Tag Archives: colonialism

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.


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

Intimate Enemies (2007)

“I hear you’ve been having qualms.”

intimate enemiesThe gritty, intense French film, Intimate Enemies (L’Ennemi Intime) from director Florent Emilio Siri examines the French-Algerian war through a single platoon. It’s 1959, and the FLN (National Liberation Front) is committed to a free Algeria without the French, and the French are committed to keeping Algeria as part of France. During the French-Algerian war, France conscripted 500,000 men to fight, and approximately 27,000 never came home (according to the film). On the Algerian side, figures range from 350,000 to 1.5 million.

The film begins when a cock-up involving friendly fire wipes out the platoon’s lieutenant, and then a replacement in the form of blonde, blue-eyed Lieutenant Terrien (Benoit Magimel) arrives. Terrien is married with a six-year-old son and in his civilian life he is an industrial designer. The film wisely doesn’t allow Terrien to be a complete idealist, but his lack of savagery still puts him at odds with both his men and his superiors.

Terrien’s right hand man is the seasoned battle veteran Sgt. Dougnac (Albert Dupontel)–a man who’s fought in Indochine, but some of the other officers are also WWII veterans, or resistance fighters, so they bring their own history of various conflicts to the sparse, harsh Algerian territory.

There are no major battles fought, just mission after mission into the “forbidden zone” to capture the elusive Slimane in this tense, action-packed film. The film doesn’t get preachy (and it really could given the material), instead the plot focuses on the sheer and utter mess of the French-Algerian war. For example, the platoon has its own Algerian fighters and its own scouts. Some of the Algerians who fight with the French have seen their entire families slaughtered by the FNL fellagha (outlaws), while another fought with the French in Italy during WWII. The film doesn’t show the FLN hardliners–instead we see the terrified villagers stuck in the middle of the ‘battlefield’ and who have to pay ‘revolutionary tax’ to the fellagha or risk violent death.  There are several scenes with Algerians on both sides of the political divide facing each other and debating their choices, and for most of them, it seems to be a matter of chance which side they work for.

Several scenes cover the various arguments of those concerned in this convoluted mess, and since this is a colonial war, the arguments cover such issues as France granting independence to Morroco and Tunisia but not to Algeria. In another scene, one character compares the French occupation of Algeria with the German occupation of France. This has a particularly ironic twist as one character fought the Gestapo as a resistance fighter, and now he’s here in a foreign country supressing the locals. As the film continues the behaviour of the French devolves with foray after fruitless foray into the forbidden zone. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Vietnam and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s the terrain or the napalm. But then again perhaps it’s the slaughter of villagers caught in the middle or even the torture conducted by both sides to wring information from prisoners. Watching Intimate Enemies shows again how situations such as My Lai can occur.

Lt. Terrain has some harsh lessons to learn on his path to brutality, but learn them he does, and along the way he crosses the ‘immoral order’ divide. Deliberately hung out to learn about the brutality of the enemy, Terrain descends to a level of “barbarism” he could not have imagined. After all, “at 100 volts, the truth always comes out.”

The only thing we all have to cling to is our belief system–whatever that may be, but whatever morality Terrain tries to hang on to is ripped away or eroded in the impossible moral quagmire he faces. Terrain is confused by conflicting moral choices. What is his first priority? What is his mission? And does he have to abandon morality in order to fight the FLN? The film’s final message is that the entire war was a horrible mistake with thousands of wasted lives on both sides.

The film is based on the non-fiction book by Patrick Rotman.


Filed under (Anti) War, France

Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961(2005)

nuit noireNuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961, a French made-for-television film is a long-overdue look at the horrendous events that took place in Paris on that fateful night. In the summer of 1961, Algerian nationalist forces and De Gaulle’s French government were locked in negotiations for Algerian independence. Meanwhile racial tensions in Paris were at boiling point. The FLN (National Liberation Front) began to carry out ‘retaliations’ against French police and led a bold attack at a police station that left policemen dead. Following the assassination of another policeman, Police Chief Maurice Papon (Thierry Fortineau) declared “for each blow we receive, we will deliver ten.” On Oct 5, the curfew from 8:30 pm-5:30 am was declared on all French muslims from Algeria, and the demonstration on October 17 was organised by the FLN in response. The night ended in horrific bloodshed with an undetermined number of protestors beaten to death. Some were beaten and thrown in the Seine and others were beaten to death by police in a walled courtyard at police headquarters. Estimates of the number of dead range from 50-300. There was no official enquiry at the time and it was only in 1998 that the French government finally acknowledge the shameful events that took place that night. No one was ever prosecuted.

