Tag Archives: anarchists on film

Conversaciones Con Mama (2004)

“Capitalism is making us all sick.”

Conversaciones Con Mama (Conversations with Mother), an Argentinean film from writer/director Santiago Carlos Oves is the story of a relationship between a middle-aged son and his elderly mother set against Argentina’s financial crisis of 2001.

Jamie (Eduardo Blanco) is an executive who suddenly finds himself without a job during the crisis. He has a middle-class lifestyle–a nice home, a wife and two children, and an elderly mother he supports. When the money crunch hits, Jamie’s wife, Dorita (Silvana Bosco) decides that the best course to take is to sell the apartment currently occupied by Jamie’s elderly mother (China Zorrilla), and then to help expenses, Jamie’s mother is supposed to move in to the now-disused maid’s room. Dorita and her mother pressure Jamie to approach his mother with the news.

When Jaime visits his mother, he finds her surprisingly stubborn on the issue of moving out. It’s not difficult to feel sympathy for Jaime. Played by actor Eduardo Blanco, he has one of those extremely flexible faces–a bit like Roberto Benigni, and it’s this very look that helps create empathy for Jamie–a man trapped on all sides by demanding women. Jamie’s mother is at first very elusive about any sort of move, and it’s difficult to tell just how much is dottiness and how much is avoidance. While she refuses to discuss the apartment, she focuses on the infrequency of Jamie’s visits, and the food she cooks for his visits that is wasted. It becomes clear that there’s no love between Jaime’s mother, Dorita and his mother-in-law. But the idea also appears that while Jaime’s life has gone on without his mother, her life has also developed. During their frequent conversations, she begins using words and phrases that catch Jamie’s attention, and then he discovers that she has a boyfriend.

When Jaime finally pins down his mother long enough to explain his financial dilemma, she refuses to move out of her apartment, citing the fact that her boyfriend, ‘retired anarchist’ Gregorio (Ulises Dumont), an elderly man who spends all day training and educating fellow seniors and protesting, is moving in with her. At first stunned by the news that his mother has a boyfriend, Jaime agrees to meet the new man in his mother’s life.

Argentina has produced a number of films illustrating the lives of individuals affected by the financial crisis, and most of these films concentrate on the minutiae of daily lives and the impact on relationships (Live-in Maid, Common Ground) . Conversaciones Con Mama is one of these films. It has its overly sentimental moments, but then it also has its largely understated scenes. At one point Jaime discovers that neither of his children are following the career paths planned by their parents. His son, for example, doesn’t want to a career in economics but instead he wants to be a tango dancer. At first, the response from the audience and from Jaime is skepticism, but then we see his son dance, and he’s really, really good. The idea seeps through the film that commodities aren’t what’s important–it’s people and their relationships that should be paramount consideration. This is an idea that becomes glaringly obvious to Jamie as he’s continually pressured by the status conscious Dorita to prise his mother out of her apartment. And this underscores the idea that due to the inauthenticity of capitalist values, independence is subsumed to materialism which then affects relationships and quality of life.

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Les Brigades du Tigre (2006)

“This dump looks like an anarchist hangout.”

I’ve become used to the overwhelmingly negative and inaccurate portrayals of anarchists in film and books, but Les Brigades du Tigre (The Tiger Brigades) is a first–well a first for me at least. This French film directed by Jerome and Francois Cornuau is ostensibly about the first motorised police force, and it portrays anarchist Jules Bonnot in a favorable but still wildly inaccurate light.

Somehow after reading Richard Parry’s account of The Bonnot Gang  I can’t help but think that if Bonnot could see this cinematic version of part of his life, he’d be really annoyed. But then again perhaps he’d have a good laugh. Well whatever Bonnot’s reaction would be to this glossy portrayal of the French Illegalist as some sort of latter day Robin Hood, the film still ignores the reality of what Bonnot and his fellow anarchists were all about.

