Third Cinema revisited

Just another WordPress.com weblog

‘Outsiders: The Battle of Algiers and political cinema’

Posted by keith1942 on March 30, 2019

 

I was reminded of the above article in Sight & Sound by Michael Chanan as I was checking through some old recordings. One was a Radio 3 ‘Night Waves’ about ‘Marxism and Cinema’; part of a series over a week debating Marxism in October 1999. A trio of speakers, Ian Christie, Ginette Vincendeau and Michael Chanan, discussed aspects of:

“Karl Marx and the Cinema;’ … discussing his influence on the critiques of film, the way the industry is organised but above all what the films have said, especially in Russia, France and Cuba.” [All three areas of expertise amongst the speakers}.

Industry was not really touched on so the discussion focused on films that might be ‘Marxist’ and writings by ‘Marxists on films’. Talking about contemporary film [in 1999] Ian Christie praised Land and Freedom; the film directed by Ken Loach in 1995 set in the Spanish Civil War, and in particular the scene where the Republican soldiers and village peasants debate collectivising the land. Michael Chanan also referred to the film and some expanded comments [addressing the film The Battle of Algiers] re-appeared in his article in Sight & Sound [as in the title]..

“It is common nowadays, especially in the kind of university courses that try to survey the whole of world cinema in a term, to cite The Battle of Algiers as an example of ‘third cinema’, which one educational website describes as “the oppositional cinemas of the colonised peoples.” [he adds] In that case, however, Pontecorvo’s film wouldn’t count, since all the key creative talent behind the camera was Italian, making it not a ‘third world’ film’ but a European film about the third world.” [As so often one contributor, Yacef Saadi the original writer, has been forgotten].

The ‘educational website’ appears to be a reference to our sister Website, ‘Third Cinema Revisited’. I assume Michael Chanan was unaware that the site did not relate to a university course, though it was developed in a University funded production course, and the material on it was composed for study over a whole year not just one term.

Michael Chanan was arguing the point, made by many, that the Manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ covers a wide range of cinemas and films, including works from within the imperialist countries. My criticisms of this is elsewhere on this Blog, simply put, even if this Manifesto does make such a distinction, I argue that a Marxist position needs to do distinguish between the struggle between classes in an advanced capitalist state and a struggle against occupation and domination by an oppressed people and nation.

Michael Chanan actually offers exemplar films to demonstrate his particular point. This is where he returns to his example regarding Land and Freedom.

“This dialectic between film and the time and place of its viewing functions in many different ways. When Land and Freedom was first shown in Havana it produced an unexpected effect. You might think it would be the perfect film for such a highly politicised audience, but this was 1996 when Cuba was struggling to reverse the economic disintegration that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union on which it had become financially dependent. Came that brave long central sequence of discussion about politics, and in Havana some of the audience began to leave : what turned them off was what Cubans call teque, mere political rhetoric. But when David tears up his Communist Party card, another remarkable response, half the remaining audience burst into applause, which of course provoked jeers and catcalls from the other half.”

A the time of the article my response was a letter to Sight & Sound.

“I found Michael Chanan’s article on this classic film stimulating, though I had reservations about parts of his argument. His use of ‘creative talent behind the camera’ is rather narrow, as it apparently excludes the writer and co-producer Yacef Saadi. Even so I would accept that the film is not strictly a Third Cinema film. Whether Third Cinema is ‘the oppositional cinema of the colonised’ depends on your reading of the manifesto by Fernando Solanas and Olivia Getino. Chanan’s quotations to the contrary are only one aspect: the authors refer constantly to ‘films of decolonisation.’ The manifesto is strongly influenced by the writings of Franz Fanon and Mao Zedong. Both clearly draw a line between the struggles of oppressed people against colonialism and neo-colonialism on one hand, and the struggle of the working classes against their own bourgeoisie in the colonising countries on the other.