Since this is a re-enactment of events that took place, the film is not character-centered. Instead the story is a detailed reenactment that answers the question: how could this have happened? Watching the lead-up to October 17 becomes a tense, almost painful experience, and there’s the definite feeling (even if we didn’t know what happened that night) that everything will end badly. The film follows several characters and their roles in the events of that night: Sabine (Clotilde Courau) a young female reporter who doesn’t approve of the FLN, Abde, a young Algerian who’s taking classes to improve his French, his sympathetic, naive young teacher, a young French radical woman whose sympathies lie squarely with the Algerians, and a young policeman, Martin who’s about to resign due to fear for his life.

The film begins with details of the weeks before the demonstration, and these scenes set the stage for what lies ahead as the film’s characters are gradually trapped in a maze of violence: Algerians are stopped and harassed by police for entertainment, and police officers, many of whom have served in Algeria, feel as though they have ‘carte blanche’ in this perceived period of open season towards any Algerians who may fall into their hands. Algerian workers, living in slums or shantytowns, are beaten and harassed by police, and then when the police are done with them, the same Algerians are beaten and threatened by the hardcore FLN members. Amidst rumours of bodies of Algerians found hanging in the forest, bands of rogue cops go hunting for stray Algerians at night. And of course, in the process, Italians, Spanish–anyone slightly dark skinned fall foul of the police.

In one scene, Abde reluctantly goes to police headquarters accompanied by his teacher to ask about his missing uncle. The treatment the teacher receives at the hands the officers leaves her in shock and tears–as a French citizen, she’s always had assurances of certain behaviour from the police, but now, in the company of an Algerian, she gets a taste of how the immigrants are treated every day. At first, she protests with the typical threat of a complaint and then it dawns on her, just who is she going to complain to?

This very intelligent film shows the political machinations from both sides during this period, and of course, the often unacknowledged political tactics has a trickle down effect to the ground level. Clearly the FLN organisers of the demonstration expected violence, and scenes depict shantytown dwellers being forced to participate. While there are definite innocents in the film, the plot also reveals those who waver before choosing sides. The policemen, Martin, for example, isn’t portrayed as a bad character, and police violence and harassment of Algerians seems to make him queasy, but he’s also weak and tends to turn away rather than utterly reject their behaviour. After the assassination of a fellow policeman, Martin finds himself participating in violence towards Algerians. On the other hand, another police sergeant utterly rejects the events of 17 October (also known as The Paris Massacre) and finds himself ostracized and threatened.

Police Chief Papon was, of course, a major player in events. Not only did he serve as a French Prefect in France’s Dirty War with Algeria overseeing repression and torture, he was also interestingly enough, finally convicted in 1998 for deporting over 1600 Jews from Bordeaux to concentration camps. Strange, isn’t it, the way these old fascists just pick up and move on from one government gig to another.

Police records show, and the film illustrates, that Papon encouraged police to be  “subversive” and he even promised to protect them from prosecution. This of course, opens up many other questions. For example: while the French government denied that the police murdered demonstrators, how did they explain the bodies fished out of the Seine or beaten to a pulp at police headquarters? These bodies must have been buried somewhere, and of course, this can only lead to the idea that many levels of the French government contributed into a media clamp down of the incident.  Indeed the film shows media censorship and biased reporting.

Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961 is an extremely powerful film.  Even though we know how the film will end, nothing can prepare the viewer for one scene of unspeakable violence in the walled courtyard at police headquarters.

From director Alain Tasma

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Coup de Torchon (1981)

“I’ve got no choice. First, I’m underpaid; second, my wife takes all my money;and third, fining you is practically a civic duty.”

In the French film Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate), Jim Thompson’s noir novel Pop. 1280 is transposed from the rural American South to French West Africa. And here the film becomes a blistering critique of the corrosive nature of colonialism. You can draw your own conclusions about the connection between the American South and colonialism, but the bottom line is that the film works.

