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The Promise, Channel Four Television.

Posted by keith1942 on September 8, 2017

This filmed drama was transmitted in four episodes in 2011. It was written and directed by Peter Kosminsky who has directed several successful television serials and several films. Channel Four has just finished transmitting his most recent television production, Secret State. It follows three British recruits to Daesh or Islamic State in Syria. This serial was interesting but I thought it was weak on analysis and motivations. But it appears to have been relatively successful and Channel Four have placed the earlier serial, The Promise, on its catch-up platform. So, I watched all four episodes [running to 85 minutes an episode, quite long for this format] over the last week.

This is an interesting drama set in Palestine and in two separate periods: the time leading up the Nakba and the erection of the Zionist State: and contemporary occupied Palestine, i.e. 2011. The first episode introduces Erin Matthews (Claire Foy) using her gap year before Higher Education to accompany her close friend Ziphora (Yvonne Caterfled) to her home in Israel. Ziphora has been educated in Britain and is now returning to undertake the compulsory military service with the Israeli Defence Force. We also meet Ziphora’s liberal parents and her brother Paul (Itay Tiran). Paul served in the Israeli Defence Force in occupied Hebron and the experience has made him a vocal critic of the Israeli occupation. He has a Palestinian friend Omar (Hass Sleiman).

We revisit Palestine between 1945 and 1948 through the diary of Erin’s grandfather Leonard Matthews. He served in the British army of occupation in that period and Erin has bought the diary with her. In 1945 Sergeant Leonard Matthews (Christian Cook) served in the invasion of Germany and was stationed for period at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. During his service in  Palestine we also see several of his army colleagues: a Jewish girlfriend, Klara (Katherina Schüttler) and his Arab servant Abu Hassan-Mohammed (Ali Suliman), whom Leonard calls Mohammed.

Wikipedia has a detailed plot synopsis of all four episodes as well as production details and extracts from some of the responses. So, I want to first offer my comments on the series as I watched it. Then I want to discuss some of the positive and negative criticism.

In the opening episode, we follow Erin to Israel. Her grandfather is in hospital after suffering a stroke. And she is carrying the diary she found whilst sorting out his belongings with her mother: there is no mention of her father, presumably moved on or dead. We get flashbacks to the 1940s as Erin reads the diary, initially chronologically. At times, the flashback appears not to be motivated by Erin’s reading. And sometimes a flashback is cut in abruptly and briefly to events in the contemporary time frame.

The diary open with Sergeant Leonard’s appalled responses to Buchenwald. Then we see him serving in Palestine and uneasy and concerned that he has to police and imprison refugees who were inmates of the Concentration camps. This struck me as rather conventional in the way that films relate the Holocaust and the migration of Jews to Palestine. In fact, we only meet an Arab, Omar, over an hour into the first episode. And the first ‘terrorist’ incident is an attack on Israeli coffee bar in which Paul is injured.

By the second episode Leonard has met and started going out with Klara. He is also involved in assisting the British Army Intelligence, which leads to him being an accessory to the shooting of a wanted Zionist. There follows the well-known bombing of the King David Hotel by the Zionist Irgun. This is intercut with the aftermath of the contemporary bombing of the coffee bar. In an argument at Paul’ family home Erin learns that he and Ziphora’s grandfather was a member of the Irgun and was party to the bombing of the King David Hotel.

“He is unapologetic, and tells them that his father, mother, sister and brother had all died in German camps. He says that his generation had been determined that the Jewish people would never again capitulate in the face of genocide, and want to secure a land that could be safe for ever. He explains that the British stood in their way, so they wiped them out.”

She also reads the final written pages of the diary. She learns that her grandfather feels guilty because he failed to keep a promise to Mohammed and that this related to his later imprisonment by the Military Authorities: a family secret that she did not know about.

By this stage we have met Mohammed and his family, including his son Hassan. It also becomes clear where the emotional commitment of the serial lies: Hassan has a puppy, the only family pet seen in the film. Sure enough the puppy will die later. Moreover, whilst we see both Arab and Jewish children, in Palestine it is only the Arab children who are victims of the contemporary Zionist settlers. The episode closes as Leonard and two colleagues are shot by Jewish fighters.

