Category: Politics on film

Trumbo and a critic!

Trumbo-poster-2015

If there is one thing that depresses me as much as some of the programming by exhibitors it is some of the published criticisms of the films themselves. Trumbo (USA 2015) is essentially a biopic of one of the Hollywood Ten, the victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, the heads of the major Hollywood Studios, cranky right-wingers who presumably would now be members of the Tea Party, and quite a few members of the film industry who owed their careers and their profits to this group, predominately writers of scripts.

The Guardian review (05-02-16), by Peter Bradshaw, opens on this

“heartfelt, stolid picture about an important period in American history”

and adds this peculiar comment,

“the petty Maoism of 1950s Hollywood…”

In fact, the target of this hysteria was the Communist Party USA who, by the late 1940s, were not even Leninist, let alone Maoist. Presumably Bradshaw or his editor thought the epithet would make a change from their regular target, Uncle Joe.

At least there is a greater sense of history and politics in the interview of the star Bryan Cranston by John Patterson. They do add the point made in the end titles of the film, that the victims of this witch-hunt came from all professions and all walks of life. I was a little surprised to find out recently that our own Richard Attenborough was honoured by inclusion in what was known as ‘the blacklist’. The latter term is slightly unfortunate given this is the period of a rising Civil Rights movement.

To be honest the production team, and certainly quite a few of the critics, should read the excellent

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the Film Community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press 1979.

I also recommend it to our readers interested in the topic or indeed who just see the film.

Whatever its limitations Trumbo is a worthy addition to the films dealing with what became popularly known as ‘McCarthyism’. Intriguingly it offers a rather different slant on Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). And for a parallel story watch, [if you can], BBC Screen 2’s Fellow Traveller (1991).

Jim Allen at HOME

The police arrive in a Durham pit village to arbitrarily arrest striking miners under Emergency Powers legislation in 1921. A shot from DAYS of HOPE Part 2.

The police arrive in a Durham pit village to arbitrarily arrest striking miners under Emergency Powers legislation in 1921. A shot from DAYS of HOPE Part 2.

HOME in Manchester has more events, seasons, special screenings and guests than most other cinemas in the UK. Last night a major retrospective of the work of Jim Allen (1926-1999), Manchester’s own brilliant screenwriter, began with one of his most important TV works Spongers (1978), produced by Tony Garnett (who I think attended the screening). Jim Allen was a committed socialist and he is probably best known for his work with Ken Loach and Tony Garnett. Tonight there is a double bill of two of the most hard-hitting TV plays he wrote: The Lump (1967) set in the building industry was produced by Garnett and directed by Jack Gold and The Big Flame (1969) again produced by Garnett was directed by Loach. The season, curated by Andy Willis, runs until the end of January and the remaining titles are listed on the HOME website.

The season has been structured so that the TV plays tend to come first and the films later. Jim Allen wrote seven film scripts for Loach, three for the cinema and four for television. All are showing in the HOME season. Raining Stones (1993) is on Wednesday 20th January, Hidden Agenda (1990) on Saturday 23rd and Land and Freedom (1995) on Sunday 24th. Most screenings start around 17.00 or 18.00 but the Sunday screening of Land and Freedom is at 13.00 so people outside Manchester can get over for the weekend for a double bill. For me, the most exciting part of the season is the final weekend when all four films making up Days of Hope (1975) are shown over Saturday 30th (parts 1 and 2) and Sunday 31st (parts 3 and 4) starting at 12.50 on both days. Days of Hope caused a furore when first broadcast on BBC1 and abroad the films were screened in cinemas. Although shot on 16mm these films look best on a big screen and they tell the tale of a working-class farming family from North Yorkshire and how the younger members fare over the period from 1916 to 1926 when, as Allen and Loach see it, the miners are betrayed by Trade Union leaders and the right-wingers in the Labour Party. A commentary on the politics of the 1970s as well as the 1980s and 1990s, Days of Hope seems just as relevant today (and that is indeed the sub-title of the retrospective). If you agree, a weekend in Manchester beckons!

Leeds Festival Screening of The Wanted 18

Wanted1web

This film featured in the Cinema Versa section of the Leeds International Film Festival: it is also the first film featuring in a  Palestine Film Festival in Leeds. It provided an auspicious start. The film is extremely well made, offers an imaginative combination of techniques, has a funny but also sad narrative and a strong political content.

