Category: Politics on film

Special Section (Section spéciale, France-Italy-West Germany 1975)

The court retries the cases selected by the ‘Special Section’

This was the third Costa-Gavras film to be shown in HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit season. Unlike Z and State of Siege, it deals with a historical period, but one in which similar kinds of anti-democratic and criminal behaviour in fascist regimes is exposed. The setting is Vichy France in August 1941 and this film, along with others such as Marcel Ophüls’ Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974), helped to question the myths that had developed around resistance and collaboration in France following the German occupation of Paris and the Second Armistice of Compiègne in June 1940.

As in the earlier films, Costa-Gavras and his scriptwriter Jorge Semprún were dealing with historical facts and documents but they also used a secondary source, L’affaire de la Section Spéciale by Hervé Villeré. The story begins with the actions of a group of young men and women in Paris, who stage a seemingly impromptu demonstration/march in Paris with the Tricolour and singing of the Marseillaise – and with attempts by some to sing the Internationale. The march is disrupted by German troops and some marchers are shot in the confusion. Later, two of the young men are executed by firing squad. In retaliation, the group decide to kill a German officer. A naval officer is publicly assassinated in the Paris Metro and the youths escape. The German authorities then demand that the Vichy government take action very quickly. It’s worth noting the timing of these events. ‘Operation Barbaraossa’ was the codenmame for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The fascists in the Vichy government needed little encouragement to turn against communists in France – which included many of the young people in the march.

The audience in the Vichy Opera House includes delegations from the US and Japan, here listening to the speech by Petain

The key issue in the narrative is that, given seven days to respond, the Vichy authorities represented here by the Michel Lonsdale as ‘Le ministre de l’intérieur’ formulates a plan by which a ‘Special Section’ of senior judges searches back through recent court convictions to find six men whose sentences can be changed through new court hearings. These will be the sacrificial figures who will be guillotined in Paris to satisfy the Germans. The judges in the court hearing were willing to go along with this with only one exception and majority verdicts were accepted. The cases selected were all deemed to feature ‘Communists, Anarchists and Jews’.

The selected prisoners wait and worry what new sentence they might receive

I agree with Isabelle Vanderschelden who introduced the screening and suggested that Costa-Gavras took great care in presenting a very detailed mise en scène and marshalling a large and highly talented cast. There are many familiar faces on screen and many more drawn from French theatre and television, including some comic actors. This all makes sense in terms of the dialogue requirements – and some of the absurdist and frankly comic sequences. As Isabelle pointed out, this does feel like a return to the approach adopted in Z rather than the cooler and more distanced approach in State of Siege. There are two kinds of absurdity or almost surrealism. The first is prompted by Vichy as a location. This spa town in the centre of France with 25,000 or less residents had the largest concentration of hotels outside Paris, so the Vichy regime set up in the main hotels and used the art nouveau Opera House as its ‘debating’ chamber. Special Section actually opens in the Opera House with a recorded speech by Pétain played to the audience of dignitaries at the end of a performance of Boris Godunov. Later we see Michel Lonsdale attempting to work in a hotel where he is interrupted by his children and then by an escaped chicken being chased down the stairs. Through a window we see a promotion for a local Jockey Club event as a trap is driven down the street. (An interesting article by Julia Pascal in the Guardian was published in 2002 when a later Costa-Gavras film, Amen., was released and created controversy in France.) Later, during the court hearings, we are offered in short vignettes, flashbacks to the stories given in evidence by defendants. At least a couple of these are quite comic and in one, the hapless youth whose petty crimes are nearly always immediately uncovered by the police plays out like a silent cinema comedy.

What is the point of these absurdist moments? In relation to Z, Coast-Gavras said that what he actually showed was to a certain extent, toned down. He is referring here to the behaviour of the senior police officers interrogated at the end of the film. It does seem to me that the comic scenes make the representation of events seem more ‘real’ and therefore more chilling. Life is sometimes absurd and we struggle with that absurdity. Many mainstream films that remove that absurdity seem banal because of its lack. Costa-Gavras encourages audiences to become involved in political stories. He doesn’t attempt to use avant-garde techniques to expose those stories/issues. Instead he allows audiences to find them through his skilfully presented but conventional narratives. Special Section packs a real punch. In a further disturbing irony, Michel Lonsdale appeared earlier in the ‘States of Danger and Deceit’ season in the heroic figure of the Police Commissioner who finds the ‘Jackal’ in Day of the Jackal (UK-France 1973)

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The Deputy (El diputado, Spain 1978)

Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán) on stage as deputy leader of the party

El diputado was one of the two films from the ‘Transition to Democracy’ phase of Spanish cinema in the 1970s that featured in HOME’s ¡Viva! Festival earlier this year and then re-appeared as part of the States of Danger and Deceit programme. I watched it at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the Leeds Film Festival. Films like this are interesting for several reasons – not least because they are rarely discussed in English.

