Category: Politics on film

Jinnah (Pakistan-UK 1998)

Jinnah as an old man (Christopher Lee) meets his younger self (played by Richard Lintern) during the tour arranged by his heavenly guide.

I’m posting this as part of the current focus on Indian Partition in August 1947.

Sometime in the early 1980s I remember watching an extraordinary film, Blood of Hussain (Pakistan-UK 1980), in the Brixton Ritzy. When I heard that the same director, Jamil Dehlavi had made a biopic about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader who is alleged to have forced the partition of India and the creation of the state of Pakistan, I immediately wanted to see the film. Unfortunately, although the film had a successful festival run it was never properly released in the UK and I’m not sure how it was released in Pakistan in the midst of controversy. A DVD appeared in India in 2004 and the film has now been seen and seemingly enjoyed by many Pakistanis. In 2015 Jamil Dehlavi seems to have re-asserted his copyright and a dual format Blu-ray/DVD is now available from Eureka in the UK.

For me it has certainly been worth it to wait for this release. I think this is an excellent film with an unusual take on the biopic and it was interesting to watch it for the first time a few days after seeing Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (UK 2017). Jamil Dehlavi is based mainly in Europe and for this important historical drama he decided to use mostly British actors and crew and to attempt to shoot in Pakistan. Unfortunately, there are no ‘extras’ on the Blu-ray/DVD release and little material available online, so it is difficult to work out what was planned originally and what had to be changed when Pakistani support was later withdrawn. IMDb simply lists Karachi and London as locations. The resulting film is quite unlike either mainstream South Asian popular cinema or indeed like Anglo-American or ‘international cinema’. So it doesn’t look like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (or Chadha’s more recent Viceroy’s House) despite covering many of the same events. It seemed to me to be visually like some Indian parallel cinema films (partly because of some of the casting decisions) or like British independent films of the 1980s. I’m thinking here of the more experimental films shown on Channel 4, though the acting performances here are much better. The odd visual style is partly because the budget perhaps didn’t always allow for crowd scenes with any depth and the few ‘generic’ locations had to stand in for official residencies, courts, libraries etc. I think also that locations might have had to be changed at the last minute. There is therefore a feel of a more abstract presentation.

Jinnah (Christopher Lee, right) with the ‘Recording Angel’ (Shashi Kapoor)

Jinnah created the situation which forced the British to consider and then implement the partition of India as a prerequisite for their withdrawal. He did so by steadfastly maintaining that Muslims in an independent India would be fearful of domination by Hindus and that the only secure means of progress was the creation of Pakistan as a new state in which Muslims would be safe. The film narrative depicts the historical events in such a way as to consider them from the perspective of Jinnah himself and not as an objective account. (I don’t mean to criticise the film, simply to point out that it isn’t a straightforward ‘historical’ account.) Dehlavi and his co-scriptwriter Akbar Ahmed constructed the narrative around the familiar, but still unusual, device of giving us a dying Jinnah in November 1948 who meets a ‘recording angel’. The ‘angel’ explains that the bureaucracy of heaven has failed  and he must take Jinnah through the key points in his life, ‘dropping in’ to specific scenes and a couple of occasions interacting with his younger self. These fantasy sequences extend the narrative forward in time, so, for example, Jinnah is told that Mountbatten will be killed by the IRA. Heaven has become computerised and that’s why things are not working. The implication is that the ‘evidence’ that they find will determine how Jinnah will be treated in the afterlife, what will happen to his reputation and how he will come to terms with himself.

