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Neruda – poetry – Chile.

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2017

Pablo Larrain’s new film Neruda is an internationally funded film with investment from Chile, Argentina, France, Spain and the USA. The credits offer a long list of production companies including Fabula, which has produced all of the films by Larrain, together with a number of commercial companies and also a number of state funding institutions. As a recognised ‘auteur’ one expects that Larrain has a degree of latitude in his work but that also the pitch for the film will have had to satisfy these varied interests.

The film has taken about $900,00 in the USA. Its opening weekend was limited to three screens. In Italy 73 screens. In Britain it has had a limited national release taking the equivalent of $50,000. To date the worldwide box office is equivalent to $1.500,000.

The film enjoyed a slot in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ at the Cannes Film Festival. it was also nominated by Chile for the Best Foreign Language film at the Aacademy Awards. Responses by critics in the UK have been generally positive. Maria Delgado praised the film and offered an interesting commentary in the May Sight & Sound. However, what has been overlooked by many is that this is the second film about the poet Pablo Neruda produced in Chile in just two years. The other, written and directed by Manuel Basoalto, has the same title. Moreover, it appears to dramatise a similar period in the life of the poet. However, this version has not enjoyed a release outside of Latin America, so the chances of seeing it soon are slim.

Both films focus on events in and around 1948. This includes Neruda’s role as a Senator in the Upper Chamber of Chile’s National Congress. Threatened with arrest Neruda, with the assistance of the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile) of which he was a member, went into hiding. Later he managed to escape across the border into Argentina and then into exile in Paris. In this period he composed one of his most famous works, ‘Canto General’. The 2014 Neruda presents this narrative as flashbacks by Neruda when he received the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. The 2016 version has a rather different approach which I will discuss below.

First though it is worth placing the film in the overall output of Pablo Larrain. He work includes producing, directing, and scriptwriting for both film and television. But the key works would seem to be the series of fictional feature films that he has made since 2006.

The first was Fuga (2006) which I have not seen. Larrain both co-scripted the film with Mateo Iribarren and directed. it is apparently set in the Chilean city of Valparaiso and concerns music and insanity, [Ken Russell territory].

Then came Tony Manero (2008). Larrain contributed to the script by Alfredo Castro;  Mateo Iribarren also scripted the film and worked as camera operator. The film takes place in Santiago and the main character is Raúl Peralta  (Alfredo Castro).  Raul is an odd character. He is obsessed with the character of Tony Manero, played by John  Travolta, in the film Saturday Night Fever (USA 1977). At one point he performs an impersonation for a television ‘opportunity knocks’ show. However, the focus of the film is in Raul’s life in a shanty town. We are in the period of the Chilean Junta and its leader Augusto Pinochet. The repression and the secret police are here and two other would-be performers are also involved in secret opposition to the regime. Raul emerges as a really nasty character, it is difficult to think of equivalent unsavoury types outside of depictions of fascism . He exploits everyone around him in his pursuits of his obsession. He abuses women, steals including from corpses and commit murder.  The film is shot like a noir thriller. The cinematography is by Sergio Armstrong, who films the majority of Larrain’s work. The chiaroscuro adds to the unsettling feel of this dark and disturbing world.

Larrain’s third feature is Post Mortem (2010). This time the script is by  Eliseo Altunaga with contributions from  Mateo Iribarren  and Larrain. This film is set in the last days of the Presidency of Salvador Allende and the military coup. The protagonist, Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro) works in a morgue. The object of his fantasy, Nancy Puelma (Antonio Zegers ) a burlesque dancer, disappears in the crackdown. In as obsessive a manner as Raul Mario commences a search for her.

Tony Manero and Post Mortem are reckoned to form a trilogy with Larrain’s next film No (2012): all films being set in a Chile ruled by the military Junta. In 1988 Pinochet called a referendum on his role as President, a National Plebiscite. A coalition of opposition parties organised an advertising campaign to call for a ‘No’ vote. The Pinochet regime, under pressure from International forces, allowed equal access to the media for its supporters and the oppositional; the latter included liberal and left parties including the Communist Party of Chile. However, the other factors in this event were the increasing opposition by the working class. The control by the Junta at the end of the 1980s was shaky to say the least.

No focuses on the Advertising Campaign organised by a coalition of opposition forces and the story centres round the advertising expert bought it to run the campaign, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal). In the film Rene is shown as persuading the political leaders to focus the campaign on a positive stance, epitomised by the slogan “happiness is coming” to challenge concerns about the dangers or irrelevance of voting. The audience see short films that display the brutality of the regime but these are not included in the campaign. Those used  looks suspiciously like the standard fare on the medium in the period. One shows a happy family on a picnic. There is a note of irony, since the baguette amongst the food is an anachronism as one character point out. But it is the ‘happiness’ theme that dominates and appears to convince the voters.

Whilst the film includes footage of the repression by the regime there is no representation of the organised resistance of the period. And the adverts that dominate the story deliberately avoid political statements and slogans. The narrative is also dominated by Bernal’s Rene. The personal drama in the film is very much his. This does include a partner who is strongly critical of the approach taken in the campaign, but Bernal dominates in screen time and drama. In this way the films follows the tropes of star power in telling the story. And indeed the tropes of the advertising industry seem to dominate the film visually. Notably Larrain and his cinematographer recreated the adverts, including their academy ratio, by using an old and now redundant video system.

The Club / El club (Chile 2015) is set in a coastal retreat for priest suspended for misdeeds which include paedophilia and removing babies form unwed mothers. The film follows the conflicting relationships among these ne-er -do-wells. An important part of the plot is their interest in dog racing and the associated betting. This film has a similar noir look to Tony Manero and the actions of the protagonists are equally unpleasant. One senses that the film offers metaphor for the amnesia over past crimes in Chile, but this is not spelt out explicitly.

Jackie (2016) is a co-production involving the USA, Fox-Searchlight. The script is by a US-based writer, Noah Oppenheim, who has previously worked for US television. The leading players are all Hollywood actors. It would appear that Larrain directed this project because of his increasing international stature: it may also be that the expertise with old-style .1.37:7 framing was a factor, as this film also uses that ratio to recreate the famous CBS programme hosted by the protagonist of the film, Jackie Kennedy, i.e. the wife of the famous and mythologized US President John F. Kennedy.

The film opens on an interview given by the now widowed Jackie Kennedy to an unidentified reporter. She recounts the events in Dallas and the subsequent preparations and funeral of her dead husband. This involves frequent flashbacks but also extracts from the CBS Programme, a tour of the White House with the ‘First Lady’. The recreation of the actual moment of assassination and the subsequent traumatic experience for the surviving Jackie is done with expertise and real drama. I did wonder about how accurate it was. When the Air Force I returns to Washington with the corpse of the dead President Jackie is shown still wearing the blood-spattered pink suit; this seems to be accurate. But she also, at this point, wipes the specks of blood from her face, which I found unlikely.

The film focuses on Jackie’s trauma and her resistance to the manipulation of the new President Lyndon B. Johnson and the White House apparatchiks. The main sympathetic person is Kennedy’s surviving brother Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), her companion Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and her Roman Catholic confessor (John Hurt). Her resilience and steely determination is impressive. But, rather like No, this is a one-sided portrayal. There is a lack of critical treatment in the echoes of the Kennedy legend. The film uses the title song from the stage musical ‘Camelot’, but with an apparent lack of irony. it rather reminded me of the parallel uncritical representations when the British royal member Diana passed on.

So we come to Neruda (Chile Argentina, France, Spain, USA 2016). Rather like Tony Manero or The Club this is not predominately a film about events and characters in the history of Chile. There are more well known historical figures in this film than in those. And the plot of the film features the series of events involving Neruda that are well known. But these struck me as surface gloss. The deep focus of the film is the relationship between the poet and the policeman who is trying to catch him, Gael García Bernal as Oscar Peluchonneau.

The film is introduced by the voice of Peluchonneau [though he is only identified later] as the audience are shown Neruda’s situation; A Senator who is in conflict with his peers; who is a trenchant critic of the President, whom he once supported; and a literary darling with connections to the Communist Party. Peluchonneau provides a commentary on the characters and the actions. We see him meet President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro bringing overtones of earlier films) and hear his scathing comments on Videla as a puppet of US interests. This explains the anti-communist policy of the Government and Neruda’s volte face on the President. But in a nihilistic fashion Peluchonneau is equally scathing on the Communist Party and on Neruda himself, who he sees as a political dilettante.

The portrait of Neruda accompanies a party at his villa where Neruda dresses up in Arab garb [as Lawrence of Arabia] and recites lines from one of his most famous poems:

“Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” (From ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair).

This line recurs a number of times in the film suggesting an artist resting on his earlier laurels. We also meet Neruda’s second wife, Mercedes Morán as Delia del Carril, a painter and a bourgeois. Neruda himself came from a lower class family; his father was a railway employee and his mother a teacher.

The bulk of the film is concerned with Neruda going into hiding after learning he is to be arrested and then his journey into exile. In this he assisted by friends and by members of the Communist Party. The latter is also declared illegal by the President. The film cuts between Neruda in hiding and Peluchonneau on his trail., This is not a exciting cat and mouse pursuit, more a playful game between the two protagonists. Neruda constantly leaves copies of paperback thrillers for the policeman to find, with clues included in the volumes. Peluchonneau either fails to decode these clues or does so too slowly. After a failed attempt to leave by sea Neruda sets off across the border mountains to Argentina. It is in the high snowy wastes that the policeman finally catches up with both his quarry and his nemesis. However, by this stage it is clear that the detective is actually a creation of Neruda’s imagination; a way of dramatising his journey into exile.

It is also clear by this stage that the film is less a study in Chilean history or a study of a national poet. It seems that Larrain has described the film as an ‘anti-biopic’. This is a fanciful creation that allows the filmmaker to explore the mythologizing impulse found in the earlier ‘Jackie’ in the context of his native land. As with No the film appears more concerned with the conceits of the nominal hero than with the actual context for the character and his actions.

At one point we see a shot of a desert-based prison/torture camp for working class militants presided over by one Augusto Pinochet. The camp was reused after the 1973 military coup. And the actual flight of Neruda appears to stick to that recorded in Neruda’s ‘Memoirs’ (‘Confieso que he vivido: Memorias’ Translated by Hardie St. Martin, 1976).

“I moved from house to house, every day. Dozens opened to receive me everywhere. It was always people I did not know, who had somehow expressed their wish to put me up for a few days. They wanted to offer me asylum even if only for a few hours, or for weeks. I passed through fields, ports, cities, camps, and was in the homes of peasants, engineers,, lawyers, seamen, doctors, miners.”

The film does condense this journey but it also includes actual events in its key moments. This included the meeting with and protection by the capitalist/owner of the land in which he is secured.

“A man who was both mature and youngish, with graying hair and set features, got out of the jeep with my friend Bellet. The first thing he said was that, from then on, he would be responsible for my safety. Under those circumstances, no one would dare try anything against me.”

There follows Neruda’s account of crossing the Southern Andes, through the high level snow and own into Argentina.

However Neruda does not record a meeting in the snow with his police nemesis, or indeed any of the police and security people searching for him. This is Lorrain’s invention. A sort of double with whom Neruda can play out a game of ‘hide and seek’. Games would seem to be a central pre-occupation in the film: witness the play with the paper-back thrillers. So rather than a political conflict this becomes a puzzle which the protagonists, and the audience, are invited to solve. This seems to be an increasing tendency in Larrain’s output, and one which is discernible in his earlier films. So Tony Manero is constructed around the television talent show that Tony enters. No is about television advertising, rather than advertising in general. The Club has a focus on dog racing and betting. And Jackie is taken up with television. Rather as if Larrain actually believes Marshall McLuhan’s’s claim

‘the median is the message.’

A rather different approach to the political history of Chile is found in the films of Patricio Guzmán. His most famous work remains the epic trilogy La Batalla de Chile: La insurrección de la burguesía (1975), La Batalla de Chile: El golpe de estado (1977), La Batalla de Chile: El poder popular (1979). But Guzmán has continued his film work and since the end of the Junta he has been able to work in Chile once again. His two most recent films offer an engagement and analysis with the politics and history of Chile and offer this through the medium of cinematic poetry.