Episode 3 finds Leonard in hospital. When he comes out he continues to visit Mohammed and starts to tutor Hassan in mathematics. Leonard’s relationship with Klara becomes problematic because he wonders if she might be passing information to the Jewish underground. Then he finds her ‘tarred and feather’, apparently because she is dating a British NCO. Trying to support and re-assure her he lets out information about a meeting with a Jewish informant. The meeting is ambushed and Leonard and two colleagues are kidnapped. They are held for 15 days. Leonard is rescued but the other two are executed.

In the contemporary time Erin visits Hebron looking for Mohammed or his family. She witnesses the persecution of Arabs by the Jewish settlers and the way that the Israeli army passively supports the settlers.

In the final episode Erin has sex with both Omar and Paul: both acts seem rather casual. Still trying to find Mohammed family she persuades Omar to smuggled her into Gaza. There she is a witness as the IDF blow up the house of a family of s suicide bomber. She supports the daughter of the family.

Back in 1948 The British are withdrawing and we see Zionists celebrating the UN partition of Palestine. Leonard persuades Mohammed to leave his home with his family to avoid the massacres already underway. Hassan goes missing and Leonard goes to find him. Whilst doing this he also helps a group of armed Arabs fighting back against the Zionist forces. But Hassan is killed and Leonard is arrested: ending up in a military prison. Hassan has been carrying the key to the family home. And it is Hassan’s death and his failure to return the key to Mohammed that is the promise Leonard feels he has broken.

Erin meanwhile finally reads the remaining parts of Leonard’s dairy. And she is able to return the key to the last surviving member of Mohammed’s family: his daughter, a teenager when Leonard knew the family. Erin returns to Britain and explains what she has done to the hospitalised Leopard. He is cannot speak but he cries.

Wikipedia has notes on the production background of the serial. One of Kosminsky’s earlier television works was Warriors (1999) which dramatised the experiences of British troops stationed in Bosnia during the 1990s war. It seems that the suggestion was made that Kosminsky could produce something parallel on the experiences of the British soldiers in Palestine under the Mandate. When Kosminsky returned to the idea after 2002 the BBC agreed to support the project. There was detailed research over 12 months including interviewing 82 veterans who served in Palestine. When the BBC pulled out Kosminsky was able to take the project to Channel Four.

“Kosminsky says that his overriding aim was to present the experience of the 100,000 British soldiers who served in Palestine.”

I think this aim probably got at least partly deflected over the development of the project. The period 1945 to 1948 in the serial is presented from Leonard’s point of view.

“Overwhelmingly, the veterans told a similar story: they had started out “incredibly pro-Jewish”[10] but they had shifted their allegiance and by the end “were feeling a great deal of sympathy for the Arabs”

And this is how the flashbacks based on Leonard’s diary present the story. But the serial also renders this in dramatic form. So, I believe that, as in the serial, there were British soldiers secretly working for the Zionists. And I know than there were cases where Palestinian Jews, serving in the British Army, secretly smuggled Jewish refugees to Palestine. I do wonder if there is a case of a British soldiers fighting with Arabs against the Zionist forces.

But what deflects the original property even more is the contemporary part of the serial. The writing dramatizes Erin’s story so that her experience parallel those that she is reading about in the diary. However, this does rather ‘stretch the long arm of co-incidence to dislocation’, as we follow her to an affluent Israeli home, across the Israeli wall to a small village and then to Hebron and finally under the fencing to Gaza. In fact, in the plotline the relation between the present with Erin and the past with Leonard can be confusing. Supposedly the flashbacks that we see are motivated by Erin reading the diary. However, on quite a few occasions this motivation seems lacking. The most glaring example is the cuts from the aftermath of the coffee bar bombing to that in 1947 at the King David Hotel. I am not sure if Erin is carrying the diary with her but she can hardly be reading it in the aftermath of an explosion and when she is trying to determine the fate of Paul.

In the flashbacks Leonard is present at the assassination of a Zionist activist; is there when the explosion at the King David Hotel occurs; is shot in a Zionist ambush; and a, little later kidnapped and is eventually the only survivor. And the most extreme example is that he is present during the notorious massacre at Deir Yassin. Was any British representative three during this barbarous event?