It’s 1938, and the world is on the brink of WWII. While at first the spectre of war appears to be a daunting prospect for the French characters stuck in this West African outpost, as the plot spins out, it becomes clear that the prospect of imminent war is really a matter of slow bubbling excitement because it represents a shift in the doldrums and a heightened connection with the outside world. By the end of the film, war has been declared and within minutes blacks are rounded up at gunpoint as an almost carnival atmosphere is unleashed within the white power structure.

The protagonist of Coup De Torchon is the middle-aged, flabby, sweaty Chief of Police Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret). Stuck in some African town for eons, Cordier has gone to pot–physically and morally. Whereas in most regions of the planet, being the Chief of Police is a position of some importance, Cordier is regarded by the other displaced Westerners with scorn, and he’s treated just marginally better than the blacks. From the minute Cordier gets up, his days are an endless humiliation–beginning with his nasty wife Huguette Cordier (played with housewifely slovenliness by Stephane Audran) and her so-called ‘brother’ Nono (Eddy Mitchell). Blatantly cuckolded in his own home, things don’t get better when Cordier steps out the front door. Whether he’s treated like a janitor by the wealthy Vanderbrouck (Michel Beaune) who pisses in the public toilet right underneath the Chief of Police’s window, or whether Cordier is the butt of jokes made by the local pimps, he leads a miserable life. But in order to swallow these humiliations, Cordier pretends they aren’t happening. So when he sees his wife cuddling, kissing and fondling her ‘brother,’ Cordier resorts to petty acts, and he tries to pass off the pimps’ rudeness as friendly fun, but Cordier’s humiliations at the hands of the white population escalate until he finally asks for advice from a fellow policeman.

Cordier takes the advice to heart and begins eliminating his enemies, fabricating stories or circumstances about their deaths, and as the Chief of Police, he’s in a perfect position to exact revenge and cover up his crimes.

It’s difficult to identify with the lengths Cordier goes to swallow his pride and accept the humiliations shoved down his throat on a daily basis. Perhaps the most egregious of these humiliations are those he suffers from his wife, but then again Cordier has a mistress to console himself with, the spunky, married Rose Mercaillau (Isabelle Huppert). Cordier is basically a coward at heart and even allows his mistress to be beaten in public by her husband rather than openly challenge him. And as is typical with Cordier, he is comfortable only with sneakily attacking rather than challenging and confronting. Ultimately acts of brutality do not give Cordier courage.

The native blacks in the film wisely stay out of the way of the white people as much as possible, and the areas in which the whites and the blacks merge is often violent and explosive with the Africans on the receiving end of the erratic behaviour of the whites. A couple of scenes indicate that the social behaviour of the French offers a degree of entertainment for the native blacks–albeit if watched safely from a distance. While Cordier can hardly be described as a defender of the blacks by any means, his speeches indicate that too many years in the colonies have left him incapable of making a moral decision, and that colonialism has eroded away any standards of good and evil he possessed.

While the film from director Bertrand Tavernier gives no hint about Cordier’s standards of behaviour in his pre-Africa years, nonetheless statements dropped by Cordier indicate that his sense of morality has been scrambled by the things he’s seen in Africa:

“At first it is horrible. But then you start to think about starving kids, little girls sold into slavery, women whose sex is sewn up… God created murder out of pure kindness. Murder is nothing compared to those horrors. ”

Cordier latches on to the new, idealistic, female teacher who arrives in town to teach the natives to speak French, and while he observes that this is a noble mission, he sardonically notes that she will enable the black children “to read their daddy’s name on French war memorials.” While Cordier finds the teacher admirable, it’s not long before she too is disgusted with him for his lack of moral courage.

There is the sense that far from home, the French characters act in a fashion that would not be acceptable on their home turf and that Cordier is ultimately influenced by those around him. Vanderbrouck, for example, wouldn’t be pissing in a roofless toilet if he lived in Paris and Madame Cordier might be more mindful of her neighbours if she was stuck in a small French town. The pimps wouldn’t intimidate the Chief of Police, and they certainly wouldn’t take potshots at bodies if they saw them floating by in the Seine. These actions are all indications of the general breakdown of society and indeed Cordier indicates this at one point while acknowledging that his standards have slipped:

“Grammar gets rusty like everything else if you don’t use it. And in Africa the same goes for good and evil. What’s good? What’s evil? Nobody knows. It’s not much use here. So it gets rusty too. Must be the climate. ”

And with the general breakdown of society corrupted by colonialism, crimes become–as Cordier notes–collective and confused:

“I try to save the innocent but there aren’t any. All crimes are collective. We contribute to each other’s crimes. We all shot your brother. And maybe I did a bit more than my share. ”

Ultimately Coup de Torchon is an examination of the erosion of moral courage through the corrosive insidious presence of colonialism. Most of the film’s characters lack moral courage and no longer speak out against what is morally wrong. They all turn a blind eye to one egregious situation or another–with Cordier as an extreme example. He’s the low man on the totem pole while ironically he is the one who is supposed to be enforcing laws as they impact behavior in the French colony. Lacking moral courage, and unable to identify wrong from right, good from evil, Cordier begins his cowardly path of revenge but simply misses the point that revenge isn’t what’s needed: it’s moral courage that’s glaringly absent.

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Filed under France, Isabelle Huppert

Change My Life (2001)

 Fanny Ardant is an incredibly talented and versatile French actress, and the drama Change My Life (Change Moi Ma Vie) gives her a role that allows her to display that talent. Ardant plays Nina, a neurotic, pill-popping has-been actress who’s just returned to Paris from years in Russia. Nina gave up a promising acting career to troop off to Russia with her lover, and now that romance is long gone, Nina is back in Paris, hoping to pick up her acting career. In the meantime, since the phone isn’t ringing off the hook with acting jobs, Nina has taken a job in an art gallery owned by her friend, Nadine (Fanny Cottenon).

change-my-life1When the film begins, Nina is floating around Paris. The term ‘floating’ refers to her chemical state. Agitated, needy and neurotic, Nina is already popping pills when in one great scene she sits down in a cafe and proceeds to harass a male customer sitting at the next table. This incredible scene focuses on Nina–her paranoia, tension and hysteria, and unable to contain her deep need for human contact on any level, she initiates conversation with a man who has the misfortune to be sitting at the next table. As a viewer I felt as uncomfortable as the poor sod trying to eat his meal in peace. Nina is neurotic, but even she senses on some level how she must appear to the customer in the restaurant. Further humiliation leads to more pills, and finally she collapses in the street and comes to the attention of a strapping young Algerian runner named Sami (Roschdy Zem).

Later, Nina contacts Sami to thank him for his help and then she discovers that Sami works as a transvestite prostitute. At first shocked and horrified, Nina eventually becomes part of the transvestite community, finding acceptance and friendship among the disenfranchised Algerians.

Oddly enough, Nina and Sami have a great deal in common. While Nina struggles to recapture her acting career, Sami dreams of becoming an Olympic level runner again. In this relationship between two damaged souls, somehow they provide a fragile stability for each other and reawaken hope for their lost dreams.

While the film touches on the broader social problem of Algerians without papers struggling to survive in France, the plot largely ignores the social and political aspects of the film, concentrating on the relationship between Nina and Sami. Sami is part of a silent, invisible French underclass–one of many young Algerian males–the flotsam and jetsam of French colonialism–who wash up in Paris. As Sami suffers through humiliating and sometimes brutal encounters with Parisians, the irony is that Algeria was screwed by the France, and the film illustrates how Algerians are still being screwed–literally in this case–by French citizens as they sell they only thing they have–their bodies. Change My Life is not Fanny Ardant’s best film (see Colonel Chabert) but it’s certainly worth catching. From director Liria Begeja

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Filed under Fanny Ardant, France

Before the Rains (2007)

 “We will not cooperate with the British.”

The film Before the Rains, from director Santosh Sivan, examines colonialism through the relationships between a white British landowner and two of his Indian servants. Set in 1937 India, the film’s lush exotic locations are the perfect backdrop for this tale of adultery, betrayal, and ambition.

beforeWhen the film begins, British Henry Moores (Linus Roache) has an ambitious plan to carve a road that will expedite trade. Owner of a lucrative Tea plantation, Moores wants to move into the spice trade, but the Indian based British bank due to finance Moores’ project is nervous about the rise of the Indian nationalist movement. No one (except most of the natives) wants the good old days of colonialism to end. After all, Moores has a splendid, luxurious plantation-style house and endless servants at his beck and call. Moores basically ignores the growing unrest and doggedly pursues his plan to build the road with native workers.

With Moores’ wife Laura (Jennifer Ehle) back in England with the couple’s small son, Moores has begun a passionate affair with Sanjani (Nandita Das) the family’s married Indian maid who lives in the nearby village. A witness to the affair is TK (Rahul Bose), Moores’ right hand man. Although TK keeps silent about the affair, he is fully aware of its ominous social consequences.

