Category: Politics on film

Peterloo (UK 2018)

Actions not words

Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.

Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.

In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.

There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.

Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.

A United Kingdom (UK-US-Czech Republic 2016)

A promotional image for the film suggesting the African-British ‘marriage’

It’s difficult to write objectively and dispassionately about A United Kingdom. I invested a great deal emotionally in watching the film on its release in 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. For the film to be made at all and with a generous budget and good promotion is in itself a triumph. In fact, my only disappointment was in reading some of the mealy-mouthed and borderline offensive comments about the film submitted to IMDb. I hesitated about publishing my post but now, during something of a furore about Black History Month in the UK it seems appropriate to put my thoughts on record.

A United Kingdom presents a ‘real life story’ about a personal relationship which began in London in the late 1940s and which became the focal point of a story about international diplomacy, ‘End of Empire’ and racism in Southern Africa (and in the UK). While the film’s narrative is constructed mainly from historical facts, there are some instances of ‘artistic licence’ in scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s version of events. But I don’t think these departures and other slight inaccuracies in any way undermine the thrust of the film’s message. This is a mainstream feature melding elements of romance, adventure, biopic and political thriller with a satisfying dose of social comment. It is also a personal statement by Amma Asante, a British director of African descent, working with David Oyelowo, a British star actor, also of African heritage, both of whom recognised the importance of putting this story on screen. Add to this a passionate and committed performance by Rosamund Pike and here is a film to savour.

The couple meet in London . . .

In 1947 the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in Southern Africa covered a large area of mainly arid plains (and desert areas) and mountains with a tiny population of under 150,000. As a ‘protectorate’ rather than a colony the local population had certain land rights vested in hereditary rulers, the most important of whom was Seretse Khama. In 1947 Seretse was studying to become a barrister in London while his uncle acted as regent after Seretse’s father died. In London, Seretse met and later married Ruth Williams, a clerical officer at Lloyds and the younger daughter of a lower middle-class family in South-East London. Ruth was a grammar school girl who had driven ambulances as a WAAF in the war. The newly-married couple faced  a great deal of opposition. In London a de facto ‘colour bar’ existed in parts of society. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s uncle opposed the union because he thought it inappropriate for a future king and when Seretse and Ruth arrived in the country they faced a difficult future. The British government opposed the marriage because of the situation in Southern Africa. Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered locally by a British representative on the ground who was answerable to a Commissioner for Southern Africa – who was actually based in South Africa. South Africa had been a ‘dominion’ in the British Empire since 1910 and a sovereign state since 1931 as a constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General representing the British monarch. In 1948 the Nationalist Party of South Africa returned to power under D. F. Malan with the intention of building an apartheid state – institutionalising segregation and ‘separate development’ for racial groups. The British Government faced the dilemma of accommodating the apartheid state or losing any influence in South Africa at a time when UK foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War was designed to retain British military bases and allies overseas in a time of austerity. A United Kingdom‘s script neatly demonstrates the insidious nature of apartheid in showing a hotel in Bechuanaland which requires Black Africans to use the back door – with just the one exception of the king, Seretse Khama. There was a real danger of South Africa attempting to annex large parts of the protectorate. The requirement to keep the Nationalists ‘on side’ in the early 1950s meant that Seretse and Ruth Khama were exiled and forced to live in London for several years in the early 1950s.

Jack Davenport plays the British official who obstructs democracy in Bechuanaland and lends support to apartheid South Africa

The key to the political/diplomatic narrative of A United Kingdom is in the land rights vested in the Khama family’s history, so that when diamonds are discovered in the territory, Seretse Khama has a legal claim in the British courts. This would eventually lead to a valuable resource becoming available for the people of Bechuanaland which moved to a peaceful independence in 1966 as the Republic of Botswana – with Seretse Khama as its first President. Botswana has since become a stable state with high levels of ‘human development’. It’s fascinating to see the role of Labour MP Tony Benn in all of this (the Khamas named their second son ‘Tony’). Benn’s role in the film is based on historical fact, but I’m not sure about some of the other Westminster political events depicted. In researching this background I realised that there was a second similar ‘scandal’ in 1956 when the daughter of the senior Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps married a Ghanaian politician just before the country’s independence from the UK in 1957. So, A United Kingdom is actually representative of many stories associated with ‘End of Empire’ – many African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were in London in the late 1940s and 1950s.