The film is directed by Eloy de la Iglesia from a screenplay by the director and Gonzalo Goicoechea. de la Iglesia is perhaps best known for a series of horror films (which I haven’t seen), but in this case he was taking advantage of the lifting of film censorship in Spain to explore his own key identities as a socialist gay man. In one sense the film is linked to Pedro Almodóvar’s early films in the transition period, but the difference is that where Almodóvar was just beginning to learn his trade, de la Iglesia was already an experienced filmmaker whose credits as actor, writer and director went back to the 1960s.

Roberto and Carmen (María Luisa San José) face the military on the streets

The transition period sees the left in Spain trying to mobilise and to gain elected representatives in the Cortes. It sees alliances between Communists and more centrist parties (PSOE – Partido Socialista Obrero Español) which began to detach from Marxism in order to gain power).  The narrative of El diputado sees a crisis developing for a youngish man who moves from being a ‘deputy’ in an underground Marxist party to becoming one of four party members elected to the Cortes and in the process the promise of becoming a future leader. He has a major weakness (in political terms) of being unable to put to one side his love for a young under-age man.

A lobby card showing a scene in which Juanito (José Luis Alonso) becomes a ‘family member’ and offers Carmen a joint to smoke

One aspect of the film is undoubtedly to explore and celebrate the gay scene in Madrid in the years immediately following Franco’s death. The central character Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán) – who I note has over 100 acting credits on IMDb – is a man of independent means (via a family inheritance) who is forced out of his academic position as a law professor and imprisoned. In prison he meets Nes (Ángel Pardo) who introduces him to gay sex and later sets him up with young boys. Roberto is bisexual and married to the beautiful Carmen (María Luisa San José) but he can’t put aside his attraction to young men. All this is presented as a flashback as Roberto agonises on how to act in a crisis. In the early years of the ‘transición‘, the communists begin to organise more openly and to hold public rallies. The fascists attempt to stop the left organising and when they discover Roberto’s ‘weakness’ they decide to exploit it through Juanito (José Luis Alonso), the minor who Roberto falls for in a big way.

A second lobby card showing Juanito with the fascist group leader. Nes (Ángel Pardo), who introduced Juanito to the group, is in the centre.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative any further. Instead, I want to explore what de la Iglesia does with the story. The film was actually projected on 35mm, so Keith was there (and the very experienced HPPH projectionist had problems getting the aspect ratio correct, probably because the instructions on the cans wasn’t clear – we thought that perhaps it was meant to be 1.66:1 not 1.85:1). Keith thought that Roberto was surprisingly naïve for a Marxist lawyer in not realising what was likely to happen. I can see what he means, but I was struck by one of the (few) comments on IMDb which linked the film to Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), a classic of British cinema in which Dirk Bogarde, a British matinee idol of the 1940s and 1950s, who risked all to play a married lawyer who is being blackmailed because of his affair with a young man. It’s an interesting reference, especially with the involvement of a loving wife. I think we have to accept that Roberto genuinely loves Juanito and can’t let him go – just as Carmen loves Roberto and can’t let him go. I think that de la Iglesia is quite clever in offering us the explict gay (and straight) sex which Roberto and Juanito enjoy, but also the demonstrations and campaign rallies that Juanito comes to enjoy and believe in. He also becomes something like a family member for Roberto and Carmen. de la Iglesia’s real coup though is to explore the class basis of the relationship. Roberto is a middle-class bourgeois Marxist (with the wealth to rent a flat as a secret HQ for the party and then as his love nest) who learns something about working-class families through his relationship with Juanito. Juanito is alienated from his own working-class community but discovers it again through his involvement with the young comrades from his neighbourhood during the demonstrations and political campaigns. Socialist/Marxist activists are often represented in films as socially conservative and this view of Roberto makes an interesting change.

