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‘Outsiders: The Battle of Algiers and political cinema’

Posted by keith1942 on March 30, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“as in Cuba Marxism has begun to atrophy”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Concerning Violence with a Q & A.

Posted by keith1942 on December 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in African Cinema, Documentary, Manifesto, Political cinema, Writers and theorists | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

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

Posted by keith1942 on November 15, 2014

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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 »

Five Broken Cameras

Posted by keith1942 on March 30, 2013

5 cameras

This is essentially a Palestinian film made with the assistance of an Israeli filmmaker and funded by companies in nine different countries, developed through a European media project. It fits well into the concept of ‘Imperfect Cinema’. The film is constructed from the footage that the main protagonist, Emad Burnat, recorded on a series of domestic video cameras. Burnat lives in the Palestinian village of Bill’in. The village is over looked by the Zionist settlement of Modi’in Ilit and was a target of the so-called security wall which is encroaching and stealing Palestinian lands in the occupied territories. The film is similar in topic to the 2009 Budrus, another Palestinian village threatened by the wall. In fact, both were able to achieve some re-routing of this monstrosity. However, whilst Budrus tended to celebrate this as an unconditional victory, Five Broken Cameras is much clearer about the limitations of what was achieved.

Burnat has bought six cameras: the first five were smashed in confrontations with Israeli security forces and Israeli settlers. We get a very personal view of five years [2005 to 201] of protest and conflict as the Palestinians defend their lands, their rights and their livelihoods. Burnat’s film focuses on his experiences and that of his fellow Palestinians. These include his family and his two friends: Adeeb and Bassem. Both the later are active in the protests, which are supported by fellow Palestinians, international volunteers and the small minority of Israeli’s who oppose the state’s neo-colonial occupation.

What the film offers little of is the wider context: among Palestinian forces, of the larger Zionist project of Israel, or of the international aspects including the media. Such subjective limitations restrict any analytical discussion of the situation but it does present a powerful and emotive presentation of the conflict. We see repeated violence by the Israeli military, and also by Israeli settlers. Emad is arrested and jailed: Adeeb is shot in the leg and Bassem is killed by a gas grenade. And there are other Palestinian fatalities including children. This is emotive material, but only part of a much larger picture of a brutal occupation and expropriation.

The film has won wide praise and a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary at the 2013 Hollywood event. There has also been some interesting criticism: one can discount the ‘gnashing of teeth’ by Zionist supporters. On The Case for Global Film Roy Stafford expresses the following reservations:

“What is slightly sinister is the film’s depiction of the settlers – Orthodox Jews who are perhaps the least ‘humanised’ by the camera’s gaze. The Israeli settlers seen here trouble me deeply – I can’t think of anything about them that would attract my sympathy – but I don’t want to feel that way about anybody and I wonder if the filmmakers’ decision not to invite them to speak or not to attempt to present their perspective, somehow damages the strength of the film’s polemic. I’m not asking for ‘balance’ – the settlers are in the wrong, that’s the starting point. But we’ve got to try to treat them like human beings, otherwise they are trapped behind their fences in the same way that they have deliberately put the Palestinians behind a fence/wall.”

In part Roy appears to be arguing that Israelis, including settlers, should be given a voice in the film. This is a valid point in many cases: I have argued that a serious problem with Israeli films like Waltz with Bashir (2008) or Western films like One Day in September (1999) is that the Palestinians are mute victims in the films. However, I would argue that this is not a universal requirement. In Waltz with Bashir the lack of a ‘voice’ for the Palestinian s and Lebanese is part of the films refusal to confront the actual social actions taking place: the invasion which is not only illegal under the laws of bourgeois states but which is a blatant suppression of what are generally accepted as basic human rights. This is part of a general conventional approach in Israeli films and the mainstream films from Hollywood, which support Zionism.

It seems to me that Five Broken Cameras is a different case and needs to be judged somewhat differently. The film follows an artistic form which has resonated powerfully fore centuries: most notably in Goya’s great and famous painting: The Third of May 1808. These are agitational artworks which dramatise both the oppression and the resistance of a people. Emad’s narrative is presented as a ‘representative story’ for Palestinian resistance. Hence there is a clear awareness [absent in Budrus] of the need for the struggle to continue.

It is worth pointing out that the Israelis in Five Broken Cameras do have a voice, both the military and the settlers. They appear frequently on camera barking out orders, threats and insults. Their voice is as revealing of their standpoint as are their actions. And the ‘voice ‘ they present in this film is typical of the actions of the larger Israeli State. Juan García Espinosa writes:

“Should we ask for a cinema of denunciation? Yes and no.  … Yes, if the denunciation acts as information, testimony, as another combat weapon for those engaged in the struggle.”

