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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.

 

Posted in Auteur cinema, Latin American film, Political cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Letters from Baghdad, Britain, USA, France.

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2017

This film is presented as a documentary about Gertrude Bell, an outstanding and fascinating woman whose life and career ran from the late C19th through till the mid-1920s. She was a traveller, writer, mountaineer, archaeologist, multi-linguist and a skilled and astute ‘Arabist’. The most famous aspect of her life was her involvement in the British political and military activities in the Middle East during and following World War 1. She was an important and influential female member of the British political elite in this region. More notable, she is one of the few British officials whose reputation amongst Arab was at least partly positive.

The film presents a biography of Bell but the prime focus are her activities in the Middle East and in particular in Iraq which emerged after World War I as a British ‘protectorate’ and then as an ‘independent’ kingdom under British tutelage. At various points in this narrative Bell appears as a traveller and student across Arabia; as an archaeologist; as a spy and political adviser in wartime; as a political adviser in post-war construction; and [seemingly] as an adviser and mediator and official in the newly formed Iraq kingdom. It is worth remembering that she came from an upper class family and that she received an upper class education, gaining a First in History at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. What is notable about her is that, whilst she shared many of the colonial values of the time in British politics, she genuinely believed in some form of self-government for Arabs.  In her activities in Arabia she supported the interests of the Hashemite royal family. And she was sceptical of the Sykes-Picot plan and of the Balfour Declaration.

The film, which runs for 95 minutes, treats some aspects of this briefly but dwells on her activities in the Middle East and in particular the lands of Iraq. It seems that the filmmakers

“[They] collected some 1,200 archive film clips and several thousand still photographs, many taken by Bell herself. Much of the material came from the Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University. They collected together Bell’s letters and diary entries and also the statements made by many of the distinguished figures who knew her. In an interview with Anne-Katrin Titze, Sabine Krayenbühl says that the aim was to imagine that these statements were made for a documentary just two or three years after Bell’s death in 1926. The ‘witnesses’ are played by actors in appropriate period costumes who read out the statements as if they were appearing in a modern-style documentary.”

[Review by Roy Stafford].

The machinations of the British, with the French, in the region are clearly explained. There is also a brief reference to the activities of US oil companies. The war on the Iraqi people by the British in the 1920s is presented. However, the political context of the installation of a Hashemite ruler is not fully detailed and the transition to an independent kingdom seemed somewhat confused: I was not clear if Bell’s archaeological activities were presented as during the British protectorate or later under in the Hashemite Kingdom.. The regional collaboration between the British and the French, i.e. Sykes/Picot, really needs a fuller treatment. And the question of the Balfour declaration and the British connivance of Zionist colonisation Palestine is wholly absent; as are the earlier Armenian massacres witnessed by Bell.

An opening title informs us that the film is ‘based’ [I think that is the term] on primary sources. It is true that the film is composed almost completely of archival material, written documents, including personal items such a letters and diaries; official in terms of memorandum, a white paper written by Bell; and secret documents such as security files. To this are added archival photographs and film. But these sources are not presented in the primary form. The written documents are presented to us with professional actors in monochrome shots speaking the text, in some cases in the original Arabic or other language with English sub-titles. The photographs are presented in a variety of forms. Some are placed within the frame in their original ratio, in some cases in a photographic frame. Some are reframed for the widescreen image. And in some cases the images are from a rostrum shot, focusing in on a particular character, object or text. The film comes off worse of all, though most of the clips retain either their black and white, tinted or toned, or colour form. However, nearly all of the film footage is reframed to the widescreen; here the television ratio of 1.78:1. In a number of cases there is added sound to what was originally ‘silent’ footage. There are only three clips presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Two of these feature title cards, presumably the rationale. And one fictional clip illustrating a film presentation by Bell to Iraq women. It is a Mary Pickford extract, which seems unlikely.

Much of the material is indexical in the sense of

“the phenomenon of a sign pointing to some object in the context in which it occurs.”

The written texts relate to the time, place and character that is featured. The majority of the photographs also appear to relate to the time, place and characters featured. However the film extracts frequently are from a different time and place and are of characters separate from those featured in the film, that is they are not indexical: at least two [apart from the |Pickford clip] are from fictional features.

I am always concerned when archive film is presented in some changed form. Commonly we get film shot in 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 ‘reframed’ to 1.85:1 or even [in extreme examples] to 2.35:1. This ignores the point-of view of the original filmmakers. This seems to assume that the cameraman and/or director just set up the camera and filmed. This may have occurred in some cases but mostly it seems clear that these filmmakers chose their position, distance and angle [as well as the various lenses and accessories] deliberately. Moreover, this expresses not just their look but their material interest, something that in this film is clear from the texts presented. My concern is not just over the filmmaker who perpetrate this, often filmmakers with an ‘auteurial” stance which should be extended to the filmmakers they are treating. I also have concerns about the archives who co-operate in this. The end credits for this film include the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum. Both institutions should be guardians of this historical resources but they appear happy to allow other media [and this seems to be mainly for the benefit of television] to play fast and loose in the archives.

What seems to determine this representation of Bell, the times and, importantly, struggles against colonialism, are the points-of-view and material interests of the western archivists and historians and the western audiences for whom the film is primarily produced. A treatment of Gertrude Bell on film feels timely. However, the biography and contextualisation remain mainly within the value system under which Bell operated. For all her empathy and sympathy for Arab peoples her actions worked within the colonial limits of British imperial policy. At one point the film registers her reservations about an Iraqi border that she worked on: but the border was placed and remains part of the colonial and problematic legacy in the region. Added to this is what I find a rather suspect approach to the historical artefacts with which her story is told. One of the sources for documentaries on the history of Arabia has been the Al Jazeera Television network. Whilst they do not do it consistently, in many of their films/programmes the archive footage is presented as it was filmed and screened in the period. This is not just a technical question about the form of this material. It is, as FIAF recommends with archive film, that it should be presented in the form in which it was filmed and shown in its original time.

