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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 »

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.

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

Waltz With Bashir, (Israel/France/Germany/US/Japan/Finland/Switzerland/Belgium/Australia 2008)

Posted by keith1942 on June 25, 2015

waltz with bashir 2

Directed and written by Ari Folman. 90 minutes. Certificate 18. In colour with English subtitles.

I posted a review of this film on ITP World on its release. Much of that review is recycled below and is very critical of the film. The post provoked what I think was the longest and most vitriolic debate on that blog. Much of the debate was not directly about the film but about the larger conflict, one episode of which was depicted in this film. The wider context is dealt with to some degree in Al Nakba. But I have also added comments stimulated by the debate on ITP World.

This film received glowing reviews, frequently using the phrase ‘anti-war’. It is a powerful and imaginative documentary film, though it feels and looks much more like a fictional dramatisation. This is mainly due to the animation techniques, which are used to great effect. The style of animation reminded me of that used in video games: Roy on ITP thought he detected the influence of manga. Either way it gives the film a distinctive visual appearance: and as the film deals with memories and flashbacks this is very effective. It is a film to be seen, and preferably in its proper format on a cinema screen

The film treats of the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Chabra and Chatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. An invasion astutely launched to overlap with the neo-colonial war by Britain over the Malvinas. So the powerful emotional responses that the film is likely to generate also need to be analysed. Whilst I feel that this is an impressive treatment for an Israeli artist, I still find the film is problematic and shot through with contradictions.

In a seminal article on Hollywood films and Vietnam the sadly deceased Andrew Britton wrote:

“The ‘anti-war’ film tends to protest against war as such from an abstractly moral point of view, in the name, frequently, of a humanist idea. . . . war is extrapolated from its socio-economic causes and functions and we are confronted with its ‘horrors’ – horrors which, given the vague definition of their origins, and the status of the protagonist(s) as victim (s) seems both intolerable and irremediable.”  [Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam, in Movie, 27/28, 1981].

These were comments that seemed to me apposite for Waltz with Bashir.

The opening credits are followed by a placing statement, which refers to the ‘war between Israel and Lebanon’. Already this is problematic. This was not a war in the sense of a two-sided conflict; Israel invaded Lebanon with no justification. And that is true of the earlier attacks on Lebanon and of the more recent invasion, none of which receive mention in the film. This is despite the film being completed in 2008, that is, when the more recent atrocities were well-known.

The film uses dreams, interviews with participants and flashbacks to the actual events of 1982. The latter in particular reminded me of the well-known Hollywood film set in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now [a film that Britton’s critically discusses in his article]. There is a similar noirish atmosphere, similar sequences of ‘shock and awe’, and a similar overwhelming sense of masculinity. The few females in this film comprise a woman in a porn film excerpt, a fantasised sex-cum-mother icon, a girl friend who dumped the narrator, and, finally, the women in the Sabra and Chatila camps. I do not recall any female soldiers, though we are constantly informed that women serve in the Israeli Defence Force.  The one woman who has a voice is a psychologist treating Folman. With her exception these are fairly stereotypical characters in war movies.

The film’s focus is on the combatants. These are Folman and his friends and colleagues. Troubled by dreams and memories he seeks out friends who participated in the invasion and also counsellors and psychologists for comment and advice. Thus it is these Israeli voices that present and contextualise the events that unfold. In Folman’s case he finds he does not remember the actual events of the invasion, hence his search to both recover and understand.

Bashir dogs

The first ‘dream’ in the film portrays a group of snarling dogs running through streets and baying at a face in a window: [‘dogs of war’]. We learn that this dream connects to an experience  in the war: the shooting of dogs during the invasion to prevent their barking warning the inhabitants of Lebanese villages. Another harrowing dream  of one character concerns the corpses of horses, [that] ‘broke my heart’. There is always something  problematic about sentiment over animals amidst the corpses of humans.

Clearly the climax of the film is the massacre in the camps: actually perpetrated by Christian Phalangist militia. At the time the Israeli authorities professed ignorance of the appalling atrocities that were perpetrated, but subsequent investigation has clearly exposed their complicity in the horrors. In the case of Folman and his friends, ordinary soldiers, they still maintain that they were unaware until the massacre was already underway or finally ended. Whilst some reviews echo this claim, I found the film very ambiguous on this point. In the flashbacks the Israeli soldiers are clearly seen almost on top of the camps, they stand and watch as the Phalangist militia enter the refugee camps, and there are regular mortar flares fired into the sky by Israelis: illumination by which the massacre is carried out. I was unclear as to whether Folman was in denial as to the crime, or whether the mise en scène subverts the claims of ignorance. And who was being subverted – the filmmakers, the audience, or both?

The film appears to lay the blame on ‘higher authorities’, military commanders or Israeli politicians. We twice see instances where a junior officers reports suspicions of something awry, and then are fobbed off. There seems to be an element of truth in this. But the feelings of guilt that run through the film, and which appear sincere, suggests the characters are not at rest with this. There is one reference in the film to the Nazi Holocaust. It is interesting that the victorious allies at the end of World War II at the Nuremberg Trials and subsequently have not countenanced a defence of ‘following orders’. And, as Hannah Arendt noted, this was not a defence allowed for Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Israel. But to date no serious attempt has been made to try the war crimes in Lebanon or elsewhere in this conflict.

In fact, what the viewers see is not a record of events, but recovered memories of the events. Our final glimpse of Folman is at the end of the last flashback, as his face shows shock as he [apparently] realises the horror that has occurred. The psychologists [or psychiatrists] offer some analysis of these memories – ‘dissociated events’. This phrase by the female psychologist adds an example of a photo-journalist who remained detached until his camera was broken: then the events became ‘traumatic’. This offers a critical avenue for exploring the medium of film itself, but it is not followed up.

There is the reference to the Holocaust in Germany in World War II. This seems to be one of those automatic and defensive references that Israelis offer when their actions are criticised. The psychologist suggests that Folman could be taking on the role of a Nazi: a type of sublimation? This would seem to miss the point, because the parallels are not with Nazi Germany but with the Apartheid [settler] regime in South Africa [and other settler states]. So the absence of the settler set of values, a cause and a factor, reinforces the sense of nameless horror.

This is worth an aside. Through the late C19th and early C20th European powers carried out lesser and even equivalent holocausts across Africa: and indeed elsewhere among the oppressed people and nations. Key powers involved were Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and Holland. Historians tend to identify the European Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s as a ‘unique event’. But in fact what was unique was that the actions normal for colonial occupations were carried out in  a European heartland. And in fact the methods of these actions were those developed against the colonised peoples: notably in South Africa / the British; Angola and Namibia / Germany:  the Congo / Belgium. One can argue that an important aspect of the Nazi discourse was to represent the Jews as a ‘colonial other’. Indeed the largest and most horrendous killings took place in Eastern Europe where there were also massacres of non-Jewish inhabitants – the Nazi Lebensraum has strong associations with colonialism.