But this is also a romance and a moving family story. I realise now that there is a great deal of similarity between A United Kingdom and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House released a few months later. Both films are proudly emotional and passionate about the ‘personal stories’ that represent the struggles of ‘colonial subjects’ in the dismantling of the British Empire. In both cases their directors are shining an important light on episodes of British foreign (and colonial) policy that very much need to be exposed. Both films should become staples in UK education about Empire history. What they also have in common is a criticism in terms of nitpicking about historical accuracy from the right and sometimes disdain from middle-class supporters who refuse to recognise the genre-based cinema of Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha. There are those who still dismiss popular cinema but both films need to be supported in placing ‘popular’ stories before us.

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017)

Vibhawari Deshpande (left) as Laxmi and Chitrangada Chakraborty as Putul (Tikli) in Laxmi’s one-room apartment

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb was the final film screened in HOME Manchester’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. It was introduced by the season’s curator Omar Ahmed who added to his review of the film on his blog at Movie Mahal. Omar usefully contextualised this film, about two female Mumbai sex-workers who rebel against the control of the pimps and corrupt police, with references to the contemporary cycle of Indian films about the ‘New Woman’. Just as importantly, he also recognised that there have been films throughout Indian film history which have attempted to present the ‘New Woman’, most notably perhaps by Satyajit Ray in Mahanagar (The Big City) in 1963. Another way of looking at this is to think about the stories of courtesans in the Mughal era who have featured prominently in historical Indian dramas and whose presence has often shifted readings of the male characters in the films.

The film is an adaptation by Aditya Kripalani of his own (third novel). It’s Kripalani’s first feature as a director and in addition he produced the film and worked with the film’s music composer, Marcus Corbett. (See the YouTube clip below for the story of the film’s crowd-funding.) I tend to agree with Omar’s comments on the film. I found it engrossing and thought-provoking throughout and the two central performances by Vibhawari Deshpande as Laxmi and Chitrangada Chakraborty as Putul/Tikli are quite stunning. The ensemble cast members are well-written, as is the action in each scene as might be expected from a filmmaker coming from a scriptwriting and literary background. I’m less sure about the flow of the overall narrative structure and the mixing together of seemingly different filming styles. It appears to be an independent film which has not quite digested the generic conventions of the mainstream that it hopes to incorporate. In addition there are a number of devices in terms of the use of songs and moments of reflection which work well on their own terms but perhaps stand out too much in the film overall. The films lasts around 150 minutes. I was never bored throughout the long running time, but there were several moments when I thought we might have reached an ending but after another fade to black the film carried on. There was no Intermission as there might have been in a mainstream film.

The group of women who form the hard core of ‘Tikli and Laxmi Bomb’

As I’ve tried to indicate, the narrative uses generic conventions but in a sense supersedes them by developing ’rounded’ characters for the two leads. Laxmi is a street prostitute working with a group of women on a dark roadside in Mumbai. She’s an experienced worker who ‘mentors’ the new girls and her pimp brings her Putul, a seemingly lively and smart young woman, who will stay with Laxmi, sleeping in her room until she knows the ropes. Putul soon reveals herself as no timid victim and Laxmi finds the roles in their relationship almost reversed as Putul (who gains the nickname ‘Tikli’, meaning ‘short fuse’, I think) begins to break the rules and threaten to subvert the system. We gradually learn something of the characters’ backgrounds, though little is stated directly. I noted the Prabhat Studios poster on the wall. The famous studio from the 1930s and 40s was based in Pune, where Vibhawari Deshpande was born. Laxmi is to some extent the local, whereas Chitrangada Chakraborty, as her name suggests is from Calcutta and Putul is a stranger to Bombay.

The film’s main strength is the way in which Aditya Kripalani explores the structure of the street prostitution racket. He offers us an almost ‘procedural’ presentation, taking us carefully through the process to show how the women take payment before a ‘trick’, how they have a ‘protector’ in the form of an auto-rickshaw driver, how they pay a percentage to the pimp and how the police round them up every few weeks – but drop charges because they have been paid-off by the pimp. And with power over everything (and everyone) there is a ‘super pimp’ who is aiming to be elected as a politician. Having laid all this out, Kripilani then uses Tikli and Laxmi as agitators who explain to the other women how they are being oppressed and how they could subvert the system by ‘doing it for themselves’, cutting out the men who oppress them and keeping a greater percentage of their earnings. There is a scene in a local café in which Lami and Tikli explain their plans and one of the older women plays the character who argues that what they are suggesting just can’t work. For a fleeting moment I was reminded of the famous scene in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (UK-Spain 1993) when villagers argue about land seizure during the Spanish Civil War.

