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‘Outsiders: The Battle of Algiers and political cinema’

Posted by keith1942 on March 30, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“as in Cuba Marxism has begun to atrophy”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Manifesto, Writers and theorists | 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: | 1 Comment »

Grupo Ukamau

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2014

Blood of the Condor

Blood of the Condor

This is a film collective based in Bolivia and unfortunately their work is very difficult to see in the UK. It was formed in 1968 and included Jorge Sanjinés, director: Osca Soria, scriptwriter: Antonio Eguino, cinematographer: and Ricardo Rada, producer.  Bolivia is a land-locked country in the central Andes, named after the great Liberator Simon Bolivar. The population is divided between Quechua and Aymara Indians, mestizos [of mixed European and Indian descent] and a small elite of European descent. Soon after the Spanish conquest silver was discovered. Mining became and has remained the most important economic activity, though natural gas has joined this in recent decades. As is the case elsewhere in Latin America the modern period has alternated between military coups [apparently 189 by 1980] and ‘democratic’ government,

The Grupo Ukamau took their name from a film made for the Bolivian Film Institute. It dramatised the exploitation of the indigenous Aymara Indians through the tale of revenge by an Indian on a mestizo [a petit bourgeois] who raped his wife. The final confrontation takes place on the Altiplano, the high Andean plateau. Whilst this involves just the two men [shades of Greed, 1923] it quite clearly involves class and ethnic conflicts. It was certainly seen as critical by the then military government who dismissed the group members who then developed independent film production.

In 1969 the group made what is probably their most famous film, Blood of the Condor (Yalwar Mallku). Filmed in black and white it recounted actual events when members of the US ‘Progress Corps’ [‘gringos’, also known as the Peace Corp] were secretly sterilising Quechua women under the guise of medical aid. The film was initially banned but aroused great interest and in 1971 the Peace Corp was expelled from Bolivia. The film also attracted international attention and was seen as part of the New Latin American Cinema emerging across the continent. Whilst the film was made with the help of the Indian villagers who appear in the film, its form is recognisably similar to western art films. There is a complex use of flashbacks and overall the film fits into the melodrama of protest mould. One obvious influence is Soviet Montage, and the final freeze frame of the film with upraised rifles appears to homage October 1927. Both this film, Ukamau and later films make use of the quena or Indian wooden flutes.

The Grupo members became critical of their own approach and the form of their next major feature, Courage of the People (El coraje del pueblo, 1971), was different. The film dramatised the massacre of striking miners in 1967. Witnesses to these events provided the substance of the film and appeared in it. The Grupo members took care to discuss both the form and content of the film with this community as it was made. Noticeably the film eschews the use of flashbacks [which some Indians found confusing] and of close-ups, tending to the long take. The witnesses provide multiple narration of the events: and the form of the film is elliptical and still complex. The focus shifts from the individual protagonist familiar in dominant cinema to ‘the solidarity of the group’.

A period of exile split the group and two further features were made outside Bolivia by Rada and Sanjinés. The Principal Enemy (El enemigo principal, Peru/Bolivia 1973) describes events in Peru in 1963 when an Indian community struggled for justice. The film includes the recollections of a community leader setting out the long struggle of the community from the time of the Spanish invasion onwards.  Get out of Here! (Fuera de Aqui, Bolivia/Ecuador 197) recounts a struggle by Andean Indians to protect their land from a multi-national corporation. In a parallel with Blood of the Condor a US religious sect is part of the process of expropriation.

Title

Two more films were then made in Bolivia and in colour. Banners of the Dawn (Banderas del amanecer, Bolivia 1983) is a documentary tracing democratic struggles against dictatorship between 1978 and 1983. And there is what appears to be the last film by Ukamau to get a substantial release in Europe, The Clandestine Nation (La nación clandestina, Bolivia 1989 with funding from the UK/C4, Spain, Germany and Japan). The film recounts the journey, physical and mental, of an Indian representative who is corrupted by dealings with a US food programme. His journey is one of repentance and expiation, but it is also an exploration of the community values and rituals. Sanjinés, and his cinematographer César Pérez, adhere to the practice of long takes or sequence shots, emphasising the community and the landscape in which it lives. The film does return to the use of flashbacks, but these are integrated into the contemporary as the camera ‘pans’ rather than cuts from past to present. This is effectively a type of complex montage similar to that seen at work in Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (1946).