This film biopic is well made and is a fascinating address on the subject. However, it is produced by the industries of the states that exploited and oppressed the territories and peoples that Bell clearly cared about. And I think the filmmakers have failed to critically reflect on assumptions in such industries about how characters, places, times and actions should be filmed.

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

Viceroy’s House, Britain / India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2017

This is a new film directed by Gurinder Chadha and scripted by her partner and regular collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges. It is set in India in the months in which the British colonial rulers partitioned the sub-continent as they claimed to be giving it freedom. The film deliberately limits itself and is almost completely set in the official residence of the Viceroy; newly arrived Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela ( Lily Travers). Fairly obviously the film is restricted to a rather partial presentation of this seismic and violent event.

The film was immediately taken to task in an article in The Guardian newspaper by Fatima Bhutto. She is a writer, poet and a member of the famous ruling family who have been key players in the history of Pakistan. Her article is a fierce denunciation of the film which includes the following paragraph:

“Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims is spoken of by the Mountbatten’s and other Raj imperialists as though it were a cyclone, arriving in India from some unknown provenance, moved by an unknowable science. Divide and rule, a staple of British colonial administration, is given no credence. Three hundred million Hindus and Sikhs want a united India, she informs us via Raj interlocutors; it is 100 million Muslims who do not. Mirroring the fractures of modern nationalism wrought by India’s partition, Chadha seems to take pleasure in laying the bloodshed and brutality of 1947 at the feet of two particular villains: Muslims and Jinnah.”

Fatima Bhutto was clearly outraged by the film and I would agree with many of her strictures. However, her article does not really address the work as cinema. She relies partly on points regarding plot and dialogue and only briefly discusses the representations. I suspect she became angry early in the film because later on she makes some problematic claims: she gives an example of negative representation by referring to a Muslim father:

“Amid the chaos of partition, Chadha shows a kindly elder Sikh lady who has brought a Muslim woman to the police. The Muslim woman is black and blue. Her father, the old woman tells the cop, threw her under a train, but she would like to adopt her. The crudeness of this moment is painful and sad to behold. Even a (pointedly non-Muslim) stranger is more nurturing than a Muslim parent.”

More importantly she ignores or fail to note an important scene where Lord Mountbatten has a disagreement with a General Ismay (Michael Gambon) after discovering that the line of partition has apparently been set up in advance of negotiations.

Unsurprisingly Gurinder Chadha responded in the pages of The Guardian:

“My film does not ignore the freedom struggle – it celebrates that struggle. (“The British empire brought to its knees by a man in a loincloth,” as Lady Mountbatten comments.) It does not ignore the colonial policy of divide and rule, but challenges it. (As Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru comments to Lord Mountbatten: “You have divided us and now you ask us for a solution.”) Above all, it does not show the Muslim community as sole perpetrators of violence.”

She points out in particular the glaring error made by Bhutto:

” In her most inflammatory allegation, Bhutto writes that the film depicts a Muslim father throwing his daughter from a train, only for her to be saved by a Hindu woman. She asserts that I do this to show that “a (pointedly non-Muslim) stranger is more nurturing than a Muslim parent”. In fact, what the film depicts is a Hindu mob attacking a train of Muslim families – the father pushes his daughter from the train to save her, not to kill her. “

She also claims that Bhutto article defames the film by claiming that

” My film has been wilfully misrepresented as anti-Muslim “

In fact Bhutto claims that the film represents Muslims and the Leader of the Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah ‘as villains’. That is not quite the same thing. Whilst Bhutto does exaggerate the representations in the film I think she is correct when she argues that the film more frequently points the finger at the Muslim League than at the Congress leaders. And I also agree that the film fails to nail the manipulative and racist conduct of the British.

What is missing from the film is the historical context. There are some lines of dialogue that refer to the recent history of the sub-continent, such as those quoted by Chadha. But this not a substitute for setting out the context in an understandable fashion in the script. What is presented and dramatised  to the viewer is mainly events and discussions in the British residence: one building in the whole teaming and [at this time] volatile sub-continent. And as a mainstream film the emphasis is on actions rather than discussion: and the critical dialogue is submerged in a plot that centres on a benevolent British hero, Mountbatten.

In an excellent article, also in The Guardian (‘The myth of Britain’s gifts to India’), Shashi Tharoor has taken the supporters of British imperial history to task with specific reference to the sub-continent. He makes the point that what is termed ‘communalism’, [a misnomer for descriptions of actions seen as sectarian] is the result of British colonial practice. A prime example is the 1905 partition of Bengal by the then Governor-General Lord Curzon,  which resulted [among other aspects] in conflict between Hindus and Muslims. It is worth noting that the subsequent letter page of ‘The Guardian’ contained a slew of letters criticising Tharoor and defending the British role in the sub-continent. This is an example of the British failing to face up to their history: a problem that is part of Viceroy’s House.

Also missing is from Viceroy’s House is any reference to the Indian National Army. These Indians fought alongside the Japanese against the British in India on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. In 1946 the British colonial administration prosecuted a number of the INA leaders. This sparked popular outrage and both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League opposed the trials. It seems that this uproar hastened the British recognition that colonial rule must end. [See Rangoon (2017) for the INA in a film).

Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges have collaborated on a number of films. Essentially they are upbeat family dramas, Bend it Like Beckham (2002), the most successful, is a good example. The one film directed by Chadha that addresses in serious fashion social and political contradictions is Bhaji on the Beach (1993). But the content of this film would appear to owe most to the writer Meera Syal.

