Edward Snowden is a very 21st century hero: whistleblowing on how everyone is being spied upon via compromised networks. Whistleblowers are the heroes of our time and it’s an indictment of our time that they often end up more vilified than the criminals they are revealing. Snowden says, in Laura Poitras’ fabulous film, he hopes that when he is ‘shut up’, like the beheaded Hydra, seven other whistleblowers will appear behind him. They haven’t, testimony to the treatment they know they will receive but also the complicity that those who work for ‘security agencies’ have in the destruction of our ability to have a private life.
Along with Wikileaks, Snowden revealed what many of the left have always suspected: the security services operate beyond the law and legislatures have no desire the rein them in. Although this fact wasn’t a surprise, the breadth of their infiltration of our communications is still shocking. Without people like Snowden, and reporters such as Glenn Greenwald, along with The Guardian newspaper, we would well and truly be screwed. Or would we? We probably are anyway.
It’s unclear to me what affect the revelations have had upon the NSA, in America, and GCHQ in the UK; the latter, Snowden says, has even greater penetration of British communications than the NSA has over American’s. The response of many people seems to be to shrug as if it isn’t important. This might be because they are politically on the right (though it is quite striking that the libertarian right – to which Snowden belongs – has mostly been quiet) or they don’t want to hear such disturbing talk.
Many years ago, when I sold hotdogs at Chester Zoo during the summer, my fellow salesman delighted in regaling me with his belief that the ‘general public is thick’. I still don’t believe this but I think ‘the general public is ignorant’. Part of this is due to consumption of the right-wing media. Take the Daily Mail‘s front page (yesterday) that expressed shock that the charity Cage, which assists people who’ve been ‘targeted’ by the security services, should say that it is possible that ‘Jihadi John’s’ unspeakable behaviour (in beheading victims on behalf of ISIS) was in part caused by harassment by MI5. The Mail, in particular, is like a child who avoids hearing anything contrary to their beliefs by putting their hands over their ears and sings ‘la-la-la . . . ‘ It’s obvious that harassment could cause radicalisation but to acknowledge this would lead to questions about the effectiveness of security policy. Toward the end of Citizenfour it’s revealed that the NSA has 1.2 million people on its watch list! Whilst computer surveillance can watch us all, the security services don’t have the resources to directly monitor everyone on the lists. At some point they may decide, in order for us to be safe, internment without trial of suspects is needed.
The ignorance of the public can also be ‘wilful': they are more interested in celebrity gossip than issues that affect their lives. For example, on Thursday the FCC guaranteed net neutrality, a triumph against the increasing commercialisation of the internet, however the internet was ‘full’ of ‘the dress’.
Like George Romero’s zombies finding shopping malls reassuring, many won’t deal with the issues of our time (until they are the victims).
All this surveillance is done in the name of the bogus ‘war on terror’. Terrorists have no power to threaten nation states so they commit atrocities in the hope that the states will over-react and create a fertile ground for further recruitment of terrorists. I would say ‘stupidly our leaders over-react every time’ except I believe they know exactly what they are doing: terrorist acts become an excuse for more government control. In this way ISIS and governments have a symbiotic relationship: the victims are ordinary people of all cultures.
Well done to the Academy for awarding this documentary an Oscar; it was by far the most important film of the contenders but Radio 4’s Today programme managed to avoid mentioning it. Hopefully the award will raise its profile (it’s not available on DVD in the UK) as will Channel 4’s screening (in a graveyard slot but that matters little these days). Quite simply this is a film that all should see though it will be difficult to use in schools without plenty of background information but it is necessary to fit it into the curriculum!
The 1960s were a decade of revolution; not least in cinema. Jorge Sanjines’ (as part of the Ukamau collective) The Blood of the Condor – he co-wrote and directed – is one of those rare films: it actually had a direct social impact as it led to the American backed Peace Corps being expelled from Bolivia. It was also a significant contribution to Third Cinema, an attempt to make films about the Third World in a non-western way.
Sanjines’ film was about, and for, the peasant Indians of Bolivia and was designed to be watched, and discussed in, communities without cinemas. Hence Sanjines thought he could afford to have a complex narrative structure, which interpolates flashbacks with the present quest of blood needed to save the village leader, Ignacio. Those who presented the movie could explain what was happening and so avoid any confusion amongst the peasants who were not used to complex film language. Despite this, the peasants weren’t sure about what was happening and Sanjines didn’t repeat such narrative complexity again. He realised that he’d fallen into the trap of imposing an unsuitable form upon the group he was trying to help.
Ignacio is initially presented as a drunkard, wife-beater, angry that she hasn’t produced more children. Hardly the way a western film is likely to present a heroic figure. After the credit sequence, which states the film includes the peasants of Kaata, Ignacio, and a few others, are marched away and shot by men under orders of the local police chief. Paulina, Ignacio’s wife, gets her husband to his brother, Sixto, in the city; however, in order to save him they must find blood or money to pay for a transfusion. The film then intercuts why Igancio was shot with Sixto’s quest for blood and money.
We discover that the Progress Corps, a thinly disguised Peace Corps, are actually sterilizing the Indian women, when performing operations, without permission; an attempt at genocide. When Ignacio finds out he declares that the same will be done to the Americans. Although Ignacio is a fictional character, and it appears the Sanjines was using sterilisation as a metaphor for the destruction of indigenous culture, the Bolivian government, after trying to ban the film under pressure from the Americans, eventually expelled the Corps.
