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Fidel Castro 1926 to 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 26, 2016

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The great leader of the Cuban Revolution and an iconic figure for progressives will be mourned by many: apart from a few reactionaries as in Florida USA. Whatever the failings of the Post-revolution society under Fidel it did liberate the Cuban people from US neo-colonial exploitation and was a beacon for other National Liberation struggles round the world.

There were many progressive aspects of the Cuban Revolution, notably the work of Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos / The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) founded immediately after the revolution in 1959.

At ICAIC Julio García Espinosa produced the key manifest ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (1969). And numerous films in the early stages illustrated how relevant this was. A key film would be, Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. A later and equally fine film by Alea is La última cena (The Last Supper, 1976). I particularly like Humberto Solás Lucía (1968). Then there are the newsreels and documentaries of Santiago Alvarez: notably Now (1965) and 79 Springs (79 primaveras, 1969). And there is the rarely seen work of Sarah Gómez including her final film De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another, 1974). Of more recent films there is the fine La vida es silbar (Life is to Whistle, 1998) directed by Fernando Pérez. Alongside the films went the vibrant and politically alive poster art work. And a number of films were graced by the modernist scores of Leo Brouwer.

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The progressive work from the Cuban film movement is part of the anti-colonial cinema in Latin America. Cuba provided a base for the Festival to celebrate New Latin American Cinema. They also supported progressive filmmakers of the continent as with Patricio Guzman’s three-part La batalla de Chile / The Battle of Chile (1975-1979).

A number of influences fed into the film work at ICAIC. But a key model for them was the classic Soviet Montage. We are nearly in 2017 and the centenary of the Great Proletarian Revolution. So the radcial Cuban films offer excellent accompaniment o re-visiting the masterworks from the 1920s.

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Old Stone / Lao shi, Canada/China 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 20, 2016

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The English title of the film suggests its theme indirectly: ‘old’ as in traditional and ‘stone’ as resistant to marking. The Chinese title is the name of the main character (Gang Chen), a taxi driver in a provincial Chinese city. The basic plot involves him in an accident that results in the victim, a motor cyclist, being taken to hospital and subsequently needing long term treatment. The situation now is that medical care in China requires medical insurance, rather like the USA model. Because of this there are accepted ‘procedures’ following accidents: these define who is liable for the costs. So, Lao shi, instead of waiting for police and an ambulance, takes the severely injured man in his taxi to the hospital. He then finds himself liable for the charges. The key moment show shim at the cashier window with  staff demanding payment before the life-saving operation can begin. And there is a queue of people behind Lao shi, presumably facing similar demands.

His actions create problems with his employers and with the insurance company who cover the firm. It also causes problems with the police: in the latter case this results in an interminable wait for an accident report. But the most serious conflict is with Lao shi’s wife, a budding entrepreneur who runs a nursery. The nursery operates on minimal resources but the wife is hoping to expand. As Lao shi continues paying for the hospital charges she emptier their joint account to preserve their savings.

Lao shi fares no better with the family of the injured man. He has come to the city from the countryside. Lao shi’s repeated phone calls to them only engender claims that they have no money to pay for the charges. Thus we follow Lao shi as he is caught in a vicious circle of payments with no assistance.

Matters come to a head when the victim is finally discharged from hospital and Lao shi realises that he is deliberately maintaining ailments so that Lao shi’s contributions to medical bills will continue. Lao shi now changes gear and sets out to end his involvement through either an ‘accident’ or murder. Predictably it is Lao shi, the victim hero, who in the end suffers an ‘accidental’ death.

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This is a bleak tale which emphasises the alienation of ordinary Chinese citizen in their market driven economy. The filmmaker was inspired by tales of actual deaths caused in order to avoid the type of situation that afflicts Lao shi. There is one telling scene where Lao shi witnesses an older woman who collapses in the street, but no passer-by will assist her because of the fear of the very situation in which Lao shi find himself.

The film has a noir quality. The story is told in flashback, we open with a sequence where Lao shi is following the now discharged victim, and the film recurrently cuts between that present and the past events. Much of the film is show in an observational, almost documentary, style. Many sequences also have a grainy look which contributes to the downbeat feeling. The film has a compressed plot and is tightly edited, coming in at only 80 minutes running time. The downbeat often low-key look has one exception. A recurring shot, quite lush, of green billowing tress. These rise above the setting where the final events play out.

With the noir feel and the sense of large-scale alienation the film is reminiscent of some other Chinese drams-cum-thrillers. In particular I was reminded of Blind Shaft (2003) set among the illegal coal mining workers: and The World (2004) set in a Theme Park in Beijing. In all three cases ordinary working people suffer the cost of China’s developing capitalist economy. Several of the reviews of this film refer to ‘a taxi driver battling bureaucracy’. And this is one aspect of the process we witness. But the main force is the drive to force ordinary Chinese people to pay the costs of the social care that the capitalist forces no longer meet. This is where the theme of ‘old’ or ‘tradition’ is important. Whatever the failings of China’s Socialist Construction things are far worse now that profit is in control.

The writer and director, Jonny Ma, is Chinese-Canadian and this is a China/Canada production. His other film, The Robbery (2010), was set in Australia. So this is an example of the developing global film industry and of Diaspora filmmaking. The film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival and, to date, it seems to have only enjoyed screenings at other Film Festivals. That also is typical of his type of film product. But it deserves to get wider releases and distribution.

