intifada small Palestinian village bought 18 cows and stopped buying Israeli milk. The film uses a variety of animation techniques plus both recreated scenes and original footage. The latter, in a nice exception too much recent filmmaking, are shown in the original aspect ratio. The animation techniques, using stop-frame motion and models, are excellent. And the films script offers both very funny moments but also very moving moments. The events dramatised here date back to the first Intifada: and the film makes the point that this was before the Oslo Accords. The struggle of the village is collective and with a remarkable degree of autonomy.

Most of these filmmakers have made other works, including short films, documentaries and other features. And there are other Palestinian films, some co-productions with Israeli filmmakers. Five Broken Cameras (Palestine, France, Israel, Netherlands 2011) is essentially a Palestinian film made with the assistance of an Israeli filmmaker and funded by companies in nine different countries, developed through a European media project. The actual footage was filmed on domestic camcorders, recording the Israeli enforcement of a Palestinian village overlooked by a settlement and the Palestinian resistance.

And there are further film works on new digital formats and on the Internet. There are also documentaries involving Palestinians regularly on Al Jazeera. On Al Jazeera World Rawen Damen produced The Price of Oslo, and this film crosses over with some of the content of The Wanted 18.

Whatever the limitations of the present situation for Palestinians recent years have seen a ripening use of cinema as part of the struggle. The films range from work that aims to be part of a national cinema to works that are effectively ‘third cinema’. In this way they mirror the intense debates that continue with the struggle.

Wikipedia has pages on Cinema of Palestine and a List of Palestinian Submissions for the Academy Award.

See also The Palestine Film Foundation

And Palestine in film


Posted in Arab Cinemas, Palestinian films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Leeds’ First Palestinian Film Festival

Posted by keith1942 on November 14, 2015

Palestine film Fest1[1]

The series of films about and/or by Palestinians is on offer in Leeds from November through December this year. The screenings commence during the Leeds International Film Festival.

The Wanted 18 (Palestine, Canada, France 2014) is screening on Sunday November 15th in the Albert Room at the Town Hall. The film was made by Canadian director and cinematographer Paul Cowan and Palestinian artist Amer Shomali. The film is set during the First Intifada and concerns the village Beit Sahour. The village bought 18 cows in order to set up a dairy and become more self-sufficient. The Israeli response was, as is so often the case, almost surreal but without that movement’s humour. The film tackles this subject with a range of techniques, including re-enactments, stop-motion animation, and archival footage and drawings. This combination gives the film the feel of a comic book and a very distinctive approach to the struggle. It runs 75 minutes, in both black and white and colour and with dialogue in Arabic, English and Hebrew – with subtitles.

Two Blue Lines (USA, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine 2015) is screening on Monday 23rd November at the Beckett Studio on the Headingley Campus of what was Leeds Met. The film was shot and produced by Tom Hays over a period of years. The film looks at the take-over of Palestinian lands by the Zionist settlers. Hays includes archive footage from those years, but he also interviews a range of people living in Israel, both those who are virulently anti-Palestinian and liberals who have some sympathy with the Palestinian plight. This makes for a distinctive and unusual treatment. And the early days of the settlement and occupation are not that frequently addressed, so the topic is important. The film runs for 99 minutes, it is in colour and in English.

Amreeka (USA, UAR, Canada, Kuwait, Jordan 2009) is showing at the Seven Arts Centre in Chapel Allerton on Tuesday November 17th at 7.30 p.m. The film is written and directed by Cherin Dabis. It is set mainly in Illinois. It charts the difficulties and problems that beset a single mother and her son after moving from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank to the USA. It runs for 96 minutes, was filmed in colour and full widescreen, with Arabic, French and mainly English.

Divine Intervention (Yadon ilaheyya, France, Morocco, Germany, Palestine, 2002) is screening at the HEART Centre in Headingley on Friday 4th December at 7 p.m. This film, written and directed by Elia Suleiman, is something of a cause célèbre. It was nominated at the Cannes Festival and then an approach was made to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for consideration in the Awards for Best Foreign Language Films. What happened then is a matter of dispute, but the film did not get consideration. However, the following year this was allowed. Since then we have had more Palestinian films considered for the Awards. The actual film, subtitled ‘a chronicle of love and pain, is unusual, a black and surrealist comedy, of a different order from the more frequent documentaries and dramas. This enable the film to treat issues that other films ‘do not reach’. It is in colour, is in Arabic, Hebrew and English with English subtitles: I think this will be the 92 minute version.

The final film is Open Bethlehem (aka Operation Bethlehem, Palestine, UAR, UK, USA 2015) and is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on Tuesday December 16th at 6.30 p.m. It will be nice to finish with the full cinema experience. The film records the writer and director Leila Sansour’s journey to revisit and explore the town of her birth and upbringing. It seems she shot about 700 hours of footage and the result was something different from what she had expected. The film is in English, and in colour and runs for 90 minutes.

So this offers a fascinating and important exploration of the long struggle of Palestinians to regain their land and rid Palestine of settlements and occupation. The Festival is organised by the Leeds Palestine Solidarity Campaign and there will be opportunities to discuss the political content of these films. The actual films are available elsewhere and can be checked out on IMDB.

NB – additional screenings have been added to the Festival, including: On the Side of the Road:  Thursday 10th December 7 pm, Hamara Centre, Beeston.

