Third Cinema revisited

Just another weblog

From reality to movies back to reality.

Posted by keith1942 on January 9, 2016

Kabul Airport

Oscar Wilde is quoted as:

Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”

In at least some cases art imitates life and then life imitates art. This would seem to apply to the scenes of chaos and desperation as the USA and its allies leave Afghanistan. A number of commentators have recalled the scenes of chaos and desperation as the USA left Saigon in 1975. The parallels between these two events are limited. Vietnam saw a National Liberation Movement end the US invasion and occupation. The US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has been ended, at leas tin part, by a combination of religion and tribal cultures.

Joe Biden announces that the US is giving up ‘remaking’ nations. However, only a few radical commentators have actually reminded the US and its allies that their imperialist actions were doomed to end in failure. The advanced capitalist states on either side of the Atlantic Ocean continue to attempt to impose their interests and values on oppressed people and nations. Presumably we have not seen the last such evacuation.

Meanwhile some tyro film-maker is likely already mulling over a cinematic narrative representing these dramatic scenes. Presumably it will in some way mirror the existing movies that have dramatised similar stories and images. The article below discusses a series of such films and the way that they fail to address the imperialist adventures of real-life.

Reports from the ‘Third World’!


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

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

The Back-Story

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

The Wilby Conspiracy

The Wilby Conspiracy

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

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

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

Cry Freedom

Cry Freedom

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

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

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


A shot and Russell Price will pick up the gun

A shot and Russell Price will pick up the gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reporters in Salvador.

Reporters in Salvador.

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


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

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

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

Beirut in Circle of Dec eit

Beirut in Circle of Deceit

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


Salvador, the woman's typical place!

Salvador, the woman’s typical place!

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


The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

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

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

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

Genre and style

The films tend to follow the conventions of mainstream cinema. One of the influences on some, but not all, of the film is film noir. This is especially noticeable in Circle of Deceit, The Killing Fields, Salvador, Under Fire, War Zone and The Year of Living Dangerously. Circle of Deceit and The Year of Living Dangerously both employ a narrative voice and a sense of the ‘confessional mode’. All these films use chiaroscuro and the contrast between light and shadow. In these, and indeed to a degree in the other films, the hero ventures into a world of chaos from which it is uncertain whether or not he will merger safely. In fact uniformly we have the ‘seeker hero’ who survives, though not always unscathed. Strictly speaking there are no femme fatales. However, there are siren objects that draw the hero into chaos. Quite often this is the journalistic ‘pot of gold’; an interview with a ‘terrorist leader’ in Circle of Deceit; the iconic rebel leader in Under Fire; a possible coup d’etat in The Year of Dangerously. The noir style reinforces the tendency of these films to represent lands and peoples as ‘other’ and threatening.

Other Genres

Many of the plot lines and motifs appear in other Hollywood films addressing the Vietnam War but which fit into different genres and whose values are more conservative or even downright reactionary. The key example here is The Deer Hunter (1978) which is essentially a war movie; a genre which Andrew Britton points out seems incapable of actually addressing the values and interests that drive any particular war. The Deer Hunter falls into three parts. The opening is set in a steel town and a community bound by an Ukrainian Heritage. Whilst much time and representation is spent on the community culture the key point here is the support given by this once migrant community to US dominant values and the war against Vietnam. These values are found most clearly in a trio of friends who have volunteered to serve in Vietnam. At a wedding celebration they offer awe and respect to a Vietnam veteran; though he seems fairly disillusioned. What might be described as an idealogical echo is the characters love of US gun culture. In a hunting sequence this is represented in what seem to be Wagnerian dramatic terms.

The second part follows the trio as they arrive and fight in Vietnam as part of the US occupation forces. The values ascribed here can be summarised as an inversion of reality. The recorded instances of US G.I.s playing Russian Roulette with Vietcong prisoners is here turned on its head as the film displays the Vietcong forcing US prisoners to play Russian Roulette with each other. Even by Hollywood standards this is fairly vicious racism.

In the third part we witness one surviving member of the trio return to Vietnam in the final stages of US military collapse and withdrawal. Here Russian Roulette re-appears as a gambling game of the Vietnamese. The US buddy dies in such a den of vice. The film ends as his body is returned to the USA and members of the community join in ‘God Bless America’ around the grave. It seems that if God actually exists in any form recognised by existing religions that he would not bless the imperialist USA. But in dramatising the Vietnam invasion and war Hollywood is impelled in some way to validate the flight from that country. This is an aspect of the war that US films have to try and negotiate; and there are a number of titles that address the contradictions and traumas within the USA whilst ignoring those in Vietnam.

 Alternative films

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

Hidden Agenda

Hidden Agenda

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreword and afterword

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

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

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

Pyle and Fowler - 1958

Pyle and Fowler – 1958

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fowler, Pyle and Phuong - 2002

Fowler, Pyle and Phuong – 2002

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

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

As in the book, Pyle dies, and Fowler regains Phuong, presumably to stay indefinitely in Vietnam. The film adds a montage at the close of newspaper articles recording the increasing US military involvement in the war: a point that emphasises more strongly than the novel the neo-colonial activities of the USA. The film, of course, enjoys the benefit of hindsight.

It is worth noting that both films show the influence of film noir. Both films follow the novel in using a flashback structure and the confessional mode. Both make extensive use of chiaroscuro and Fowler himself makes the comment of the conflict between light and darkness. Neither film has a femme fatale, the siren call is Vietnam and the Orient. However, in the 2002 version there is a sense that Phuong acts as a metaphor for Vientnam, beautiful but unknown. In both versions the protagonist descends into a world of chaos. In the 1958 version Fowler is a victim hero, live but dead emotionally. In the 2002 version Pyle becomes the victim hero whilst Fowler remains the seeker hero.

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

The ‘ur’ text


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

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

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

‘The horror, the horror’.

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

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

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

Tim Roth as Marlow

Tim Roth as Marlow

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

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

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

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

Photographic record of atrocities

Photographic record of atrocities

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


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

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

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

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

The Quiet American, USA 1958. Director and script Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

The Quiet American, USA, Australia, Germany, France 2002. Director Phillip Noyce. Script Christopher Hampton.

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

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

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

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

Other Western Produced Melodramas.