 

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Leeds Palestinian Film Festival 2016

Posted by keith1942 on October 26, 2016

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After the series of films presented last year in Leeds the Festival returns with another set of screenings. The programme kicks off during the Leeds International Film Festival and continues until December 9th. As last year there are a number of different venues [see the Festival page]. Definitely catch as many as you can. If Leeds is not accessible the films are all available through distributors or the Internet.

Ambulance (Ambulance/Gaza, Norway, Palestine 2015) In Colour. In Arabic and English. Length 80 minutes.

While many young people dream of leaving Gaza, Mohamed Jabaly, 24, wants to help. When he hears the news of a new Israeli offensive on Gaza in July 2014 he decides he cannot merely “wait for death” but must do something. He joins an ambulance crew to document the war. This is a raw, first-person account of a country under siege. The film won a Sunbird Award at the recent ‘Days of Cinema’ Festival in Ramallah in the Occupied Territories.

The Great Book Robbery . In colour. In English. Length 48 minutes.

When Palestinians were expelled from their land in 1948, Israeli soldiers were accompanied by librarians as they entered Palestinian homes in many towns and villages. Their mission was to collect as many valuable books and manuscripts as possible. Using eyewitness accounts by both those who took part in seizing the books, and those whose books were taken, this film by Benny Brunner tries to understand why thousands of books still languish in the Israeli National Library vaults and why they have not been returned to their rightful owners.

The Promised Band (Israel/Palestine, Nepal, USA 2014). In English, Arabic, and Hebrew with English subtitles. Length 89 minutes.

This films follows the story of a fake rock band comprised of Israeli and Palestinian women who have decided that, despite their dubious musical talent, a music group is the best cover story to meet and interact with each other. Although their societies are kept apart by the Israeli separation wall, solid concrete 26-feet tall and 3-feet thick, the women connect on their sameness, and their lives become entangled in ways they couldn’t expect.

Epicly Palestine’d* (The Birth of Skateboarding in the West Bank, 2015). In colour.

This is the story of how a small group of teenagers created a skate scene from scratch in a place where you can’t even buy a skateboard, whilst facing the challenges of living under military occupation. One of the film makers, Phil Joa, will be there for a Question and Answers session after the film.

The Idol (Ya tayr el tayer, Netherlands , UK , Qatar , Argentina , Egypt , Palestine , United Arab Emirates 2015). In colour. In Arabic with English subtitles. Length 100 minutes.

Acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s latest film is a moving, defiantly uplifting biopic of Muhammad Assaf, the Gazan wedding singer who became a worldwide TV sensation in 2013.

Rough Stage (Karmil pinnal,  Estonia, 2015). In colour. In Arabic. Length 74 minutes.

An artist at heart, Maher, electrical engineer and former political prisoner wants to stage a contemporary dance performance in Ramallah. His family disapprove, money’s a problem and cultural problems intercede.

Balls, Barriers and Bulldozers .

This documentary film is about a women’s football tour to the West Bank, Palestine. It’s about football, and so much more. The tour aimed to build solidarity with the women footballers of Palestine and for the UK teams to learn about life under occupation.

To be followed by a discussion with a member of the Republica women’s team and her reflections on the tour.

Speed Sisters (Palestine, USA | Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada 2015). In colour. In Arabic. Length 78 minutes.

This film follows the first all-woman race car driving team in the Middle East. Grabbing headlines and turning heads at improvised tracks across the West Bank, these five women have sped their way into the heart of the gritty, male-dominated Palestinian street car-racing scene.

Flying Paper (UK 2013). In colour with English subtitles. directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill.

An uplifting story of Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip on a quest to shatter the Guinness World Record for the most kites ever flown. A film co-produced with young filmmakers in Gaza.

Return to Seifa In colour. 10 Minutes.

Follows the progress of two siblings in the film, Flying Paper. Now young adults, they confront the aftermath of war, adapting to the harsh realities of yet another violent disruption to their hopes and aspirations.

Gaza from Within is a deeply moving story about the impact of war on communities, especially its youth. It includes powerful images taken by award-winning photographer Anne Paq, working closely with young Gazan journalist Abeer Ahmed.

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La Noire de… / Black Girl, Senegal 1966.

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2016

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This was Ousmane Sembène’s third film and his first of feature length. The couple of times that I was able to see the film it was on a rather worn 16mm print. Now the film has been restored under the auspices of The Film’s Foundation World Cinema Project. The restored film has been transferred onto a DCP and it was from this format that it was screened at the 2015 Il Cinema Ritrovato. This version is French with English subtitles. It is available in the UK from Aya Distribution, who specialise in African cinema.

The narrative follows the journey of Diouana (Thérèse Diop) with the French family for whom she works as a maid on a holiday trip back to France. Diouana’s journey is also one of consciousness as she experiences the casual and less-casual racism by the Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek). We the audience accompany Diouana on her journeys; from the slums of Dakar to the family’s home on the Riviera and to her last tragic decision.

