Tag Archives: state crimes

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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El Lobo (2004)

“Even in hell you need friends.”

The Spanish film El Lobo is set during the last day’s of Franco’s dictatorship and is based on the tel loborue story of Mikel Lejarza’s infiltration of the ETA between 1973-1975. The story begins with married Basque construction worker, Txema (Eduardo Noriega). While he’s sympathetic to the ETA–the Basque Nationalist and Separatist movement, he’s opposed to the use of violence. Txema’s revolutionary ethics are soon put to the test.

One night, a band of ETA members arrive at his house and ask for shelter. Txema’s wife, who’s opposed to his ETA involvement is hustled out of the way, and Txema allows them to stay. The ETA members are there to kill a man identified as a collaborator. Txema is secretly horrified by the news and even tries a half-hearted attempt to warn the target. But he doesn’t go through with the warning, the target is killed and Txema is subsequently rounded up by police.  

Initially beaten and interrogated, the police sense that Txema isn’t a hard-boiled revolutionary and that he can be turned into an informer. Using a few threats, Txema becomes the police agent El Lobo with the task of infiltrating the ETA and bringing about the arrest of its leaders. He’s their “Trojan Horse.”

Txema soon becomes romantically involved by female ETA member Amaia (Melanie Douty) whose sexual habits smack of the mentality of a revolutionary groupie. The relationship blurs the already vague lines of demarcation for Txema. During this difficult period for the ETA, Txema is assigned to a commando and is often required to locate safe houses for ETA members. While Txema soon comes to believe that he is one of the good guys, the situation is complicated by the behind the scenes politics of who is going to get the credit for nailing the ETA, and while some members of the secret service see El Lobo as a disposable piece of rubbish–others do not. Txema doesn’t realise that he’s a tool for political ambitions.

El Lobo is excellent in its portrayals of the characters and the complexities of the situation, and a very nervous Txema finds himself caught up in internal squabbles within the ETA. With Franco fading, some of the ETA want to abandon the armed struggle and negotiate with the upcoming new government. Other revolutionaries stay firmly on track with the old ideals of a separatist Basque state. Locked in the ETA’s strict hierarchal system and caught between suspicious ETA members, the ethical divide over the political and armed struggle factions of the ETA, and ruthless secret service agents, by the time the story is over, El Lobo is a convoluted mess of trashed beliefs and ideals.

Apart from being a good story, the film raises questions regarding revolutionary ethics and the use of violence.  And if violence is used, is it inevitable that the most violent man becomes the leader? The film also illustrates the argument that the fascist state needs domestic terrorists to further its political agenda. Violence committed by terrorists creates the perfect atmosphere in which governments can implement and extend further a Strategy of Tension–thereby manipulating and controlling the population who passively accept stringent legislation and increased surveillance. From director Miguel Courtois.

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Salvador (1986)

 “It’s like Baltimore, or something.”

Salvador, from director Oliver Stone, takes a look at the war in El Salvador during 1980-1981 through the eyes of a renegade photographer. The film, critical of American support of the right wing Revolutionary Government Junta and its death squads illustrates the country’s messy political, domestic and military situation. The result is a hodge podge blend of spot-on political acuity mixed with the usual ridiculous Hollywoodisms (yes, I made up the word, but it fits).

salvadorWhen dumped by his wife in San Francisco, seasoned war photographer Richard Boyle (James Woods) decides to head for the war action in El Salvador, and he takes along DJ Doctor Rock (James Belushi) mainly for the use of his car. Doctor Rock thinks they’re heading for a resort, and he’s shocked when they arrive in El Salvador. A few minutes inside the border confirm Rock’s worst fears about the country.

Boyle’s other motive for returning to El Salvador, as it turns out, is to rescue a young El Salvadorian woman, Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) and her baby. As events in El Salvador spiral out of control, Boyle and Maria’s escape becomes problematic. This is complicated by Boyle’s adversarial relationship with right wing military leader Major Max, and Boyle’s intentions to capture some photographic evidence of the massacres taking place in the country.