The best scholarship on this film, and de la Inglesia’s work generally, that I’ve found is in Barry Jordan & Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas, Contemporary Spanish Cinema, Manchester University Press 1998. They emphasise Roberto’s struggle in which he “first denies and then conceals his own sexuality, believing it to be a deviant manifestation of bourgeois indulgence” (p. 149). They then recognise that the increased openness of socialist political campaigning is contrasted with the still clandestine gay world in which Roberto is active. He is “forced by the strength of his sexuality to recognise both its inevitability and the political right to live consistently with his identity”. I think that this is a perceptive reading but it doesn’t deal with two of the other major concerns of the narrative – when will Roberto tell his party about something which could be damaging if used by their enemies. And what will happen to Juanito (who is still a minor)?

I won’t spoil the narrative of this melodrama, except to say that it has both a dramatic climax and an ‘open’ ending, but I think that it is a film that manages to be ‘realistic’ and progressive in its representations while providing the dubious (but genuine) ‘pleasures’ of exploitation cinema. Thanks to Andy, Rachel and Jessie at HOME for making it possible to see the film in the UK.

The Mattei Affair (Italy 1972)

Gian Maria Volontè (centre) as Enrico Mattei, ‘Man of the People’ bringing jobs and prosperity to Italy through a state company

The Mattei Affair is one of the films screened at Leeds Film Festival in its ‘Retrospective’ section and also part of HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit touring season. The film deals with the mysterious death of the Italian industrialist Enrico Mattei in 1962. It begins and ends with a fatal aircrash in the fields as his private jet was approaching Milan’s Linate airport. The central narrative takes us back to the late 1940s. Mattei, a former member of the Fascist Party who had transformed himself into a well-respected Christian Democrat and accepted into the Partisans before the war ended, was given the task of winding up the Fascist state’s energy company AGIP. Instead Mattei re-launched the company under the nam ‘ENI’ and set out to make it a major international oil company, starting just with unexploited methane reserves in the Po valley. His aim from the outset was to exclude private companies from Italy’s energy market and eventually to do the same internationally by negotiating with what became known as ‘Third World producers’ in the Middle East. This immediately made him a challenger to the Anglo-American oil companies.

The film was co-written and directed by Francesco Rosi with script collaboration from Tonino Guerra. Rosi is one of the major directors interested in political intrigues in Italy in the 1970s. A second of his films, Illustrious Corpses (1977) about the mysterious murder of leading judges, is also included in the HOME season. In The Mattei Affair, Rosi constructs a narrative that at first looks as if it will be some kind of investigative reportage in the form of a documentary reconstruction. But the narrative is non-linear and it deals with events after the crash as well as before. The whole idea of a documentary approach is also undermined by another terrific performance by Gian Maria Volontè as Mattei – which is in turn presented dramatically via the camerawork of Pasqualino De Santis. The documentary idea is also challenged by the appearance of Rosi himself in the film, looking for evidence and acting like an early warning of the kind of ‘performative’ documentaries typified by Nick Broomfield’s work from the mid 1980s onwards.

Mattei talks to his translator in Monaco as he tries to negotiate with the Americans

The film operates on many levels. Volontè plays Mattei as a larger than life character, at times moving from self-deprecation to energetic oligarch and on to almost messianic leader in the trip to Sicily just before the crash. He makes a flamboyant tour of his company’s activities in Tunisia and Iran to display the multinational success of his business. Rosi enhances this by having a journalist tag along, possibly borrowing the idea from Citizen Kane. At other times we see Mattei negotiating and telling the stories which he uses to explain his motivation. He’s there in Moscow, queuing up to see Lenin’s tomb and at the same time working out how to buy cheap Russian oil – one of his ploys to frustrate the Americans. There is another fascinating scene in Monte Carlo where Mattei attempts to do a deal with one of the ‘Seven Sisters’, the US oil majors. The Americans don’t seem impressed and one theory is that the CIA might have been involved in the crash. Another blames the OAS in France, outraged by Mattei’s support for the Algerians. The scenes in Sicily suggest that Mattei could become too popular there and the Mafia might be involved in the crash. Rosi complicates the mystery further via the story of a journalist who was investigating the crash when he disappeared without trace.