There are only three bona fide ‘film stars’ in the cast, headed by Christopher Lee who is excellent and by Shashi Kapoor, equally good as the ‘recording angel’. Kapoor has appeared in over 150 films, mostly in Hindi but several in English. He married Jennifer Kendal and appeared with her several times in parallel films in India. He and Lee make an excellent pairing. Louis Mountbatten, the ‘last Viceroy’ is played by James Fox, again perfect casting (except that Fox was older at the time of shooting than Mountbatten had been in 1947). The rest of the main cast comprises actors mainly known for work in British television and they are also uniformly good. In particular, Richard Lintern, who I must have seen many times on TV without noting his performances, succeeds as a believable younger Jinnah whom we first meet during the First World War and then follow up to the 1930s. British Asians or Asians based in the UK play other roles including the historical figures such as Gandhi and Nehru. I think that because Gandhi is in one sense a very recognisable figure because of his dress and mannerisms, we easily accept an ‘impersonation’ and don’t look or listen very carefully. But we aren’t distracted by wondering if this is really Gandhi. With Nehru, I think it’s more difficult. We expect to see intelligence and sophistication but we aren’t really sure what else. IMDB informs me that ‘Robert Ashby’ was born as Rashid Suhrawardy, the son of a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, so he has a head start. Jamil Dehlavi did, however, decide to include the alleged liaison between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten (Maria Aitken) and I wasn’t completely convinced by the representation of lover and statesman. This isn’t a failing by the actor and overall everything hangs together very well with Dehlavi’s direction supported by his crew. Nic Knowland the DoP is a veteran with a long list of film and TV credits and I note that he shot the last two Peter Strickland films, Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, two notable achievements.

Jinnah speaks to the crowds with his sister alongside

The question for most viewers will be, “What kind of man was Jinnah?” with the corollary being “Is this biopic a hagiography?”. I would say that it can’t be a hagiography since the angel shows Jinnah what he has done and what the consequences (not all good!) have been. On the other hand, the narrative sets out to show that Jinnah was a man of honour and principle and that he did what he thought was the ‘right thing’ in the circumstances. I didn’t have an axe to grind when I started watching, though I was aware that in most British and Indian versions of the story Jinnah feels like the bad guy. After watching the film, I felt that I had learned a few things (about what happened after partition) and that I had a clearer picture of the man himself. You can’t really ask more of a biopic except that it is also entertaining – and I felt that was the case. The film is almost entirely presented in English. Most of the characters would have used English on a regular basis. Jinnah himself had Gujarati as his native tongue but was fluent in English as a barrister who practised law in London.

One of the fantasy scenes in which Jinnah ‘prosecutes’ Mountbatten (James Fox) and the angel (as judge) looks on. (These last two mages are from DVDbeaver.com)

The extent to which Jinnah is a genuine biopic is debatable. The furthest back we go is to 1916 when Jinnah was 39 years old and meeting the 16 year-old woman who would later become his wife. One of the functions of the 1916 sequence is to reveal the hypocrisy in Jinnah’s approach to ‘mixed marriage’. He wants to marry a Parsee girl but will later forbid his daughter to marry a Parsee. The film is quite prepared to present Jinnah as a complex individual. One of the interesting shifts that I don’t think I’d registered in other films is the way that for the British, Jinnah went from ‘favoured’ status (he was never imprisoned like Nehru or Gandhi) to someone who posed the problem of partition. What might have been explained a little more in the biopic was the way in which Jinnah, who was initially a Congress Party member, decided to withdraw and focus on the Muslim League (he was initially in both organisations).

The Eureka package is widely available at reasonable prices and apart from the lack of extras, I think this is a ‘must have’ for anyone interested in South Asian cinema, the history of India or indeed the performances of Christopher Lee.

This is the trailer from Eureka:

Why Dunkirk? Thoughts on Nolan’s version of the myth

Kenneth Branagh’s character of the naval Commander on the Mole in Nolan’s Dunkirk is based on a historical figure

Keith has already written about his response to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and I don’t really want to repeat or contest any of the points he raised. Keith is very concerned about formats for viewing and since Dunkirk exists in several different formats, I should note that I saw it at the Dukes Cinema in Lancaster in what I believe is the most commonly seen format, a standard DCP. I reviewed the 1958 version a few weeks back and immediately after the Lancaster screening I watched the BBC documentary The Other Side of Dunkirk from 2004 (see below for a YouTube link) and tried to explore the evidence about what actually happened in late May/early June 1940.