The film does a good job of illustrating events as they unfold–the murder of Archbishop Romero, the rape and murder of three young nuns and a popular lay worker, and the fact that America is stirring a very ugly conflict. While American “Advisors” hang out in a lush resort hotel and largely avoid the realities of what is taking place, the countryside is littered with rotting human carcasses. The massacre of civilians is blamed on left-wing death squads, but Boyle quickly realizes that the country is in the hands of a right wing government who are slaughtering thousands and trying to stick the blame on the FMLN guerillas. The film also illustrates, quite well, American paranoia when it comes to excusing involvement in El Salvador in order to head off ludicrous fears regarding Castro’s supposed intentions to invade America. There’s one excellent scene in which Boyle faces off some fellow Americans. He’s disliked because he’s a leftie, and he tries, valiantly, to explain his moral problem with America’s involvement and support of the murderous right wing: “I’m left wing, but I’m not a communist. You guys never seem to be able to tell the difference.”

The film however, slides into absurd Hollywoodisms. For a start, just on a plot level, since when did Boyle suddenly decide that Maria was the love of his life? According to the film she didn’t seem to exist until Boyle’s wife leaves him, and then it suddenly becomes an imperative to travel down to El Salvador. Furthermore the film continually perpetuates stereotypes by trivializing, idealizing and simplifying. The trivializing images: The villains of the piece (Major Max and a few crass American officials) are simply stock characters–not real people. There are the idealized images: Maria–who incidentally lives in a hut on the beach–is portrayed as fancifully swinging naked in a hammock with Boyle, allowing herself to be photographed by her brother. The simplified images: Boyle is periodically portrayed as some sort of American action hero–a most unfortunate tendency that is repeated ad nauseam in Hollywood films. Salvador is a film that is supposedly outside of the mainstream, and yet it continually projects innate American superiority in the film’s images. So, it’s a mixed bag–some good–some bad.

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Filed under (Anti) War, Political/social films

Punishment Park (1971)

“Would you like me to define what a politician is?”

Made during the Vietnam War, Punishment Park from director Peter Watkins extends the social unrest of the times and presents a society in which dissidents are rounded up–mainly for their opinions, and then subjected to tribunals and punishment. Heavily influenced by the Kent State incident, the film is set in an America in which Nixon activates the 1950 McCarran Act, allowing federal authorities to detain people who are deemed to be risks to security and candidates for “future acts of sabotage.”

punishment parkThe film goes back and forth between scenes of the tribunals held in a tent for group 638 and scenes of group 637 in the desert. The dissidents include war protestors, anti-recruitment activists, draft dodgers, and university students. Opposed to the Vietnam War, they’ve been summarily rounded up, and now judged security risks, they are given the choice of hefty sentences in federal penitentiaries or the rigors of Punishment Park.

Facing a typical sentence of forty years in a federal penitentiary or four days in Punishment Park, naturally, the dissidents chose the latter. In Punishment Park, the dissidents–now prisoners–are set loose in the harsh Southern California desert with no water. Their goal is to reach the American flag hoisted some 53 miles away within 3 days and 2 nights. If they can reach the flag, in this exercise replete with both literal and symbolic overtones, they will be free to go. This is clearly a cruel ‘game’–sport (officially called a training exercise) for the police officers, army personnel, and SWAT teams who are assigned to monitor the prisoners. The participants on both sides of the Punishment Park fiasco are interviewed, and opposing opinions and attitudes are presented in this microcosm of the times.

Similar to Watkins’ film The Gladiators the backdrop of a competition is used to make statements about societal values. Punishment Park is not nearly as successful a film as The Gladiators. Some of the tribunal scenes border on the hysterical, and although they begin as ideological battlegrounds, they usually devolve into swearing sessions between the dissidents and their bourgeois judges. However, some of the moments in these ad hoc courtrooms are priceless. Various members of the establishment conduct the hearings and at one point, they question a black prisoner. Tribunal members argue that “black people in the U.S, have more cars and T.Vs” than the entire population of Russia. This, tribunal members believe, is a substantive argument for black compliance with the system.

Punishment Park like The Gladiators is another Peter Watkins cult hit still waiting to happen. Ostracized by the media, but also in self-imposed exile, his work remains outside of mainstream media channels. Although Punishment Park was made almost 40 years ago, it remains startlingly prescient, and it’s as though societal elements that Watkins saw in their fragmentary form have come to fruition in this new century. In Punishment Park Watkins portrays the pathology of authority, the erosion of the constitution, and the division of America by the politics of polarization.

