Category: Politics on film

The Confession: Living the War on Terror (UK 2016)

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I saw this film at the Hyde Park Picture House: there was also a Q&A with the subject of the film, Moazzam Begg, and the director, Ashish Ghadiali, following the screening. The film centres on a long interview with Moazzam Begg as he recounts his experiences: radicalised by events in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s: harassed by the British Security Services and a move to Afghanistan; with the US invasion he moved with his family to Pakistan; and then the kidnapping and imprisonment at the US air base at Bagram and whisked away (illegally) to the Guantánamo base in occupied Cuba. There he was interrogated and tortured in the company of hundreds of other illegally detained men under the euphemism of ”enemy combatants’. Finally released Moazzam Begg has become an active Moslem and an activist in anti-imperial struggles. So predictably the UK government attempted to charge him again in 2014: and as with much on the so-called ‘war on terror’ pursued this incompetently.

The interview is absorbing and Begg is fluent and clearly has considered his experiences carefully and intelligently. The interview is well filmed by Director of Cinematography Keidrych Wasley: for much of the time we watch Begg and his reflection in a darkened mirror, occasionally changing to a large close-up for emphasis. The interview is supplemented by found footage, some of related people and places, some other interviews and much television and film footage of the events in which Begg has been involved. Some of the media footage is well judged, illuminating the topic or being illuminated by Begg’s voice over. Some of it feels like the visual padding that is so common on television news. There were a couple of over familiar sequences of Bush and Blair where I almost groaned out loud.

All of this is edited together in a predominately linear narrative which develops its themes and commentary into a coherent overview. The Film Editors Nsé Asuquo and Simon Barker have done this in excellent fashion. The sound is effective and there is frequent commentative music by Nitin Sawhney, well composed but at times a little intrusive.

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The Q&A that followed was interesting, especially the added comments by Moazzam Begg. And Ashish Ghadiali added some background to the film. But we then had several questions taken together before any response, which did not make for clarity. I had a couple of queries which I did not get an opportunity to put to the filmmaker. One was concerning the opening titles which included one that noted that Moazzam Begg and been imprisoned in ‘Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba and Britain’. This is not really correct and is misleading: The Guantánamo Detention Centre is in a part of Cuba occupied by the USA. A point that one would hope an independent film offered clarity on. Of more concern  to me was the use in the film of two unidentified interviewers, one heard briefly with Moazzam Begg’s father, but the other (or perhaps the same person) on several occasions with Begg himself. We do not actually see him but it did not seem to be the director in this role. But it was clear that the style of questioning determined to a great degree how Begg presented his experiences and therefore on the form of the film itself. What we saw and heard was rather similar to the approach one finds on the BBC (who were part of the production), requiring Begg and his supporters to justify their position. It should be obvious especially with the critical volume from bourgeois critics, that the justification lies entirely with the US and UK Governments and security services.

This produced a strong reservation for me about how effective this approach is. I certainly think the film and Moazzam Begg deserve full attention. But it needs to be supplemented by a more radical approach. I thought that The Road to Guantánamo (2006) had that. It seems that the screenings of Confession with an accompanying Q&A have finished but the film is still screening nationwide.

1900 (Novecento, Italy/France/West Germany 1976)

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Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic historical melodrama of family and political ideas has had a difficult time reaching audiences in the form that the director intended. In April 2016 the excellent Masters of Cinema label released a 2 disc Blu-ray package offering the full version in the correct ratio and with supporting materials. Now seems a good time to try to revise ideas about a major film from the 1970s.

Bertolucci moved into production of Novecento (see below on titles) in 1974/5 at a time when his stock was high, especially after the great international commercial success of Last Tango in Paris in 1972. Because of this potential ‘bankability’, producer Alberto Grimaldi was able raise a budget equivalent to $9 million – a very large budget for an Italian film at this time. However, Grimaldi’s deal with Hollywood distributors demanded a film of 195 minutes and the cut that Bertolucci showed at Cannes in 1975 ran to 317 minutes. Forced to cut, Bertolucci managed to come up with a single film lasting 247 minutes with an English dub. This was eventually released in many territories (it reached the UK at the turn of 1977/78). Meanwhile a two-part film comprising all the material was released in Italy, France and other European territories in Italian/French/German dubbed versions in 1976. All Italian films were routinely post-dubbed at this time. Novecento has an international cast but the subtitled version of the Italian dub on the new discs didn’t present me with any problems. IMDB lists the film as 1:1.66, the ratio common in Europe post the adoption of widescreen in the 1950s. The MoC discs offer a 1:1.85 version. I’m guessing that this was a condition of the film’s international release.