Here’s the plot:

Jules Bonnot (Jacques Gamblin) and a group of fellow anarchists knock off a bank delivery showering money in the streets while they make off with a secret coded ledger. This ledger assumes vast importance, and while the first mobile police brigade searches for Bonnot, something just doesn’t add up for Commissaire Valentin (Clovis Cornillac). Valentin has a soft spot for anarchists noting that they “aren’t like crooks. They’re quiet, sober, don’t beat women.” Valentin and a handful of other policemen become involved in the hunt for Bonnot, and they soon become aware that there’s skullduggery afoot.

The film uses the real-life character of Bonnot and some of his actions and then spins the facts sending the truth off the deep end. For example, scenes depict the police surrounding Bonnot in a farmhouse at Choisy-le-Roi. While this much is true, the film depicts Bonnot as killed when the police dynamite and storm the building. In reality, he was still barely alive but shot in the head by police at the scene. The film also depicts Bonnot’s body being carried out with honour–ceremonial style, shoulder high when the reality was that the mob gathered at the site wanted to lynch Bonnot.

With Bonnot out of the picture (literally) the film concentrates on the policemen, and they become the heroes of the piece. There are a few real names here: Octave Garnier (Marc Robert) and Raymond Callemin (Pierre Berriau) and Jaures (Andre Marcon). Thrown into the blend is a Russian anarchist who shoots up with narcotics, and a Russian princess (Diane Kruger) who’s an anarchist on the side and Bonnot’s lover whenever she gets a chance.

Of course, it’s all extremely fanciful with its swordplay, crazed Russians, acid-throwing and torture thrown in for good measure. I had a good laugh at the way anarchists fold and yield information to Valentin whenever he asks a question. But overall I was puzzled more than anything else by the film’s portrayal of Bonnot. Author Richard Parry makes the point that given the social conditions of the times many of the French working class identified with Bonnot and his Illegalist decision to seize what he wanted. But the film seems to feel very comfortable creating degrees of French heroes as opposed to the Russian Nasties. Perhaps this explains why Bonnot is depicted as someone who wants to ‘right’ society by exposing corruption. Ultimately, however, the Russians are the villains of the piece with the French bureaucrats and bankers right next to them.

This action film is an adaptation of a popular French television series that aired in the 70s.

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Anarchism in America (1983)

“I’m a man of peace, and that’s why I’m an anarchist.”

This DVD includes two documentaries–the title film, Anarchism in America and The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists. In the first film, the filmmakers take the thesis that some aspects of the American temperament are compatible with aspects of anarchism. The filmmakers take to the road and interview various individuals with this thesis in mind. A variety of individuals–both anarchist and non-anarchist are interviewed–including a truck driver, and workers from a worker-owned sewing company. The decisions these individuals have made in their lives are examined in light of anarchist beliefs. The film also includes a segment featuring Ed Headman from the No More Nukes Programme in which he explains how the non-hierarchal aspects of the anarchists can also be found in No Nuke protests.

Additional segments from this 75-minute film include a brief clip of the Dead Kennedys in performance, followed by an interview with the band members. Archival footage of Emma Goldman is included, and the intensely practical Murray Bookchin also describes his movement towards anarchism following his disappointment with Communism.

The second film, The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists is 55 minutes long, and it’s the stronger of the two films. The film examines the massive immigration to America in the late 1800s–a movement that brought with it a number of Jewish anarchists from Russia. They “replaced American culture with a counter culture” and established an “anarchist milieu.” These anarchist communities were devoted to fighting for better labour conditions in the sweatshop conditions prevalent in America at the time. The film also examines the Yiddish anarchist newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme–a newspaper that survived from 1890 until 1977. Many of those involved with the paper are interviewed, and with their words, they recreate the atmosphere of the times and the philosophical and ethical framework behind anarchism. In one particularly delightful scene, the caretaker of the Haymarket memorial remembers that during WWI, with anti-German feelings running high, the mayor of New York insisted on calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” (makes you think of those freedom fries….). The film also examines the strong antiwar sentiment amongst anarchists who are largely “pacifist by conviction…refusing to pick up arms”–and in particular describes the anti-conscription efforts of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman who were ironically deported to Russia for their activism.