It isn’t clear to me what Rosi thought of Mattei’s politics. Perhaps he saw Mattei as a form of populist. In the film we see Mattei being quizzed about his membership of the Fascist Party and then the Christian Democrats. Mattei replies that what he does, he does for Italy and Rosi emphasises the reaction he gets in Sicily when he promises jobs not just for the locals, but for their relatives who have had to travel far and wide to find work. Rosi himself is clearly concerned about the people of the South and their poverty compared with the wealth of the North. Mattei responds to charges that he works with ex-Fascists and authoritarian leaders by saying “I use them like a taxi. I get in, pay the fare and they take me where I want to go, then I get out of the taxi”.

Mattei watches as the first methane ‘well’ gushes in the Po valley

The Mattei Affair won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972 and the print seen in Leeds was restored with the support of
Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna. I was very impressed by the film and its potential links to other films in the HOME season and I’ll try at some point to write about Illustrious Corpses. The one absence in the film seemed to be anything about Mattei’s domestic life. We see his wife brought to the crash site, but I think that is her only appearance. The absence of the wife does tempt us to ask, did this man do anything else besides work at growing his company? Did he have no vices? He does clearly enjoy being the boss and talking about his exploits, but if what he achieves is good for Italians (and the oil producers of the ‘Middle East’) that’s OK, isn’t it? Well, possibly not, since we have little evidence of the impact of oil wealth and how it was distributed. That’s another story, but at least Rosi got us thinking about what was a genuine debate about how Europeans might resist American economic hegemony in the 1960s.

The film wasn’t released in the UK until the summer of 1975 when it appeared at the same time as the director’s ‘political gangster film’ Lucky Luciano (US/France/Italy 1973). My notes tell me I saw both films in 1975 but I have no memory – most disturbing. The Mattei Affair was reviewed in Sight and Sound Summer 1975 by Philip Strick. It’s an interesting review in which Strick sees Rosi as one of the surviving practitioners of ‘pure’ neo-realism. He praise the film’s production but sees it failing as a factual account. That made me reflect on my own take. I think I accept that it is Rosi’s fictionalised account of real events but that it definitely exposes something about Italy and the international oil business in the 1950s and 1960s which I find interesting and useful.

States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), dir Elio Petri, starring Gian Maria Volontè as a fascistic police chief

‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’ is the major season at HOME in Manchester starting on Saturday November 4th and running through to Tuesday 12th December. The season has been planned to coincide with the national British Film Institute THRILLER tour organised with the ICO (Independent Cinema Office. The HOME season comprises eighteen selected titles, eleven of which are also available to screen at other venues. (See the information on the HOME website.)

The HOME Season is curated by Andy Willis, Reader in Film at Salford University, with Rachel Hayward (Programme Manager, Film) and Jessie Gibbs (Film Festivals co-ordinator). An enormous amount of effort has gone into finding the best possible viewing prints for films of this vintage and also acquiring screening rights. Given all the difficulties of finding prints, there is an amazing array of film titles in the season. One or two titles are showing twice and many of the screenings are supported by introductions, post-screening discussions and other events.

Angela Winkler in The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum (West Germany 1975) dirs Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff

So, why this season at this point? I guess we’ll all have to wait for Andy’s ‘One-hour Intro’ on 8th November for a full explanation, but I suspect that he’s going to focus on two points. The first recognises the political turmoil that existed across Europe in the 1970s. Radical groups prepared to literally fight the authorities on the street emerged in Italy (The Red Brigade) and West Germany (The Baader-Meinhof Gang). These were taken to be ‘leftist’ groups and their violence was matched by attacks from the right in Spain and elsewhere. (The two Spanish films in the season were screened earlier this year as part of HOME’s Viva! Festival.) Though Italy and Germany provide many of the narratives, others are set in France, Spain, UK, Greece, Sweden and East Germany. The second point is that popular genres can often be the vehicle for quite complex investigations into politics and public policy.

I’m offering two ‘events’ in the programme. One is a ‘One Hour Intro’ before the screening of Bo Widerberg’s Man on the Roof (Sweden 1976). For this I’m attempting to read all ten of the original Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The ten novels comprise a single extended essay on the failures of Swedish democracy entitled ‘The Story of a Crime’. Committed Marxists, the authors set out to expose the contradictions of the welfare state and Swedish public policy. That’s one kind of ‘political thriller’ and another is the classic Day of the Jackal (France-UK 1973) about the attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle in 1963. I watched this again recently and it’s another riveting procedural drama that I’m looking forward to discussing in the context of the season after the screening.