Suchitra Pillai plays Manda, the woman who warns against trying to subvert the system. She’s with Saharsh Kumar Shukla as Mangatram Pichauri, the purveyor of coffee and cigarettes to the women

The weakness of the film is that the villains, the pimps, the auto-rickshaw driver, the hired goons and corrupt police are simply generic types and this undermines both the performances of the leads and the writing of the scenes between the women. The two central characters develop so that we care for them but this in turn is lost in a genre climax with a chase scene. At the end Kripalani adds a short coda with a little twist which gives a positive note. As well as noting the filmmaking flaws, I agree with Temple Connolly in feeling that the film’s poster suggests a kind of ‘tacky sex comedy’ (see the first image of the trailer below). Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (which refers to the women as a ‘street gang’) has moments of humour but is essentially a serious film with an important argument to make. I want therefore to praise the filmmakers for broaching the subject of street prostitution and recognising the exploitation of women, but also their capacity to organise and to fight back. They demonstrate solidarity and an understanding of patriarchy and how to fight it. I understand that many of the heads of department on the crew were women and certainly the general representation of the female characters is quite different than the usual exploitation film with its ‘male gaze’. The film has been successful at various international film festivals, showing in London, Leicester, New Zealand and Berlin as well as Manchester and winning various awards. In India the film is distributed by Netflix, which alongside Amazon seems to be the saviour of certain kinds of Independent Indian films (see Rajat Kapoor’s comments during last year’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ Q&A and screening of Ankhon Dekhi).

The trailer below opens with Putul recording a selfie video to place on Facebook, much to the bemusement of Laxmi. I wonder if Facebook would feature so prominently if this film was made now? Perhaps it has a different cultural status in India. The remainder of the long trailer gives a good idea of the mix of styles in the film. Below it the director addresses the camera in his attempt to find funding for the shoot.

BlacKkKlansman (US 2018)

Adam Driver as Flip and John David Washington as Ron contemplating the KKK membership card in Ron’s name

It’s very exciting to see a Spike Lee film back in wide release in UK cinemas. BlacKkKlansman just scrapes in as a wide release with 217 cinemas but these had the highest average audience numbers of any film in UK cinemas last weekend. I have a great deal of time for Spike Lee as a filmmaker with passion, creativity and political intelligence to go with a deep knowledge of cinema and the skills to make memorable films. Having said that it’s also the case that he makes a wide range of features, shorts, documentaries and other types of moving image work and sometimes he chooses projects that puzzle me. Too often he falls foul of UK distribution companies and their notorious reluctance to release African-American films. All of this means that I hadn’t actually seen a Spike Lee ‘joint’ since I managed to import a US DVD of The Miracle at St. Anna in 2009. After all the build-up to the release of BlacKkKlansman and its Cannes Grand Prix I did worry that it could be a let-down, but it isn’t. This is Spike returning to the form that produced Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000)the former universally acclaimed, the latter larger ignored – but both important films.

David Duke (Topher Grace) develops a telephone dialogue with the Klan’s new recruit

The first point to make about BlacKkKlansman is that it is packed with a great deal of material and ideas and I found that the 135 minutes flew by. I think it will take several more viewings to properly ‘read’ the film and come to any sensible conclusion about what it might mean to different audiences. Spike Lee at his best is always provocative and attempting to build a polemic using humour as well as political insight is often rejected by audiences looking for clear resolutions. My feeling at the moment is that BlacKkKlansman makes important political statements. It certainly made me think about strategies and ways to articulate arguments and it made me question some of my assumptions and ways of thinking about politics in the UK as well as the US and indeed universally. I did also wonder at moments whether Spike gets the balance right and whether his satire works – but in the circumstances I think that is inevitable.

I recommend the Sight and Sound (September) interview with Spike Lee (I have some arguments with the rather negative review of the film in the same print issue but the online piece by Sophie Monks Kaufman is also very good). Queried by Sight and Sound interviewer Kaleem Aftab about how much of the film is actually based on the real events described by Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth, Lee simply re-iterates “[the film] is based on a true story”. It’s a reasonable question – and response. Some aspects of the narrative seem so fantastical that it is hard to believe that they ever happened, but at other moments the narrative seems only too ‘real’. Ron Stallworth (played with bravura by John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel Washington) was the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs force in 1972 as a cadet. It wasn’t until several years later that as an undercover cop he answered an advertisement for applications to join the Ku Klux Klan. Establishing himself on the phone as a ‘white supremacist’, it then required a white officer to physically attend KKK meetings posing as ‘Ron Stallworth’. This was ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee and his co-writers decided to compress the story so that the events seem to take place over a few months in 1973/4. Apart from a familiar strategy to speed up the pace of the narrative, this also allows Lee to highlight questions around black identity at the time of the ‘Blaxpoitation’ cycle of films in the early 1970s alongside the fashions, the music and the ‘Black Power’ iconography.