The interviewees describe a rich, vital, and well-organised anarchist society that included lectures, dances and the establishment of the Anarchist Red Cross–an organization devoted to aid for prisoners in Czarist Russia. Historian Paul Avrich appears to discuss the role of anarchists in the Labor movement in America–and various highlights in the movement are mentioned–including the Haymarket tragedy, the Ferrer Modern School, and the persecution of anarchists that resulted in the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Of the two films, I preferred  The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists. Anarchism in America is a bit too shapeless for my tastes.  From directors Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

Hop (2002)

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to blow anything up.”

Apparently the salient characteristic of an anarchist is the irrepressible desire to blow things up. Well at least that’s the case in the film Hop from director Dominque Standaert. The story revolves around Justin (Kalomba Mboyi) a twelve-year-old illegal immigrant from Burundi who lives with his father Dieudonne (Ansou Diedhiou) in Belgium. After a minor fracas with the law stemming from a dispute with a neighbour over his cable television line, Dieudonne is arrested, questioned and subsequently deported by police to the Congo. Meanwhile Justin goes on the lam and takes refuge with anarchist Frans Misonne (Jan Decleir).

Frans at first plans to hand the boy right back to the police, but then when his female acquaintance Gerda (Antje de Boeck) objects, Frans allows the boy to stay. When Frans learns that Justin’s father has been deported, he comes up with a plan to negotiate for the father’s return to Belgium. Dreaming up the name, the Anarchistic Pygmy Revolutionary Front, Frans’s plan is to leave a dummy explosive on a monument, threatening to use the real thing if their demands aren’t met.

As the film develops, it’s revealed that Frans served time for an explosion in which three people were killed. Frans, who was the bomb expert in the Pressure Cooker Group, set the bomb and then called in a warning to police. The police however, failed to evacuate the building, and three people were killed. Frans subsequently served time–a remarkably short period of time as it turns out, and this is explained by the skill of Frans’s lawyer.

Frans and Gerda are the only Belgiums willing to help Justin, and while their comradeship is touching, the portrayal of anarchist Frans is problematic. On the one hand, he could have been any old hippie or any old radical, but the necessity of placing dynamite in the plot evidently and preposterously called for the creation of an anarchist. As one of the Pressure Cooker Group, he’s seen as someone who’s responsible for the deaths of three innocent bystanders. He keeps a secret stash of dynamite in his remote home and refuses to clean out his cesspit (an outhouse that serves as a toilet). Furthermore in its portrayal of Frans, the film doesn’t bother to explain any anarchist principles–even though Frans’s house is loaded with piles of books, pamphlets etc. Nor do we ever discover why Frans was running around Belgium with pressure cookers loaded with dynamite in the first place. Also, at the beginning of the film, in spite of the fact that he’s supposed to be an anarchist, his first reaction is to hand over Justin to the “authorities” and it’s only later in the film that he refuses to cooperate with the police–and this is a bit late since he’s already told the police where the boy can be found. Perhaps he cooperates because Justin is running around with a stash of dynamite–although the film doesn’t make the motive behind Frans’s cooperation clear. So we are left with a stereotype complete with the obligatory tendency to violent irresponsible action created for the purposes of the film.

Hop really has some interesting ideas, but the plot is extremely fanciful. The police who arrest Dieudonne are portrayed as rather cruel and deceptive, but later in the film, the Belgium equivalent of a SWAT team, at first rather sinister and threatening, are buffoons when pitted against the savvy 12 year old. Hop is visually a beautiful film, shot digitally in black and white. The plot addresses some serious, timely questions–the morality of allowing immigrants to sneak into the country in order to provide cheap labour, and the ethics of separating a child from a parent. The film’s title refers to a strategic shift of power between various groups, and the plot provides a few stories of how the Hop may be conducted, and then shows by example. Interestingly, it’s Justin’s fellow countrymen who manage to pull a Hop on the Belgium power structure, and this is accomplished in a very sly, slick manner–without explosives. However, the film stoops to the typical obligatory perpetuation of anarchist stereotypes–in this case–heavy on dynamite and out-of-control cesspits.

In Dutch and French with subtitles.

