The 1960s were a decade of revolution; not least in cinema. Jorge Sanjines’ (as part of the Ukamau collective) The Blood of the Condor – he co-wrote and directed – is one of those rare films: it actually had a direct social impact as it led to the American backed Peace Corps being expelled from Bolivia. It was also a significant contribution to Third Cinema, an attempt to make films about the Third World in a non-western way.
Sanjines’ film was about, and for, the peasant Indians of Bolivia and was designed to be watched, and discussed in, communities without cinemas. Hence Sanjines thought he could afford to have a complex narrative structure, which interpolates flashbacks with the present quest of blood needed to save the village leader, Ignacio. Those who presented the movie could explain what was happening and so avoid any confusion amongst the peasants who were not used to complex film language. Despite this, the peasants weren’t sure about what was happening and Sanjines didn’t repeat such narrative complexity again. He realised that he’d fallen into the trap of imposing an unsuitable form upon the group he was trying to help.
Ignacio is initially presented as a drunkard, wife-beater, angry that she hasn’t produced more children. Hardly the way a western film is likely to present a heroic figure. After the credit sequence, which states the film includes the peasants of Kaata, Ignacio, and a few others, are marched away and shot by men under orders of the local police chief. Paulina, Ignacio’s wife, gets her husband to his brother, Sixto, in the city; however, in order to save him they must find blood or money to pay for a transfusion. The film then intercuts why Igancio was shot with Sixto’s quest for blood and money.
We discover that the Progress Corps, a thinly disguised Peace Corps, are actually sterilizing the Indian women, when performing operations, without permission; an attempt at genocide. When Ignacio finds out he declares that the same will be done to the Americans. Although Ignacio is a fictional character, and it appears the Sanjines was using sterilisation as a metaphor for the destruction of indigenous culture, the Bolivian government, after trying to ban the film under pressure from the Americans, eventually expelled the Corps.
Although Sanjines, and his collective, ‘failed’ formally with their narrative structure, they did succeed, in other formal ways, in communicating in a non western way. For example, the use of the long shot to emphasise the collective aspect of village life rather than the individualism of the close up. Given the Ukamau group’s academic training, it isn’t surprising that they too had been inculcated in the western way of filmmaking. Another way, apart from the subject matter, Blood of the Condor was undoubtedly revolutionary is in its ‘call for action’; as Sanjines stated:
“The work of revolutionary cinema must not limit itself to denouncing, or to the appeal for reflection; it must be a summons for action.” (quoted in Gabriel’s Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation, incidentally this seminal book is available here).
The final shot of the film is of upraised rifles, which are freeze-framed; an undoubted call to arms against the imperialist aggressors. These are not just identified as the Americans, middle class Bolivians too, the descendants of colonialists, are in Sanjines’ sights as they define themselves against the Other of the Indians so they can feel more like the First World westerners. At one point, Sixto is forced to wait at a country club in the hope he will be given blood for his brother; however, the doctor is too full of his own importance to be bothered with Indians.
In 2005 Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia, the first indigenous person to gain such elevated office in Bolivia. It would be nice to think that films of Third Cinema sowed the seeds for such advancement. However, as the multinational corporations, and hedge funds, extend their tentacles everywhere they can screw some profit, maybe it’s time for a Fourth Cinema. This would take on the values of Third Cinema and use them to hold up a mirror to the whole capitalist world so we can see how economic and ecological disaster is on our doorstep.
PS the whole film is available, subtitled in English, on YouTube. It looks like a videotape TV recording but the quality’s fine.
21st July: the post was updated to correct the statement that the Peace Corps did actually sterilise Indians.
A few posts back I wrote about the extraordinary cinematography of Ivan’s Childhood (Soviet Union, 1962) and how Tarkovsky wanted it to look as if it had been shot by Sergey Urusevskiy. This one is and I’m sure this is the most sensational cinematography I have ever seen. Teamed with director Mikhail Kalatozov, with whom he made The Cranes Are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957), Urusevskiy shot this propaganda film celebrating the Cuban Revolution of a few years earlier. Many critics bemoan the narrative, with its focus on types rather than individuals, and suggest the politics are naive, but are united in their praise of Urusevskiy. For me the narrative, about American imperialism, is entirely satisfactory and reminds us, 50 years on, that the US penchant for interference in other countries, in the interests of US corporations, remains undiminished. Four stories, focusing on a prostitute, a student, and two farmers, show how the people were exploited under the US-backed dictator, Batista; while these are effective it is the cinematography that makes it one of the greatest movies ever made.