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

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

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

War Movie

The Deer Hunter, USA 1978, EMI – Universal Pictures, Director and Story [jointly] Michael Cimino.

Alternatives from the Oppressed Peoples. (Personal choice)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Twenty Five Years of Al Jazeera

Posted by keith1942 on November 3, 2021

This week has seen congratulatory broadcasts and programmes on this International Television News channel and its associated websites. The congratulations by the channel and from other media organisations are well deserved. Whilst it values and interests remain within the global capitalist system it has fairly consistently provided a wide range of news, opinions and faces and importantly offered a ‘voice for the people’.

It was set up in and by Qatar on November 1st 1996 as an Arabic language television platform. It has championed democratic movements, much to the chagrin of the mainly authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. It has also championed the resistance of popular movements to those regimes and of popular movements resisting the continuing neocolonial control over the region. One of its innovatory stances in the television media world was a constant variety of people in live and recorded interviews from a different viewpoints on any given issue or contradiction. This has had a marked effect on competing international broadcasters.

One factor in its founding was the demise of the BBC Arabic Service. At one time the BBC World services were seen as an independent and liberal voice round the world. Now Al Jazeera offers a more internationalist, more varied and more critical voice than any part of the BBC or the major broadcasters in Europe and North America. When the US attacked Iraq Al Jazeera was the only major broadcaster not embedded with the military forces of the invading coalition. In 2011 it was the voice of the many popular democratic movements across the Middle East and suffered repression, notably in Egypt. And its coverage of the several Israeli attacks on Gaza and on the continuing Palestinian resistance to Zionist occupation also stands out.

In the early 2000s it branched out into English language web provision and then English language television broadcasting; first in Europe and then in North America. As the services developed Al Jazeera has become a producer and distributor of independent and critical documentary. Many in the international audiences now see their ‘films’ on satellite television and streaming services. And the programmes broadcast on Al Jazeera remain available through their web sites.

This blog has reviewed and praised a number of these:

Al-Nakba (2008)

World War 1 Through Arab Eyes (2017)

Blood and Tears French Decolonisation (2020)

The Lobby (2017 – posts charting attacks on Ken Loach by Zionist fellow-travellers in Britain).

The documentaries frequently features archive footage that is rarely seen in other media. And much of it avoids Television’s tendency to reframe archive film to poor effect.

So what ever the limitations in the editorial policy and presentation on the channels Al Jazeera is an important resource for anti-colonialists and anti-imperialists.

The Arabic services can be seen at ‘’ and the English-language services at ‘’. In Britain the television Channel is on Freeview 235. Let us hope they continue for another twenty five years and longer.

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African Apocalypse, Britain 2020

Posted by keith1942 on June 28, 2021

Femi, a witness, Amina

This is an Arena title funded in part by the BBC and the BFI and transmitted on BBC 2 on the 25th of May; due to be available on the BBC I-player. Essentially the documentary is a journey both politically and geographically. This is made by the protagonist and narrator Femi Nylander. Femi co-scripted the film with Rob Lemkin who produced and directed this production. Femi is British with Nigerian heritage. He recounts how he read Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ and how he then researched a real-life parallel of the Kurtz character in the book, Captain Paul Voulet, the leader of a French expedition in West Africa in 1899. This is, of course, the same story as presented in the film Sarrounia.

This title presents extracts from the novella alongside a physical journey by Femi, with two guides, following the march of Voulet’s expedition through what is present-day Niger. At the start he recalls Conrad’s fictional descriptions which were fictionalised accounts of actual events. The merit of the documentary here is that it shows photographs of the atrocities committed in the holocaust inflicted on the people of the Congo under the Belgium occupation; something that is rarely seen in the western media. On his journey he recounts the record of the Voulet-Chanoine expedition and present local people who recount the oral tradition of Voulet’s brutal actions, including numerous massacres of people; men, women and children. These indigenous voices are one of the positive aspects of the presentation of the documentary. This is also illustrated by material from the French archives recording the expedition [indicated by titles] and what seems to be found footage [not credited], some from Niger and some from other apparently unrelated sources.

The story he presents is graphic and the point is made that whilst it is often described as an aberration it is, like the activities described by Conrad, an essential aspect of Europe colonisation of Africa; and indeed of other oppressed peoples. The oral testimonies show how the local peoples retain a strong sense of the aggression perpetrated and a strong resentment to present day neo-colonialism.

However, to my surprise we never hear about Sarrounia and her people’s resistance. There is a description of the resistance by the Sultan of Beni Konni but this results in a massacre reliant on the superior French military technology. At the end Voulet is killed by native auxiliaries and the expedition falls into chaos. It should be noted that other French expeditions continued the subjugation and violence in the area around Lake Chad and succeeded in instituted a Military control.

Why is Sarrounia missing? Given the research that is shown in the film the film-makers must have been aware on her actions. It is worth noting that she is referenced on the Wikipedia page; but not in the main record but in a subsequent paragraph ‘The Mission in Literature and cinema’ which mentions the novel and the film. There is also a record of Sarrounia on a web page on ‘Sarrounia Mangou’ and, indeed on a BBC web page.

This raises the problem of how reliance on European records of events tend to sharing the stance of the colonialist. However, this film also uses indigenous oral history; did they actually find people who talked about Sarrounia? I suspect that there are two reasons for the failure to present Sarrounia and her people’s feats. There is the parallel with Conrad’s novella, which structures the film and I think is intended to provide  a hook for viewers in Britain and Europe. Connected to this is the presentation of the treatment by colonialists of African peoples. At the end of the film we see Femi attending a ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstration where he speaks briefly about his journey to uncover the violence against Black people under colonialism. Like the film overall, he reiterates that this continues under contemporary neo-colonialism.

My problem with this is that this seems to produce a representation of the African peoples as victims of colonialism. However, Sarrounia‘s exploits show an African people who resisted and retained an autonomy against the colonialists. This is very much the stance that Sarrounia director Med Hondo took. With this is also a representation of the autonomy and resistance of women., expressed in the portrait of the warrior queen.