The absence of the context is again a parallel with Apocalypse Now . The latter film totally fails to deal with the factors for the US presence in Vietnam. Folman’s film never attempts to explain the Israeli presence in Lebanon. And, like Apocalypse Now, the ‘enemy’ is shadowy and predominately depersonalised. There are no Palestinians or Lebanese in the contemporary sequences. And in the flashbacks, for most of the time, we see only fighters, termed ‘terrorists’: and victims of the Israeli actions. Andrew Briton also critically comments on the source novella for Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Whilst that novella does detail some of the crimes against the Congolese, [fictionalising actual historical horrors], the title indicates how Conrad failed to overcome the ‘otherness’ that the colonialists attribute to the natives.

waltz camps

Real Palestinians do appear at the end of the film when the animated flashback is transformed into actual footage as the survivors of the massacre finally leave and then return to the camp. This is shocking horror. Unfortunately whilst powerful, I find it [as Britton did in the Vietnam films] ‘both ‘intolerable’ but ‘irremediable’. Roy on ITP World made the point that the use of actuality footage for this sequence can be seen to re-enforce the documentary factuality of the animation. As is so often the case, even in liberal Israeli films, we never hear the voice of the Palestinians. They are either terrorists or victims: they remain the other.

The problem with this is highlighted in a stanza by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish:

 You standing at the doorstep, enter

And drink Arabic coffee with us

(you might sense you’re human like us)

you standing at the doorstep of houses,

get out of our mornings,

we need reassurance that we

are human like you!

[State of Siege, translation Fady Joudah, 2007].

How rare is any sense of Palestinian humanity in the dominant discourses of Israeli society. Apparently Folman’s liberalism and guilt do not extend that far. In fairness they do extend some way beyond that of most Israeli artworks. Whatever its limitations, Waltz with Bashir shows a welcome confrontation with one of the darker passages in Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. So this is definitely a film to see and to ponder. But audiences will ponder in terms of the experiences, attitudes and values that they bring to the film. It was clear in the ITP World debate that some people did not share my response and, indeed, took a fairly antagonistic one.

These include interpretations of the film and its techniques. One sequence that was critically applauded in some reviews was an animated sequence of an Israeli soldier’s actions. which also provide the film’s title. His ‘waltz’ is a skilful dance between live firing, and looks rather like a sequence in some computer games. This again is a parallel with Apocalypse Now, especially the notorious ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ sequence’. That is, war as spectacle. Such visual and aural imagery offers a depoliticised version of wartime events. In Coppola’s film we do see the bodies of the slain civilians, something that only appears at the end  of Waltz with Bashir.

Waltzing

Some comments argued that the film offered a ‘subjective’ view of the experiences and events and that therefore the more critical stance is,

outside the remit of the film which filters events, literally, through the subjectivity of the participants.

I do not think this is accurate. It is true that the narrative is constructed around the search by Folman and his friends to reconstruct their memories and the events from their past. But as is often the case when films use subjective sequences and flashbacks what actually appears is rather more objective, the omniscient viewpoint which shows events, including those that particular characters presumably did not see or even hear. The importance of the soundtrack is that we hear only the voices of the Israelis’. There is also what seem to be rather ironic use of music. This is the case with the song ‘Good Morning Lebanon’. However we also hear a Chopin Waltz and a work by Bach, both rather puzzled me. The magisterial The Battle of Algiers uses Bach to parallel the humanity of both sides of the conflict, even when we see the use of  ‘inhuman tactics’.

A phrase that also occurred in the debate was that of ‘the burden of representation’. This phrase has occurred a number of times in discussions and arguments between myself and others over criticisms of films. It is the idea that , as one comment penned,

I think the film clearly show Israeli complicity in the massacre and we can ask for no more than that (except for the opportunity for Palestinians to have their say).

I certainly ask for more. This is that peculiar British disease of balance, so beloved by the BBC. Balance ‘perhaps like beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. This is, of course, a question of ideology. That is a term that I now use sparingly because it usages are so varied and so contradictory. Marx penned two important aspects to ideology. One is the dominance of certain ideas and interests: Zionism certainly gets this through its support by the dominant power, the USA. But equally ideology is about a surface view, that fails to discern the underlying social relations. In the case of Zionism, this film and its supporters fail to discern the neo-colonial relations of the Israeli state vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Israel is a settler regime: note the UN recognition specifically ignores one of the basic tenets of its own Charter.

Article 73

Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end:

  1. to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses;

  2. to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement;…

The words of Franz Fanon are so obvious applicable to the Zionist ‘homeland’ and the occupied territories:

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone in habited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the princi0le of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous. The settler’s town is a strongly-built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly-lit town; the streets are covered in asphalt, and the garbage-cans can swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about …

The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill-fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. …. (Concerning Violence in The Wretched of the Earth, Trans. Constance Farrington, 1967).

Palestinian camp

Palestinian camp

I would add, that as with the ‘war’ between Israel and Lebanon, matters are not equal in any sense. Waltz with Bashir received festival screenings, a number of Awards and a fairly extensive cinema release – takings surpassed $12 million. Whilst Palestinian films have flourished in recent years they are by comparison ‘mégotage’  [in the words of Ousmane Sembène]. One only has to compare the Film Industries that lined up to fund this Israeli production. A friend of mine frequently uses a ‘what if …’ scenario. I have reservation about this tactic but certainly ‘what if’ we had a film of memory recovery by a German involved in camp atrocities in the 1940s. The film would have to negotiate the limitations [some legal] in addressing the values of the Fascist regimes. A film that addressed this issue partially, The Reader (2008), evoked praise but also questioning, as with this by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian (2nd January 2009),

Everyone involved in this film is of the highest possible calibre, but their combined and formidable talents could not annul my queasiness that the question of Nazi war guilt and the death camps had been re-imagined in terms of a middlebrow sentimental-erotic fantasy. This was, I admit, a problem I had with the original novel, and the movie treatment has not alleviated it.

But on Waltz with Bashir, though he has reservation, he ends:

This is still an extraordinary film – a military sortie into the past in which both we and Folman are embedded like traumatised reporters.

Presumably not as traumatised as the Palestinians.

There were also debates about contextual issues. At one point I bought up the Zionist rhetoric of  ‘a land without people’. In fact, it seems that this is an area of debate between Zionists and anti-Zionists over the extent to which this was ever widely used. I have certainly heard or read it in Zionist publicity. More to the point it was and remains the object of Zionist strategy. So Al Nakba demonstrates how before and during 1948 the Zionists attempted to empty the land of Palestinians. And the example of the settlement programme, blockades and barriers can be seen as an extension of this.

