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Neruda – poetry – Chile.

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘the median is the message.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last stanza runs,

“To all and everyone

to all I don’t know, who’ll never

hear this name,  to those who live

along our long rivers

at the foot of volcanoes, in the sulphuric

copper shadow, to fishermen and peasants

to blue indians on the shore

of lakes sparkling like glass,

to the shoemaker who at this moment questions,

nailing leather with ancient hands,

to you, to whomever without knowing it has waited for

me,

I belong and recognise and sing.”

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

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

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

They go on to point out that;

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

civil-war-end-july-1936-jpg

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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Reports from the ‘Third World’!

Posted by keith1942 on January 9, 2016

Map-_-first-second-third-world

This article was written in the 1990s as a study of a cycle of films that predominately featured in the 1980s. The article uses the term ‘Third World’, a problematic term. What is being discussed are the experiences among the oppressed peoples and nations. However, ‘Third World’ was a common term at the time and frequently figured in the comments on these films. As is often the case it did not always carry the same meaning: but a common usage was that ‘1st’ meant advanced capitalist countries; ‘2nd’ countries identified as socialist; ‘3rd’ countries under colonialism or neo-colonialism. In that sense the films I discuss are ‘1st’, and the targets are ‘3rd’. Note also this is not the same as the terms used in Third Cinema. The films I disucss below are all part of the dominant cinema.

I tried to publish this article several times and failed. So to the Blog: because it is quite long I am posting it in chapters.

The Back-Story

The depiction of those exotic lands beyond the imperialist homelands is a long established stock in trade of European and North American films. From the earliest days of the movies their makers have titillated audiences with images of the “dark continents”, the “strange, different peoples”, and their “unusual, bizarre, and often violent” cultures.  Over its century of history and development the dominant cinema, sited in those capitalist countries lying either side of the Atlantic, has been an important source for the preconceptions and prejudices held by the mainly white populations of the major imperialist powers.  The heyday of this imperial cinema was in the 1930’s. Then, in both England and the United States, a steady stream of cinemagoers watched films like Sanders of the Rivers [UK 1935], in which the calm but authoritative white colonial administrator dominated the loyal black chiefs and the black dissidents who dared to oppose him.  Or they sat through Gunga Din [US 1939] in which the equally calm, but much more dashing army sergeants, with their sycophantic Indian underling, defeated the black and malevolent rebels on the frontier. These films presented unquestioningly to the audience the values which expressed the economic and political dominance of white Europe over its black empires.  This viewpoint was viciously racist, regarding all black, yellow, brown and red peoples as intellectually inferior, prone to unthinking violence and in need of both stern supervision and clear guidance. By 1945 a slight change is visible. In Men of Two Worlds [UK 1946] the central figure is a black musician, Kisenga [Robert Adams], but, although educated in Europe, he is still not totally free from the influence of superstition.  At the crisis point of the film his life is saved from the menace of a ju-ju when the villagers sing Kisenga’s own music, but the choir is organised by the white district officer.  When the same tribe move off to the happy ending in a new, tetse fly free village, it is a home selected, organised and ruled by the white colonial system.  The independence the film attributes to the black African tribe is strictly circumscribed.  And the representation of black people is only less obvious in its racism, in the supposition of their superstitious ignorance and childlike misunderstanding of the modern world.

The Wilby Conspiracy

The Wilby Conspiracy

Such a film provided a reflection of changing economic and political realities as colonialism gave way to neo-colonialism. And as direct rule was replaced by the home grown puppets, and military occupation by economic dictat, so the fictional world of film acquired its black leaders (The Wild Geese UK 1978), and the black and white co-operative venture (The Wilby Conspiracy UK 1975). By the 1980’s the sympathetic portrayal of black heroes and heroines from amongst the oppressed peoples was approaching a norm, and thus we enjoyed an abundance of films which centred on the so-called ‘Third World’, and appeared to view it in a supportive way. I want to argue that many of these liberal (a common description) movies, whilst they appear to be a great advance on the 1930’s, are under the surface still imperialist and racist. They have merely changed the form of representation in line with the changed but continuing exploitation of the oppressed peoples. I have selected a cycle of films that appear to share not only this value system but also a common narrative structure, plot devices and representations (see references). In each of the films the audience is presented with a story of oppression and resistance sited in a ‘Third World’ country. The guide to this story is a westerner, a white, male journalist. He arrives, becomes involved, in some way helps the oppressed in their struggle, then he leaves. In the course of the struggle both innocents and/or a leader die in the cause. These stories are thus melodramas of protest, with

“the blood of the martyrs sewing the seeds of resistance” (Michael Walker in Melodrama and the American Cinema in  MOVIE Issue 29/30, 1988).

The melodrama of protest is the classic structure for depicting and condemning oppression and for eliciting sympathy and defiance on behalf of the oppressed. In such structures we are encouraged to identify with victims of oppression, the outrage engendered by their suffering moves us to support defiance and resistance to the oppressor, [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, US 1975 is the example that has enjoyed the greatest box-office success]. Yet in the movies discussed below the oppression is suffered uniformly by black people whose rescue is effected by whites. The lynchpin of these stories is the intervention by the western journalist. Where there is a success, the actions of the journalist are a key factor; where there is defeat the journalist leaves, taking the narrative with him. It is an image of liberation wholly centred on the viewpoint of the west. It directly contradicts the ideas generated in the struggle by some of the most noted leaders involved in Liberation, like Steve Biko, Pablo Freire and [most importantly Franz Fanon]. Yet the films use some of these icons as part of the story-line; Steve Biko is supposedly the subject of Cry Freedom (UK 1987) ; Salvador, USA 1985) features a literacy class obviously modelled on Friere’s work.

Cry Freedom

Cry Freedom

The fact that they treat of such historical figures and of well-known historical events is yet another problem. Regardless of disclaimers (like those made by Richard Attenborough at a screening in 1987) audiences are encouraged on entering the cinema to see the films as dramatisations of real-life events. The publicity for the films emphasise this angle; The Year of Living Dangerously (Australia 1982) poster tells us “Jakarta May 11 1965”; and Cry Freedom’s marketing laid great stress on the story of a friendship between two men, one still living. The latter’s marketing was assisted by two TV programmes about Steve Biko and five freshly printed paperbacks on him or Black Consciousness. The use of the media as a central device adds to this pressure. The films are full of recognisable media techniques, photographic stills in Under Fire, teleprinter titles in Cry Freedom and the TV news’ rhetoric of The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields (UK 1984).  Whatever the intentions of their makers, these films to greater or lesser degree blur the distinctions between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Yet, while not all the film’s content is total fiction, neither is much of it an uncontested record of events.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