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Filed under British, Peter Watkins, Political/social films

Ojos Que No Ven (2003)

 “One corrupt government is over and you want another scoundrel for president?”

In 2000, secret videotapes showing the corrupt activities of Montesinos, the long-time head of Peru’s Intelligence Service were broadcast on Peru’s only independent news channel. Montesinos, who attended the notorious U.S. School of the Americas (AKA Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), virtually ran Peru under its Premier Alberto Fujimora. Montesinos made literally thousands of secret videotapes of himself meeting and bribing various politicians, journalists, and television station owners, and Montesinos also supervised the secret death squad known as the Colina Group.

ojosThe film, Ojos Que No Ven weaves six interconnected stories against the backdrop of the tainted and troubled political scene in Peru. While this is not an overtly political film, the plot illustrates the moral decay which permeates Peruvian society, and shows how a handful of Peruvian citizens are affected by the Montesinos scandal and the subsequent downfall of Fujimora’s government.

When the film begins, two elderly patients in a decaying Peruvian hospital watch a television station that broadcasts the first of the Montesinos tapes. Their medical conditions enforce their stationary observations as the political scandal unfolds and the country collapses. One of the elderly men is visited by his innocent granddaughter, Mercedes (Melania Urbina). In the political fallout from the Montesinos scandal, Mercedes’ father is arrested, and she seeks help from the decadent, corrupt lawyer, Federico Penaflor (Gustavo Bueno).

Meanwhile, with the government in freefall, it’s still not clear how far investigations of various atrocities will go. Chauca (Carlos Alcantara), a petty criminal and a member of the Colina Group participates in yet another politically motivated killing, and when things go wrong, he’s on the run with his girlfriend, a make-up artist who works for a self-focused newscaster, Gonzalo (Paul Vega).

In another thread, an introverted, round-shouldered minor clerk rooms with a poverty-stricken family, and he idolizes the nasty daughter from afar. The clerk is a Walter Mitty type with an inner film noir dialogue, and he seems impervious to his idol’s rough rejections. The clerk’s employment brings him into contact with the Montesinos videotapes, and ironically this contact yields an opportunity for corruption and possible success in his courtship. Paradoxically, however, it’s clear that the clerk’s opportunity for corruption and successful courtship will inevitably yield only grief.

In another connected story, an army colonel (Gianfranco Brero) who faces scandal and imprisonment contemplates suicide until he runs into the wife of a murdered man.

At 150 minutes, the film Ojos Que No Ven (AKA What the Eye Doesn’t See) weaves together its many interconnected stories. The socio-political merit of the film, however, is somewhat weakened by several elements–the character of the clerk, and the apparent moral transformation of the army colonel, for example–are the poorer facets of the film. Nonetheless, if you like Latin cinema, and you enjoy a politically-driven story, Ojos Que No Ven from director Francisco J. Lombardi is well worth watching. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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Omagh (2004)

 “We would like to call into account the security forces and the police and the politicians in London, Dublin, and Belfast who have promised us so much but have singularly failed to deliver.”

Omagh is a made-for-television film directed by Pete Travis that examines the story behind the Omagh bombing that took place on August 15, 1998. The bombing–carried out by the Real IRA (a splinter group of the provisional Irish Republican Army)–killed 29 people and left approximately 220 wounded. The bombing took place in the middle of the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

omagh1In October 1997, the Real IRA or True IRA formed after splintering from the Provisional IRA and its ceasefire agreement. On August 15, 1998, the organization placed a 500 lb bomb in a stolen car that was parked in a busy downtown market area of Omagh. Bomb warnings were then called in, but in spite of the telephoned warnings, civilians were actually redirected closer to the bomb.

The film Omagh charts the bombing and its after effects on the families of the victims and concentrates its story on the family of Michael Gallagher, whose only son Aiden was killed in the blast. Once the bombing was over, both the British government and the Provisional IRA were determined to continue with the peace process, but the families of the victims wanted those responsible for the bombing to be caught and punished.