The basic story occurred in the First Palestinian Intifada; importantly before the signing of the Oslo Accords and the setting up of a Palestinian Authority in the lands occupied by the Israel. The small village of Beit Sahour was involved in a boycott of Israeli products and in a tax boycott. As part of this the people invested in 18 cows, bought from a kibbutznik. The people learned how to care for the cows and commenced providing Intifada milk. But the Israeli authorities, concerned about the example this set during the Intifada declared the cows a “threat to the national security of the state of Israel”. So a cat and mouse struggle developed as the Palestinians tried to protect their livestock and maintain their action.

The film uses an ingenious combination of documentary interviews with those involved in the events, archival footage, drawings, black-and-white stop-motion animation [Claymation] as well as re-enactments. One of the most enjoyable parts of the animation are the four cows – Rikva, Ruth, Lola and Goldie – who are voiced by performers. Originally somewhat Zionist and looking down on the Palestinians, they become part of the village and victims along with the Palestinians.

The politics of this story are often quite subtle, though the oppressive Israeli actions are clearly depicted. The import of a struggle waged by ordinary Palestinians under direct occupation is emphasised, as is the intelligent and collective action in which they are involved. There are bitter comments on how the later Oslo Accords disempowered ordinary Palestinians in the struggle. (Check out Al Jazeera’s The Price of Oslo).

The key player in the film was Amer Shomali, brought up in exile, but later returning to his home village, Beit Sahour. His initial ideas were supported by Montreal-based producer Ina Fichman and then by the co-director on the film, Canadian Paul Cowan, who also scripted the film.

The film is certainly at times very witty, but it is also very moving. The courage and inventiveness of the Palestinians is impressive, whilst the members of the Israeli occupation are remarkably honest about their motivations and actions. The film got a warm response from the audience who filled the Town Hall’s Albert Room. The film is marketed by the National Film Board of Canada, that auspicious institution responsible for many fine documentaries.

The Palestinian Film Festival, organised by Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, continues into December. Meanwhile this film remains a really worthwhile 75 minutes, if you can catch it. It is in colour and the Arabic, English, Hebrew and French soundtrack is covered by English subtitles. (Co-produced by Palestine, Canada and France 2015).

Palestine film Fest2

A German Youth (Une jeunesse allemande, France-Switzerland-Germany 2015)

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This is a fascinating documentary in the Cinema Versa section [Underground Voices] at the Leeds International Film Festival. Essentially the film follows the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction or Baader Meinhof Group in Germany through the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is not a narrative in the sense of the earlier fictional treatment The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008). This is an exploration of a time, a place and a movement – providing an assemblage of film extracts, some records of the time, some by the members of the movement and some by their opponents, the West German State and media.

There are films by Ulricke Meinhof made for German television, there are the films of Holger Meins and young filmmakers at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin: we see at one point Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany in Autumn / Deutschland im Herbst (1978, a very fine treatment). We also see media coverage from German television and material from the Springer publication empire.

Jean-Gabriel Périot, the writer and director, explained his approach in the Festival catalogue.

“To be truly objective, one must truly examine and question the motivations and thought processes of the so-called wrongdoers as well. This raises unresovable and even unbearable questions. While considering these ideas as human beings neither rewrites history, nor excuses the crimes committed, it does open a door to a more complete discussion about the nature of the acts and our own humanity, albeit the gloomiest part.”

I would question the ‘truly objective’, and I do not think that the film achieves all of Periot’s aims. However, it does revisit the now notorious movement and period with an interesting eye. There is familiar material but also film extracts I have not seen in the UK before. The heady days when the group developed is well captured. At one point some official comments that the Film School aimed to bring technically skilled entrants to the industry and they actually got ‘revolutionary wrongdoers’.

The film is less successful with the stance of state and media: these are all official or public presentations. So the sense of the interests that drove these responses is not clear.

But the film holds ones interest and offers a compelling portrait of the characters and events. It is also a pleasure to see a film that treats archive footage with respect, much of the film is in plain black and white and academy ratio. It eschews a commentary letting the protagonists speak for themselves. There are several powerful sequences with a blank screen as we hear the recorded voices of group members: though in the UK we do have the English subtitles.

The film is re-screening on Tuesday November 17th at 2 p.m. You can check out more background in the Hollywood Reporter; and you can get a taste of the content with the IMDB censor’s comments: this includes the following not objective appraisal:

 “In view of the documentary’s depictions and exploration of the leftist movements’ hostile actions to undermine the authority of Germany’s democratically elected government, this film would be recommended to persons aged 21 and above (in Germany and in other countries, with a warning), as a matured audience would be better able to understand the historical context and portrayal of the radicals in this situation.”