The film presents this narrative both in scenes of the film present and in a series of flashbacks. The flashbacks are provided by Diouana, though her interior monologues that accompany these are not vocalised but presented by a narrative voice. We learn that initially Diouana was keen to work for a French family, both for the economic and the supposed social benefits. In the same spirit she was happy to accompany the family on their return visit to France supposing that she would enjoy aspects of this. In fact, she finds that her exploitation becomes notable and obvious there. And she is now divorced from her own society, family and friends.

Whilst the film presents this story from a subjective stance the film constantly provides ‘objective’ parallels: in the streets of Dakar and in the apartment of the family. Characters are delineated, including a rather unhelpful indigenous boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene) in Dakar. The French Madame is both exploiter and exploited, the latter in terms of her colonialist husband (Robert Fontaine). Thus class as well as racism is central to the film, as is also the extra exploitation of women. Here, and in Sembène’s other films, one can see how he follows the thought of Franz Fanon, especially in terms of culture and language.

Sembène and his team use black and white 35mm film and familiar techniques, including parallel cutting and various matching and point-of-view shots. But the effective cutting visually and orally also produces a variant of montage which questions what we see and hear. The film shows the influence of both neo-realism and the nouvelle vague, but combined in a manner which was to develop distinctively in Sembène’s work. As in Sembène’s other films language is important. So whilst the film is in French the technique of ‘translating’ Diouana’s thoughts makes us aware of the language divide. Equally Sembène uses symbols to reinforce aspects of the story: a traditional African mask, a gift from Diouana that hangs on an apartment wall, plays a key part in the films climax and resolution.,

The plot of the film was taken from a newspaper story. Sembène initially tried to produce the film in his native Senegal. The neo-colonial situation, mirrored in the film, led to his pitch being rejected. So, as with many of the African film, this was produced with French support. That is a process that Sembène and other filmmakers have had to fight consistently through their careers.

Sembène had originally translated these actual events into a short story. And his writings provide an equally important part of his work. The situation of a young women, also initially dominated by the hegemony of colonial culture, is an important facet in one of his major novels, God’s Bits of Wood (Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu, 1960).

Directed by Ousmane Sembène: Produced by André Zwoboda: Written by Ousmane Sembène: Cinematography Christian Lacoste: Edited by André Gaudier. Running time  65 minutes.

Screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds with a new documentary about Sembène on October 9th

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Two films about refugees

Posted by keith1942 on September 11, 2016

I have seen two films concerning refugees seeking safety in Europe which had interesting parallels. But what was most interesting were the differences, which were partly due to the filmmakers involved and the genre chosen, but which also seemed to relate to different pre-occupations and approaches in different national cinemas. One of the films was Dheepan (2015) which I saw earlier this year and which impressed me. The other was Grow Your Own (2007) which I saw on release but which I was able to revisit when the Hyde Park Picture House screened the film from a reasonably good 35mm print as part of the 2016 Year of the English Garden.

Dheepan was written and directed by Jacques Audiard with contributions to the screenplay by Thomas Bidegain   and  Noé Debré , The film follows the journey of Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), a refugee from war-torn Sri Lanka, who seeks safety in France. He is accompanied by Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young women who pretends to be his wife: also by Illyaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who the couple pretend is their daughter. After various travails Dheepan finds work as a caretaker on a rundown housing estate. Yalini also finds a job caring for an invalid in one of the tower blocks. And Illyaal attempts to integrate in a local school. The trio suffer the problems of bureaucratic systems and endemic French racism. Added to this is the situation at the estate, where drug gangs rule the roost. The film thus sites this tale of refugees in the specific French genre of  the ‘banlieu’.

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Grow Your Own fits into a type of British realism which is both humorous but also dramatic. It is a form of film that harks back to at least the Ealing films of the 1940s and 1950s. Like the Ealing films one of its central preoccupations is community. The director, Richard Laxton, is new to me but the writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, is an established figure. He has worked several times with Michael Winterbottom, and his other scripts include Millions (2004), which shares some characteristics with this film. The setting is an allotment society in Liverpool, Boyce’s home city. The local social services have placed several refugee families here with the aim of working on allotments as a form of therapy. There is Kung Sang (Benedict Wong), with his two children, who is traumatised by the journey to the UK. . Miriam (Diveen Henry), an African refugee with her son. And Ali (Omid Djalili), an Iranian doctor with his family, waiting for a ruling on his refugee status. The local residents are a range of fairly stock English characters played by a range of convincing regular British actors.

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Dheepan is naturalistic but not realistic. The film starts off in a Sri Lanka refugee camp and there are recurring flashbacks to the Island during the film. But these are imaginative and dream-like images of the land and the conflict. The present, in a Parisian suburb dominated by drug gangs, is downbeat, dilapidated and brutish. In a parallel with the country of origin Dheepan and his ‘family’ are civilians caught in the crossfire: though Dheepan was actually a member of the rebel forces in Sri Lanka. It is his military experience that provides an unexpected turn in the narrative and a sequence of strong violence.