Erin’s odyssey seems intended to parallel that of her grandfather. But this is a very different situation. The sequences of her journey round occupied Palestine, whilst it presents another occupation, is also the scene of a very different war. But the series gives little sense of the resistance, including armed resistance, of the Palestinians. We see armed Palestinian fighters in the flashback, we do not see them in the present. The most problematic example is Gaza. Where are Hamas whilst the Israeli army are blowing up Palestinian houses? Should we seriously believe they sit back and watch,

The representations in the series are simplistic. Initially we see the European refugees arriving and being imprisoned by the British. Then we leave them behind. All we see from then on in the flashbacks are armed Zionists [usually presented as the Irgun]; passively supportive Jewish immigrants; and Jews like Klara who apparently befriend the British but really support armed Zionism. At one point, after a successful search of a Kibbutz, Leonard, alone in his jeep, is serenaded by Jewish children and presented with a red flower. Later the Intelligence Officer Rowntree (Lukas Gregorowicz) explains that the flowers,

“ are anemones, or kalaniot in Hebrew: “red for the paratrooper’s beret; black for his heart”.

This is a Manichean division between Jewish victims and Jewish ‘terrorists’. The actual situation was clearly more complex.

And there is parallel problem is the representation of Palestinian Arabs. The script makes good uses of recognisable motifs, such as the key, an example of the Palestinian tie to their land and homes. But the Palestinians are uniformly victims. Omar, who was in the Al Aqsa brigade, is now involved in joint meetings with Israelis, apparently having surrendered the gun. The armed Palestinians in the flashback are not competent; Leonard takes them in charge and instructs them. And in Hebron and in Gaza all we see is Palestinians on the receiving end of Israeli violence.

Whilst the narrative is problematic in number of ways the series is effectively produced and presented. It was filmed on super 16 film stock and the definition and contrast of the image is good. The editing is extremely effective, though [as I suggest] at times it does seem somewhat abrupt. The sound is clear and relies [as is typical in mainstream] on music at certain dramatic points. The bulk of the dialogue is in English though we also hear Arabic and Yiddish; but in these cases, there is nearly always a translator amongst the characters. When Erin first sees and hears Omar at a Palestinian meeting in the West Bank Paul is translated into Arabic, and Omar is translated into English: the latter apparently for the sole benefit of Erin.

As is probably apparent the series follows mainstream conventions and exhibits the influence of other works in what is a genre about colonial oppression. There is also the influence of Kosminsky’s own productions including Warriors. And the use of illness/death, a surviving diary and an odyssey conducted in part in flashback recalls Ken Loach’s fine Land and Freedom (1995). The tropes of oppression, resistance, massacres, betrayals and failure are central to both films. However, The Promise does not essay the sort of sequence typical of Loach [in both Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)] where an in-depth discussion/debate about the politics of the war occurs.

The series was relatively successful. The first episode garnered 1.8 million viewers; subsequent episodes all achieved over a million strong audience. And there were further audiences in other territories and more recently on Channel 4’s catch-up service.

The series produced some positive criticism and as one might expect, some strong opposition.

“By the second episode Andrew Billon, writing in The Times, was concerned that both Len and Erin were meeting from the Arabs a “little too much kindness for the comfort of all of us hoping that Kosminsky will parcel out recriminations in exactly equal proportions”; but nonetheless applauded the “immersive and emotional” quality of the series.”

This reflects the point I made above. The series is essentially melodrama and this mode tends to draw characters in stark oppositions. The flashbacks do not address the resistance of the Arabs. Thus, the Palestinians had organized a rebellion against the British occupation and Zionist take-over of land in 1939. This is referred to only in a line of dialogue. Some Arabs clearly had a misplaced faith/hope in British protection, an aspect represented by Mohammed: but there was also a movement that clearly recognized the British oppression and coming perfidy.

The problematic representation of the British was picked up by a pro-Zionist critic rather than by British left or liberal writers.

“2011, Jonathan Freedland, having seen the first episode of The Promise, said Kosminsky used anti-Semitic tropes, misrepresenting Israel and Zionism as being a consequence of the Holocaust, whose imagery he had abused. Historian, Professor David Cesarani, accused Kosminsky of “deceit…massive historical distortion”: omitting the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish national home; downplaying selfish British geo-strategy; and exculpating the British, “chief architects of the Palestine tragedy…making responsible…only the Jews”; turning a tricorn conflict of British, Arabs and Jews “into a one-sided rant.”