Most importantly the films present themselves (in the manner of classic narratives) as unproblematic, disguising their exaggeration, compression and distortion of events with a seamless development built up by sophisticated techniques of story telling, of use of camera, of sound. The position they offer the audience defines good and evil, hero and villain, right and might without the difficulties of counter argument. They are entirely innocent of an awareness of their own set of values, not necessarily shared by others. They certainly fail to reflect the very different values held by many people among the oppressed they claim to sympathise with and support. Whilst working within mainstream cinema conventions, it is clear that these films are not to be treated as mere entertainment. Many of the reviews discussed both their ‘political message’, and their ‘historical veracity’. They have an overt political content unusual for commercial cinema. This was probably one factor in their limited box-office success, only The Killing Fields was an international hit. But while they did not equal the audiences for Spielberg-style movies, they did appeal to a specifically critical group of viewers. In cinema, and later on video, cable and television, they were marketed to a politically literate audience. UIP, for example, commissioned a survey on the awareness of apartheid in the USA before the production of Cry Freedom. The media attention connected with the films’ overt political projects included TV programmes exploring aspects of their version of history. The Killing Fields is a notable example and its title has entered popular language as a clinched description. Yet, with few exceptions, this critical discussion has not analysed how the film’s entertainment conventions affect these political discourses. The cycle appears to end, or at least change its form, by the end of the 1980s. The explanation for this would seem to lie in the internal collapse in the Soviet Empire and the consequent unfettered policing of the world by the USA. The Gulf War is the most notable and vicious example of such policing. With no imperialist power remotely approaching its dominance, the USA ordered, cajoled and bullied a line-up of states into the assault on Baghdad. This included both ’Third World’ states and Arab states, the much-vaunted ‘third way’ appears to have collapsed without Soviet support. The cultural effects of these changes go beyond the cycle I describe, for instance, into ’Third Cinema’. So in a subsequent essay I shall detail examples of both ‘third cinematic’ treatments of these stories, an alternative: and examples from the mainstream in the 1990s, which, I believe, have important differences.

THE NARRATIVE.

A shot and Russell Price will pick up the gun

A shot and Russell Price will pick up the gun

The clearest generic expression is found in Under Fire, a 1983 film from the USA. Photojournalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte) goes to cover the war against Somoza’s dictatorship in Nicaragua. He is an ace professional photographer, announced by his colour photo cover on Life magazine, and, “I’m not taking sides, I take pictures..” However, Nicaragua is different, so he breaks his rules – by taking a photograph of the dead Sandinista leader Rafael, in order to convince the world that Somoza has not succeeded in eliminating him.  Strengthened by this device the Sandinista’s army of freedom approaches the capital. Russell again takes a picture of a dead man, his journalist friend Alex (Gene Hackman), shot by Somoza’s National Guard. Pursued by Somoza’s army, his girlfriend Claire (Joanne Cassidy) and a young Nicaraguan help by carrying the roll of film to Russell’s hotel, and the appearance of the story on TV signals the end for Somoza, who flees the country.  Russell and Claire leave after watching the triumphal entry of the Sandinista into Managua.  The story’s structure clearly shows how the film presents this white, male, western journalist as the key to the success of the struggle. In the course of the film we see his conversion from a detached professional to committed sympathiser. It is his actions that drive forward both the story-line and the filmic struggle against oppression. Thus at the film’s end he can leave having help make possible liberty and democracy, both ideals that the western media regularly presents as the preserve of the west.

In Cry Freedom it is the editor Donald Woods [Kevin Kline] who fulfils this role. At the end of the film we see him flying from South Africa carrying his book which will tell the world about Steve Biko and his death, the implication being that by this act change will be bought to the suffering masses of South Africa. This point is confirmed with the roll call that follows of black activists murdered by the Apartheid State, of the black leadership dead or imprisoned. The only remaining hope is our planeload of white liberals.

In Circle of Deceit (West Germany/France, 1981), Salvador and War Zone the journalists leave peoples still divided and suffering, but they also leave with a scoop, either a news-story or unique film footage. It is as if only by telling the story does this suffering really exist. In The Year of Living Dangerously the hero, Guy Hamilton [Mel Gibson], also leaves Jakarta bloody and under military dictatorship, he carries no story but the equal prize of a beautiful heroine. Thus the 1960 slaughters of the archipelago are converted into a darkly romantic backdrop for these media tourists. In The Killing Fields Schanberg leaves and returns, to witness the escape of his Kapuchean buddy from imprisonment. In this version the “Third World” is graphically depicted as a place of violence and suffering, from which not only westerners, but the indigenous people flee.

What is common about all these story-lines is the negative presentation of the “Third World”, from which all the main characters exit, by choice or by death. Of course, oppressed countries are places of poverty, violence and suffering, but in each case these are specific to particular exploitative relations, usually with the very country from which the film’s hero comes. In The Killing Fields its makers specifically chose to play down the role of US military intervention;

“He [Roland Joffe – director] also went to some lengths to strip out any anti-Americanism which inevitably colour any consideration of South-East Asia. He points out that, although the American bombing clearly boosted the power of the Khmer Rouge, the Americans had no part in the murderous ideology which the Pol Pot regime proceeded to implement.” [BFI]

While the CIA’s well-known misdemeanours are featured in Under Fire and Salvador, The Year of Living Dangerously blithely passes over this. A similar problem is found in the absence of any reference in Cry Freedom of the West’s support for the Apartheid regime. What we get is a sympathetic embassy official [Alec McGowan] offering the fleeing Woods’ family “a cup of tea”.

Melodrama frequently waters down the political edge of stories by a concentration on the individual and personal; thus, these films treat the larger questions very selectively. The most positive of the cycle is Salvador where visceral images of violence and death are counterpoised with explicit denunciation of USA policy. However, even here the film in the end comes down to the Yankee point of view;

“I don’t want to see America get another bum rap [the first being Vietnam!]”.[the film’s hero Richard Boyle].

This viewpoint is endorsed by the film when in its later stages, it equates guerrilla ‘atrocities’ with those of the Salvadoran army.

Reporters in Salvador.

Reporters in Salvador.

The same simplification applies to the little political analysis found in the films. In Under Fire Russell and Joanna attempt to explain to Alex their sudden active sympathy for the rebels. To do so they break curfew and show Alex a statue of Somoza in the main square, explaining it is actually of Mussolini, bought cheap in Italy and subjected to a head transplant.  This feeble equation of very different fascists regimes entirely misses the point about the political economy of Nicaragua. Hollywood has always had problems delineating political positions, hence the device [common to such films] in Cry Freedom of turning Biko’s explanation of Black Consciousness into a series of edited phrases dwarfed by the photogenic location. In none of the films is the viewer ever given a substantial detailing of the character’s political positions; we are expected to judge them by their actions.

THE MASSES.

Black people in these films are associated with lack of autonomy and the experience of being victims. Worse, the films uniformly see these oppressed countries as sites of mindless violence. Thus The Killing Fields publicity hand-outs state;

“The war unleashed an underlying savagery in the Cambodians that had lain dormant for centuries. Indolent, gentle and smiling the Khmers may have seemed, but as Bernard-Phillipe Groslier, the distinguished French archaeologist observed: ‘Beneath a carefree surface there slumber savage forces and disconcerting cruelties which may blaze up in outbreaks of passionate cruelty.” [BFI]

Stereotyping peoples in this way inevitably leads to the narrative flight that ends most of the films. Historically westerners have fled many of these countries, quite often chased out by the oppressed. But a supposedly sympathetic view should offer something more.