Mountbatten, Lady Edwina and their servants

Viceroy’s House, to a degree, fits in this pattern whilst at the same time it is also an example of ‘a heritage film’. Chadha commented that the film was an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ drama: that is the long-running British television series constructed around a bourgeois family [upstairs] and their retinue of servants [downstairs]. That series, and a comparable more recent success ‘Downton Abbey’, rely on careful historical recreation in terms of sets, props and costumes. They are well served by the tradition of British character acting. At the same time they clearly relish the trappings of bourgeois life, a presumably vicarious experience for much of the audience. And they undoubtedly are dominated [as society generally] by bourgeois values. The ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ series ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975. The key member of the household was the Butler, Hudson, played by Gordon Jackson. He acted as both a enabler between the class divide in the house and normally brought the downstairs working class servants into line with the ‘upstairs’ bourgeois family values. An instructive episode was the one concerning the 1926 General Strike. Here whilst the members of the ‘upstairs’ supported the Government and actively participated in anti-trade union actions the ‘downstairs’ were sympathetic to the strikers. The family patriarch, Richard Bellamy (David Langton), actually took an apparent ‘middle’ or ‘compromise’ stance, which was picked up by Hudson. By the end of the episode Hudson has bought the servant quarters into line with ‘upstairs’ as represented by David Bellamy. But as the two representatives of the miners left the house, isolated in the street, the actual stance was one of working class defeat and bourgeois victory.

In Viceroy’s House the 1940s is recreated with careful attention to detail,  The casting of Hugh Bonneville, who plays a key character in the television series ‘Downton Abbey’, as Lord Mountbatten, reinforced this. In this television series he plays, Robert, Earl of Grantham. He is thus the patriarch and equivalent of Richard Bellamy. Whilst he is an aristocratic bourgeois he is also presented as a liberal figure; one of a number of aspects carried over into Mountbatten. Mountbatten is, to a degree, separate from the British establishment. And he was perceived so, especially by the leaders of Congress. The actual Mountbatten, according to memoirs by people who knew him, was a rather different type of figure. Chadha’s film does catch certain character aspects, such as his vanity and love of regal uniforms.

Lady Edwina acts the Hudson role, mediating both with the Viceroy’s household and with refugees from the violence. In a key scene she advises the kitchen staff that they need to accommodate Indian cuisine. Later in the film we see her working to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the violence. There is only a subtle reference to her well-publicised affair with Nehru: a two-shot of them as they and Mountbatten share tea.

Lady Edwina, Mountbatten and General Ismay

As the chief onscreen villain we have Michael Gambon as General Ismay: previously he was the misanthropic landowner in the satirical take on the ‘country house’ cycle Gosforth Park (2001). The other key member of the British ruling elite is Cyril Radcliff (Simon Callow), another player from the heritage film cycle. The presentation of the Indian characters is problematic. The ones who are substantially developed are the two ‘star-crossed’ lovers, Jeet Kumar ( Manish Dayal) and  Aalia Noor (Huma Qureshi). The leading Indian characters – Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi),  Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) – are tokens, as one can tell by their position in the credits.

The settings, sets, props and costumes are lovingly and [as far as I can tell] accurately recreated. Their presentation is in keeping with the heritage genre. Long shots and dramatic high angle shots present the impressive and richly furnished residence. Sequences frequently dwell on the impressive costumes and props. There is a contrast between the luxury of the British elite and the dwellings of the Indian servants, but the key British character are shown as sympathising and crossing this divide.

Early in the film we see Mountbatten and family flying into Delhi. Literally coming down to earth from out of the clouds like Gods in a Greek tragedy. We see Mountbatten vainly adjusting his uniform in a mirror. The film cuts to their arrival at the Viceroy Palace. Long shots and high angle shots present the impressive building and ceremony. A low angle shot emphasises Lord Mountbatten and Lady Edwina’s entrance into the palace.

Another early scene has Mountbatten donning his impressive all-white colonial uniform. Fatima Bhutto comment sharply on this sequence:

” In one of his first scenes, Mountbatten instructs his Indian valets that he never wants to spend more than two minutes getting dressed – fitting for the man who dismembered India in less than six weeks. As always, it is the Indians, not the British, who fail in the simplest of tasks set out for them (they take 13 minutes).”

The actual India, including the increasing violence between communities, is firmly outside the residence. The British, together with the audience, view this in the official private cinema, in newsreels. The first such insert was presented as the British sat looking at the cinema screen: thus in the correct 1.37:1 ratio. I thought at least the film get this right. But from then on in the various newsreel footage was cropped and stretched into the film’s 2.35:1 frame. Moreover this footage had been ‘treated’ with [what I assume was] CGI to include the cast members in the footage. The treatment of archive film in mainstream cinema continues to deteriorate. Later we watch recreations of contemporary newsreels followed by the actual news reel, again reframed and [I think] colourised..

The film actually opens with an introduction to the Viceroy Palace. A long shot pans across buildings to the Palace and then we enter to watch the servants [apparently 800] preparing for the arrival of the new Viceroy. This is typical heritage film, indulging in the impressive building, rich fittings and luxurious props. The dialogue by the servants and white colonial managers introduces the subject of independence: including some caustic lines on the British:

“war has exhausted them.”

This sequence also introduces the star crossed lovers, Jeep and Aalia. They are both from village in that key province, the Punjab; he a Hindu, she a Muslim. In fact they are a recurring presence in the film. Both adding to the plot but also providing a link across disparate sequences and, it would seem, a commentary on the key relationships between Muslim and Hindus.

Jeep and Aalia

Whilst the film does show both sides of the conflict the emphasis definitely seems to be on the problematic of the Muslim position. The earliest example of conflict is at an evening social for the servants where there are Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs enjoying music, singing and dancing. However, when Jeep attempts to dance with Aalia a fellow Muslim angrily demands that

‘you dance with your own kind’.

Later the earlier reports of communal violence is that instigated by Muslims against Hindus.

These antagonism and conflicts spread among the servants, who include all the of the main ethic/religious groupings: though there was no obvious sign of any dalits [untouchables] here. In one powerful sequence, using conventional montage, whilst Gandhi gives voice to his fears about conflict the servants, listening on the balcony, break into physical conflict.