This documentary by Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky examines the collective Israeli denial about the expulsion and displacement of Palestinians in the wake of the 1948 war for independence.  Referred to by the Palestinian people as the Nakba, or “the catastrophe,” the destruction of villages resulted in generations of refugees and, as parks and new cities were built on the ruins of those villages, years of violent history were swept under the rug.  Tarachansky interviews several former soldiers who participated in the destruction.  The film refrains from dehumanizing either side, instead making the simple request that the region’s history never be forgotten.

Director: Lia Tarachansky, released 2013, running time: 82 minutes

After this screening Monica Wusteman from Pacbi and York PSC will give a short update on the Boycott divestment & sanctions movement.

On the Side of the Road – trailer –


Posted in Films of Liberation, Palestinian films | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

India’s Parallel Cinema.

Posted by keith1942 on October 27, 2015


From the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, an alternative to the mainstream Hindi entertainment films and the regional mainstream cinemas, often referred to as ‘New Wave’ or ‘Parallel’ cinema, thrived in India. New Wave films tended to exhibit the following characteristics:

They were inspired by a new type of Indian film, which had been pioneered by the Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, in the 1950s.

They focused on social and political issues, such as the position of women, caste and poverty, communalism, the young and dissent.  While popular films sometimes touched on these issues New Wave films presented them with greater directness, complexity and subtlety.

They were less concerned with offering spectacle and glamour and tended towards a social realist approach to their subject.

They tended to be preoccupied with visual style and composition, and emphasised reflexivity. They drew attention to the construction of a film, rather than aiming at a seamless presentation of the story.

The films were usually produced on a low budget, and were less dependent on well-known stars.

The filmmakers were often influenced by western art house films and were dependent on film festivals, film societies and art house cinemas to become well known.

The rise of Alternative films.

In India, in the 1940s, Hindi popular films supplanted Hollywood imports as the largest block of releases in the Indian film market. Regional cinemas, for example the Tamil industry based in Madras/Chennai, also developed and expanded. But beyond these popular films, and Hollywood films, access to foreign films was very limited. Film societies were the main way audiences could access a wider range of films. In the late 1930s and early 1940s there were two attempts to found film societies in Bombay/Mumbai, but both were short-lived.

A longer lasting and far more influential institution, the Calcutta/Kolkata Film Society, was founded in 1947. The instigators were Chidananda Das Gupta and Satyajit Ray, both of whom became key film directors in India and inspired the development of New Wave in the 60s. The operation of such a society was not easy: the censorship rules applied to societies (though eased in the 1960s); and there were entertainment taxes and the cost of importing film. Despite this, the Calcutta/Kolkata Film Society constructed a programme of films using the Central Film Library of the Ministry of Education, commercial distributors of foreign films, and, very importantly, films provided by foreign embassies. In the 1950s the international market dominance by Hollywood was undermined, creating the space for the growing popularity of other national cinemas. Increasingly, films made outside Hollywood and in very different forms, circulated in the international markets. The Society gave an Indian audience access to these alternative cinemas. Apart from seeing films from many different countries the Society enjoyed visits by noted foreign filmmakers, including Jean Renoir, Vsevolod Pudovkin and John Huston. From 1952 the International Film Festival, held variously in Bombay/Mumbai, Madras/Chennai and Calcutta/Kolkata, opened doors to world cinema. As a result the Society had a powerful influence on several young members who became filmmakers, including Satyajit Ray.

Satyajit Ray – a pioneer filmmaker


Satyajit Ray visited the European director Jean Renoir when he was filming The River (1951). Inspired by this experience he decided to fulfil a growing ambition, and started work on a screenplay of a widely read Bengali novel, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). Indian films in the 1950s were almost wholly studio produced, but Ray wanted to film this story in the actual locations. He also wanted to use ordinary people living in the situations described in the book rather than the professional actors and actresses of popular cinema. Potential backers were aghast at such a project. However, Ray started work, using his own savings and selling his personal belongings. Then he got an interested distributor who advanced him Rs 20,000. Later he obtained Rs 200,000 from the state of West Bengal and was able to complete the film.

When Pather Panchali was first released audiences were bemused by it, but it grew in popularity. It received an award at the Cannes Film Festival as the ‘best human document’ of the Festival and, over the next few years, the film enchanted audiences in film societies and art cinemas round the world. It also recouped a healthy profit on the investment of West Bengal

The film launched Ray’s career and he was to become one of the outstanding directors of the second half of the twentieth century. He is best regarded as an auteur, a filmmaker with a distinctive style and recognisable themes. While he was influential, he did not found a movement in the sense that Italian filmmakers founded Neo-realism. His films demonstrated that there were audiences in India for films that were different from the mainstream. Their favourable reception internationally also made a significant impact on the Indian government. In the 1960s and 1970s state funding was to play a crucial role in facilitating the making of alternative films. The state-run Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune provided a training ground and alternative entry into the film industry for young filmmakers. And success in competitions at international film festivals provided recognition and reward for new Indian talent.