My differences with Roy Stafford also turn in part on the language one uses. Rather than ‘less than human’ I would use ‘inhuman’. That is, ‘brutal, unfeeling, barbarous’. In fact, such actions treat the recipients as ‘less than human’.

One of the most positive aspects of this film is the extent to which Emad Burnat, as an ordinary working farmer, has been enabled to develop a cinematic voice.

“There is a widespread tendency in modern art to make the spectator participate even more fully. If he participates to a greater and greater degree, where will the process end up? Isn’t the logical outcome – or shouldn’t it in fact be – that he will cease being a spectator altogether?”

My more serious concern with the film’s lacunae is the absence of a larger contextual aspect. The policies of the Israeli State are absent: and more importantly, the complicated nature of the Palestinian forces and resistance is not presented.

“We maintain that imperfect cinema must above all show the process which generates the problems. …To show the process of a problem … is to submit to judgement whiteout pronouncing the verdict.” And, in fact, Five Broken Cameras ends with the historical verdict remaining open. But its powerful presentation of Palestinian struggle makes it a very effective agitational work. The film is definitely a key expression in the increasing catalogue of Palestinian film.

Quotations from For an Imperfect Cinema by Julio García Espinosa, translated by Julianne Burton.

Posted in Arab Cinemas, Films of Liberation, Palestinian films, Writers and theorists | 4 Comments »

Franz Fanon

Posted by keith1942 on August 24, 2011

Fanon was born in the French colony of Martinique in 1925. He studied medicine in France and then psychiatry. He went to work in Algeria during the Liberation war against French rule. He later joined the Front de Libération Nationale and became one of their most articulate spokesmen. He died of leukaemia in 1961. He left a legacy of writings and contributions to international debates in the anti-colonial struggle. There is a film portrait made in 1996, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Masks, [a reference to his most famous book]. Fanon was clearly influenced by preceding theorists of liberation and also responded to arguments within the contemporary liberation movement. But he brought a distinctive strand in his study of the psychology of the oppressed and on the importance of culture in the struggle. In Black Skin, White Masks he writes:
”The problem we confront in this chapter is this: The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter – that is, he will come closer to being a real human being – in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language. I am not unaware that this is one of man’s attitudes face to face with being. A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language. What we are getting at becomes plain: Mastery of language affords remarkable power. …
Furthermore, I will broaden the field of this description and through the Negro of the Antilles include every colonised man. Every colonised people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilising country. The colonised is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of his mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” 
This sort of analysis became extremely influential, not just among the colonial oppressed, but also among oppressed minorities in the countries of the coloniser. Thus we can see Fanon’s ideas feeding into the Black Consciousness movements in the USA and UK. His ideas can be seen at work in Ousmane Sembène’s film Camp de Thiaroye. Set in a Senegal still controlled by the French, the film details the experiences of a force of tirailleurs (colonial troops) waiting repatriation. The main African protagonist is Sergeant-Major Diatta, who is a master of European languages and culture and possesses a white wife. His extreme opposite amongst the troops is Pays (country} who has been rendered mute by the horrific experiences in a Buchenvald concentration camp. When the French offices attempt to defraud the African soldiers Pays is leader in an act of rebellion – the kidnapping of a French General. It is Pays alone that tries to warn his comrades of the planned massacre by the French military. Diatta knows French culture, but Pays has experience of the racism endemic in European culture. 


Fanon recognised that there was a commonality of black oppression, In The Wretched of the Earth he argued:
” The Negroes who live in the United States and in Central or Latin America in fact experience the need to attach themselves to a cultural matrix. Their problem is not fundamentally different from that of the Africans. The whites of America did not mete out to them any different treatment from that of the whites that ruled over the Africans.” 
But that there were also different situations,
”The test cases of civil liberty whereby both whites and blacks in America try to drive back racial discrimination have very little in common in their principles and objectives with the heroic fight of the Angolan people against the detestable Portuguese colonialism.” 
Fanon argued for a national struggle in the fight against colonialism. He also argued that this struggle was violent, necessarily violent in order to throw off the chains of colonialism. However, Fanon argued that this struggle is also cultural.
” For culture is first the expression of a nation, the expression of its preferences, of its taboos and of its patterns. It is at every stage of the whole of society that other taboos values and patterns are formed. A national culture is the sum total of all these appraisals; … In the colonial situation, culture, which is doubly deprived of the support of the national and of the state, falls away and dies. The condition for its existence is therefore national liberation and the renaissance of the state. The nation is the condition of culture, its fruitfulness, its continuous renewal, and it’s deepening. It is also a necessity. It is the fight for national existence, which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation. Later on it is the nation which will ensure the conditions and framework necessary to culture.”

 

There are a number of editions and translations of Franz Fanon’s writings, including an edition by Penguin.

 

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