Ron meets student leader Patrice (Laura Harrier) on his first undercover job

The wonderful Afros on display, the clothes and the music and the discussion of Shaft and Superfly and Pam Grier (complete with on-screen film posters) provide a rich mise en scène which allows Lee to explore issues within African-American culture. Ron’s first undercover job was to ‘infiltrate’ a student-organised event at which Kwame Ture (aka Stokeley Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) makes an impassioned plea to the students to prepare for revolution. That evening Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the student president and begins a relationship. This relationship is an invention which in genre terms allows Lee to explore a romance-thriller narrative thread. We worry about Patrice, although she is generally quite capable of looking after herself and her fellow students. But as Herb Boyd in Cineaste (Fall 2018) points out, we learn relatively little about Patrice and, apart from two or three key moments, the relationship between Ron and Flip is much more important. It is Flip who is in the most danger. The script emphasises how much the Klan are anti-semitic and Flip is someone who has never really thought about his own Jewish identity. This danger (of exposure) is an element of the romance thriller that also generates the possibility of comedy and it is these scenes (i.e. Flip among the Klan members) that test Lee’s ability to balance humour and anger. He’s helped by wonderful performances all round and especially by Jasper Pääkkönen as the most suspicious Klansman and Topher Grace as David Duke, the Klan ‘Grand Wizard’. These two are chilling and completely absurd at the same time.

Jasper Pääkkönen as Felix represents both the absurdist and the most horrific aspects of the Klan

While much of the film narrative remains within the familiar mode of ‘Hollywood realism’, Spike explores the legacy of racism in Hollywood through extracts from Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). I don’t want to spoil the impact of how he does this, but the appearance of Harry Belafonte is thrilling for anyone old enough to remember one of the great figures of the Civil Rights movement. Alec Baldwin’s appearance might be more puzzling for some audiences outside North America, although I guess his YouTube appearances as ‘Donald Trump’ are easily accessible around the world. The crucial question is how does Spike Lee end his narrative? We know Ron Stallworth survived his involvement with the Klan because he wrote his memoir in 2014. But it would be dangerous to leave us laughing and feeling good about victory. In fact, I think there is a narrative thread running throughout which keeps us querying Ron’s actions and his motivations. When the final section comes I think it works very well and I hope that BlacKkKlansman will become a classic ‘joint’ like Do The Right Thing.

BlacKkKlansman took £1.2 million on its first UK weekend and it looks set to be one of Spike’s biggest hits. I’ve failed to mention the initiative of Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele who initially brought the project to Lee and also Blumhouse Productions the company which made Get Out. Peele and Blumhouse are both part of the production background for BlacKkKlansman, demonstrating that Spike Lee is very much still part of the cutting edge of African-American cinema. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator is still on board composing a fine score and including an array of great 1970s tracks. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new to me but Spike Lee has a strong track record in working with exciting camera people and Irvin’s work contributes a great deal to the look of the film. I want to finish by urging you to see this film. I also want to emphasise that there is much, much more to say about it so I hope some of you will add your comments.

The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx, France-Belgium-Germany 2017)

A must for genuine communists and recommended for anyone who is a fan of Karl Marx. The 200th anniversary of his birthday fell on May 5th 2018. 200 years on his ‘spectre’ still haunts the European (and now the world) bourgeoisie. That is perhaps the reason why the film had such a limited showing in Britain. The title is distributed on a DCP by the ICA Cinema, who frequently provide good service for film fans starved of quality cinema.. Unfortunately it seems that only nine exhibitors took up the offer. In Leeds/Bradford it was zero. You could have travelled over to the Hebden Bridge Picture House in West Yorkshire for an evening screening. For South Yorkshire there was a week of screenings at the Sheffield Showroom. And Lancastrians could have seen it at the HOME in Manchester. Leeds, which in decades gone by had an active Communist Party Branch, seems to have it in for Marxists. The Great October Socialist Revolution passed with only a solitary screening of The End of St Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga 1927 ) and that was part of a National Tour. The Leeds International Film Festival in November managed not a single film for the commemoration. Yet again the Hebden Bridge Picture House, the Sheffield Showroom and HOME surpassed Leeds/Bradford.

The newly released film by Raoul Peck is centred on the friendship and collaboration between Karl Marx (August Diehl ) and Friedrich Engel (Stefan Konarske), the two intellectual giants of the modern era. Note, the play ‘Young Marx’ apparently commences where this dramatisation leaves off. The film covers the period from 1841 to 1848 when these youthful rebels were finding their feet and their intellectual ground. We follow Marx from Germany to Paris, to Brussels to London. We see and hear his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and watch as he develops a relationship with Engels, already in the throes of an affair with Mary Burns (Hannah Steele ).