At first the families are shown trying to seek arrests through the accepted channels. One Omagh resident patiently keeps writing letters to Tony Blair expecting to get some sort of personal response, but as time goes on, no one is caught and charged with the crime. Omagh residents become increasingly frustrated. A town meeting results initially in frustrated name-calling, but then Gallagher emerges as the chairman of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group.

But after all the official waves of sympathy passed away, the residents, survivors and families of victims were still left with nothing. Referring to British politicians, one resident concludes that “as long as the bombs stay out of London, they don’t give a damn.” In spite of the fact that the names of those involved in the bombing were known on both sides of the border, no one was charged with the crime. Mobile phone call records yielded names of prime suspects, but still no one was charged. And this is when the victims and their families get sick and tired of waiting for results and begin to do some legwork of their own. Amidst stories of multiple advances warnings from British agent Kevin Fulton, the entire Omagh episode becomes even murkier.

Omagh underscores the idea that the IRA and the splinter Real IRA are just as inaccessible, institutionalized, remote and largely disinterested as the British government. And as for the Real IRA members who carried out the bombing, this action proves the argument against using violence to further a political agenda. If the Real IRA were ‘counting’ on the British Government and the local police to warn the residents, we can see just where that illogical sort of reliance and trust led–right into the toilet. It’s a bit pathetic when you think about it. Here you are–the Real IRA devoted to kicking the British out of Ireland, and the best you can do is plant a huge bomb and then expect the police and the British government (institutions the Real IRA supposedly abhors) to do the honorable thing and warn the people. The British government wants one thing, the IRA wants another, but ultimately the people of Omagh were screwed. Was the Omagh massacre the result of police incompetence or was this a disaster that was allowed to happen in order to further a political agenda? Well watch this well-acted, riveting and eloquent film and decide for yourselves.

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Cache (2005)

“You have too much to lose.”

The theme in the French film Cache is guilt and responsibility–and the theme is developed slowly and subtly along with the plot. The film begins with footage of a nice upper-middle class home in a fairly quiet section of Paris. Nothing really happens for a few moments, and then all of a sudden, the footage of the videotape–and that’s what we’ve been watching–reverses. It seems that middle-aged married couple Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are watching a videotape they’ve just received with footage of their home. Just who sent the tape and why it was sent is a mystery. There is no note–no explanation–just the tape and the unsettling conclusion that someone is watching them.

More tapes arrive along with child-like drawings that hint of something horrific. With the police unwilling to do anything to intervene until something actually happens, the Laurents mull over how to react. Strangely enough, Georges, instead of working together with his wife to find some sort of solution, clams up, and becomes secretive. While tension mounts in their marriage, Georges tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together and solve the mystery on his own.

Cache (this means hidden in French) explores the notion of guilt–and not just Georges’ guilt–but collective French guilt towards their treatment of the Algerians. The Laurents are both gifted intellectuals–Anne works for a publisher and is proud of a book she just saw published about globalization. Georges hosts a popular television programme about literature. They live in an immaculate modern home with walls of books, and host friends for chatty, intellectually stimulating evenings. But beneath this surface of correctness, in reality, Georges is a smug, self-satisfied man who refuses to examine his past actions, his responsibility, and his subsequent guilt. Gradually the film explores the idea that a single act can affect the lives of several generations. The film’s use of videotape underscores the notion that sometimes what we see is just a facsimile of the real thing, and this, of course, extends to the idea that sometimes how we appear to be is a fairly decent facsimile of the real thing too.

DVD extras include an interview with Austrian director Michael Haneke who explains that the idea for the film was inspired by a real-life event that took place in Paris in October 1961, when during a peaceful demonstration,  an unknown number of Algerians were  brutally murdered by the police and dumped in the Seine. Haneke cleverly weaves other politically unstable, global situations in the film through television footage broadcast in the Laurents’ home. Warning: there is one extremely graphic and disturbing scene involving a chicken. This is not a film for everyone, and while it’s thought provoking, exactly how much you enjoy it may depend on your acceptance of a film that really offers no solid ending. For Auteuil fans, the role of Georges Laurent allows the phenomenal French actor to display his considerable talent.

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