Beirut in Circle of Dec eit

Beirut in Circle of Deceit

An equal penchant for savagery typifies the films set in the Lebanon. A gunman casually offers to shoot a passer-by by for photojournalist Hoffman [Jerry Skolimowski] in Circle of Deceit. The virtual remake, War Zone, has an Israeli Officer trying to warn the Palestinians of the Camp massacres by the Phalangist. The violence is attributed to the oppressed, western [e.g. Israeli] violence glossed over.  What the cycle of films fails to offer is any understanding or explanation for the popular support and participation these struggles enjoyed. In Palestine the Intifada was driven forward by the mass of the people, with the PLO struggling behind. Similarly, in the black African townships of the late seventies rebellious youth was far more radical than the formally organised movements like the ANC. No such ethos is apparent in these films. The masses provide cheering, suffering or dying support for the chosen individuals celebrated by the media: suitably cleaned up and dressed up, as in the Swot demonstration sequence from Cry Freedom. The self-activating action preached by Biko, Freire and others never surfaces.

GENDER.

Salvador, the woman's typical place!

Salvador, the woman’s typical place!

If black people get a raw deal in these movies so do women, even those selected as heroines. They are very much the emotional and political handmaidens of the male heroes. In The Year of Living Dangerously it is Jill [Sigourney Weaver] who makes the mistake, Guy who discovers it. Claire in Under Fire reports all the stories that Russell photographs, but while we see his photos we never hear her stories.  Most markedly in Cry Freedom we have a powerful scene where Donald and Wendy Woods [Penelope Wilton] argue over his decision to leave South Africa; her arguments are about home and family, his about politics.  Yet it was Wendy Woods who first took an interest in Black Consciousness and Steve Biko; her feminism made her more open to these new and threatening ideas than her husband (Farrar, 87). Some awareness of the problem does creep into the better films, thus in Salvador the film opens with the enforced leaving of the USA of Boyle’s Italian wife [Maria Rubell]; at the film’s end his new women, Maria [Elpedia Carrillo], is dragged from a bus by US immigration – obviously the USA is a bad place for black women. But even here the casting of Carrillo, who played a similar role in The Honorary Consul [UK 1983], reinforces her image as an object for Boyle and other men. Overall, these films never get to grips with the subordination of their women, despite their supposed fight against oppression.

THE MEDIA.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

The subjects of this film cycle are very much those on the agenda of the western media; South Africa, Latin America, the Lebanon and Kampuchea. Indonesia gets coverage, but not East Timor; and the 30-year struggle in Eritrea failed to make it. Vietnam, where the imperialist power lost, has films with reporters but they either fall outside this cycle or treat the journalists differently. Thus The Green Berets (1968) has the journalist validating the military. And in Full Metal Jacket (1987) the reporter is actually serving in the US Army.

Even in the countries featured there is a problem. The critical strand in these movies is directed at the media, not the imperialism it serves. Early in Cry Freedom Steve Biko criticises the affluent life of Donald Woods and invites him to see the reality of the Black township. Similar contrasts are made regarding Schanberg and Boyle. The style of the films re-inforces this, comparing the luxury hotels of the journalists with the stark poverty of the indigenous people. Russell Price and John Cassady [John Savage, the photojournalist with Boyle in Salvador], not only incessantly drive round in cars, but on every occasion of death and destruction leap for their cameras. This is at its most repellent as Boyle and Cassady discuss taking photographs against a grisly pile of murdered Salvadorans. Its extreme symbol is Guy Hamilton, whose blindness to the local world he passes through is epitomised by the loss of sight in one eye. This film is full of characters who hide behind dark sunglasses, their vision impenetrable to the onlooker.

Such criticism fails to grapple with the actual role of the western media, whose relationship with the oppressed is not just distant or unsympathetic, but actively justifies imperialist relations. Both the recent Gulf War and the occupation in Somalia are graphic demonstrations of this. Moreover, the films let the heroes off the hook by a melodramatic conversion that turns them into good guys. So Russell Price fails to tell the Sandinista of a hidden US mercenary, who, minutes later, shoots a youth in the back. For the first time in the movie Russell reaches not for his camera, but a gun. Guilt has made him change sides. In the same way Woods and Boyle change their allegiance, and Schanberg attempts atonement. Not one of these acts addresses the actual social relationships that engender the oppression, or that are likely to end it.

 

Genre and style

The films tend to follow the conventions of mainstream cinema. One of th einfleun ces on some, but not all, of the film is film noir. This is especuially noticeable in Circle of Deceit, The Killing Fields, Salvador, Under Fire, War Zone and The Year of Living Dangerously. Circle of Deceit and The Year of Living Dangerously both employ a narrative voice and a senseof the ‘confessional mode’. All these films use chiaroscuro and the contrast between light and shadow. In these, and indeed to a degree in the other films, the hero ventures into a world of chaos from which it is uncertain whether or not he will merger safely. In fact uniformly we have the ‘seeker hero’ who survives, though not always unscathed. Strictly speaking there are no femme fatales. However, there are siren objects that draw the hero into chaos. Quite often this is the journalistic ‘pot of gold’; an interview with a ‘terrorist leader’ in Circle of Deceit; the iconic rebel leader in Under Fire; a possible coup d’etat in The Year of Dangerously. The noir style reinforces the tendency of these films to represent lands and people’s as ‘other’ and threatening.

 Alternative films

There are other western film with a sharper political edge. One of the earliest was Costas-Gavros’ Missing [1982] about the US backed coup in Chile. Here the hero is not a journalist, but a father seeking his lost son. While the film is powerful both on the vicious repression and US involvement, it avoids the issue by its failure to identify Chile in the text. Circle of Deceit is an art-house film, with a fittingly ambiguous narrative. However, despite lacking a Hollywood style closure at its end, it does share the negative representations of the mainstream films. Some other independent productions grapple more successfully with an alternative set of values.

Hidden Agenda

Hidden Agenda

Hidden Agenda (UK 1990) has an investigation by lawyers [rather than journalists] of a ‘shoot to kill’ incident in the occupied north of Ireland. Here the media devices appear in the shape of tapes, photographs and reports. The film does point to the British occupation of the six counties in northern Ireland, but it fails to grapple with the real issues. Republicanism and Unionism are reduced to stereotypes; the fears of the plot are mainly about the British State, not British colonialism. What the film does do is centre on a woman as the narrative figure fighting oppression. This gives a political edge, to both the story and the characterisation, missing from the main cycle. This film alos has a touch of the noir.