I’m not as much of a fan of Christopher Nolan as it seems most film critics and many ‘frequent cinemagoers’ clearly are. I’ve previously seen three of his films and none of them won me over completely, though I recognised the talent and the vision of the filmmaker. I don’t think his version of the  Dunkirk story has changed my view very much, though it is clearly a technically well-produced and well-researched film and some of the action sequences show real visual flair. Nolan was interviewed by Nick James in Sight & Sound last month (August 2017 issue) and his answer to the question “Why ‘Dunkirk’?” seems to be because it is a British story that hasn’t been told on the big screen “in the vernacular of modern cinema”. James seems then to have inserted in parentheses “since the Leslie Norman version in 1958”. Later he does it again. Does Nolan not know about the 1958 Ealing Studios version? Perhaps it isn’t ‘modern’ enough to count? More pertinent perhaps is that Nolan doesn’t mention Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement released in 2007. Though that film isn’t about the ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the British codename for the evacuation) as such, there is a lengthy sequence set during the wait for evacuation from the town which Wright re-created on the beach at Redcar, including a sequence shot in the Regent cinema which juts out onto the beach. The sequence included one of the most audacious tracking shots I’ve ever seen, across the whole beach and lasting more than 5 minutes. It helped Seamus McGarvey win an Oscar Nomination for Best cinematography and Atonement went on to make over $100 million worldwide. Nolan must remember it? In a recent post I discussed Their Finest (UK 2016) in which the ‘film within a film’ was about two women who took their father’s boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. This fictitious film production to a certain extent refers back to an Ealing film of 1942 called The Foreman Went to France, which again, thought not directly about Dunkirk was about rescuing equipment during the retreat by the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) in 1940.

Christopher Nolan seems very much a part of Hollywood and has never really been identified with British cinema – but it would be good if he knew more about it. Instead, his reference point seems to be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a film which certainly changed expectations about how the Second World War could appear on screen. Many veterans have attested to the ‘emotional realism’ of the scenes on the beaches of Normandy. This, they said, is how it felt to be there. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t seem to have achieved quite as much, but since I’ve not watched it all the way through I’ll resist making any other comments. The important point is that Nolan has done his own research on the evacuation at Dunkirk and has written his own script. He has also enlisted a military historian as an adviser. His intention appears to be to offer audiences an ‘immersive experience’ using IMAX and 65mm film (and keeping CGI to a minimum). Audiences are invited to experience the action from different viewpoints: the soldiers on the beach, the pilot in his Spitfire, the naval commander on the bridge and the ‘citizen sailors’ in the small boats. Nolan has also said that he isn’t aiming for Spielberg’s terrible violence but instead for the suspense of survival. Will the men get away? What does it feel like on the exposed beach looking out for your rescuer? Nolan isn’t making a war movie as such and he isn’t interested in the generals back in their operations rooms. Ironically, it seems like his approach is in certain ways not unlike that in the Ealing film 60 years earlier (which was based on two novels). In other ways it is very different.

An archive photo (Hulton Picture Archive) of evacuated soldiers arriving in London by train. Nolan’s images frequently use compositions drawing on such images

The Dunkirk myth

The central question for me concerns the myth of Dunkirk – the initial ‘spinning’ of defeat into a propaganda victory and the persistence of aspects of that initial spin that have remained in British culture for seventy years and have been utilised by the Brexiteers. ‘Myth’ plays an important role in film and media studies as a concept referring to those stories that become embedded in the culture of specific communities. The concept originally referred to the stories of gods and heroes in classical civilisation but modern myths have a similar function in keeping certain values and ideals in circulation but now more often through mass media circulation (and now social media circulation) instead of an oral tradition. Because myths develop through repetition, the original stories/histories may still be retained in terms of core meanings, but much of the contextual meaning is lost. The myth of Dunkirk becomes reduced to a ‘united British people, prepared to fight on alone, having escaped from Europe despite betrayal by allies’ in the cause of Brexit rather than the triumph of co-operation between allies’.

Nolan’s claims for a suspense film rather than a war movie has some justification, though at times I felt that the best generic description might be the ‘disaster movie’, especially during the sequences in which men jumped from sinking ships. There are indeed no generals and politicians, but I was surprised by the film’s resolution which achieved some emotional moments which lead into the myth. The opening half of the film has relatively little dialogue but the closing stages seem quite wordy, especially around the evacuated soldiers’ sense of  wonder that instead of being seen as ‘failures’ their survival makes them ‘heroes’. I’m not suggesting that this suggestion about how the survivors felt isn’t ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ and the 1958 film includes some of the same sentiments, but in the Nolan film’s case it sits alongside the lack of any political or historical context. It is these omissions which help to shore up the myth. The film is a co-production, shot on the main beach at Dunkirk and also including studio and location work in the UK, US and the Netherlands, but apart from a single ship’s captain, the Dutch don’t appear and the French, though present in some scenes, are acknowledged only by Kenneth Branagh’s Naval officer as needing to be evacuated. In reality, out of the 330,000 men evacuated, more than a third were French and other nationalities (Belgians in particular). It was a French force of 40,000 that protected  the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and had to be left behind leading to surrender to German forces.

Tom Hardy plays one of just two RAF pilots shown in the film. (A third is quickly shot down)

One of Nolan’s problems is that, having decided on the ‘authenticity’ of using the modern Dunkerque and its main beaches as his principal location, and eschewed too much CGI, it became very difficult to convey the complete devastation of the town during the ten days of evacuation. As a result (and this also applies to the UK locations) the film seems to exist in a kind of limbo land between ‘realism’ and the fantasy more familiar in Nolan’s other blockbusters. The lack of World War Two aircraft available to filmmakers is another problem, so the aerial warfare is presented as almost a personal battle (which it no doubt was for individual pilots) involving two or three aircraft rather than representing the frequent bombing raids on the beaches by groups of aircraft. The RAF lost around 150 aircraft during Operation Dynamo and a similar number of German aircraft were downed.

The 1958 film faced similar problems but its greater length (134 minutes against Nolan’s 106 minutes, but watch out for severely cut versions) allowed director Leslie Norman to stage scenes in the UK and in Northern France before the retreat to Dunkirk. These sketched in British attitudes to the ‘phoney war’ up to May 1940 and at the end of the film he managed to undercut the myth-making to some extent by emphasising the military defeat as well as the spirit of resistance. Nolan includes several scenes within the chaotic events on the beach which suggest how British soldiers felt (e.g. the soldiers who try to board a hospital ship and are thrown off), but the focus on the individual stories and the ‘immersion’ of the audience in the action scenes through music and cinematography works against a distanced take on the context.

My main fear is that American audiences and younger audiences in the UK will not learn the history of what happened from Nolan’s film and that the myth of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ will be understood in its narrowest sense of ‘Britain alone’ in defiance of Hitler – which will sustain the Brexiteers.  The real context, in which Britain became a base for troops (and crucially for airmen and women) from other European nations and from the British overseas empire, will not be understood. The ‘little ships’ and the civilian sailors were at the centre of the myth-building because their stories appealed directly to the British public. But though they certainly played a vital role, especially in the shallow waters of the beach evacuations, the majority of men were evacuated by British and French naval ships or requisitioned ships sailed by crews commanded by Royal Navy officers. The myth was important for British propaganda in maintaining morale in a crucial period of the war, but its persistence is not helpful in the modern context.

For the record, in the format I watched, I enjoyed some of the cinematography (though I don’t understand the seemingly blue-green emphasis in the colour palette) but the music irritated instead of drawing me in. Nolan’s well-known penchant for playing with narrative time I found confusing and ultimately self-defeating. None of the soldiers on the beach are introduced and though the young actors were very good in their roles, I couldn’t easily tell one from another (and I have seen some of them before). In yesterday’s Guardian, the Northern Editor Helen Pidd says the film was a ‘snooze’ in the tiny cinema where she saw it. Perhaps Nolan’s film is really an IMAX entertainment? I wonder how it will work on TV? Since it looks like breaking a few box office records, it will have to be taken seriously, but I think the 1958 film is better at representing the story of the evacuation.

YouTube and other internet sources offer several interpretations of Nolan’s Dunkirk, several setting out the problems with the film and addressing them from sometimes widely different political positions. I was also interested to see the Indian claims that Indian Army involvement in the evacuation is not mentioned – I haven’t been able to find the evidence for this apart from one archive photo. The BBC documentary is useful in discussing the way the British myth has been seen by a range of French and German historians as well as the British. In my research I’ve also come across the story of a young Royal Canadian Navy officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robert W. Timbrell, who made several trips across to Dunkirk as the master of a requisitioned yacht. He was responsible for saving 900 men and his exploits sound even more fantastical than Nolan’s script. There is a lot more to say about the myth of Dunkirk and at least Christopher Nolan’s film has started a conversation.

Vertigo Sea (UK 2015)

John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.

Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:

Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:

A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.

The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.

The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.

The three screens with one of the archive portraits of Africans

The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.

The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.

For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?

A still from archive footage of migrants at sea. I think these are the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ of the late 1970s?

I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.

Neruda (Chile-Argentina-France-Spain-US 2016)

Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in disguise on the streets of Valparaiso

Neruda is the latest of several films by Chilean director Pablo Larrain to focus on moments during Chile’s turbulent political struggles between the 1940s and the death of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 2006. Larrain’s approach is through a focus on certain characters, either closely involved in the events of the period or perhaps engaged in something that might be read as a metaphor for everyday life in Chile at that time. One of these films, No (2011), is discussed elsewhere on this blog. Immediately after completing Neruda, Larrain directed Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). Jackie portrayed Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, mainly through the device of the former First Lady giving an interview to a journalist. If you are unaware of how Pablo Larrain has approached historical figures and historical events in his films, you may be thrown by a film like Neruda.

Pablo Neruda (1904-73), real name Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was an extraordinary figure, a poet-diplomat who took his pen-name from Czech poet Jan Neruda (1834-91). Pablo was a poet from age 10 who could communicate directly with the Chilean working-class and was a Communist elected as a Senator. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and perished in mysterious circumstances during the suppression of Salvador Allende’s legitimate government in 1973. Neruda was being treated for cancer but suspicions remain that he was murdered by a doctor on the orders of General Pinochet.

Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) makes up her husband for another ‘performance’ as ‘Neruda’

Larrain’s film is not, as might be expected, a straight biopic. Instead it follows Neruda over a few months in 1948 when, as a Communist, he became vulnerable to the forces loyal to the new President, Gabriel González Videla a supposed leftist who then turned towards anti-communism in order to court American support. Neruda denounced this move and became a marked man. All this is represented accurately in the film, but Neruda’s actions then become fictionalised and Larrain creates a narrative in which Neruda plays cat and mouse games with a police detective charged by the President with arresting him. This character, Óscar Peluchonneau played by Gael García Bernal, is fictional. Neruda (played in a bravura performance by Luis Gnecco) leads the detective a merry dance, at first accompanied by his lover, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), and then on his own. Neruda was a larger than life character who enjoyed fine wines and fine clothes but was capable of writing poems which could rouse crowds from every section of Chilean society as the film demonstrates very well. The fictional story includes the ‘real’ escape of Neruda to Argentina across the mountains.

Detective Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) who always seems to be just one step behind Neruda

The film is always watchable and I enjoyed it very much. The camera seems to be constantly moving as Neruda moves from one hideout to another. In one extraordinary sequence we meet a young Pinochet, but our main attention is on the detective. He’s an extraordinary character who is constantly attempting to confirm his own identity as a man who is the bastard son of a famous detective. With his fedora and thin moustache he appears like a character out of a US film noir. Neruda ‘plays’ with this character, leading him on with a trail of detective novels which the detective can’t resist reading. The detective’s name in Spanish apparently means ‘stuffed toy’ and this makes sense when the narrative twist is revealed. In the meantime, Neruda emphasises this play by ‘dressing up’ and slipping away in disguise as the detective approaches. I’m not quite sure what this all means (apart from making a commentary on political figures) but it is certainly entertaining and if it introduces audiences to some of the real history of what happened in Chile, that can’t be a bad thing. If only our politicians today were half as interesting as Pablo Neruda.

¡Viva! 23 #9: Santa y Andrés (Cuba-Colombia-France 2016)

Santa brings her chair so she can conduct her vigil over Andrés’ movements

This Cuban offering during ¡Viva! is an example of the sometimes confounding nature of Cuban art and culture. I looked in vain in the end credits for any mention of the Cuban state film agency ICAIC, but it didn’t appear. I learned afterwards that although the script for the film was accepted in 2014 (and I think won an award) the completed film has been disowned by ICAIC and denied a proper release in Cuba. It was also withdrawn from official competition at the Havana Film Festival in New York with claims that this represents pressure from ICAIC on the Festival which would suffer from losing such support. (The director then withdrew the film completely from the festival.) On the other hand, the film has been shown at major festivals around the world, starting at Toronto in September 2016. It looks like a cock-up by ICAIC, giving ammunition to right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami. So what’s the problem?

Santa y Andrés, directed and co-written by Carlos Lechuga, is a film set in rural Eastern Cuba in 1983. It presents a narrative in which a well-meaning but naïve woman, Santa (Lola Amores), is ordered by her boss Jésus at the collective dairy farm to watch dissident writer Andrés (Eduardo Martinez) for three days. Jésus has been told to make sure Andrés does not attend the Regional Forum where he might speak to foreign journalists as he would seem to have done in the past. Andrés is doubly marked as both a dissident writer and a gay man. Santa sticks to her task. She is resolute in sitting on her chair outside Andrés’ shack and then taking him to the local hospital when he is injured in an altercation with a local rent boy. Eventually she cracks and discovers that she and Andrés have much in common and she puts on a dress and tries to build a relationship with him. (I think her change to a dress is an attempt to ‘soften’ her image and show she is not ‘on duty’.) We then learn more about both characters and their life in Revolutionary Cuba. The cinematography by Javier Labrador Deulofeu captures the feel of the locations very well.

The beautifully-lit and nicely composed image of the hospital vigil

This is quite a slow-moving narrative but the film held my attention. We gradually realise that the story is as much about Santa learning about herself as it is about what will happen to Andrés. The chair is a nice touch (i.e. how she carries it around as a representation of something about herself?) and in a sequence later we see a truck arriving in the village carrying a load of chairs and dropping off just one at a shack before driving on. In a later scene between Santa and Andrés there is mention of a ‘shape-shifter’ character and a few minutes later a brief appearance by a character dressed as what I took to be a shaman of some kind. These two incidents are contrasted with more realist/documentary shots of Santa at work in the cow-shed or buying clothes from a trader who arrives in the village by train.  I should mention here that there were problems in screening the DCP at HOME (something I’ve not seen before). It froze on a couple of occasions and was difficult to restart. We might have lost a few minutes and I can’t be sure of all the details of the narrative. The overall mix of elements in the film reminded me of a range of Cuban films from earlier periods including the satirical/metaphorical films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío (whose name appeared in ‘thanks to’ credits at the end of the film). This was Lechuga’s second feature and later I realised that I’d seen his 2010 short, The Swimmers, which was in the same tradition as Alea and Tabío’s films with its ironic commentary on Cuban sporting facilities, economic shortages and social divisions. If you search carefully online you can find several examples of Luchaga’s work.

Santa and Andrés on a day out on the coast

The real question is why did this film upset ICAIC so much? Films which critique the revolution in different ways have a long tradition in Cuba since 1959. Usually, however, in such ‘critical’ films most characters are supporters of the revolution who find fault with aspects of daily life. This film presents us with Andrés who is still writing in secret (although we don’t know what it is that he is writing). I don’t think his gender orientation is the real problem. I do find this kind of situation very difficult. In the Summer of 1983 I marvelled at all the help Cuban workers, teachers and advisers were giving to the Revolutionary Government in Grenada. I’ll always support the Cuban revolution, but I despair at the attacks on dissident writers and other artists. I can understand the arrest of counter-revolutionaries who directly threaten the state and could damage the society, but once a state starts persecuting writers, it begins to lose credibility. The health of any society is judged by how it deals with criticism and this just feels like an over-reaction by ICAIC. What is being exposed in the film are the petty bureaucracies of the system and, if I understood the truncated final sequences, the inefficiencies of a system that allows some people to go unpunished for criminal behaviour (i.e. not ‘political’ crimes). The final outcome for Andrés seems a sad conclusion. Overall, I enjoyed watching Santa y Andrés and I thought the two central performances, by actors who have no previous credits listed on IMDb, were excellent.

Here’s the Toronto Festival trailer:

Also available on YouTube is a collection of ‘Making Of’ episodes. Here’s one with Lola Amores (they all have English subs):

¡Viva! 23 #2: 7 dias de enero (Seven Days in January, Spain-France 1979)

The police commissioner known as ‘Billy the Kid’ (third from left) meets two of the Atocha lawyers in their rented rooms

(Images from the Spanish language blog at http://bachilleratocinefilo.blogspot.nl/2015/03/7-dias-de-enero-1979-alejandro-berna.html)

This screening was part of this year’s ¡Viva! Festival’s focus on La transición – the period in which Spain struggled to move from fascism to multi-party democracy in the second half of the 1970s. Advertised as 170 minutes long, I did fear that the film itself might be a struggle, but the archive 35mm print seemed to be intact and ran for around 130 always watchable minutes. The title refers to the seven days in January 1977 when violence enacted against students, workers and Communist Party supporters in Madrid by the police and fascist ‘guerillas’ threatened to lead to an all-out confrontation. The opening scenes of the film offer newsreel footage and titles hammered out like telex messages detailing the ‘real events’. What follows is a form of dramatic ‘reconstruction’ of some of the events with, as the titles inform us, some ‘narrative invention’. They suggest that the film’s job is to represent the events, not to act as the judicial system.

The film was directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, himself a Communist Party member who had been imprisoned at various times by Franco’s regime but who nevertheless had survived as a practising filmmaker, often disguising the messages of the films he had written and directed himself and with Luis García Berlanga. I was already familiar with aspects of Bardem’s work from a Leeds International Film Festival screening of Death of a Cyclist (1955).

The focus of the narrative is on two sets of mainly young people (i.e. in their twenties and thirties). One group are labour lawyers, mainly Communist Party members or supporters, who are helping independent trades unions in their struggles with both employers and the ‘official’ unions set up by Franco’s regime. These lawyers have rented an office on Atocha Street in the centre of Madrid and close to the streets where left-wing street protests have been met with over-zealous policing. The second group comprises a trio of young men who are part of a right-wing organisation attempting to prevent the return to democracy, primarily by adopting a strategy of ‘creating tension’ (a strategy imported from Italy). Their hope is that the confusion and anger they will create will ‘justify’ a coup d’état by the military and the overthrow of the provisional government established since Franco’s death in 1975. It occurred to me later that Bardem had adopted a similar approach to that adopted recently by Gurinder Chadha in Viceroy’s House (2017) – and which has generated criticism. The approach involves focusing on a romance between two characters as a means of drawing the audience into the personal, ‘human’ stories of individual characters in the hope that this will help us understand the political struggles.

Luis María (Manuel Ángel Egea) with his girlfriend Pilar (Virginia Mataix)

The character who is given most screen time is Luis María Hernando de Cabral, an upper middle-class young man, the son of a decorated soldier killed by the ‘Reds’. His mother Adelaïda (French actress Madeleine Robinson) is the personal assistant to Don Tomás (French actor Jacques François), a powerful man who is secretly the leader of the right-wing forces planning insurrection. Luis María is courting Pilar, the younger daughter of Don Tomás, and also training with two other men for ‘guerrilla activity’. The courtship provides us with evidence of the rigid moral stance of the fascist hierarchy such that Pilar and Luis María cannot even spend a night together. The relationship seems to disappear in the later stages of the film (Andy Willis, who selected the film for the festival, joked that this might account for the ‘missing’ 40 mins – or at least be part of it). The focus on the fascists and this family seems odd. Why not choose one of the young communists – or at least choose both? The clue, I think is in Bardem’s earlier work, such as Death of a Cyclist. That film focused on a university teacher with a wealthy girlfriend who is ashamed of the way he (and by extension his social class) behaved after a cyclist was knocked down. In 7 dias de enero Bardem offers us a weak central character, a young man trapped by devotion to his father’s legacy, who is in practice an ineffective fascist – he doesn’t train well on a shooting range and is unreliable in a crisis. One reading would be that Luis María is the ‘human’ face of the fascists – the others being more ‘typical’ in their thuggish behaviour. These thugs could survive in the new Spain and as we learned in the ‘One Hour Introduction to The Politics of La transición’, one such character could be found in Marshland (La isla mínima, Spain 2014). Gradually the thugs will be replaced. But it’s the characters like Luis María who must change during the transition period.