The point about the European Holocaust is well made. Because of the structure of the series we start with the arrival of European refugees, victims of the Third Reich genocidal policy. There are brief references to an earlier Palestine. But there is not really a sense of the long-term Zionist colonisation and Palestine resistance, not just in 1939, but going back to the 1920s. The claim, made by the ex-Irgun member, that they would grasp the land to protect Jews in the future appears as the motivation for the Zionist seizure of land and for their conduct when that had erected an illegal state on that land. In fact Zionism going back to the 1890s and the project of migration and land accumulation started almost immediately.

Equally the Balfour Declaration is crucial to the long colonization of Palestine and the oppression of it people. I am pretty sure that the Balfour Declaration never gets a mention in the series. Neither does the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Palestine was part of a Middle East strategy of domination and theft, particularly of the region’s oil wealth.

The sharpest criticisms came from the media that supports Zionism and from Zionist organizations.

“A press attaché at the Israeli embassy in London, however, condemned the drama to ‘The Jewish Chronicle’ as the worst example of anti-Israel propaganda he had seen on television, saying it “created a new category of hostility towards Israel”. The Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies of British Jews both also lodged letters of complaint. The Jewish Chronicle itself took the view that rather than “attempt to tell both sides of what is a complex and contentious story”, the series had turned out to be “a depressing study in how to select historical facts to convey a politically loaded message”.“

The term ‘anti-Semitic’ turned up frequently.

There were also complaints to OFCOM [British Office of Communications]“

“The broadcasting regulator Ofcom received 44 complaints about the series, but concluded in a ten-page report that it did not breach its code of conduct. Viewers complained that the drama was anti-Semitic, used upsetting footage of concentration camps, incited racial hatred, was biased against Israel and presented historical inaccuracies. But, Ofcom said: “Just because some individual Jewish and Israeli characters were portrayed in a negative light does not mean the programmed was, or was intended to be, anti-Semitic… Just as there were Jewish/Israeli characters that could be seen in a negative light, so there were British and Palestinian characters that could also be seen in a negative light.”

Similar responses occurred in France and Australia.

On the other hand the serial was supported and publicized by Palestinian Solidarity Organizations. One felt that as it annoyed and dismayed Zionists it must be ‘good’. Unfortunately, some Palestinian support groups still recognize the term of ‘anti-Semitism’. In fact, historically it is a dubious concept. It was initially publicized a by groups who publicised and practiced anti-Jewish racism. More recently it has been hijacked by the Zionists. It is also a concept that suffers from relying on a ‘hierarchy of the oppressed’: not a basis for progressive thought or action.

Overall, I would judge that the series offers emotional support for the Palestinians and rather simplistic criticism of Zionism. The actions and events shown in the episodes are, as the regulators judged, more or less accurate. However, the structure and organisations of these does not seem to prompt deeper consideration. Typically of mainstream melodrama it weakest aspect is that of analysis, So the Palestinian people and their resistance is longer, larger and more direct than suggested here. And Zionism is a more complex, more dangerous movement, though it its viciousness is addressed.

The films can be clearly sited in the ‘auteur’ strata. Kosminsky’s film making regularly addresses contentions social and political issues. But it does so on the basis of individualised stories. Thus ‘Secret State’ follows three individuals who journey to Syria. We learn their individual stories and see something of the hard-line values and practice of Daesh. But the complexities of the Syrian war and foreign interventions is not really addressed. An earlier drama, Britz (2007) contrasted the experiences of an Asian Officer in MI5 and his sister recruited by an Islamist organisation. I found this powerful, but again the full politics of this world were not really presented.

Solanas and Getino commented on the

“so-called ‘author’s cinema’ … This alternative signified a step forward inasmuch as it demanded that the film-maker be free to express himself in non-standard language and inasmuch as it was an attempt at cultural decolonisation. But such attempts have already reached, or are about to reach, the outer limits of what the system permits.”

In fact, Kosminsky does not really use ‘non-standard language’, his films are fairly conventional and parallel mainstream film and television. This is where I find Ken Loach more radical. However, I have critically examined the limits of Loach’s Land and Freedom. So to be fair to Kosminsky that film also fails to address in particular the important aspects of colonialism and its relation to the Spanish Civil War.