But the conflict is always personalised in the characters of Jeep and Aalia. When Mountbatten returns from a visit to London to seek approval for partition Edwina sadly criticises the plan. Outside on the balcony Jeep and Aalia listen in dismay. As the servants lined up later to choose between the new India and Pakistan we see Jeep and Aalia embrace. There follows a series of scenes in conventional montage as the division of the property in the Palace takes place. At one point two librarians argue over Jane Austen novels. But this series is intercut with scenes of Jeep and Aalia high up in the Palace. They hold hands and he gives her a bangle to

“show out unity.”

They embrace and then go to seek permission from Aalia’s father for their union. The father (Om Puri) is a  Muslin but also a member of Congress. he is against partition but feels he must choose Pakistan. When Jeep and Aalia arrive they discover that Aalia’s official fiancé, Asif, has returned. He has been fighting for the British in the European war. He is also now the driver of Jinnah. Jeep and Azalea’s plans vanish.

The film’s central ‘upstairs’ plot is the dealing between the British, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. There are also dealings between the resident British elite and the newly arrived Mountbatten. The key relationship/confrontation is with General Ismay. To this is added Cyril Radcliff’s work in drawing up the line of partition. This triangle comes to a climax when Mountbatten discovers that there is a secret plan drawn up in 1945 by Winston Churchill which includes a map for a line of partition between Muslim and Hindu areas. The rationale behind this is Britain interests in a buffer zones between itself and the Soviet Union and the importance of oil supplies in the Middle East.

Here the film relies on a key study, based on Narendra Singh Sarila’s 2006 book ‘The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition’. The author was Mountbatten’s aide-de-camp and more recently researched the archives of the British Foreign Office. The plan in the ‘secret’ document is one drawn up by the previous Viceroy, General Wavell; though this is rather lost in the dialogue. However, in the film we have Radcliff telling the ‘secret’ to Mountbatten and then a confrontation between Mountbatten and Ismay. I rather doubt that this scene actually occurred and it seems unlikely that Mountbatten could have been completely ignorant of the plan.

Other historians record that there were plans, possibly several, for partitioning India: some dating earlier than 1945. Lord Wavell, the previous Governor-General, had the ‘breakdown plan’. Mountbatten himself produced a ‘first draft’ plan for partition rejected by Nehru, ‘Plan Balkan’; enough said! The film has a character explain that Jinnah knew of the 1945 version and this explained his intransigence. But both sides knew of these, as they had ‘moles’ reporting back to them on the British preparations and plans. The scene in the film is typical of melodrama, reducing events to individual characters and their actions: whereas at the time this was a policy of the British Government. Ismay tells Mountbatten in the film that the ‘secret plan’ was drawn up by Churchill. There may have been such a case, but what is well recorded is the close attention that the then current Prime Minister, Clem Atlee, paid in overseeing Mountbatten and the policy in the sub-continent. The aforementioned scene presents Mountbatten as innocent, if naïve. Descriptions of his contemporaries exclude any sense of naivety. And his knowledge of much of the preparation for partition deny him innocence. The films seems determined to present Mountbatten as a liberal, well meaning figure.

Mountbatten, Jinnah and the Press

Bhutto comments:

“The benevolence of the Mountbattens and, by association, the British Raj is laced throughout Chadha’s film'” [Here we had a Guardian misspelling, ‘Chanda’ not ‘Chadha’].

In line with film melodrama we have a hero and villains: to varying degrees, Ismay, Churchill and Jinnah. Bhutto comments on the last representation:

“Jinnah is at his Bela Lugosi finest, dark circles around his eyes and his silver hair roguishly slicked back. To divide India is a tragedy, Mountbatten sighs, how can we convince Jinnah not to? well, according to Chadha, you can’t. Jinnah, a successful barrister and leader of the Muslim Leaguer, is simply introduced to use a s “trouble maker”.”

Bhutto exaggerates again, but the representation of Jinnah is different from that of the Congress leaders. The meetings involving him are relatively formal, as his behaviour. We see Nehru relaxing and socialising with Mountbatten and Edwina. And when Gandhi appears the servants gather to pay him homage. Following which he offers Mountbatten some goat curd as a ‘treat’.

I think it is fair to state that partition was a reactionary policy and that the Muslim League bears much of the responsibility for this; in particular the ill-conceived ‘Two Nation Theory’. However, by 1947 the leaders of Congress, with the exception of Gandhi, had accepted that partition would happen; some of them supposing [ erroneously] that such a state would prove unviable and finally return to the Indian fold. But this type of complexity is beyond the films ability to address.

It is worth adding that it is clear in the film that Mountbatten and his advisors knew full well that the British intended to depart the sub-continent at formal independence with complete disregard for the growing violence across the sub-continent. Whilst film mourns the one million or more dead, it fails to ask why the British did not fulfil their obligations. i.e. dealing with a situation that they had created. The parallel with Palestine, where the British ‘divide and rule’ resulted in a settler regime, war and dispossession is glaring. And both partitions continue to haunt the contemporary world.

There are some well-praised scenes showing the decision of ‘spoils’ as the British prepare to leave; in particular dividing up the household goods in the Viceroy Palace. What gets little attention in the division of the armed forces between the two new states. This was completed in four weeks. A major factor in the military’s inability to stem violence. In fact, there are recorded cases in the Punjab where swift action by British troops and officer did forestall violence. But the precipitous disengagement of the British undermined this.

Refugees – a contemporary record

Films like Viceroy’s House give the impression that India was a seething cauldron of violence during Partition. The generality conceals a more complex situation. In fact, the most extreme violence occurred in two  disputed territories.

“By far, the most serious devastation took place in Punjab and Bengal. Elsewhere, events were of a lesser scale and simply incomparable to Punjab’s misery. Yet beyond the Punjabi epicentre, rioters wreaked havoc in many cities including Delhi, Bombay, Karachi and Quetta.

A few outbreaks of Partition violence even occurred in the south, which usually stayed remarkably untouched by the conflict unfolding in the north. Prince-ruled territories, especially Kashmir and Hyderabad, were afflicted, as well as the directly controlled British locales. This was nothing short of a continental disaster.” (The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan, published by Yale University Press. 2007.)