Don Tomás (Jean François) and Adelaïda (Madeleine Robinson) watch events unfold on television

The other more practical reason for a filmmaker to focus on the right-wing upper class families is the sheer number of characters in the script and the necessity to include non-professional actors (Manuel Ángel Egea as Luis María does not seem to have any previous credits). I suspect that several of the trade unionists and lawyers are played by non-professionals. Their narrative is much more collectivist and only a handful of them are picked out for dialogue scenes. The most charismatic is the trade union leader Joaquín Navarro (I can’t discern if he is played by a professional actor) and from the lawyers, the young woman (see the image above) who was one of the survivors and who is required to pick out the perpetrators from a line-up. The film is accurate in terms of broad details of the events and I won’t spoil the narrative too much, but simply record that the main thrust of the events is a plan to assassinate the Atocha lawyers. If you want to know the details they are available online. The blog from which I’ve taken screengrabs actually explains who many of the characters in the film are and how they refer to the historical figures involved in the real events (see the first image).

The trade union leader Joaquín Navarro

Overall, I found this to be a fascinating film and I was taken back to the late 1970s when so much else was happening that I don’t think I paid as much attention to these events as I should. I first visited Madrid in 1981, a few weeks after the attempted coup d’état when army officers attempted to take over the Congress of Deputies. It seemed peaceful enough but obviously I didn’t realise what was happening behind the scenes. In retrospect, the political transición was possibly less violent that many had feared and Spain eventually achieved a return to the European mainstream in not much more than ten years – and certainly by 1992. Bardem’s film (in cinemas in France just over two years after the events depicted) is a valuable resource in understanding many of the emotions and beliefs of the period.

Fidel Castro 1926 to 2016

1000509261001_1094021929001_bio-need-to-know-fidel-castro-sf

The great leader of the Cuban Revolution and an iconic figure for progressives will be mourned by many. As in life, in death he divides people. The most extreme being the rather nasty celebrations in Miami. Whilst in Cuba the majority of citizens recognise both the loss and his great contribution. The media coverage so far has been predictably inadequate. The BBC echoes the political establishment whilst Sky News could not even gets the dates of the US boycott correct. Even Al Jazeera suggested Cuba “brought the world to the brink of nuclear war”: actually it was the USA in the recurring war-mongering mode. In the UK the best comment has been on the RT Channel (113 on Freeview].

Whatever the failings of the Post-revolution society under Fidel it did liberate the Cuban people from US neo-colonial exploitation and was a beacon for other National Liberation struggles round the world. Hence tributes have been pouring in from the oppressed peoples and nations. Certainly there are few other leaders in the second half of the 20th century who maintained such a resolute resistance to US imperialism and neo-colonialism.

There were many progressive aspects of the Cuban Revolution, notably the work of Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos / The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) founded immediately after the revolution in 1959.

At ICAIC Julio García Espinosa produced the key manifest ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (1969). And numerous films in the early stages illustrated how relevant this was. A key film would be, Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. A later and equally fine film by Alea is La última cena (The Last Supper, 1976). I particularly like Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968). Then there are the newsreels and documentaries of Santiago Alvarez: notably Now (1965) and 79 Springs / 79 primaveras, Cuba 1969. And there is the rarely seen work of Sarah Gómez including her final film De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another, 1974). Of more recent films there is the fine La vida es silbar (Life is to Whistle, 1998) directed by Fernando Pérez. This was part of a season of then recent Cuban films programmed at the National Media Museum. My colleague Roy Stafford was involved and introduced several of the films.

Alongside the films went the vibrant and politically alive poster art work. And a number of films were graced by the modernist scores of Leo Brouwer. The cultural and educational aspects of ICAIC are best presented in the excellent and inspiring For the First Time (Por primera vez, 1967), which made a fine introduction to a screening  of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).

primera-vez

The progressive work from the Cuban film movement is part of the anti-colonial cinema in Latin America. Cuba provided a base for the Festival to celebrate New Latin American Cinema. They also supported progressive filmmakers of the continent as with Patricio Guzman’s three-part La batalla de Chile / The Battle of Chile (1975-1979).

A number of influences fed into the film work at ICAIC. But a key model for them was the classic Soviet Montage. We are nearly in 2017 and the centenary of the Great Proletarian Revolution. So the radical Cuban films offer excellent accompaniment to re-visiting the masterworks from the 1920s.

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belgium 2016)

i-daniel-blake-3

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film ‘The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes’. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid,  the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low-key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in the Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteers are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake's protest

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake’s protest

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this film refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 TV drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.