The Promise does not progress far beyond the apparent views of the British veterans who provided the basis for the story. Justified criticism of Zionism is good, and solidarity with Palestinians is good. But the Israeli State is not just about an occupation of Palestinian land: it perpetuates in a neo-colonial way, the domination of Arab lands represented by Balfour, Sykes-Picot and the artificial structure of the modern Middle East.

Apart from ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, all the quotations are taken from the Wikipedia post on The Promise.

 

 

 

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No, Chile, France, USA, Mexico 2011

Posted by keith1942 on June 18, 2017

This commentary was originally posted on ITP World. I have reposted it her with some of the comments that followed. I want to write about Pablo Larrain’s new film Neruda and this film is part of the context.

Like the Chilean director’s earlier films, No is set during the military dictatorship presided over by General Pinochet. We are right at the end when the Junta bowed to both internal and international pressure and organised a National Plebiscite/Referendum. To the surprise of the military, observers and many Chileans it lost this plebiscite. An important factor was the campaign, fronted by fifteen minutes daily on national television, to vote ‘No’. The campaign relied to a large degree on professional public relations experts. It is that campaign that is the central focus of this film.

It is a film definitely worth seeing. At times humorous, at time dramatic, it has an excellent cast headed by Gael García Bernal as René Saavedra, the advertising expert recruited by the ‘Vote No’ Alliance. The film includes footage showing the coup and the brutal repression of the Chilean working class and their organisations and parties. It also uses the actual television material from both right and left in the Referendum campaign: at times impressive, at times banal, and at time almost surreal.

The film used a 1983 U-matic video system, which gives a fairly uniform appearance to both the filmed footage and the archive material, mainly the advertisement featured. . The whole film has a sharp, tawdry look due to this. In fact, Pablo Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero had a low-budget tawdry feel which also matched its subject matter. The cinematographer on the film is Sergio Armstrong and he has done excellent work in producing this visual consistency.

My major reservation was a rather lightweight political stance. This seems to follow on from the approach that was adopted in the actual television campaign in 1988. And there are clearly strands of irony in the presentation. But there is not a developed sense of the politics of the different class fractions and factions involved. Terms like ‘communist’, ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ recur frequently. However both the left and the right at this moment were somewhat disparate coalitions of differing social forces, and this the film misses out on illuminating this. Certainly other films from Chile have managed to deal effectively with the political landscape under the dictatorship. I also felt that the film subscribes to a view that probably over-emphasises the contribution of the television adverts: but the absence of other factors in its plotting also contributes to this lack of overall illumination.

There is a trenchant set of criticisms by The Socialist Party [formerly Militant].

The Centre to which they are affiliated, Committee for a Worker’s International, had an organised presence in Chile in this period. The article lists some of the serious omissions from the film. The major problem is the absence of organised resistance by the working class. One telling example is the demonstrations outside the Presidential Palace as Pinochet and other military leaders wrestled with a response to the vote. The film suggests that it was plain sailing once the result was announced, when in fact there was a covert and overt class struggle over its implementation.

My other reservation was technical and may only apply to the UK release. The U-matic video format gives an aspect ratio of 1.33:1: the ratio that preceded sound film, when the addition of an optical track produced 1.37:1. In the UK (and presumably in most territories) the film is distributed as a Digital Cinema Package. This comes in a standard 1.85:1, with other ratios printed within the standard format. For 1.33 or 1.37 you get the central image bordered by black framing. On 35mm the projectionist could adjust the framing to the ratio: on DCP it comes ‘baked in’. Good quality cinema presentation involved bringing in the black masking to frame the appropriate ratio. This is what usually happens at the Hyde Park Picture House where I viewed this film. They also continue the honourable tradition of opening the curtains at the start of the screening. Not so with No. For some odd reason the subtitles (in yellow) have been printed so that they frequently extend beyond the 1.33 ratio into the black borders. This means the black masking is unusable. Why, I don’t know, though it did seem that the font of the subtitles was larger than usual. I found this very distracting. I can usually flick my eyes up and down to accommodate both the image and the titles: with this film I had to flick to left and right to read all of the titles. I actually missed a few. The film is distributed by Network Releasing, but I could not see an end credit for titling, so I am not sure who is responsible.

So I feel it is a bit of a problematic movie, certainly in the UK. But it is still worth seeing. It is a distinctive film with a distinctive subject matter.

Director Pablo Larrain. Screenplay adapted Pedro Peirano from the play ‘Referendum’ (‘El Plebiscito’, unpublished) by Antonio Skarmeta.

Comments on ITP World:

keith1942

Further to the subtitles. It seems the UK distributor has advised that the filmmakers requested that the 1.33:1 frame was projected within the larger 1.85:1 frame of the DCP. And that they set the subtitles to extend beyond the frame of 1.33:1.

I have not been able to find an explanation of this anywhere. And I cannot think why they would want this. Any suggestions.

Reply

Roy Stafford

I didn’t find the subtitles to be a problem as such, but I agree that being unable to mask the image is not a good thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and though I agree with you that the political situation was not explained properly, I think that was to some extent deliberate so that the focus is on Rene (Gael García Bernal) and his position caught between his ex-wife, his father’s legacy, his own fatherhood and his professional ambitions and creativity. For that reason, I think it’s important that the film is shown to as many media students as possible and then discussed in detail. It’s a wonderful film for teaching.

Reply

keith1942

Roy is right that the film focuses on Rene, but this would seem to be an aspect of the way that ‘star power’ can produce its own distortions. There is a review of the film by the Socialist Party – http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/16112 – which fills out some of the aspects of class struggle in the late 1980s which NO overlooks or ignores. I think if it is used with media students then the sessions need to include other material which gives contrasting pictures. The film is ‘ideological’ in the sense that it offers the surface appearance, but it seems not the underlying social reality.

I have also looked at a few reviews and they all seem to think that the film used U-matic and the U-matic camera.

Reply

Roy Stafford

U-matic is a videotape format. A U-matic video recorder could receive an analogue video signal from any suitable camera. Before there were ‘camcorders’ with the tape machine physically part of the camera, the video camera was linked by cable to a separate recorder. The Press Pack for No does indeed state that they used ‘U-matic cameras’ (Ikegami tube cameras to be precise). However, I think that calling something a U-matic camera is misleading. Whereas a 16mm film camera shoots images on 16mm film, any video camera could be put directly through a mixing desk and the output recorded to any analogue video format. It’s the video recorder which is U-matic not the camera. A minor point I grant you and not that important perhaps, but it is revealing just how quickly people forget how these technologies were used.

Re the ideology of the film and its suitability for students, of course it needs other material. My point was that the film reveals the dilemmas of a bourgeois character caught between different forces and deciding to follow his ‘professional’ instincts, which is a common occurrence in media industries in capitalist societies. I don’t think the film attempts to explain the politics and I don’t think it is deliberately misleading, but it is disappointing to read in the Press Pack that the campaign was ‘instrumental’ in deposing Pinochet. My impression was that the film was much more circumspect about how valuable the campaign was. Which, I guess, just goes to show how things can be read differently.

Reply

keith1942

Maybe ‘camera’ was a short hand, and maybe they have never used the format.

My memory of it was always using the umatic’s camera.

More to the point I think you are being generous to the film. I cannot quote now, but my strong impression at the film’s conclusion was that it presented the advertising as a crucial factor. And it a sense that is reflected in a number of reviews.

My original comments about the film ‘lacking substance’ is in part that the film is rather like the adverts that it features. Rather long on gloss.

And I am afraid that it is likely that studies of the film will focus on the film itself and less on the wider context. While many people are aware of the dictatorship the context around the referendum is much less widely known. I have talked to several people who viewed it and their recurring comment was that they were not familiar with the event or period in Chile.

Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero presented politics at a tangent, but there was a clearer sense of the range of views and class forces.

Reply

keith1942

This film was screened on the UK Channel 4 last week. I have already noted the political problems with the film, which remain problematic at a second viewing. However, there was also the oddity of the digital version distributed in the UK, a 1.37:1 image letter-boxed into a 1.85:1 frame: and unalterable even in projection because of the yellow sub-titles that ran all across the larger frame. [A correspondent to Sight & Sound actually liked the use of yellow]. Channel 4 also letter-boxed the film, but into 16:9 frame [approximately 1.78:1] which was slightly less obtrusive. More importantly, the subtitles were white and contained with the original 1.37:1 image – so one could watch it in the 4:3 ratio on the television.

This mini-industry narrative grows odder and odder.

 

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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 »

Films of the Spanish Civil War

Posted by keith1942 on September 3, 2016

spanish-civil-war-poster-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The POUM militia.

The POUM militia.

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

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

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

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

etheltalkinginamsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later he notes that

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

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

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

But practice changed with the arrival of the Popular Front.

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

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

civil-war-end-july-1936-jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Film adapted from a book, Political cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Honour Killings (God Forgive Them Rubba Maaf Kareen), UK 2015

Posted by keith1942 on March 16, 2015

The actual 'message' of the film.

The actual ‘message’ of the film.

 

I went to see this film, about which I knew nothing but the title, in a week where there was not a lot of film choice. It turned out to be a sort of ‘Bollywood’ film produced and shot in England. The dialogue is in English, Hindi and Panjabi. The writer and director is Avtar Bhogal and the Production Company is Ek Onkar Films Ltd. The title suggests the focus of the film.

The film’s plot is built around three friends, all now living in England: Harjinder Singh (Gulshan Grover), Badshah Khan (Javed Sheikh): Mr. Smith (Tom Alter)

Thus we have a Sikh family, a Muslim family and an English family, but the latter with a father who knows India and speaks the languages and who is married to an Indian woman. The film’s plot revolves round the parent’s opposition to their children marrying someone from another ethnic/religious group. So we have Sameera Khan (Zara Sheikh) in love with Sunny Singh (Sandeep Singh). To complicate matters, in an earlier generation such a proposed union led to the ‘honour killing’ of a daughter in the Singh family and her father [now the grandfather of the family] being imprisoned under British law.

The intricacies of the plot are fairly interesting and the film’s topic is an extremely relevant one. Here in the UK there have been several recent cases of families oppressing and even killing daughters in order to prevent such unions. However, this is not well delivered in this film. In fact I think it is the worst film that I have seen in several years. It was only my interest in how the film treated its subject that kept me in my seat.

This is partly down to the script, which is very conventional with developments signalled well in advance. The cinematography is reasonable for some of the film but there are some problems with focus and placement. The sound track is a real problem, as we appear to have an Indian cast and whilst the Hindi and Panjabi seemed OK to my untrained ear, the English was noticeably anachronistic. This is exacerbated by the settings, mainly set around Southall in Middlesex. If you know the area, know institutions and know contemporary social habit and mores, this film is full of anachronisms.

Of course, this is not necessarily a final criticism. In one sense the film replays the stereotypes of the British as a response to those of India in British films – I reckoned the English anachronisms were not much worse than the Indian anachronisms in a film like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

However, my greatest concern was in the values presented by the film. In what appears to be an attempt at balance we have two killings by Sikh families on the basis of honour: and an attempted killing and an actual killing by the Muslim family on the basis of honour. However, the treatment is seriously different. The two Sikh family killings both occur in part one of the films, the second just before the intermission: both use the traditional Sikh sword in this action. Those relating to the Muslim family follow in part two. The attempted killing occurs when the grandfather has been released from jail, ‘seen the light’ and the marriage between Sikh and Muslim is prepared. We then see a die-hard Muslim traditionalist attempt to disrupt this wedding. He appears with a body bomb strapped on which he plans to explode outside the wedding venue, thus endangering not just the family and friends but other civilians nearby. He is thwarted, but the films end with a Muslim sniper, with a high velocity riffle, gunning the now married Sameera and Sunny down in their garden.

So the Muslim attempted killing and killing play into the caricatures of ‘Muslim terrorists’. This is a long way away from the traditionalist violence that we see from the Sikh family. One wonders what the filmmakers thought audiences would take from these representations.

I have to add that the film also displays an excessive lack of restraint. The second Sikh family killing occurs right at the intermission: red blood rolls down the screen to form the letters of ‘interval’! And there are number of other such lapses in the film of a similar sort. I suppose making a poor quality film is bad enough, but playing into reactionary stereotypes in the manner of this film is far worse.

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