Over this period Marx was writing for Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News); Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Annals); Vorwärts! (Forward!), the last for the League of the Just. Engels had already published his famous The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Marx and Engels jointly published The Holy Family (1845). Marx followed up with The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Note, The German Ideology (Die deutsche Ideologie), beloved of British academics, is a set of unfinished and unpublished manuscripts from 1846. Then early in 1848 he and Engels wrote for The Communist League (previously The League of the Just) The Communist Manifesto. This was published in February 1848 as a wave of proletarian revolutions swept across Europe. At this point the modern Communist movement was born and Marx and Engels continued their political activities whilst developing the analysis of Capitalism, an analysis that is as accurate today as it was when Das Kapital (Volume 1) was first published in 1867.

Marx and Engels dominate the film as do their political discussions. We do see both Jenny and Mary involved in political action and commenting on the political debates. A number of other famous activists and theorists of the period also appear in the film. We have Michael Bakunin briefly (Ivan Franek). More frequently we see and hear Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet). Among the people debated with and criticised by Marx is Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer).

Only Marx and Engels are presented as rounded characters. But they and the supporting cast portray these revolutionaries in a convincing manner as they also do with their political debates and arguments. It is the strength of the acting that makes the film work. Intriguingly we see Karl and Jenny making love but not Friedrich and Mary.

In fact it is a fairly conventional treatment, an example of the modern film biopic which tends to dramatise a character through one aspect of their life and work. Essentially this film charts the friendship and the way that it leads up to the seminal manifesto. The narrative is linear; carefully structured to include action and drama. The basic plot, though using fictional elements, is broadly historically accurate. Where it less typical is in the amount of time that it allows for political statements and debates. Visually it is similar to many other costume dramas.

The film’s running time is 118 minutes. A more daring length, such as in Peter Watkins’ La Commune Paris 1871 (2000) which runs for 345 minutes, would have enabled a fuller treatment of the politics. Whilst an audience will get a sense of the radical ideas and analysis, what actually constitutes the contribution of Marx and Engels in this period will only be clear to people familiar with the written works. When we reach ‘The Communist Manifesto’ we hear the opening paragraphs but not the equally famous ending. The complete Manifesto would have been a better choice. Perhaps a more radical film-maker (Jean-Luc Godard?) might have essayed this.

A more serious omission in some ways is the absence of the voice of the proletariat. The film opens with a fine sequence as we watch rural proletarians hunted down as they attempt to gather kindling: and the voice of Marx explaining the relevance of the different meanings of theft to this situation When we reach the Manifesto there is an evening sequence as Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary read the opening of the almost complete Manifesto. Then in a montage of stills we see groups of silent proletarians offering a direct gaze to the audience and the bourgeoisie. But their voice is mainly absent. There are some excellent scenes of factory exploitation; street meetings; and a Communist League meeting where proletarians are present. But they are only supporting where as in the work of Marx and Engels they are both the object and the subject. The Manifesto would make more sense if the proletarian impact on Marx and Engels was made clear. The film does though make clear that these two are not just isolated intellectuals but are involved in practical political action, as are both Jenny and Mary.

Within the limits of the genre, the production is well done. The design, editing and use of music is rather conventional but works well. The dialogue is in German, French and English with subtitles. The cinematography is generally well done and offers both black and white and colour in a ratio of 2.35:1. However, it does use the modern technique of filming characters standing before or beside windows. This reduces the clarity in the image of the character/s, and I suspect digital formats emphasise this. The DCP I saw was generally good but the contrast was lower than it might have been on 35mm. I think the film was probably shot in a digital format.

I enjoyed the film and I was genuinely moved at times. But after the sequence constructed around ‘The Communist Manifesto’ there are two end titles pointing forward to Das Kapital. Apparently, in an effort to emphasise the continuing relevance of the Manifesto there follows a second montage of well-known events and figures in the succeeding decades. These are not all well-chosen; several of the figures would have been roundly attacked by Marx and Engels if they were still around. Better would have been a montage illustrating the final and ringing declaration of the Manifesto, the working classes still have “nothing to lose but their chains!”.