In fact there is a parallel problem of the latter in the film itself. There are two featured guides for Femi on his journey. Assan Ag Midal Boubacar and Amina Weira. To learn more about the one needs to visit the ‘African Apocalypse’ web pages. It turns out that Amina is a film-maker in her own right. One of her films, La Colere dans le vent (2016), is about the exploitation of miners in Niger’s uranium mines; until recently controlled by France. It was produced by Vrai Films, an independent film and audio-visual company producing social documentaries and with an emphasis on films from Africa. In ‘African Apocalypse’, among what seems to be found footage, are shot of men working in an uranium mine whilst the exploitative nature of this is commented upon. It seems likely that this is footage from Amina’s documentary but the only credit is for Amina and Vrai under ‘Archive’. Her film has had a French video release and featured at a number of Festivals; there does not seem to have been a screening in Britain.

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International Workers’ Day

Posted by keith1942 on May 1, 2021

Greetings for the Day of the International

Working Class.

This year we also celebrate the anniversary

of the heroic Paris Commune of 1871 but

also mourn those who died in this historic

revolutionary action.

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Pomegranates and Myrrh / Al Mor Wa Al Rumman (Palestinian Territories-France-Germany 2008)

Posted by keith1942 on April 30, 2021

Kamar visits Zaid in prison

This was the first feature of a young Palestinian film-maker who has subsequently made two more features; most recently Between Heaven and Earth (2019). She studied in the USA, a common route for Palestinians who still lack a autonomous homeland. Her features rely on funding from abroad, mainly Europe; a common limitation for Palestinian film-makers. Her features dramatise family relationships and traumas that typify the experiences of a people under occupation.

The film opens with the wedding of Kamar (Yasmin Elmasri) and Zaid (Aashraf Farar) in Ramallah, in the occupied Palestinian territories. Zaid owns an olive grove and an olive press. Kamar’s own interest is a local dance group. Shortly after the wedding Israeli soldiers turn up on Zaid’s land with a notice of confiscation. There is a scuffle and Zaid is arrested and imprisoned under ‘administrative detention’. Most of the film follows Kamar as she copes with the situation but also attempts to continue her own life, in particular her membership of the dance troupe. There are periodic visits to Zaid in prison, and at one point he is held in solitary confinement. Kamar’s life becomes more complicated when Kais (Ali Suliman) joins the troupe. He is a choreographer whose family was exiled to Lebanon at the start of the occupation in 1948. By the end of the film the troupe have performed a dance event supervised by Kais, ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh’: Zaid has finally been released from prison and there is tentative reunion between him and Kamar: but the olive grove remain under Israeli occupation.

The film deals with an important issue for Palestinians, the creeping theft of their land under a variety of guises by the Zionist regime. The soldiers claim that the confiscation is because ‘boys threw stones’ from the land. The soldiers then claim that Zaid ‘threatened and attacked’ them to justify his imprisonment. Zaid imprisonment lasts several months and we glimpse the bureaucratic methods used by the Israeli’s to delay any possibility of justice. At the same time Jewish settlers start to occupy the confiscated groves, and at one point vandalise the disused olive press.

However, the prime focus of the film is the situation of the young wife, Kamar. Along with the pressures of the confiscation and her husbands imprisonment are those of friends and family who believe that her dance activities and growing friendship with Kais are unseemly. Eventually the Director of the troupe, incensed by Kais’s interest in Kamar, cancels the planned event that Kais is rehearsing with the dance troupe. The dance finally takes place in a disused playground. And it is during a performance that Kamar and Zaid exchange smiles that suggest their future together.

The film makes an interesting comparison with the 2008 film, Lemon Tree (Etz Limon, Israel, Germany, and France). There is not only a common plot problem, in this case the confiscation of a Lemon Grove, but also shared actors. In Lemon Tree Haim Abbass plays the widow, Salma Zidane, whose grove is under threat because an Israeli Minister moves into the adjoining house: in Pomegranates and Myrrh she plays Umm Habib, the owner of a small café. The café hosts an important scene as Kamar and Kais are forced to spend a night there during an Israeli curfew. Ali Suliman (Kais in Pomegranates and Myrrh) plays the Zaid Doud, the young Palestinian lawyer who conducts Salma’s case. Lemon Tree is clearly the more didactic film: [not a weakness despite the claims of certain mainstream critics]. For me the main weakness was that this didactic tone was rather one-note: it did not develop all the complexities of the situation. For example, Pomegranates and Myrrh has a much stronger sense of the wider context and Palestinian communities. An aspect of the one-note tone is the recurring use made of the folk song, ‘Lemon Tree’, which I felt did not stand frequent re-playing. Lemon Tree also offers a closer look at the Israeli protagonists; the film ends without Salma recovering her land, but with Mira Navon (Rona Lipaz-Michael) leaving her ministerial husband, Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) out of disgust for his oppressive actions. In Pomegranates and Myrrh the Israeli soldiers are almost faceless, and the settlers are uniformly shown in long shot. This is a trope that goes back at least as far as Goya.

Umm Habib

Pomegranates and Myrrh seem to me to subordinate the political issue to the personal. So much of the plot focuses on Kamar’s personal difficulties and the developing relationship with Kais. This is reinforced by the film’s ending, when the audience are left with what seems to be a re-united husband and wife without a clear reference to the confiscated land. The writer and director commented on her approach to the issue and the story:

“The idea for the film started with the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada. …When violence, hate and anger became the only life around me, it almost broke my spirit and soul, and my faith in humanity. I needed to find a way to survive, to find hope in what seemed to be a hopeless situation, to breathe again despite the suffocating weight of frustration. Yet in this search I was also confronted with barriers in a Palestinian society – those which can hinder individual development, dreams and aspirations but none as challenging as those which force people to turn to losing themselves when despair, uncertainty and loss prevails. Writing offered me the escape I needed and a way to release my frustrations. The result was ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh’. I took the story of a Palestinian female dancer trying to fulfil her dreams in a conservative society…. The film is in some ways a prediction of how a worsening political climate and the consequent lack of hope can directly affect Palestinian daily life, pushing the society to further isolate itself and the individual to regress into conservative traditionalism and religion if there isn’t hope, determination and a continuation of life. … It is my hope [that this story] will ultimately deepen the understanding of the present Palestinian story, transcending the barriers of culture and language.” (Leeds Festival Catalogue).

I have to question how far the emphasis of the film on the personal as to the political really does ‘deepen understanding. It is a staple of the commercial, entertainment film, even when it addresses contemporary political contradictions, to focus on the emotions of individual protagonists. This tendency {I believe] weakens and dissipated political issues. This is not a criticism that I would apply to the earlier Lemon Tree.

There is an interesting comment by a ‘reader’ on the Internet Movie Data Base site. One writes, “Although not explained, it is maybe interesting to note that pomegranates were eaten by souls in the underworld to bring about rebirth. Hellenic mythographers said both Kore and Eurydice were detained in the underworld because they ate pomegranate seeds there. Myrrh was traditionally an aphrodisiac.” In this sense the film’s title reinforces the personal issue.

Cinematically Pomegranates and Myrrh is more interesting than the earlier film. There are occasional long shots, usually for establishing a scene or as transitions between scenes. Much of the movie is shot in mid-shot and close-up. This relentlessly emphasises the enchainment of the Palestinians: also present in the mise en scène in the frequent use of bars and enclosures. The films’ opening follows the wedding party on their way to an Orthodox Church for the ceremony. Their journey perforce is through an Israeli checkpoint and alongside the ‘apartheid wall’. This style also reinforces the sense of the restrictions that are laid on the heroine.

However, I felt this style was rather over-done: the continuing close-ups do feel very oppressive and frequently frustrate the viewer’s view of the settings. Another quirk I thought not completely successful was the frequent shots of feet, especially during the dancing by the troupe. A colleague told me that Film Schools advise students that shots of feet make a useful transition, and I have this sense that they are often excessive in contemporary cinema. Despite these reservations Pomegranates and Myrrh is an absorbing film and it generates emotional involvement both around its central issue and the involved protagonists.

Palestinian Territories, France, Germany 2008.

Screened at the 23rd Leeds International Film Festival 2009.

Running Time 95 minutes.

Languages, Arabic, Hebrew, English with some English Subtitles.

Director: Najwa Najjar, Screenwriter: Najwa Najjar.


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On representation

Posted by keith1942 on April 2, 2021

I subscribe to the Radical Film Network. You get a lot of notices, more than I can handle. However, you also get some excellent recommendations like this one:

“Following on from Adam Curtis’ “Can’t Get You Out of my Head” I was delighted to watch the latest film on the RFN Film site this morning ‘What is Representation” by sub.Media. For me it’s an excellent analysis of the problematic definition of representation and should be screened to all media students. Being only 11 minutes long as opposed to Curtis’ 6 hour production, it probably says as much in that short time.

So thank you sub,Media for putting it on our site – I hope you’ll get lots of viewings.”

Here is the link:

‘What is Representation’ is part of an ‘A for Anarchy’ series on sub.Media;

“sub.Media is a video production ensemble, which aims to promote anarchist and anti-capitalist ideas, and aid social struggles through the dissemination of radical films and videos. Founded in 1994, has produced hundreds of videos on everything from anti-globalization protests to films about shoplifting. Our films have been screened around the world in social centers and movie theaters and have been watched by millions on the internet.”

In eleven minutes this short video manages to pack a lot of analysis and comment on a term that is bandied about in media studies; frequently without it being clear what exactly it means, covers or indeed ‘represents’.

The video offers a stream of moving images from many sources; mostly the mainstream media. I did find the stream had a rapid pace, rather too rapid. Being able to play it in slow motion, [like Jean-Luc] would be interesting. However, viewers who are used to the tempo of much modern video will probably find it fine. The majority of clips are moving images with sound but the sound is not heard; rather two songs play behind the commentary. Given how important sounds are in representations and that noise rather than the dialogue or commentary frequently receive less attention, I think it would be helpful to address this.

The commentary that runs over these images is excellent and it comments on the underlying social relations of representations, an aspect often overlooked. There are a number of references to ‘ideology’, another term that seems to have multiple meanings and which in any particular case it may not clear which is meant. It did seem to me that this video treated ideology as something which applies to nearly all intended communications. This term, unlike representation, is undefined and I could not find among the sub-Media titles on its web page one that dealt specifically with ideology.

What is ideology. I follow a key definition and usage by Karl Marx; that ideology is not just the dominant ideas of the ruling class in a social formation but a viewpoint that treats the surface aspects rather than the underlying social relations. This video tends to treat ideology in the first sense though the commentary does emphasize that any representation disguises the real relations involved. It also appears to see all representations as of this character. I tend to think that there are communications, like this video aware of the underlying social relations, which, to that extent, are not ideological.

There are indeed two meanings of representation in the video. In its early part the emphasis and examples are of portrayal of people and people’s actions that re-present our world. Towards the end the commentary addresses the ideas that actual people in power are seen to represent those not in power; that is they claim our voice and our consent for the activities of the state. Both meanings of representation interact in what is called hegemony; the dominance of the ideas of the ruling class. This takes a very particular form under the capitalist mode of production. Whilst the video addresses the sense of capitalist societies I think there is a need for a accompanying video about the commodity that lies at the heart of this mode of production. Another entry in ‘A is for Anarchy’ is ‘Property’ which refers to commodities but this is a commentary that I think needs development. A second title in the series is ‘Class’; this I thought good on the working class but that it needed development in its commentary on the Capitalist class.

The commentary ends with a generalised call for the anarchist movement; something which also does not seem to be set out in any video in ‘A for Anarchy’. So sub.Media’s ‘representation’ of the way that these cultural transmissions work itself needs to be critically viewed.

I note that the recommendation also referred to the new set of titles by Adam Curtis. I have watched earlier series by Adam Curtis and find his work extremely problematic. This seems to be the case as well with ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’. I only watched the first episode; that was enough. Curtis tends to use ideas expropriated from other thinkers but not always credited. He espouses a type of fast editing [Montage] which is typical of the modern media but fails to draw critical attention to the representation itself. And in this title he criticizes what is termed ‘individualism’ but which itself relies on individualist values.

Sub.Media is definitely a better use of your time.

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Blood and Tears French Decolonisation

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2020

This is a three part documentary; episodes run just under fifty minutes. The production was directed by Korn Brzoza and Pascal Blanchard for the Cinétévé audio-visual company. The narrative covers from the 1930s up until the 1960s; the period in which the world-wide empire of the French State gradually escaped the bonds placed on peoples and lands. This was the great period of oppressed peoples and nations throwing off the shackles of predominately European colonial powers and achieving some form of independence and freedom . The process saw widespread and often brutal violence inflicted on people struggling for freedom. However, the French State offered the most intransigence and the most extreme violence in response.

The documentary provides interviews with people from both sides of a number of the conflicts: liberation fighters: ordinary indigenous people: settlers: French military and critics in France. There is a substantial amount of archive footage, both film and television material. And there is a commentary that is broadly critical of the French resistance to decolonisation and of the French strategy and tactics.

There is focus on the well-known struggles in Vietnam and in Algeria. But there is also a focus on less well known struggles and the less well-known violent spasms by the French State and military. The French empire included peoples in North and North-West Africa, South East Africa, the West Indies, Indo-China and the Pacific. The account includes massacres in Madagascar and in the Ivory Coast. There is the appalling brutality used in the construction of a railway in Senegal. And there is the more Machiavellian strategy pursued in some areas, such as the West Indies.

The interviews, film material and commentary probe both the way that the French State operated and the way that Independence movements worked. There is also comment on the response internationally, especially to the French actions in Indo-China and Algeria. Most of these present responses in the United Nations. There is not much coverage on other colonial powers. The commentary seems to imply that the French were far more violent and more intransigent than other colonial powers. This is only partly true. The example of British responses to independence struggle was frequently as violent as the French; check their actions against the Mau-Mau in Kenya. And, to take another example, the British role in enabling the French to re-occupy Vietnam at the end of World war II is overlooked.

Another issue is the continuing neo-colonial role operated by the French State, especially in North and North-West Africa. The commentary does mention this and there are examples of French neo-colonialism in the 1960s. But it is really stressed how this continues in 2020. The French State continues to operate economic, military and political activities in an number of apparently independent states. In this sense, like the British State, it continues the exploitation and oppression of the colonial era.

The history presented in this documentary is one that is rarely treated in film or on television. Al Jazeera in recent years have produced a number of such titles, presenting stories and issues that the mainstream media in the European colonising states have ignored. So this is welcome opportunity for viewing. The documentary has its limitations as I suggest above. There is also an issue about the style and technical form of the episodes. Al Jazeera has in recent years, unfortunately, followed the conventional treatment on television of mishandling archive film material. As with other recent documentaries the archive material, mainly filmed in academy ratio, has been re-framed to fit the 16:9 screen. This three part title has now gone even further in colourising the predominately black and white archival footage. Some of it looks pretty bad and the whole treatment is anachronistic. The problem is highlighted by a couple of instances where film material is presented in its original aspect ratio: one short clip is from Afrique 50 (Africa 50) René Vautier | Niger/Côte d’Ivoire 1950. I assume that the film’s copyright holder insisted that the film’s original form be respected.

Still the series is worth watching. It is available on the Al Jazeera web pages where it can be viewed without the interruptions that occur in broadcasts.

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Leeds Palestinian Film Festival 2020

Posted by keith1942 on November 18, 2020

This year’s programme is, as with so many events, an online or virtual festival. It runs from November 14th until November 28th. The programme is structured through four themes:

Annexation, Occupation Defiance

Roadmap to Apartheid is a 2012 US documentary. It was made by Ana Nogueira who is a white South African with Eron Davidson who is a Jewish Israeli. They use their knowledge of the two states and their settler regimes, [the South African is past] to explore the parallels between them. They provide information and testimonies that show the similarities and differences of the two states. The testimonies are provided by Israelis, Palestinians and South Africans. The parallels are emphasized visually by running archive footage of both systems in split screens.

The parallels include occupation, enforced separation, violent suppression, ID controls, housed demolition and bantustan-type areas. The South African testimonies also comment that the Israeli system includes actions that were not used in South Africa; these include the separation wall, armed helicopter surveillance and open warfare against Palestinians. On the last point it is worth noting the South African Apartheid regime invasion of Angola and surreptitious invasion in Mozambique. Alongside this the investigation highlights the military co-operation that existed between the two regimes fin the 1970s and 1980s.

The documentary ends with the argument that the only way to resolve the conflict is a ‘one-state’ solution; an argument that so many people resist.

Naila and the Uprising is a 2017 documentary produced by Just Vision and like their other title, Budrus, explores grass roots activism. Much of the story it tells takes place in the first Intifada in the late 1980s. Naila is a young Palestinian woman who marries a fellow activists. But their marriage coincides with increased Israeli repression. Naila becomes a leading figure in a popular movement in which women play an important part. She becomes a target for the Israeli surveillance and security. During one spell in prison she suffers a miscarriage. Later she suffers further imprisonment, now accompanied by her young son. On release her partner is deported and the couple are once more separated. Naila’s story provides an example of the heroism and the cost of activism among Palestinians. The film uses interviews, archive footage and animation; and it provides a chronicle of the Intifada and of how ordinary Palestinian organised resistance.

The latter part of the film presents the US sponsored talks, [a rare US action sympathetic to the Palestinians] between Israel and Palestinians and the Oslo accords that followed. These show how the out-of-touch PLO leadership made an agreement without the participation of the activists who led the struggle. Predictably the agreement merely placated the US and it international partners whilst giving little to the Palestinians. This is a fine and at times moving record.

Jews Step Forward is a US documentary from 2015 that features a series on interviews with Jewish US citizens who at one time supported, in some way, Israel but now are part of the opposition to the Israeli occupation. The interviews are presenting in clips and the presentation cuts from one person to another. What adds power to their recollections and comments is that these clips also alternate with footage and images of Palestine, its history and its present.

The first half -an-hour presents people’s personal history and their involvement in Jewish culture and Zionism. Then for about 45 minutes they detail the history and impact of Zionist migration. Here we see footage from the early days of migration: the Nakba: 1967 and the enlarged occupation: the settlement movement: and the wars inflicted on Gaza.

In the final half-an-hour we see and hear the ways that they support the Palestinian struggle and, in particular, the Boycott – Divestment – Sanctions campaign. There is also comment on the responses, both from Israel and in the wider Zionist camp,

The whole offers a powerful testimony on the issues. Some of the illustrative material is pretty shocking; I do not remember this amount of brutal action in one title.

My main reservation is regarding the editing strategy. In the first part the interviewees’ comments are often extended. But as the documentary progresses the comments seem to be shorter and the cutting between people faster. This appears to follow the conventional editing style on television of ‘talking heads’. I find this approach does not provide space for complex comments and I do find that it subverts my attention. The documentary runs for nearly two hours but the treatment of the US role and interest in the Zionist State is rather underdeveloped; yet it is the main factor in perpetuating the Zionist occupation. Of course, this is all before the Trump administration.

But it is a powerful viewing with convincing testimonies.

Budrus is a Palestinian/Israeli documentary produced by ‘Just Vision’, an organisation supporting grassroots film-making. The village of Budrus, like much of the West Bank, suffers from  the construction of the Israeli ‘apartheid wall’. The film charts the non-violent resistance organised in the village and how, eventually, it was successful in producing some changes in the line of the wall and the impact on the village. However, during the resistance  many of the local olive trees were uprooted, residents were attacked by Israeli military as were supporting Israeli citizens who oppose the state policies. The film includes voices of the Palestinians, the Israeli’s and one Israeli member of the border police. The last appears to have emerged from the experience with the same irredeemable prejudices.

I saw the title when it was released in Britain in a 70 mninute version in 2009, the version available here is 82 minutes produced for a DVD release. It is a powerful testament to the quality of Palestinian resistance and the vicious nature of Israeli violence against Palestinians. The film, unusually, ends with a victory for Palestinians; but this is only one battle as the Wall and the occupation continue.

As Seen by Annemarie Jacir

AnneMarie Jacir is a talented and distinctive Palestinian film-maker.  When I Saw You / Lamma shoftak (2012) was her second feature as both writer and director.  It was released in Britain in 2014 and screened in Leeds that year. The story is set in 1967; the year of a further ‘Nakba’ for Palestinians as Israel added to the lands stolen and occupied in historic Palestine. The setting is Jordan and a Palestinian refugee camp but there is a hidden fedayeen base nearby. The fedayeen moved into Jordan when they lost their bases in the Jordanian holdings of Palestinian territory.

The two central characters are Mahmoud Asfa  as Tarek, a young boy, and his mother played by Ruba Blal as  Ghaydaa. Their husband and father is lost, presumably during the Israeli invasion of the same year. Both long, as do the other refugees, to return to their homeland. Tarek is consumed by the wish to see his father and as well as  returning  to their home. The wandering Tarek finds his way into the fedayeen camp where he becomes a sort of mascot. And his mother joins him there later. Much of the film presents a group of fedayeen recruits training for longed-for action against the Zionist.

The representation of the refugee camp and the fedayeen camp is completely convincing. And the situation of the mother and son is full of sympathy. Among the fedayeen there is a strong sense of optimism that they will regain their homeland. All through this Tarek’s desire to return is acute. At the climax he attempts jus this.

The nearest we come to sight of the zonists is a border land rover slowly patrolling fencing. They are, as in innumerable western and war films, an unseen enemy; the other. Here the film’s sense of space, finally visualised throughout, provides a moving and ambiguous note.

The film essayed a subject that has not featured so far in the Palestinian ‘new wave’. And the characters of mother and son are finely drawn. This offers an impressive, interesting and absorbing feature. Shot in colour and with English sub-titles for the Arabic songs and dialogue.

Wajib (2017) is the second title written and directed by AnneMarie Jacir in the Festival. The title translates as ‘duty’; the duty here is the traditional delivery of wedding invitations by hand. A father and his son, who now lives and works in Italy, drive round Nazareth with the invitations. They meet friends and relatives, drink innumerable cups of coffee, have a specially cooked meal, and, on a couple of occasions, are offered alcohol. Their journey is punctuated not just the numerous calls bit also by the conflicts between parent and off-spring. We learn that the wife and mother of this pair left them years before. Shadi, the son, lives with the daughter of an exiled PLO leader. That Shadi lives abroad and their different set of values cause repeated irritation between them. We also meet the daughter, Amal, in a sequence where they have to help her select her wedding dress.

Their whole journey and lives are dictated to by the Israeli occupation. This does not produce a direct confrontation, but constant pressure. Shadi is also incensed by the compromises than his father, a teacher, has made under the occupation.

The detail of life and of rituals among Palestinians is fascinating. The family conflicts are for a time amusing but also develop some serious drama. Jacir has a well honed ability to capture the ambience of life and of a particular culture. This is a fascinating study and always absorbing. And whilst the style is low-key very well done.

As Seen by Children

As Seen Through Creative Eyes

All told there are fourteen features that include both dramas and documentaries. In addition there are several supporting videos. As with earlier Festivals there are a range of views and experiences from amongst Palestinians and the few critical voices found among Israelis

The Festival is available on line through ‘InPlayer’ which is an online streaming platform. It claims to be ;

‘the world’s leading pay-per-view and subscription solution’.

It appears to be based in Britain and be an independent company. It relies on the Vimeo provision. There does not appear to be a test video to check reception but when I looked both the image and sound were of a reasonable quality. I have viewed two titles. both of which ran at 720 and there was some buffering.

You can check yourself on the Festival WebPages by looking at one of the ‘free’ videos like ‘Through the Eyes of Others – Launch Event’. This is useful as there is an introduction and a conversation regarding grassroots film provision.

You can buy a festival pass, but only if based in Britain, or buy tickets for individual titles. Note, with the latter your viewing window is 48 hours. The pass enables you to view right through the period.

Note: sadly the London Palestine Film Festival is running to almost the same dates with a different set of titles.

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A Brighter Summer Day / Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jean, Taiwan, 1991

Posted by keith1942 on August 13, 2020

This was a film restored under the auspices of The World Film Foundation . I saw it in a screening at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Previously I had only seen a shortened version which runs for three hours; but in the World Film Foundation the film has been restored to its original 237 minute length. The shortened version appears to have had mainly subsidiary scenes that refer to supporting characters edited out. The main story is still clear in this version, but the complete film fills out the world of school and gang cultures.

This is clearly an epic film to watch, but one that amply repays the time spent. Yang shares some characteristics with his fellow Taiwanese film-maker, Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The latter’s Three Times / Zul Hao de Shiguang (2005) covers a slightly later period in its first story, A Time for Love. The long shot and the long take dominate the film. Yang frequently uses slow pans that allow a viewer’s gaze to survey the settings in which events occur. And the narrative follows an elliptical course, becoming quite complex as it cuts between a number of major characters. It opens, a title informs us, in September 1960.

The following contains plot spoilers.

The central characters in the film are Xiao Si’r (Zhang Zhen) and his family, which includes an elder brother and three sisters. His father is a civil servant who migrated to the island when the Guomindang fled the mainland after losing the Civil War with the Chinese Communist Party.

One recurring family incident concerns a valuable watch belonging to the mother which the sons ‘borrow’ in order to pawn and raise money. A key early scene concerning the watch is missing in the short version.

Si’r attends a ‘night school’, in Taipei. Taiwan appears to have had an unusual arrangement of schools in this period, with less privileged pupils attending some daytime and some evening classes. Much of the action occurs in the school and we see a variety of classes and actions there. Examinations and tests are frequent.

The other important, though unofficial, institution is the youth gang. The films focuses on the rivalry between the Little Park Gang [which includes Si’r and his friends] and the 217 Gang, which is from a working class district. The youth gang culture actually afflicted the island in this period. And the violent climax that resolves the film was also based on an actual incident that the director remembered from his youth. An opening title suggests that the gangs are a manifestation of young people’s insecurity, resulting from their parent’s own insecurities after fleeing the mainland for the Island.

The film’s primary focus is male. Si’r close friends are Cat [Wang Qizan] and Airplane [Ke Yulun]. And there is an uneasy relationship with Sly [Chen Hongyu], the substitute leader of Little Park Gang. The original leader, Honey [Lin Hongming], had to go into hiding following a fatal incident. At school Si’r acquires another friend Ma [Tan Zhigang], who comes from a more affluent military family. He has been moved to the school after an earlier and violent incident at another institution.

Another key character is Ming [Lisa Yang], a girl pupil at Si’r school with whom he gradually develops a relationship. She was originally the girl friend of Honey, and appears to have other relationships as well. But the films masculine focus includes a critical perspective. Ming tells Si’r that, like all her boyfriends, ’you want to change me’ for selfish reasons. All these characters are affected by the ups and downs in gang conflicts.

The screenplay that Yang wrote with three colleagues, both evokes and comments on the troubled times that followed the Guomindang’s arrival in Taiwan. The defeated nationalist party instituted an authoritarian state, though one that went unremarked by its US allies even as they denounced ‘totalitarian’ Mainland China. In the film Si’r’s father [Zhang Guozhu] is the victim of a secret police interrogations whose purpose is never clearly explained. Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Yang’s films explore the impact of the Taiwan’s chequered history on its inhabitants. Both are now able to explore the repressions and conflicts that for years were not publicly recognised.

The complexities of plot and character mean that an audience has to work to follow events and developments. One of the pleasures of a second viewing was I was able to explore the film more fully. Also, seeing the full-length version for the first time I noted scenes that previously been missing, and which filled out some of the characters and their situations. Yang has a real mastery of mise en scène, and the long takes enable one to note the settings and the many visual motifs that help construct the film.

One of these is light. The film opens with a shot of a solitary light bulb. Early in the film Si’r acquires a torch, which he then carries for most of the rest of the film. He pinches the torch from a film studio that he visits one evening. Just before the film’s climax he returns and inadvertently leaves the torch. And the lighting and blocking in the film constantly reinforce this theme. Torchlight, candlelight, power cuts and blackouts are spread across the film. Much of the film is shot in twilight or at night. Some scenes, with large blocks and shadows, reveal only little of the action. Sight and watching is another motif: characters frequently stand and observe other characters. Si’r himself has an eye ailment for which he receives injections at school.

One of the arresting images in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times was the snooker hall in the sequence ‘A Time for Love’. Similarly in Yang’s film a snooker bar is an important setting. But this is a seedier and darker site than in the later film. The most violent confrontation between the two gangs takes place here.

The film also has a fine soundtrack. One frequently finds oneself listening to accompanying sounds like bands, firing ranges, bicycles, doors and so on. The film uses music to comment on the narrative. The film’s title is taken from Elvis Presley’s song, ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’, which is sung by one of Si’r friends, Cat, after Si’r elder sister [Wang Juan] has transcribed the lyrics. The song re-appears in the final sequence of the film, and is clearly ironic.

A Brighter Summer Day is an extremely fine film that is certainly worth a viewing. I can think of considerably shorter films that seem to take a lot longer on screen. Its complexities are beyond a relatively short review. For example the film studio that appears briefly in the film offers an interesting commentary on film itself. In his last visit a disillusioned Si’r shouts at the director [Danny Dunn] that he cannot tell ‘real from fake’. The portrayal of Taiwanese society in an early period offers a representation rather removed from that common in western states where Taiwan is seen as a bulwark against China; still regarded as a ‘communist’ state.

This is really an auteur film. The issue of the ‘national’ is complicated by the question of China since the counter-revolution. As a state run by the force of the market the primary contradiction in China is the class struggle between labour and capital. This is the same contradiction that operates in Taiwan. And Taiwan remains under the dominance of the US imperialists It would seem that a revolution would offer more to both societies if this was a struggle combining the working class in both states. Taiwan has developed its own film industry and in recent years, with the decline of the authoritarian aspect of the state, film-makers, as noted in the above, have been able to explore that history in a more critical manner. From this it might seem that the situation is more positive here than in authoritarian China.

Director Edward Yang, died in June 2007. This film is in 1.85:1 and colour;  in Mandarin, Taiwanese and Shanghainese with English subtitles.

The World Cinema Foundation is dedicated to the ‘preservation and restoration of neglected films from around the world’. The moving spirit in the Foundation is Martin Scorsese. Other noted film-makers on the Board include Souleymane Cissé, Abbas Kiarostami and Wong Kar-Wai. The restored films are premièred at the Cannes Film Festival. They are also screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The latter is an archive festival held annually in the city of Bologna. The festival covers world cinema from the early silents up until recent productions.