Before the Rains is not an overtly political film, however, it is a tragedy with the drama played against the backdrop of the inherent evils and consequences of colonialism. While Moores’ affair has serious ramifications, he imagines that he can just step away from the relationship, thinking that his class and race will protect him. When adversity strikes, Moores’ racism rears its head, and his white man gestures of equality are shown to be absolutely meaningless.

TK, as the observer, ends up as the central figure here. A believer in anglo-indian unity, he gets a bitter taste of his true relationship with Moore, a man he admires. He comes to realize the hollowness of cooperation between two vastly difference cultures in which colonialism dictates a master-serf relationship. Some of the film’s very best scenes depict TK forced to face village elders and account for his behaviour. While Before the Rains is not nearly as powerful a film as Sivan’s The Terrorist (an examination of the use of children as suicide bombers by the Tamil Tigers), nonetheless this Merchant-Ivory production is a beautifully realized, thoughtful and thought-provoking study of the three characters who all make terrible choices.

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Burn (1969)

 “The guerilla fights for an idea.”

burnBURN director Gillo Pontecorvo’s scathing critique of colonialism is set against backdrop of the exploitative sugar trade of the 19th century. If you get over the problem of Marlon Brando playing a blond Englishman with a terrible accent, then this really is a marvelous film. To Brando’s credit, this was the film he was the proudest of in his long career.

The story is set in the 19th century, and begins when Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) is sent by the British government to a small Caribbean island. The Portuguese, who now run the island, slaughtered the native Indian population and then imported slaves from Africa. The slaves work the lucrative sugar plantations, and the British seek to usurp the Portuguese as masters of the sugar trade.

When Walker, the British government’s agent arrives, a slave revolt is brutally squashed and its leader garroted. Walker was supposed to fuel this revolt and ensure its successful conclusion, so he casts around for a new rebel leader, seeking someone who has “nothing to lose.” Walker finds what he’s looking for in charismatic slave Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez). By persuading Dolores to rob the Bank of the Holy Spirit, Walker manipulates circumstances in which the slaves must defend themselves against reprisals. Walker supplies arms, and soon a slave revolt takes place.

This is a volatile period for those on the island. The sugar is rotting in the plantation fields, and somehow, the black slaves must be persuaded to stop the uprising, and get back to work accepting the yoke once more under the guise of employment. Walker is all too aware of Haiti as an example of a revolution “carried to [their] extreme consequences.” It may be useful to ignite a revolution, but it’s harder to stop it once it’s already in motion. One great scene depicts Delores–now a self-appointed general of the revolution as he enters a huge mansion to negotiate with the whites. The mansion is manned with black footmen, complete with powdered wigs. The slaves are ‘freed’ and the British take over the sugar trade on the island. But, of course, the slaves aren’t really free; they’ve just exchanged masters.

One scene depicts Walker advising the local landowners on the merits of paying the former slaves for work, and he compares the situation of owning slaves vs. paying plantation workers to maintaining a wife vs. paying a prostitute for an hour. He asks “which do you prefer? Or should I say which do you find more convenient? A wife or one of these mulatto girls?” Then he proceeds to lecture about the salient characteristics of each situation based on economic factors: “what is the cost of the product? What does the product yield?” And in this manner, he breaks down human beings into units of production. It’s all simply a matter of economics for him.

The film analyzes the nature of freedom and empire through the slave revolts. Both the Portuguese and the British fail to grasp the notion that: “If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something that you must take.” As Delores says: “If a man works for another, even if he’s called a worker, he remains a slave. And it will always be the same since there are those who own the plantations and those who own the machete to cut cane of the owners.” Delores grasps the fact that the whites need black labour: “they may know how to sell sugar, but we are the ones who know how to cut the cane.” Soon, the Royal Sugar Company has exclusive “rights of exploitation” and this ‘right’ effectively controls the island’s entire economy. Thus corporations run politics and people are no more than troublesome commodities.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is the relationship between Walker and Delores. To Walker, achieving his goals is sport. This is not an emotional campaign for him, and he approaches his goals unemotionally, logically, and with a dispassionate analysis. To the wealthy white landowners he says that they will defeat Delores “not because we’re better than he is or that we’re braver than he is, but simply because we have more arms and more men than he has.”