Another fine protest melodrama, the Canadian Diplomatic Immunity (1991), also uses gender to increase its political edge.  In the flashback by a journalist we hear the story of a woman diplomat Kim [Wendel Meldrum] in El Salvador; she tries to use an aid project to really help the ordinary local people, mainly women and children whose husbands are dead or imprisoned. By the climax of the film she is forced to choose between her western aid methods and direct action by the people themselves. In a moving sequence she joins them in a besieged church, and with the western media, witnesses the state’s and the army’s capitulation – the people are returned to their own village in guerrilla-occupied territory. The final twist sees her Salvadoran soul-mate Sara [Ofelia Medina] executed and her own exit from El Salvador and diplomacy. Yet even here, as in Hidden Agenda, the politics of liberation receive little serious consideration, and the film plays to its audience through the centrality of the Canadian heroine and her English-speaking middle class friend. The film’s very concentration on gender means that it fails to give due attention to anti-imperialism. All three films fail to break out of the dominant mould.

For films that address these struggles from a radically different perspective we need to turn to the oppressed peoples themselves. While many utilise indigenous narrative forms to tell their critical stories, a number have made good use of the melodrama of protest format. A Place for Weeping (South Africa 1986) is one of a number of films produced by Anant Singh and directed by Daniel Roodt. The films tend to a reformist stance but are notable for engaging with the struggle of the oppressed black majority under the Apartheid State. In this film an Afrikaan famer, out on the remote Veldt, beats one of his black workers to death. His colleagues and family are cowed, but one local woman, Grace (Gcina Mhlope, tries to persuade them to report the murder to the police. Into this situation comes journalist Philip Seago (James Whylie), sent out in the sticks to cover a story about ‘faction  fighting’ amongst Zulu and other black communities. This seemingly conventional plot situation is undercut by Seago’s ineffectualness in assisting Grace and his naive trust in Afrikaan officials. And then the armed ‘faction’ turns out to be armed rebels planning to wage conflict against the white racists. There is a scene where its leader and Grace argue about armed versus peaceful struggle. By the film’s climax Seago has been badly beaten up by the local farmers and Grace and her one witness murdered. The final scene shows the farmer’s car halted by the armed black rebels. There is the sound of a gunshot as the screen goes black. A powerfully different moment from the  mainstream dramas.

Mapantsula

Mapantsula

One of the most interesting filmic alternatives was made in South Africa in the same period as the above film and Cry Freedom, Mapantsula (1988) deals with life in the black townships, a township rebellion, and the treatment of black people by the South African State. It is also centrally about Black Consciousness, allowing one to read any number of parallels with Attenborough’s anti-apartheid movie. The film’s title translates as ‘wide boy’, and tells the story of a small-time crook in a complex flashback structure, so that the audience is only able to slowly unravel the plot.

Much of the film is set in a police detention block, where it is apparent that the political prisoners despise the hero, Panic [Thomas Mogotlane]. Gradually we discover how Panic is drawn into township resistance as his girlfriend Pat [Thembi Mtshali] becomes politicised. Towards the end of the film we watch as Panic, against the mores of his trade, helps in a mother’s search for her child, probably murdered in a police round up. In this way the film involves the audience in Panic’s growing commitment to Black Consciousness. In the final scene Panic, though threatened with prison and death, says no to his white captors and their inducements to act as paid informer. It is a gesture of suicide, but also of black solidarity. Having followed Panic through his trials and his conversion I find this moment one of great uplift and emotion [it is also strongly reminiscent of Eisenstein’s Strike (Stacha USSR 1924), and the flashback structure would seem to be a modern version of Eisenstein’s precepts for montage and the soundtrack follows, in part, the behests of the Sound and Image manifesto of 1928].]. What is equally important is the force of the moment, the audience know with Panic what his captors do not; that the video screened by the police as incriminating evidence is actually evidence of his conversion. In this way the changes in Panic are given a political context. Mapantsula was made covertly by black people in Soweto. The film’s viewing in Azania was limited to video with an age restriction on the grounds,

“younger viewers lack the ability to distinguish between propaganda and all the relevant facts of the situation.”

Of course, all the films discussed in this article are propaganda in the sense given by common usage], but that is a fact rarely admitted by the makers, the censors or the media critics who tend to discuss such artefacts at some distance from the class struggle reality which the people involved experience. As propaganda in the socialist sense (a complex treatment for engaged audiences] Mapantsula can be justly criticised on several points, most noticeably on its failure to deal with the different political tendencies in the South African struggle; differences which have been a crucial factor in the direction of that struggle. However, even with its limitations, Mapantsula is political light years away from Attenborough and company.

So are the many other fine films from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately, the nearest an audience often gets to them is in some scene or motif lifted by a western variant. Both Under Fire and Salvador use sequences which certainly look modelled on the earlier work of the revolutionary film-maker Jorge Sanjines [in particular The Principal Enemy / Jatun auka 1974 ]. At least television, in particular Channel 4 has made some recompense by screening such films for the late night audience. One of the more progressive activities liberal cineastes could perform would be to assist these films to a wider audience. When this point was put to Sir Richard Attenborough by a young black woman at a London Film Festival screening of Cry Freedom, he replied

“it was no use showing films in an art house cinema to two men and a dog” (Attenborough, 87).

He would do well to note that despite censorship films like Mapantsula have enjoyed large, popular audiences.

Sanjines writes in the Theory and Practice of a Cinema with the People,

“We can no longer make films that, though they may look upon the culture of our peoples with respect, actually prevent them from fighting back. Our work must not only be in support of the people, sympathetic in parallel fashion, but it must also enter into dialectical interaction with them, because culture and tactics are woven together to form the strategy of the anti-imperialist struggle.” (Sanjines, 1989).

Sanjines and his comrades also build on the practice of Eisenstein and the revolutionary soviet filmmakers. Like them their film practice includes the screening and discussion of films with the workers and peasants, using among other instruments, a portable generator. Watching films like Attenborough’s in the new multi-plex may be very comfortable, but the work of film-makers like Sanjines is better for your mental health. Other examples use the tools of media investigation but remove the western journalist figure; freeing themselves to suggest other approaches to investigation. A powerful example from Argentina, in the tradition of the New Latin American Cinema, is Buenos Aires Vice Versa [1995]. Daniela and Mario are children of the disappeared. Daniela uses a domestic Hi-8 camera to record the city as it is now, but her filming leads her and us into a series of stories that can only be understood with reference to the violent past. These include an obsessive TV viewer, a blind girl, and an ex-policeman. After an hour of ambiguity Argentina’s past in the junta and the disappearances suddenly assumes centre stage. The climax confronts both that past, the present, and the media’s role between. It is a film that combines what is usually referred to as `Brechtian` narration with an absorbing and emotionally powerful drama.

Foreword and afterword

There are films whose plots fit this cycle but which fall outside the 1980s. The most interesting are two films, taken from the same source, but made years apart: in the 1950s and in the new century. The source is the novel by Graham Greene set in Vietnam in the 1950s, The Quiet American. This was the period when the French were still vainly trying to re-impose their colonial control. Kicked out by the Japanese in World War II they had managed to sneak back with the connivance of the British at the end of that conflict.

The heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people, under the leadership of Ho Chi Mien, is one of the most inspiring and most telling of the anti-colonial struggles of the period. Typically, whilst Greene’s novel treats the French and other transatlantic colonialists with a sardonic gaze, he does not really engage with the Vietnamese struggle. There is a sense of orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, in his original novel. The main protagonist is a typical Greene hero, Fowler, a disillusioned and disengaged British journalist stationed in Saigon. His foremost pre-occupation in his Vietnamese mistress Phuong. Fowler has a romantic view of Vietnam, even though he believes he s not a romantic but a cynical reporter. So he fits into a long line of European and especially English characters smitten by a love of the orient. This stance is also there in his representation of his mistress Phuong. She seems to be a more complex character than Fowler realises. Whilst he treats her as an autonomous character, at the same time he sees her, and the class of women to which he assigns her, as not exactly innocent, but lacking in sophistication. Note in the novel Phuong has very little English and speaks but does not write French,

The key aspect of the plot is that Fowler has his acquaintance struck up by the ‘quiet American’, Pyle. [Note it is Phuong who first describes Pyle as ‘quiet’]. Pyle is a typical Greene yank: naïve, ill informed of the world beyond the border of his country, and full of well-intentioned and misguided illusions regarding the Third World. The drama of the book develops as Pyle takes a shine to Phuong and offers her the marriage that Fowler is unable to offer. These personal relationships are complicated when Fowler discovers that Pyle is a CIA agent [the agency had only just acquired its new name] working with a ‘third force’ inside the South Vietnamese state. The outcome is partly tragic party ironic, again typical of Greene.

Pyle and Fowler - 1958

Pyle and Fowler – 1958

The first film adaptation was made in 1958 by an independent production Company, Figaro, though United Artists distributed it. The film was written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. He also produced the film, though unaccredited, and Figaro was his own production company. Mankiewicz started out as a screenwriter and progressed to direction. His output included 67 script credits, 22 directorial credits and 23 producer credits. He was very active in the 1950s, but there is not really another film in his output that parallels this work. I do not have a sense of why Mankiewicz and his colleagues adapted the book to film, though it was a successful novel. However, given the political climate of the time it does not appear to be an obvious choice for adaptation. The UK release was eleven minutes shorter than the US original but I have not found out what was cut or why.

At the time of the film’s release Greene was extremely critical:

Greene was furious; he called the 1958 film “a complete travesty”, “incoherent” and “a real piece of political dishonesty”. He also spoke of Mankiewicz’s “treachery”.

This was the period following the HUAC investigations of Hollywood and the blacklist was till in operation. Unsurprisingly Greene’s critique of US neo-colonialism was changed and distorted in this film.  The US involvement in Vietnam was still mainly covert. However, the dominant political line, articulated in Allan Dulles’ ‘domino theory’ saw US interests in attacking South East Asian liberation movements. Fowler spells out the ‘domino theory ‘ at one point in the book.

The film changes the representation of Phuong, who is played by an Italian actress, Giorgia Moll. Fowler describes her as ‘child-like’ to Pyle and seems to assume that she is both naïve and innocent. Also, Fowler’s indulgence in smoking opium is excised. Pyle is known only as the ‘young American’. This was probably due to Mankiewicz receiving advice from a CIA operative who may have been a model for the character in the book.

In other ways the film follows the main plot of the book. Indeed for the first 100 minutes viewers are likely to find Pyle exactly as Fowler describes him. And as Fowler starts to discover the covert activities the film appears to follow the direction of Pyle’s guilt. Then in a turn-around Fowler is confronted with the ‘truth’. That in fact this quiet American was innocent and was set up by the Vietminh who used Fowler to eradicate him. The supposition seems to be that Fowler’s jealousy of Pyle is the main actor in his death.

One can understand Greene’s response. The resolution is heavy handed. It plays exactly like the sort of endings that were imposed under the Hay’s Code, which in fact was in its last years at this stage. This is a world away from the other film adaptations of Greene’s novels, The Third Man (1949) and Our Man in Havana (1959) where US naivety is pilloried. However, the film is unable to invoke the usual rescue by the westerner. At the film’s end, Pyle is dead, Fowler is guilt ridden and has lost Phuong. But he shows no sign of returning to his home in the west.

Fowler, Pyle and Phuong - 2002

Fowler, Pyle and Phuong – 2002

Unfortunately Graham Greene was not around to see the new adaptation of his book in 2002. This is much closer to the original: the plot is closer to the book in greater detail. Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle is at one the naïve yank in the East but also the action man who is capable of atrocities, bomb explosions that kill civilians. Phuong is much closer to the character in the book, and played by a Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen. She also has a greater command of English, presumably as an aid to audiences. And Michael Caine’s Thomas Fowler is recognisable as the cynical and also emotional protagonist of the novel.

By the end of the film we know that Pyle and his associates are involved in covert manipulations, which involves bombings depicted in graphic terms. And whilst Fowler’s motivations remained clouded there is not doubt that this CIA group are the sort of destabilising force that would haunt Vietnam for another decade and a half.

As in the book, Pyle dies, and Fowler regains Phuong, presumably to stay indefinitely in Vietnam. The film adds a montage at the close of newspaper articles recording the increasing US military involvement in the war: a point that emphasises more strongly than the novel the neo-colonial activities of the USA. The film, of course, enjoys the benefit of hindsight.

It is worth noting that both films show the influence of film noir. Both films follow the novel in using a flashback structure and the confessional mode. Both make extensive use of chiaroscuro and Fowler himself makes the comment of the conflict between light and darkness. Neither film has a femme fatale, the siren call is Vietnam and the Orient. However, in the 2002 version there is a sense that Phuong acts as a metaphor for Vientnam, beautiful but unknown. In both versions the protagonist descends into a world of chaos. In the 1958 version Fowler is a victim hero, live but dead emotionally. In the 2002 version Pyle becomes the victim hero whilst Fowler remains the seeker hero.

Neither film fits the cycle in that [apparently] the western protagonist does not leave. And neither is the protagonist a heroic character who aids the oppressed. That Fowler aids the Vietminh in the recent adaptation is by their doing and his motivation remains ambiguous. Moreover, the latter film has little sense of a liberation struggle against western colonialism. Like Greene’s novel it is critical of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism without really taking sides. However, it is a long way in political representation from the mainstream films in the cycle.

The ‘ur’ text

heart-of-darkness1

One can trace many of the stories and tellings in this study back to one, classical work – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. His novella was first published in 1899 and was based on a journey he made in command of a river steamer up the Congo, which was then part of what was euphemistically called the Congo Free State. Even by the standards of European colonialists in Africa the operation that was ruled over by Belgium’s King Leopold II was horrific. Possibly seven to ten million Africans in this territory were slaughtered by the Association Internationale Africaine and Leopold’s Force Publique. And many more were maimed and brutally treated. The behaviour of the European colonialists in the Congo was already known at the time, and became an international scandal thanks to the sterling efforts of another anti-colonial fighter, Roger Casement: murdered by the British State for his struggles to free Eire.