Ukamau have made further films since then [Para recibir el canto de los pájaros (1995), released in Bolivia and Germany; Los hijos del último jardín (2004), released in Bolivia and Japan] but they do not appear to have circulated Europe. The most recent film Insurgents (2012) has only enjoyed releases in Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico.

Apart from the film work Sanjinés and the Ukamau Group have produced agitational and theoretical material. The major work is a set of Manifestos, ‘Theory & Practice Of A Cinema With the People’.  The carefully worded title is important. One of the developing emphases in Ukamau’s work is giving cinematic voice to the subjects, transforming them from the objects of dominant cinema. In Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema:

A film about the people made by an author is not the same as a film made by the people through an author. As the interpreter and translator of the people, such an author becomes their vehicle. When the relations of creation change, so does content and, in a parallel process, form.“

The point is illustrated by comparisons drawn between Blood of the Condor and The Principal Enemy.

When we filmed Blood of the Condor with the peasants of the remote Kaata community, we certainly intended that the film should be a political contribu­tion, denouncing the gringos and presenting a picture of Bolivian social reality. But our fundamental objective was to explore our own aptitudes. We cannot deny this, lust as we cannot deny that our relations with the peasant actors were at that time still vertical. We still chose shots according to our own personal taste, without taking into account their communicability or cultural overtones. The script had to be learned by heart and repeated exactly. In certain scenes we put the emphasis entirely on sound, without paying attention to the needs of the spectators, for whom we claimed we were making the film. They needed images, and complained later when the film was shown to them. …

During the filming of Courage of the People, many scenes were worked out on the actual sites of the historical events we were reconstructing, through discussion with those who had taken part in them and who had a good deal more right than us to decide how things should be done. Furthermore, these protagon­ists interpreted the events with a force and conviction which professional actors would have found difficult. These compañeros not only wanted to convey their experiences with the same intensity with which they had lived them, but also fully understood the political objectives of the film, which made their participation in it an act of militancy. They were perfectly clear about the usefulness of the film as a means of declaring throughout the country the truth of what had hap­pened. So they decided to make use of it as they would a weapon. We, the members of the crew, became instruments of the people’s struggle, as they expressed themselves through us!

This is notable both in the visual and aural style of the film.

Our decision to use long single shots in our recent films was determined by the content itself. We had to film in such a way as to produce involvement and participation by the spectator. It would have been no use in The Principal Enemy, for example, to have jumped sharply into close-ups of the murderer as he is being tried by the people in the square, because the surprise which the sudden introduction of a close-up always causes would have undercut the development of the sequence as a whole, whose power comes from within the fact of collective participation in the trial and the participation by the audience of the film which that evokes. The camera movements do no more than mediate the point of view and dramatic needs of the spectator, so that s/he may become a participant. Sometimes the single shot itself includes close-ups, but these never get closer to the subject than would be possible in reality. Sometimes the field of vision is widened between people and heads so that by getting closer we can see and hear the prosecutor. But to have intercut a tight close-up would have been brutally to interpose the director’s point of view, imposing mean­ings which should arise from the events themselves. But a close-up which is arrived at from amongst the other people present, as it were, and together with them, carries a different meaning and expresses an attitude more consistent with what is taking place within the frame, and within the substance of the film itself.

Distribution and exhibition were equally seen as essential aspects of film work.

In Bolivia, before the appalling eruption of fascism there, the Ukamau Group’s films were being given intensive distribution. Blood of the Condor was seen by nearly 250,000 people! We were not content to leave this distribution solely to the conventional commercial circuits, and took the film to the countryside together with projection equipment and a generator to allow the film to be shown in villages where there is no electricity.

The article also refers to similar practices by other groups of filmmakers in Argentina, Chile [before the coup], and Ecuador. The Manifesto clearly falls within the wider ambit of the New Latin American Cinema that arose in the 1960s. One can see crossovers between this statement and analysis and other works like ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ and ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’.

The prime focus of Ukamau is the Andean Indian communities who are the subjects of their films. But their work also offers an important example for other filmmakers. I went back and revisited their work after critically viewing two Palestinian films.

Five Broken Cameras is a record of a village under occupation by Israel as it constructs the ‘separation wall’. The filmmaker and major protagonist in the film, Emad Burnat, was assisted in producing the film by Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. What emerges is the voice of this Palestinian farmer: given voice in part through the cinematic skills of the Israeli filmmaker. The film’s power resides mainly presenting this voice and this experience. The major weakness in the film is a lack of an analytical overview: something that I have noted in a number of documentaries set in Palestine. The work of Ukamau offers an example of both giving voice but also drawing out the actual overall social relations at work.

