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Films of the Spanish Civil War

Posted by keith1942 on September 3, 2016

spanish-civil-war-poster-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The POUM militia.

The POUM militia.

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

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

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

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

etheltalkinginamsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later he notes that

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

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

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

But practice changed with the arrival of the Popular Front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Sangre Negra [aka] Native Son Argentina 1950

Posted by keith1942 on August 12, 2016

Hunting a slum rat.

Hunting a slum rat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigger and Bessie

Bigger and Bessie

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

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

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