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What to do in Case of Fire (2001)

“They are politically misguided and sexually depraved.”

“We breathed in the same stuff as those anarchists.”

This lively German film begins in Berlin 1987 with footage of clashes between the German police and anarchists. Fast forward 13 years to 2000 when a bomb explodes in an empty building. Two people are injured in the blast, and a police hunt begins for those responsible. The bomb is analyzed and its construction places it within the period 1984-1988. Manowsky (Klaus Lowitsch) a veteran policeman who specialized in subversives during that time period is called in to solve the case. Manowsky begins digging back through lists of subversives from the 80s and during a police raid in a squat in notorious Machnow Street, a large amount of material is seized from two anarchists-Tim (Til Schweiger) and Hotte (Martin Feifel).

The police don’t know it, but they’ve accidentally managed to seize evidence that will identify and convict all the members of Group 36. The members of this anarchist collective, unfortunately, foolishly took souvenir footage of some of their exploits, and Tim and Hotte realize it’s just a matter of time before the police examine the film and track them all down. Back in the 80s, the group consisted of six comrades-four males and 2 females who shared the squat in Machnow Street. Only Tim and Hotte are still true to their anarchist beliefs, and the other four members have been recuperated by capitalist society to one degree or another. Tim and Hotte, who have no contact with the former members of the collective in years, initially, plan to flee to Poland, but instead, they decide to remain behind, and warn their former comrades.

The former members of the collective have various reactions to seeing Tim and Hotte again. Terror (Matthias Matschke) is now a lawyer, Nele (Nadja Uhl) is a single mother, Flo (Doris Schretzmayer) is affluent and about to get married, and Maik (Sebastian Blomberg) is an extremely wealthy advertising executive, considered a bit of a rebel by the business types who surround him. These four would rather forget the past, but with a criminal case looming before them, they can’t. In fact, since these four have `new lives’ (to one extent or another), they actually have far more to lose than Tim and Hotte, but at the same time, now they’re `respectable’, they seem unlikely to plan and participate in a raid on the fortified police barracks.

Many resentments simmer beneath the surface of the relationships of these six ex-collective members. Will they be able to work together to seize back the incriminating film? Tim and Hotte both feel abandoned by their former friends, and the film emphasizes the connection between the people they used to be and the people they’ve become. Maik, the most affluent of the six, seems the most appalled by the conditions of the squat, and he can hardly believe that he once lived there with his friends. The four recuperated anarchists (Terror, Nele, Flo, and Maik) don’t particularly want to address the moral shift of their movement from anarchism, and the implication seems to be that they’ve “moved on” from their youthful enthusiasm and energy, and simply given up the struggle. Ironically, the group’s old nemesis, Manowsky, has a grudging respect for those who didn’t ‘sell out’ and this supplies the film with a surprisingly-although slightly unbelievable ending. In German with subtitles What to Do In Case of Fire is directed by Gregor Schnitzler.

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Filed under German, Political/social films

Land and Freedom (1995)

 “Revolutions are contagious.”

In 1936, unemployed working class labourer, Dave Carr (Ian Hart) attends a Communist meeting in Liverpool and is recruited to fight the Fascists in Spain. He heads out with little idea where he is going, but with his Communist party card in hand, he soon meets up with a loosely banded detachment of the POUM militia group. The POUM organisation was a Marxist Communist union that formed an alliance with FAI/CNT Spanish Anarchists with the common goal of defeating renegade fascist general Franco.

landThe militia live in rough camps, lack weapons, and engage in a type of trench warfare with the fascists. Dave’s adventures include the liberation of a fascist-held village, and a slow tender romance that simmers with fellow militia member, Blanca (Rosana Pastor). At first Dave is quite enthusiastic about his involvement in the war. To him, this is “socialism in action.”