The second film is Apples of Golan. This is a documentary made by two Irish filmmakers in an area occupied by Israel along the Golan Heights, bordering Syria. This film is also very effective but a major weakness is a rather confused presentation of the politics of the people. Whilst the local population oppose the Israeli occupation there is also a strong sense of support for President Assad in Syria, who is seen as a protector. The filmmakers obviously found this a problematic aspect. And the film does not really present a clear sense of the community’s take on this. In fact, in a Q&A, it transpired that the editing took place in Dublin and that the ‘form of the film’ emerged in this process. This is the opposite of the methodology developed by Ukamau and would seem to explain the lack of clarity.

Theory & Practice appeared in Spanish in Siglo XXI Editores in 1979. A translation into English by Richard Schaaf was published in the USA by Curbstone Press in 1989. In 1983 a translation by Malcom Coad of Problems of Form and Content appeared in a BFI Publication for Channel 4, Twenty-five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan.

The Workers Film Association Media & Cultural Centre in Manchester had Ukamau films in its catalogue, so it is worth checking with them.

Posted in Latin American film, Manifesto, Palestinian films, Political cinema | Leave a Comment »

First, Second and Third Cinemas.

Posted by keith1942 on March 12, 2014

‘El Grupo Cine Liberación’

A colleague helpfully pointed out that the original post under this title contained a serious misreading. I have followed up his argument and now offer a new post which is, as far as I can tell, is a more accurate commentary.

The Manifesto Towards a Third Cinema is probably the central text relating to film-making that offers a genuine opposition to colonialism and neocolonialism. However, the sub-title [‘Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World’] makes the point that these are ‘ideas’ rather than a fully worked out analysis. The Manifesto was written in very particular conditions, under an authoritarian regime in a neocolonial state and involved proscribed political activity. Different aspects of the arguments and examples in the work receive different emphasis in different authors who comment. I note in the ‘About this Blog’ that I focus on anti-colonial film-making, though some other writers include oppositional film from within the colonising states. The original Manifesto [translated into English] includes

The mechanistic take-over of a cinema conceived as a show to be exhibited in large theatres with a standard duration, hermetic structures that are born and die on the screen, satisfies, to be sure, the commercial in­terests of the production groups, but it also leads to the absorption of forms of the bourgeois world-view which are the continuation of 19th century art, of bourgeois art: man is accepted only as a passive and consuming object; rather than having his ability to make history recognised, he is only permitted to read history, contemplate it, listen to it, and undergo it. The cinema as a spectacle aimed at a digesting object is the highest point that can be reached by bourgeois film-making. The world, experience, and the historic process are enclosed within the frame of a painting, the stage of a theatre, and the movie screen; man is viewed as a consumer of ideology, and not as the creator of ideology. This notion is the starting point for the wonderful interplay of bourgeois philosophy and the obtaining of surplus value. The result is a cinema studied by motivational analysts, sociologists and psychologists, by the endless researchers of the dreams and frustrations of the masses, all aimed at selling movie-life, reality as it is conceived by the ruling classes.

The first alternative to this type of cinema, which we could call the first cinema, arose with the so-called `author’s cinema,’ `expression cinema,’ `nouvelle vague,’ `cinema novo,’ or, conventionally, the second cinema. This alternative signified a step forward in­asmuch as it demanded that the film-maker be free to express himself in non-standard language and in­ as much as it was an attempt at cultural decolonisation. But such attempts have already reached, or are about to reach, the outer limits of what the system permits.

The second cinema film-maker has remained `trapped inside the fortress’ as Godard put it, or is on his way to becoming trapped. The search for a market of 200,000 moviegoers in Argentina, a figure that is supposed to cover the costs of an independent local production, the proposal of developing a mechanism of industrial production parallel to that of the System but which would be distributed by the System according to its own norms, the struggle to better the laws protecting the cinema and replacing `bad officials’ by `less bad.’ etc., is a search lacking in viable prospects, unless you consider viable the prospect of becoming institutional­ised as `the youthful, angry wing of society’ – that is, of neo-colonialised or capitalist society.

Real alternatives differing from those offered by the System are only possible if one of two requirements is fulfilled: making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System. Neither of these requirements fits within the alternatives that are still offered by the second cinema, but they can be found in the revolutionary opening towards a cinema outside and against the System, in a cinema of liberation: the third cinema.