The development of a political cinema  

If international cinema was a formative influence in the development of New Wave Cinema, another important influence was a indigenous cultural movement, the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA). This Association was founded in the 1940s and was connected to the Communist Party of India and the Progressive Writers’ Association, founded in 1935. The IPTA was regarded as both a political and cultural vanguard, influenced by socialist ideas and anti-colonial sentiments. Active in political theatre in both urban and rural areas, the IPTA made use of new cultural forms developed in western art and cinema but also lay claim to traditional Indian popular and folk forms. For example it staged theatrical and musical events about the 1943 Bengal Famine. K A Abbas subsequently made a film adaptation of these, Dharti Ke Lal (1946), the only film actually produced by the IPTA. The film used a non-professional cast and a novice crew.

The IPTA had immense prestige and influence in the 1940s and 1950s. Mainstream actors and filmmakers like Chetan Anand and Balray Sahni were associated with it, and some traces of its politics can be discerned in their films. Anand was a scriptwriter, director and actor, and the brother of the popular Hindi stars Dev and Vijay Anand. Sahni was a popular actor over several decades and starred in Do Bigha Zamin (1953).

One of the most famous alumni of the IPTA was another Bengali filmmaker, Ritwik Kumar Ghatak. Ghatak joined the IPTA as a playwright, director and actor and was voted best theatre director and actor at the all-India IPTA Conference in 1953. However, he was forced out of the organisation in the following year due to forceful political differences. He worked for the Bombay/Mumbai Film Company Filmistan as a scenarist, scripting Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958). His own films were few. In them he used the melodramatic form, also found in the Hindi entertainment films, and experimented with film styles, exploring especially the relationship between sound and image. In 1966 – 67 he was director of the newly formed Film and Television Institute of India, based at Pune, where he exercised a powerful influence on a number of students who went on to become filmmakers.

Ghatak’s conflict in the IPTA was indicative of political clashes. As elsewhere in the world, in India the 1960s was a time of political and social ferment. There was tense conflict between various leftwing political factions, including the powerful official Communist Party influenced by the Soviet Union, and two political parties influenced by revolutionary communists in China. These political differences took a concrete form. The most famous example was the Naxalite movement of the 1960s, which started with an insurrection at Naxalbari in West Bengal in August 1967; similar insurrections followed in other provinces. The Naxalite movement had an influence on both poor peasants in rural areas and radical students in the cities. Young filmmakers inscribed Naxalite political lines in their films and actively encouraged their films to be used as propaganda for the movement. For example, in 1979 a founder member of the IPTA, the director K A Abbas, made a film in Hindi, The Naxalites. It re-created both the peasant uprising and the later student activism. The film experienced some censorship, but was also criticised for a rather simplistic treatment of the political issues.


Another noted example of IPTA political filmmaking was Garam Hawa (Hot Winds, 1973) directed by M S Sathya, an IPTA member with experience in the theatre. A government agency sponsored the film, which deals with the Muslim community in India after Partition. This is a topic that mainstream Indian cinema has, by and large, ignored. The film avoids the musical and melodramatic conventions of mainstream cinema, except for an ironic and tragic sequence where the lovelorn daughter of the Muslim family commits suicide. The film’s style emphasises a certain distance for the viewer from the story, typical of films aimed at art cinema audiences. And the finale of the film directly relates the situation of these Muslims with a rally organised by communists, offering the audience a fairly direct political message.

The impact of government funding

In 1960 the government set up the Film Finance Corporation, following the recommendation in the Film Enquiry Report of 1951. According to Rajadhyaksha and Willemen (1999),

‘Its original objective was to promote and assist the mainstream film industry by ‘providing, affording or procuring finance or other facilities for the production of films of good standard’.

‘Good standards’ included ‘the promotion of national culture, education and healthy entertainment’.

In its first six years, it extended production loans for around 50 films, notably Ray’s Charulata (1964). This provided the opportunity for many talented and innovative directors to make films, which addressed serious issues, and in so doing they formulated a film style to do them justice.

The state sponsored and provided a regular exhibition space for documentary films. The Films Division both funded regular newsreels and documentaries and controlled their entry into distribution: exhibitors were required by law to screen them. Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal and other important directors all benefited from this source of government support by making documentaries.

In 1969 the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), under the direct influence of Indira Gandhi, funded two key films: Bhuvan Shome (1969, dir. Mrinal Sen) and Uski Roti (1969, dir. Mani Kaul). Sen’s film was a satirical comedy and Kaul’s film was an adaptation of a noted Hindi short story. Both films offered a distinctive approach to form and style. Sen’s film is credited by some as launching the New Wave. It was extremely popular and easily recouped the FFC’s investment. Uski Roti is described as

‘Indian cinema’s most controlled achievement in image composition. …The film … was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with familiar cinematic norms and equally strongly defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia.’

(Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, 1999, page 402).

Kaul had been a student of Ritwik Ghatak, and his work included exploration of Indian cultural forms, such as the use of Sanskrit texts, and European influences, including the noted French director, Robert Bresson.

New Wave cinema grows

Mrinal Sen

Mrinal Sen

Bhuvan Shome and Uski Roti provided the catalyst for a new film movement. An editorial article from the journal Close Up suggested a way forward for the creation of a cinema other than the popular commercial film.

‘If Indian cinema is to grow to adulthood, it has to come out of the cloying, cliché ridden commercial films. This requires the springing up of a whole movement, many directors making their films the way they like, in their own individual styles, unfettered by considerations of big finance, big star casts and voluminous box office returns. It is necessary that there should be many new directors, many new styles of filmmaking and possibility of these directors making more and more films. Only then can the real Indian cinema be active, living and progressing.’