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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution USA (2015)

Posted by keith1942 on July 30, 2020

The Black Panther Party was one of the most important organisations in the struggle for full emancipation for black people in the United States. This was a struggle for Civil Rights rather than national liberation: but it was an important part of the twin struggles of class struggle in advanced capitalist societies and liberation struggles of the oppressed peoples and nations. The Panthers were, at least initially, inclined to a nationalist perspective on the struggle but as the party developed it became a more class conscious and internationalist organisation. Thus the description of ‘Vanguard of the Revolution’ in the title of this full-length featured documentary is fully deserved.

Running for just on a hundred minutes the title offers a narrative of the development of the Panthers from their founding in 1966 up until their serious decline in the early 1980s. The narrative is full of asides that focus on aspects of the Party’s History. There are portraits of the important members of the Party including Huey Newton, Bobby Hutton, Bobby lease, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton and Elaine Brown.

The distinctive feature of the Panthers was their emphasis on self-defence for black communities. They utilised the constitutional right to bear arms in order to carry weapons for defence; and this involved monitoring police actions bearing arms. It is instructive that the Republican Party and the California governor Ronald Reagan, normally advocates of unlimited gun control, passed the Mulford Act in 1967 to restrict this right; specifically aimed at the Panthers. Even more oppressive was the reaction of the Federal government and in particular the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then led by the powerful and reactionary J. Edgar Hoover.

“counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and many other tactics, designed to undermine Panther leadership, incriminate and assassinate party members, discredit and criminalize the Party, and drain organizational resources and manpower.” (quoted on Wikipedia).

The title presents a number of episodes where the FBI and other state security organs used and abused their powers to attempt to subvert the Panthers, on more than one occasion resulting in state sponsored murder.

Several Panther leaders were prosecuted, though the process was suspect. And this persecution resulted in broad support for the Panthers from Civil Rights and Revolutionary [in embryo] organisations and demonstrations involving large popular participation. The ‘Free Huey! Campaign’ was a notable example. But the FBI campaign was successful in the longer term as the film indicates. A notable example of these state trials was the prosecution of the ‘Chicago Eight’, including Bobby Seale, following the conflict around the 1968 Democratic Convention in the city. The conduct of the trial, including the racist treatment of Seale, can be seen in the 1970 The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and the 1987 Conspiracy The Trial of the Chicago 8. And the trial is also referenced in a number of other films, including works by Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Watkins. The use of the law to pursue Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver led to them leaving the USA and finally setting up an international bureau in Algeria. The Panthers both received support from Liberation Struggles and took an open stand supporting liberation struggles. This internationalism was one of the most positive angles of the Panther politics.

Another aspect delineated in the documentary are the social activities of the Panthers. The most notable part of this was the ‘Free Breakfast for Children Program’ which ran in Los Angeles. There were also health programs and organisation actions to help black communities fight poverty and economic exploitation.

At the end of the 1960s the Panthers were well organised, successful and enjoyed respect and support across the Afro-American population. However, the overt and covert actions buy the state undermined the organisation and splits within the leadership exacerbated this. The Panthers maintained active and influential throughout the 1970s but by 1980 they were in serious decline. And sections became involved direct criminality.

The documentary charts this history with detail and much illustration. However, there is a real weakness when we look at the coverage of the politics of the Panthers. There is a reference to the 1967 ‘Ten Point Program’; but this does not present the whole programme. The documentary is also scanty in the way that it presents the influences on the Panther politics; including that of liberation movements and the ‘socialist’ camp:

Wikipedia offers Curtis Austin writing that by late 1968, Black Panther ideology had evolved from black nationalism to become more a “revolutionary internationalist movement”:

“[The Party] dropped its wholesale attacks against whites and began to emphasize more of a class analysis of society. Its emphasis on Marxist–Leninist doctrine and its repeated espousal of Maoist statements signalled the group’s transition from a revolutionary nationalist to a revolutionary internationalist movement. Every Party member had to study Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book” to advance his or her knowledge of peoples’ struggle and the revolutionary process.” [2006 book on the Panthers].

One wry reference in the documentary recounts how the Panthers sold the ‘Little Red Book’ on campuses for a profit. But, for example, the development from a Black Nationalist standpoint to a Revolutionary Class-conscious standpoint is not really detailed.

One response to the documentary quoted on Wikipedia is:

 “Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther Party leader, criticized the film, writing that it presents “a disparaging portrait of Huey P. Newton” and that Nelson “[excised] from his film the Party’s ideological foundation and political strategies, […] reducing our activities to sensationalist engagements, as snatched from establishment media headlines.” [Elaine Brown has appeared in discussion programmes on Al Jazeera presenting an acute analysis of C21st US capital].

Elaine Brown represents one of the other developments in the Panthers; a move away from a male chauvinist position and the relegation of women to support roles to a much more clearly defined revolutionary position on gender roles. This is something highlighted in the documentary.

The limitations of this production reflect the limitations of the main stream media with the documentary aimed at that sort of platform. Much of the illustrative film footage has been re-framed to the 16:9 standard for television. However, there is little available on the Panthers in Moving Images. There is a 2010 documentary, 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers on the ‘Bay Area’ Chapter of the Panthers. The title refers to a violent raid on the Panther Chapter by the Los Angeles Police Department. The Wikipedia pages on the Panthers provide much detail of the organisation’s history.

Both PBS in the USA and BBC 4 in Britain have aired the documentary and it is likely to be aired again in the future; [it is currently appearing on the British PBS channel].. It is a flawed but  fascinating treatment of a seminal organisation in the history of US Civil Rights and even more class conscious action. Clearly the Panthers continue to exercise an importance influence which can be seen in the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The latter is a varied set of groups and politics, but the more radical elements reflect both the class consciousness and the internationalism of the mature Panther Party. It is an interesting reflection on the context that whilst the only response of the state to the Panthers was organised violence there are clear attempts to co-op the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement both by capital and elements of the US state like the Democratic Party. If a high tide of revolt occurs, as was the situation when the Panthers arose, then elements in this movement might rival the Panthers in some ways.

The Black Panther Party first publicized its original “What We Want Now!” Ten-Point program on May 15, 1967, following the Sacramento action, in the second issue of The Black Panther newspaper.

We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.

We want full employment for our people.

We want an end to the robbery by the Capitalists of our Black Community.

We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.

We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.

We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.

We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.

We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.

We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

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May Day 2020

Posted by keith1942 on May 1, 2020




Check out Reel News

Visit Radical Film Network


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