The violence was not always spontaneous. There is plenty of evidence that violence was instigated and orchestrated by members of both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. The main intent is what we would today call ‘ethnic cleansing’, in order to create a majority for one side.

The film avoids this sort of analysis and favours doctored news reel and scenes of the refugees arriving at the Place. Here again Jeep and Aalia provide personal identification. And Lady Edwina and Lady Pamela show the British caring and attempting to alleviate suffering.

The film shows the Independence ceremonies for both India and Pakistan; some of the few sequences away from the Palace. There are also long shots of the refugee columns across the border areas. By this time Jeep has learned that Aalia apparently died in a train massacre. The film closes in a refugee camp, presumably in Delhi. The Mountbatten are there as is Nehru. He is assaulted by one distressed refugee: a scene to which Bhutto took particular objection. We see  Hindu woman arrive with a stretcher. This is Aalia, rescued from the train massacre in the manner argued over by Bhutto and Chadha. Just to heighten tension Jeep at this point is leaving the camp. Aalia, desperate to find him, grabs a microphone and calls him  over the loudspeaker system; the lovers are re-united. This trope is clearly designed to provide an slightly upbeat ending to a film about a major tragedy.

Clearly the violence was dreadful, over a million died; millions were dispossessed and turned into refugees. But the film’s depiction suggests a catastrophe and one with little explicit causation. As the great historian Eric Hobsbawm opined:

“This time it can be truly said that Britain ‘divided to rule’. (‘Age of Extremes’, 1994).

The rather one-sided study is strengthened in the end credits where a series of photographs and titles show that the director’s, Gurinder Chadha, grandmother and family were caught up in partition. She left the Punjab and was finally re-united with her family in an Indian refugee camp. This seems to subtly reinforce the sense that Pakistan is the problem. In retrospect Chadha would have better served the subject by dramatising her own family story. As it is we have an epic subject in the form popular on the small screen. Bhutto compares this film unfavourably with the earlier Gandhi (1982). That film does have the epic treatment the subject requires. I think it also has a better and more intelligent script. However Gandhi also presents Jinnah as the problem. And it also fails to demonstrate the British failure and oppression. The film does include the infamous Amritsar massacre, but like Viceroy’s House, it relies on a British actors and language, and frequently a British point of view. At one point Gandhi (an excellent Ben Kinsley) tells the Viceroy,

‘when the British leave we want you to leave as friends’!

It is worth noting that some of the footage of refugee columns looked as if it was taken from the sequences in Gandhi. The Hindu woman with a Muslim ‘daughter’ reminded me of the excellent Bombay (1995). And the use of the microphone by Aalia irresistibly reminded me of a far better sequence in The Battle of Algiers (1966): that a film that understands colonialism.

There are two important omissions in the film. One is any reference to the Indian National Army. And the other are the ‘prince-ruled’ territories referred to in the earlier quotation also omitted from the film. But here the recorded history shows that the British, including Mountbatten, were just as manipulative. And these actions exacerbated the situation. A key territory was Kashmir, whose allegiance was decided by the single ruler. Thus a conflict zone between India and Pakistan was crated and still today the people of Kashmir await self-determination.

Bhutto concludes her attack on the film with this comment:

“Viceroy’s House is the film of a deeply colonised imagination'”

One assumes that she is referring to the writings of Franz Fanon: in particular to ‘Black Skin White Masks’ (1967) and ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (1961). In the latter, in ‘On National Culture’, Fanon writes:

“If we wanted to trace in the works of native writers the difference phases which characterise this evolution we would find spread out before us a panorama on three levels. In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power.”

To be fair to Gurinder Chadha she is not ‘a native intellectual’ of the sub-continent. However, she clearly feels an involvement it its history, especially the period of partition. Moreover, in some ways the film is part of what has become known as ‘Diaspora cinema’: art works that give, or attempt to give, expression to a heritage culture. However, as is so often the case, the dominant culture of the imperial power are the ruling ideas.

Finally there is the BFI who contributed to the production funding. One circular publicising a season commemorating Indian Independence 75 years ago was highlighted by a plug for Viceroy’s House. ‘Bollywood 2.0’ and the accompanying ‘Song and Dance’ are programmes of cotemporary Indian cinema at the BFI Southbank in April and May. Meenakshi Shedde has discussed this cinema and the programmes in an article in the April Sight & Sound, ‘A World Within: The Other Indian Cinema’. It is not clear yet whether audiences in other parts of the territory will get to see these films? Among the offering are Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and Firaaq (2008), both films that address more recent communalism than the 1947 partition. The British heritage version seems a somewhat inapt trailer for these.

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A United Kingdom, USA/UK/Czech Republic 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016

a-united-kingdom-movie-2016-1

This is the latest film by Amma Asante. Her first film was A Way of Life (2004) which she both scripted and directed. It is set in a Welsh coastal town and focuses on single mother Stephanie (Leigh-Anne Williams) and her brother and two male friends. Whilst the film deals with what are often called the under-class, but which is more accurately defined as lumpen-proletariat, it is not strictly social realism. The social context is implied rather than spelt out. In fact it plays rather like a Greek tragedy without a chorus and with a moment of intended catharsis which does not quite work. [Incendies (200(0 is an excellent example of Greek-style tragedy on film). A Way of Life also has a televisual feel to it: there are frequent shots of the sunset over the local port, but these do not feel part of the visual development.

Asante followed this with Belle (2013) a period film offering the biography of an illegitimate mixed-race woman (Dido Elizabeth Belle – Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose father was the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, also Chief Justice. This film used a famous portrait of Belle and her cousin as a focus for the story. The film’s treatment added quite a lot of fictional elements to the tale. Asante used an existing script and developed this for the film that she directed. This led to her losing the screen credit as writer.