(Close Up No. 4 1969, quoted in Georgekutty)

These aspirations were largely met in the 1970s when many new filmmakers were working in different states and different regional languages. The film critic and theorist, Georgekutty (1988) outlined the range of films that emerged from this period:

‘For example in Ankur and Nishant directed by Shyam Benegal, the theme is the feudal oppression of a people and the germination of resistance. In Party, directed by Govind Nihalani, the theme is the crisis of values in the middle class environment; in Ardh Staya it is the cry for honesty and integrity in contemporary public life; in Aaghat the question is the means and ends in trade union practices; in Rao Saheb it is the plight of women in the context of tradition and colonial experience of modernity; in Paar the tyranny of the landlords.’

In many ways, the new movement seemed to parallel the radical film movements in the West and in countries shaking free from colonialism, with its interest in a formal experimentation, in organising narratives and in the use of unconventional techniques. There was also a sense in which it could be seen as part of a youthful rebellion and many of the films appealed to young people, particularly students

Some films only circulated regionally, but some, like Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (made in Hindi), enjoyed a national success. Their audiences were mainly in the metropolitan areas and small towns. The radical political climate of the 60s stimulated a much greater interest in films that broke with the formulaic conventions of the Hindi popular movie. Often there was a key cinema in a city where art films were shown. In the 1970s Calcutta/Kolkata the Metro was the venue for a provocative trilogy of films by Mrinal Sen.

But these films also had another life at festivals abroad, where they often received greater acclaim than at home, as described by Bibekananda Ray (1988),

‘Adoor Gopalkrishana’s Elippathayam (The Rat Trap) made in 1982 was awarded the prestigious Sutherland Trophy by the British Film Institute. … New Delhi Times (1986) by young Ramesh Sharma won the Opera Prima award … at Karlovy Vary. Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s debut Dooratwa (The Distance, 1978) bagged the Special Jury award at Locarno … Buddhadeb’s third Grihayuddha (1982) won the FIPRESCI Award at Venice.’

Critics used varying titles to identify this trend in Indian cinema – New Wave Cinema, New Indian Cinema, Parallel Cinema, and occasionally Middle Cinema. This reflected the variety and range of films in the movement. Some films, like Bhuvan Shome, were radically different from mainstream films. Others, like Bhumika (Shyam Benegal, 1977), had a different content and style, but shared some conventions.

Shyam Benegal

Shyam Benegal is a Hindi director. Like other directors, his film career was preceded by work in the advertising industry. In the late sixties he received a scholarship and studied in Britain and the USA, where he worked as an associate producer at Boston’s WGBH TV and the Children’s Television Workshop in New York.

His first feature Ankur (1973) was independently financed and was a fair commercial success. It displayed characteristics associated with New Cinema in its realist style and naturalism, its unusually explicit story – about an affair between a low-caste wife and the landlord’s son – and its political stance. The latter included an impassioned denunciation of the landlord’s son, an affluent urban youth, by the wife, played by Shabana Azmi. The film seemed to extend and develop the ‘realist’ ethos found in Satyajit Ray’s early films.

Benegal’s work has often addressed political themes, especially two films from the 1970s, Nishant (1975) and Mathan (1976). Some of his other films are closer to the idea of an art cinema. Bhumika (1977) is an incisive portrait of the ‘Bollywood’ industry focusing on a star. Like many of Benegal’s films, and the Parallel Cinema generally, Bhumika addresses issues facing women. The film offers a sense of irony and distance often found in films described as Art Cinema. Yet it also offers some of the pleasures of entertainment films, with its strong narrative, star performers and use of continuity in story and style.

Bhumika poster

Benegal continued to make films in the 1990s. Like other filmmakers in the New Cinema he has also worked for television. This included a 53 part series based on a work by Nehru, The Discovery of India, (Bharat Ek Khoj) in 1988. A recent film, released in the UK, is Samar (Conflict, 1998), which deals with the problems of Dalits (outcasts in the Indian caste system). The film is overtly political, dealing with an issue that mainstream cinema has by and large avoided and which remains unresolved 55 years after Independence. As in Bhumika, Benegal uses the device of creating a film within a film, giving the viewer a sense of distance and reflectivity. However, in Bhumika the film within the film is part of the main narrative. In Samar there is a narrative conflict around the treatment of untouchables, but there are further contradictions between the villagers and the filmmakers as they record the story.

Stars in New Wave Cinema

While the Parallel Cinema did not depend on stars in the same way as Bollywood, a number of key actors and actresses have been important, both in developing the realist acting styles and in increasing the popularity for some New Wave films. An important actress in Parallel cinema was Smita Patil, who also worked in the commercial cinema.

Smita Patil appeared in Bhumika, a film for which she won the National Best Actress Award. She graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and appeared in several films directed by Shyam Benegal. She also worked in films made by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and a number of other directors in the New Cinema, and acted in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu. She died in 1986, aged only 31, having appeared in around 70 films. Her films frequently centred on strong and independent women, but also on the social pressures that limits them. In the case of Bhumika, the film dramatised the autobiography of an actual Hindi film actress, Hansa Wadkar.


Decline of Parallel Cinema

In the 1970s and early 1980s Parallel Cinema was a vibrant force, but it became significantly less dynamic from the late 1980s, as a result of a number of factors relating to changes both globally and domestically.

1989 saw the demise of the Soviet Union, whose support for struggles against the Transatlantic colonial and neo-colonial powers had made it an important reference point for some politically conscious artists. And the alternative focus, China (an inspiration to the Naxalite rebels) now appeared as an authoritarian and repressive regime. As in the west, these changes generated confusion and dissipation in political art and culture.

In addition, wider social and cultural changes associated with ‘globalisation’ impacted on both filmmakers and audiences. In The World Remade by the Market, Jeremy Seabrook, offers a description of the Asian societies in the new global dispensation, and comments:

‘The richer we become in the market economy, the greater the space of individual self-expression. Sharper differentiation occurs between people. We no longer see our shared social predicament as a common fate. To get out, to be yourself, to locate a self that has become abstracted from place, becomes the aim of the young. Previously unseen barriers and separations divide generation from generation: new, impermeable divisions arise between those who had seen themselves as bound by a shared destiny. Members of the same family, who had always seen each other more or less as an extension of themselves, become aware of their own private, individual needs. They become preoccupied with their own uniqueness. They cultivate features and characteristics that distinguish them from others, rather than submerge these in a common pool of human belonging.’ (Seabrook, 2002)

Furthermore, as the authors of Satellites over South Asia point out,

‘The exchange crisis of 1991 and the subsequent bail out by the IMF, the World Bank and other international aid agencies is part of Indian economic folklore. The newly-elected government of P. V. Narasimha Rao … ushered in a new era by introducing sweeping measure of economic reform and liberalisation.’

(Page and Crawley, 2001).

Many of the state planning measures developed in India since Independence were dismantled. The deregulation was to be most noted in television and advertising. The Indian market was opened up to global competition. The new consumerism squeezed out many of the spaces where alternate cultural practice, like Parallel cinema, had found a home and an audience. Filmmakers in Parallel Cinema found the funding and distribution of their films increasingly difficult.

Another important factor in the decline of New Wave cinema was the impact of television and video on distribution and exhibition. Television proved to be a mixed blessing. Some New Cinema filmmakers earned a living by making films and programmes for television. The expansion of the state-run television service in the 1980s, created a large potential new audience for Parallel cinema. Many of the films funded by the NFDC were scheduled on early Sunday afternoons. Television screenings provided the possibility of additional revenues for filmmakers. For example, the television screening on the TV network Doordarshan could earn a film rights payment of Rs 800,000.  Georgekutty (1988) argued that the New Cinema films were mainly dependent on television and video rights, or on foreign film festivals, rather than on audiences paying to see the films in cinemas in India. This was a change from the 1970s when there were at least viable urban audiences for the films.

But while television offers opportunities, it has also undermined cinema audiences. The growth of television and video made the film societies, which had provided venues for exhibiting films and a base for filmmakers, largely redundant. It is not clear how large the audience is for TV screenings of New Wave films, or how new it is to this kind of film. At least some of the urban middle class intelligentsia that view the films on TV had once watched them in cinemas. They are, in the main, the subscribers to the new satellite channels that appeared in the 1990s.

The influence of Parallel cinema

Parallel cinema continues to influence Indian filmmakers but it has lost the political edge it once had. Mrinal Sen once explained:

‘I make films which have something to do with the political situation and involve political characters, but I have also made films which do not have a direct political relevance. In all of them however, I have always tried to maintain a social, political and economic perspective. I am a social animal, and, as such, I react to the things around me – I can’t escape their social and political implications.’

(Interview with Udayan Gupta, in Downing 1987).

The films of Sen, Benegal and Nihalani (among many others) offered their audiences a political message about the social conditions they represented. In this they are similar to the European political art films of, say, Ken Loach or Jean-Luc Godard, one influence on their work. The new breed of non-mainstream Indian films are more like international art house films, offering a much more muted message in comparison. These films circulate mainly outside India. While this offers them access to a wider audience, they lack the direct address and intervention into the political and cultural issues of modern Indian society. There is no longer a sense of a shared cinematic and political activism that characterised Parallel cinema in the 60s and 70s. As a result their directors are more like auteurs (in the Western art cinema sense) than the cultural activists of the IPTA. Their approach is reflected in the comments of an Asian British filmmaker, Shakila Maan,

‘Art is all about yourself. First and foremost, we are artists and we are all filmmakers.’

(Quoted by Cary Sawhney in Cineaste, Fall, 2001)

An important factor in this transformation has been foreign funding. Parallel cinema had always relied to a degree on the western alternative film circuit, through winning awards at film festivals and being circulated around art cinemas. But with the decline of funding for and interest in these films within India, foreign funding and distribution became even more essential for filmmakers who wanted to make different types of films.

For example, the award-winning Salaam Bombay (1988, dir. Mira Nair), a powerful study of child poverty and exploitation in Bombay, was jointly funded by the NFDC, the UK’s Channel 4 and a Paris-based company. Mira Nair was born in India, but studied in the USA at Harvard and worked with US-based documentarists Richard Leacock and DA Pennebaker. Her early film was partly a creature of the international art circuit, and her equally successful Monsoon Wedding (2001) is even more so. This film centres on a wedding between a young Indian engineer now working in Houston USA and the daughter of an affluent middle class family in Delhi. The film cleverly mixes western and Indian cultures and western art house styles with the colour and romantic melodrama of popular Hindi cinema. The poverty of India is seen in the vibrant city life of Delhi, but it is only part of the cityscape. Monsoon Wedding is less indignant about social problems and more affectionately mocking about contemporary cultural customs.

Political and formally radical films are still made in India. But they are most likely the result of international funding. For example both the Göteborg and Rotterdam Film Festivals have funds for filmmakers from countries outside the developed capitalist west. But in the UK they will mostly be seen on television, particularly Channel 4, rather than in cinemas.


I think it will be clear from the above that the Parallel Cinema can be categorised as part of First or National cinema and as part of Second or Auteur cinema. But it also includes films that I would regard as oppositional or Third Cinema. Mrinal Sen’s films certainly fall into this space, see his And Quiet Rolls the Dawn (Ek Din Pratidin, India 1979): and Ghatak’s later film Titas Ekti Nadir Naam /A River Called Titas (Bangladesh, 1973) would also fit. The most recent films that I have seen are closer to national and auteur approaches.

For Indian silent cinema – for Pre-Independence sound cinema.


Bhaskar Chandavarkar, 1980, ‘The Man Who Went Beyond Stop’ in Cinema Vision India Vol. 1 No. 4, October.

Georgekutty, 1988, ‘A Legitimisation Crisis?’ in Deep Focus Vol. 1 No. 2, June.

Ashish Rajadhayaksha and Paul Willemen, 1999. Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, BFI.

Bibekananda Ray, 1988. The New Generation in ‘Other’ Cinema, in Cinema India International, 1988/1.

Jeremy Seabrook, The soul of man under globalism, in Race and Class, Volume 43 Number 4, April June 2002.

Cary Rajinder Sawhney, Another Kind of British: An Exploration of British Asian Films’, in Cineaste, Vol. XXVI No. 4, Fall 2001.

Adapted from a contribution to the BFI CG=Rom on Indian Cinema, [no longer available].


Posted in Auteur cinema, Indian cinema | 2 Comments »

Invictus, USA / South Africa 2009.

Posted by keith1942 on September 24, 2015



Director: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin. In Technicolor and in 2.35:1; 133 minutes.

As the Rugby World Cup is currently on display in Britain it was predictable that this film would turn up on television: ITV4. It is a drama set round the 1995 Rugby World Cup which took place in South Africa: this was at the time that the new post-apartheid government led by Nelson Mandela was attempting to make the transition to an open, democratic society.

Despite all the talent involved I found this film ponderous to watch: weighed down by all the good intentions. It is also ideological in the proper sense of the word: addressing the surface appearances rather than the underlying social contradictions. The basic plot follows the South African Springboks [rugby team] as they attempt to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Key to their victory, in the film and apparently in real life, is the newly elected black President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). He develops a bond with and provides inspiration for the Springboks captain, white Afrikaan Francois Piennaar (Matt Damon).

The film opens on a road with a convoy of cars carrying the just-released Mandela from prison. On one side of the road is a grassless mud pitch where black youth in ragged gear play football. On the other side privileged white South Africans practice under the tutelage of their school coach. Black people run to the fence to cheer Mandela whilst the white coach expresses his contempt. Immediately the film visually presents the gross disparities that fuelled the anti-apartheid struggle. Unfortunately, this image grows dimmer as the film progresses. The Springbok team clearly have to win the cup: the question for Mandela [and viewers] is can do they so do on behalf of all the countries 42 million citizens, white and black.

There are early important scenes. We see Mandela taking up his office as President and carefully inviting the staff from the previous apartheid administration to continue to work ‘for the nation’. The key example in the film is the security team, now composed of both black and white staff, who only grudgingly learn to work together.

The issue of the Springbok team, who have a traditional green and gold strip, surfaces quickly. An ANC dominated Committee decides to change both the name and the colours, which are associated with the apartheid era and the Afrikaan society. Mandela rushes to the meeting and manages to persuade a slim majority to reverse their decision. His black secretary suggests that this might appear to be autocratic. Mandela’s response is that this is his responsibility as Leader. Several times in arguments around this issue he suggests that the person opposing him does not have all the ‘information’.

Later, when Mandela has developed a relationship with the Springbok captain and met and impressed the rugby team, we see them tour the now empty Robbins Islands which is in the process of becoming a museum. During this tour Piennaar ‘imagines’ Mandela in his time in the Prison.

On the eve of the World Cup Piennaar manages to persuade the team to actually learn the words of the new national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God/Lord Bless Africa in Xhosa). And Mandela sends Piennaar a hand-written copy of the poem Invictus.

The final, [apparently held in Durban rather than Cape Town), offers glorious affirmation of their success in their project. 60,000 fans roar on their team whilst nearly every other South African watches on television or listens on the radio. The sole exceptions are a young black boy and a dog. The former is collecting trash and is gradually drawn into the game’s commentary played over a police car radio. Victory sees the young man and the white policemen bonding. The dog is shown wandering through a deserted township: he is clearly baffled [as I am] by the potent attraction of such sporting events.


