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West Indies, France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979.

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2017

The film was adapted by Med Hondo from a stage play by Daniel Boukman written in 1972, ‘The Slavers’. Boukman is a Martinique writer, apparently little known outside the Caribbean as it would seem is his play. He is noted for using a carnivalesque form, full of irony and parody, and aiming at ‘distance’ in the sense theorised by Bertold Brecht. Boukman receives a credit for dialogue in the film so it would seem that the film relies extensively on the theatrical original. To what degree the film also follows the staging of the play is unclear but certainly it also relies on a carnival atmosphere and on ironic detachment. It is suggested, [in ‘Daniel Boukman : A Poetics of ‘Detour’] that Boukman’s narration resembles the function of the ‘griot’ in African cultures. And that too applies to the film. Hondo had already staged the play in 1972 with the theatrical company he had co-founded before commencing work in film.

The screening at Il Cinema Ritrovato was introduced by Med Hondo himself. He advised us that this print ‘used the final cut’, which suggests that the filming suffered from restraints by producers or by censors. Th. Mpoyi-Buatu [in an article in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, 1987] writes that it took seven years to raise all the funding, including individual contributions from Africans. He also gives

‘The film’s full title is this: West Indies or the Nigger Maroons of Freedom.”

Attributing g the main title to the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén and explaining the term ‘maroon’ as

“a term used in Jamaica for slaves who ran away and founded their own independent villages and settlements in remote areas as far from the Europeans as possible.”

I did not note any reference to this sub-title at the screening but the film certainly refers to the phenomena cited by Mpoyi-Buatu.

The setting for this historical parable is a sailing ship, one that is of the type that carried the kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic to slavery. A colleague thought that Hondo had had this set created in the Gare d’Orsay where Orson Welles filmed much of his 1962 version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. 1978/9, the time of filming, was just before work started on converting the disused railway station  into what is now a prime art gallery, Musée d’Orsay.

“The ship’s different levels indicate rather well the strata of Caribbean society: the slaves, the people, in the old; the middle classes, the assimilated, on the lower bridge; the masters, the colonists, on the upper bridge.” (Th. Mpoyi-Buatu).

Like his earlier Soleil Ő this film relies on a form of montage, cutting between different sites and periods and with a tone that is both ironic and sardonic.  The film commences in the 1960s or early 1970s and on a Caribbean Island: not identified but clearly one of those colonised by the French [Guadalupe, Dominica, St Lucia, ….Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti are directly named in the commentary]. The narrative then moves back and forth to various stages in the development and exploitation of Africans kidnapped into slavery and transported to both the Caribbean and mainland Americas. Dates, names and places are indicated by titles onscreen. A narrative voice both provides information and comment. The chronology runs from 1640 with the arrival of the sugar cane crop on the Islands; the development of an enslaved labour force transported from Africa by the British, French, Dutch and Danish; the events following the Revolution of 1789; the subsequent uprisings, including the successful rebellion in Haiti; the re-imposition following the Napoleonic coup-d’etat; the gradual abolition of the trade and of slavery; and then the post second World War reverse movements up until the 1960s.

Whilst the cast act, speak, sing, dance and perform in various guises, they appear as ‘types’ rather in the style of early Soviet cinema. These song and dance sequences are vibrant and colourful, sometimes celebratory, sometimes dramatic. There are both crowd scenes and individual actors, though the latter are not psychologically individualised.

The opening of the film introduces the audience to a group of bourgeois Caribbean politicians and bureaucrats meeting in a large cabin below deck and this is intercut with footage of ordinary African slaves working on harvesting sugar cane. The bourgeois meeting is concerned to avoid economic problems by encouraging emigration from the Caribbean to metropolitan France: a reversal of the voyages of transportation that bought the Africans across the Atlantic. This is the basic premise of the film, an inversion of the original enslavement.

The upper bridge offers a succession of French colonial rulers and French settlers who lord over the central deck space. Here are the masses of the people, and here are presented the songs, dances, mimes and crowd actions. The dancers frequently used masks and the props vary but include both torches and at one point machetes. Below them,  in a stairwell, are a small group of radicals who constantly oppose the dominant politics above with lines of resistance. Their props include machetes and a candle; the extinguishing of the candle light is a sign of the triumph of the dominant values.

Intercut with the varied performances on the several decks are footage of the slaves transported across the oceans; and of ‘maroon’ settlements where some autonomy is possible., One particular ‘maroon’ is an old man seated by a tree; the tree has a particular resonance from African culture.