Nostalgia for the Light / Nostalgia de la luz (Chile, France, Spain, Germany, USA 2010) is a documentary set mainly in the Atacama desert. The film presents astronomers using telescopes to search the heavens above and enjoying the clarity that the dry desert environment offers for these observations. Counterposed nearby are women who search the desert for remains of their loved ones, victims of the military junta who were murdered under the Pinochet regime. An old mining camp was turned into a prison; after execution the bodies were buried then un-interred so that the remains could be scattered, wasting the evidence.  Guzmán combines personal history, archive material, interviews, sequences showing the women searching and the astronomers observing and fills in the ‘back stories’ of these. The film also references his earlier work: indeed the Atacama desert featured in his epic The Battle of Chile and in the more recent film The Pinochet Case  (France, Chile, Belgium, Spain 20011).

In an interview in Sight & Sound (August 2012)  Guzmán explains some of the combination in the film:

“But in Nostalgia there is, of course, an element of philosophical reflection on the relationship between human life and the life of the cosmos, on human memory and the memory of the stars, of infinity. It’s a film about the past, a demonstration that the most important thing in life is the past, because the whole territory of the past is fundamental for people and the future. In as much as we are human beings, we are the inheritors of generation upon generation going back to pre-history, and the matter of our bodies is the matter of the stars.”

Guzman also explains that the film is not a typical documentary, but falls somewhere between a documentary film and film essay: [shades of Chris Marker]. It certainly has the poetry often found in essays. The author translating records and testimonies into artistic expressions that heighten the content. The filmmaker also explained that he had problems getting funding, partly because potential investors found the proposed film difficult to comprehend:

“Yes. Everyone said to me, “Mr Guzman, what are you doing here? It’s a melange of anthropology, archaeology, cosmology and human rights. What is it?”

I did think that the film stretched its use of metaphor, especially astronomy, too far: the relationship between the two main subjects at times challenged the viewer to make the connection. However it remains a powerful and moving study. Unfortunately, despite strong critical comment, the film has struggled to reach substantial audiences. In the UK the DVD issue was in 2011 but a cinematic  release only happened in 2012.

Guzman’s most recent release seems to me to provide the metaphor that illuminates the history, the events and the testimonies offered. The Pearl Button / El botón de nácar (France, Spain, Chile, Switzerland 2015) presents the long ocean border of Chile and, in particular, the southern extremities where an archipelago with vast amounts of water occupies much of Patagonia. In these seascapes and landscapes the film examines the history and focuses especially on the exploitation and oppression of the indigenous peoples: [Kawésqar, Selk’nam, Aoniken, Hausch and Yáman] by C19th European colonialists. To this are added yet more victims of the Pinochet regime who were murdered in the region and in many cases their bodies were dumped in the sea. The ‘pearl button’ of the title is a relic of one of these victims found in the sea.

There are clearly parallels between this film and Nostalgia for the Light, but there is also a not just distinctive histories but a distinctive metaphor. In the same interview Guzmán explained his plan for a ‘diptych’ which became The Pearl Button:

“The sea is a kind of planet within our planet, which preserves memory, which is interesting because water arrived from space; comets brought it. It was probable that life came from beyond the earth, which is fascinating. It’s a possibility, it’s not proved scientifically, but many astrophysicists are thinking about the possibility that life could have come from somewhere beyond the earth. We’re very close to proving this with planet sections. I think it’s a magnificent subject to treat, the earth’s memory. And because Chile has many huge coastlines I’ll no doubt shoot it there.”

The two films are linked as opening shots of the Atacama desert lead to the coastline; following this down the film arrives at the Patagonia, a immense but sparsely populated territory of water, islands, mountains and glaciers. As with Nostalgia for the Light the images presented  are beautifully shot and framed. The archive material fills out the ‘back story’ of the region . And the editing relates the two murderous crimes of the ruling classes together and to the land, to the sea and to the peoples. Again this is a powerful and moving film and the aptness of the main metaphors offers an illumination rare among documentaries.

The period covered in Larrain’s Neruda is when  the poet was writing a long poem, ‘Canto general’ (1950). This includes

‘El Fugitivo X!!’, ‘To everyone, to you’.

The last stanza runs,

“To all and everyone

to all I don’t know, who’ll never

hear this name,  to those who live

along our long rivers

at the foot of volcanoes, in the sulphuric

copper shadow, to fishermen and peasants

to blue indians on the shore

of lakes sparkling like glass,

to the shoemaker who at this moment questions,

nailing leather with ancient hands,

to you, to whomever without knowing it has waited for

me,

I belong and recognise and sing.”

(From ‘The Essential Neruda Selected Poems’ Edited by Mark Eisner with English translations).

This seems to refer to Neruda’s journey as he flees the repressive arm of the Chilean state. It is far removed from the representation in Lorrain’s film. However, Guzmán’s films addresses the very people who Neruda was addressing; Indians, peasants, workers like shoemakers and fishermen. There is a a compatibility between the politics in Neruda’s poem and Guzmán’s films. Whereas there is an incommensurability between that of Larrain and Neruda. Larrain’s films fall within the ‘first alternative’ described by Solanos and Getino in ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, ‘author’s cinema’:

‘a step forward inasmuch as it demanded that the film-maker be free to express himself in n nonstandard language and inasmuch as it was a step at cultural decolonisation.”

They go on to point out that;

“such attempts have already reached, or about to reach, the outer limits of what the system permits.”

I would add that it is debatable how far Larrain’s film expresses ‘cultural decolonisation’. There are passing references to the reactionary Chilean state, and indeed to Pinochet and the military. But the film, like especially ‘No’, foregrounds the dominant global values rather than specific values of Chile and resistance. Guzmán’s films on the other hand fir the ‘real alternative’ cited by Solanos and Getino.

“making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System”

Hence Lorrain’s films seem to find funding relatively straightforward and they enjoy a wider and fuller distribution in a world system that is tailored as representing capital and commodities. I have not found the returns for Guzmán’s films, but then box office receipts are not an apt valuation of these art works.

 

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Two films about refugees

Posted by keith1942 on September 11, 2016

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

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

dheepan-quad-poster

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.

ghrow-your-own-poster

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.

vegatable-winners-part-of

Green and fertile produce.

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

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

Dheepan amid the banlieu's desolation.

Dheepan amid the banlieu’s desolation.

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

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

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

 

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India’s Parallel Cinema.

Posted by keith1942 on October 27, 2015

 

From the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, an alternative to the mainstream Hindi entertainment films and the regional mainstream cinemas, often referred to as ‘New Wave’ or ‘Parallel’ cinema, thrived in India. New Wave films tended to exhibit the following characteristics:

They were inspired by a new type of Indian film, which had been pioneered by the Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, in the 1950s.

They focused on social and political issues, such as the position of women, caste and poverty, communalism, the young and dissent.  While popular films sometimes touched on these issues New Wave films presented them with greater directness, complexity and subtlety.

They were less concerned with offering spectacle and glamour and tended towards a social realist approach to their subject.

They tended to be preoccupied with visual style and composition, and emphasised reflexivity. They drew attention to the construction of a film, rather than aiming at a seamless presentation of the story.

The films were usually produced on a low budget, and were less dependent on well-known stars.

The filmmakers were often influenced by western art house films and were dependent on film festivals, film societies and art house cinemas to become well known.

The rise of Alternative films.

In India, in the 1940s, Hindi popular films supplanted Hollywood imports as the largest block of releases in the Indian film market. Regional cinemas, for example the Tamil industry based in Madras/Chennai, also developed and expanded. But beyond these popular films, and Hollywood films, access to foreign films was very limited. Film societies were the main way audiences could access a wider range of films. In the late 1930s and early 1940s there were two attempts to found film societies in Bombay/Mumbai, but both were short-lived.

A longer lasting and far more influential institution, the Calcutta/Kolkata Film Society, was founded in 1947. The instigators were Chidananda Das Gupta and Satyajit Ray, both of whom became key film directors in India and inspired the development of New Wave in the 60s. The operation of such a society was not easy: the censorship rules applied to societies (though eased in the 1960s); and there were entertainment taxes and the cost of importing film. Despite this, the Calcutta/Kolkata Film Society constructed a programme of films using the Central Film Library of the Ministry of Education, commercial distributors of foreign films, and, very importantly, films provided by foreign embassies. In the 1950s the international market dominance by Hollywood was undermined, creating the space for the growing popularity of other national cinemas. Increasingly, films made outside Hollywood and in very different forms, circulated in the international markets. The Society gave an Indian audience access to these alternative cinemas. Apart from seeing films from many different countries the Society enjoyed visits by noted foreign filmmakers, including Jean Renoir, Vsevolod Pudovkin and John Huston. From 1952 the International Film Festival, held variously in Bombay/Mumbai, Madras/Chennai and Calcutta/Kolkata, opened doors to world cinema. As a result the Society had a powerful influence on several young members who became filmmakers, including Satyajit Ray.

Satyajit Ray – a pioneer filmmaker

satyajit-ray-e1441214710104

Satyajit Ray visited the European director Jean Renoir when he was filming The River (1951). Inspired by this experience he decided to fulfil a growing ambition, and started work on a screenplay of a widely read Bengali novel, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). Indian films in the 1950s were almost wholly studio produced, but Ray wanted to film this story in the actual locations. He also wanted to use ordinary people living in the situations described in the book rather than the professional actors and actresses of popular cinema. Potential backers were aghast at such a project. However, Ray started work, using his own savings and selling his personal belongings. Then he got an interested distributor who advanced him Rs 20,000. Later he obtained Rs 200,000 from the state of West Bengal and was able to complete the film.

When Pather Panchali was first released audiences were bemused by it, but it grew in popularity. It received an award at the Cannes Film Festival as the ‘best human document’ of the Festival and, over the next few years, the film enchanted audiences in film societies and art cinemas round the world. It also recouped a healthy profit on the investment of West Bengal

The film launched Ray’s career and he was to become one of the outstanding directors of the second half of the twentieth century. He is best regarded as an auteur, a filmmaker with a distinctive style and recognisable themes. While he was influential, he did not found a movement in the sense that Italian filmmakers founded Neo-realism. His films demonstrated that there were audiences in India for films that were different from the mainstream. Their favourable reception internationally also made a significant impact on the Indian government. In the 1960s and 1970s state funding was to play a crucial role in facilitating the making of alternative films. The state-run Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune provided a training ground and alternative entry into the film industry for young filmmakers. And success in competitions at international film festivals provided recognition and reward for new Indian talent.

The development of a political cinema  

If international cinema was a formative influence in the development of New Wave Cinema, another important influence was a indigenous cultural movement, the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA). This Association was founded in the 1940s and was connected to the Communist Party of India and the Progressive Writers’ Association, founded in 1935. The IPTA was regarded as both a political and cultural vanguard, influenced by socialist ideas and anti-colonial sentiments. Active in political theatre in both urban and rural areas, the IPTA made use of new cultural forms developed in western art and cinema but also lay claim to traditional Indian popular and folk forms. For example it staged theatrical and musical events about the 1943 Bengal Famine. K A Abbas subsequently made a film adaptation of these, Dharti Ke Lal (1946), the only film actually produced by the IPTA. The film used a non-professional cast and a novice crew.

The IPTA had immense prestige and influence in the 1940s and 1950s. Mainstream actors and filmmakers like Chetan Anand and Balray Sahni were associated with it, and some traces of its politics can be discerned in their films. Anand was a scriptwriter, director and actor, and the brother of the popular Hindi stars Dev and Vijay Anand. Sahni was a popular actor over several decades and starred in Do Bigha Zamin (1953).

One of the most famous alumni of the IPTA was another Bengali filmmaker, Ritwik Kumar Ghatak. Ghatak joined the IPTA as a playwright, director and actor and was voted best theatre director and actor at the all-India IPTA Conference in 1953. However, he was forced out of the organisation in the following year due to forceful political differences. He worked for the Bombay/Mumbai Film Company Filmistan as a scenarist, scripting Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958). His own films were few. In them he used the melodramatic form, also found in the Hindi entertainment films, and experimented with film styles, exploring especially the relationship between sound and image. In 1966 – 67 he was director of the newly formed Film and Television Institute of India, based at Pune, where he exercised a powerful influence on a number of students who went on to become filmmakers.

Ghatak’s conflict in the IPTA was indicative of political clashes. As elsewhere in the world, in India the 1960s was a time of political and social ferment. There was tense conflict between various leftwing political factions, including the powerful official Communist Party influenced by the Soviet Union, and two political parties influenced by revolutionary communists in China. These political differences took a concrete form. The most famous example was the Naxalite movement of the 1960s, which started with an insurrection at Naxalbari in West Bengal in August 1967; similar insurrections followed in other provinces. The Naxalite movement had an influence on both poor peasants in rural areas and radical students in the cities. Young filmmakers inscribed Naxalite political lines in their films and actively encouraged their films to be used as propaganda for the movement. For example, in 1979 a founder member of the IPTA, the director K A Abbas, made a film in Hindi, The Naxalites. It re-created both the peasant uprising and the later student activism. The film experienced some censorship, but was also criticised for a rather simplistic treatment of the political issues.

naxalbari

Another noted example of IPTA political filmmaking was Garam Hawa (Hot Winds, 1973) directed by M S Sathya, an IPTA member with experience in the theatre. A government agency sponsored the film, which deals with the Muslim community in India after Partition. This is a topic that mainstream Indian cinema has, by and large, ignored. The film avoids the musical and melodramatic conventions of mainstream cinema, except for an ironic and tragic sequence where the lovelorn daughter of the Muslim family commits suicide. The film’s style emphasises a certain distance for the viewer from the story, typical of films aimed at art cinema audiences. And the finale of the film directly relates the situation of these Muslims with a rally organised by communists, offering the audience a fairly direct political message.

The impact of government funding

In 1960 the government set up the Film Finance Corporation, following the recommendation in the Film Enquiry Report of 1951. According to Rajadhyaksha and Willemen (1999),

‘Its original objective was to promote and assist the mainstream film industry by ‘providing, affording or procuring finance or other facilities for the production of films of good standard’.

‘Good standards’ included ‘the promotion of national culture, education and healthy entertainment’.

In its first six years, it extended production loans for around 50 films, notably Ray’s Charulata (1964). This provided the opportunity for many talented and innovative directors to make films, which addressed serious issues, and in so doing they formulated a film style to do them justice.

The state sponsored and provided a regular exhibition space for documentary films. The Films Division both funded regular newsreels and documentaries and controlled their entry into distribution: exhibitors were required by law to screen them. Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal and other important directors all benefited from this source of government support by making documentaries.

In 1969 the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), under the direct influence of Indira Gandhi, funded two key films: Bhuvan Shome (1969, dir. Mrinal Sen) and Uski Roti (1969, dir. Mani Kaul). Sen’s film was a satirical comedy and Kaul’s film was an adaptation of a noted Hindi short story. Both films offered a distinctive approach to form and style. Sen’s film is credited by some as launching the New Wave. It was extremely popular and easily recouped the FFC’s investment. Uski Roti is described as

‘Indian cinema’s most controlled achievement in image composition. …The film … was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with familiar cinematic norms and equally strongly defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia.’

(Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, 1999, page 402).

Kaul had been a student of Ritwik Ghatak, and his work included exploration of Indian cultural forms, such as the use of Sanskrit texts, and European influences, including the noted French director, Robert Bresson.

New Wave cinema grows

Mrinal Sen

Mrinal Sen

Bhuvan Shome and Uski Roti provided the catalyst for a new film movement. An editorial article from the journal Close Up suggested a way forward for the creation of a cinema other than the popular commercial film.

‘If Indian cinema is to grow to adulthood, it has to come out of the cloying, cliché ridden commercial films. This requires the springing up of a whole movement, many directors making their films the way they like, in their own individual styles, unfettered by considerations of big finance, big star casts and voluminous box office returns. It is necessary that there should be many new directors, many new styles of filmmaking and possibility of these directors making more and more films. Only then can the real Indian cinema be active, living and progressing.’

(Close Up No. 4 1969, quoted in Georgekutty)

These aspirations were largely met in the 1970s when many new filmmakers were working in different states and different regional languages. The film critic and theorist, Georgekutty (1988) outlined the range of films that emerged from this period:

‘For example in Ankur and Nishant directed by Shyam Benegal, the theme is the feudal oppression of a people and the germination of resistance. In Party, directed by Govind Nihalani, the theme is the crisis of values in the middle class environment; in Ardh Staya it is the cry for honesty and integrity in contemporary public life; in Aaghat the question is the means and ends in trade union practices; in Rao Saheb it is the plight of women in the context of tradition and colonial experience of modernity; in Paar the tyranny of the landlords.’

In many ways, the new movement seemed to parallel the radical film movements in the West and in countries shaking free from colonialism, with its interest in a formal experimentation, in organising narratives and in the use of unconventional techniques. There was also a sense in which it could be seen as part of a youthful rebellion and many of the films appealed to young people, particularly students

Some films only circulated regionally, but some, like Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (made in Hindi), enjoyed a national success. Their audiences were mainly in the metropolitan areas and small towns. The radical political climate of the 60s stimulated a much greater interest in films that broke with the formulaic conventions of the Hindi popular movie. Often there was a key cinema in a city where art films were shown. In the 1970s Calcutta/Kolkata the Metro was the venue for a provocative trilogy of films by Mrinal Sen.

But these films also had another life at festivals abroad, where they often received greater acclaim than at home, as described by Bibekananda Ray (1988),

‘Adoor Gopalkrishana’s Elippathayam (The Rat Trap) made in 1982 was awarded the prestigious Sutherland Trophy by the British Film Institute. … New Delhi Times (1986) by young Ramesh Sharma won the Opera Prima award … at Karlovy Vary. Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s debut Dooratwa (The Distance, 1978) bagged the Special Jury award at Locarno … Buddhadeb’s third Grihayuddha (1982) won the FIPRESCI Award at Venice.’

Critics used varying titles to identify this trend in Indian cinema – New Wave Cinema, New Indian Cinema, Parallel Cinema, and occasionally Middle Cinema. This reflected the variety and range of films in the movement. Some films, like Bhuvan Shome, were radically different from mainstream films. Others, like Bhumika (Shyam Benegal, 1977), had a different content and style, but shared some conventions.

Shyam Benegal

Shyam Benegal is a Hindi director. Like other directors, his film career was preceded by work in the advertising industry. In the late sixties he received a scholarship and studied in Britain and the USA, where he worked as an associate producer at Boston’s WGBH TV and the Children’s Television Workshop in New York.

His first feature Ankur (1973) was independently financed and was a fair commercial success. It displayed characteristics associated with New Cinema in its realist style and naturalism, its unusually explicit story – about an affair between a low-caste wife and the landlord’s son – and its political stance. The latter included an impassioned denunciation of the landlord’s son, an affluent urban youth, by the wife, played by Shabana Azmi. The film seemed to extend and develop the ‘realist’ ethos found in Satyajit Ray’s early films.

Benegal’s work has often addressed political themes, especially two films from the 1970s, Nishant (1975) and Mathan (1976). Some of his other films are closer to the idea of an art cinema. Bhumika (1977) is an incisive portrait of the ‘Bollywood’ industry focusing on a star. Like many of Benegal’s films, and the Parallel Cinema generally, Bhumika addresses issues facing women. The film offers a sense of irony and distance often found in films described as Art Cinema. Yet it also offers some of the pleasures of entertainment films, with its strong narrative, star performers and use of continuity in story and style.

Bhumika poster

Benegal continued to make films in the 1990s. Like other filmmakers in the New Cinema he has also worked for television. This included a 53 part series based on a work by Nehru, The Discovery of India, (Bharat Ek Khoj) in 1988. A recent film, released in the UK, is Samar (Conflict, 1998), which deals with the problems of Dalits (outcasts in the Indian caste system). The film is overtly political, dealing with an issue that mainstream cinema has by and large avoided and which remains unresolved 55 years after Independence. As in Bhumika, Benegal uses the device of creating a film within a film, giving the viewer a sense of distance and reflectivity. However, in Bhumika the film within the film is part of the main narrative. In Samar there is a narrative conflict around the treatment of untouchables, but there are further contradictions between the villagers and the filmmakers as they record the story.

Stars in New Wave Cinema

While the Parallel Cinema did not depend on stars in the same way as Bollywood, a number of key actors and actresses have been important, both in developing the realist acting styles and in increasing the popularity for some New Wave films. An important actress in Parallel cinema was Smita Patil, who also worked in the commercial cinema.

Smita Patil appeared in Bhumika, a film for which she won the National Best Actress Award. She graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and appeared in several films directed by Shyam Benegal. She also worked in films made by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and a number of other directors in the New Cinema, and acted in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu. She died in 1986, aged only 31, having appeared in around 70 films. Her films frequently centred on strong and independent women, but also on the social pressures that limits them. In the case of Bhumika, the film dramatised the autobiography of an actual Hindi film actress, Hansa Wadkar.

Salaam-Bombay-19881

Decline of Parallel Cinema

In the 1970s and early 1980s Parallel Cinema was a vibrant force, but it became significantly less dynamic from the late 1980s, as a result of a number of factors relating to changes both globally and domestically.

1989 saw the demise of the Soviet Union, whose support for struggles against the Transatlantic colonial and neo-colonial powers had made it an important reference point for some politically conscious artists. And the alternative focus, China (an inspiration to the Naxalite rebels) now appeared as an authoritarian and repressive regime. As in the west, these changes generated confusion and dissipation in political art and culture.

In addition, wider social and cultural changes associated with ‘globalisation’ impacted on both filmmakers and audiences. In The World Remade by the Market, Jeremy Seabrook, offers a description of the Asian societies in the new global dispensation, and comments:

‘The richer we become in the market economy, the greater the space of individual self-expression. Sharper differentiation occurs between people. We no longer see our shared social predicament as a common fate. To get out, to be yourself, to locate a self that has become abstracted from place, becomes the aim of the young. Previously unseen barriers and separations divide generation from generation: new, impermeable divisions arise between those who had seen themselves as bound by a shared destiny. Members of the same family, who had always seen each other more or less as an extension of themselves, become aware of their own private, individual needs. They become preoccupied with their own uniqueness. They cultivate features and characteristics that distinguish them from others, rather than submerge these in a common pool of human belonging.’ (Seabrook, 2002)

Furthermore, as the authors of Satellites over South Asia point out,

‘The exchange crisis of 1991 and the subsequent bail out by the IMF, the World Bank and other international aid agencies is part of Indian economic folklore. The newly-elected government of P. V. Narasimha Rao … ushered in a new era by introducing sweeping measure of economic reform and liberalisation.’

(Page and Crawley, 2001).

Many of the state planning measures developed in India since Independence were dismantled. The deregulation was to be most noted in television and advertising. The Indian market was opened up to global competition. The new consumerism squeezed out many of the spaces where alternate cultural practice, like Parallel cinema, had found a home and an audience. Filmmakers in Parallel Cinema found the funding and distribution of their films increasingly difficult.

Another important factor in the decline of New Wave cinema was the impact of television and video on distribution and exhibition. Television proved to be a mixed blessing. Some New Cinema filmmakers earned a living by making films and programmes for television. The expansion of the state-run television service in the 1980s, created a large potential new audience for Parallel cinema. Many of the films funded by the NFDC were scheduled on early Sunday afternoons. Television screenings provided the possibility of additional revenues for filmmakers. For example, the television screening on the TV network Doordarshan could earn a film rights payment of Rs 800,000.  Georgekutty (1988) argued that the New Cinema films were mainly dependent on television and video rights, or on foreign film festivals, rather than on audiences paying to see the films in cinemas in India. This was a change from the 1970s when there were at least viable urban audiences for the films.

But while television offers opportunities, it has also undermined cinema audiences. The growth of television and video made the film societies, which had provided venues for exhibiting films and a base for filmmakers, largely redundant. It is not clear how large the audience is for TV screenings of New Wave films, or how new it is to this kind of film. At least some of the urban middle class intelligentsia that view the films on TV had once watched them in cinemas. They are, in the main, the subscribers to the new satellite channels that appeared in the 1990s.

The influence of Parallel cinema

Parallel cinema continues to influence Indian filmmakers but it has lost the political edge it once had. Mrinal Sen once explained:

‘I make films which have something to do with the political situation and involve political characters, but I have also made films which do not have a direct political relevance. In all of them however, I have always tried to maintain a social, political and economic perspective. I am a social animal, and, as such, I react to the things around me – I can’t escape their social and political implications.’

(Interview with Udayan Gupta, in Downing 1987).

The films of Sen, Benegal and Nihalani (among many others) offered their audiences a political message about the social conditions they represented. In this they are similar to the European political art films of, say, Ken Loach or Jean-Luc Godard, one influence on their work. The new breed of non-mainstream Indian films are more like international art house films, offering a much more muted message in comparison. These films circulate mainly outside India. While this offers them access to a wider audience, they lack the direct address and intervention into the political and cultural issues of modern Indian society. There is no longer a sense of a shared cinematic and political activism that characterised Parallel cinema in the 60s and 70s. As a result their directors are more like auteurs (in the Western art cinema sense) than the cultural activists of the IPTA. Their approach is reflected in the comments of an Asian British filmmaker, Shakila Maan,

‘Art is all about yourself. First and foremost, we are artists and we are all filmmakers.’

(Quoted by Cary Sawhney in Cineaste, Fall, 2001)

An important factor in this transformation has been foreign funding. Parallel cinema had always relied to a degree on the western alternative film circuit, through winning awards at film festivals and being circulated around art cinemas. But with the decline of funding for and interest in these films within India, foreign funding and distribution became even more essential for filmmakers who wanted to make different types of films.

For example, the award-winning Salaam Bombay (1988, dir. Mira Nair), a powerful study of child poverty and exploitation in Bombay, was jointly funded by the NFDC, the UK’s Channel 4 and a Paris-based company. Mira Nair was born in India, but studied in the USA at Harvard and worked with US-based documentarists Richard Leacock and DA Pennebaker. Her early film was partly a creature of the international art circuit, and her equally successful Monsoon Wedding (2001) is even more so. This film centres on a wedding between a young Indian engineer now working in Houston USA and the daughter of an affluent middle class family in Delhi. The film cleverly mixes western and Indian cultures and western art house styles with the colour and romantic melodrama of popular Hindi cinema. The poverty of India is seen in the vibrant city life of Delhi, but it is only part of the cityscape. Monsoon Wedding is less indignant about social problems and more affectionately mocking about contemporary cultural customs.

Political and formally radical films are still made in India. But they are most likely the result of international funding. For example both the Göteborg and Rotterdam Film Festivals have funds for filmmakers from countries outside the developed capitalist west. But in the UK they will mostly be seen on television, particularly Channel 4, rather than in cinemas.

Status

I think it will be clear from the above that the Parallel Cinema can be categorised as part of First or National cinema and as part of Second or Auteur cinema. But it also includes films that I would regard as oppositional or Third Cinema. Mrinal Sen’s films certainly fall into this space, see his And Quiet Rolls the Dawn (Ek Din Pratidin, India 1979): and Ghatak’s later film Titas Ekti Nadir Naam /A River Called Titas (Bangladesh, 1973) would also fit. The most recent films that I have seen are closer to national and auteur approaches.

For Indian silent cinema – for Pre-Independence sound cinema.

References

Bhaskar Chandavarkar, 1980, ‘The Man Who Went Beyond Stop’ in Cinema Vision India Vol. 1 No. 4, October.

Georgekutty, 1988, ‘A Legitimisation Crisis?’ in Deep Focus Vol. 1 No. 2, June.

Ashish Rajadhayaksha and Paul Willemen, 1999. Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, BFI.

Bibekananda Ray, 1988. The New Generation in ‘Other’ Cinema, in Cinema India International, 1988/1.

Jeremy Seabrook, The soul of man under globalism, in Race and Class, Volume 43 Number 4, April June 2002.

Cary Rajinder Sawhney, Another Kind of British: An Exploration of British Asian Films’, in Cineaste, Vol. XXVI No. 4, Fall 2001.

Adapted from a contribution to the BFI CG=Rom on Indian Cinema, [no longer available].

 

Posted in Auteur cinema, Indian cinema | 2 Comments »

Invictus, USA / South Africa 2009.

Posted by keith1942 on September 24, 2015

 

MandelaandPiennaar

Director: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin. In Technicolor and in 2.35:1; 133 minutes.

As the Rugby World Cup is currently on display in Britain it was predictable that this film would turn up on television: ITV4. It is a drama set round the 1995 Rugby World Cup which took place in South Africa: this was at the time that the new post-apartheid government led by Nelson Mandela was attempting to make the transition to an open, democratic society.

Despite all the talent involved I found this film ponderous to watch: weighed down by all the good intentions. It is also ideological in the proper sense of the word: addressing the surface appearances rather than the underlying social contradictions. The basic plot follows the South African Springboks [rugby team] as they attempt to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Key to their victory, in the film and apparently in real life, is the newly elected black President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). He develops a bond with and provides inspiration for the Springboks captain, white Afrikaan Francois Piennaar (Matt Damon).

The film opens on a road with a convoy of cars carrying the just-released Mandela from prison. On one side of the road is a grassless mud pitch where black youth in ragged gear play football. On the other side privileged white South Africans practice under the tutelage of their school coach. Black people run to the fence to cheer Mandela whilst the white coach expresses his contempt. Immediately the film visually presents the gross disparities that fuelled the anti-apartheid struggle. Unfortunately, this image grows dimmer as the film progresses. The Springbok team clearly have to win the cup: the question for Mandela [and viewers] is can do they so do on behalf of all the countries 42 million citizens, white and black.

There are early important scenes. We see Mandela taking up his office as President and carefully inviting the staff from the previous apartheid administration to continue to work ‘for the nation’. The key example in the film is the security team, now composed of both black and white staff, who only grudgingly learn to work together.

The issue of the Springbok team, who have a traditional green and gold strip, surfaces quickly. An ANC dominated Committee decides to change both the name and the colours, which are associated with the apartheid era and the Afrikaan society. Mandela rushes to the meeting and manages to persuade a slim majority to reverse their decision. His black secretary suggests that this might appear to be autocratic. Mandela’s response is that this is his responsibility as Leader. Several times in arguments around this issue he suggests that the person opposing him does not have all the ‘information’.

Later, when Mandela has developed a relationship with the Springbok captain and met and impressed the rugby team, we see them tour the now empty Robbins Islands which is in the process of becoming a museum. During this tour Piennaar ‘imagines’ Mandela in his time in the Prison.

On the eve of the World Cup Piennaar manages to persuade the team to actually learn the words of the new national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God/Lord Bless Africa in Xhosa). And Mandela sends Piennaar a hand-written copy of the poem Invictus.

The final, [apparently held in Durban rather than Cape Town), offers glorious affirmation of their success in their project. 60,000 fans roar on their team whilst nearly every other South African watches on television or listens on the radio. The sole exceptions are a young black boy and a dog. The former is collecting trash and is gradually drawn into the game’s commentary played over a police car radio. Victory sees the young man and the white policemen bonding. The dog is shown wandering through a deserted township: he is clearly baffled [as I am] by the potent attraction of such sporting events.

invictus_2009_9438_wallpaper

The victory celebrations end on a road outside the stadium, as both black and whites celebrate in the streets. But it is an urban centre road rather than the township road that opens the film. As Mandela drives by the celebrating crowds we hear his voice reading the poem. Then as the credits appear, we do see a field of young black men playing rugby. And the field is greener and better equipped than that of the opening, though not up to the standards of the white school playing fields. But there are no young white men playing rugby with these black youth. I sensed no irony in this final image: in fact Eastwood admitted in an interview that he caught this event as he was leaving at the end of filming and could not resists stopping to record it. .

In an article on the sports film, Joe Queenan (The Guardian 12-02-10) commented that: “The fact that such stirring victories almost never occur in real life is the reason that sports films exist. … It can reasonably be argued that sports films exist to provide audiences with a glimpse of a parallel universe in which the weak outmuscle the strong, good triumphs over evil …. Sports films are thus a substitute for reality, perhaps even an antidote.” On Invictus itself he writes: “[it] uses rugby as a metaphor for national spiritual rejuvenation ”. The Springboks did win the Rugby World Cup. However the national community the film celebrates is yet to materialise. The poverty, the extremes of affluence and deprivation, the experience of violence predominantly by black people are a different reality from the celebrations that close the film.

In an interview on Radio 4’s Today Chester Williams [the black member of the 1995 Springboks’], 20 years on, stated that the changes that he had hoped for have not occurred. A sports commentator stated that the Springbok team was still largely recruited from a small pool of elite schools favoured by the white population.

In fact the focus of the film is not on the ordinary black working class South Africans: it is on the two leaders, of the government and the national team. Most of the plot focuses on Piennar’s growing admiration for Mandela. The latter’s stature is summed up in the title of the film, which refers to a C19th British poem, Invictus (Unconquered). The poem was given to Mandela in prison: a fact rehearsed for the audience at least three times in the dialogue. We also hear the final verse twice: once when Pienaar and his team mates visit the now empty Robbins Island Prison; and once more as Mandela sits in his car as it drives through the celebrating South African fans.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the Captain of my soul.”

The author, William Ernest Henley, wrote the poem in a hospital bed where he struggled against illness and disability. One can see that the theme of personal struggle could resonate with a man in long-term prison. However, poet and captive seem to represent rather different situations: the poem was dedicated to a successful flour merchant. His equivalents in South Africa were the neo-colonial bourgeoisie, both exploiting and oppressing the black majority. Perhaps a more appropriate British poet for a leader in the struggle against Apartheid would be Linton Kwesi Johnson. His 1970s poem Yout Rebels ends,

“young blood

yout rebels

new shapes

shapin

new patterns

creatin new links

linkin

blood risin surely

carvin a new path

movin fahwod to freedom.”

The film is an expression of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie in advanced capitalist societies. Whilst the rugby provides the motor for the plot the film’s central focus is Mandela. In that sense it is as much a biopic as a sport film: an example of recent biopics which, rather than setting out the life and career of a personality, take a particular event or period as an expression of their life and work. Mandela became an icon for the Western bourgeoisies: in manner similar to Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he was often compared. Mandela and the fraction he led in the ANC were prepared to accept a compromise solution to ending apartheid. This involved a deal with international capital rather than its expropriation. At one point in the film we see a series of television excerpts in which Mandela travels the world seeking investment for the new South Africa.

This, of course, perpetuated the underlying social relations for which Apartheid gave a particular racist expression. The Witness film screened on Al Jazeera on the Marikana Massacre shows how unreformed the major state institutions like the police remain. And there are other examples of the continuing exploitation of of the black majority by international corporations. Unfortunately, the majority of films coming out of South African adhere to this ideological standpoint, e.g. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (2013). This is a film from dominant cinema with traces of the auteur or ‘second cinema’, but it shares many values with the films that come from South Africa’s national or ‘first cinema’.

Mandela actions regarding the Springbok’s can be seen as shrewd public relations in a divided country. And for a brief moment, as displayed in the film, it had its effect. But it made no changes to the predominant social relations. And it was an expression of the overall political direction of the government that he led.

The original review at release posted on ITP World.

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Theeb, Jordan / UK / United Arab Emirates / Qatar / Switzerland 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2015

theeb-2-filmloverss

This film was shot in anamorphic colour in Arabic with English subtitles. It was also shot on 16mm, which does not show on the big screen. The cinematography by Wolfgang Thaler is excellent and enjoys the at times breathtaking landscapes. The sound design by Dario Swade is also very fine, though I thought some of the music by Jerry Lane was, at times, intrusive. But the films also make good use of indigenous North African music and songs.

This is essentially a rite de passage and journey film. The protagonist, Theeb (Wolf) is a young Bedouin boy, not yet in his teens. He is played by the non-professional Jacir Eid and he is completely convincing in a role that has little dialogue. The rest of the cast, mainly non-professional, are also very good.

The journey arises when the Bedouin offer hospitality to a travelling English Officer and his guide. Theeb’s elder brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) is to guide them to a well, the first post on their journey. Theeb accompanies them, but they are soon in bandit company and the travails of the journey start.

The plot line is deliberately sketchy. So it takes time to realise that we are in the middle of World War I. Also that Edward, the Englishman (Jack Fox), is journeying to meet Arab irregulars who are attacking the Ottoman railway. One aspect presented in the film is that this conflict predates the war, as the railway has disrupted the traditional ways and work of the Bedouin.

I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House and afterwards joined in the Film Club discussion on the film. The consensus was that this was essentially a genre film and much of the plot was immediately familiar. I did think the production and the acting generated a sense of the desert world in this period that was more authentic than the western equivalents.

What also struck me was that I was constantly reminded of that western epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Theeb was filmed in the Hejaz area of Jordan, where much of Lawrence was filmed. Many of the settings look familiar and hark back to the earlier film. A host of parallels: the Bedouin hospitality, the English officer, his revolver circulating amongst the characters, the explosive plunger in a box, the rocky defiles and valleys, the accentuated padding of the camels hooves, the wells, the Arab irregulars, the railway, and late on the Turkish officer and troops – all made me think that these were deliberate.

The director Naji abu Nowar, is a Jordanian, but born in the UK. Many of the production group are European film technicians. Whilst it is predominately a production from Arabia I felt that it was made with an eye both to local audiences but also to international audiences for foreign language films. It certainly has a sense of indigenous culture that is often lacking from western [or Dominant Cinema] films. But in terms of plot in particular, it is recognisable to western audiences. The director described it as a ‘Bedouin western’. One could categorise it as somewhere between a National [or First] Cinema and an auteur [or second] cinema. For me it was entertaining but lacked the dynamic of a film like Timbuktu (2014).

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Hannah Arendt, Germany / Luxembourg / France / Israel 2012.

Posted by keith1942 on November 15, 2014

hannah-arendt

This is an interesting film because it has aspects that fall within all four of the categories set out by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in their manifesto Towards a Third Cinema. The film was directed by Magarethe von Trotta and co-scripted by her with Pam Katz. Thus it can be placed in the first cinema or ‘authors cinema’. It is as a work by a noted European filmmaker that the film is marketed and distributed. And it bears the marks identified by Cahiers du Cinéma as a work by an established auteur. It is also an example of the second cinema filmmaker, i.e. ‘trapped within the fortress’. It focuses on Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann by the Israeli State in 1961. It is also part funded by Israeli institutions. So it relates to attempts by the Zionist State to develop a ‘national cinema’: despite actually comprising a settlement on the land of an oppressed nation. And, finally, because much of the film is set in Palestine, it also relates [negatively] to the developing Palestinian cinema. This setting of the film, in the occupied territory of the Palestine, would be properly addressed by a Third cinema approach, i.e. a film ‘that directly and explicitly sets] out to fight the System’. The system is, of course, neo-colonialism.

The film has been produced in an English language edition with some non-English dialogue and sub-titles. Its style bears the hallmark of mainstream commercial cinema [i.e. the dominant mode in the industry], notably in the treatment of archive footage: much of the archive material from the 1960s period [including televised material] has been cropped and possibly occasionally stretched to fit the modern ratio of 1.85:1. This particular technique is presumably used for another exhibition life on video and television.

In one sense the film is a biopic, of the famous German and Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt. But the plot focuses on a short period in 1961 when Arendt was commissioned by ‘The New Yorker’ magazine to cover and write a series of articles on the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was part of the Nazi administration responsible for organising the mass murder of millions of Jews, both from Germany and other European countries occupied during the war. Her articles were later published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).

The press room for the trial

The press room for the trial

Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover in 1906. She studied philosophy at University. In 1933 she had to flee Germany and later settled in the USA where she became a citizen in 1950. She was married to fellow philosopher and German refugee Heinrich Blücher. At the time of her ‘New Yorker’ commission she was a visiting fellow at Columbia University. She was also extensively involved in Jewish organisations, including those assisting immigration to Israel. She had already written on the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. Her most famous work popularised the notion of ‘totalitarianism’.

The film follows events round the commission and trial and subsequent controversy when the articles appeared. It also details her relationships with her partner and with Jewish friends in the USA and in Israel. The majority of the latter take exception to the stance in her articles, in particular to her open criticism of the collaboration of Jewish organisations with the Nazi regime. In the 1960s this was a fairly courageous stance to take: whilst she was factually correct this was something that was extremely difficult for Jews as well as Zionists to admit. Less clearly expressed in the film were her questions about the legitimacy of the trial: Israeli agents secretly kidnapped Eichmann who was taken to Jerusalem and tried by the Israeli State, a state that did not exist when the crimes were committed and which were committed in Europe.

The film also includes flashbacks, in particular to her relationship with her philosophical mentor, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger later acted as an intellectual front for the Nazis. This aspect of the film fills out the psychological and intellectual portrait of Arendt. It suggests both a sense of guilt felt by many Jewish survivors over the millions who died. But it also sets out intellectual principles that motivated Arendt, including her writings on the Eichmann trial.

Arendt is played by Barbara Sukowa, a regular collaborator with von Trotta. And the film is recognisable in the style of that director’s work. It has a fine mise en scéne, which adds to the sense of the characters: Arendt and her partner clearly have a comfortable life style in the USA. And the placing and filming of characters is carefully judged to develop their emotional stances. Thus Arendt’s partner [Blücher – Axel Milburg) seems to have a more openly critical stance on the Israeli trial than Arendt and in several shots she is positioned midway between him or her more pro-Zionist friends. The conflicts are even more noticeable when she visits Israel: a scene of welcome in a comfortable Israeli home of Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) is different from a post-article visit where her dying friend lies in a sterilised hospital environment.

The major style problem with the film seems to be the abuse of archive footage. Cropping the 1960s material to 1.85:1 is very noticeable. Much of it is taken from the television coverage of the actual trial: in the 1960s this was still very similar to the Academy ratio, 1.37:1. And one particular shot emphases this. As an accredited journalist Arendt is able to watch the TV footage from a pressroom. At one point we have a close-up of Arendt followed by a point-of-view shot of the television footage, in 1.85:1. The technique is partly occasioned by there being one scene reconstructing the trail in colour and widescreen: but the majority of the coverage is in the black and white ‘4 x 3’. This seems to me to be a political as well as an aesthetic problem. How you treat not just the past but the artefacts of the past speak volumes about the historical stance taken.

But my major problems with the film are political. I should first allow the point that as a Marxist I do not agree with much of Arendt’s writings. Her famous concept of totalitarianism does not take account of political economy. Her conflation of the Soviet Union with the Third Reich does not address the different economic structures of the two societies. In fact, Arendt writes philosophically and historically, but she does not discuss in any detail the economic base. Moreover one of her main points regarding a totalitarian society is the claim that there was or is, ‘An Alliance Between Mob and Capital’. This begs the question of ‘class’. A historical account of the Third Reich shows that class was central to its mode of operation: indeed one of the points that Arendt makes in Eichmann in Jerusalem is the difference in treatment by the Nazi of ordinary Jewish people and ‘prominent Jews’. However, Arendt’s style tends to the discursive so it is tricky to pin down her thought and argument in pithy quotes: and her writing tends to lack, simple definitions.

Richard J. Evans provides a summary of her critical position in the Eichmann articles in a Guardian book review:

“Time and again she raises questions that provoke and disturb. The abduction of Eichmann from Argentina was illegal; the trail was a show-trial; Israel’s marriage laws were similar to the racist Nuremberg laws of the Nazis; Eichmann’s crimes were crimes against humanity, so international law should have dealt with this case.” (Reviewing Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Betina Stangneth, October 18th 2014).

So in Eichmann in Jerusalem early on we read a paragraph that follows caustic comments on Ben Gurion’s ‘show trial’.

“Hence the almost universal hostility in Israel to the mere mention of an international court which would have indicted Eichmann, not for crimes “against the Jewish people,” but for crimes against mankind committed on the body of the Jewish people. Hence the strange boast: “We make no ethnic distinctions,” which sounded less strange in Israel, where rabbinical law rulers the personal status of Jewish citizens, with the result that no Jew can marry a non-Jew: …there certainly was something breathtaking in the naivete with which the prosecution denounced the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which prohibited intermarriage and sexual intercourse between Jews and Germans.” [Arendt, 1963: actually she presumably means between ‘German Jews and Non-Jewish Germans’].

I do not think that the film gives a proper account of Arendt’s analysis and arguments in the articles. One point is the question of the legitimacy of the Israeli trial. In the film the points on this are made by the partner. Arendt seems to be sympathetic but does not voice agreement. One example is the scene that has her sited midway between Blücher and Jewish and pro-Zionist friends Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen) and Lore Jonas (Sascha Ley).

Another scene with Heinrich on the left and Hannah on the right.

Another scene with Heinrich on the left and Hannah on the right.

Of even more concern is the almost total absence in the film of Palestinians. There is one shot outside the courtroom of an elderly man [likely a Palestinian] with two youngsters listening to a radio, apparently providing coverage of the trial. That is it. Yet the film does include comments on the racism of early 1960s USA. The house servant in the apartment block where the couple lives is an Afro-American, . We see him on three occasions and his repeated appearances seem a subtle comment on the way that the contemporary USA treated its black citizens; Arendt and Blücher always treat him courteously. Palestinians receive no equivalence.

It is worth noting that Arendt signed a letter by Albert Einstein in 1948 to the ‘New York Times’ which opposed the visit of Menachem Begin to the USA because of his involvement in Zionist atrocities: the letter actually includes the term ‘fascist’. And Arendt must have been aware of the Palestinian refugees and the requirements on Israel by the United Nations to permit the return of the refugees driven from their homes. This is an issue she does not discuss or possibly deliberately avoids in the book. But her references to the ‘marriage laws’ clearly relate to the ‘apartheid’ style discrimination of Palestinians.

As the credits note the film is jointly funded and produced from Germany, Luxembourg, France and Israel. Germany is, of course, von Trotta’s home state: and European co-productions are common. Among the ten production companies given in the credits we find the Israel Film Fund and the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund. One can understand the interest and financing from these two agencies: and the film uses Jerusalem as a major location. But as agencies of the Israeli state they would seem to be tied to the particularly interpretation which is essentially Zionist. And it is difficult not to deduce that this had a major impact on the stance taken in the film.

But the film also suffers from mainstream conventions. Von Trotta has addressed the European Holocaust in an earlier film, Rosenstraße (2003). This also dealt with the marriage laws of the Third Reich and involved an investigation into the situation of non-Jewish women married to German Jewish men. The film is structured around flashbacks to the protest in 1943 by the women when their husbands are arrested and taken away to the extermination camps. The flashbacks are from the point of view of survivors now living in New York. And one of her other major films dealt with Rosa Luxemberg (1986), a major communist intellectual and activist in Germany in the first part of the C20th. Both the earlier films seem to have a different agenda from Hannah Arendt. Moreover both the earlier films follow the conventions of European art cinema: Rosenstraße uses a quite complex flashback structure to present the story: and Rosa Luxemberg relies on montage in the Soviet sense. But the three flashbacks in Hannah Arendt are far more conventional, detailing the ‘patriarchal’ influence of and sexual adventure with Heiddeger. Moreover the film opens with a dramatic version of the kidnapping of Eichmann in Argentina by Israeli agents: drama to open the film. This is the sort of ‘art’ cinema produced by the Weinsteins.