The film had a strong sense of the situation of a black woman in the C18th, part of but not accepted in aristocratic society. But it also followed many of the conventions of British film period dramas. Much of the film exhibited the decorum that goes with the genre. And this was accentuated by the well-written but recognisable music style. And the attempt to add to the limited biography of Belle with contemporary historical events [the famous or infamous Zong Case which involved Mansfield] seem peripheral to the issues.

Her new film fits into the same genre and also follows similar conventions: and the film is scripted by Guy Hibbert [his previous script is Eye in the Sky, 2015]. The story is another taken from real-life, the ‘mixed-race’ marriage of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamond Pike). Seretse is the prospective Paramount Chief in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland [later Botswana]. The politics of the late 1940s, in particular the move to an apartheid state in neighbouring South Africa, made their marriage a very public affair. The current Labour Government and the succeeding Conservative Government both tried to effectively remove Seretse as the ruler of the Protectorate. The film chronicles the personal relationship, the struggles in both Britain and in Bechuanaland and, importantly, the support of their struggles by the ordinary members of the indigenous tribe and by liberal figures in the UK and the USA.

I thought the production values of the film were good and the cast excellent. David Oyelowo and Rosamond Pike are especially effective in their roles. As is common in this genre the music is well written but often obtrusive, signalling moments of particular drama or emotion.

But the film also exhibited the decorum that typifies this genre. There are moment so explicit sexuality, one shot in particular of a partially covered Oyelowo emphasises his blackness. But for much of the film I was more conscious of his class rather than his blackness. But the latter provides the focus for the overt story. Oyelowo also played the lead in the 2015 Selma. But that films has an intensity that this tale rarely achieves. It also used a pattern of light and shadow to illuminate the plot. This film failed to provide an equivalent. In an earlier period restraint in British films provided a potent sense of denial and lack, [e.g. Brief Encounter]. But the sense of good taste does not work in the same way contemporary dramas, even if when in that period. Moreover this is a melodrama of resistance, which works rather differently.

Some publicity suggests that the film is about crossing the barriers of “race” and class. Whilst this is true of the former it is not really of the latter. Seretse is heir apparent, partly educated at Baliol College Oxford and studying to be a barrister. Ruth’s father is n ex-army captain and worked in the tea business; the film uses the term ‘salesman’. Ruth herself works at Lloyd’s and indignantly tells one official that she as not just a typist. Seretse would seem to be a bourgeois, [rather like his African compatriot Nelson Mandela}. Ruth is most likely bourgeoisie. In social and economic terms they make a likely couple.

In the film we first see Seretse involved in a boxing bout. His white opponent cheats. When he meets Ruth we find both are avid fans of jazz and love dancing. I am not clear whether these biographical details are accurate but they seem to fit into conventional characterisations of black men on screen.

The political establishment in the film is conventional in its arrogance and prejudice. And the opposite characters, [such as Fenner Brockway and a young Tony Benn] are equally recognisable. But where I feel the film really falls down is in its treatment of Africa and the African people. These characters are much less developed, even Seretse’s uncle, a key character, and his sister. And the ordinary members of the Bechuanaland tribes are closer to cyphers.

The majority of the population belong to the Tswana or Butswana tribe, but there are also minority tribe. In the film they are just a uniform group. There have two important parts in the plot involving ordinary Africans. Firstly there is a traditional Tribal meeting [kgotlas] and in the film Seretse needs the acceptance of this forum to claim his chieftainship. However, it is unclear in the film how the assembly makes decision. Cleanly only small part of the population attend. And we do not actually see the decision process which apparently rested with a small group of tribal elders.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo portray Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams who caused an international stir when Seretse married a white woman (Williams) from London in the late 1940s.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo to portray Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams who caused an international stir when Seretse married a white woman (Williams)from London in the late 1940s.

Then there are scenes where local African women support Ruth through her travails. But the women are not well delineated and their function relates to Ruth’s character rather their own.

In the film Seretse is regularly referred to as ‘king’ elect. However, his actual position is a Tribal Chief and I suspected that ‘king’ is a western import which does not accurately reflect his position in an African context. With his western education, whilst the film shows acceptance by his tribal people, he seems part of the existing establishment. And there is a historical omission, even from the onscreen titles that end the film. When the British colonials took possession of the original lands they divided them. The Southern part of the tribal lands were placed with the Cape Colony and ended up as part of South Africa. I though this dispossession should have been in the film. Moreover, it was, presumably, a factor in the stance of the Apartheid government.

Despite its liberal intent, [worn on the sleeve so to speak] the film seems to fall within the dominant cinema. What it offers is a limited critique which criticises individuals or institutions rather than the whole colonial process. To an extent Africans, as in Eye in the Sky, are  there to support the drama led by Western characters. Added to this is the lack of dynamism which I felt when watching the film. Asante’s first film had a dynamism which is rather lacking in her follow-up films, perhaps because she did not fully control the scripts? It is a shame because there is an interesting and still relevant story which could work powerfully and politically in film.

Posted in Colonial history | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Two films about refugees

Posted by keith1942 on September 11, 2016

I have seen two films concerning refugees seeking safety in Europe which had interesting parallels. But what was most interesting were the differences, which were partly due to the filmmakers involved and the genre chosen, but which also seemed to relate to different pre-occupations and approaches in different national cinemas. One of the films was Dheepan (2015) which I saw earlier this year and which impressed me. The other was Grow Your Own (2007) which I saw on release but which I was able to revisit when the Hyde Park Picture House screened the film from a reasonably good 35mm print as part of the 2016 Year of the English Garden.

