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Reports from the ‘Third World’!

Posted by keith1942 on January 9, 2016

Map-_-first-second-third-world

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.

THE NARRATIVE.

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.

THE MASSES.

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.

GENDER.

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.

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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.

Dupes

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.

wedding-in-galilee

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.

normal_divine_intervention_still_002

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.

wanted-18_slider_1451461779

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

 

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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 –  https://vimeo.com/65278501

 

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-e1441214710104

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.

naxalbari

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.

Salaam-Bombay-19881

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.

Status

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.

References

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

 

MandelaandPiennaar

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.

invictus_2009_9438_wallpaper

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

shapin

new patterns

creatin new links

linkin

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

theeb-2-filmloverss

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 – http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/specialseries/2013/08/201387113131914906.html

Posted in Television | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

SundayBloody Sunday, UK 2002.

Posted by keith1942 on July 11, 2015

bloody-sunday poster

Sunday was transmitted by Channel 4 on 28th January 2002: Bloody Sunday was transmitted by ITV on 20th January 2002 but it was also given a limited cinema release: both films deal with events in Derry on January 30th 1972. ITV gave Bloody Sunday  a fresh transmission recently which enabled me to revisit the film. It dealt with the massacre by British Paratroopers of civilians in Derry on that infamous date just over 40 years ago. There are, though, numerous ‘Bloody Sundays’ in modern world history: nearly always the attempted suppression of resistance to autocratic governments, frequently by colonial and neo-colonial administrations. An earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’ in the Irish Freedom Struggle was on November 21st 1920 when the Royal Irish Constabulary with the British military massacred civilians in Croke Park, Dublin. This was at the height of the War of Independence waged against the British occupation. An earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’ was on the 13th November 1887 in London; Irish nationalists, supported by the Social Democratic Federation, staged a protest which was violently suppressed by the British Police and British Army. There were subsequent demonstrations and there were numerous injuries to the marchers and later one death.

It says a lot for the political line of the Social Democratic Federation that they offered a clear support for the Irish Liberation Struggle: an example that has been followed only intermittently on the British Left. When we move to the C20th Labour Governments have been just as repressive as their Conservative counterparts. And this was true in the 1970s with the policy of interment, the main focus of protest for the March in Free Derry dramatised in the film. The events of that day have continued to be a long-running contest for truth and justice. Even now, following the recent Saville Inquiry, the whole truth of what occurred is not accepted and there has still been no serious action against the British Army for what was clearly a war crime.

The film was written and directed by Paul Greengrass, though it relied heavily on Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday (1997). Greengrass started out in Television working on Granada’s World in Action. Before Bloody Sunday he had already made one notable Television documentary, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999). Both films  are dramatizations, though they rely heavily on the records of the events. Bloody Sunday is the type of docu-drama that had become  common on British television in the 1990s. Another example of the treatment of the occupation of the six counties in the north of Eire is Shoot to Kill (1990, directed by Peter Kosminsky).

However Greengrass brings particular set of techniques to his film that give it a visceral feel stronger than most other examples. The film tends to the use of close-ups rather than long shots, and the editing is extremely rapid. This is an ‘in-your-face’ style that is reminiscent at times of the television fly-on-the -wall genre. It uses a professional cast with non-professional extras: filmed for the most part in Dublin.

This film is shot mainly from the point-of-view of the leaders of the March in Derry, especially the then local Member of Parliament, Ivan Cooper. The primary focus is on Cooper and his organising colleagues, who do not all necessarily share the same analysis of the struggle. This is counterpointed through parallel editing with the leaders of the military units deployed into Derry for the March. Between these two groups we see the mass of ordinary people participating in the March and the rank and file British soldiers. Especially at the opening and closing of the film there are also insets on two marchers who were among those shot on the day. So the film offers a tapestry of the event, dominated by certain  leading characters.

The film opens at the start of the Sunday. And gradually we meet the central characters as the preparations on both sides get under way. The film follows the chronology of the day with fades or cuts to black to mark the frequent ellipses. As well as the predominance of mid-shots and close-ups the film uses a ‘direct sound’ approach so that dialogue and noise are not always clearly heard or [importantly] placed in the scene. As with such dramatisations the film uses music to heighten the dramas. So as the film opens we hear the voice of BBC radio with a tympani added in the background.

The style of the film aims to involve the viewer in the action rather than to offer a distance from which to observe. This increases the drama and emotion. However it also [deliberately it seems] places the viewer in a situation of confusion at times, which is parallel to the confusion among the onscreen characters. An important moment is the commencement of firing. Shots are heard on the soundtrack, but by whom is unclear; as appears to be the case with the paratroopers at that point. There is equal confusion for both characters and viewers when the marchers become aware of the shooting.

bloody-sunday-2002-06-g

The issue of ‘confusion’ is important as the film deliberately shows that the army were pursuing methods of warfare rather than of control of civilians. However, the confusion amongst the military leaves open the question of why the violence was so disproportionate, seemingly more than intended by the military. The film emphasises the wait for the Paratroopers as the March gets under way and there is then a confrontation at a check point blocking the original route. The drama suggests that the wait and accompanying tension affect the attitude of the soldiers. At one point the paratroopers have to change their planned response because military intelligence is at fault. The film does suggest that individual soldiers went ‘over the top’. So one soldier, when questioned later, concedes that the number of shots that he fired exceed the amount of issued ammunition.