(Towards a Third Cinema Notes and experiences for the development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, Tricontinental no. 13, 1969, translation by Julianne Burton).

The ‘second cinema’ includes what is described as ‘auteur films’ and also aspects of ‘national cinemas’. One example is cinema novo; this was influenced by the French nouvelle vague, there are fundamental differences, not just of style but of treatment and assumptions.

An equally important distinction arises because Fernando Solanas, by himself, wrote a ‘clarification’ on the original manifesto. This changes the emphasis given to the various types of cinema characterised in the Manifesto.

First cinema expresses imperialist, capitalist, bourgeois ideas. Big monopoly capital finances big spectacle cinema as well as authorial and informational cinema. Any cinematographic expression … likely to respond to the aspirations of big capital, I call first cinema. Our definition of second cinema is all that expresses the aspirations of the middle stratum, the petit bourgeoisie…

Second cinema is often nihilistic, mystificatory. It runs in circles. It is cut off from reality. In the second cinema, just as in the first cinema, you can find documentaries, political and militant cinema. So-called author cinema often belongs in the second cinema, but both good and bad authors may be found in the first and in the third cinemas as well. For us, third cinema is the expression of a new culture and of social changes. Generally speaking, Third Cinema gives an account of reality and history. It is also linked with national culture … It is the way the world is conceptualised and not the genre nor the explicitly political character of a film which makes it belong to Third Cinema … Third Cinema is an open category, unfinished, incom­plete. It is a research category. It is a democratic, national, popular cinema. Third Cinema is also an experimental cinema, but it is not practised in the solitude of one’s home or in a laboratory because it conducts research into communication. What is required is to make that Third Cinema gain space, everywhere, in all its forms … But it must be stressed that there are 36 different kinds of Third Cinema. (Reprinted in L’Influence du troisienre cinema dans le monde, ed. by CinemaAction, 1979.)

Now we no longer have the specific references to particular film movements, including such as cinema novo which I would define as national. And the particular point is made that ‘Third Cinema’ is linked to ‘national culture’.

This issue becomes clearer if we look at the major political influence on the Manifesto by Solanas and Getino. The key work here is Frantz Fanon’s On National Culture Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom (in The Wretched of the Earth, 1965). Fanon describes three phases in the consciousness of the intellectual or artist in relation to the anti-colonial struggle.

In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power. …

In the second phase we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is. …

Finally, in the third phase, which is called the fighting phase, the native, after trying to lose himself in the people and with the people, will on the contrary shake the people. (Translation by Constance Parkington in the 1963 Penguin edition).

Clearly Fanon’s original words need to be amended to avoid gender determination as does the Manifesto. However, whilst Solanas and Getino did not use Fanon’s concept in exactly the same way, his thought clearly marks their set of categories. The idea of falling under the hegemony of the colonial power, of progressing to a sense of the indigenous culture and its history, but finally breaking free to struggle for a new, autonomous culture is central both to Fanon and to Towards a Third Cinema. Fanon’s ‘first phase’ is rather different from the uses of ‘auteur’: it is worth noting that auteur is predominantly of French derivation. Thus it is part of the coloniser’s language. Interestingly in Africa the common designation of auteur occurs in what was known as ‘Francophone’ Africa. I find this relates to an important point that Fanon makes earlier in the article distinguishing between the struggle in advanced capitalist states and states that are under colonial or neo-colonial rule.

“…little by little the American Negroes realized that the essential problems confronting them were not the same as those confronted by the African Negroes. The Negroes of Chicago only resemble the Nigerians or the Tanganyikans in so far as they were all defined in relation to the whites. But once the comparisons had been made and subjective feelings were assuaged, the American Negroes realized that the objective problems were fundamentally heterogeneous. The test cases of civil liberty whereby both whites and blacks in America try to drive back racial discrimination have very little in common in their principles and objectives with the heroic fight of the Algerian people against the detestable Portuguese colonialism.”