In the 21st century we are spoiled by the effects that can be created by CGI. I mean spoiled in the sense that cinema can never be the same again because the fact that anything can be shown means that nothing is special. Okay, that may be an overstatement, I did find the streets of Paris folding over in Inception (US-UK, 2010) impressive, but that experience is increasingly rare. In watching the long elaborate takes that fill I Am Cuba I find myself constantly assuming that CGI must have been used to cover the ‘joins’ except, of course, there was no CGI in 1964. There wasn’t even the steadicam. And Urusevskiy somehow manages to, despite often extremely rapid movement, beautifully compose the shots! His penchant for Dutch (canted) angles give the Social Realist narrative an Expressionist sensibility that intensely portrays the characters’ anguish caused by their exploitation. To give an idea of the complexity of some of the shots I’ve pinched this from Wikipedia:
the camera follows a flag over a body, held high on a stetcher, along a crowded street. Then it stops and slowly moves upwards for at least four storeys until it is filming the flagged body from above a building. Without stopping it then starts tracking sideways and enters through a window into a cigar factory, then goes straight towards a rear window where the cigar workers are watching the procession. The camera finally passes through the window and appears to float along over the middle of the street between the buildings.
Sample the opening five minutes:
Now get hold of the film.
I guess the English title has the benefit of pithiness that the original title (God and the Devil in the Land of Sun) but suggests that the film is about race when it isn’t. The film is about desperation of the dirt poor of the impoverished land the sertão, ‘backlands’ of north eastern Brazil. Cow herder Manuel kills his boss in rage in response to his appalling treatment and so, with his wife, go ‘on the run’. First they join a preacher, Saint Sebastian, who claims he’ll lead them to a ‘promised land'; then a bandit, a sort of low rent Robin Hood (though there’s not much evidence of giving to the poor), Corisco. They are pursued by Antonia das Mortes, employed by the church to kill anyone who threatens the status quo.
I’m afraid that summary makes the narrative seem more coherent than it is. Many of the events are portrayed indirectly, Eisentsteinean montage conveys massacres, but not the way of the Potemkin steps or his later dialectical style; the editing offer an impression of events rather than any political argument. Music, vital in Brazilian culture, structures much of the narrative; a mix of ballads, telling of the events of the film, and Villa-Lobos.
What’s most striking about the film are the compositions where people seem to be randomly standing about but, together, offer a vision of confusion, a land that’s lost its moral compass. The sparseness of the backlands of north eastern Brazil have their bleakness accentuated by the black and white cinematography in the ‘academy’ (4:3) ratio.
Glauber Rocha’s influences are many, not least the French nouvelle vague primarily through co-opting the Gallic attitude of ‘director as author’ rather than through stylistic devices. Like Antoine Doinel, the protagonist finds the sea at the film’s end; the ocean has mythic significance as the ‘saint’ had preached that he would lead the dispossessed to utopia where the ‘land is sea, and sea is land’. As Lucia Nagib puts it:
‘Glauber’s mythic backland-sea formula expresses the harrowing feeling of this utopian country that could have turned out right but was fated not to from the day it was discovered. (Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia, (IB Taurus), p9)
Whilst the French were, initially at least, in love with Hollywood, the Third World filmmakers of Latin America had no love for America as they suffered under US-supported military dictatorships. As Corisco says, directly to camera: ‘The dragon of evil swallows the people to fatten the Republic.’ This emphasis upon the political had its roots in Italian neo realism; and, as noted above, Eistenstein – who worked in Mexico during the 1930s. This link details more of Rocha’s influences and this takes you to his manifesto the aesthetics of hunger’.
Sing Your Song is a ‘bio-doc’ celebrating the extraordinary life of Harry Belafonte, the legendary African-Caribbean-American singer, actor-producer and political and social activist. The title comes from advice given to Belafonte as a young performer by the equally legendary Paul Robeson:
“Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”
I enjoyed the documentary very much, particularly because it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to understand the importance of Belafonte as a political activist – and then it was in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and also Belafonte’s role as a producer in independent American cinema. In the 1950s I was aware of Belafonte as a singer, but for a child in the UK the politics of race in American society were not very visible. The documentary spends most of its time focusing on Belafonte’s TV career and his leading role in assembling support from other entertainers for the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. With his high profile in American music and television he had clout and he was prepared to put his career on the line to fight for equality. I’d not seen most of the TV and news footage presented here before so this was very exciting.