At the climax of the film Arendt (Sukowa) makes an impassioned defence of her articles and her arguments in the articles. Several Jewish characters walk out. However, we also get close-ups of a young woman student following the lecture. The camera returns to her several times. A ploy that proposes a relationship of mind and values that supports Arendt: a common trope in certain mainstream films.

Hannah Arendt is a fascinating portrait, which brings out the intellectual character of its protagonist. But politically it remains within the dominant cinema: and it has to remembered that this cinema, especially Hollywood, has fairly uncritically presented the Zionist representation of the Palestinian occupation.

 

Posted in Auteur cinema, Political cinema, Writers and theorists | 2 Comments »

Two films by Mira Nair.

Posted by keith1942 on October 2, 2014

Krishna and Manju in Salaam Bombay

Krishna and Manju in Salaam Bombay

This article is part of the argument set out in Diaspora Cinema and globalisation.

Mira Nair was born in India, but had studied documentary in the USA. She made several short documentaries, which dealt both with India and with the diaspora in the USA. Her first feature,  Salaam Bombay! (1988), was jointly funded by the National Film Development Corporation of India in conjunction with Doordarshan (the State-owner Indian Television Network), Channel 4, and supported by grants from the Pinewood and

and Rockefeller Foundations. Mira Nair started the film’s Production Company, Mirabai, Films Inc. Since its inception, Mirabai Films Inc. has produced the following of Nair’s films, Mississippi Masala, The Prez family, Kama Sutra, My Own Country, The laughing Club of India and Monsoon Wedding. Salaam Bombay won the prestigious Camera D’Or and Prix du Publique at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.

Salaam Bombay! tells a fictional story, the experiences of a young boy, Krishna, in the slums of Bombay. Parts of the film are quite melodramatic in a manner not that distant from mainstream Hindi cinema. Thus, the narrative involves Krishna in the fate of women caught up in prostitution. One is Rekha, mistress to a district drug baron, Baba. Her daughter Manju is one of Krishna’s earliest slum playmates. The other child/woman is Solasaal known as ‘Sweet Sixteen’, a Nepalese virgin being groomed for sale. Their dramatic situations and fate are important in the narrative.

Other parts of the film are much closer to western docu-drama, as the audience is invited to follow an observational camera. This is especially true of Krishna’s involvement with a group of street boys, who sell, barter, and occasionally steal to survive in the slums. The theft leads to Krishna being placed in a children’s remand centre. The Remand Centre, like the brothel used in the film, was an actual one in Bombay. And in a similar fashion most of the street boys were actual street children from the city. Mira Nair used a workshop approach to develop the children’s performances in the film. Scenes, such as the occasion when the boys act as waiters and helpers at a sumptuous wedding reception, emphasise the poverty, hardship and the social chasm of their situation. The final credits carry a dedication to the street children of Bombay. These aspects of the film stress the sense of presenting and commenting on an actual world of deprivation and exploitation.

The film’s climax is more dramatic, using conventional scenes familiar from mainstream film stories. Krishna escapes from the remand centre and returns to find Sweet Sixteen, now fully trained, being despatched to a customer. Rekha has lost her daughter, who has been placed in a female remand centre. She decides to leave Baba, and when he attempts to stop her, Krishna knifes him. Rekha and Krishna are parted and she is lost in a surging street crowd. The film ends on a close-up of Krishna, alone and presumably fated, a shot that echoes The 400 Blows.

Monsoon-Wedding-1

Mira Nair’s film, Monsoon Wedding, won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. It has been a crossover hit in India, in Europe and the US in both Art House Theatres and in Multiplexes. The script was written by a student Mira Nair met on a Columbia University Masterclass in Film Direction that she taught. The cast mixed established film actors, pop stars and non-professionals, and Nair once again used workshop methods to develop their acting.

If the railway is a central motif in Salaam Bombay! then Monsoon Wedding is very much set on the other side of the track. The celebration is that of an upper middle class Delhi family. The wedding and its preparations take up the whole of the narrative. Nair and her production team created a world of vivid colour for this ritual. They use some conventions of Hindi

popular film music to good effect, whilst avoiding the mere recreation of masala musical numbers. And the complex web of characters and relations in the film is filled out with vivid detail.

The Vermas are preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter, Aditi. The bridegroom to be is Hemant, a young engineer from Huston. Aditi, who has already enjoyed an affair at the TV studio where she works, is uneasy about this arranged marriage. The celebrations are truly global, including relatives from the USA, Gulf and Australia. Among these is an affluent brother-in-law, Tej, who helps Lalit financially, and who is contributing to the costs of the forthcoming wedding. In the past he made abusive advances to Lalit’s nice Ria. Now adult, Ria’s lack of involvement in men would appear to result from this early trauma and the more recent death of her own father. She observes what appears to be a repetition of her own experience in Tej’s interest in the 10 year old Aliya.

These tensions and contradictions are resolved when Aditi confesses her affair to her fiancé. Initially angry, Hemant accepts her regrets and an arranged marriage becomes a love match. Ria exposes Tej’s paedophile proclivities and Lalit, despite the financial consequences this will involve, orders him to leave the ceremony. The wedding proceeds as the Monsoon breaks. The final reception shows the Verma family celebrating as the rains fall.

Unlike Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding offers little sight or sound of the poor and dispossessed of the great city. The plot does include a romantic interest between the maid Alice and Dubey, the contractor organising the wedding preparations. Dubey lives in the slum area of the city. But his appearances in the film are mostly restricted to his official and unofficial activities at the Verma house. The one sequence in his own house follows a setback in his wooing of Alice. While he is disconsolate, his mother discusses whether or not to sell their shares. He and Alice form a second wedding couple at the film’s end. But their future would seem to be on the Verma’s side of the track.

Even when the family go shopping in the central urban area, they (and we) glide past the rich mix of classes, urban bustle and slum poverty in a series of tracks and pans. Our focus is firmly on the upper side of the track. And whilst Lalit has to make a difficult decision regarding his wealthier but more corrupt brother-in-law, it no way matches the stark choices faced by Krishna and Rekha in Salaam Bombay!

The feminist perspective is stronger in this later film than in Bend It Like Beckham, As with Salaam Bombay! The narrative centres on the sexual exploitation of women. Young Aliya is saved from a fate parallel to that of Solasaal. In some ways, Ria’s actions in facing up to Tej’s oppressive behaviour play a narrative role similar to Rekha’s. But this safely constrained with a world that remains patriarchal. The film parallels Bend It Like Beckham in the actions of the father. He is crucial in overcoming the central problem, in this case faced by Ria. A key moment is when Lalit embraces Ria, acting as substitute father, with that familiar phrase, ‘let’s go home.’ And in similar fashion this film manages to combine the tradition of arranging marriages with the more western notion of a love match.

Monsoon Wedding does offer something for its women characters. There are a number of important scenes for female bonding and female support. More so than in the UK film. Monsoon Wedding’s complex narrative is closer to that of Art Cinema and offers space for multiple strands. Bend it Like Beckham clearly follows that familiar to multiplex audiences, clearly linear and tightly focused on the actions of the heroine. But Monsoon Wedding still creates a world of the family that is to a great degree divorced from the social network and the city. In some ways the characters and their actions are more influenced by the impact of the relatives from abroad, especially the USA, than by local forces. Indeed, Hemant and Aditi intend to make their new life in the USA.

In terms of her career Mira Nair has been more successful than Gurinder Chadha has been. She has made a number of mainstream films involving Hollywood money and stars. She has also more films to her credit. More recently she has directed several literary adaptations. There was Vanity Fair (2004), a major production with stars like Reese Witherspoon and Gabriel Byrne. Then there was The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013), a film I thought fairly reactionary in its treatment of the neo-colonial situation in Afghanistan. All these films are resolutely mainstream offerings: they still offer some strands reminiscent of the films and cultures of Asia, but their values are resolutely Western. The exception is 11’ 09’ 01 / September 11 (2002), Alain Brigand’s portmanteau film which offers a response to the general run of media coverage of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Like the other films in this compilation Nair’s contribution critiques the chauvinist and at time xenophobic focus of mainstream films However, this is an independent which offers a different approach both in style and content. It also has a different sense of the Diaspora from dominant cinema

Posted in Auteur cinema, Films of the Diaspora, Indian cinema | Leave a Comment »

Diaspora Cinema and Globalisation

Posted by keith1942 on September 30, 2014

chinese-and-indian-diaspora-groups-the-economist

Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed that “a zoom is a political statement’: His comment may appear to have little relevance at a time when many films are seen as only entertainment. Yet it should be clear that even the most anodyne of action films do reflect and refract the values of their time and place. Unfortunately, the type of film Godard advocated is rare. That is, films where there is conscious articulation of political points of view. One factor, which explains this, is the growth of what we call the global economy and the global market. This is an era when the commodity dominates social life, when there is an economic and social emphasis on the individual consumer.

In The World Remade by the Market (in Race and Class, April 2002), Jeremy Seabrook offers a description of the new global dispensation, and comments:

“The richer we become in the market economy, the greater the space of individual self-expression. Sharper differentiation occurs between people. We no longer see our shared social predicament as a common fate. To get out, to be yourself, to locate a self that has become abstracted from place, becomes the aim of the young. Previously unseen barriers and separations divide generation from generation: new, impermeable divisions arise between those who had seen themselves as bound by a shared destiny. Members of the same family, who had always seen each other more or less as an extension of themselves, become aware of their own private, individual needs. They become preoccupied with their own uniqueness. They cultivate features and characteristics that distinguish them from others, rather than submerge these in a common pool of human belonging.”

For me, this paragraph immediately conjures up a host of films where the self rather than the social provide the dynamic. In this article I want to discuss films that seem to me in some way to illustrate this. I have taken two pairs of films by different directors. In each case, I feel that there has been a shift in thematic concerns between a film made late in the last century and one made early in the new one. The development that Seabrook discerns underlying the phenomenon of the new global world appears to provide an interesting perspective in analysing these films.

The first pair of films, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is Bhaji on the Beach (UK 1993) and Bend it Like Beckham (UK 2002). The second pair, directed by Mira Nair, is Salaam Bombay (India/UK 1988) and Monsoon Wedding (India/US/France/Italy 2002). All these films share common themes and motifs. Both earlier films deal with journeys, dislocation and the problems that Asian women face in the sexual arena. The latter pair share these themes to a degree and are both structured round the colourful rituals of a Punjabi wedding. Both these directors might be considered as auteurs. However, my argument is not directly concerned with the individual filmmakers, except in that they provide the ‘occasion’ for analysis. Whilst both directors clearly have a distinctive character, one can argue that career success has enabled them to ­develop that distinctive character: but careers bring their own pressures. Both directors are women, important in terms of the themes of the film. But the developments are not to do with gender but their professional environs. I would reckon one could analyse similar tendencies in male directors, for example, Abbas Kiarostami or Asghar Farhadi. We need to look at the films, the filmmakers and their context.

In their famous polemic for a political cinema among oppressed peoples the Argentinean filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio characterised an ‘authors cinema’ as only reaching ‘the outer limits of what the system permits’ (i.e. mainstream cinema and dominant societies). They foresaw it as becoming the institutionalised as ‘the youthful, angry wing of society.’ Whilst this suggests a cinema of protest, it also suggests a cinema that is constrained by the dominant values and which, in time, (like the bourgeois rebels of 1968) is accommodated within the system. My argument is less that such a development can be seen in the directors’ careers than that their most recent film work is within conventions that preclude certain concerns and approaches. Thus it is about industry and institutions socialising the filmmakers rather than the particular predilections of individual filmmakers.

Both of these filmmakers belong to another phenomenon of the global culture, Diaspora Cinema. That is, they relate both to the Asian culture, which is the object of Seabrook’s comments, and to the western imperialist culture, which is home to the contradictions driving these developments. Like ‘global’, ‘diaspora’ is an ambiguous term. When the BFI organised the ‘Imagine Asia’ celebrations the organisers tried to compile a list of films from the South Asian Diaspora: apparently the ensuing argument over definitions was never fully resolved.

In The Global Film Book (2014) Roy Stafford offers the following: “describes both the process of migration or ‘dispersal’ of large numbers of people from one country/region to another and the community of immigrants in the new host country.” Presumably films from the diaspora have a foot in both camps. But in a global world both camps are subordinate to world capital.  Certainly the two filmmakers discussed, and their four films, are clearly indebted both to South Asian Cinema and to Western Cinema. To varying degrees all the films display stylistic features and conventions from popular film in both cultures. The question is what values dominate these intertwined cultures and cinemas.

The two more recent films by these filmmakers seem to privilege the family unit as the centre of their social worlds. Each film ends with the family united, having overcome the

contradictions that drive the earlier narrative forward. From this point of view they do not exactly fit the analysis offered in the quotation from Jeremy Seabrook. However, I would argue that these are families powerfully moulded by their function as consumption units. Both films include scenes of shopping, and what are presumably deliberate product placements.

The central ritual in both films, the Punjabi wedding, whilst embodying a long-standing tradition, is also the site of conspicuous consumption. This is especially true in Monsoon Wedding, where much of the narrative tension and humour arises from the problems in completing the preparations. Moreover, the narrative closures in both cases are posited on the virtues of the choice of the individual consumer. In Bend It Like Beckham, the two main women characters, Jess and Jules, are leaving for the USA to join both the world of education and the world of US commercial women’s football. And in Monsoon Wedding the final ritual joining of the central romantic couple, Aditi and Hemant, would seem to seal their position as privileged members of the new global elite. Whilst the serving couple, Dubey and Alice, appears destined to cross the tracks into this middle class milieu.

In is in their sense of closure that the recent films depart most clearly from the earlier pair. Bhaji on the Beach and Salaam Bombay! ended with unresolved contradictions and problems, leaving the audiences to consider the characters and their situations. Bend it Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding are much closer to mainstream conventions in the way that they carefully tie up the different threads of the narrative. In Bend it Like Beckham, the penultimate scene at airport not only shows Jess and Jules setting off to achieve their ambitions, but also offers the promise of a future romance between Jess and Joe [the football trainer]. Then, just before the credits, we see Jess’s father playing cricket with Joe. Joe has been accepted into Jess’s Asian family. It is also a compulsory scene for viewers, in the sense that it shows the father reversing his early exclusion and his own vow, ‘never to play cricket!’

Monsoon Wedding ends with the celebrations in the garden as the Monsoon rains fall. This eruption by nature is like a clearing of the air after the conflicts and problems within the family. As the rains fall the newly-married Dubey and Alice are invited into the wedding tent. Alongside this abolition of difference is even a hint romance for another family member Ria, as she exchanges glances with a late arrival, Umang.

Yet both closures are really about escape. Jess and Joe, Aditi and Hemant, are all leaving for the USA: Dubey will certainly leave the slums. The larger problems raised in the narratives have not gone away. The cultural and sexual conflicts remain. But they are outside the family units. And the protagonists have left them behind. Such a closure fits the films’ status as commodities. Having been consumed they have provided the expected value: nearly two hours in the cinema or in front of the television screen. Whilst the two earlier films also provided this to a degree, they resist being put away after consumption. Their social dimension is likely to remain with viewers for some considerable time after the completion of the act.

That this tendency continues can be seen in more recent examples. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami made a series of films that offered detailed examination of the culture but which drew in commentary of the larger culture. Through the Olive Trees (Zir-e darakhatan-e zeyton, 1994) follows a film production and focuses on a young couple in a rural area. The film ends in a long shot / long take of the couple about whom the audience must now decide. His most recent film, Like Someone in Love (France / Japan, 2013) is set in Japan. I found it lacking in that larger social dimension. The final shot of the film seems to sum this up – we see a window, hear an angry voice, but not one of the characters is visible onscreen. Asghar Farhadi achieved praise with two films, Nader and Simin, a separation (Jodaelye Nader az Simin, 2011 and About Elly (Darbareye Elly, 2009 – they were released in reverse order in the UK). Both films focus on the lies characters tell, lies that are symbolic of the larger society. But his most recent film, made in France, The Past (Le Passé, France / Italy, 2013) also featured lies but they seem to remain strictly at the personal level. One can see continuing themes in the work of both directors but the sense of the relevance of a specific time and place seems to diminish. There are films that provide a critical response in all parts of Diaspora culture, but there is a marked tendency for cinematic travel to lead to a greater degree of hegemony.

There are more detailed analyses of the films in separate postings. All of them are taken from an article published in Media Education Journal (Spring, 2003). My thanks to the Editor for the agreement to post these.

 

Posted in Auteur cinema, Films of the Diaspora, Indian cinema | Leave a Comment »

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Posted by keith1942 on June 18, 2013

 the-reluctant-fundamentalist

This is a new film from director Mira Nair. She has been described both as a ‘transnational filmmaker’ and also as a filmmaker working in Diaspora Cinema. She has directed films both in North America, including Hollywood, and in India. Her films have included mainstream films in both continents and more independent films likely to be seen in Art House Cinemas. She certainly fits the contemporary usage of auteur. But what set of values dominate her films?

The Sight & Sound review [June 2013] describes the film as ‘a tense thriller that also manages to provoke thought’. The title itself suggests a film that addresses one of the most loaded words in contemporary politics. The ‘reluctant’ protagonist of the film is Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). He is now a Professor at the University of Lahore in Pakistan. However, previously he has been a successful student at a US Ivy League University: and then a financial analyst with a major Wall Street consultancy firm. Much of the film is taking up with the back-story that explains how he came to lose faith with the values of US capitalism and to present radical criticism of US imperialism to his University Students.

The plot structure of the film [somewhat changed from the source nove by Mohsin Hamid, 2007] is a conversation between Changez and US journalist ‘Bobby’ [Robert Lincoln played by Liv Schreiber). This is an interview in a Lahore teahouse favoured by the radical students. In the course of it Changez tells Bobby [and the audience] the story of his career and of his disillusionment. There is his work with the Wall Street company: and we see him in one sequence organising a ‘rationalisation’ of an Indonesian factory, leading to substantial lay-off s of the workers. He develops a relationship with a young New Yorker, Erica (Kate Hudson), the niece of his overall boss. And we see the sudden change caused by the ‘9/11’ attacks on the New York’s Twin Towers, glimpsed on a television screen. From this point Changez suffers increasing suspicion and hostility from co-workers and US citizens. We see him strip-searched at an airport. And finally he appalled when Erica uses photographs of him in an exhibition, which includes crass comments on Islam and South Asian culture.

The subsequent breach with Erica appears to be the ‘last straw’ that sends Changez back to Pakistan and in a more radical direction. However, she is also a part of an interesting contrast in the film between the USA and Pakistan. Most of the flashbacks to Pakistan in Changez’s story concern his family. Family values are central to his identity. At one point, when he is still a successful Wall Street analyst, he returns to Pakistan for his sister’s wedding: but also to secretly give money to his mother to pay for the ceremony. The hold of family and Islamic culture is suggested even when he is completely embroiled in his new world: at a barbecue in Central Park with colleagues he surreptitiously drops the sausage [presumably pork] into a waste bin.

Family values are consciously lacking in the world of New York. Erica suffers guilt over her involvement in the death of a previous boyfriend; she is luke-warm when Changez talks of marriage and children. We meet her father, but her mother seems absent. Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) is Changez’s mentor at the Wall Street firm. We see him once outside the office at his flat: where he and his servant/partner are coded as gay.

One strand in the story is Changez’s need for father figures. There is his actual father in Lahore, Abu (Om Puri). Jim Cross acts as a father figure as he rises up the echelons of the Wall Street firm. And at a crucial moment in the film Changez meets a Turkish publisher in Istanbul, Nazmi Kemal (Haluk Bilginer). Changez is there with Cross to close down a firm that is losing money. Nazmi talks to Changez about his cultural loyalties [as a cultural father] and through the metaphor of the Ottoman Empire’s use of the janissaries  – [Christian boys recruited and indoctrinated to be warriors for the Ottomans in the late medieval period] – the way the young man has become a subaltern for the exploiters. This is the point that Changez refuses to implement Cross’s dictates and returns to Pakistan, to his family, and to a radical ‘anti-USA’ position.

These contrasts are emphasised by the colour scheme. New York is all cool colours.  For much of his time there Changez is hemmed in and blocked by screens, doors and furniture. These latter increase in the post-‘9/11’ climate. Lahore is a much warmer and more vital place: there are rich unsaturated colours. It is here that we see the most vibrant sequence, an evening of Urdu singing, markedly different from the upmarket exhibition space for Erica’s photographs. This opening sequence is great, but it also includes crosscutting with a kidnapping in a nearby street. And Lahore is also full of dark corners and noirish shadows, presaging the later stages of the film.

Rel fund

The Sight & Sound review mentioned a number of other ‘9/11’ movies. One missed off this list, Lions for Lambs (2007) struck me as the clearest parallel. Both films use conversation/s as a way of filling in a character story and as a way of explaining the film’s plot. The conversation/s also enable some presentation of arguments for and against the war in Afghanistan. And both films use an approaching event as a way of developing an escalating tension. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist this plot device [apparently not in the novel] is the kidnapping of a US Professor at the University by Islamic radicals. Because of his views and his connections Changez is seen as likely to have some knowledge of the whereabouts of the victim. As the conversation continues, with flashbacks and return to the present, the suspicion grows that Bobby is an actually a CIA operative. Thus the complexities increase. And this helps racket up the tension as a CIA listening post is following the conversation.

The Reluctant Fundamentalists struck me as like Lions for Lambs in another respect, its political project. Both films appear to offer critical comments on recent US foreign policy, in both films this is exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Both films present what one might call ‘Neo-liberal’ characters that represent the exploitative and negative aspect of the USA. But both films are at pains to distance themselves from any sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism. And in both cases the rather generic representation of this fundamentalism shades over into the traditional conventions of Hollywood, with Pakistani and Islamic characters mainly seen as both ‘the other’ and a threat. It seems likely that this is a much stronger emphasis in the film than in the book. Among the differences is that the ‘Bobby’ character changes from tourist to CIA operative. And we both hear his voice and see from his point-of-view: entirely absent from the book. A crucial shot is of Changez on his mobile, watched by Bobby with the audience aligned with Bobby.

This become clearer when one lists the actual violence depicted in the film. On the Islamic side we have the ‘9/11’ attack on the Twin Towers: the kidnapping: a murder: and the violent radical mob in which Bobby is caught up. On the US side, we have a single shooting, which whilst it results in a fatality is presented as accidental rather than deliberate. The shooting also reinforces the sense of misunderstanding by characters rather than deliberate manipulation. Cross believes that Changez has tipped off the Islamist [as he saw him on his mobile phone]: later, in the CIA car, he realises this was a mistake.

Liv schreib

The key moment when the clash of the values of Neo-liberals and Islamists is central to the story is the moment when Changez meets an Islamist leader. He uses the word ‘fundamental’ and an interior flashback recalls Jim Cross using the same word, ‘fundamentals’, as he tutors the would-be analysts at the Wall Street offices. It is clear at this point that Changez recoils from both types of ‘fundamentalism’. The problem with such a comparison is that these are very different types of fundamentalism. Cross represents the operation of contemporary capitalism and thus his ‘fundamentals’ relate to the economic base. The Islamist’s fundamentals, in which he mistakenly attribute the clash between Islam and the USA to a religious conflict, is part of the superstructure. Several comments in reviews on this point use the term ‘ideological’. But from the Marxist perspective they represent different aspect of ideology. Cross’s use of the term is part of the dominant ideas in a capitalist system. The Islamist’s use of ideology represents seeing only the surface appearances but not the underlying social relations. And this is what the film itself does in its representation of the cultural clash: which at base is economic. I am pretty sure that despite his training in economics the character of Changez never explains to his students how imperialism operates or the economic structures that it creates and maintains.