The film presents the tropes and motifs familiar in ‘banlieu’ films. The rundown tower blocks provide a harsh and unforgiving landscape. This appears to be a no-go area for law enforcement. It is the relationships and the violence between the gangs of the banlieu that fill the narrative. We see little of the ordinary inhabitants. Dheepan and his family are distinctive characters. The gang members are fairly stereotypical, though one leader is distinguished by his having an older relative who is the invalid cared for by Yalini. At times there is a noirish atmosphere to the setting: Dheepan has fallen into a world of chaos which parallels the chaotic world he left behind. Whilst the banlieu is a multi-cultural world, criminality rather than class or ethnicity binds the gangs together: secular administrative France appears mainly distant and bureaucratic.

In contrast the world of the Grow Your Own‘s Liverpool allotments is peaceful, if riven by tensions. The only violence is when immigration authorities raid and seize a refugee. The conflicts here are personal and small scale. Whilst there are tensions between the allotment holders, in the film these mainly arise from the arrival of strangers. We hear the word ‘gypo’ several times. But whilst Dheepan relies on violence to resolve the conflicts here it is personal relationships. And the landscape is one of plants, greenery and rustic cabins. The fallen into disuse plots are transformed by the refugee members into green, productive land. The discordant note is when one of these is laid waste for the mobile phone pylon. But, in keeping with the film’s mores, the owner moves to the plot left vacant by the immigration raid.

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Green and fertile produce.

The psychotherapist who sets up the situation is a sympathetic character, but other agencies seem as unsympathetic and mainly absent, as with those in France. Part of the plot involves a mobile-phone company seeking a site for an aerial mast. Underneath the bonhomie this is another exploitative agency.

Dheepan falls into the predominantly criminal genre that explores the worlds of segregated working class and migrant communities. Worlds where it seems that the lumpen proletariat are dominant. The violence provides dynamic plot developments but also illuminates French racism. One of the most potent and best-known examples of the banlieu film, La Haine (1995), ends of an unresolved note. Dheepan offers a resolved and upbeat ending, but one that seems as unreal as the flashbacks to Sri Lanka earlier in the film.

Dheepan amid the banlieu's desolation.

Dheepan amid the banlieu’s desolation.

Grow Your Own has less sense of class than of ethnicity. Its resolution binds together an enlarged community. This upbeat ending relies in part on the exclusion of one disruptive presence from the allotments. Whilst there are critical representations of various authorities, the tensions in the allotment society finally weigh on one character. Thus the ending is in some ways as idealised as that of Dheepan.

What is interesting is how genres typical of each society are used to address the common problem, coping with strangers. In fact neither film really offers a realist resolution. In Dheepan, the violence that brings the current conflicts to a halt is as melodramatic as that in ‘vigilante’ films. There is no integration on the central setting, and resolution requires the key characters to leave: { a trope from films set in the Third World]. In Grow Your Own the film harks back to a genre that developed to bridge social divisions in the 1950s. So the film does not really address the complexities of British society 60 years on.

These are both films that I would characterise as ‘second cinema’: the work of auteur in advanced capitalist societies. But the world addressed by Third Cinema enters and disrupts. The response in these films is to attempt to cope by placing the situations and conflicts in particular genre films.

 

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Films of the Spanish Civil War

Posted by keith1942 on September 3, 2016

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The Hyde Park Picture House recently screened two films that deal with this famous conflict. Land and Freedom (1995) was scripted by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach. The basic story line follows an English volunteer, David Carne (Ian Hart), who journeys to Spain to fight for the Republic. He joins the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification / Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), famous or infamous because of the charges in 1937 that they were aiding the Fascist rebellion. David survives and returns to England but is disillusioned by the fighting between different political organisations on the Republican side.

Land and Freedom is clearly influenced by George Orwell’s famous account of fighting in Spain, ‘Homage to Catalonia’ (1938). The obvious parallels are David joining the militia of the POUM: service in POUM militia on the Aragon front: and the experience of the fighting in Barcelona in 1937, the Barcelona May Days. However, Orwell does not detail a romance, which is a key part of the plot in the film. Orwell’s wife accompanied him to Spain but she only gets brief mentions in the book. Importantly Orwell also describes in detail the hardships, lack of material resources and the incompetence experienced in fighting for the Republic in this period. Even more important, Orwell devotes two chapters to discussing the politics of the war and the conflict in Barcelona, between the Republican Government dominated by the Spanish Workers party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) and the Communist Party of Spain (Partido Comunista de España) on one hand and the left organisations and militia dominated by the anarchists but also including groups like the POUM.

The film eschews the complexities of the book and the war, and of the civil war within it, offering idealised heroic conflicts. Some sense of the conditions that Orwell describes so vividly in his book are there in the film, but sanitised, so we get little sense of the horrors of muddy trenches. When we come to the conflict in the Barcelona May days, the complexities that Orwell spells out in two chapters are reduced to a conflict more or less in black and white. Orwell also explains the political line of POUM, which, strictly speaking, was not Trotskyist, though this was an epithet levelled against them. Of the struggle between POUM and the Communist Party the Production Notes for the film offer:

“[The Communist parties knew] that if a democratic revolution had succeeded in Spain then Stalin’s days were numbered. It was the last thing he wanted because then the dictatorship in Russia would not have been tolerated.”

And of the Anarchist, the dominant left force in Catalonia, there is little sense at all.