Here again we have an area of omission. The film  frequently provides testimony from the Israeli soldiers, who appear young, inexperienced and out of their depth in the conflict. This rather contradicts the publicity one sees of the Israeli Defence Force as a crack hard-line military force. And it also begs the education [in the broad social sense] of Israel’s citizens and soldiers. There is plenty of evidence that the attitude of a majority of Israeli/Jewish citizens have a racist attitude to the Palestinians. Since the most recent war against Gaza courageous Israeli anti-Zionists have published online commentaries by soldiers involved. Many of them clearly treated the Palestinians as some species of animals rather than as fellow humans.

The Palestinian film Five Broken Cameras shares with Waltz with Bashir a subjective and distinctive cinematic treatment of memories and experiences. However the Palestinian film also features the enemy, visually and orally. A commentator thought this the film managed to do this only negatively. But my sense of the Palestinian film is that the Israeli’s are the enemy not the ‘other’. The latter are exactly what Palestinians are in Zionist discourse and in Waltz with Bashir. Of course this is an honourable representation which they share with Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Vietnamese and many other oppressed groups and peoples. I would be happier if I thought a larger section of the audience carried an awareness of this into the cinema.

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

We Are Many, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on June 2, 2015

we-are-many-banner

This film returns us to the opposition to the war against Iraq waged by the USA and the UK in 2003, with a very few allies. The opposition crystallised in large demonstrations against the impending war in many cities round the world and with impressively large numbers of participants. I would not want to be disrespectful to the millions of people who sacrificed time, income, sometimes others’ goodwill and even suffered persecution and violence. It is just because so many people took the time and effort to participate in a principled anti-war stand that I found this film so disappointing.

Firstly there is the overall form of the film, which is extremely conventional It is basically a series of talking heads interspersed with ‘found footage’: much of it from the mainstream media. Even more disconcerting is that the ‘talking heads’ mainly consist of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois people: frequently celebrities like musicians, writers, artists and so on, [note the poster]. I realise that many of these themselves took a principled stance on the war; but the misconception that they somehow speak for the mass of ordinary people is dangerous. We also see and hear leaders of the opposition organisations and groups. There are even a few more radical voices: Tariq Ali, three times, Noam Chomsky, once. But in the manner of the talking head conventions they only get one or two sentences. Certainly at no point in the film do we hear a sustained and coherent argument about the causes and functions of the war. Moreover, we frequently also hear from the representative of the dominant faction in the ruling class; [as with George Bush] the clips are designed to expose or mock them. I think it has to be said that George Bush was likely a lot smarter than his public persona allowed.

Certainly the war against Iraq was not some trumping of so-called ‘ideology’ or dogmatic political values. This was a war, as is demonstrated on some of the placards seen at the demonstrations, to forward the strategic interests of the US superpower and its allies.

The film commences with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. We see and hear people who lost relatives and friends and who later joined in the anti-war movement. This is short-term evaluation. The rationale behind the recent wars led by the USA have their roots far back before 2001. The USA and UK were bombing Iraq all through the 1990s. The film has no sense of imperialism or neo-colonialism: the actual strategic movements that have dominated the world since 1945 and has taken on a particular form since the end of Soviet regime in 1989. The particular form of the wars against Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now the ISIS state [plus numerous slighter military adventures] are to safeguard the global rule of capital, invested in its leading proponent, the USA.

The war against Afghanistan that followed on from 2011 is dealt with extremely briefly. The film fails to provide a sense of the opposition to that imperial adventure, and also fails to note the parallels of interest between that and the larger conflict in Iraq.

There follows a count-down of important dates in the period leading up to the launching of the war. These include UN  sessions, Government propaganda and organising by the anti-war groupings.  With the war almost upon them the 15th of February 2003 is picked for a global demonstration. A series of media clips take the viewers round the world in a chronological sequence. However, the emphasis is very much on the advanced capitalist countries, which are also countries dominated by white populations. After Australia we briefly visit Indonesia, Malaya, India and Russia. Then there is a fuller coverage of Europe and relatively long coverage of the UK and the USA. This is in line with the overall emphasis of the film. Whilst the war is to be prosecuted against an oppressed people, the oppressed people’s and nations  are decidedly kept in the background.

We are demo

The exception is Egypt: there are three sequences that deal with opposition among this people. We hear from several Egyptian activists, including two men titled Revolutionary Socialists. Whether they are or not is impossible to tell because we never hear any comments that are of a socialist standpoint. The first sequence notes that on the 15th there was no demonstration in Cairo as there were in many other major cities. Apparently Egyptian found out about the world-wide protests from coverage on Egyptian Television. Then on the day that the assault began on Iraq there was a fairly impromptu but very large demonstration of opposition on Tahir Square. The point is made that this opposition did not then just disappear, but was a factor in the re-emergence of demonstrations in 2011. So there is a line drawn from the opposition to the western adventure in Iraq to the People’s Revolution in 2011. My sense of the film is that it implies fairly strongly that a major spark was the impact of the 15th demonstrations. Whilst it may be true that this was a factor, it is fairly simplistic. The opposition to neo-colonialism in Egypt, to the rule of the indigenous bourgeoisie, and in particular the role of the security forces goes back a long way. Moreover, the People’s Revolution has, to date, only led to a replacement of one dictatorship by a military dictatorship.

After the February 15th demonstration there follows sequences on the prosecution of the war and continuing acts of opposition. As one would expect the film of the war against Iraq continues extremely violent images and statistics of appalling large casualties, mainly of Iraqis.

The final part of the film attempts to essay a retrospective summation: as the demonstrations, seen as the largest in world history, failed to stop the war. One positive spin offers comments about the fact that the British Parliament voted against military action against Syria: an action subsequently followed by the US Congress. This and the judgement on Egypt’s revolution were nicely summed up in The Guardian review:

“But Amir Amirani [the writer and director] makes a bold case for understanding the march: that over the next decade it -re-energised people power, sowed the seeds for Egypt’s Arab spring and laid the foundations for Labour’s sober, courageous refusal to countenance the attack on Syria.”

The latter argument is as pat as the one about Egypt. The problem is that the military actions against Serbia, Libya and Isis still took place. Added to this are the military actions that continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. There is an equal argument that Syria did not become the scene of serious military action because the bourgeoisie had learned from Iraq. The fundamental reason is that the USA is a declining superpower and is less and less able to act as an international policeman.

An important omission is serious direct action against the war. Such actions did occur, though only by a minority. There comparison with the movement against the US aggression against Vietnam is instructive. That movement had more radical politics and more direct action. Interestingly the most radical comments in this documentary occur in some film of US Vets Against the War: tellingly highlighting the class basis of the conflict.