Kaala (India, Tamil 2018)

One of many posters for KAALA – Rajnikanth sits symbolically in the centre of Dharavi, on his Mahindra Jeep wearing shades, black shirt, lunghi and sandals

Superstar Rajnikanth is unique in global cinema. Nobody else bestrides popular cinema in quite the same way. In 2016 he teamed up with a young and controversial Tamil director, Pa. Rajinth. The result was Kabali (India, Tamil 2016). As usual, that film tended to divide audiences with the suggestion that it might not have appealed to Tamil Cinema’s masses who worship Rajnikanth as the ultimate hero. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but I can see what might be the problem. Rajinth, according to Wikipedia, was influenced as a student by films like Battle of Algiers (Algeria-Italy 1966) and City of God (Brazil 2002) and his second feature, Madras (India, Tamil 2014), was a political drama based in North Chennai. Clearly, in Kabali, the politics were not foregrounded enough – and Rajnikanth played too complex a character for his fans. Kaala doesn’t suffer in the same way on either count.

Kaala – ‘man of the people’ and children

Kaala takes on a host of political issues in contemporary India and I’m surprised that it has only, so far, been banned in one major market in Karnataka. It’s worth noting here that Rajnikanth has decided to do what his famous predecessors have done and move into politics. The attempted ban in Karnataka followed a statement Rajnikanth made about the decades long dispute about water from the Kaveri River which runs from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu (and Kerala). Or perhaps my surprise as an outsider perspective is not shared by many Indians? ‘Kaala’ or ‘black’ is the nickname of the Rajnikanth character. He is the leader of the Tamil clan in Dharavi, the biggest (and most famous) slum in Mumbai. These are Tamils from Tirunelveli District in Southern Tamil Nadu who migrated to Mumbai. In reality, the Tamils have been an important part of Dharavi since the 1920s and Tamil films have been set in the community before, notably Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Bombay (1995).

Kaala organises celebrations and dances for his wife, Selvi

Kaala saw his father killed in Bombay and has fought to become the most powerful figure in Dharavi. As well as his close ties to his own Tamil community he has secured support from the whole area which includes migrants from different states. The local population is highly diverse with many dalits and a significant Muslim population, proportionately much bigger than in Maharashtra as a whole or the rest of India. Kaala was once a ‘rowdy’ but is now respected by all. At the start of the narrative his status is threatened by ‘Mumbai Pure’, a fascist-like organisation described as a ‘Nationalist’ political party (and waving orange flags like the BJP) which intends to take control of the slum, ‘clean it up’ (so it is ‘white and pure’) and redevelop the land. The film’s script draws on a long history of attempts to do this. Dharavi is now in the centre of Mumbai – highly desirable land that would command a high price for upper middle-class accommodation for those who currently face a long commute into the city.

‘Mumbai Pure’ leader Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar) in his ‘white house’)

The plot sees a personal confrontation between Kaala and Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar), the Mumbai Pure leader, who has local politicians and police in his pocket. The ‘personal’ dimension refers to events long ago between the two men’s families. It is further complicated by a split in Kaala’s own family with his youngest son ‘Lenin’ opting for a different approach to improving the lot of Dharavi’s slum dwellers. When a local stooge for Mumbai Pure tries to demolish a washing area with police connivance, Lenin and his partner are there leading a peaceful protest. But it requires Kaala and his supporters to stop the police and the bulldozers. Lenin then brings in a specialist NGO worker who turns out to be an old flame of Kaala. She is Zareena (Huma Qureshi) and she presents another potential problem, this time between Kalaa and his wife Selvi (Easwari Rao). Lenin and Zareena attempt to find a ‘third way’ between Kaala and Mumbai Pure which will lead to development that helps the residents of Dharavi. But who knows best?

Rajnikanth and Easwari Rao

I enjoyed Kaala very much. Kabali had intrigued me because of its Malaysian setting. Kaala is, I think, a better ‘fit’ between Rajinth’s ambitions for a political film and Rajnikanth’s traditional role as hero for the masses. Reading some of the South Indian press reviews, I can see that there is a general feeling that the Rajinth-Rajnikanth pairing has this time got the balance right and in interesting ways. Rajnikanth is no longer the Superstar winning all the battles on his own. Instead he is ‘human’ – we first see him trying to cheat when he plays cricket with his grandchildren. His status is assured because he has helped his family members and others in the community to learn to fight for themselves – and he is prepared for them to argue with him, even if he still believes he has the right ideas. The community will triumph because his earlier actions have been revolutionary. At one point we even get the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’.

Zareena (Huma Qereshi) is celebrated for her work in Africa

I was also pleased to see three strong and differentiated roles for women in this action film. Huma Qureshi is perhaps under-used but Zareena is an interesting character as an educated woman with international experience and status gained through her work. Easwari Rao as Selvi is particularly good and has made a strong impression on audiences as an ‘older woman’ who can be involved in a romance. Rajnikanth the star actor rather than ‘Superstar’ spends much of his time arguing with his wife – and expressing how much he loves her. Anjali Patil as Lenin’s partner Puyal Charumathi is also excellent. It was only later that I realised Anjali Patil was one of the leads in Newton (India 2017) and one of the other leads from that film, Pankaj Tripathi plays an easily corrupted police inspector in Kaala.