I’m hoping to get to several more of the films on offer and reports will feature on this blog. Several titles are also screening during the Leeds International Film Festival which opens on November 1st and at other venues over the next couple of months. The season offers a great chance to discover some of the best films of the 1970s and amidst all the nonsense of Brexit it’s great to be focusing on European cinema.

The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, USSR 1927)

This was one of several films commissioned in order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Great October Revolution. The most famous of these is Sergei Eisenstein’s October Ten Days that Shook the World (1928). Both films include sequences showing the storming of the Winter Place: in fact the filming of these sequences found the two productions ‘stepping on each others’ heels’.

However, Vsevolod Pudovkin, the director, has a different approach to drama and to ‘montage’ from Eisenstein. There are parallels between this film and his earlier adaptation of a Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother / Mat (1926). This film follows the experiences of a young rural worker who migrates to St Petersburg in search of employment. We follow him in a linear fashion as he experiences the exploitation of the proletariat in Tsarist Russia and he becomes politicised. The film includes very fine sequences showing the advent of war, the experiences of the Russian army and then the series of conflicts that led to the overthrow, first of the Tsarist regime, and then of its bourgeois successor.

Pudovkin, together with his script writer Nathan Zarkhi and the cinematographer Anatoli Golovnya, present the city, the social movements and its representative characters with a strong sense of the world they live in and of the historic events in which they were involved. Whilst Eisenstein’s film ends with the Vladimir Lenin announcing the start of Socialist Construction Pudovkin’s film ends on a quieter note, expressive of the victory but also of the cost it has levied.

Sheffield Showroom have a screening of the film this Sunday, October 15th. The screening uses the Contemporary Films 35mm print. Unfortunately this is copied form a 1969 Soviet re-issue where the film was reframed to accommodate a music track, and there is some cropping in the top of the frame.  However, it will enjoy a specially composed musical score from the Harmonie Band: the score is excellent and works well with style and drama of the film.

This is fine film and a signal celebration as we approach the anniversary of the most important event of the C20th. Hopefully we can look forward to other significant dramas and records of 1917.

Not Just Bollywood #1: Newton (India 2017)

Rajkumar Rao as Newton in the jungle

Newton opened in India a week ago and I was fortunate to watch the film the previous Saturday at HOME Manchester as part of the ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. I’ve been trying to let my thoughts about the film marinate as I bathe them in the various positions being explored by friends in Manchester as well as across the Indian media. Newton is certainly a critical success and has already been selected as India’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee – but critics and audiences both seem divided as to how to take the central character and the narrative that he provokes. The film is an intelligent and wickedly funny political satire. It hasn’t yet reached a wide audience since it opened on only 300 screens in India, but even so some very different readings have appeared. The one negative reaction to the film has come from critics who have claimed that it takes ideas from the Iranian film Secret Ballot (2001). Newton‘s director Amit Masurkar has refuted these claims and the Iranian director Babak Payami has stated that there is no plagiarism involved. I have watched Secret Ballot but at this point, before going back to it as I hope to do, I think that although the central narrative action is certainly similar, the different context and the underpinning issues make a clear distinction. There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas – but if Masurkar has done this, it should be acknowledged.

Outline (no spoilers)

‘Newton’ (Nutan) Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) is a young man with a postgraduate degree who has only been able to become a government clerk (he failed the Civil Service exam). Sent out to be a polling clerk in an election in the Eastern Central state of Chhattisgarh, he finds himself volunteering for potentially the most dangerous and difficult job for an election officer – collecting votes in an isolated area that has recently seen activity by Naxalite/Maoist groups. He is helicoptered in with his team of two assistants and meets the local military commander Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) and then a local teacher Malko (Anjali Patil) who acts as an interpreter and liaison with the potential voters. Is Newton going to be able to register any votes in the jungle?