Dave’s disillusionment sets in when the POUM militias come under Stalinist control. With Stalin supporting the Communist Party of Spain, the militias are ordered to accept new rules. The women–who’ve fought alongside the men–are ordered to become either nurses or cooks. In spite of the fact that new weapons are promised, nothing appears. The militia members are divided by conflicting opinions–some seeing that the militia is now effectively de-fanged, join the Stalinist International Brigade, but other members stay faithful to the militia alliance. Land and Freedom documents Stalin’s betrayal of the POUM organization and their allies the Anarchists–soon POUM and the Anarchists (who’ve made some significant military advances) are under attack by the Stalinists and the Republican army. The Stalinists shut down the POUM newspapers and arrest some of their leaders. Instead of fighting the fascists, the parties who are supposed to be allied against Franco, are fighting each other. It’s the old divide and conquer strategy–but this time the Stalinists effectively divide the Anarchists and the Marxists and squash them–betraying the revolution, and betraying Spain. The film makes it quite clear that Marxism is not the same thing as Stalinism, and that the Spanish Civil War was a war within a war. There’s one great scene when Dave–fighting with the International Brigade-is holed up on one side of the street shooting at a group of Anarchists barricaded on the other side of the street. Insults are shouted from each side and then Dave exchanges comments with a British fighter from Manchester. They ask each other what they are doing there, and each man answers “dunno.” It is this event that causes Dave to cease fighting with the International Brigade and return to the militia.

Land and Freedom is first and foremost a political film–the romance between Dave and Blanca is never forced or even central to the plot. The era portrayed by the film is a complicated subject, and this Ken Loach film does an incredible job of putting large political ideas into an understandable format for the average viewer. One scene, for example, portrays the arguments that take place between villagers following the village’s liberation from the fascists. Some of the villagers wish to divide up the land immediately and begin collectivism (one of the goals of the newly elected democratic government that Franco intended to squash). The argument whether or not to begin collectivism illustrates the different arguments that the villagers have on the subject, and this scene also includes information regarding England and France’s refusal to sell weapons to the Spanish republic–even though it was a well-known fact that Franco was receiving support from Germany and Italy.

Dave is a marvelous character–an everyman who “leaves Liverpool with a daft romantic idea” that’s trammeled by political realities. Ian Hart’s low-key acting style is perfect for this role. We know that Dave’s disillusionment is complete when he rips up his Communist party card. Ultimately–the film is an avowal of the ongoing struggles of the working classes. Land and Freedom is an important political film, and anyone even remotely interested should dig out a copy of this buried film. It’s informative, but it’s also an excellent, excellent film. Well done, Ken Loach.

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Filed under Ken Loach, Political/social films

Sacco and Vanzetti (1971)

“Are you an anarchist, a communist, a socialist, a union man?”

The true story of Sacco and Vanzetti is practically forgotten these days, but the 1971 Italian film directed by Guilano Montaldo recreates the politically charged murder and robbery case against the backdrop of the political insecurity of the times.

America in the 1920s was in the throes of a “red scare” and increasing labour unrest. More than 25,000 Italians had been deported for a variety of reasons–including for their political beliefs and involvement in the labour movement. Following a payroll holdup on April 15,1920, that left several people dead, the police arrested two Italian anarchists for the crime. This riveting film plots the genesis of the case–from the arrests through the kangaroo court trial–to its ugly conclusion.

In spite of conclusive evidence that Nicola Sacco (Riccardo Cucciolla) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Gian Maria Volonte) were not guilty (they both had substantial alibis for the day of the robbery), the court was determined to find these men guilty. Scenes from the emotionally charged courtroom make it perfectly clear that the unleashed prosecutor, Frederick Katzmann (Cyril Cusak) spouts racial hatred towards those he considered “from the dregs of society” while ranting about “democracy and justice.”

Ultimately, Sacco and Vanzetti’s beliefs as anarchists go on trial. Vanzetti, a fresh fish seller eloquently explains that “anarchy would create a world without frontiers” but any attempts to explain his anti-war beliefs end in the accusation that he was a draft dodger (he went to Mexico in 1917). The film does an excellent job of showing the state’s fear and lack of understanding of anarchists, and the world’s reaction to the heinous injustice exacted on these two men for their political beliefs.

The actors who play Sacco and Vanzetti look remarkably like their real-life counterparts, and the photography lends an eerie archival quality to the story. Well worth catching.

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Filed under Italian, Political/social films