“The Ancestor, in West Indies, is the tribe’s legitimacy figure. He does not possess the secret of survival, but a least he demonstrates the positive existence of an opposition force.” (Th. Mpoye-Buatu).

This character uses ‘peasant Creole’, and the film also features ‘immigrant Creole’, ‘pidgin-English’ and French: the languages marking, along with other devices, the classes and strata presented in the film.

The time and spatial span of the film together with the intercutting between these settings makes for a more complex film than Soleil Ő. The film also enjoys higher production values, fruits of the long pre-production work . The staging, in the single and impressive set, is excellent. There is no credit for the choreography, and presumably this was also directed by Hondo.  François Catonné’s cinematography captures the vibrancy of the performance, both in the use of tracks and dollies and at certain points fluid long takes. The editing by Youcef Tobni is at times relatively fast but maintains a coherent if elliptical narrative line. The music offers composition by Georges Rabol and Frank Valmont whilst also using traditional and popular songs and music.

It is difficult to take in all the aspects of the film at one viewing: it is certainly a film that would/will repay further viewings, if and when possible. What it does do is draw together sets of social action of domination that, at a surface level, appear discrete but which are manifestations of the same underlying exploitation and oppression: the manner in which colonial relations have transformed into neo-colonial relations. Importantly the film is constructed to prompt viewers to reflect as they witness the drama unfold. Th. Mpoye-Buatu finally comments:

“So, then, the aesthetic intention is sustained by a critical process of a kind which neither mystifies that process, nor the spectacle presented, nor those to whom it is presented. It is for that reason that … West Indies is a film of ambition, both in its magnificent spirit and in its aesthetics: its corrosive quality only matched by the effectiveness of its strategy. The strategy itslef is simple: to know all the devices of slavery and to combat them by every means.”

The screening was a 35mm colour print running 110 minutes. this was the French version with English sub-titles from the Havard Film Archive.

Posted in African Cinema, Colonial history, Diaspora Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Letters from Baghdad, Britain, USA, France.

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2017

This film is presented as a documentary about Gertrude Bell, an outstanding and fascinating woman whose life and career ran from the late C19th through till the mid-1920s. She was a traveller, writer, mountaineer, archaeologist, multi-linguist and a skilled and astute ‘Arabist’. The most famous aspect of her life was her involvement in the British political and military activities in the Middle East during and following World War 1. She was an important and influential female member of the British political elite in this region. More notable, she is one of the few British officials whose reputation amongst Arab was at least partly positive.

The film presents a biography of Bell but the prime focus are her activities in the Middle East and in particular in Iraq which emerged after World War I as a British ‘protectorate’ and then as an ‘independent’ kingdom under British tutelage. At various points in this narrative Bell appears as a traveller and student across Arabia; as an archaeologist; as a spy and political adviser in wartime; as a political adviser in post-war construction; and [seemingly] as an adviser and mediator and official in the newly formed Iraq kingdom. It is worth remembering that she came from an upper class family and that she received an upper class education, gaining a First in History at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. What is notable about her is that, whilst she shared many of the colonial values of the time in British politics, she genuinely believed in some form of self-government for Arabs.  In her activities in Arabia she supported the interests of the Hashemite royal family. And she was sceptical of the Sykes-Picot plan and of the Balfour Declaration.

The film, which runs for 95 minutes, treats some aspects of this briefly but dwells on her activities in the Middle East and in particular the lands of Iraq. It seems that the filmmakers

“[They] collected some 1,200 archive film clips and several thousand still photographs, many taken by Bell herself. Much of the material came from the Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University. They collected together Bell’s letters and diary entries and also the statements made by many of the distinguished figures who knew her. In an interview with Anne-Katrin Titze, Sabine Krayenbühl says that the aim was to imagine that these statements were made for a documentary just two or three years after Bell’s death in 1926. The ‘witnesses’ are played by actors in appropriate period costumes who read out the statements as if they were appearing in a modern-style documentary.”

[Review by Roy Stafford].

The machinations of the British, with the French, in the region are clearly explained. There is also a brief reference to the activities of US oil companies. The war on the Iraqi people by the British in the 1920s is presented. However, the political context of the installation of a Hashemite ruler is not fully detailed and the transition to an independent kingdom seemed somewhat confused: I was not clear if Bell’s archaeological activities were presented as during the British protectorate or later under in the Hashemite Kingdom.. The regional collaboration between the British and the French, i.e. Sykes/Picot, really needs a fuller treatment. And the question of the Balfour declaration and the British connivance of Zionist colonisation Palestine is wholly absent; as are the earlier Armenian massacres witnessed by Bell.