In fact, one of Chanan’s film examples demonstrates this point. The first sequence from Land and Freedom to which Chanan refers is the debate about collectivising the land, a step towards socialist construction. And this debate takes place as the indigenous working class fight their rulers in a state that is both capitalist and part of the colonial system of exploitation. The Cuban audience that Chanan describes watching this film is part of a society where socialist construction is not taking place. The Cubans are conducting a national struggle for independence from the colonial and neo-colonial policies of the USA and its allies.”

The article is missing one point made on the radio. The applause by some of the audience when David tears up his party card occasions others who

“responded by having an ideological battle in front of the screen.”

This makes clearer the political nature of the confrontation .It also is an example of an important point in ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, a point Chanan discusses in one of his longer article from a Screen Special Latin American Issue [Volume 38 number 4 Winter 1997] ‘The Changing Geography of Third Cinema’.

When La hora de los hornos / The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) was screened in Argentina there were breaks in the projection when the audience debated points on screen and the film was so structured. Solanas and Getino in the Manifesto dwell at length on this as an important facet of ‘oppositional cinema’. This seems to be an aspect of the Havana screening.

The article does make the point that the screening was a particular time [1996] and place [Havana]. But there is more to be said here. The Soviet crisis certainly impacted on Cuba. But in this context it needs to be stated that Marxism in the country was only one factor, and that the prime mover in the first decades was independence and autonomy. Whilst the state set up programmes of social improvement, like the literacy or medical campaigns; such campaigns are a common action in liberation struggles. Cuba did not attempt the transformational of production and social relations within production; an essential component of socialist transformation. It is also clear that class stratification continued in Cuba. The factions in the cinema probably represented both aspects. In the radio broadcast Chanan added the comments that,

“as in Cuba Marxism has begun to atrophy”.

Chanan’s sense of the ‘Marxism’ found in Cuba is illustrated by his comments in the BBC programme where he pointed to the influence of two important Latin American revolutionaries. One was José Martí, the hero of the C19th struggle for independence from Spain and the founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. He remains a key part of Cuban culture and political discourse. The other was José Carlos Mariátegui, founder of the Communist Party of Peru. He is is immensely influential across the radical Latin American discourse. He emphasised the necessity in the struggle of liberating peoples from foreign colonial domination. Chanan remarks that there are parallels between his writings and those of Franz Fanon. Such distinctive influences can been seen in the radical cinema which opted for a different approach from ‘Soviet Socialist Realism’.

However such radical positions were found among cultural groups and factions but these were distinct from the official Communist Party. The official Communist Party was formed by a union of the Socialist Party, the July Movement that led the liberation struggle and a revolutionary student movement. It is debatable to what degree its Marxism followed the original discourse set up by Marx and Engels; or indeed the variant developed by the Bolsheviks under Lenin. Cuba was dominated, not just economically, but in terms of political line by the contemporary Soviet Union, which was both reformist and revisionist. This party was part of the State machine but did not really have a substantial popular base. The last is reflected in the divisions in the Havana cinema.

On the use of the term ‘atrophy’ – others use ‘crisis’; a comrade remarked tellingly that

“There was no crisis of Marxism but a crisis of Marxists.”

Chanan does develop more on the question of ‘time and place’, recounting the different responses to the film Missing (USA 1982)and screenings in Bogotá, Columbia and in London. In the former the flm was applauded, in the latter there was suspicion of the film among Chanan’s acquaintances; [a view shared by Chilean exiles I knew at that time]. One could offer another example, Cry Freedom (1987). But in both examples the liberation movement was led by reformist organisations. That ordinary people were elated to see their struggles on screen does not validate the politics in which the representations were encased. The categories of cinema in the Manifesto are constituted not just in films or in industrial practices but in a hegemony that affects practitioners and audiences.

Missing (USA 1982)seems to be an example, along with The Battle of Algiers, of an approach to film that Chanan values.

“As a general rule you can’t give a cogent account of a political film without relating it to the politics that inform it, but a good a good political film is usually one that articulates its politics within the narrative, as part of the diegesis.”