In Conrad’s novella the tale is narrator by a seaman, Marlow, to friends whilst relaxing on a boat moored in the Thames. He recounts a journey up the Congo River and his encounter with an agent of the Colonial company Kurtz. Kurtz is noted both for his success in expropriating ivory from the territory and in the brutality of his methods. It is worth noting that Kurtz was also a journalist before becoming an agent in the Congo. The behaviour of the Europeans is both brutal but they are also characterised by their greed, dissensions and bizarre behaviour. Marlow sees little cohesion among the Europeans in the encampments and as the boat travels up the Congo Dutch passengers fire wildly into the bush on several occasions. Note that Kurtz dies in the Congo but Marlow returns to Britain.

The book is a much studied text and one that has evoked very differing responses. Chino Achebe, the great African writer, described the novella as racist, because it depicted Africa as the ‘heart of darkness’. Achebe’s criticism has a certain amount of justification. The Africans in the novella are denied a voice. However, the book also seems to draw a parallel between the darkness of Africa and the darkness of the colonialist homelands, including Britain. Certainly Marlow was horrified and jaundiced by his exposure to the colonials methods in the Congo. And Kurtz’s last word in the novella are

‘The horror, the horror’.

I tend to the view that Conrad’s writing reflect the prejudices and bias of the time. In that sense his books reflects the racism of the colonialist culture whilst at the same time critiquing the practices which this involved. This is also true of some of the works that follow in his footsteps including some the films studied here.

Conrad’s novella has been extremely influential. To take one example, one can see traces of the earlier work in Graham Green’s The Quiet American. In particular Fowler makes a trip to the city of Phat Diem to observe the war. His experiences on a night patrol carry a strong flavour of the descriptions in Conrad’s work.

However, this earlier masterpiece has not really been addressed by cinema. The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). However, this is a very free adaptation and is some way removed from the source. Moreover, the film is even less engaged with the indigenous people and far more orientalist than Conrad’s original.

Tim Roth as Marlow

Tim Roth as Marlow

There is a 1993 Heart of Darkness by Turner Pictures. But whilst this film follows the plot of the novella fairly closely it has none of the poetry or comment. This sense is clear in the IMDB comment, “Joseph Conrad’s classic novel about greed and insanity”, which is no way describes the novella. Unfortunately Orson Welles never managed his project on the novel: it would likely have been superior.

There is however an alternative vision to that of Conrad in the film Sarraounia (1986). This was written and directed by Med Hondo; produced by his own company with support from Burkina Faso, Mauritania and France.. The action of the film takes place in  the area now occupied by Cameroon and is set in 1899. A French column of troops set out to ‘pacify’ the country, killing, burning and looting. They are finally confronted and defeated by the wily tactics of the Aznas, led by their warrior Queen Sarraounia. However, in an echo of Conrad’s book, the French colonialist also collapse because of their internal dissension and psychotic behaviour.

The film was shot in Techovision and is in Dyula, Peul, and French. I imagine that is it very difficult to see. It had a limited release in the UK by ICA Projects and it was screened in the early days of Channel Four, when the film selection was far more varied than now. This demonstrates the problems of seeing alternative visions. And the 1980s were far better than in 2016 for independent, foreign language films at the cinema.

There is a more recent documentary film on the actual historical events in the Congo Free State, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (2006).  This is based on the book of the same name by Adam Hochschild (1996). The book has incited some controversy, especially regarding the estimates of the victims of the rapacious rule. The Belgians destroyed many documents when, under international pressure, the area was transferred from the personal misrule of Leopold II to the Belgium State. Undoubtedly there were massive casualties among the Africans from murder, torture, mistreatment and imported diseases. This truly was a holocaust, worse than, but qualitatively little different from the actions of other European colonialists, British, French, German and Portuguese.

Photographic record of atrocities

Photographic record of atrocities

Yet there are few features or documentaries treating these subjects across the various cinemas: and this applies equally to the earlier holocaust of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The comparison with the film treatment of the several European holocausts is instructive. After a decade and a half of silence that perpetrated by the Third Reich on Jews, Eastern Europeans, Romany and Socialists has seen at least one major film treatment practically every year. Yet the main distinction in the last is that the victims were Europeans. [There were also African victims but they are rarely mentioned: see Ousmane-Sembène‘s Camp de Thiaroye (1988). In other respects, both in the strategy and tactics involved, what occurred in Europe imported the methods that had been developed and honed to brutal perfection in the colonies. So however you characterise Joseph Conrad and his famed novella it would seem that his European readers have moved on little from his day.

FILMS.

Circle of Deceit, West Germany/France 1981, Director: Volker Schlondorf. Script: Volker Schlondorf + David Williamson, Book by Nicolas Born.

Cry Freedom, UK 1987, Director Richard Attenborough. Script John Briley, developed from the book by Donald Woods.

The Killing Fields, UK 1984, Director Roland Joffe. Script Bruce Robinson, story by Clayton Frohman.

A Place of Weeping, South Africa 1986, Director Daniel Roodt. Script Daniel Roodt. Story Les Volpe.

The Quiet American, USA 1958. Director and script Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

The Quiet American, USA, Australia, Germany, France 2002. Director Phillip Noyce. Script Christopher Hampton.

Salvador, USA. 1986, Director: Oliver Stone. Script: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle, developed from book by R Boyle

Under Fire, USA 1983. Director: Roger Spottiswoode. Script: Ron Shelton, Clayton Frohman.

War Zone. West Germany 1986, Director: Nathaniel Gutman. Script: Hanan Peled. [Deals with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Chatila Camp massacre].

The Year of Living Dangerously, Australia 1982, Director Peter Weir. Script David Williamson, Peter Weir and C. J. Koch from the latter’s novel.

Other Western Produced Melodramas.

Hidden Agenda, UK 1990, Director Ken Loach, Script: Jim Allen.

Diplomatic Immunity, Canada 1991, Director Stephen Gunnarson, script Jim Lucas.

Missing, U.S.A. 1982, Director: Costa-Gavras, Script: Costa-Gavras, Donald Stewart.

Alternatives from the Oppressed Peoples. (Personal choice)

Mapantsula, South Africa 1988, Director Oliver Schmitz. Script: Oliver Schmitz, Thomas Mogotlane.

The Principal Enemy, Bolivia 1971, Directors Jorge Sanjines + the Ukamau Group.

Sarraounia: The Warrior Queen. Mauritania + Burkina Faso 1986. Director Med Hondo. Script Med Hondo.

SOURCES:

Mike Walker in Movie, Issue 29/30. On popular film melodrama, but the best writing on the Melodrama of Protest.

Richard Attenborough’s comments were made at the London Film Festival School screening 1987 and taken down by author. Max Farrar in a 1987  interview with Wendy Woods made the point regarding her politics.