The politics of the film are liberal and dismal, as I hope the arguments above demonstrate. And the conventional representation  is matched by the conventional style. There is some smart editing in the film: at one point cutting between an address by Conan Powell to the UN and  the paucity of actual, factual evidence. Later US administration comments are edited together with the visual evidence of the violence against the Iraqi people. But proper montage, in the sense of the classic Soviet films, is absence. One only has to think of the telling and moving editing by a filmmaker like Alain Resnais [Night and Fog / Nuit et Brouillard, 1955) to realise the difference. Equally there is the conventional use of musical accompaniment. At one point we hear a version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This land is my land’ over images of the marchers. The images of the violence in Iraq are accompanied by a string quartet. And the sequences attempting to draw a positive spin feature images of protesters dancing with the accompaniment of a waltz by Shostakovich; sadly far less effective than one of his film scores, [New Babylon / Novyi Vavilon, 1929].

The film has received a number of favourable reviews, [as with The Guardian]. Probably because many critics share the liberal nostrums offered in the film. It is worth looking at more extended critical analysis. Noam Chomsky has several articles on his website, you can read about an alternative film Iraqi Odyssey .

Posted in Documentary | 2 Comments »

Miners shot down, South Africa 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2015

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This is a documentary about the killing of 34 striking miners at the Marikana mine by the South African Security Forces in 2012. It has been aired on the Al Jazeera Witness series:

An inspiring documentary series that brings world issues into focus through compelling human stories. Wednesdays and Sundays – Freeview 133 in the UK.

The film was written by  director Rehad Desai, and producer Anita Khanna for Uhuru Productions: it runs for 52 minutes. Rehad Desai was filming in the area in 2012 and has followed the events since. After the shootings the Farlan Commission of Enquiry was set up to look into the events. The film uses testimony to the Commission, interviews with survivors and the lawyers representing the families of those killed: but most tellingly police and news film footage which was released to the Enquiry.

The film follows events from the start of the strike to the massacre five days later. The black miners all worked for the Lonmin mining company, a British based international company. There were numerous complaints by miners, but the key demands that led to the strike were parity in wage rates with other mines and proper safety levels. The exploitation of black miners goes right back to the foundations of the British colony in the South of Africa. Cecil Rhodes began his career in the mining industry. Later the mining sector was a crucial economic factor in the Apartheid regime: with global corporations involved in the extraction of precious commodities, the Marikana mine included the extraction of platinum. It was the international sanctions and their effect on this sector that was a powerful pressure leading to the settlement by the regime with the African National Congress.

The striking miners who took action had largely been represented by the National Union of Mineworkers: described by activists as

“in the pockets of management”.

An alternative union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, was developing support. The Lonmin management was unwilling to enter any sort of negotiations. So the miners took what was described as ‘unofficial action ‘. Almost immediately there was violence directed at the striking miners, first by the mine security guards and then by security men from the official Union. In the first couple of days there were fatalities on both sides. The miners developed their own unofficial leaders: one in particular, ‘Mambush’ was distinguished by the green blanket that he wore. He is now dead.

Increasingly the South African police became a presence. I described them as ‘security forces’. Their leaders bear military titles, e.g. General Mbomo.  Moreover, when you see them on the film they look like an army: automatic weapons, flak jackets, armoured vehicles and helicopters. And the footage of the violence against the miners could as easily come from a battlefield as from a picket line. In fact, there is not a picket line in the usual sense. The miners picked out a gathering place under  local kopje. And the confrontations mainly took place as the miners attempted to go to the mine to try and get a response from the management.

We actually see and hear little of the management. Overall they seem to have attempted to ignore the demands and force the miners back to work. The Commission brought to light emails and telephone calls between the mine management and members of the NUMW and the government. One example concerns Cyril Ramphosa. As leader of the National Union of Mineworkers he was a key figure in the struggle against the Apartheid regime. Like a number of figures involved in the leadership of that struggle, since independence, he has acquired interests in the capitalist firms that dominate South Africa. He now has a personal fortune in the millions. As the Al Jazeera WebPages note.

“What emerges is collusion at the top, spiralling violence, police brutality and the country’s first post-apartheid massacre.”

The massacre took place on the final day. The police attempted to corral the miners, using armoured cars and razor wire. Then the shooting started. 17 miners were shot dead, many more were wounded. A little later a second burst of firing opened and 17 more miners died. The Al Jazeera opening warns that some of the images are ‘distressing’. This is the case. Whilst the actual killings are not clearly seen in the police footage, the dead bodies are. Mambush’s corpse had 14 bullet holes.

Just as the leaders tried to cover up the machinations during the strike, so the police tried to cover up the unjustified violence on that day. The film actually has footage of the National Police Commissioner telling the assembled police cohorts that over the four days they had demonstrated the ‘best of responsible policing.’

The Farlan Commission has concluded its investigation, taking two years in the process. The final report has been presented to President Zuma, but has yet to see the light of day [it is promised in June]. Here in the UK the strike has faded from media consciousness. there has been little coverage of the Commission: as usual the exception being The Guardian. They had an article, based on interviews with survivors and their lawyers, which corroborates the view presented in the film. (Massacre at the mine Tuesday 19.05.15).

Both the film and The Guardian article suggest a problem in the New South Africa. Desai’s film sadly reflects on the day when Independence arrived and Nelson Mandela became president; a time of expectations. The Guardian points back to the alliance that provided the basis for that day – between the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Trade Union Movement.

This is a partial view and implicit [but not explicit] in the film is the recognition that whilst the new South Africa has bought political resolution to the oppression of the apartheid era the underlying exploitation continues. The developments since the end of Apartheid fit exactly into the analysis and warning provided by Franz Fanon in The Pitfalls of National Consciousness. Essentially the deal included not just the ANC and the Apartheid Regime but International Capital. The corporations that expropriated the surplus under Apartheid continue to expropriate under the new arrangements. The leading voice  on the side of the ANC in this settlement was Nelson Mandela: his stardom in the so-called International Community stems from this deal, which avoided a through-going expropriation by the South African majority. Marikana is an example that even now , two decades on, the methods used to enforce that expropriation still retain aspects of neo-colonialism. The film offers a timely and powerful reminder about the real South Africa today.

Al Jazeera has pages on the film and an interview with Desai.

PS I re-watched this film on the evening of the 5th on Al Jazeera. It has a couple of extra titles recording the Commission’s report which calls for further investigation of the police but lets the South African State off the hook. The film, as before,  ends with stills and information on the victims of this State violence. However, it was cut short last night as the e moved to a Wather Forecast! Whilst credit to Al Jazeera for screening such films, they deserve better treatment. There is always a ‘newsline’ across the bottom of the screen which is distracting.

 

 

Posted in African Cinema, Documentary | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Redes, (The Wave, Mexico 1936.