The post-mortem amongst the military demonstrates the start of officers passing the blame on: notably by Major-General Robert Ford (Tim Piggot-Smith]. But we also see the ordinary rank and file paratroopers construct statements that evade an honest record. And later they are seen attempting to justify the action by planting an incriminating bomb on a corpse.

There is equal confusion amongst the marchers and their leaders; but the confusion becomes one of trying to comprehend the massacre that has occurred. The scenes of carnage and of attempts to save the wounded or rescue the dead are highly charged.

bloody-sunday-2002-07-g

This is also true of the scenes at a local hospital as the scale of the massacre emerges. It is right at the end of the day [and the film] that we see and hear the first articulated response to the massacre by the movement. The focus is once again given to Ivan Cooper, who represents a Civil Rights standpoint. In his address to the media he does point up the colonial parallels:

‘our Sharpeville, our Ameristar massacre’

but he then goes on to argue that the actions that day by the British Government have

‘destroyed the Civil Rights movement and given the IRA the biggest victory that it has ever had.’

This is an important statement that refers back to earlier scenes where we are allowed brief glimpses of exchanges between Cooper and an local IRA [to be exact the Provisional Irish Republican Army] leader. Cooper stresses the promise he had been given that the IRA would keep a low profile and

‘keeping guns away’.

The response of the IRA leader is

‘marching is not going to solve this thing’.

Here we have a basic contradiction, one view regards the struggle in the six counties as a Civil Rights question, drawing parallels with then ongoing struggle by Afro-Americans in the USA. The other sees the struggle as an anti-colonial struggle, along the lines represented by Sharpeville and the African struggle against the Settler Apartheid regime. It seems to me that the film comes down firmly on the side of Cooper in this debate. This is partly due to the representation of the IRA. I think this is probably not deliberate, but the scenes in which we see them do parallel the stereotypes of British Television and Film representation. Furtive men in the background, seen on shadowy corridors and stairwells, and lacking the sympathetic demeanour given to Cooper.

What the film does not sufficiently address is the responsibility of the British State. The dramatic scenes show us the reaction of the soldiers, the hesitancy among military staff and then attempts at deliberate cover-up. Particularly in terms of the rank-and-file soldiers this may have some justification. But not in terms of the politicians. We get only one reference to the Government when Major-General Ford refers to a meeting at Downing Street. It was clearly a political decision to use the paratroopers to ‘police’ the march: and one fuelled by the inability to close down Free Derry. Using paratroopers, and the accompanying policy of internment, were the standard methods of control and repression in colonial conflicts. Internment had its roots in the policies adopted during the Boer War. And specialist troops like paratroopers have been used by the British, French, US and other states to suppress resistance in colonial and neo-colonial situations. Clearly, despite their refusal to admit this, the British political class saw the war over the six counties as a colonial conflict.

A rather different perspective on the same event is to be found in Sunday, which I also revisited. This film was written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Charles McDougal. McGovern is an experienced television writer with a large and successful output. His most relevant work in terms of the Derry events is the earlier Hillsborough (1996), which deals with another large-scale tragedy involving a ‘cover-up’ by the forces of the British state.

Sunday title

Sunday is also a docu-drama using reconstruction and a partly professional cast. However, its form and style are closer to the documentary mode: alongside the reconstruction it includes professional and amateur film footage of the actual events, both in black and white and colour. This is combined through the use of cross-cutting, at times almost at the same pace as in Bloody Sunday. However the reconstruction sequences tend to run longer than those in the Greengrass film: and whilst they use frequent close-ups there is a greater use of long shots and of the moving camera, especially tracking shots. Sunday also uses accompanying music, but again fairly different from Bloody Sunday. One extended sequence shows the aftermath of the massacre: we do not hear actual dialogue or noise but a sombre, orchestral piece presenting the sequence full of pathos.

The events and characters presenting in the film’s plot also differ. Sunday offers a sort of prologue commencing in 1968. We see a series of scenes with a voice-over by a young man later to suffer in the events of the 30th. He works at a labouring job for a cola firm owned by a ‘Protestant’. Briefly this opening references the Civil Rights movement, the British Army, the renewal of the IRA, Internment and Free Derry: the last a people’s zone in Derry where the British Security forces writ no longer runs.

The majority of the film deals with the ordinary civilians of Derry and the ordinary rank and file soldiers of the British army. It is worth noting that much of the film was shot in Derry, with participation by its citizens. The extras in the large-scale scenes are mainly people of Derry.