Jorge Sanjines and the Ukamau Group Curbstone Press 1989. Theoretical writings and background on the cinema in Bolivia.

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SundayBloody Sunday, UK 2002.

Posted by keith1942 on July 11, 2015

bloody-sunday poster

Sunday was transmitted by Channel 4 on 28th January 2002: Bloody Sunday was transmitted by ITV on 20th January 2002 but it was also given a limited cinema release: both films deal with events in Derry on January 30th 1972. ITV gave Bloody Sunday  a fresh transmission recently which enabled me to revisit the film. It dealt with the massacre by British Paratroopers of civilians in Derry on that infamous date just over 40 years ago. There are, though, numerous ‘Bloody Sundays’ in modern world history: nearly always the attempted suppression of resistance to autocratic governments, frequently by colonial and neo-colonial administrations. An earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’ in the Irish Freedom Struggle was on November 21st 1920 when the Royal Irish Constabulary with the British military massacred civilians in Croke Park, Dublin. This was at the height of the War of Independence waged against the British occupation. An earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’ was on the 13th November 1887 in London; Irish nationalists, supported by the Social Democratic Federation, staged a protest which was violently suppressed by the British Police and British Army. There were subsequent demonstrations and there were numerous injuries to the marchers and later one death.

It says a lot for the political line of the Social Democratic Federation that they offered a clear support for the Irish Liberation Struggle: an example that has been followed only intermittently on the British Left. When we move to the C20th Labour Governments have been just as repressive as their Conservative counterparts. And this was true in the 1970s with the policy of interment, the main focus of protest for the March in Free Derry dramatised in the film. The events of that day have continued to be a long-running contest for truth and justice. Even now, following the recent Saville Inquiry, the whole truth of what occurred is not accepted and there has still been no serious action against the British Army for what was clearly a war crime.

The film was written and directed by Paul Greengrass, though it relied heavily on Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday (1997). Greengrass started out in Television working on Granada’s World in Action. Before Bloody Sunday he had already made one notable Television documentary, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999). Both films  are dramatizations, though they rely heavily on the records of the events. Bloody Sunday is the type of docu-drama that had become  common on British television in the 1990s. Another example of the treatment of the occupation of the six counties in the north of Eire is Shoot to Kill (1990, directed by Peter Kosminsky).

However Greengrass brings particular set of techniques to his film that give it a visceral feel stronger than most other examples. The film tends to the use of close-ups rather than long shots, and the editing is extremely rapid. This is an ‘in-your-face’ style that is reminiscent at times of the television fly-on-the -wall genre. It uses a professional cast with non-professional extras: filmed for the most part in Dublin.

This film is shot mainly from the point-of-view of the leaders of the March in Derry, especially the then local Member of Parliament, Ivan Cooper. The primary focus is on Cooper and his organising colleagues, who do not all necessarily share the same analysis of the struggle. This is counterpointed through parallel editing with the leaders of the military units deployed into Derry for the March. Between these two groups we see the mass of ordinary people participating in the March and the rank and file British soldiers. Especially at the opening and closing of the film there are also insets on two marchers who were among those shot on the day. So the film offers a tapestry of the event, dominated by certain  leading characters.

The film opens at the start of the Sunday. And gradually we meet the central characters as the preparations on both sides get under way. The film follows the chronology of the day with fades or cuts to black to mark the frequent ellipses. As well as the predominance of mid-shots and close-ups the film uses a ‘direct sound’ approach so that dialogue and noise are not always clearly heard or [importantly] placed in the scene. As with such dramatisations the film uses music to heighten the dramas. So as the film opens we hear the voice of BBC radio with a tympani added in the background.

The style of the film aims to involve the viewer in the action rather than to offer a distance from which to observe. This increases the drama and emotion. However it also [deliberately it seems] places the viewer in a situation of confusion at times, which is parallel to the confusion among the onscreen characters. An important moment is the commencement of firing. Shots are heard on the soundtrack, but by whom is unclear; as appears to be the case with the paratroopers at that point. There is equal confusion for both characters and viewers when the marchers become aware of the shooting.

bloody-sunday-2002-06-g

The issue of ‘confusion’ is important as the film deliberately shows that the army were pursuing methods of warfare rather than of control of civilians. However, the confusion amongst the military leaves open the question of why the violence was so disproportionate, seemingly more than intended by the military. The film emphasises the wait for the Paratroopers as the March gets under way and there is then a confrontation at a check point blocking the original route. The drama suggests that the wait and accompanying tension affect the attitude of the soldiers. At one point the paratroopers have to change their planned response because military intelligence is at fault. The film does suggest that individual soldiers went ‘over the top’. So one soldier, when questioned later, concedes that the number of shots that he fired exceed the amount of issued ammunition.

The post-mortem amongst the military demonstrates the start of officers passing the blame on: notably by Major-General Robert Ford (Tim Piggot-Smith]. But we also see the ordinary rank and file paratroopers construct statements that evade an honest record. And later they are seen attempting to justify the action by planting an incriminating bomb on a corpse.

There is equal confusion amongst the marchers and their leaders; but the confusion becomes one of trying to comprehend the massacre that has occurred. The scenes of carnage and of attempts to save the wounded or rescue the dead are highly charged.

bloody-sunday-2002-07-g

This is also true of the scenes at a local hospital as the scale of the massacre emerges. It is right at the end of the day [and the film] that we see and hear the first articulated response to the massacre by the movement. The focus is once again given to Ivan Cooper, who represents a Civil Rights standpoint. In his address to the media he does point up the colonial parallels:

‘our Sharpeville, our Ameristar massacre’

but he then goes on to argue that the actions that day by the British Government have

‘destroyed the Civil Rights movement and given the IRA the biggest victory that it has ever had.’

This is an important statement that refers back to earlier scenes where we are allowed brief glimpses of exchanges between Cooper and an local IRA [to be exact the Provisional Irish Republican Army] leader. Cooper stresses the promise he had been given that the IRA would keep a low profile and

‘keeping guns away’.

The response of the IRA leader is

‘marching is not going to solve this thing’.

Here we have a basic contradiction, one view regards the struggle in the six counties as a Civil Rights question, drawing parallels with then ongoing struggle by Afro-Americans in the USA. The other sees the struggle as an anti-colonial struggle, along the lines represented by Sharpeville and the African struggle against the Settler Apartheid regime. It seems to me that the film comes down firmly on the side of Cooper in this debate. This is partly due to the representation of the IRA. I think this is probably not deliberate, but the scenes in which we see them do parallel the stereotypes of British Television and Film representation. Furtive men in the background, seen on shadowy corridors and stairwells, and lacking the sympathetic demeanour given to Cooper.