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2015

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This 61 minute docu-drama was restored by The World Cinema Foundation and then screened at the 2009 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

The film was made by Mexican and US filmmakers for the Secretaría de Educación Pública of the Mexican Government. The story is set amongst a small fishing community and shot on location in Mexico at a river mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The film is in black and white, with Spanish dialogue and English sub-titles. The film was among the early credits of Paul Strand and Fred Zinnemann.

Strand was a photographer who had worked in the National Film and Photo League. He had also worked on two experimental silent films. He was to become the central figure in a group of progressive filmmakers in the USA committed to politically informed documentaries. His later work included the photography for The Plow That Broke the Plain [1936] and the radical Native Land [1942].

Zinnemann had migrated to the USA from Germany where he had worked as an assistant cameraman, and was part of the team that produced Menschen en Sontag [1929]. Redes was his first directing credit and he later achieved success in this role in Hollywood. The two Mexicans who were important in setting up the project were Carlos Chavez, who was a noted composer, and Narciso Bassols, the Secretary of Educación Pública.

The simple story follows a fisherman, Miro, who is exploited by a local entrepreneur. The latter controls the fishing boats and access to markets. Miro becomes more radical when his son dies because he cannot afford medical care. He leads the fisherman in a revolt. But he becomes a martyr when his death is organised by a politician in the pay of the entrepreneur. The end of the film suggests the fisherman will fight on.

We enjoyed a 35mm print when the film was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009. The Catalogue included memories of Zinnemann on the film:

The film – the first and last of its kind – was expected to play a small part in the Government plan to educate millions of illiterate citizens throughout the enormous country and bring them out of their isolation…

We had recruited practically all “actors” from among the local fisherman, who needed to do no more than be themselves. They were splendid and loyal friends, and working with them was a joy. In addition to acting, they carried all the equipment, rowed the boats and did a multitude of other jobs, earning more money than ever before – forty-five cents per day, per man – and enjoying themselves hugely …”

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Visually the film is in a style already familiar in Mexican cinema: using the landscape to create a sense of belonging. The figures are frequently posed against water, clouds, their thatched huts and the implement of fishing. The use of camera angles suggests the influence of Sergei Eisenstein, who had worked in Mexico on the unfinished Que Viva Mexico between 1931 and 1932. This is also true of the editing which cuts between characters and actions to create meanings after the style of Soviet montage.

The film’s social consciousness is presented in a narrative that follows many conventions of the Hollywood model. We have an individual hero, and a linear plot, with clearly delineated morals. This is the limitation of a certain sort of cinema. I felt that the film did not present the indigenous culture in the way that [for example] Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1947) manages. The key filmmakers are the two from the USA, though a number of the team are Mexican. In this period colonialism was still a major contradiction round the world, along with a developing neo-colonialism. In the case of Mexico the USA exercised dominance in line with its infamous C19th ‘Monroe Doctrine’. But in this film the exploitation and oppression of the fishermen is vested in an individual capitalist and a corrupt politician: the film lacks a sense of the wider capitalist mode or indeed of the neo-colonial relationship between Mexico and the USA. In fact Mexico already had a vibrant national cinema. It would be interesting to know the factors that governed the choices made by Educación Pública.

From that point-of-view of workers struggling against both exploitation and oppression the film seems to look forward to another set of filmmakers, Herbert Biberman and Paul Jarrico. Their Salt of the Earth, [1953] was set in New Mexico and dramatised a strike by Mexican migrants working in the mines. My memory of the latter film is that it has a more developed sense of communal struggle. The pair of films would make an excellent double bill.

Recently some of the restored films have featured on multi-DVD collections. Unfortunately for reasons to do with copyright the UK version from Eureka does not have Redes included. The French version does but lacks English subtitles. There is a US version which I have not yet been able to check.

Directors: Fred Zinnemann, Emilio Gómez Muriel. Scenario: Augustin Velázquez Chávez, Paul Strand, Emilio Gómez Muriel, Fred Zinnemann, Henwar Rodakiewicz. Photography Paul Strand. Editing Emilio Gómez Muriel, Gunther von Fritsch. Sound Roberto, Joselito Rodriguez. Music Silvestre Revueltas.

Cast: Miro – Silvio Hernández. Entrepreneur – David Valle Gonzalez. Politician – Rafael Hinojosa. El Zurdo – Antonio Lara. With a supporting cast local fisherman.

 

Posted in Documentary, Latin American film, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Concerning Violence with a Q & A.

Posted by keith1942 on December 16, 2014

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This was my second viewing of the film at the National Media Museum followed by a Q & A with three members from the Peace Department at Bradford University. I think there were about fifty members in the audience, some students from the Peace Department. There was half-an-hour after the screening for the discussion, which proved to be a little short for the occasion.

Revisiting the film enabled me to sort out some of my responses to it presentation of archive material and the use of the writings of Franz Fanon to provide a set of meanings to the struggles illustrated in the film footage. Apart from an introduction in 1.85:1 the archive material was all in its proper ratio of 1.37:1. This illustrated a respect for the archive material which seems increasingly rare in contemporary documentary. Göran Olsson, the director, previous film was The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975: he clearly has a particular interest in such political discourses. The BBFC rated the film 15 with the comment ‘strong images of real injury and dead bodies’. This is the case. One haunting image is of a mother and child, both of whom have lost a limb from colonial violence.

The introduction by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak still seemed to me to place incorrect emphasis on the ideas in Fanon’s writing. She did emphasise the way that Fanon’s position on violence has been distorted. He does not advocate violence per se but argues that:

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.

And I did note that Spivak used the phrase ‘supposed post-colonial’, which is the way I think this concept should be treated. However Spivak also makes the comment re ‘rape’ that this type of violence against women is found both in colonial and anti-colonial movements. I’m am sure she could quote examples of both, but in the unqualified manner that she delivered it the phrase is both a misnomer and ignores Fanon’s treatment of anti-colonial violence. It struck me even more forcibly this time that the introduction is at odds with the treatment in the main body of the film: there are a number of sequences in vision and sound of women members of the liberation movements. This is a rather different treatment of the contradictions involved in gender. I also noted that the English commentary is spoken by an Afro-American, and the subtitles into English use US spelling. I rather suspect that the introduction is an ‘add-on’. There are various language versions of the film available and it seems that each version uses a different person to provide the commentary.

There are ‘nine scenes from the anti-imperialistic self-defence’.

  1. Decolonisation uses film of the MPLA in Angola.
  2. Indifference uses mainly an interview with an activist imprisoned in Rhodesia / Zimbabwe by the colonialist.
  3. Also uses footage from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, mainly of the white settlers.
  4. A World Cut in Two includes an interview with Robert Mugabe of ZANU, apparently in the interim between the settlement with the British Government and the inauguration of black majority rule. This interview was a point that was bought up several times in the Q & A. But Fanon was under no illusions about the pitfalls of notional independence: he writes

The apotheosis of independence is transformed into the curse of independence and the colonial power through its immense resources of coercion condemns the young nation to regression.