Commentary

Without spoiling the narrative, I can say that Newton tries very hard to follow the rulebook and it is up to the audience to decide the extent to which he succeeds. This is a political satire that takes aim at many different targets, including Indian bureaucracy, media constructions (a foreign media crew visits the area to see the election process), the conduct of the military, Indian ideas about democracy, inequalities, attitudes towards ‘scheduled tribes’, policies about ‘insurgents’ etc. At the centre of all this, in Rajkumar Rao’s wonderful performance, is Newton. Is he a brave hero, a staunch advocate of democracy – or is he completely insensitive to everyone’s different problems? Or is he somewhere on the autistic spectrum, perhaps with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps the real pressure of attempting to conduct an election under threat of disruption pushes him into a difficult place where he struggles to function. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the film which take place outside the jungle context and perhaps provide clues about Newton’s behaviour. I’d like to see the final scenes again but one scene sees an attempt to ‘humanise’ the presentation of Newton’s potential nemesis Aatma Singh. Singh actually faces similar problems to Newton in that he is trying to fulfil his orders to keep the region free of Naxalites, protect the villagers and keep his men safe.

The setting of the drama is important. Chhattisgarh was formed out of the south-eastern districts of Maya Pradesh in 2000 and it is still a relatively poor state even though it has fast developing areas and rich mineral deposits. The jungle setting is the forest area of Dandakaranya. This is an area associated with the spiritual and the stories of the Ramayana (which is referenced by a joke in the film). It’s also the home of ‘tribal peoples’, one of the most disadvantaged communities in India. These people speak Gondi, a South-Central Dravidian language not understood by an educated Hindi speaker like Newton. The insurgents who are seen briefly at the start of the film (and whose presence is often invoked later on) are variously described as Naxals, Maoists or ‘communists’. Naxalites (from Naxalbari in Northern West Bengal) emerged in the late 1960s and new Naxalite groups have since emerged in many Indian states, forming a ‘corridor’ through the centre of India from North East to South West. Chhattisgarh has been a centre of much activity since 2005. Naxalites often seek out tribal peoples (the ‘Adivasis’) as their most likely supporters. The events in Newton are genuinely ‘realist’ in the sense that politicians have been victims in Chhattisgarh and the Naxalite threat is ‘real’. This in turn marks out Newton as an ‘Indian Independent’ in its presentation rather than belonging to the kind of fantasy world found in mainstream Hindi cinema.

The three leads in Berlin for the film’s first international appearance. From left, Rajkumar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi and Anjali Patil

For my money, Newton the character, with his principles and his lack of any sensitivity is not the answer – in fact he could well make matters worse. Indian governments need to consider the needs of the poorest people and curb the exploitation of resources with better regulation if they are to meet the challenge of the insurgency. Education is vital. An election is not democratic if voters don’t know who they are voting for or what elected people would do in power. But will Newton, the film, help audiences to engage with these kinds of debates about how to make democracy work? Some of the reviews I’ve read seem very naīve in taking Newton to be a ‘hero’. Perhaps if he listened carefully to Malko, he might be persuaded to modify his behaviour or at least learn how to disguise what he thinks?

Newton was first shown at the Berlin Film Festival where it won a prize and subsequently at other festivals. I hope it gets an eventual UK release and that it gets to the final Oscar shortlist. The film is produced by Manish Mundra and Drishyam Films which is fast becoming a celebrated ‘brand name’ for Indian Independent films. It has an excellent script by the director and Mayank Tewari. The only issue I have with the quality of the production is that the camerawork sometimes appears to lose focus in parts of the frame for no apparent reason. But this doesn’t detract from the overall success of the presentation.

Postscript

I fear that only seeing the film once may turn out to be a problem. Since posting this I’ve discovered that there may be a line of dialogue in the film that suggests that Newton may be from a Dalit background. That might change my reading. I fear there may be other such revelations to come. If I’ve got things wrong, I hope I’ll be corrected. Please leave a comment.

Spark – A Festival of Revolutionary Films

This Autumn is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of London’s independent cinemas are hosting a season of films by Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Shub – plus Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) based on the personal account of the events of the Revolution by John Reed. The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Rio in Dalston have screenings on alternate Sundays mostly starting around lunchtime/early afternoon. If you’ve never seen these Soviet classics, here is a great chance to catch up on an extraordinary period of filmmaking. Download further details here: Spark Programme.

Jinnah (Pakistan-UK 1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jinnah speaks to the crowds with his sister alongside

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

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

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

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

This is the trailer from Eureka: