Third Cinema revisited

Just another weblog

La Noire de… / Black Girl, Senegal 1966.

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in African Cinema | 1 Comment »

Two films about refugees

Posted by keith1942 on September 11, 2016

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

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


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


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

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

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


Green and fertile produce.

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

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

Dheepan amid the banlieu's desolation.

Dheepan amid the banlieu’s desolation.

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

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

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


Posted in Auteur cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Films of the Spanish Civil War

Posted by keith1942 on September 3, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The POUM militia.

The POUM militia.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And later he notes that

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

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

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

But practice changed with the arrival of the Popular Front.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Film adapted from a book, Political cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Sangre Negra [aka] Native Son Argentina 1950

Posted by keith1942 on August 12, 2016

Hunting a slum rat.

Hunting a slum rat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigger and Bessie

Bigger and Bessie

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

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

Posted in Film adapted from a book, Latin American film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Anti-colonial films at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016

Posted by keith1942 on August 1, 2016

memories poster

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Arab Cinemas, Cuban film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by keith1942 on June 23, 2016

The younger Karamakate tends Theo.

The younger Karamakate tends Theo.

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

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

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

The older Karamakate followed by Evan.

The older Karamakate followed by Evan.

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

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

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

Posted in Latin American film | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

In colour. Arabic with English subtitles.



Posted in Arab Cinemas | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Idol / Ya Tayr El Tayer Palestine 2015

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Audience, Idol

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


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

The Easter Rising 1916

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins as portayed ..

Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins as portayed ..

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

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


Posted in Films of Eire | Leave a Comment »

Reports from the ‘Third World’!

Posted by keith1942 on January 9, 2016


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

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

The Back-Story

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

The Wilby Conspiracy

The Wilby Conspiracy

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

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

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

Cry Freedom

Cry Freedom

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

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

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


A shot and Russell Price will pick up the gun

A shot and Russell Price will pick up the gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reporters in Salvador.

Reporters in Salvador.

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


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

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

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

Beirut in Circle of Dec eit

Beirut in Circle of Deceit

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


Salvador, the woman's typical place!

Salvador, the woman’s typical place!

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


The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

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

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

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

Alternative films

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

Hidden Agenda

Hidden Agenda

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreword and afterword

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

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

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

Pyle and Fowler - 1958

Pyle and Fowler – 1958

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fowler, Pyle and Phuong - 2002

Fowler, Pyle and Phuong – 2002

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

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

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

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

The ‘ur’ text


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

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

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

‘The horror, the horror’.

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

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

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

Tim Roth as Marlow

Tim Roth as Marlow

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

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

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

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

Photographic record of atrocities

Photographic record of atrocities

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Western Produced Melodramas.

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

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

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

Alternatives from the Oppressed Peoples. (Personal choice)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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