The film feels a little cheesy at first. Many of the actors are dubbed in English, so the result is poor. However, if you loved The Battle of Algiers, Burn is an excellent companion piece. By the half way point, it’s clear that we are privy to something truly extraordinary, for the story expands and presents some great universal truths through the difficult relationship between Walker and Delores.

Walker is a wonderfully amoral character–he could have sprung right from a Conrad novel, but there are also shades of Graham Greene here. He makes friends with the slave population, but he only uses them to achieve his goal, and he’s not interested in their fate beyond that. The film portrays, quite brilliantly, the nature of a guerilla uprising and the continuation of the revolutionary flame. Walker seems all too aware of the danger of a popular uprising, when he cautions the white rulers “the guerilla has nothing to lose.” And that in killing a hero of the people, the hero “becomes a martyr, and the martyr becomes a myth. A myth is more dangerous than a man because you can’t kill a myth.” Similarly, “a hero who betrays is soon forgotten.”

Some of the best scenes take place as Walker ponders moral questions. There is much to be learned from this film concerning warfare, empire, and human nature, and developing a conscience can be hazardous to one’s health when dealing with corporations, empires and colonialism. For as Walker says “that’s the nature of Profit. One builds to make money, and to go on making it, to make more, sometimes it’s necessary to destroy. Yes, I think perhaps it’s inevitable.” Burn is a great political film with a memorable musical score from Ennio Morricone.

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Filed under Political/social films, Pontecorvo

Black and White in Colour (1976)

“The conviction we hold of our own superiority.”

At a remote outpost in Africa, a handful of French expatriates receive the news that WWI has begun. By the time the news arrives, the war is already well underway. News of the war affects the French citizens in a peculiar way–amid rabid, patriotic cries of “Vive La France”, they decide that it is their duty to attack the German compound a few miles away. Up to this point, the two groups have enjoyed a profitable relationship–with the Germans buying all their supplies from the French. During business transactions, the French merchants and their plump, semi-dressed wives shake their heads at the Germans and their serious approach to life. The French don’t understand the Germans, but they are content to do business together. But news of a distant war alters friendships ….

The French number 9 people–various merchants, a studious young man, Socialist Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser), and two grasping, self-serving priests. Meanwhile there are only three Germans–and most of their days are spent marching around and disciplining the natives. The French have a different approach to the natives–this varies from lackadaisical to exploitive–they evidently don’t approve of the manner in which the Germans act. But when the stakes change, and the French expatriates declare war on the German compound, then the French suddenly have no compunctions whatsoever in exploiting the natives as “recruits” in the most brutal ways.

Black and White in Colour is a fierce anti-war film wrapped up in a critique of Western colonialism (note the words of the songs the natives sing). From director Jean Annaud, the film’s dark humour and nihilistic approach make for great entertainment. The story shifts from foreigners sharing space on a distant continent, through the insanity of plunging into war, and then even covers the beginnings of a petty despot. This is a blistering examination of the madness, destruction and utter waste of war, and it’s delivered deftly enough to make this one of the most enjoyable anti-war films you’ll probably ever see. The parallels to the insanity of WWI are inescapable–complete with the misery of rain-drenched trenches. This is war and human nature in a nutshell.

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

Life and Debt (2001)

“Anything that led to the more self-reliance was discouraged.”

Jamaica is touted as a glorious, relaxing exotic holiday destination–a veritable paradise on earth, but the documentary Life and Debt takes a look at the devastating effects of globalization on the economy of Jamaica, and paints a different picture. According to the film, thanks to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Band and ‘Free’ Trade, Jamaica’s agriculture and industry are virtually destroyed.

Jamaica was once one of the many jewels of the British Empire, but when Britain dropped Jamaica from its colonialist agenda and Jamaica became politically independent, a struggle for financial health began. Burdened with debt, Jamaica’s politicians approached the IMF for a loan, and a loan they got–along with a whooping 25% interest, and some stringent rules and regulations about ‘Free’ Trade. The agreement–in essence–stripped Jamaica of the right to regulate trade or tax imports. That may not sound particularly devastating, but the film shows the results, and argues Jamaican industries were “targeted for infiltration and destruction.”