There are many details in the dialogue, some of them seemingly playful ‘in jokes’ that collectively represent a certain kind of political text. Subtitles aren’t always the best way into the script but I noted a reference to Ilaiyaraaja, the legendary composer of Tamil film scores, including key Rajnikanth films. This links Rajnikanth to Tamil culture and its people (Rajnikanth was actually born in Karnataka). At another point someone jokingly refers to Kaala as being like ‘M.G.R’ – M. G. Ramachandran, the Tamil cinema superstar who became a leading politician and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 to 1987. This is in keeping with the film’s overall message – Kaala is a leader who will fight for the poor and the downtrodden. He makes the point forcefully that for the rich land is power (and money), but for the poor it is life. The central narrative is one that is crucial for all Indians. ‘Mumbai Pure’ is supposedly committed to helping the slum-dwellers, but in reality it will deliver wealth to the few. This is neatly symbolised when Abhayankar visits Kaala’s ‘castle’ and insults Selvi by refusing a glass of water. This is taken to be a refusal to drink from a vessel that might have been used by a lower caste person. Kaala is outraged and escalates the conflict but later he too will be humiliated when arrested. 

Kaala is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a lot going on. I’ll just discuss a couple of further points. First, the plot is structured so that we get various action scenes and two sustained sequences, one leading up to the Intermission and a second which is longer and climactic (so the structural conventions of the masala film are still in place). In the first, Kaala finds himself trapped alone in his jeep on a flyover during a torrential downpour and armed only with his umbrella – quite enough for him to despatch several goons who approach him. This bravura sequence (which reminded me of Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (China 2013)) plays out to one of the several music tracks from Santhosh Narayanan. I’d like to show you the sequence but the best I can do is the soundtrack clip above which includes some still images of Rajnikanth in action in the rain. The film’s music is rock and rap-orientated. I was quite surprised by the rapping and by the Union Jacks on display. I’m completely out of touch with that music in the US/UK so I’m ‘twice removed’ in terms of Mumbai culture. Reviews suggest the score has been well-received.

In this image from the film’s climax, Kaala as Ravanaan is ‘black’ not just through his clothing but from the smoke and ashes of his home, burned to the ground by the white Rama

The second half of the film becomes an extended symbolic play on the traditional battle between Rama and Ravanaan. ‘Kaala’ is black as Ravanaan, ‘The Demon King’, and Abhayankar is white for ‘Pure Mumbai’, but the moral positions are reversed – white is bad and black is good. The final battle is indeed epic. The Dharavi slum seems to have been recreated in a Chennai studio and cinematographer G. Murali Vardhan who also photographed the previous two films by Pa. Rajinth has used overhead shots (drones? helicopter shots?) to suggest the exploding world of Darhavi within the wider Mumbai landscape.

Rajnikanth deserves his superstar status. He is a fine actor and easily carries the film. I wonder how long he can continue at this level. Will the urge to go into politics divert him? Who knows, but we should support his films in the meantime. Pa. Rajinth is a director to watch. making a blockbuster film which organically incorporates fundamental political ideas is no mean feat. This will be in my list of the films of the year. One sobering thought about global film culture though – I was the only person in the audience in Bradford Cineworld (admittedly for a Sunday tea-time showing). The South Indian family behind me in the ticket queue were booking for Jurassic World.

The Radical Film Network

I have to confess that I have only just informed myself of this network though probably quite a few readers are familiar with it. Formed in 2013 in London it is now fairly widespread across several continents. The objects are to further ‘radical film’ and participants are involved in production, exhibition and associated activities. Radical is defined as

“ . . . first and foremost to a political affiliation to progressive politics and struggles for social justice – from workers’ rights and environmental sustainability to gender, racial and sexual equality.”

A current and welcome project is ‘RFN 68’,

“Taking the radical uprisings and revolutionary fervour of this rare and volatile year as a source of inspiration, the RFN68 festival examines the legacy of the events of 1968 through an international programme of films, workshops, discussion and social events, organised by the Radical Film Network.”

Several events have taken place in Leeds and I attended a screening of In the Intense Now / No Intenso Agora (João Moreira Salles, Brazil, 2017 ) at the Hyde Park Picture House.