Diegesis refers to the ‘world of the story’. But I think this concept needs to be interrogated by the relationship between form and content; both clearly interact with each other. Missing is both in terms of its politics and in its form and style a mainstream film. The Battle of Algiers, whilst the politics are mainly in the diegesis, clearly is unconventional in both form and content. It is an early example of the combination of documentary and fiction modes; something that was seen as problematic at its release. And the diegetic world of the film is not straightforward. So we have on-screen titles, voice-overs, FLN statements and musical counterpoint: the latter seems to me to follow the mantras in Eisenstein’s now famous manifesto on sound and not be part of the diegesis. And such complex use of different conceptions can be seen in the films of Ousmane Sembène, – Black Girl / La noire de… (1966) – or Jorge Sanjinés and Ukamau – The Secret Nation / La nación clandestina (1989).

There is a further point made by Chanan with reference to Sanjinés in his article in Screen;

“It is necessary to allow for the kind of film – the outstanding example is the work of Sanjinés – which in stylistic terms retains all the marks of individual authorship, but in the process of of its creation incorporates the values of the collectivity within which it is made.”

This comment might be true of the first feature, Blood of the Condor / Yawar Mallku (1969) credited to Sanjinés and Grupa Ukamau, but it does not fit with the comments in ‘Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema’ or to a later film such as El enemigo principal / The Principal Enemy (1974) where the form and content was chosen by the indigenous people whose history the film recounts.

An important point in the Sight & Sound article follows from Chanan’s sense of the ‘three cinemas’ defined by Solanas and Getino.

“First cinema is industrial cinema, whether it comes from Hollywood, Bollywood or Hong Kong. Second cinema is the ‘artistic; type of film characteristic of European production modes that value the director as an auteur; again this kind of cinema is found across the globe. Solanas and Getino characterised it as individualistic, bourgeois, full of psychological and social leanings – but politically reformist. Third cinema was the militant film of opposition, for which one of the models was their own 1968 documentary epic La hora de los hornos / The Hour of the Furnaces – once described neatly as a film made “in the interstices of the system and against the system … independent in production, militant in politics, and experimental in language.”

There is certainly a bias in the Manifesto for this kind of interpretation, allowing for different language and examples more akin to the 1990s than the 1960s. One criticisms of this type of definition is that it is too neat and many films do not fit in the categories. Not all industrial cinema is similar to Hollywood; Eire for one, note the urban dramas like the newly released Rosie. Many independent films, especially from distinct national cinemas, are not like the artistic type of European film and are nor easily defined as auteur projects. Whilst the third category includes independent films, many of these are certainly bourgeois and reformist.

In relation to The Battle of Algiers Chanan quotes Mike Wayne’s argument that the film straddles all three categories.

“combining the elements of the thriller (first cinema), the aesthetics of the director as author (second cinemas), and the perspectives of the liberation struggle.”

The idea of the thriller relates to genre; a problematic conflating of industry with a different type of category. It should be clear that there are many thrillers that are radically different from the Hollywood model. The European films of Costa-Gavros, [who directed Missing], are examples that are different, including from Missing..

I should add that he also discusses contradistinctions involving concepts of ‘auteur’ and ‘national cinemas’; yet here years on he maintains the idea of third cinema embracing work in both advanced capitalist countries involved in colonialism and work from countries under colonial or neo-colonial domination. He also here uses the term ‘post-colonial’, one I regard an an anachronism when colonies still exist.

Regarding the role of the author, it is true that the dictator is Gillo Pontecorvo and there are parallels with his other films. But equally Yacef Saadi can be considered also as an author; the film is adapted from his own book and he was closely involved in the production. And the latter connects with a different definition, that the film expresses a national quality. The film does certainly relate to the third category. For me this film straddles second cinema [not just auteurs but also national cinemas] and third cinema.

I have enormous respect for Michael Chanan and I always approach his work with interest; for years he has been one of the most important advocates for third cinema and been actively involved in this. But as a Marxist I think the important distinctions regarding class struggle in its different forms an manifestations must be applied to cinema as to all other discourses.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 
%d bloggers like this: