Category Archives: Political/social films

The Sea Wall (2008)

A few years ago, the French film The Lover, based on the book by Marguarite Duras, made the cinema circuit. I loathed the film for its excessive romanticism. Yes I know millions loved it, but I didn’t.

So when I saw that another novel by Duras had been made into a film, I initially decided to avoid it. But then when I read that Isabelle Huppert had a leading role, I knew I would have to watch The Sea Wall (Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique). The film, set in 1931 Cambodia, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

So here’s the set-up: A middle-aged widow (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two children, 20-year-old Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel) and 16-year-old Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  The children have never been to France and yet they seem to lead lives of shipwrecked French set adrift in Cambodia. They speak French, and obviously the mother has tried to maintain some French cultural standards, but in many ways they’ve run wild. Joseph, whose teeth are rotting in his head, is a smuggler and spends nights hunting out in the jungle with a Cambodian he calls The Corporal (Vanthon Duong).

The first few scenes establish the family dynamic. They live in an impressively large but primitive hut and are waited on, colonial style, by servants. The mother is the driving force of the family unit, and Joseph is his mother’s favourite to be indulged as much as can be allowed when you’re dirt poor. He’s not at all an appealing character, and an early scene involving a horse highlights the sort of brutal pragmatism he’s inherited from his mother.

And what of the mother? We know that she’s lived in Cambodia for at least 20 years. Her husband was a minor bureaucrat of the French Empire. After scraping together every last penny she possessed, the mother, with relentless drive, bought a plot of 12 acres next to the sea, but now she fights to keep the family afloat. Each year the land is flooded by the sea and the rice crop destroyed. This is a marvellous role for Huppert as she plays a diminutive woman whose frail shell houses a formidable, relentless will. Yet in spite of this unbending, tireless and at times vicious determination, she visibly fades as her illness gains ground.

Although the land would appear to be less than desirable, clearly many people want to get their hands on it. Take away the flooding problem and the soil is rich. The mother is plagued by petty French bureaucrats who try to seize her land under any legal pretext they can dream up, and then there’s her fragile health. Her most formidable and seemingly unconquerable adversary, however, is nature. Huppert plays a single-minded intense character who refuses to bow to the law or to nature; eventually she conceives of a plan to build a sea wall to protect the crops.

The drama ramps up a few notches when Suzanne comes to the attention of Monsieur Jo (Randal Douc), the son of a millionaire. While Joseph is initially disgusted and humiliated by his mother’s matchmaking plans, he too gets the idea that Suzanne’s virginity is for sale. Suzanne, intoxicated with her new sexual power, alternately flirts and teases Monsieur Jo, driving him wild in the process.

The story is set against the backdrop of a bloody phase of Cambodia’s history. Natives are rounded up and used for free labour, and French bureaucrats grab the land from the natives and evict them from their huts.  The mother, bitter from her experience with French rule, incites the local farmers to fight back. I’ve read several negative reviews of the film including the comment that this is yet another anti-colonialism film (and do we really need another?)  I’d argue that since colonialism still exists today in a mutated form, politically the film is still relevant. To categorise the film as anti-colonial, however,  is far too simplistic. We see that there’s a hierarchy within colonialism and it’s not simply the natives vs. French. After all, the mother, who has arguably benefitted from colonialism has paid a terrible price for her displacement and she and her children are now stuck in Cambodia one step from homelessness and poverty. How would this family adjust if they returned to France?

The film ends with hints of the social disaster to come. If Joseph & Suzanne remained in Cambodia until their 60s, they would see the bloody rise of Pol Pot.

On another level the film is about the bonds and the distances between parent and child. The mother is aging and in ill-health, but she refuses to give up her dream of economic independence for her children. Her decision to invest in this Cambodian plantation has in effect dictated the lives that her children will lead. While she has relentlessly sacrificed to pursue her goal, both Joseph and Suzanne cannot wait to escape. Joseph has options (hunting, smuggling) and is free to leave more or less at will, but Suzanne’s escape is limited to her sexual function.

My DVD includes an interview with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and Panh decsribes the Duras novel as “anticolonialist.” He also notes that the rich, fertile fields once owned by the Duras family are under cultivation today and are known as the Rice Fields of the White Woman.

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Filed under Cambodia, France, Isabelle Huppert, Political/social films

The Kaiser’s Lackey (1951)

 “If your political dilettantism continues, there will be an explosion.”

Director Wolfgang Staudte’s marvelously understated satire, The Kaiser’s Lackey, a 1951 film, was recently released on DVD. Set mainly in the 1890s, the film is based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan. Originally banned in Germany, The Kaiser’s Lackey is now considered one of the 100 greatest German films ever made.

kaiserThe film’s protagonist Diederich Hebbling is hardly a hero; as a boy Diederich is terrified of everything. From his father’s impassioned, tyrannical rants to his mother’s ghastly tales of what happens to children, little Diederich learns to never take chances, and dog-like he follows the rules. The very first glimmer of Diederich’s character appears in an early classroom scene when he curries a teacher’s favour by tattling on a fellow student.

By the time Diederich (Werner Peters) is an adult and attends university, his character is set. Attracted to Agnes Gopel (Sabine Thalbach), he scurries away when threatened by a rival, and turning from the challenges of love, instead he becomes enthralled with the Neo-Teutons–a group that gives a sense of identity and kinship and that ultimately shapes his notions of German superiority and imperialism. Dabbling with contrived duels to gain obligatory, status scars, he “experienced a sort of suicidal élan,” and gradually Diederich’s inclusion in the Neo-Teutons becomes a substitution for personality. He evades military service by pulling strings, and lacking imagination, spontaneity, and individualism, Diederich becomes the perfect material for a politician. Eventually, with the confidence and comfort gained from extensive drinking rituals and the superficial camaraderie of the Neo-Teutons, he despoils Agnes and then casts her aside due to his notions of ‘unblemished’ womanhood.

When Diederich inherits his father’s paper factory, he returns home to Netzig and becomes a petty tyrant. Rabidly anti-Semitic, he prides himself on his patriotism and harsh treatment of his workers. In unsettled political times, Diederich learns to curry favour from the socially superior bombastic governor, but he also gains cooperation from the oppositional Social Democrats by bribing one of their leaders. Some of the scenes involving the governor and his dog are hilarious. Diederich, who’s beneath the governor’s dog on the totem pole of power, must suffer various indignities without complaint in order to gain access to the governor’s presence, patronage, and privileged inner circle. And like the good little underling he is, Diederich knows better than to complain when the dog treats him like some sort of squeaky toy.

Eventually elected to the town council after gaining notoriety through a preposterous trial, Diederich’s pomposity and vanity have no limits. Courtship to a local heiress whose inheritance and bovine nature suit Diederich’s ambitions results in marriage and a honeymoon. Once Diederich learns that the Kaiser is expected in Rome, he diverts his honeymoon plans, and abandoning his wife temporarily in the street he succeeds in gaining a glimpse of his idol. Running alongside the Kaiser’s carriage like a faithful dog, Diederich is the last person to realize how insufferable and ridiculous he is.

The film, however, makes it perfectly clear that even though Diederich is a buffoon, and a cretinous underling, as an autocrat shaped by the “corps, the army and the Imperialistic spirit” he’s a destructive force, and this is established in the film’s final prophetic scene. Diederich gives a thundering patriotic speech given at the unveiling of the town’s statute of the Kaiser, and with a captive audience, he becomes carried away–even ignoring the governor’s order to stop. As Diederich’s speech becomes more impassioned, the weather turns sour and his speech’s militaristic, nationalistic tone parallels the gathering storm. Admonishing the crowd that the nation’s greatness is “forged on the battlefield,” Diederich finishes his speech ignoring the collateral damage occurring around him. This brilliant symbolism presages Germany’s coming destruction and a barking, insane and obsessed fuehrer whose notions of racial purity, militaristic traditions, and German imperialism plunged the world into war.

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Mariposa Negra (2006)

mariposa

“Sometimes it’s better not to know.”

The marvelous, amazing and ultimately tragic film Mariposa Negra (Black Butterfly) follows the relationship between two young Peruvian women who are thrown together by circumstance and then swept up in brutality orchestrated by Montesinos, the head of Peru’s Intelligence Service. This is yet another incredible film from director Francisco Lombardi. After his fantastic Ojos Que No Ven and Tinta Roja, I couldn’t wait to see Mariposa Negra, and I was not disappointed.

When the film begins, young idealistic schoolteacher, Gabriela (Melania Urbina) is engaged to judge, Guido Pazos (Dario Abad) when he is brutally murdered in his apartment. Tabloid journalist, Angela (Magdyel Ugaz) is assigned to cover the story. As usual, her boss, Osman (Gustavo Bueno) hands her an outline of the sort of muck he wants her to write. The torture and murder of the judge–a man who’d received death threats–turns into a sleazy story claiming that the judge was killed while participating in a homosexual orgy.

Grief-stricken Gabriela begins haunting the newspaper office. Already ripped apart by the loss of her fiance, Gabriela is outraged at the tabloid headlines. Gabriela, who comes from a privileged background, is largely oblivious to the uglier side of Peruvian politics, and so she interprets the tabloid story in a linear fashion, seeing it as a pack of lies that needs to be corrected rather than a piece of propaganda controlled by Montesinos. After Gabriela creates a scene in the newspaper office, Osman orders her dragged outside, and there she waits for hours, determined to talk to the journalist who wrote the story about Guido.

Angela notes Gabriela’s tenacious, patient presence outside of the building, and she approaches Gabriela. Is she driven by curiosity, a spark of compassion, or is she motivated by the urge to pop Gabriela’s innocent illusions about Peruvian society? After meeting Angela, the two girls–similar age but from opposite backgrounds–strike up a relationship. These two characters are both fascinating women, and their relationship is at the heart of this incredible film.

Angela has no illusions, is tough and jaded. While she contemplates ambition, she’s lost her drive, and her editor bitches at her for her lack of enthusiasm without realizing that he is responsible for her attitude. With all those sleazy stories she’s told to write, she’s world-weary enough to realize that she’s caught in a maze of corruption, and that fighting against it is futile. But then she meets Gabriela–a girl who comes from a protected, cosseted environment, but who will not rest until she has revenge. Confronted with Gabriela’s naivete, Angela is at first brusque but then she becomes curious about Gabriela. This curiosity is tinged with a protective edge.

Gabriela discovers that tapes exist of Guido’s death, and Montesinos, who had a penchant for taping his illegal activities–ordered the torture and murder (termed ‘medical operations’)–along with video commemoration of the killing.

Ultimately this is a tragic story, immensely sad and incredibly disturbing. But at the same time there’s beauty here–Gabriela’s single minded, obsessive desire to meet Guido’s killers and her calm acceptance of her inevitable fate. To her, giving her life is worth the risk if she can clear Guido’s name and catch his killers. Angela, at first, dismisses Gabriela as a lightweight, incapable of holding her own on the streets, but Gabriela possesses what Angela lacks–a belief system, and that gives her strength and makes her impervious to fear. Common sense and a strong sense of self-preservation would hinder Angela from undertaking the sort of risks Gabriela takes, and Gabriela continues to surprise Angela.

The only film I can compare to Mariposa Negra is George Sluizer’s Dutch film Spoorloos (the American version starring Jeff Bridges is The Vanishing) in which the main character, Rex Hofman possesses the same sort of single-minded obsession as Gabriela. There is simply no peace in this life, on this planet until Gabriela completes–or fails–her mission. Obsession usually causes stress and often-erratic behavior, but in Mariposa Negra, Gabriela’s obsessive quest to avenge Guido actually gives her peace and an unnerving otherworldly serenity. Gabriela’s aura of innocence adds to the film’s strong sense of fatalism.

Mariposa Negra from director Francisco J. Lombardi highlights a dark period in Peru’s history. The downfall of Montesinos eventually came as the result of the exposure of his secret videotape stash by Peruvian journalists who were brave enough to expose Montesinos via television and risk the consequences.

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The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002)

“To the British: Your time is over.”

bhagat-singhRajkumar Santoshi’s colourful film The Legend Of Bhagat Singh explores the life of the formidable Indian revolutionary. Born in 1908, Bhagat Singh (Ajay Devgan) came to manhood during the crucial years of India’s history under Imperialistic British rule. The film shows how, as a child Bhagat was influenced by Gandhi, and participated in Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. Later after souring on Gandhi’s message of non-violence, Bhagat Singh turned to revolutionary groups, and Direct Action in his determination to fight for an independent India. Bhagat Singh is depicted as a strong-willed man whose clear vision never faltered in his dream of an independent India, a secular state in which Muslims and Hindus cohabited peacefully.

The film succeeds admirably in telling Bhagat Singh’s story and the reasons behind his actions. However, while the story very clearly, methodically, and chronologically maps out (with dates and incidents) the atrocities responsible for Bhagat Singh’s shift in political beliefs, the plot doesn’t explore the fact that Bhagat Singh was an atheist. This oversight trips up the film in a couple of spots when Bhagat makes speeches that hint at atheism but have no prior context in the plot. Further, while the film clearly designates communism as a major influence on Bhagat Singh, the film ignores his leanings towards anarchism. The film does an excellent job of showing how Bhagat shamed his Indian jailers by his bravery and determination, and how Bhagat understood that his actions and his subsequent trial could be used as propaganda devices in order to spread the word to the masses.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh has many of the devices of conventional Indian cinema–and while this really works well with romance and courtship (and there’s a bit thrown in here for good measure), in other spots some of the singing, while stirring, appears at unlikely moments–during a hunger strike, for example. The depiction of the British is a bit awkward with its dubbed speeches, but apart from that, there are many scenes of the British whooping it up in their stolen palaces, beating Indians, torturing Indians, and generally making themselves unwelcome. The caste system comes into play as scenes depict the upper class Indians mingling happily with the British while the masses suffer. As the violence against Indians increases, Bhagat Singh and his followers respond–finally turning to bomb making to protest the Trade Dispute Bill and the Public Safety Bill that made strikes illegal with all protestors subject to imprisonment. Well so much for peaceful protest.

The film does not depict Gandhi in a flattering light, and no doubt some viewers will see this as controversial. Gandhi remains a monumental icon while interestingly Bhagat Singh, seen here as Gandhi’s political rival, is absent from Western culture. Gandhi is depicted as the leader of the masses who leads the people down the garden path of passivity. At one point, a British man chortles with glee that Gandhi with his message of non-violence is his “kind of enemy” and indeed the film depicts Gandhi as doing more harm than good by being the only option for resistance. The film shows Gandhi signing the Irwin pact in which he agreed to suspend the non-cooperation agreement in exchange for the release of political prisoners. Bhagat Singh and his followers were not included in this agreement, and the implication is that Gandhi should not have signed unless these men too were included.

The film explores some serious questions: the use of Direct Action and revolutionary violence, the designation of the terms freedom fighters vs. terrorists, and the various tools for spreading propaganda. Significant incidents include: the murder of Lala Lajpat Rai, the murder of police officer J.P Saunders, the formation of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, and Bhagat Singh’s trial. If you like Indian cinema, or if you just would like to find out more about Bhagat Singh–considered to be one of the most influential revolutionaries of the Indian Independence Movement, then you should enjoy this film.

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Who Bombed Birmingham? (1990)

 One of the more horrendous terrorist bombings in Britain took place on November 21, 1974. Two Birmingham pubs–the Mulberry Bush and The Tavern in the Town were blown apart by bombs that exploded just seconds apart. The blast left 21 people dead and almost 200 injured.  A third bomb, left outside of a bank, did not detonate.

who-bombed-birminghamThat same evening 5 Irish men who lived in Birmingham and who were on their way to an IRA funeral in Belfast were arrested for questioning. The next day, a sixth man who’d gone to the station with them was also arrested. They were questioned, charged, tried, found guilty and in 1975 sentenced to life in prison. These men became known as The Birmingham Six.

In the 1980s, in a series of episodes, the British television investigative journalism programme, World in Action explored the case and discovered some disturbing information. The film Who Bombed Birmingham? is the backdrop story of the World in Action’s efforts to undercover the facts about the case and the subsequent horrendous miscarriage of justice.

While World in Action journalist and labour MP Chris Mullin (John Hurt) focuses on his book Error in Judgement: The Truth About the Birmingham Pub Bombings, the programme’s producer Ian McBride (Martin Shaw) and journalist Charles Tremayne (Roger Allam) team up to focus on forensic evidence, tackling such issues as police brutality during the questioning. Chris Mullin decides that if the Birmingham Six were not guilty of the bombings, then someone else was, and so he pursues this aspect of case through interviews with various members of the IRA.

While McBride and Tremayne’s quest is fairly straightforward, it’s more difficult to follow Mullin’s trail. There are times in which we have to follow the cryptic notes he scribbles in his notebook in order to understand his train of thought and his process of investigation. Some of the story is told in flashback (the beatings, extorted confessions, etc), and due to time constraints, a great deal regarding early brutality charges against prison and police officers is missing. There’s a lot to absorb here in just over 100 minutes–the bombings, the various conflicting versions of events, forensic tests, hearings, interviews, etc–and the film would probably fare better as a miniseries. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film involve Mullin’s interviews with IRA members–some who feel remorse for their actions, and some who coldly shrug off responsibility.

The film was made in 1990, and so the story of the Birmingham Six is not complete. This should be a gripping tale, but for the most part the film fails to raise the sense of outrage that the story so clearly warrants. And perhaps that’s in part to the fact that some things remain unclear–the issue of the phoned in warnings, for example. Finally the film hints at, but fails to fully explore, the significance of those Special Branch files….

 

From director Mike Beckham

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Pinochet’s Last Stand (2006)

“I’m hounded by Communists.”

You wouldn’t catch me cozying up to a right-wing fascist dictator responsible for the murders and torture of 1000s of people, but apparently good old Margaret Thatcher couldn’t wait to squeeze in for a photo shoot in one scene of the HBO-BBC made-for-television film Pinochet’s Last Stand  (AKA Pinochet in Suburbia) The title, by the way, has an ironic meaning that should become clear by the film’s conclusion.

The film charts the former leader of Chile, Pinochet’s 1998 trip to England, the struggles of human rights groups to detain him in Britain pending extradition to Spain to answer for his crimes, and the legal wrangle that took place. It’s not exactly gripping drama, but this is an interesting film nonetheless for the questions it raises. Pinochet (Derek Jacobi) is depicted as a cunning, arrogant and egotistical old git who stalwartly believes that he is above the law, above any sort of ‘moral’ justice, and does not have to answer for any of his actions. Of course this is the man who took over Chile after the suicide of Allende, and with Socialist president Allende out of the way, Pinochet swept away and “disappeared” anyone leftie he could get his hands on. Of course, with someone like Pinochet, most people are lefties, so that kept the field wide open.

The film depicts the shenanigans behind the legal maneuvers, and the pressures brought to bear against Home Secretary Jack Straw (Michael Maloney). There’s pressure from the US (Bush, the Elder) to hand Pinochet back to Chile (after all the US had supported the overthrow of Allende), and on the other side of the fence, there’s Amnesty International. Then there’s Baroness Thatcher nauseatingly helping Pinochet with his image-makeover. The two old fascists have a cozy time of it together. The film shows how fascists remain resolute while government lefties (Straw) always cave and make concessions. Tony Blair doesn’t qualify as a leftie even though he’s arguably a member of the Labour Party.

The film touches briefly on the crimes committed by Pinochet, and it’s a shame the film didn’t go into this area with more detail. It’s estimated that over 3,000 people were ‘disappeared’ and about 30,000 tortured. One of the Chilean protestors, Nicole (Yolanda Vazquez) plays a woman haunted by her sister’s rape, torture and subsequent disappearance.

Mainly this film raised some questions for debate in my home. Should Pinochet, for example, have been extradited to Spain for crimes against humanity? Should another country prosecute a dictator (Pinochet in this case) when the man’s own country’s judicial system is willing to turn a blind eye? Of course, there are precedents to consider here–the Nuremberg Trials, for example, and our very own Guantanamo Bay where residents of many countries around the globe are grabbed, locked up and not even tried for the crimes of which they are accused. Should crimes against humanity be tried by another country under the idea of Universal Jurisdiction? It shouldn’t be too surprising that Henry Kissinger opposed such a position.

Ultimately, it’s amazing to see how Pinochet achieved victimhood, but sadly the film failed to raise the outrage the subject matter so clearly warranted, and that’s a pity.

From director Richard Curson Smith

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Filed under British television, Political/social films

War is Sell (2004)

 “How and why might a culture take their conflict into an organized form?”

Napoleon once said, “Men will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon,” and considering he talked 1000s of men into an insane assault against Russia, well, we can only assume that Napoleon knew what he was talking about. The documentary film, War is Sell takes a look at how a war is ‘sold’ to the people who have to fight it. Obviously the politicians who come to the decision that war is the only solution to whatever foreign policy problem the country faces are not the ones who put their lives on the line, so the big question becomes, how do those at the top–those making the decisions–persuade the rest of us peons to go along with it?

war-is-sellWar is Sell is divided into three sections. The first section, Tricks of the Trade examines some tried-and-true methods behind whipping a country into a war frenzy, and this takes us to a discussion of propaganda. Propaganda is defined as “attempts to indoctrinate a mass audience” while it “strives to be invisible.” Interviews with several writers and media watchdogs are included, and the film examines propaganda techniques including: Demonizing the Enemy, 3rd Party Endorsement, Staying On the Message, Telling the Big Lie, Using Doublespeak, and Silencing the Opposition. The film uses a historical approach with archival footage to examine these tactics used through WWI up until the present mess in Iraq.

The film’s second section, Teaching Propaganda is the weakest. The filmmakers enter the classroom of high school teacher, Mary Skinner and record her lesson about propaganda and subsequent discussions with her students. While Skinner’s valiant efforts in the classroom are noted, this section of the film is uninteresting. Perhaps if one plans to teach a classroom of students the same sort of lesson, there’s some value here, but apart from that, this second section seems wildly out of place.

The film’s third section, however, was extremely interesting. This section, The Culture of War takes an anthropological approach to examine the phenomenon of violence. Professor Neil Whitehead from the University of Wisconsin presents a rational, thoughtful and intelligent overview of humans and their violent tendencies, and he notes that when it comes to war, there is a political gap between the “intentions of the leaders and the willingness of the followers” that has to be “filled with some sort of narrative.” The narrative, Whitehead argues, might include the “danger of resource loss” and/or the presentation of “aggressive action from another.” This narrative, Whitehead explains “need not be untrue.” Naturally, however, problems arise when national aggression towards another country is unjustified (based on, let’s say, wildly inflated intelligence information) or “presented as the only possible option.”

This final section (and strongest part of the film) includes: The Need for Propaganda, Bred for War, The Cannibal Within, The Terrorist Within (an examination of state terrorism and the Theory of the Intimacy of Violence.)

The 2-DVD disc set places the film on one disc, and the other disc is devoted to extras. Extras include: archival footage, WWI posters, short films: America Goes to War, Divide and Conquer, and Despotism, footage of the US presentation to the UN in 2003, miscellaneous Iraq War propaganda, deleted scenes, John Stauber: Embedded Reporters, Mary Carpenter: Trench Warfare, Robert Fisk: Descending into the Pit, Alexander Cockburn: Very Bad Liars, and Amy Goodman: The Silenced Majority. It’s somewhat uncanny to see propaganda materials from WWI and realise how strikingly similar these materials are to the stuff used to trumpet the Iraqi War. I suppose some things never change. For those interested in reading more about war propaganda, I recommend Mickey Z’s handy-dandy guide: Seven Deadly Spins.

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Filed under (Anti) War, Documentary, Political/social films