An opening title informs us that the film is ‘based’ [I think that is the term] on primary sources. It is true that the film is composed almost completely of archival material, written documents, including personal items such a letters and diaries; official in terms of memorandum, a white paper written by Bell; and secret documents such as security files. To this are added archival photographs and film. But these sources are not presented in the primary form. The written documents are presented to us with professional actors in monochrome shots speaking the text, in some cases in the original Arabic or other language with English sub-titles. The photographs are presented in a variety of forms. Some are placed within the frame in their original ratio, in some cases in a photographic frame. Some are reframed for the widescreen image. And in some cases the images are from a rostrum shot, focusing in on a particular character, object or text. The film comes off worse of all, though most of the clips retain either their black and white, tinted or toned, or colour form. However, nearly all of the film footage is reframed to the widescreen; here the television ratio of 1.78:1. In a number of cases there is added sound to what was originally ‘silent’ footage. There are only three clips presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Two of these feature title cards, presumably the rationale. And one fictional clip illustrating a film presentation by Bell to Iraq women. It is a Mary Pickford extract, which seems unlikely.

Much of the material is indexical in the sense of

“the phenomenon of a sign pointing to some object in the context in which it occurs.”

The written texts relate to the time, place and character that is featured. The majority of the photographs also appear to relate to the time, place and characters featured. However the film extracts frequently are from a different time and place and are of characters separate from those featured in the film, that is they are not indexical: at least two [apart from the |Pickford clip] are from fictional features.

I am always concerned when archive film is presented in some changed form. Commonly we get film shot in 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 ‘reframed’ to 1.85:1 or even [in extreme examples] to 2.35:1. This ignores the point-of view of the original filmmakers. This seems to assume that the cameraman and/or director just set up the camera and filmed. This may have occurred in some cases but mostly it seems clear that these filmmakers chose their position, distance and angle [as well as the various lenses and accessories] deliberately. Moreover, this expresses not just their look but their material interest, something that in this film is clear from the texts presented. My concern is not just over the filmmaker who perpetrate this, often filmmakers with an ‘auteurial” stance which should be extended to the filmmakers they are treating. I also have concerns about the archives who co-operate in this. The end credits for this film include the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum. Both institutions should be guardians of this historical resources but they appear happy to allow other media [and this seems to be mainly for the benefit of television] to play fast and loose in the archives.

What seems to determine this representation of Bell, the times and, importantly, struggles against colonialism, are the points-of-view and material interests of the western archivists and historians and the western audiences for whom the film is primarily produced. A treatment of Gertrude Bell on film feels timely. However, the biography and contextualisation remain mainly within the value system under which Bell operated. For all her empathy and sympathy for Arab peoples her actions worked within the colonial limits of British imperial policy. At one point the film registers her reservations about an Iraqi border that she worked on: but the border was placed and remains part of the colonial and problematic legacy in the region. Added to this is what I find a rather suspect approach to the historical artefacts with which her story is told. One of the sources for documentaries on the history of Arabia has been the Al Jazeera Television network. Whilst they do not do it consistently, in many of their films/programmes the archive footage is presented as it was filmed and screened in the period. This is not just a technical question about the form of this material. It is, as FIAF recommends with archive film, that it should be presented in the form in which it was filmed and shown in its original time.

This film biopic is well made and is a fascinating address on the subject. However, it is produced by the industries of the states that exploited and oppressed the territories and peoples that Bell clearly cared about. And I think the filmmakers have failed to critically reflect on assumptions in such industries about how characters, places, times and actions should be filmed.

Posted in Colonial history, Documentary | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Viceroy’s House, Britain / India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsurprisingly Gurinder Chadha responded in the pages of The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountbatten, Lady Edwina and their servants

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

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

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

Lady Edwina, Mountbatten and General Ismay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“war has exhausted them.”

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

Jeep and Aalia

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

‘you dance with your own kind’.

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

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

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

“show out unity.”

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

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

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

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

Mountbatten, Jinnah and the Press

Bhutto comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugees – a contemporary record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bhutto concludes her attack on the film with this comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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World War I Through Arab Eyes.

Posted by keith1942 on January 23, 2017

arab-army01s

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

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

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

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

sykes-picot-map

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

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

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

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

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016

a-united-kingdom-movie-2016-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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