The victory celebrations end on a road outside the stadium, as both black and whites celebrate in the streets. But it is an urban centre road rather than the township road that opens the film. As Mandela drives by the celebrating crowds we hear his voice reading the poem. Then as the credits appear, we do see a field of young black men playing rugby. And the field is greener and better equipped than that of the opening, though not up to the standards of the white school playing fields. But there are no young white men playing rugby with these black youth. I sensed no irony in this final image: in fact Eastwood admitted in an interview that he caught this event as he was leaving at the end of filming and could not resists stopping to record it. .

In an article on the sports film, Joe Queenan (The Guardian 12-02-10) commented that: “The fact that such stirring victories almost never occur in real life is the reason that sports films exist. … It can reasonably be argued that sports films exist to provide audiences with a glimpse of a parallel universe in which the weak outmuscle the strong, good triumphs over evil …. Sports films are thus a substitute for reality, perhaps even an antidote.” On Invictus itself he writes: “[it] uses rugby as a metaphor for national spiritual rejuvenation ”. The Springboks did win the Rugby World Cup. However the national community the film celebrates is yet to materialise. The poverty, the extremes of affluence and deprivation, the experience of violence predominantly by black people are a different reality from the celebrations that close the film.

In an interview on Radio 4’s Today Chester Williams [the black member of the 1995 Springboks’], 20 years on, stated that the changes that he had hoped for have not occurred. A sports commentator stated that the Springbok team was still largely recruited from a small pool of elite schools favoured by the white population.

In fact the focus of the film is not on the ordinary black working class South Africans: it is on the two leaders, of the government and the national team. Most of the plot focuses on Piennar’s growing admiration for Mandela. The latter’s stature is summed up in the title of the film, which refers to a C19th British poem, Invictus (Unconquered). The poem was given to Mandela in prison: a fact rehearsed for the audience at least three times in the dialogue. We also hear the final verse twice: once when Pienaar and his team mates visit the now empty Robbins Island Prison; and once more as Mandela sits in his car as it drives through the celebrating South African fans.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the Captain of my soul.”

The author, William Ernest Henley, wrote the poem in a hospital bed where he struggled against illness and disability. One can see that the theme of personal struggle could resonate with a man in long-term prison. However, poet and captive seem to represent rather different situations: the poem was dedicated to a successful flour merchant. His equivalents in South Africa were the neo-colonial bourgeoisie, both exploiting and oppressing the black majority. Perhaps a more appropriate British poet for a leader in the struggle against Apartheid would be Linton Kwesi Johnson. His 1970s poem Yout Rebels ends,

“young blood

yout rebels

new shapes


new patterns

creatin new links


blood risin surely

carvin a new path

movin fahwod to freedom.”

The film is an expression of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie in advanced capitalist societies. Whilst the rugby provides the motor for the plot the film’s central focus is Mandela. In that sense it is as much a biopic as a sport film: an example of recent biopics which, rather than setting out the life and career of a personality, take a particular event or period as an expression of their life and work. Mandela became an icon for the Western bourgeoisies: in manner similar to Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he was often compared. Mandela and the fraction he led in the ANC were prepared to accept a compromise solution to ending apartheid. This involved a deal with international capital rather than its expropriation. At one point in the film we see a series of television excerpts in which Mandela travels the world seeking investment for the new South Africa.

This, of course, perpetuated the underlying social relations for which Apartheid gave a particular racist expression. The Witness film screened on Al Jazeera on the Marikana Massacre shows how unreformed the major state institutions like the police remain. And there are other examples of the continuing exploitation of of the black majority by international corporations. Unfortunately, the majority of films coming out of South African adhere to this ideological standpoint, e.g. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (2013). This is a film from dominant cinema with traces of the auteur or ‘second cinema’, but it shares many values with the films that come from South Africa’s national or ‘first cinema’.

Mandela actions regarding the Springbok’s can be seen as shrewd public relations in a divided country. And for a brief moment, as displayed in the film, it had its effect. But it made no changes to the predominant social relations. And it was an expression of the overall political direction of the government that he led.

The original review at release posted on ITP World.

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Theeb, Jordan / UK / United Arab Emirates / Qatar / Switzerland 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2015


This film was shot in anamorphic colour in Arabic with English subtitles. It was also shot on 16mm, which does not show on the big screen. The cinematography by Wolfgang Thaler is excellent and enjoys the at times breathtaking landscapes. The sound design by Dario Swade is also very fine, though I thought some of the music by Jerry Lane was, at times, intrusive. But the films also make good use of indigenous North African music and songs.

This is essentially a rite de passage and journey film. The protagonist, Theeb (Wolf) is a young Bedouin boy, not yet in his teens. He is played by the non-professional Jacir Eid and he is completely convincing in a role that has little dialogue. The rest of the cast, mainly non-professional, are also very good.

The journey arises when the Bedouin offer hospitality to a travelling English Officer and his guide. Theeb’s elder brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) is to guide them to a well, the first post on their journey. Theeb accompanies them, but they are soon in bandit company and the travails of the journey start.

The plot line is deliberately sketchy. So it takes time to realise that we are in the middle of World War I. Also that Edward, the Englishman (Jack Fox), is journeying to meet Arab irregulars who are attacking the Ottoman railway. One aspect presented in the film is that this conflict predates the war, as the railway has disrupted the traditional ways and work of the Bedouin.

