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Viceroy’s House, Britain / India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsurprisingly Gurinder Chadha responded in the pages of The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountbatten, Lady Edwina and their servants

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

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

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

Lady Edwina, Mountbatten and General Ismay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“war has exhausted them.”

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

Jeep and Aalia

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

‘you dance with your own kind’.

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

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

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

“show out unity.”

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

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

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

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

Mountbatten, Jinnah and the Press

Bhutto comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugees – a contemporary record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bhutto concludes her attack on the film with this comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rangoon India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on March 6, 2017

rangoon-movie-posters

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

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

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

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

Appropriately the original was in Sanskrit.

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

Bose and the "Jhansi Queens")

Bose and the “Jhansi Queens”)

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

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

Harding and "Rusi"

Harding and “Rusi”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cuban Cinema?

Posted by keith1942 on February 12, 2017

The proper place to obtain Cuban films.

The proper place to obtain Cuban films.

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

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

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

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

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

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World War I Through Arab Eyes.

Posted by keith1942 on January 23, 2017

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This is another excellent documentary from Al Jazeera, broadcast in three episodes of 48 minutes apiece. The film was scripted by and is presented by Malik Triki, a Tunisian writer and broadcaster. The films uses much archive material, nearly all of it in black and white and presented in its proper aspect ratio. There are interviews with prominent historians, archivists and commentators. And we follow Triki as he researches archives, libraries and collections. At one point he stands in a London street with what appears to be the original letter of the Balfour Declaration.

The first episode treats off the military aspects of the war and the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Arabs conscripted into the differing and opposing armies in the war. On the side of the British/French alliance (together with Italy and Russia) were recruits from Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. Sometimes conscripted and forced into service, often recruited with the assistance of fellow travellers of the colonial powers. A separate tranche of  Arabs were recruited into the armies of the Ottoman Empire, allied with Germany and Austria, from  Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria. The casualty rates among these colonial troops was usually higher than that of the western troops. Arabs were especially high in the casualty lists at Gallipoli.

The Ottomans, episode 2, is a study of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The alliance with Germany led finally to defeat and collapse. The film looks at the rise of Ataturk and the Young Turk Government. This successfully saw off invasions by the erstwhile enemies and by Greece. The programme also showed how the Ottoman rule attempted to suppress the growing Arab Nationalism.

Episode three, The New Middle East, showed how the New Arab Nationalism was diverted and the suppressed by the colonial powers of Britain and France. The programme looked at the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement and at the carve-up of countries at the Versailles Conference in Paris. Much of Arabia was divided up in ‘mandates’ enjoyed by Britain and France. And both countries set about suppressing revolts whilst Britain maintained its control of Egypt.

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The programme also studied the notorious Balfour Declaration in which the British Government presented the Palestinian homeland to the Zionist Movement. As was pointed out this is possibly the longest lasting effect of the war in the Middle East. I should add that this year, 2017, sees the centenary of the Balfour Declaration: a letter dated 2nd November 1917. One of history’s ironies is that this was the eve of the October Revolution [November 7th in the New Style Western Calendar].

I read an excellent article by Robert Fisk in ‘The Independent’ that made the point about the imposed boundaries in the region after World War I. He described an early Daesh video that showed a bulldozer drying a gap in a long line of sand: one of the post-Versailles borders. Daesh’s appeal works on the legacy of that era in the region.

These programmes have seen shown a couple of times on Al Jazeera UK. They are also on the Al Jazeera Website pages on ‘Documentaries’. The advantage here is that there is no news strap line on the bottom of the image. These programmes are instructive on important history that is commonly overlooked or ignored.

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A United Kingdom, USA/UK/Czech Republic 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016

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This is the latest film by Amma Asante. Her first film was A Way of Life (2004) which she both scripted and directed. It is set in a Welsh coastal town and focuses on single mother Stephanie (Leigh-Anne Williams) and her brother and two male friends. Whilst the film deals with what are often called the under-class, but which is more accurately defined as lumpen-proletariat, it is not strictly social realism. The social context is implied rather than spelt out. In fact it plays rather like a Greek tragedy without a chorus and with a moment of intended catharsis which does not quite work. [Incendies (200(0 is an excellent example of Greek-style tragedy on film). A Way of Life also has a televisual feel to it: there are frequent shots of the sunset over the local port, but these do not feel part of the visual development.

Asante followed this with Belle (2013) a period film offering the biography of an illegitimate mixed-race woman (Dido Elizabeth Belle – Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose father was the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, also Chief Justice. This film used a famous portrait of Belle and her cousin as a focus for the story. The film’s treatment added quite a lot of fictional elements to the tale. Asante used an existing script and developed this for the film that she directed. This led to her losing the screen credit as writer.

The film had a strong sense of the situation of a black woman in the C18th, part of but not accepted in aristocratic society. But it also followed many of the conventions of British film period dramas. Much of the film exhibited the decorum that goes with the genre. And this was accentuated by the well-written but recognisable music style. And the attempt to add to the limited biography of Belle with contemporary historical events [the famous or infamous Zong Case which involved Mansfield] seem peripheral to the issues.

Her new film fits into the same genre and also follows similar conventions: and the film is scripted by Guy Hibbert [his previous script is Eye in the Sky, 2015]. The story is another taken from real-life, the ‘mixed-race’ marriage of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamond Pike). Seretse is the prospective Paramount Chief in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland [later Botswana]. The politics of the late 1940s, in particular the move to an apartheid state in neighbouring South Africa, made their marriage a very public affair. The current Labour Government and the succeeding Conservative Government both tried to effectively remove Seretse as the ruler of the Protectorate. The film chronicles the personal relationship, the struggles in both Britain and in Bechuanaland and, importantly, the support of their struggles by the ordinary members of the indigenous tribe and by liberal figures in the UK and the USA.

I thought the production values of the film were good and the cast excellent. David Oyelowo and Rosamond Pike are especially effective in their roles. As is common in this genre the music is well written but often obtrusive, signalling moments of particular drama or emotion.

But the film also exhibited the decorum that typifies this genre. There are moment so explicit sexuality, one shot in particular of a partially covered Oyelowo emphasises his blackness. But for much of the film I was more conscious of his class rather than his blackness. But the latter provides the focus for the overt story. Oyelowo also played the lead in the 2015 Selma. But that films has an intensity that this tale rarely achieves. It also used a pattern of light and shadow to illuminate the plot. This film failed to provide an equivalent. In an earlier period restraint in British films provided a potent sense of denial and lack, [e.g. Brief Encounter]. But the sense of good taste does not work in the same way contemporary dramas, even if when in that period. Moreover this is a melodrama of resistance, which works rather differently.

Some publicity suggests that the film is about crossing the barriers of “race” and class. Whilst this is true of the former it is not really of the latter. Seretse is heir apparent, partly educated at Baliol College Oxford and studying to be a barrister. Ruth’s father is n ex-army captain and worked in the tea business; the film uses the term ‘salesman’. Ruth herself works at Lloyd’s and indignantly tells one official that she as not just a typist. Seretse would seem to be a bourgeois, [rather like his African compatriot Nelson Mandela}. Ruth is most likely bourgeoisie. In social and economic terms they make a likely couple.

In the film we first see Seretse involved in a boxing bout. His white opponent cheats. When he meets Ruth we find both are avid fans of jazz and love dancing. I am not clear whether these biographical details are accurate but they seem to fit into conventional characterisations of black men on screen.

The political establishment in the film is conventional in its arrogance and prejudice. And the opposite characters, [such as Fenner Brockway and a young Tony Benn] are equally recognisable. But where I feel the film really falls down is in its treatment of Africa and the African people. These characters are much less developed, even Seretse’s uncle, a key character, and his sister. And the ordinary members of the Bechuanaland tribes are closer to cyphers.

The majority of the population belong to the Tswana or Butswana tribe, but there are also minority tribe. In the film they are just a uniform group. There have two important parts in the plot involving ordinary Africans. Firstly there is a traditional Tribal meeting [kgotlas] and in the film Seretse needs the acceptance of this forum to claim his chieftainship. However, it is unclear in the film how the assembly makes decision. Cleanly only small part of the population attend. And we do not actually see the decision process which apparently rested with a small group of tribal elders.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo portray Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams who caused an international stir when Seretse married a white woman (Williams) from London in the late 1940s.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo to portray Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams who caused an international stir when Seretse married a white woman (Williams)from London in the late 1940s.

Then there are scenes where local African women support Ruth through her travails. But the women are not well delineated and their function relates to Ruth’s character rather their own.

In the film Seretse is regularly referred to as ‘king’ elect. However, his actual position is a Tribal Chief and I suspected that ‘king’ is a western import which does not accurately reflect his position in an African context. With his western education, whilst the film shows acceptance by his tribal people, he seems part of the existing establishment. And there is a historical omission, even from the onscreen titles that end the film. When the British colonials took possession of the original lands they divided them. The Southern part of the tribal lands were placed with the Cape Colony and ended up as part of South Africa. I though this dispossession should have been in the film. Moreover, it was, presumably, a factor in the stance of the Apartheid government.

Despite its liberal intent, [worn on the sleeve so to speak] the film seems to fall within the dominant cinema. What it offers is a limited critique which criticises individuals or institutions rather than the whole colonial process. To an extent Africans, as in Eye in the Sky, are  there to support the drama led by Western characters. Added to this is the lack of dynamism which I felt when watching the film. Asante’s first film had a dynamism which is rather lacking in her follow-up films, perhaps because she did not fully control the scripts? It is a shame because there is an interesting and still relevant story which could work powerfully and politically in film.

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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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