  1. Uses Swedish film footage from 1966 of a strike involving Lamco in Liberia The film exposes the brutal treatment of the union activist by the firm with the co-operation of the black ruling class and President Tubman. At one point, a family including a pregnant woman is dumped in the bush and even made to sign a receipt for the transportation.
  2. That Poverty of Spirit offers a portrait of the white settlers in Tanzania in the 1960S. Their ‘care’ of the colonised natives includes the building of a church – before any schools, hospitals or other basic necessities.
  3. The FIAT G96 is set among Frelimo in Mozambique in 1972. The title is explained when a guerrilla leader talks about how the colonial military use the plane against the liberation fighters. More interesting are sequences when women fighters talk directly to camera about their motivation and contribution to the struggle, ending with an armed woman who states ‘we are on the same level as men.’The women also sing a song which runs over footage of guerrillas in the jungle. Unfortunately this and another song are not translated.
  4. Defeat shows Portuguese colonial military suffering sets back against the liberation fighters in Guinea-Bissau. There is also footage of the leader Amilcar Cabral at a liberation event with both armed men and women.
  5. Raw Material addresses tine underlying social relations of exploitation, first by the capitalist expropriation of resources and then by the reduction of the colonial population to as market for colonial exports. As Fanon wrote, ‘Europe was a creation of the Third World`. There follows a

Conclusion which uses Fanon’s phrases on how the ant colonial struggle is about re-inserting the ‘human and humanity’ in replacing the colonial world. The last sentence of Concerning Violence makes the important point that:

To achieve this, the European peoples must first decide to wake up and shake themselves, use their brains, and stop playing the stupid game of the Sleeping Beauty.

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What struck me on this second viewing was how the visuals in the film not only illustrates but also suggestively extends the analysis of the film. I think this is deliberate. Certainly it seemed to me to raise issues of gender, class and transformation which are central to the project propagandised by Fanon. The craft with which the archive material has been edited together, along with the commentary and the judicious use of non-diegetic music is impressive. And one point need Fanon’s actual writings needs to be made: whilst he uses male nouns and pronouns extensively he also writes:

In an under-developed country every effort is made to mobilize men and women as quickly as possible; it must guard against the danger of perpetuating feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

I found the Q&A following the screening somewhat frustrating. This was partly because I had serious issues with the comments made about Fanon and his writings. But it was also due to the format. David Francis chaired the discussion, fairly effectively I thought. However the form was three questions from the audience followed by comments by the three panel members. David Francis managed to be concise in his comments and he struck me as having the fullest command of the writings of Fanon. Both Catherine Howard and Owen Greene talked at length and usually with a certain amount of padding. Howard was preoccupied with the issue of violence and I did not think she had really grasped Fanon’s line on its use. Greene did offer some support for the armed struggle but he did tend to pacifism. He also remarked that it was a considerable time since he had read Fanon. I have to say that I immediately commenced re-reading The Wretched of the Earth after the first screening: and continuing my reading was part of my preparation for this event.

In fact I was first out the block and I suggested that the film only offered a partial view of Fanon’s writings and also queried where the Introduction fitted into the film. On the latter point David Francis suggested that the documentary mode tended to such ad hoc structures. I have to say that I disagree with this. To take to important documentary filmmakers, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, their films are carefully structured and this is one of their merits. I thought once we had finished the Introduction Concerning Violence was a very carefully constructed film.

Other members made points or asked questions. One black student suggested that more African faces on the panel would be an improvement. My memory is that the actual questions tended to agree with the pacifist tone of the panel members. Apart from David Francis the panel members tended to restate their criticisms of Fanon. Greene suggested that changes in the world meant Fanon’s writings needed reviewing. Howard spoke at length about violence in post-colonial Africa. Francis did add that neo-colonial was a more accurate representation than ‘post-colonial’.

Towards the ending there were several longer contributions from audience members that raised critical points on the discussion. I returned to emphasise how Fanon’s discussion of violence has to be seen in the context of national liberation struggles: that he also writes extensively about culture: and that an important omission in the film is the question of the class contradictions within the anti-colonial movement and how that impacts on decolonization. The interviews in the film with Robert Mugabe, President Tubman and Thomas Sankara all provided relevant material for such comment.

A woman queried the idea of the post-colonial referencing in particular the case of Palestine. And a man made similar comments referencing the imperialist actions in Iraq. As the Panel members geared up for comment the ‘voice of god’, [actually the projectionist] bought proceedings to a close. The audience for the next screening were waiting at the door.

The cinema programme at the National Media Museum is now run by the Picture House Company. They appear to have a more efficient service. The programme looks less varied than before the changeover, but it is positive that they have continued with events like this screening and Q & A., We could have done with more time, and I think a brief introduction before the film would have be better. As it was we got adverts and trailers.

Regarding the film and the discussion, this was a rather academic exercise. I sympathised with the young black student, but I would have liked to see one panel member who was a committed proponent of the political line in The Wretched of the Earth.  Despite comments to the contrary, a cursory glance round the world scene – Palestine, Cuba, the anniversary recently of Bhopal … – show that Fanon’s work remains as relevant as ever. I had forgotten, not just how powerful are the politics of Fanon’s book, but with what commitment and elan he writes about the struggle of the oppressed peoples and nations. In paperback The Wretched of the Earth is a mere 250 pages. It sets out not just a path for national liberation but in The Pitfalls of National Consciousness provides an analysis that explains the type of problems that so occupied Catherine Howard. On National Culture provides the ideas that are central to the concept of Third Cinema. This is the essential political reading.

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Quotations from The Wretched of the Earth Translated by Constance Farmington, Penguin edition 1990.

 

Posted in African Cinema, Documentary, Manifesto, Political cinema, Writers and theorists | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Sosialismi / Socialism, Finland 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on August 2, 2014

The Communards in New Babylon

The Communards in New Babylon

This is a montage film by Peter von Bagh screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. It is a documentary, though not all critics might accept that label. Certainly it does what Andrew Britton argued for in his Invisible Eye (Sight & Sound 1991):

they [truly great documentaries] are engaged, in the sense that they lay no claim to objectivity, but actively present a case through their structure and organisation of point of view. …

The Catalogue notes by Olaf Műller state the subject:

Socialism, the 20th century’s greatest dream and source of some of its darkest nightmares.

In fact the film takes up back to deep into the C19th, to the Paris barricades and the drafting by then two little-known activists and theorists of The Communist Manifesto (1848). The film emphasises the internationalism of that founding document right at the start – The Paris Commune in The New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon, 1929): Vietnam in Hanoi 13 Martes (Hanoi Tuesday 13th, 1966) and Chile 1973 in The Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile, 1977) Later it takes in the Industrial Workers of the World [The Wobblies], The Soviet Revolution, 1917; the failed revolution in Germany, 1919; and the capitalist counter-attack and the problematic decade of the 1930s. including Spain and the Republican struggle. The film presents events up until the fall of ‘The Wall’ surrounding East Berlin in 1989. There is an overall chronology, but the film also draws parallels across movements and events as edits jump between decades and territories.