This is a documentary about 1968 but offering a distinctive approach. A compilation documentary it uses home movies from Salles’ family and found footage from films of the period, amateur film footage and some material from television, radio and printed sources. Some of the film soundtracks appear in the film but for most of the running time there is a commentative voice of the director. The film is in black and white and colour and in the Academy ratio: it is good to see a film where the makers resists the conventional re-framing of archive footage.

This is a fairly subjective but sympathetic revisiting of Paris in May 1968 and parallel places and events though the parallels are those felt by the director. The film opens with footage from a home movie shot by the director’s mother on a visit to China in 1966 followed by film of events in Prague in 1968 and then some more home movie, this time in a street in Brazil. These signal some of the preoccupations of the film-maker, though they are only clarified as the film progresses. The footage from China was filmed during the Cultural Revolution and features Red Guards who are surprisingly friendly to these bourgeois tourists. The footage from Brazil shows family members but also, as the narrative voice points out, the class situation in which they live.

The first part of the film is mainly devoted to events in Paris in May 1968. The film more or less follows the chronology of events but this is not a history of that month but a series of fragments that give a sense of what happened and offer [as one review suggested] ‘radical romanticism’.

Certain characters occupy the centre. Thus we see and hear General de Gaulle at the New Year of 1967; twice towards the end of May 1968; and finally at the New Year 1968. On television he seems a relic from the past but on radio he is the voice of tradition and moderation. The film thus includes television coverage of the mass demonstration of conservatives that followed the radio broadcast.

There is also ample coverage of Daniel Cohn-Bandit, mainly on film but also on radio. There is a certain identification with Daniel but also a strong note of irony as the film records his rather doubtful con-operation with ‘Paris Match’. And there is much film of the students, the workers and the street clashes that filled the city.

Part 2 includes more material from Paris but also extended coverage of the suppression of ‘The Prague Spring’ by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Later in the film there is coverage of the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest. This leads into a series of films that deal with death and burial. These include a student who died in a protest in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1968; a suicide by a student during the protests in Paris; and a policeman killed during a demonstration in Lyon in the same period. In these passages there is none of the earlier irony but a note of quiet mourning. This seems to aim at generating a sense of loss over the upheavals.

The film ends with more footage from the home movie shot in China and then film of Mao Zedung and one of his poems. Finally we see the famous shot by the Lumière Brothers of workers leaving their factory: why I was unsure.

Whilst the ‘romantic’ does describe much of the treatment there is a continuing tone of irony. Thus at one point the commentary notes the provenance of the famous aphorism,

“Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Under the paving stones, the beach.”)”.

Was this a political slogan or an advertiser’s gimmick. At another point the commentary notes the predominance of short hair among the male protesters and compares this with the USA where the hair was longer and the events [according to the commentator] were more radical. It also notes the dominance of men in Paris 68, [not quite accurate if you watch the footage carefully].

The film offers a fascinating revisiting of these radical events. However it is structured round the personal rather than the analytical. In the end the significance of ’68 seems uncertain. I was struck by the inclusion of ‘The Prague Spring’. The other locations were significant for the director. His family came from Brazil, were living in Paris in May 1968 and his mother did visit China in 1966. But Czechoslovakia has no such relationship. I wondered, as Paris and Rio de Janeiro were protests essentially about capitalism that he felt the need to include a protest against ‘socialism’, in which case he misconstrues the significance of events in Prague.

And I would question the comparison between Paris and the USA. Currently ‘PBS America’ are broadcasting the Ken Burns Vietnam programme, in its entirety not cut as was the case with the BBC. What is apparent in the film is that while many voices supported the Liberation struggle in Vietnam the mass of the protest was against the effects of the war within the USA. Paris was more radical. One aspect of this was the influence of the radical politics in China’s Cultural Revolution. We do get footage of Mao and we do see some Maoists at work in Paris but the parallels are not really drawn out in this film.

Even so I was fascinated by the film which is definitely worth seeing. The research and selection of found footage is impressive. The structure of the film brings out interesting aspects and the editing makes both ironic and political comments. Among the footage in this film is some from the work of Chris Marker. His A Grin Without A Cat / Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) remains the essential viewing on this period. It would be good if we could have an opportunity to revisit this film as well.

The Radical Film Network has a calendar of events for RFN 68 on its webpages. And one can sign up to be kept informed and even participate.

Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Hungary 1982/4)

Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) is shown her new room in Budapest by Magda (Anna Polony)

This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.

The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.

Bunking off to watch Garbo in the cinema.

I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.

Juli and her mother in the USSR when the heavily pregnant woman reaches the village hospital

As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.

Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.

Juli (centre) tries to leave Budapest but the police search for her with orders from Magda

Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):

 . . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993

This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?