Burt Lancaster as the padrone in 1901 (all these screen grabs are from dvdbeaver.com

Burt Lancaster as the padrone in 1901 (all these screen grabs are from dvdbeaver.com)

Sterling Hayden as Olmo's grandfather

Sterling Hayden as Olmo’s grandfather

The Hollywood distributors also seem to have chosen the ‘1900’ title. This is misleading. ‘Novecento’ doesn’t translate directly but Bertolucci’s intention was to suggest the ‘new century’ and its history – the ‘1900s’ perhaps. He thought about a second production (“a third act”) which would follow the story after 1945. He discusses this in an interview on the MoC disc of Part One (the same interview that appeared on a Paramount DVD in 2006). The film narrative begins on the day in 1901 when two male births bring grandsons to the landowner (padrone) of a large estate in Emilia-Romagna and to the patriarch of the large extended family of paesani who live and work on the estate. The padrone is played by Burt Lancaster and the paesano Leo Dalcò by Sterling Hayden. Lancaster reportedly worked for no fee because he liked the script (he was working on Visconti’s Conversation Piece (1974) when Bertolucci approached him – he had played a similar role as an aristocratic landowner in Visconti’s The Leopard in 1963). I think Bertolucci and his scriptwriters introduced the traditional patriarchs and then skipped a generation to introduce two characters who in some way represent the ‘modernity’ of the early 20th century.

A young Gerard Depardieu as Olmo.

A young Gerard Depardieu as Olmo.

Robert De Niro as Alfredo.

Robert De Niro as Alfredo.

Donald Sutherland as Attila.

Donald Sutherland as Attila.

Olmo (‘Elm’) is the paesano as played by Gerard Depardieu. Alfredo is the future padrone played by Robert De Niro. Olmo’s father is ‘unknown’. Alfredo’s father Giovanni is a new style capitalist and a bad father – forcing Alfredo into the company of his uncle Ottavio (who should have inherited the estate but instead has become an aesthete). It is Giovanni who hires the foreman Attila – who later joins the new Fascist Party in the 1920s and becomes the third major figure in the narrative played by Donald Sutherland. Attila appears along with a threshing machine in 1918 just as Olmo returns from the war and begins to move into working for the new communist party of Italy – marking the beginning of the struggle between landowners and agricultural workers. This aspect of the story reminded me of the (slightly earlier) stories featuring agricultural workers in the novels of Thomas Hardy and their filmic adaptations.

Bertolucci in his interview speaks about himself being a ‘country boy’ from Emilia and that this history is essentially about an agricultural community. Certainly the great events of the period are ‘off-screen’ – we only see what happens on the estate and in the neighbouring town (apart from the trip ‘away’ when Alfredo visits Ottavio and meets his future wife Ada (Dominique Sanda)). I enjoyed the whole film but the two aspects I enjoyed most were the presentation of the landscape and the collective actions of the agricultural workers. The film was photographed by Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci’s regular collaborator. I was surprised to read a comment in Pierre Sorlin’s Italian National Cinema 1896-1996 in which the author compares Antonioni’s and Bertolucci’s use of the same landscapes in the Po valley. Sorlin suggests Bertolucci’s rural landscapes (he is referring to 1900 and Before the Revolution) offer “a countryside without workers, a land where crops seemed to grow by themselves”. But this seems to me to be totally inaccurate in relation to Novecento. There are several important scenes related directly to groups of agricultural workers busy in the fields, socialising in the woods and working in the farmyard. The entire last sequence of the film depicts the workers occupying the estate and cornering the fascists alongside the resigned Alfredo as padrone. It is the collectivism of these scenes which stands out – whether it is the women with their giant red flag or the men standing up to the fascists.

Dominque Sanda as Ada

Dominque Sanda as Ada

Stefania Casini as Neve in bed with both Olmo and Alfredo

Stefania Casini as Neve in bed with both Olmo and Alfredo

Stefania Sandrelli as the socialist teacher Anita, who Olmo meets in 1918

Stefania Sandrelli as the socialist teacher Anita, who Olmo meets in 1918

Anita leads the local women in resisting eviction by soldiers

Anita leads the local women in resisting eviction by soldiers

Watching the film more than 40 years after it was shot, it is still a surprise at how sex is represented on screen. So much was cut from the English dub that little was said about the displays of male genitalia which would have been a problem for a full length release in 1976. (There is, however, an unfortunate dialogue about this on the IMDB bulletin board.) The sex scenes seem to me to be open, ‘natural’ and part of the story, but I was shocked by the brutal violence perpetrated by Attila. The main players in the drama – the five international stars pictured above – are all male and the story is about the birth and subsequent lives of two men, but much of the political discourse in the film is presented through the actions of the female characters, especially Olmo’s partner Anita (Stefania Sandrelli), Laura Betti as Regina on the fascist side, and in smaller roles, but equally important, the women of the Dalcò clan led by Maria Monti as Olmo’s mother. Dominique Sanda as Ada, Alfredo’s wife, is the top-billed female star but hers is an important role in the drama of Alfredo’s life away from politics – though it is Alfredo’s failure to act when Olmo is threatened by Attila that causes a rift between the padrone and his wife. Finally, Stefania Casini as a young woman in the town has two important sequences in the narrative – one in a sex scene. Bertolucci was a controversial figure after Last Tango in Paris – especially after the revelations about his treatment of his young star Maria Schneider. Because of that the role of the women and their representations on screen in Novecento might have attracted more attention and perhaps obscured some of the political discourse. It’s interesting to read contemporary reviews.

In Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1978) Jill Forbes finds herself in the odd position of reviewing the English dub of the cut version of the film but also acknowledging that having seen the Italian version she can recognise that most of what she sees as responsible for the failure of the film is not present in the full version. She recognises that Bertolucci is able to combine different elements – conventions from bourgeois literature alongside folktales, farce, Italian comedy etc. – and to place them in context with the gradual unfolding of historical progress in the countryside. Forbes sees exactly the kind of damage Hollywood did to Bertolucci’s great work. In Sight and Sound (Spring 1978) Italian film specialist Geoffrey Nowell-Smith takes a similar line but spends much longer discussing the dub. He makes interesting points about UK vs US vs Italian audiences and I think it is true that for a UK audience subtitling makes a big difference for films which are dubbed automatically in Italian. Certainly I don’t miss the local language inflections when reading the subtitles. Nowell-Smith is less explicit than Forbes about which version he is critiquing, though he seems to share her analysis. He ends by suggesting that “the film’s eccentricity and its incorporation into the staid format of the historical spectacular, proves to be its redemption”.

My feeling is that the film does work – as a saga of two characters and two families – and as a statement about Italian social, economic and political history in one location during the first half of the 20th century. I enjoyed the performances, the cinematography and the music (by Morricone) and I was impressed by the sense of community and collective struggle. I’m also struck by how beautiful and impressive Gerard Depardieu was as a young man.

Hoje (Today, Brazil 2011)

Vera (Denise Varga) in her new kitchen with her mysterious visitor (César Troncoso)

Vera (Denise Varga) in her new kitchen with her mysterious visitor (César Troncoso)

As the title implies, this is a story about an important day. Vera moves into an apartment in São Paulo in 1998. She’s in her mid-40s, not unattractive but perhaps a little uncertain/worried and both elated and stressed because of the move. Certainly, she’s not wealthy or elegant and this is a large unfurnished apartment, light and airy and spacious. But like our heroine it’s also a little run-down and in need of an uplift.

Vera seems to have quite a lot of furniture, books and household goods and two removal men soon appear to bring everything up to the apartment. But suddenly another man appears in one of the rooms. Where as he come from? Vera clearly knows him, but who is he? It’s difficult to discuss this film without revealing crucial spoiler information about the narrative, but I’ll try. The mysterious man refers to Vera’s past and this is a story about the ‘disappeared’ of Brazil. In this sense the film belongs to that category of narratives found in several Latin American countries, each with a history of political repression. In Brazil under the military dictatorship of 1964-85 arrest, imprisonment and torture of dissidents was responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of many individuals. In 1995 the Brazilian Government admitted the violations of human rights in the dictatorship period and 300 families were compensated for the ‘disappearance’ of relatives via legislative action. At one point the director, Tata Amaral, takes the text of the legislation and plays it over the two actors as if it was being projected onto them. You can probably guess what this means.

Text projected onto the characters.

Text projected onto the characters.

Hoje was the only one of the four films I saw on the Brazilian Weekender at HOME which was not introduced. There is very little about it on IMDB or Wikipedia. It was released in Brazil in 2013 and won prizes at Brazilian and Argentinian festivals but apart from one page in Brazilian from which I’ve taken the images here, it is difficult to find out much. It doesn’t seem to have travelled to other festivals. IMDB suggests that the aspect ratio is 1.78:1 implying it was shot for TV (i.e. in the 16:9 format). It looked to me more like 1.85:1 but IMDB also suggests that it was financed by HBO Latin America. If it was intended more for television that might make sense. There is really only one main set (Vera does go down to the street below for two short sequences). It had something of the feel of a TV play about it although the script is adapted from a novel.

I enjoyed the film and especially Denise Varga’s performance. I was also struck by the set design and the cinematography (which both won prizes for Vera Hamburger and Jacob Solitrenick respectively). It was interesting to see a film about the personal stories associated with resistance to authoritarian regimes – and it is noticeable that the film was produced and released when the Workers’ Party held power in Brazil.

Reading Blue Eyes (Blå ögon, Sweden 2014)

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.

Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.

(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)

The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down