The film does focus primarily on the European theatre, but there is a section on ‘Socialism and the Third World’. We encounter the Chinese revolution, the rather different revolutions in Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Chile. Also included are darker passages from the past – the Soviet show trials, the Stakhanovite movement and the non-proletarian dictatorships in Eastern Europe post W.W.II.

The structure of the film offers eighteen sections; each introduced by a caption and a quotation from noted political leaders, activist, writers, artists and thinkers. Marx is here, along with Maxim Gorky, John Reed, Bertolt Brecht, Andre Malraux and Jack London. Each section is titled, for example:

`II Age Old Dreams’ – ‘v Before the Revolution’ – ‘XII Life as it could be.’ ‘XVIII Long Goodbye.’

Each is accompanied by one of the quotation against a red background. The sections are short, averaging 4 to 5 minutes though they vary considerably in length, and the montage is rapid. At time I found it difficult to take in all the quotations and comments that accompanied some of the film clips. The film clips themselves vary in quality, and whilst most are in the original format, there are one or two clips that are stretched – I assume that this is due to the source material that was available.

The choice of film material draws a continuous interaction between cinema and socialism. Thus the film opens with the famous Lumière film of workers leaving their factory, (La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon, Workers leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895). Very quickly we are at the Paris Commune. Later there are extracts from films like Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) and October (Ten Days that Shook the World, Okltyabr, 1928), but also from D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Chaplin’s one and two reel comedies, J. B. Priestley’s They Came to a City (1944), Hollywood’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Mathew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, 1964), and The Red Detachment of Women (Honhse Niangzijun, 1961).

This is a powerful and, in many ways, inspiring film. It does what good political films should do – agitate, stimulate, question and inform. Andrew Britton also comments that great documentaries

are analytical, in the sense that they present the corner of reality with which they deal not as a truth there to be observed, but as a social and historical reality which can only be understood in the context of the forces and actions that produced it.

A film on ‘socialism’ always ran the risk of the very varied connotations that the term conjures up. In fact the film [deliberately] does not define socialism. In the sense of agitation [simple issues for the masses] this is fine: but as propaganda [complex ides for the advanced] it begs a central issue. ‘Socialism’, whilst more important as a term, shares with ‘ideology’ and ‘auteur’ the problem that there are so many different and contraries meanings in use. All three terms need to be defined by those using them.

Contemporary right-wingers [and some left wingers] often appear to believe that the British Labour Party is socialist! In a book review in The Guardian a writer suggested that, after its victory in the 1967 war Israel

has transformed a small, united and predominately socialist society into a colonial empire.  (Review, 19-07-14).

The film does address this issue – Section XVI and XVII pose rhetorical questions such as – ‘What would Lenin Think?’ and ‘What would Marx think?’ in counterpoint to film clips featuring Maoists, East European uprisings and the cults in Cuba. But I felt that it is possible to identify possible responses to these. Marx in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ (1875) has a clear definition of the socialist transition:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but ‘the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’.

The lack of definition of socialism is accompanied by a lack of analysis of the historical failings of the movements. The film at different points references Kronstadt, the 1930 Show Trials, the Nazi electoral success in Germany in 1933, Republican Spain, and people’s uprising in the German Democratic Republic in 1953, in Budapest, Hungary in 1956 and in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1968. Then in section ‘XVIII No Guarantees’ we revisit a film clip of workers in 1901, but this time with an enlarged focus on a scuffle that breaks out. The suggestion of divisions within the working class movement is valid. However, it fails to address the larger failings in history. Marx, in his Critique also writes:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

The failings in history are not mainly down to personalities but to economic and political forces and to errors in political line.

The penultimate section ‘Long Goodbye’ features film of several funerals – Stalin, Togliatti, and Tito. This tends to reinforce a sense of celebrating something that if not past, is considerably diminished. I think the most recent film in this documentary is from 1989. There are more recent films, which could have featured. Ken Loach would be one such filmmaker: the discussion on collectivisation in Land and Freedom (1995) or the discussion regarding the Irish revolution in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) both have merits. It may be the case that the production was not able to access some sources. But there is also a limited selection of films from what is termed The Third World. We had films from Latin America and from South-East Asia, but not, I think, from Africa or the Indian Sub-continent. From the Africa Sembène Ousmane would be an obvious example of socialism on film, say Camp de Thiaroye (1988) or Guelwaar (1992). In the case of India the same festival featured a number of Hindi, Tamil and Bengali films: Mother India (Bharat Mata, 1957) has peasants dancing to form a hammer and sickle in the wheatfields.

These criticisms need to be seen alongside the strengths of the film. This is an impressive selection of political film and the montage is very carefully and intelligently constructed. The film engages, celebrates but also questions 150 years or so of the main progressive movement in the world under capitalism. The film is absorbing and the use of accompanying music – including soundtracks, jazz, choirs and popular melodies – is an excellent example of sound montage. Several films are featured more than once, but I think only one sequence was presented three times. Finally, right at the end, we see again the opening shot from Part III of Battleship Potemkin, the harbour in the early morning mist. This is an example of the complexity of Eisenstein’s conception of montage but the Image also provides a metaphor for working class aims – arriving in the safe harbour of socialism and a new order.

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin

Note, unfortunately at present there is not a copy available for circulation – hopefully this will be possible in the not too distant future. Sadly not yet.

Peter Von Bagh died from cancer in early September 2014, he will be missed both for his work and at a number of Film Festivals. Hopefully his final film will circulate at some point – a fitting memorial.

 

 

 

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79 Springs / 79 primaveras, Cuba 1969.

Posted by keith1942 on May 7, 2014

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh

Today, May 7th, is the 60th anniversary of the historic defeat of a French colonial army by the People’s Liberation Army, the Vietminh, at Dien Bien Phu.  This was a victory bought with the blood and sweat of thousands of Vietnamese patriots. Much credit must go to the skilled military leadership of General Giap. However, praise is most due to the architect and leader of the Vietnamese National Liberation Movement, Ho Chi Minh. So it is an appropriate day to pay tribute to one of the revolutionary Cuban films from the 1960s, a film that is a eulogy to the Vietnamese leader.

The film was made by the Cuban documentary and newsreel filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. Alvarez is not that well known outside of Cuba or of radical film circles. However he was one of the outstanding contributors to the flowering of radical film in liberated Cuba. His films, usually relatively short and in black and white [often on 16 mm], offer exemplary use of montage in the sense that it was developed by the great Soviet filmmaker of the 1920s. Michael Chanan has a chapter devoted to his film output in his excellent The Cuban Image (BFI 1985).