I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House and afterwards joined in the Film Club discussion on the film. The consensus was that this was essentially a genre film and much of the plot was immediately familiar. I did think the production and the acting generated a sense of the desert world in this period that was more authentic than the western equivalents.

What also struck me was that I was constantly reminded of that western epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Theeb was filmed in the Hejaz area of Jordan, where much of Lawrence was filmed. Many of the settings look familiar and hark back to the earlier film. A host of parallels: the Bedouin hospitality, the English officer, his revolver circulating amongst the characters, the explosive plunger in a box, the rocky defiles and valleys, the accentuated padding of the camels hooves, the wells, the Arab irregulars, the railway, and late on the Turkish officer and troops – all made me think that these were deliberate.

The director Naji abu Nowar, is a Jordanian, but born in the UK. Many of the production group are European film technicians. Whilst it is predominately a production from Arabia I felt that it was made with an eye both to local audiences but also to international audiences for foreign language films. It certainly has a sense of indigenous culture that is often lacking from western [or Dominant Cinema] films. But in terms of plot in particular, it is recognisable to western audiences. The director described it as a ‘Bedouin western’. One could categorise it as somewhere between a National [or First] Cinema and an auteur [or second] cinema. For me it was entertaining but lacked the dynamic of a film like Timbuktu (2014).

Posted in Arab Cinemas, Auteur cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The African Connection

Posted by keith1942 on August 10, 2015

French connection This film, directed by Patrick Benquet, is currently airing on Al Jazeera in three episodes.

This series explores the dark and dramatic history of France’s relationships with its former African colonies. … This three-part series tells the story of ‘France Afrique’: a brutal and nefarious tale of corruption, massacres, dictators supported and progressive leaders murdered, weapon-smuggling, cloak-and-dagger secret services, and spectacular military operations. Episode 1: France’s thirst for energy

The film opens by looking at a recent example of French involvement in West Africa, first in Mali and then in Gabon. The film then returns to 1945 and examines the relationships between France and the nations that achieved formal indpendence in the late 1950s and 1960s. The first episode concentrates on the period when De Gaulle ran the French Government: in which time the policy of ‘France Afrique’ was established and developed. The often covert and nefarious activities involved French Security Services and a secretive policy unit in the Élysée Palace. The prime examples involve French activity in Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon and Biafra/Nigeria. As the title suggests this episode focuses on French interests in natural resources and in particular oil. The series is certainly important viewing. Whilst much of this has been written and even filmed about, little of it has been aired on a large, mainstream English-language television channel. Each episode will run about 50 minutes. This is insufficient, so the first episode was often short on detail, and, in the case of Guinea, left issues unresolved. It may be that later episodes rectify this. There is an amount of documentary footage, though most of this in the first episode was cropped or stretched to fit the 16/9 screen. There is also the distracting news line at the bottom of the screen and the absence of credits at the end. There are interviews, especially with French bureaucrats and agents, some of who are remarkably frank. There was a dearth, though, of inputs from indigenous Africans.

Episode 2 shares the interests and weaknesses of the first. In the early part of the film we learn more about France’s covert interventions in West Africa. The period covered is the 1970s, and there is subversion in Benin and the Central African Republic: then in the Republic of Congo. The latter was a factor in what remains one of the worse disasters in contemporary Africa. The second part of this episode focuses on the activities of the French national oil company, Elf.  This involved both subversion and large-scale bribery and corruption. The latter appears to have been endemic in French politics. This episode was even more dominated by French voices: with just a couple of interviews with Africans.  The discussions regarding Elf are as much concerned with French political life as with the effects in Africa. There is a brief mention of political opposition movements in African states. However, these are related to a European event, the fall of the Berlin Wall with no discussion of indigenous African events. Unfortunately the film displays little interest in the experience and voices of the Africans, portrayed as is so often as victims rather than actors.

The third episode brings the sorry tale up to the present. It is the most lightweight in terms of content. the focus is primarily on Gabon, the Ivory Coast and, briefly, the Republic of Congo. The film notes how direct French interference has diminished, with an increasing number of neo-colonial states involved: the USA, India and China. The main thrust is through private enterprise, like energy companies, with the state providing support. Another example is uranium-rich Niger. Quite a lot of time is spent on French politics, with African leaders directly intervening behind the scenes. As in earlier episodes the main witnesses are French: we hear from a couple of African leaders, but little from ordinary Africans.

Throughout the series the focus is determined by the French viewpoint. This seems likely to have resulted from the sources that the film uses. However, this results in a one-sided analysis. The occasional comment refers to the way this corruption and interference presses on ordinary Africans. But there is not a developed sense of how neo-colonialism produces this situation. Revealingly, the series opened with French military action In Mali. But he causes of this are never clearly set out in the film.

Despite its limitations this is a worthwhile viewing since the effects of these activities remains with Africa today. Along with the nefarious actions of the French State, little different from those of Britain and the USA, we see and hear the main players in France. Even when admitting these they mainly retain a cynical attitude. The film at one point refers to the post-colonial world”; however the Al Jazeera Webpage correctly describes this as neo-colonialism. This is a documentary that bears out the analysis and strictures that Franz Fanon perceptively outlined in the 1950s and early 1960s. It is best supplemented by the more political treatments found in the films of Ousmane Sembène: Xala is a good place to start. See –

Posted in Television | Tagged: | 2 Comments »


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