Sunday C4 title

One of the few individual characters from the army hierarchy is Major-General Ford who appears on a number of occasions. His first appearance precedes the actual Sunday as he is seen recording a briefing in preparation for the response to the proposed March. In this film is clear that the army plans including the shooting of ‘young hooligans’ and a confrontation with the Provisional IRA. The temper of his brief is for a planned military operation including the use of the Paratroopers.  Ford appears again later at several key moments during the day. The other military commander we see is an unidentified local commander mystified as to the use of Paratroopers in Derry: the response being that the orders ‘come from the top’. So whilst Sunday is explicit about the role of the Army leadership, early on, like Bloody Sunday, the role of politicans is suggested rather than stated.

There is no clear representation of the leadership of the Civil Rights March. The closest we come to them is a man with a loud-hailer marshalling the crowd at the start: notably he orders the removal of Republican [i.e. IRA] placards. Neither do we get to see the Provisional IRA. There is a brief scene later where two men fire a defensive shot and then hide their rifle: and a lone man shooting at the Paras with a revolver.

Much of the March and the subsequent violence details characters and actions very similar to those in Bloody Sunday. However, the film constantly cuts to actual film footage [either professional or amateur]. And the personal dramas interweaved with the public events are more frequent and involve longer sequences. Important extra scenes are visits to the mortuary, a tangle of blood and corpses: and the Paratroopers relaxing after the event, with racist comments about the Irish / Fenians. There is another major difference. Like Bloody Sunday the film fades or cuts to black to signal ellipses. But as the Paratroopers commence their fusillade against the civilians we are presented with a black screen over which runs the sounds of the shots, the screams and the accompanying noise. This is a powerful sequence which is then followed by the sequence of image and music already mentioned.

Just as with the opening the film goes beyond Bloody Sunday to the Widgery Tribunal. Now we do see the British Prime Minister carefully setting up the investigation. In a revealing sequence witnesses from Derry attending the Inquiry are allowed to be harassed by a Unionist demonstration. We see the low expectations among the people in Derry. Another revealing sequence has the Paratroopers flying in by helicopter and preparing their testimonies. One ordinary soldiers exclaims that they [the authorities]

are  shitting on us. We did our duty. .. [we] lie.

Which is what we hear when they appear. However, one soldier has a different approach. A worried lawyer reads his deposition and then advises

your evidence will not be presented.

In the most radical sequence in the film we now see a flashback by the soldier. Essentially we see the events that were only heard above the black screen earlier. We see the shootings of civilian youths, of a man who tries to help the wounded, of a man shot whilst waving a white handkerchief. We also hear the lines shouted by the soldiers including ‘Fenian bastards’ This is violent and powerfully moving; and radically different from Bloody Sunday. It is also analytical. McGovern [presumably] is following one of the maxims of Berthold Brecht, re-arranging the order of the narrative in order to confront the viewer.

This is followed by a fine piece of crosscutting – between Major General Ford attending an investiture with the Queen and young Derry males waiting to take the oath of allegiance to the IRA. In a metaphor about the lack of change a survivor now works in the dead-end job with the [presumably] same coal firm. The film ends by listing the dead and wounded from that day. So Sunday is a more sophisticated and politically conscious film than Bloody Sunday. It is explicit in pointing out the crimanal acts by the British Army at the behest of the British State. It is, though, less clear on the question of the colonial nature of the war in the north of Eire. Its protest is on behalf of the Civil Rights of the people of Derry and of the six counties rather than against the occupation. Whilst it avoids the negative representation of the IRA it also fails to provide space for their position.

This lack of clarity over the nature of the war in the north of Eire spreads right across the media: notably in the use of terms like ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ or Nationalists and Unionists. the latter pair denoting sectarian conflict. Ken Loach’s two films on the struggle in Eire – The Wind that Broke the Barley (2006) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014) – have a clear exposition of the colonial nature of the war. However, his earlier film Hidden Agenda (1990) has a Civil Rights focus similar to Bloody Sunday; and I felt that the representations of the IRA in that film were similarly problematic. An aspect of this is the tendency of British television to become more radical the farther it moves from the present. This was not true of Loach’s earliest television work, but by the 1980s he was unable to work in British television. It is true of the general run, so that a fine series like Our Friends in the North felt quite radical in the early episodes butt rather supine by the end. So Sunday is definitely preferable to Bloody Sunday, but it was only thirty years after the events that either film was produced and aired.

Note details of the production and cast can be found on IMDB for both films.

 

 

Posted in Films of Eire, Political cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by keith1942 on June 25, 2015

waltz with bashir 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bashir dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

waltz camps

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

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

 You standing at the doorstep, enter

And drink Arabic coffee with us

(you might sense you’re human like us)

you standing at the doorstep of houses,

get out of our mornings,

we need reassurance that we

are human like you!

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

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

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

Waltzing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article 73

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palestinian camp

Palestinian camp

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

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

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

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

Presumably not as traumatised as the Palestinians.

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

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

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

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

We Are Many, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on June 2, 2015

we-are-many-banner

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are demo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Documentary | 2 Comments »

 
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