The title of the film relates to the age of Ho Chi Minh when he died. The film only runs for twenty-five minutes but it manages to pack an awful lot of material and political comment in that time. The film is a mixture of biography, history of the Liberation struggle and a critique of the colonial wars waged first by France and then by the USA. It uses a mixture of found footage, title cards and titles, poetry, and process effects. The sound matches this using accompanying sound, accompanying music, singing and protest pop songs. At times the films cut from fairly elegiac titles to shocking film of war and wartime atrocities. The sound equally cuts from sombre music to the discordant noises of battle.

At its climax the film moves beyond this montage to a sequence that appears to attack the film itself: ending with a burning frame. At the same time the rhetoric of the titles moves beyond the tribute to Ho Chi Minh and the accompanying attacks of the US Imperialist to comment on the International Liberation Struggle.

The film offers a bricolage of materials and comment, [but not a post-modern one]. Alongside the tribute to Ho Chi Minh is a scathing criticism of the USA’s war against the Vietnamese people. Of the films of Alvarez that I have managed to see this is my favourite. It is both emotional and powerful, but it is also propaganda in the sense of offering a clear political commentary. I am sure that Franz Fanon would have considered this a fighting film, “a true invitation to thought, to de-mystification and to battle.”

 

Posted in Cuban film, Documentary, Films of Liberation | 3 Comments »

The Echo of Pain of the Many

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2012

The title of the film is a line taken from a poem, ‘They dressed Me in Mourning’ by the mother of a ‘disappeared’ in Guatemala’s long and brutal war against its own people. The line was chosen by the writer, director and narrator of this powerful film, Ana Lucia Cuevas. Ana Lucia lost family members to the secret death squads operated by a military dictatorship, supported by the US Government and the CIA. It one sense it is a familiar and sobering story from the Latin American continent, but it also brings a distinctive and effective narration to a recurring set of tragedies.

Guatemala is a relatively small country with a population of over 13 million. It is situated between Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, the last-named country having received most attention in the media. Colonised as part of the Spanish Empire, the country achieved full independence in 1839. The population includes the India people descended from the Mayan nation and a mixture of Europeans, Black African descendants and mestizos: the Indian population is found predominantly in the countryside. There were a number of dictatorships in the years following Independence. In 1944 the election of a reforming president initiated a period of social reform including land re-distribution.  Agriculture is a substantial sector of the economy with up to 50% of its exports dependant on the USA. This included plantations owned by the United Fruit Company [a familiar player in neo-colonial relations in Latin America]. A CIA- backed coup took place in 1954. Over the next 40 years military dictatorship were interspersed with civilian rule, but all directed towards the interests of the wealthy, the landowners and US State and Corporations. There was an intermittent but ongoing civil war from 1960 to 1996. Then a peace treaty bought a return to civilian rule and a greater degree of the rule of law: though the Presidents have continued to be representative of the right wing. The current is an ex-General.

The Cuevas family – Carlos and Rosario lower left – Ana upper left.

Ana Lucia’s film takes the form of a journey, a familiar narrative strategy for investigating and presenting events. In this case it is a journey into the past, and into the memories of the people of Guatemala.  Her own journey is to discover the truth about the death of her brother Carlos, a political and human rights activist murdered in 1984. But as she explains she discovers that her personal pain is part of the much larger national pain. In the course of the film she sketches in the outline of the events in Guatemala since the changes of the 1950s. Here the film uses archive film and photographic material: testimonies from survivors: her interviews with people: and information in titles. As in other countries on the receiving end of US imperialism, this tale features secret and subversive machinations: extreme and often systematic brutality: surveillance, harassment, rape, murder and genocidal actions. Even though I have seen such scenes played out in films from other countries in the continent, the events are often shocking. The film uses frequent cuts to a black screen – offering pauses where one can momentarily consider the revelations and then follow the tale further.

The statistics provided in the film are appalling. There were 200,00 victims in the 36 years of civil war. The number disappeared by secret squads is about 49,000. We hear that even now 20 to 30 years on families are still waiting to discover the truth and the remains of lost members. Many were civilians, often activists, and they included men, women, pregnant women, the elderly and children. Carlos’s wife Rosario and his young son were abducted tortured and murdered. This is a level of indiscriminate violence that even now is difficult to comprehend. Ana Lucia narrates how only now are the secret police and military papers being unearthed, as are the unidentified remains of victims. She observes the researches into the records of the dictatorship: tellingly a key Military ‘death diary’ is lodged in Washington. More painful, along with other bereaved women, she observes the excavation of mass graves and the painstaking forensic work to identify the victims.

The film opens with a series of testimonies of survivors from the war years. These include Mayan peasants from the countryside. Later in the film Ana Lucia attends a trial in 2009 of former military officers involved in a massacre at the village of Choatalúm. This was part of a ’scorched earth’ policy to eradicate support from the rebels fighting the government. The forces were trained and equipped by the USA. There were numerous massacres, villages were destroyed and the communities forced to flee to the mountains, and then re-housed in carefully controlled newly built villages. The Choatalúm trial is important in that it is the first time that any military personnel have been held accountable for atrocities. The conviction and sentencing of one of the former commanders is a key event in the changing response to the war. Earlier times saw an enforced silence, a silence that attempted to suppress criticism and pain. So the film stresses the importance that the opening up of memory brings to the survivors.

It is clear in the film that whilst here is now a continuing opening up of the past and increasing judicial treatment of the crimes that this has definite limits. Two of the Generals who supervised the criminal activities in the war are seen campaigning for the Presidency. We also see an interview with a right-wing leader lauding his Christianity at the same time as he vows to deal with ‘subversives’: a moment as chilling as any scene in the Hollywood melodramas set in the region.

Ana Lucia is though, positive at the end of the film. A trial of a commander involved in the murder of her brother Carlos has begun. A large public meting applauds the memory of him and other victims: she suggests that though small these are actions that have ‘never been before’, that there is a recovery of hope.’

I found the film compelling and at time moving. It manages to be informative about a neo-colonial war that is little known. Yet is does this without overburdening with historical explanation: the inferences are there, as in the telling photograph of US President Eisenhower with CIA-Chief Allen Dulles. The treatment of the long war is similar; the criminal events are presented simply without to large an emphasis on the awful statistics. The film melds very effectively the personal and the political. And what is most memorable is the restraint and dignity of the many survivors as they recount another unacceptable chapter in recent history. The parallels with other struggles, not just in Latin America, but among other oppressed peoples are clear. The producer told me that they recently screened the film to an audience in Cairo and a member immediately spoke of the parallels with their own experiences.

Armadillo Productions 2012.

There is a screening of the film at the WFA in Manchester on May 19th 2012.

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