Forget the Oscars – where’s the politics?

The Oscars this year celebrated nostalgia and the overall quality was poor. Far more interesting was the attempt in a recent issue of Cineaste to raise discussion of ‘The Prospects for Political Cinema Today’. You’ll note that the cover of Vol XXXVII No 1 (December 2011) features A Separation, probably the best film on the Oscars list, coming from a country where making a film still seems like a political act. Nick’s recent postings remind us how rare it is to find films with political aspirations.

Cineaste‘s symposium rounds up the thoughts of 14 filmmakers with a variety of perspectives on what makes a political film. In his introduction to these responses British film studies academic John Hill, one of the UK’s leading writers on social realist cinema, offers some reasons why now is a good time to revisit the concept of political cinema. He suggests that recent political action in response to economic crises in the West and political crises in the Arab world in particular have seen the growing importance of the impact of ‘social media technologies’ and new types of political action which were inconceivable before the era of digital media. He then wonders what an ‘old medium’ like the cinema still has to offer.

We don’t have space here to summarise all 14 contributions and you can buy the issue concerned direct from Cineaste. Cineaste posed four questions to the filmmakers (as well as asking for any personal insights):

1. What do you understand by the idea of a political – or ‘politically oppositional’ – cinema in the current economic and political climate?

2. What specific role does political cinema have in an era of social media and instant communication?

3. What aesthetic models of political cinema do you believe are most relevant today? Which styles work best to engage an audience? What’s the difference between documentary and fiction in terms of political effectivity?

4. What are the main political and economic obstacles to making political films or getting them adequately distributed?

In response to Q2, Costa-Gavras said: “Film needs time and space in order to be thought out and created. Instantaneousness the enemy of film’s thoughtfulness.” Amos Gitai refers to the “image rebellions expressed through social media” as being “almost in the midst of a Jean-Luc Godard wet dream. The image is becoming a very powerful vehicle of change. It’s not really cinema – they’re raw images, crude images. It’s not a coherent discourse, not articulated. It’s just images.” Gianni Amelio concludes on the same question: “Film must, above all, find in the new means of communication a stimulus to renew itself, without losing its own nature”. Kelly Reichardt ponders why there are so few Hollywood films referencing the economic downturn and she suggests that we should look back not at the 1960s and 1970s but at the 1950s: “Can you imagine Bigger Than Life getting made today?” (We commented on Nick Ray’s work in our review of We Need to Talk About Kevin.) John Sayles says that the biggest problem in getting his movies to a general audience is not their ‘political’ content but their complexity. He suggests that in mainstream cinema the place to find political comment is buried in fantasy movies like Iron Man where the audience is “free to attend to it or just let it slide past with the reassurance that this is ‘just a movie’.”

There are some good points here (and plenty more in the other contributions) so I’d like to invite our contributors to pursue some of them and discuss the four questions, perhaps selecting specific films as case studies? Contributions and comments please!


    • Roy Stafford

      They were still selling that edition at Cornerhouse in Manchester today. You could ring up the bookshop there and reserve a copy and I’ll pick it up for you. (It’s £4.50 at Cornerhouse) They used to sell it at Borders in Leeds before it closed down.


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