What is missing in the film is a discussion of the political conflict to which this refers, between the line of Socialism in One Country and World Revolution. A point where Anarchist and the POUM, differing in so many ways, had a fairly common viewpoint. It is also worth pointing out that The Communist Party in the USSR, dominated by Joseph Stalin, was actually a Dictatorship [officially of the proletariat] over a whole series of Socialist Soviet Republics. Orwell in his writing is concerned to correct the misreporting, falsehoods and downright calumnies in accounts at the time. Allen’s and Loach’s film is concerned to point the finger.

One can trace this to political influences on both men: Tony Garnett describes some of these in his ‘Memoir’. But it is a continuing strain in the work of both artists. Essentially, in their work, especially together, the nub of the plot is betrayal. It is there in the television dramas, in the television series Days of Hope, and in a film like Hidden Agenda (1990). In Land and Freedom the POUM militia are betrayed specifically by the Communist Party, but also individually by Gene Lawrence (Tom Gilroy), one of their number, who has joined the Popular Army dominated by the Communist Party. And it is also there in other personal relationships. David is wounded and goes to Barcelona to be treated and recover. Here he meets up with Blanca, a woman fighter, and they have sex. But it is only after the coitus that Blanca (Rosanna Pastor), an ardent anarchist, discovers that David has joined the official military forces, ‘the enemy’ in this context. David’s new commitment is soon destroyed when he is forced to fight in the civil war in Barcelona. He leaves and tears up his Communist Party of Great Britain card [which is blue?] A long running trope for the disillusioned.

The POUM militia.

The POUM militia.

Implicitly David lied to Blanca. But he also appears to have lied to Kitty (Angela Clarke), his ‘girl back home’, whom he later marries. His letters home pass over his increasing attraction to Blanca and it is not clear in the plot whether he has ever admitted the relationship to Kitty. Lies are another trope in the work of these artists. They are there notably in the episodes of Days of Hope and also there is the preceding film, Raining Stones (1993).

It should also be noted that the film’s focus on POUM overlooks the political line of the anarchists. As other writers have pointed out, Orwell, as an ILP member, was likely to join the POUM. But, David in the film is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and his enrolment in the POUM is odd, to say the least. And in this POUM group are not only Blanca but also another anarchist Maite (Iciar Bollain), but we never hear either putting forward their political viewpoint. This is the case in the central sequence in the film where the militia members join local peasants in discussing the question of collectivisation. The argument is one between the line of the CP and of the POUM.

The film is well made with fine cinematography by Barry Ackroyd. This is ably complimented by the production design, editing and sound. And there is an effective score by George Fenton. The film follows the familiar style of Loach and his team, especially in the use of the long shot and the long take. This effect of this was slightly diminished at the screening because whilst the film was shot in 1.66:1, the screening used 1.85:1. Apparently the BFI had sent the print in tins marked 1.85:1! I suffered a similar experience a few years ago with a screening of a film by Pier Paulo Pasolini.

The second screening featured a documentary, An Anarchist Story: The Life of Ethel Macdonald (2007). The film was made with the support of BBC Scotland, and this seems to have been a rare cinema screening. Chris Doland, who also scripted the film, based the film on a biography of the same title.

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Ethel MacDonald was an active anarchist member in Motherwell. She went to Spain to support the Republic and specifically her Spanish anarchist comrades. She worked as a reporter for both press and radio. She became famous, especially for her broadcasts, and had regular listeners as far away as the USA. She was caught up in the conflict in Barcelona when the suppression of the anarchists began. For a time she went into hiding and assisted other anarchists escaping from arrest and imprisonment. She was arrested and charged but freed, partly at the instigation of Fenner Brockway. When the British Government intervened to assist British nationals she was able to leave. She embarked on a speaking tour in support of the Republic. She returned to Glasgow and continued as an active anarchist until her death in 1960.

The film offers a biopic, but one that also addresses the context of the Spanish revolution and the role of anarchists in this. The film uses commentary and titles, archive footage, posters and pamphlets and dramatic reconstructions, [with Marianne McIvor as Ethel MacDonald]. The latter include the reading of MacDonald’s writings and of her radio broadcasts and speeches. We also hear from commentators, including English and Spanish academics, the well-known writer/activist Noam Chomsky, and others with experiences of both the Spanish Civil War and of Spanish anarchism. At several points we hear from a son whose father was a member of the Communist Party and who fought in the International Brigade and from a woman who was a member of the anarchist organisation, The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI, Iberian Anarchist Federation).

So the film offers a somewhat varied set of views on the conflict, though overall it endorses the position of MacDonald. She, like Jim Allen and George Orwell, saw the essential line of conflict as between fighting for a revolution or subordinating the struggle in Spain to the interests of the Soviet Union. The descriptions of political line are more developed than in Land and Freedom but not as detailed as those in Orwell’s book. It is worth noting that there is also no mention of the POUM. There is a fairly clear presentation of anarchism, though not a clear description of political line: Chomsky describes anarchism as a ‘tendency’. He also refers to the violence perpetrated by the supporters of the Republic against churches and priests as ‘unconscionable’, an odd comment to my mind. As with Orwell and Allen fascism itself is never clearly defined, though there is some sense of how the Spanish variety differs form that found in Italy and Germany. On way of regarding fascist rule is that it imposes in an advanced capitalist countries  the dictatorship which is the norm in a colonially occupied country.