What the film does not sufficiently address is the responsibility of the British State. The dramatic scenes show us the reaction of the soldiers, the hesitancy among military staff and then attempts at deliberate cover-up. Particularly in terms of the rank-and-file soldiers this may have some justification. But not in terms of the politicians. We get only one reference to the Government when Major-General Ford refers to a meeting at Downing Street. It was clearly a political decision to use the paratroopers to ‘police’ the march: and one fuelled by the inability to close down Free Derry. Using paratroopers, and the accompanying policy of internment, were the standard methods of control and repression in colonial conflicts. Internment had its roots in the policies adopted during the Boer War. And specialist troops like paratroopers have been used by the British, French, US and other states to suppress resistance in colonial and neo-colonial situations. Clearly, despite their refusal to admit this, the British political class saw the war over the six counties as a colonial conflict.

A rather different perspective on the same event is to be found in Sunday, which I also revisited. This film was written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Charles McDougal. McGovern is an experienced television writer with a large and successful output. His most relevant work in terms of the Derry events is the earlier Hillsborough (1996), which deals with another large-scale tragedy involving a ‘cover-up’ by the forces of the British state.

Sunday title

Sunday is also a docu-drama using reconstruction and a partly professional cast. However, its form and style are closer to the documentary mode: alongside the reconstruction it includes professional and amateur film footage of the actual events, both in black and white and colour. This is combined through the use of cross-cutting, at times almost at the same pace as in Bloody Sunday. However the reconstruction sequences tend to run longer than those in the Greengrass film: and whilst they use frequent close-ups there is a greater use of long shots and of the moving camera, especially tracking shots. Sunday also uses accompanying music, but again fairly different from Bloody Sunday. One extended sequence shows the aftermath of the massacre: we do not hear actual dialogue or noise but a sombre, orchestral piece presenting the sequence full of pathos.

The events and characters presenting in the film’s plot also differ. Sunday offers a sort of prologue commencing in 1968. We see a series of scenes with a voice-over by a young man later to suffer in the events of the 30th. He works at a labouring job for a cola firm owned by a ‘Protestant’. Briefly this opening references the Civil Rights movement, the British Army, the renewal of the IRA, Internment and Free Derry: the last a people’s zone in Derry where the British Security forces writ no longer runs.

The majority of the film deals with the ordinary civilians of Derry and the ordinary rank and file soldiers of the British army. It is worth noting that much of the film was shot in Derry, with participation by its citizens. The extras in the large-scale scenes are mainly people of Derry.

Sunday C4 title

One of the few individual characters from the army hierarchy is Major-General Ford who appears on a number of occasions. His first appearance precedes the actual Sunday as he is seen recording a briefing in preparation for the response to the proposed March. In this film is clear that the army plans including the shooting of ‘young hooligans’ and a confrontation with the Provisional IRA. The temper of his brief is for a planned military operation including the use of the Paratroopers.  Ford appears again later at several key moments during the day. The other military commander we see is an unidentified local commander mystified as to the use of Paratroopers in Derry: the response being that the orders ‘come from the top’. So whilst Sunday is explicit about the role of the Army leadership, early on, like Bloody Sunday, the role of politicans is suggested rather than stated.

There is no clear representation of the leadership of the Civil Rights March. The closest we come to them is a man with a loud-hailer marshalling the crowd at the start: notably he orders the removal of Republican [i.e. IRA] placards. Neither do we get to see the Provisional IRA. There is a brief scene later where two men fire a defensive shot and then hide their rifle: and a lone man shooting at the Paras with a revolver.

Much of the March and the subsequent violence details characters and actions very similar to those in Bloody Sunday. However, the film constantly cuts to actual film footage [either professional or amateur]. And the personal dramas interweaved with the public events are more frequent and involve longer sequences. Important extra scenes are visits to the mortuary, a tangle of blood and corpses: and the Paratroopers relaxing after the event, with racist comments about the Irish / Fenians. There is another major difference. Like Bloody Sunday the film fades or cuts to black to signal ellipses. But as the Paratroopers commence their fusillade against the civilians we are presented with a black screen over which runs the sounds of the shots, the screams and the accompanying noise. This is a powerful sequence which is then followed by the sequence of image and music already mentioned.

Just as with the opening the film goes beyond Bloody Sunday to the Widgery Tribunal. Now we do see the British Prime Minister carefully setting up the investigation. In a revealing sequence witnesses from Derry attending the Inquiry are allowed to be harassed by a Unionist demonstration. We see the low expectations among the people in Derry. Another revealing sequence has the Paratroopers flying in by helicopter and preparing their testimonies. One ordinary soldiers exclaims that they [the authorities]

are  shitting on us. We did our duty. .. [we] lie.

Which is what we hear when they appear. However, one soldier has a different approach. A worried lawyer reads his deposition and then advises

your evidence will not be presented.

In the most radical sequence in the film we now see a flashback by the soldier. Essentially we see the events that were only heard above the black screen earlier. We see the shootings of civilian youths, of a man who tries to help the wounded, of a man shot whilst waving a white handkerchief. We also hear the lines shouted by the soldiers including ‘Fenian bastards’ This is violent and powerfully moving; and radically different from Bloody Sunday. It is also analytical. McGovern [presumably] is following one of the maxims of Berthold Brecht, re-arranging the order of the narrative in order to confront the viewer.

This is followed by a fine piece of crosscutting – between Major General Ford attending an investiture with the Queen and young Derry males waiting to take the oath of allegiance to the IRA. In a metaphor about the lack of change a survivor now works in the dead-end job with the [presumably] same coal firm. The film ends by listing the dead and wounded from that day. So Sunday is a more sophisticated and politically conscious film than Bloody Sunday. It is explicit in pointing out the crimanal acts by the British Army at the behest of the British State. It is, though, less clear on the question of the colonial nature of the war in the north of Eire. Its protest is on behalf of the Civil Rights of the people of Derry and of the six counties rather than against the occupation. Whilst it avoids the negative representation of the IRA it also fails to provide space for their position.

This lack of clarity over the nature of the war in the north of Eire spreads right across the media: notably in the use of terms like ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ or Nationalists and Unionists. the latter pair denoting sectarian conflict. Ken Loach’s two films on the struggle in Eire – The Wind that Broke the Barley (2006) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014) – have a clear exposition of the colonial nature of the war. However, his earlier film Hidden Agenda (1990) has a Civil Rights focus similar to Bloody Sunday; and I felt that the representations of the IRA in that film were similarly problematic. An aspect of this is the tendency of British television to become more radical the farther it moves from the present. This was not true of Loach’s earliest television work, but by the 1980s he was unable to work in British television. It is true of the general run, so that a fine series like Our Friends in the North felt quite radical in the early episodes butt rather supine by the end. So Sunday is definitely preferable to Bloody Sunday, but it was only thirty years after the events that either film was produced and aired.

Note details of the production and cast can be found on IMDB for both films.

 

 

Posted in Films of Eire, Political cinema | 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 »

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.

concerningviolence613x463

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.

wretchedearth

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 »

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

Posted by keith1942 on November 15, 2014

hannah-arendt

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

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

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

The press room for the trial

The press room for the trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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 »

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.

 

 

 

Posted in Documentary, Political cinema | Leave a Comment »