Dheepan was written and directed by Jacques Audiard with contributions to the screenplay by Thomas Bidegain   and  Noé Debré , The film follows the journey of Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), a refugee from war-torn Sri Lanka, who seeks safety in France. He is accompanied by Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young women who pretends to be his wife: also by Illyaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who the couple pretend is their daughter. After various travails Dheepan finds work as a caretaker on a rundown housing estate. Yalini also finds a job caring for an invalid in one of the tower blocks. And Illyaal attempts to integrate in a local school. The trio suffer the problems of bureaucratic systems and endemic French racism. Added to this is the situation at the estate, where drug gangs rule the roost. The film thus sites this tale of refugees in the specific French genre of  the ‘banlieu’.

dheepan-quad-poster

Grow Your Own fits into a type of British realism which is both humorous but also dramatic. It is a form of film that harks back to at least the Ealing films of the 1940s and 1950s. Like the Ealing films one of its central preoccupations is community. The director, Richard Laxton, is new to me but the writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, is an established figure. He has worked several times with Michael Winterbottom, and his other scripts include Millions (2004), which shares some characteristics with this film. The setting is an allotment society in Liverpool, Boyce’s home city. The local social services have placed several refugee families here with the aim of working on allotments as a form of therapy. There is Kung Sang (Benedict Wong), with his two children, who is traumatised by the journey to the UK. . Miriam (Diveen Henry), an African refugee with her son. And Ali (Omid Djalili), an Iranian doctor with his family, waiting for a ruling on his refugee status. The local residents are a range of fairly stock English characters played by a range of convincing regular British actors.

ghrow-your-own-poster

Dheepan is naturalistic but not realistic. The film starts off in a Sri Lanka refugee camp and there are recurring flashbacks to the Island during the film. But these are imaginative and dream-like images of the land and the conflict. The present, in a Parisian suburb dominated by drug gangs, is downbeat, dilapidated and brutish. In a parallel with the country of origin Dheepan and his ‘family’ are civilians caught in the crossfire: though Dheepan was actually a member of the rebel forces in Sri Lanka. It is his military experience that provides an unexpected turn in the narrative and a sequence of strong violence.

The film presents the tropes and motifs familiar in ‘banlieu’ films. The rundown tower blocks provide a harsh and unforgiving landscape. This appears to be a no-go area for law enforcement. It is the relationships and the violence between the gangs of the banlieu that fill the narrative. We see little of the ordinary inhabitants. Dheepan and his family are distinctive characters. The gang members are fairly stereotypical, though one leader is distinguished by his having an older relative who is the invalid cared for by Yalini. At times there is a noirish atmosphere to the setting: Dheepan has fallen into a world of chaos which parallels the chaotic world he left behind. Whilst the banlieu is a multi-cultural world, criminality rather than class or ethnicity binds the gangs together: secular administrative France appears mainly distant and bureaucratic.

In contrast the world of the Grow Your Own‘s Liverpool allotments is peaceful, if riven by tensions. The only violence is when immigration authorities raid and seize a refugee. The conflicts here are personal and small scale. Whilst there are tensions between the allotment holders, in the film these mainly arise from the arrival of strangers. We hear the word ‘gypo’ several times. But whilst Dheepan relies on violence to resolve the conflicts here it is personal relationships. And the landscape is one of plants, greenery and rustic cabins. The fallen into disuse plots are transformed by the refugee members into green, productive land. The discordant note is when one of these is laid waste for the mobile phone pylon. But, in keeping with the film’s mores, the owner moves to the plot left vacant by the immigration raid.

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Green and fertile produce.

The psychotherapist who sets up the situation is a sympathetic character, but other agencies seem as unsympathetic and mainly absent, as with those in France. Part of the plot involves a mobile-phone company seeking a site for an aerial mast. Underneath the bonhomie this is another exploitative agency.

Dheepan falls into the predominantly criminal genre that explores the worlds of segregated working class and migrant communities. Worlds where it seems that the lumpen proletariat are dominant. The violence provides dynamic plot developments but also illuminates French racism. One of the most potent and best-known examples of the banlieu film, La Haine (1995), ends of an unresolved note. Dheepan offers a resolved and upbeat ending, but one that seems as unreal as the flashbacks to Sri Lanka earlier in the film.

Dheepan amid the banlieu's desolation.

Dheepan amid the banlieu’s desolation.

Grow Your Own has less sense of class than of ethnicity. Its resolution binds together an enlarged community. This upbeat ending relies in part on the exclusion of one disruptive presence from the allotments. Whilst there are critical representations of various authorities, the tensions in the allotment society finally weigh on one character. Thus the ending is in some ways as idealised as that of Dheepan.

What is interesting is how genres typical of each society are used to address the common problem, coping with strangers. In fact neither film really offers a realist resolution. In Dheepan, the violence that brings the current conflicts to a halt is as melodramatic as that in ‘vigilante’ films. There is no integration on the central setting, and resolution requires the key characters to leave: { a trope from films set in the Third World]. In Grow Your Own the film harks back to a genre that developed to bridge social divisions in the 1950s. So the film does not really address the complexities of British society 60 years on.

These are both films that I would characterise as ‘second cinema’: the work of auteur in advanced capitalist societies. But the world addressed by Third Cinema enters and disrupts. The response in these films is to attempt to cope by placing the situations and conflicts in particular genre films.

 

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Invictus, USA / South Africa 2009.

Posted by keith1942 on September 24, 2015

 

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Director: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin. In Technicolor and in 2.35:1; 133 minutes.

As the Rugby World Cup is currently on display in Britain it was predictable that this film would turn up on television: ITV4. It is a drama set round the 1995 Rugby World Cup which took place in South Africa: this was at the time that the new post-apartheid government led by Nelson Mandela was attempting to make the transition to an open, democratic society.

Despite all the talent involved I found this film ponderous to watch: weighed down by all the good intentions. It is also ideological in the proper sense of the word: addressing the surface appearances rather than the underlying social contradictions. The basic plot follows the South African Springboks [rugby team] as they attempt to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Key to their victory, in the film and apparently in real life, is the newly elected black President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). He develops a bond with and provides inspiration for the Springboks captain, white Afrikaan Francois Piennaar (Matt Damon).

The film opens on a road with a convoy of cars carrying the just-released Mandela from prison. On one side of the road is a grassless mud pitch where black youth in ragged gear play football. On the other side privileged white South Africans practice under the tutelage of their school coach. Black people run to the fence to cheer Mandela whilst the white coach expresses his contempt. Immediately the film visually presents the gross disparities that fuelled the anti-apartheid struggle. Unfortunately, this image grows dimmer as the film progresses. The Springbok team clearly have to win the cup: the question for Mandela [and viewers] is can do they so do on behalf of all the countries 42 million citizens, white and black.