Fanon’s point here is in line with the Marxist-Leninist position of a distinction between the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and the class struggle of proletarians and peasants against occupation, military or economic, in a colonial system. The world situation has moved on as have a number of the terms used in these discourses. But the essential point seems to me to be still valid. Despite the tendency by some writers to use terms like ‘post-colonial’ both colonial occupations and neo-colonial exploitation and oppression continue today. Whilst Towards a Third Cinema defines this category as ‘anti-colonial’ the Manifesto appears to include film work from the advanced capitalist states and from colonial and neocolonial states in the definition. It uses the term ‘consumer societies’ which strikes me as a rather vague term. One early example from such a society is is ‘a US New Left film group’, another later example is ‘Cinegiornali liberi in Italy’. Whilst it is true that film-makers in the former states often support the anti-colonial struggle the Manifesto does not seem to include the clear distinction that Fanon offers. I get a sense that both are included in some way in this Third Cinema.

Commentaries on the Manifesto frequently include film-makers working in colonising states such as Europe or North America. I tend to restrict Third Cinema to film-makers working in a situation of National Liberation Struggle, this being the struggle against direct occupation or economic and political domination.

If I can take a practical example. I have posted a piece on films in black townships under Apartheid regime. I was prompted to do this by viewing and reviewing the South African / UK film production Mandela Long Road to Freedom (2013). I argued that this film merely dramatised the reformist politics that characterised the settlement the ANC made with the Apartheid regime. One could characterise this with Fanon’s criticism of the limitation of the national bourgeoisie. This Mandela biopic is not really a work of an auteur in a cinematic sense. If there is an authorial strand, then it comes from the book by Mandela himself. However it seems to me that the film does express a national bourgeois set of values. The values of the film would appear to be those inscribed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During the Apartheid era one can identify films along these lines and the rarer films that take offer a full opposition to the system.

A film from an advanced capitalist state, Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987), can be placed within a cinema of auteurs. The film is based on the book by Donald Woods but the film that it appears to most closely resemble is Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). And both of those films offer a sequence of liberal protest against violence that recalls The Angry Silence (1959) produced by Richard Attenborough. Certainly the political projects of these latter films differ from those of the Mandela film. The latter presents actual violent resistance to the Apartheid regime, a settler regime in line with neocolonialism. The former has almost no violent resistance and the ordinary black Africans appear as victims of the system.

For me the terms in Towards a Third Cinema remain problematic: I incline to use alternative terms – dominant cinema: auteur cinema: national cinema: and oppositional cinema. These terms for me also need to be informed by the distinction between those film produced in the advanced capitalist states and those produced in states that are the objects of colonial and neo-colonial action. It seems to me that a debate on the terms and their significance is part of revisiting Third Cinema.

Posted in Films of Liberation, Manifesto | 4 Comments »

For an Imperfect Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on September 5, 2011

Julio Garcia Espinosa was a member of the radical University group Nuestro Tiempo. After visiting Italy and being impressed by the neo-realist films he made a documentary about Charcoal Burners, El Megano. Baptista’s police banned it because it gave an unacceptable but realistic image of Cuba. After the revolution he was involved in filmmaking but also in the debates in ICAIC about the correct way to develop revolutionary film. Out of this came a critical essay, For an Imperfect Cinema, which remains one of the most important theoretical statements in Latin American cinema. An imperfect cinema is one that eschews technical perfection. Espinosa does not argue that technical and artistic perfection are wrong in them. He argues that they can become ends in themselves: both for filmmakers and audiences. Aesthetic perfection can demand of spectators that they only passively view and enjoy. An imperfect cinema is one that addresses the issues and interests of its audience. It therefore requires audiences that participate in that art.
“ Popular art has absolutely nothing to do with what is called mass art. Popular art needs and consequently tends to develop the personal, individual taste of a people. On the other hand, mass art, (or art for the masses), requires the people have not taste. It will only be genuine when it is actually the masses who create it, since at present it is art produced by the few for the masses.” Espinosa’s argument is two-fold: that audiences must be involved in making the meanings of films, rather than just consuming them. Hence the sort of film represented by Memories of Underdevelopment, where the audiences has to read and interpret. He is also looking forward to developments that will enable audiences to be involved in making films.
“ The task currently at hand is to find out if the conditions which will enable spectators to transform themselves into agents – not merely more active spectators, but genuine co-authors – are beginning to exist.” His arguments clearly parallel those made by Solanas and Getino in their manifesto and by Sanjinés in his. It also shares an approach to cultural activity with Fanon and the authors of the Algiers Declaration. The argument is about artistic criteria, which should be seen to be not aesthetic or entertainment values, but political and ideological.

 Jump Cut provides a translation by Julianne Burton.

 

Posted in Manifesto | 2 Comments »