Jamaica is a terribly poor country, but in spite of this fact, we see dairy farmers pouring 100s of gallons of perfectly good milk down the drain as there is no one to buy it. Jamaican milk is now–thanks to ‘Free’ Trade–more expensive than imported American subsidized dry milk. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the Jamaican banana industry is being squashed, agriculture is dying, and slowly but surely, Jamaica is becoming MORE dependent on imports and LESS able to produce their own products. It’s a bit bizarre to see this beautiful island with its gorgeous climate not able to produce a substantial portion of its own food.

And if that’s not ugly enough, then there’s Kingston’s “Free Zone”–a geographical area that’s set up for foreign businesses–well, sweat shops really, factories in which poor Jamaicans may or may not get paid, their cheques–if they ever get them–will be looted for false taxes and tariffs–and meanwhile the global multinationals who make huge profits aren’t subject to Jamaica’s taxes because the “Free Zone” isn’t actually seen as part of Jamaica. To top it off, if the workers go on strike or protest, Chinese workers are shipped in and the Jamaicans are sacked.

The film’s voice-over written by Jamaica Kincaid is mainly directed towards Jamaica’s many tourists: “You see natives. You marvel at the things they can do with their hair.” There’s more than an edge of blame and guilt directed at the tourists who visit Jamaica, and have a great time–or so it seems from all the beer drinking, dances and eating contests we see the tourists engage in–seemingly oblivious to the squalor and poverty-stricken life of the average Jamaican. The tourists don’t exactly come off well in the film, and the voice-over’s note of accusatory blame creates a bitter edge to the film. I, for one, have never been to Jamaica, and never intended to go–even before seeing the documentary’s explanation of the untreated sewage that bilges into that beautiful blue and aqua ocean.

It’s unfortunate that the film didn’t include more information on the tourist industry. It would be interesting to know where all that money goes and who benefits. There are some juicy interviews with Stanley Fischer from the IMF, Michael Manley, the former president of Jamaica, and even a clip from Bill Clinton as he delivers the coup de grace on Jamaica’s banana industry. As one worker sadly but sagely notes, “Chiquita and Dole” dominate “95% of the world’s banana crop” but they apparently want it all. And the end result is an economy with “no national food security.” The film, directed by Stephanie Black, strongly argues that Globalization has finally achieved a plantation culture and economy that the American pre-Civil War South would have envied. If you’re interested in the subject of Jamaica’s banana industry, I recommend the book Banana Wars: The Price of Free Trade by Gordon Myers.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

Raja (2003)

 “We haven’t even started and already disillusion has set in.”

rajaThe film Raja explores colonialism through the relationship between a middle-aged, bored, jaded, wealthy Frenchman living in Morocco and a young orphaned girl he employs. When Raja (Najat Benssallem) appears to work in the gardens of the Frenchman Fred (Pascal Greggory), he immediately singles her out for attention. She’s by no means the prettiest girl of the bunch, but he’s inexplicably drawn to her–much to the horror of the older, disapproving and threatened servants he employs in the kitchen. There are huge gaps in education, age and status between Fred and Raja–but Fred, who’s “trying to revitalize” his “desire,” baldly tells Raja, “You realize that I’ll do anything to sleep with you,” and he thinks he means it.

In addition to the social inequalities between Fred and Raja, there also exists a substantial language barrier. Raja, who was forced into prostitution as a child, knows a few, elemental French words–including ‘money’ and ‘gift’, but both Fred and Raja rely on others to translate their tortured negotiations. Raja’s feelings of rage, and vulnerability are transparent, but Fred as an ultimate exploiter who refuses to acknowledge the moral consequences of his actions receives only heavily filtered translations that mirror his own blunted and jaded emotions. In one marvelous scene, Raja attempts to convey her feelings of vulnerability by explaining that as an orphan, she has no one to protect her, but Fred pretentiously replies: “we are all orphans.”

In spite of the fact that Fred is a repulsive character, Raja from director Jacques Doillon is an amazing film. While the relationship between Raja and Fred symbolizes the inherent moral difficulties of colonialism, these characters are fully developed. Both are products of their social milieu, and Fred’s vanity is insufferably overpowering–not only does he imagine all the young Moroccan girls fancy him, but his ego and narrow vision fail to grant him the insight into another’s plight. As the one in the vastly superior social position (i.e. the one with the money) he is fated for unhappiness and disappointment–he wants an innocent and despises artifice, and yet seeks artificial emotion and entertainment. In French and Arabic with English subtitles.

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Filed under France, Moroccan