Endings tend to be especially important in the projection of a particular project and of the values embodied a film. The Reluctant Fundamentalist ends by crosscutting between Changez and Bobby. Changez, with his followers, stands at the grave of his dead colleague, reiterating a message of non-violence. Bobby recuperates in an Afghanistan facility with a wounded leg. He starts to replay the tapes of his conversation with Changez: with the implication that he may revise his responses to Changez position and arguments. This fits with the comments made by the director: “Liberal humanist” does sum up Ms. Nair’s perspective and intentions. “The book is about the mutual suspicion that the two men and the two countries, America and Pakistan have of each other,” she said. “In my film, we use the enigma of the situation — is he a spy, is he a terrorist, are neither, are both? — as the springboard for a dialogue, a bridge connecting them, and connecting us, making each of us see ourselves in what we had regarded as ‘the other.’ ”

[New York Review – there are also some notes on the source novel].
Such a comment and such an ending ignores the economic imperatives that drive the imperialist activities of the USA and the economic imperatives that drive capitalist Wall Street.

This film implies a distance in regarding the opposing values of the Neo-liberal and the Islamist. But on closer examination this leads to the taking of sides, and predictably the side of the dominant class. Julio Garcia Espinosa, in For an Imperfect Cinema, comments “What is it, then, which makes it impossible to practice art as an ‘impartial’ activity? … There can be no ‘impartial’ or ‘uncommitted’ art, there can be no new and genuine qualitative jump in art, unless the concept and the reality of the ‘elite’ is done away with once and for all. “  Despite relying on funding from outside the main Hollywood system The Reluctant Fundamentalist clearly remains within the purview of the dominant class.

Mira Nair [who has lived in India, Africa and North America] is also quoted as saying: “The beauty of living in two or three places is your worldview is forced to expand,”. This does not mean that the worldview expands beyond the limits of the dominant system. One can journey from imperialism to resistance: but one can also travel from criticism to acceptance.

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The Spirit of ’45

Posted by keith1942 on June 8, 2013

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This is a new documentary directed by Ken Loach with the subtitle of The Labour Victory of 1945 – memories and reflections. It is a historical investigation with a clear political message to the Britain of the Coalition’s policies of ‘austerity’. Loach has a long pedigree of political films, both fictional features and documentaries, that address contemporary and historical Britain from a left position. This cinema of Loach and his collaborators is a cinema of opposition. Some writers on Third Cinema have tended to include oppositional cinema in the imperialist countries as a constituent in the larger discourse of “making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the system’. In fact, Solanos and Getino in their seminal manifesto refer to such examples: e.g. “Cinegiornali liberi in Italy”. But they also follow the analyses of Mao tse Tung and Franz Fanon when they call for a ‘cinema of decolonisation’.

One could place Loach’s film in the category of second cinema: ‘trapped inside the fortress’. And it is true that his films rely on the distribution system of that cinema. But it is fair to distinguish his work from that of the ‘auteurs using ‘non-standard language’ [first cinema]. As Lenin argued, categories are always dynamic, the boundaries are always slippery. Ken Loach’s new film, with its overt political message directed at the current activities of the British bourgeoisie provides an interesting case study to assess his politics and their place in a movement of real opposition.

The Spirit of ’45 focuses on the five years, [1945 – 1950] of the post W.W.II Labour Government led by Clement Atlee. The Labour Party won a surprise landslide victory in June 1945. It then proceeded on possibly the most radical restructuring of British economic, political and civil society of the C20th. The coincidence of the death of Tory Leader Margaret Thatcher during the film’s current distribution provides a telling set of parallels. It also provides a contradictory position to the hype that has tried to elevate her to the top in UK Prime Minster ratings.

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Atlee and supporters celebrate

This contrast is deliberately presented in the film. It is constructed around to set of polarities. The first is between the 1930s, Auden’s ‘low decade’, and the late 1940s. The 1930s were the decade of the great depression and of the Tory dominated National Government. The levels of exploitation, poverty and deprivation are only now being matched in the current austerity.

Later the film sets up a second set of polarities, between the 1945 Labour Government and the 1979 Conservative Government. They are indeed polar opposites. And 1980s saw the start of the destruction of the Welfare State created under Labour. It should be noted that the destruction has taken longer than the erection, and that the obverse is usually the case.

The film is constructed mainly from archive footage. There should be a word of praise for archivist Jimmy Anderson, who has researched and supplied a rich and varied selection of film from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Interspersed with the archive footage are a series of interviews with people who lived through or have studied these different decades. Many of these are working people with direct experience of the 1940s and indeed the 1930s. There are several ‘experts’ and few representatives of the political classes. All are filmed in black and white by Stephen Standen, matching the predominately black and white archive footage.

The interviews are the strong centre of this film. The witnesses are clear and direct, often extremely eloquent. They provide both evidence and personal testimonies to support and enrich the archive material. They are also often moving, as for example the woman who recalls her grandfather carrying round in his wallet the letter informing him of his first council house. A doctor recalls calling on a working class family who, counting the pennies, only advised him of one sick son when there were two. He told the mother; ‘from today it’s free!’

There are also moments, of humour, some grim some satirical. A conservative MP reads out a letter from a constituent who fears that the British Army’s Current Affairs Education Programme late in the war is both subversive and in danger of creating demobbed soldiers ‘all pansy-pink.’

The style is recognisable from Loach’s other work. There is frequent use of overlapping sound. Parallel editing creates significant and signifying contrasts. The interviews are almost uniformly shot from a frontal viewpoint in mid-shot. However, on just two occasions the camera cuts to a side-angle and close-up: in both cases the witness is remembering a traumatic death. In the first instance Bert remembers realising that his mother has died from a miscarriage and the lack of proper medical provision. In the latter Ray remembers the death of a fellow miner due to the lack of pit props in the seam where they were working.

Unfortunately one technical weakness is that the 1930s and 1940s film footage has been cropped to fit the 1.85:1 frame of the digital release. I was surprised at this act in a Loach film. I wondered if it is down to one of the funders, Film Four, who will sooner or later transmit the film on television. It does show a lack of respect for the footage so carefully selected. And it is quite obvious on occasion, as with newsreel footage where titles are often only partly visible.

A much more effective technique is colourisation, the first time I have approved of such manipulation. The film opens with celebrations by people on VE day 1945. We see them singing, dancing, cheering in the streets and in iconic setting such as Trafalgar Square. At the film’s end the footage re-appears, now in colour. The contrast achieves a fine, upbeat sense. And it fits with the thrust of the film, which is that the loss sense of community of the 1940s is actually re-achievable today.

In both the coverage of the 1940s and of the 1980s there is detailed film on the policies and actions of the two governments. As one might expect, this is a series of oppositions. The Labour’ Governments major achievements are dealt with in turn – nationalising the mines, transport, housing and centrally the National Health Service. And it is in this iconic achievement that the destruction of the later governments is most forcibly made apparent.

The film is not unalloyed praise for the great 1945 reforming Labour Party. In particular the experts offer some critical comments. These include Tony Benn, who was both a participant but who also looks back and examines. Two points in particular emerge as criticism of the Labour Governments implementation of their policies. One is the dominance of centralisation: the other is the lack of any sort of control by the working class. A particular example of this is the new National Coal Board. Its head was an ex-coal owner who had led the opposition to nationalisation.

But there are important aspects of the 1945 Labour Government that the documentary omits. One ‘elephant in the room’ is Finance Capital. In fact one of the early nationalisation in the 1940s was the Bank of England. But the Government went no further, though nationalising the top 100 companies including the banks was a policy supported by grass roots activists. This failure becomes more obvious when our gaze [which the films prompts] comes forward to the current crisis. It is worth noting that the reforming Labour Government was constrained in the same manner as the current Coalition Government. The need to placate the banks and the markets so that they would fund the debts to pay for government action. The UK was a substantial recipient of monies in the USA ‘s Marshall Plan, and pressure from across the Atlantic was clearly a powerful factor. One commentator in the film suggests that the USA aid was partly motivated by the fears of radical change or even revolution by the British working class.

There is the another ‘elephant in the room’; Britain’s membership of what became the Western Imperialist front [NATO], led by the USA. Nowhere in the film are the policies of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism addressed. Among the important issues from the 1940s would be the suppression of the democracy in the Greek Civil War: the handing back of Vietnam to the French colonialist: covert support to suppress the movement for Independence in Indonesia: and the creation of a settler Zionist State in Palestine. Notable also was Bevin’s insistence on the development of a nuclear option. The government saw the empire / Commonwealth, particularly Africa, as a source of cheap resources: the groundnut scandal was not about economic independence for Africans but bailing out Britain’s own faltering economy.

These omissions may seem surprising. Ken Loach in earlier films has addressed the Republican war against fascism in Spain (Land and Freedom, 1995): the War of Independence in Eire (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and resistance to US neo-colonialism in Nicaragua (Carla’s Song, 1996). However, only The Wind That Shakes the Barley actually addresses British colonialism and the central focus of that film is the Irish Civil War.

These lacunae carry over into the treatment of the UK class struggle. Loach’s film completely fails to deal with one of the most potent factors in the politics of the decade, the arrival of large numbers of black people from Britain’s colonies. This was underway during the 1940s, partly due to the need for additional labour. The Labour Home Secretary opined that ‘he would be happier if the intake could be limited to entrants from the Western countries..”. Part of his motivations were questions of ‘tradition and social background’, partly the possible problems of deportation if needed. The Trade Unions were often hostile, as Bevan reported to the Cabinet in 1946. By 1949 there were occasional racist riots, but the Government ‘sat on its hands’. By 1950 a review was underway to “check immigrants into the country of colonial people from the British Colonial territories”. [See Race & Class 1984].

This would seem to be a broader issue that has never been squarely confronted in Loach’s output. His films do feature positive black characters, but only in subordinate roles. Given his output is almost entirely devoted to issue of the class struggle in Britain, the absence of a film that centrally deals with what is termed “race” is surprising. More generally whilst Loach’s film focuses on and supports the struggles of the working class it is debatable whether it fully confront ‘the system’. The continuing strand that runs through most of his films is the sense of ‘betrayal’. This is the message that appears at the end of the very fine series for BBC Days of Hope (1975). And it a feeling that figures in The Spirit of ’45. The film’s main analytical conclusion centres on the failure of working class control. This begs the question of what are the politics of that control.

A number of screenings of the film have featured a Live Satellite coverage of a Q&A following a screening at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema. There was Ken Loach, Dot Gibson, Owen Jones and Jeremy Hardy. Dot is interesting because she recalled being expelled from the Labour Party in the 1950s for belonging to a group that promoted the policy of nationalising the banks! The central theme of this discussion was a new political movement, Left Unity. This offers the appearance of being a new, more democratic, more radical version of the Labour Party. This also begs the question of the political line required to effect actual, real change. Britain’s Empire was a factor in enabling the British capitalist class to make concessions to the working class. Certainly socialism is not compatible with imperialist power or imperialist ambitions.

Third Cinema’s perspective requires not just addressing policies of interest to exploited and/or oppressed people but the politics of overthrowing the basic capitalist and imperialist structures. Loach’s film appears to address reforming the system rather than advocating what it ‘cannot assimilate’. So The Spirit of ’45 remains “trapped inside the fortress”. However, I think it should be clear that Ken Loach and his colleagues do not really fit into the concept of auteur as presented in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. Towards a Third Cinema refers to ‘author’s cinema’ and ‘expression cinema’ and ‘national cinemas’. In the examples that follow they include cinéma novo, presumably because of the influence on that strand of the Nouvelle Vague. However, for example, the work of Glauber Rocha seems to me to be a long way from the French New Wave, especially in terms of the politics of the films. This would seem to be a premise of the manifesto that needed more thought and development. However, I do think that the general comment, ‘the outer limits of what the system permits’ does provide a distinguishing line.

Race & Class 1994, see The Role Labour in the creation of a racist Britain by S Joshi and B Carter, Volume XXV, number 3.

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