The archive film is used very effectively and there is an amount of rare footage: including the anarchist organisation and communal actions in Catalonia, street fighting in Barcelona, and atrocities by the rebel forces. Unfortunately the film follows the tendency of television documentaries to reframe archive footage to fit the 1.78:1 frame. There are also many examples of rare posters and pamphlets from the anarchist moment and other organisations including some fascist material. The editing of these is very effective, some of this working as montage. However, the dramatisations tend to the conventional.

The context is spelt out briefly but effectively. World War I, the Spanish Republics, the rise of fascist organisation and governments, working class rebellions in Spain and the response of the ruling class are all referenced. But not all important issues are detailed. The Asturias rising of 1934 is referred to but not the fact that it was suppressed by General Franco with troops from Spanish Morocco. Some of the claims about anarchist society in Catalonia are debatable. It seems that there were not any actual women’s militia. And the substitution of exchange for goods instead of monetary purchasing was probably very rare. But the picture of a radical new revolutionary order replacing bourgeois society is valid. And the increasing control exercised by the forces of proletarians and peasants in this region is also correct.

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All these materials have been edited into a mainly linear presentation. The use of archive material is very effective and proceeds with real pace. The cutting from one form of material to another is also effective, both in presenting MacDonald’s experiences and the situations in which these occurred. And the film avoids the sense of talking heads until the final commentative sequence. The archive material is often dubbed with music, much of it material from the period. I think some of the audio in some footage is also dubbed.

This is a more complex presentation of the events in the early stages of the Spanish revolution, and in particular of events in Barcelona in 1937, than that in Land and Freedom. But both films end up presenting this as a failed revolution, mainly due to the politics and actions of the Communist Party. There is much validity in this claim, though there were also larger forces at work in the situation. But there is also a serious lacuna in the political commentary.

This is an issue that Orwell does address in his ‘Homage to Catalonia’. He first notes that

“The clue to the behaviour of the Communist Party in any country is the military relation of that country, actual or potential, towards the USSR. … In Spain the Communist ‘line’ was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that France, Russia’s ally, would strongly object to a revolutionary neighbour and would raise heaven and earth to prevent the liberation of Spanish Morocco.”

And later he notes that

“What clinches everything is the case of Morocco. Why was there no rising in Morocco? Franco was trying to set up an infamous dictatorship, and the Moors actually preferred him to the Popular Front Government. The palpable truth is that no attempt was made to foment a rising in Morocco, because to do so would have meant putting a revolutionary construction on the war. The first necessity, to convince the Moors of the Government’s good faith, would have been to proclaim Morocco liberated.”

Orwell is attacking the politics of the Communist Party resulting from the implementation of the line of Socialism in One Country and the policy of the Popular Front. One can find an equivalent example of this in the line of the British Communist Party which, in the 1930s, sounded weaker and weaker on resistance to British colonialism. The irony of this is that Joseph Stalin himself had written a number Bolshevik texts on the relationship between the October Revolution and peoples oppressed by colonialism.

“The October revolution cannot be regarded merely as a revolution “within national bounds”. It is, primarily, a revolution of an international, world order:…” [1927].

But practice changed with the arrival of the Popular Front.

Orwell’s critique is not to be found either in Land and Freedom or in An Anarchist Story. The latter film does have references to the Moorish troops that formed an essential component of Franco’s army. But the political point is not made. And the absence of a reference to their role in the Asturias suppression is symptomatic.

A political stance shared by the Anarchists and the organisations styling themselves Trotskyist was the idea that a world revolution was a proletarian revolution. There was not a line that supported the concept of National Liberation. The Communist Party of Spain and the POUM both agitated for support for the anti-colonial struggle in the early days of the Republic. But the dominant Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party rejected this for the reasons given by Orwell. There were contacts with anti-colonial forces in Morocco. There was actually a warning by Moroccan nationalists about the impending rebellion of the Generals, ignored. The PSOE was not prepared to support actual armed insurrection in Morocco. At one stage they even tried to do a deal with the British and French governments over Spanish Morocco as a way of ending ‘non-intervention’. And increasingly the Communist Party of Spain went along this road, whilst the POUM were suppressed and outlawed after the Barcelona May Days.

civil-war-end-july-1936-jpg

Yet Spanish Morocco, an adjunct of French and British colonialism in Africa since 1904, had suffered years of armed resistance. It was only in the late 1920s that the Spanish military had managed to suppress rebellion there at great cost in men and resources. But a common element between the warring movements in the Republican alliance was the absence of a revolutionary line supporting the Morocco anti-colonial struggle.

So both films address an important case from the history of European revolution. And both offer a commitment to revolution, freedom and real democracy, though they differ on how this might have been achieved. However, the missing dimension, supporting the anti-colonial struggle, also shows their limitations. This confirms the interpretation of Third Cinema as primarily anti-colonial and parallel to but separate from film of proletarian revolution in advanced capitalist countries. They basically have different tasks. Franz Fanon was absolutely clear on the importance on National Liberation as the basis for developing the progressive society for a once colonised people. Unfortunately he was not around to take the Spanish revolutionaries to task over this, and his thoughts are not accounted in these two films.

Land and Freedom. Directed by Ken Loach. Produced by Rebecca O’Brien.  Written by Jim Allen.  Edited by Jonathan Morris. Production company PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Italy. In colour and in English, Spanish, Catalan with subtitles.

An Anarchist Story: The Life of Ethel MacDonald. Director Mark Littlewood . Writer Chris Dolan. BBC Scotland 2006. In colour. In English with part subtitles for archive material.

‘Homage to Catalonia’ by George Orwell, Secker and Warburg 1938. Quotations from the Complete Works Edition.

‘The Day the Music Died: a Memoir’ by Tony Garnett, Constable 2016.

 

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Sangre Negra [aka] Native Son Argentina 1950

Posted by keith1942 on August 12, 2016

Hunting a slum rat.

Hunting a slum rat.

This film, whose title literally translates as ‘Black blood’, was screened in Il Cinema Ritrovato programme ‘An Alternate History of Argentine Film’. It was only when we had an introduction that I realised that the film is an adaptation of the famous novel by Afro-American writer Richard Wright, published as ‘Native Son’ in 1940. Wright himself was involved in the making of the film and playing the main protagonist Bigger Thomas. Wright’s novel, which both attacked the then prevalent racism of the USA but which was also influenced by the association of Wright with the Communist Party USA, was not filmable in his own country. He met the man who would partly script and also direct the film, Pierre Chenal, in Paris. Chenal had been an émigré in Argentina during the war and had seen the stage version created by Orson Welles in Buenos Aires. Since they could not arouse interest in Europe the pair produced the film in Argentina through Argentine Sono Film.

Wright’s seminal novel traces a series of events in which young black man Bigger Thomas is inadvertently involved in the killing of a white woman. The hysterical and racist outcry leads to his imprisonment, trial and execution. One gets a sense of Wright’s portrayal in the diatribe delivered by the prosecutor  at the trial which includes the following:

“Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!” (1972 Penguin edition).

Bigger is not portrayed as innocent, in his flight from pursuit he kills his black girlfriend Bessie to protect himself. But there is no balance between his acts and the response of the predominately racist white population: indeed he is charged with both murder and rape, despite the lack of evidence for the latter. Wright’s purpose in the novel was not just to depict and attack white racism but also to portray the effect on the negro [the term then used] population. In his introduction ‘How ‘Bigger’ was born’ Wright writes of one model:

“The Jim Crow laws of the South were not for him. But as he laughed and cursed and broke them, he knew that someday he’d have to pay for his freedom. His rebellious spirit made him violate all the taboos of intense elation and depression. “

One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is that Wright provides a running commentary on Bigger’s thoughts and emotions, from his family life in a slum, through his conflicted contacts with white people, his crime and subsequent flight and the trial and sentencing.

The film condenses the novel greatly, one section left out is the extended plea by the defence lawyer at the trial: that seems more didactic than the sequence in the film. It does retain the opening scene of the novel as Bigger hunts a rat that is terrorising the family slum. The film does eschew the subjective element, there is no attempt to present Bigger’s mental state nor any voice-over. So we see a fairly conventional cinematic narrative following Bigger through the few days as the events unfold. The filmmakers manage to recreate a sense of the Chicago of the book, though not the snow, with the book set around the New Year. They cut between studio sets in Buenos Aires and stock footage of the actual Chicago. The film has at times a strong expressionist and noir feel, especially in the sequences in which Bigger is hunted down. There is an impressive rooftop pursuit which ends under a looming water tower.

Bigger and Bessie

Bigger and Bessie

In the novel Bigger is 20 years of age but Wright in the film is clearly much older. And he is better at the fear than the anger of his character. Bessie seems more of a good-time girl than in the novel. Several US film actors appear in the film including Jean Wallace as the victim Mary Dalton together with amateur black actors. This did not assist the release in the USA; 14 minutes were cut from the film. It seems that the UK release was the cut version.

The film has something of a hybrid status. The Argentine film programme basically slotted into the category of a national cinema, with some level of critical engagement. But there is no sign of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist standpoint that emerged only a few years later with the work of Solanas and Getino. However, Santa Negra, with its US setting and engagement with the situation of negroes/Afro-Americans is essentially a film about civil rights. It was the most oppositional of the films that I saw in the programme, but of a different ilk from them. The full-length version, screened at the Venice Film Festival, was thought lost. But a film historian found a 16mm print which was used to reconstruct the 35mm version by the Library of Congress. Whilst it is a lesser work than the original novel, it is a powerful representation of the period and situation and hopefully will receive wider circulation.

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Anti-colonial films at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016

Posted by keith1942 on August 1, 2016

memories poster

This year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato featured  more restorations from The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. These included an important title from anti-colonial cinema, Memorias del Subdesarollo / Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). The film is a key example of the new and revolutionary cinema in Cuba after the liberation. It was directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and scripted by him with Emundo Desnoes, who wrote the source novel. The filmmaker Walter Salles is quoted in the Festival Catalogue on his memories of first seeing the film:

“… watching it was alike a shock to me. The film navigated between different states – fiction and documentary, past and present, Africa and Europe. The dialectic narrative took the form of a collage, crafted with uncommon conceptual and cinematographic rigour. Scenes from  newsreels, historical fragments and magazine headlines mixed and collided. In Memories of Underdevelopment, Alea proved that filmic precision and radical experimentation could go hand in hand. Nothing was random. Each image echoing in the following image, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

The film was restored at L’Immagine Ritrovato laboratories in association with ICAIC.

Adieu_Bonaparte

Another restoration at the Festival was Adieu Bonaparte (1985) written and directed by the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. The film was  French-Egyptian production. But it got an extremely unsympathetic reception at the Cannes Film Festival.

“… the film received a lukewarm, if not downright hostile, reception: several journalists judged the project ‘anti-French’…” Frédéric Bonnaud in the Festival Catalogue.

This is not surprising since the film deals with the ultimately ill-fated Napoleonic invasion against Egypt in 1798. This is a key event in Edward Said’s great study of Orientalise (1978). This provides one of those opportunities one finds in Chahine’s films, where history as a past and the present as unfolding illuminate the complexities of his country and of the wider Arabia.

“Chahine is simultaneously a historian and a prophet. … he multiples the characters and points-of-view so that none of them is ever completely wrong or completely right.” (Festival Catalogue).

Both films originated on celluloid but were screened at Il Ritrovato from DCPs with English subtitles. One advantage of this format is the greater ease of circulation. Let us hope these two major works get a wide and varied release.

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Embrace of the Serpent/El abrazo de la serpiente, Columbia/Venezuela/Argentina/The Netherlands 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on June 23, 2016

The younger Karamakate tends Theo.

The younger Karamakate tends Theo.

This new film explores the interaction between the indigenous people in Amazonia, the western explorer who investigates them and their terrain and the media representations of all of these. The film is consciously a variation or even subversion of that classic text by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. The plot is ‘inspired’ by two actual explorers, ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grűnberg (Théodor von Martius in the film played by Jan Bijvoet) who visited the Amazonian area in Columbia in the early 1900s. And then Richard Evans Schultes (Evan in the film played by Brionne Davis) who followed in his footsteps about 40 years later. Apart from the terrain the common element in the search and travels is an indigenous Shaman Karamakate. He guides both men, as a younger character (Nilbio Torres) for Theo and then as an older character (Antonio Bolivar Salvador) for Evan. The search is for a rare tropical plant, the yakruna, with special healing qualities. The inversion is that it is Karamakate who leads the expedition, who examines the mores of these two explorers, and who, eventually, finds them wanting. They are dependent on his knowledge experience  and special talents. So, in a sense, rather than Marlowe investigating the ‘dark continent’, the native investigates the darkness within the westerner.

The film is modernist in its form. We cut back and forth between the two separate expeditions. And the progress of each sheds some illumination on the other. It also enables the character of Karamakate to make his judgements. The films presentation has the older man with a failing memory, so that he has to rediscover the problems and limitations of a white explorer.

The film is shot in a black and white anamorphic format. The wide screen suits the unfolding landscape of jungle, river, mountains and plateaus. The framing does not make particular use of the scope frame but there are some evocative shots with figures set against landscapes. There is a colour sequence near the end of the film, a dream or ‘trip’. Apparently the film was shot in Argentina and Venezuela as the Columbian terrain has changed or remains inaccessible. The editing is particular fine, with some excellent contrasts made as the film cuts from one journey to another.

The older Karamakate followed by Evan.

The older Karamakate followed by Evan.

The two explorers, like Marlowe in the novel, are not especially malevolent though also not particularly trustworthy. However, unlike him, they do not seem to possess a superior viewpoint to the native. Meanwhile the other western participants, companies exploiting the rubber in the forest, troops of the Columbian state, are both extremely exploitative and oppressive. The crimes against the natives echo those in Conrad’s novel, though the visual representation would seem to owe more to Francis Ford Coppola’s film rendering, Apocalypse Now (1979, not a good rendering of the novel).

Karamakate enjoys a greater knowledge and understanding than the explorers, here in his own territory, whilst the film itself offers a partly omniscient viewpoint for audiences. In that sense the film does not invert Marlowe’s key role as narrator in the novel, rather it transfers it to the filmmakers. So in some sense this is an auteur film, though we might expand second cinema to include ‘traveller’, and the travellers viewpoint. It does use the indigenous languages [all told Cubeo, Huitoto,  Ticuna,  Wanano,  Spanish,  Portuguese,  German,  Catalan,  Latin,  English] but there does not seem to be a title in one of the indigenous languages. So Embrace of the Serpent does not achieve the reversal that [for example] Ousmane Sembène achieves in Borom Sarret (1963) through the character of the poor cart driver. This film does have a sense of irony, though it does not play with those to be found in the name of the actor playing the older Karamakate, nor in the geography that informs the film, different from the earlier actuality.

The other complicating factor to consider is the fairly recent tendency to posit a ‘fourth world’ of indigenous peoples, who have neither a state nor a country. However, this is rather a limitation of terms, ‘Third World’ does not address the reality in the same way as ‘oppressed peoples and nations’. The film offers a sympathetic and rather different representation of an indigenous people, some way from Conrad’s. In a way this reflects the changes in mainstream values over time. However, I think we would get a rather different narrative and representation if Karamakate or an equivalent character took us and the camera into the Amazonian forests.

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

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

Al_Momia_01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al-Momia_01_pdp

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

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

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

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

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

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

In colour. Arabic with English subtitles.

 

 

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