However, there are two problems with the film that I did find frustrating. The first was purely technical. Having discovered so much incredible archive footage, it was a real shame that the filmmakers seemingly made no attempt to process the footage in the correct aspect ratios. The result is that the TV footage from the 1950s and 1960s is stretched from the 4:3 standard and made to fill a 16:9 image (I’m assuming that the film was made for TV screening as the home for many US documentaries – HBO is listed as one of the distributors of the film. (I converted the TV image above as the Press photos also include some stretched images.) Since the whole point about Belafonte’s appearance in the 1950s was that, as well as being very handsome, he was tall and slim, it’s very disappointing that you don’t get that from the footage. This is surprising in that the documentary is made by Belafonte’s own production company. But this in itself constitutes the second problem. Although the film’s director is Susanne Rostock, a distinguished documentary-maker, Belafonte narrates the film himself and his daughter Gina is a producer. My impression is that this is Harry Belafonte’s preferred view of his own story. Which is fine, but since he deals with a wide range of political issues it would be interesting to get a wider perspective on his achievements. I admit that one of the aspects of his career that I would have liked to learn more about was his experience in Hollywood. He clearly feels that his political activities have been more important than his disaffection with the film industry. When I did some work on Belafonte’s film career, I found it very interesting and a few more posts might well follow this one dealing with specific films. In organising an event associated with a screening of Sing Your Song, I produced some notes on his film career which are downloadable: BelafonteNotes
My slight reservations about Sing Your Song aren’t intended to put anyone else off watching the film, which I hope will show on UK TV after its cinema run and DVD release. There is also a book, My Song and the official website for the film provides a wealth of resources. Harry Belafonte has been working in the American entertainment industry for more than sixty years and he is still active, using his resources and his celebrity status to develop political campaigns aiming to promote social, economic and political equality, both in the US and in the international arena. As many reviewers have said, he is an inspirational figure and I’m glad an accessible document like Sing Your Song exists. As well as learning about his current political work, I also learned a lot from the archive material. I hadn’t really appreciated just how big a musical and TV star Belafonte was in the 1950s/60s – and therefore the weight that his endorsement of causes carried. His ‘development’ of Caribbean folk tunes in an American context, though in one sense appearing ‘inauthentic’, in another sees him as opening up American popular music to new influences. But it is his strong character that enabled him to challenge the race divide in American broadcasting. I knew about the controversy surrounding his appearance on Pet Clark’s TV Show in 1968 (when the sponsor’s representative objected to the physical contact between the two singers) but not about Belafonte’s own TV show, which was not renewed because the sponsor felt uncomfortable with its social concerns and its ‘blackness’. This morning, the Guardian‘s third editorial, often used as an ‘in praise of . . .’ piece, singles out Harry Belafonte’s book and reiterates his importance as a celebrity figure who commits completely to his political work.
For some obscure reason I seem to have missed all the major films of the Romanian New Wave, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to see this film. As far as I can make out, it isn’t typical and in fact seems to be a conscious attempt to create a contemporary version of the pre-1989 satires of East European communist states.
The plot (based around a real incident) follows a day in the life of a middle manager, a ‘comrade engineer’ in a Romanian factory. The date is precise and important: May 8th 1986, the day after Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona in the European Cup. Our hero Iulica has videorecorded the match (in which the Steaua goalie made four saves in the penalty shootout) and hopes to show it for his boss at the factory and other colleagues after the ‘festivities’ for the 65th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party. (The videorecorder itself being a rare and desirable object.) Iulica has a role in the festivities as well – as the producer of two films made in the factory, one a ‘health and safety’ documentary and the other an ‘artistic’ film, again about health and safety, which provides the overall title of Adalbert’s Dream. Things don’t go quite as planned.
I enjoyed the film which I thought came to life once we reached the factory and met Iulica’s boorish but entertaining boss. After a while, I realised that the tone of the film was familiar, combining elements from the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s such as Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Czechoslovakia 1967) and also Dusan Makaveyev’s wonderful and surreal Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Gabriel Achim, director of Adalbert’s Dream, captures the absurdity of social relations in these particular communist societies. He does this both in the interactions of characters and in his decisions about formats. The film was shot on various video formats including S-VHS and Beta SP in Academy ratio to match the propaganda and health and safety films of the period.
I confess to a certain nostalgia in watching a film set in a factory with lathes, men with oily rags and overalls, smartly-dressed women from the office etc. By 1986 in the UK factories on this scale were disappearing – and with them aspects of working-class culture. Some of what was lost won’t be missed, including the sexism and the drudgery of some work patterns. But what the factories did provide was employment and a sense of community and belonging. The best factory systems also provided a social and cultural life for the workers and this is something that is important to recognise when watching Achim’s satire. All of those possible pluses are there but they aren’t allowed to be fulfilled because of the underlying problems associated with Romanian communism. Everything is focused on pleasing the political bosses, but because everyone’s individual desires (and beliefs) are very different – and because the system is ‘broken’ in terms of the quality of goods and services it produces – the sucking up to the party boss is doomed to failure. Achim brilliantly crystallises this analysis in his use of the Health and Safety Film, examples of which, with their bureaucratic pedantry, crop up throughout the film. I won’t spoil the film by listing all the ways in which the issue is presented – but Achim is able to end the film with a very striking sequence. I should say that several scenes are also very funny.