There are early important scenes. We see Mandela taking up his office as President and carefully inviting the staff from the previous apartheid administration to continue to work ‘for the nation’. The key example in the film is the security team, now composed of both black and white staff, who only grudgingly learn to work together.

The issue of the Springbok team, who have a traditional green and gold strip, surfaces quickly. An ANC dominated Committee decides to change both the name and the colours, which are associated with the apartheid era and the Afrikaan society. Mandela rushes to the meeting and manages to persuade a slim majority to reverse their decision. His black secretary suggests that this might appear to be autocratic. Mandela’s response is that this is his responsibility as Leader. Several times in arguments around this issue he suggests that the person opposing him does not have all the ‘information’.

Later, when Mandela has developed a relationship with the Springbok captain and met and impressed the rugby team, we see them tour the now empty Robbins Islands which is in the process of becoming a museum. During this tour Piennaar ‘imagines’ Mandela in his time in the Prison.

On the eve of the World Cup Piennaar manages to persuade the team to actually learn the words of the new national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God/Lord Bless Africa in Xhosa). And Mandela sends Piennaar a hand-written copy of the poem Invictus.

The final, [apparently held in Durban rather than Cape Town), offers glorious affirmation of their success in their project. 60,000 fans roar on their team whilst nearly every other South African watches on television or listens on the radio. The sole exceptions are a young black boy and a dog. The former is collecting trash and is gradually drawn into the game’s commentary played over a police car radio. Victory sees the young man and the white policemen bonding. The dog is shown wandering through a deserted township: he is clearly baffled [as I am] by the potent attraction of such sporting events.

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The victory celebrations end on a road outside the stadium, as both black and whites celebrate in the streets. But it is an urban centre road rather than the township road that opens the film. As Mandela drives by the celebrating crowds we hear his voice reading the poem. Then as the credits appear, we do see a field of young black men playing rugby. And the field is greener and better equipped than that of the opening, though not up to the standards of the white school playing fields. But there are no young white men playing rugby with these black youth. I sensed no irony in this final image: in fact Eastwood admitted in an interview that he caught this event as he was leaving at the end of filming and could not resists stopping to record it. .

In an article on the sports film, Joe Queenan (The Guardian 12-02-10) commented that: “The fact that such stirring victories almost never occur in real life is the reason that sports films exist. … It can reasonably be argued that sports films exist to provide audiences with a glimpse of a parallel universe in which the weak outmuscle the strong, good triumphs over evil …. Sports films are thus a substitute for reality, perhaps even an antidote.” On Invictus itself he writes: “[it] uses rugby as a metaphor for national spiritual rejuvenation ”. The Springboks did win the Rugby World Cup. However the national community the film celebrates is yet to materialise. The poverty, the extremes of affluence and deprivation, the experience of violence predominantly by black people are a different reality from the celebrations that close the film.

In an interview on Radio 4’s Today Chester Williams [the black member of the 1995 Springboks’], 20 years on, stated that the changes that he had hoped for have not occurred. A sports commentator stated that the Springbok team was still largely recruited from a small pool of elite schools favoured by the white population.

In fact the focus of the film is not on the ordinary black working class South Africans: it is on the two leaders, of the government and the national team. Most of the plot focuses on Piennar’s growing admiration for Mandela. The latter’s stature is summed up in the title of the film, which refers to a C19th British poem, Invictus (Unconquered). The poem was given to Mandela in prison: a fact rehearsed for the audience at least three times in the dialogue. We also hear the final verse twice: once when Pienaar and his team mates visit the now empty Robbins Island Prison; and once more as Mandela sits in his car as it drives through the celebrating South African fans.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the Captain of my soul.”

The author, William Ernest Henley, wrote the poem in a hospital bed where he struggled against illness and disability. One can see that the theme of personal struggle could resonate with a man in long-term prison. However, poet and captive seem to represent rather different situations: the poem was dedicated to a successful flour merchant. His equivalents in South Africa were the neo-colonial bourgeoisie, both exploiting and oppressing the black majority. Perhaps a more appropriate British poet for a leader in the struggle against Apartheid would be Linton Kwesi Johnson. His 1970s poem Yout Rebels ends,

“young blood

yout rebels

new shapes

shapin

new patterns

creatin new links

linkin

blood risin surely

carvin a new path

movin fahwod to freedom.”

The film is an expression of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie in advanced capitalist societies. Whilst the rugby provides the motor for the plot the film’s central focus is Mandela. In that sense it is as much a biopic as a sport film: an example of recent biopics which, rather than setting out the life and career of a personality, take a particular event or period as an expression of their life and work. Mandela became an icon for the Western bourgeoisies: in manner similar to Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he was often compared. Mandela and the fraction he led in the ANC were prepared to accept a compromise solution to ending apartheid. This involved a deal with international capital rather than its expropriation. At one point in the film we see a series of television excerpts in which Mandela travels the world seeking investment for the new South Africa.

This, of course, perpetuated the underlying social relations for which Apartheid gave a particular racist expression. The Witness film screened on Al Jazeera on the Marikana Massacre shows how unreformed the major state institutions like the police remain. And there are other examples of the continuing exploitation of of the black majority by international corporations. Unfortunately, the majority of films coming out of South African adhere to this ideological standpoint, e.g. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (2013). This is a film from dominant cinema with traces of the auteur or ‘second cinema’, but it shares many values with the films that come from South Africa’s national or ‘first cinema’.

Mandela actions regarding the Springbok’s can be seen as shrewd public relations in a divided country. And for a brief moment, as displayed in the film, it had its effect. But it made no changes to the predominant social relations. And it was an expression of the overall political direction of the government that he led.

The original review at release posted on ITP World.

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