I’m not sure how the film will fare in the Bradford competition or how it will be read by younger audiences, but once I’d properly tuned in to the film I realised that it works very well.
A brief trailer:
It was incongruous watching This Is Not a Film on the giant IMAX screen at the National Media Museum in Bradford. The image only filled the centre of the enormous screen but even so this was probably the biggest screen the film has played in the UK. And perhaps it isn’t that incongruous since Jafar Panahi’s film is either the cleverest film I’ve seen in a long time or a film that through circumstance has become the ultimate statement about films and filmmaking. (It was on the IMAX screen as part of the Museum’s response to current distribution developments in the UK – though not ideal, using the screen for current releases allows extra flexibility and extends the run of films like This Is Not a Film.)
For anyone unaware of the background to the film, I should point out that Jafar Panahi, one of the best-known and most celebrated of Iranian directors, was arrested in December 2010 and put under house arrest after committing the ‘crime’ of voicing his support for the Green opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad during the 2009 election. Panahi has been sentenced to imprisonment and banned from making films and engaging with foreign critics for 20 years. This film is therefore ‘not a film’ but an ‘effort’ put together by Panahi and his friend, the documentary producer and director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Panahi is obliged to stay in his apartment in Tehran. It’s a very nice and certainly a spacious apartment but it is still a prison. The film details a day of his incarceration from breakfast until evening time. For most of the time Mirtahmasb operates a small professional digital camera while Panahi has his iPhone with its camera facility. Little in terms of conventional narrative action takes place but the events of the day are loaded with significance – starting with a call from Panahi’s lawyer about the appeal on his sentence. There are several visitors/calls at the door and more phone calls that are played through a speakerphone. Panahi analyses/comments on three scenes from his back catalogue of productions which he plays through his TV set. He also attempts to tell us the story of the film he would be making if he hadn’t been banned. This sounds like a typical Panahi neo-realist film in which a young woman from Isfahan who wants to go to university in Tehran is locked in her room by her father . . . but perhaps she is actually more interested in a potential relationship with a boy? The final section becomes a little mini-narrative in its own right in which Panahi, now operating the main camera, ventures a few feet outside the apartment, following a caretaker putting out the bins. The day in question is actually ‘Fireworks Wednesday’, the Persian New Year when people celebrate with bonfires on the streets as well as fireworks. The TV reports at some point that Ahmadinijad has outlawed such celebrations because they are not ‘Islamic’ (I think they are Zoroastrian – see Asghar Farhadi’s film Fireworks Wednesday.)
On the one hand, the whole film is about imprisonment. Panahi shares his space with his daughter’s pet iguana, ‘Igi’, an enormous and very endearing creature who at one point crawls behind a bookcase, threatening to topple hundreds of books. A neighbour asks Panahi to look after a yappy dog for a short while but dog and iguana don’t mix. But even imprisoned, Panahi can’t/won’t stop being a filmmaker. He and Mirtasmasb make fun of the definition of ‘not making’ a film. “You can’t say cut!”. “Just keep the camera running”. What is a film? How do we separate the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘meaningless’? Nothing in This Is Not a Film is ‘redundant’. Panahi looks up from his MacBook (plenty of product placement!) to watch the TV screen for a few moments as the 2011 tsunami devastates a coastal village in Japan. How do we ‘read’ this scene? Later on, when Panahi asks a few simple questions of the stand-in caretaker, the answers reveal something about life in Iran outside the comfortable middle-class flat. Here is a young man studying for a Masters, but having to work doing several jobs to pay for his education – some of them unpleasant and jobs that must be done full-time by somebody else. This isn’t a critique of Iranian society as such but simply an example of what a student might face and that’s probably enough to anger the authorities.
Each of the three sequences from his earlier films that are shown on his TV set allows Panahi to demonstrate how his realist approach throws up interesting questions about cinema, in particular about ‘amateur’ actors interacting with a script and how the accidental mise en scène of neo-realism sometimes creates strongly symbolic images. And in a sense of course, this is the tease of This Is Not a Film – 72 mins of what seems to be a ‘day in the life’ of an imprisoned filmmaker, but which is actually an artfully constructed essay on cinema. It will no doubt become a film school classic as a film to study. But as we sit back and enjoy it, there is the real worry in that completing the film and smuggling it out of the country for international exposure, Jafar Panahi might have goaded his tormentors into an even harsher regime of repression for filmmakers. I hope not.
The film’s official website in the US also carries details of screenings in the UK. It deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to have been getting so far, so please don’t miss it.