Although Sanjines, and his collective, ‘failed’ formally with their narrative structure, they did succeed, in other formal ways, in communicating in a non western way. For example, the use of the long shot to emphasise the collective aspect of village life rather than the individualism of the close up. Given the Ukamau group’s academic training, it isn’t surprising that they too had been inculcated in the western way of filmmaking. Another way, apart from the subject matter, Blood of the Condor was undoubtedly revolutionary is in its ‘call for action’; as Sanjines stated:
“The work of revolutionary cinema must not limit itself to denouncing, or to the appeal for reflection; it must be a summons for action.” (quoted in Gabriel’s Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation, incidentally this seminal book is available here).
The final shot of the film is of upraised rifles, which are freeze-framed; an undoubted call to arms against the imperialist aggressors. These are not just identified as the Americans, middle class Bolivians too, the descendants of colonialists, are in Sanjines’ sights as they define themselves against the Other of the Indians so they can feel more like the First World westerners. At one point, Sixto is forced to wait at a country club in the hope he will be given blood for his brother; however, the doctor is too full of his own importance to be bothered with Indians.
In 2005 Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia, the first indigenous person to gain such elevated office in Bolivia. It would be nice to think that films of Third Cinema sowed the seeds for such advancement. However, as the multinational corporations, and hedge funds, extend their tentacles everywhere they can screw some profit, maybe it’s time for a Fourth Cinema. This would take on the values of Third Cinema and use them to hold up a mirror to the whole capitalist world so we can see how economic and ecological disaster is on our doorstep.
PS the whole film is available, subtitled in English, on YouTube. It looks like a videotape TV recording but the quality’s fine.
21st July: the post was updated to correct the statement that the Peace Corps did actually sterilise Indians.
A few posts back I wrote about the extraordinary cinematography of Ivan’s Childhood (Soviet Union, 1962) and how Tarkovsky wanted it to look as if it had been shot by Sergey Urusevskiy. This one is and I’m sure this is the most sensational cinematography I have ever seen. Teamed with director Mikhail Kalatozov, with whom he made The Cranes Are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957), Urusevskiy shot this propaganda film celebrating the Cuban Revolution of a few years earlier. Many critics bemoan the narrative, with its focus on types rather than individuals, and suggest the politics are naive, but are united in their praise of Urusevskiy. For me the narrative, about American imperialism, is entirely satisfactory and reminds us, 50 years on, that the US penchant for interference in other countries, in the interests of US corporations, remains undiminished. Four stories, focusing on a prostitute, a student, and two farmers, show how the people were exploited under the US-backed dictator, Batista; while these are effective it is the cinematography that makes it one of the greatest movies ever made.
In the 21st century we are spoiled by the effects that can be created by CGI. I mean spoiled in the sense that cinema can never be the same again because the fact that anything can be shown means that nothing is special. Okay, that may be an overstatement, I did find the streets of Paris folding over in Inception (US-UK, 2010) impressive, but that experience is increasingly rare. In watching the long elaborate takes that fill I Am Cuba I find myself constantly assuming that CGI must have been used to cover the ‘joins’ except, of course, there was no CGI in 1964. There wasn’t even the steadicam. And Urusevskiy somehow manages to, despite often extremely rapid movement, beautifully compose the shots! His penchant for Dutch (canted) angles give the Social Realist narrative an Expressionist sensibility that intensely portrays the characters’ anguish caused by their exploitation. To give an idea of the complexity of some of the shots I’ve pinched this from Wikipedia:
the camera follows a flag over a body, held high on a stetcher, along a crowded street. Then it stops and slowly moves upwards for at least four storeys until it is filming the flagged body from above a building. Without stopping it then starts tracking sideways and enters through a window into a cigar factory, then goes straight towards a rear window where the cigar workers are watching the procession. The camera finally passes through the window and appears to float along over the middle of the street between the buildings.
Sample the opening five minutes:
Now get hold of the film.
I guess the English title has the benefit of pithiness that the original title (God and the Devil in the Land of Sun) but suggests that the film is about race when it isn’t. The film is about desperation of the dirt poor of the impoverished land the sertão, ‘backlands’ of north eastern Brazil. Cow herder Manuel kills his boss in rage in response to his appalling treatment and so, with his wife, go ‘on the run’. First they join a preacher, Saint Sebastian, who claims he’ll lead them to a ‘promised land'; then a bandit, a sort of low rent Robin Hood (though there’s not much evidence of giving to the poor), Corisco. They are pursued by Antonia das Mortes, employed by the church to kill anyone who threatens the status quo.
I’m afraid that summary makes the narrative seem more coherent than it is. Many of the events are portrayed indirectly, Eisentsteinean montage conveys massacres, but not the way of the Potemkin steps or his later dialectical style; the editing offer an impression of events rather than any political argument. Music, vital in Brazilian culture, structures much of the narrative; a mix of ballads, telling of the events of the film, and Villa-Lobos.
What’s most striking about the film are the compositions where people seem to be randomly standing about but, together, offer a vision of confusion, a land that’s lost its moral compass. The sparseness of the backlands of north eastern Brazil have their bleakness accentuated by the black and white cinematography in the ‘academy’ (4:3) ratio.
Glauber Rocha’s influences are many, not least the French nouvelle vague primarily through co-opting the Gallic attitude of ‘director as author’ rather than through stylistic devices. Like Antoine Doinel, the protagonist finds the sea at the film’s end; the ocean has mythic significance as the ‘saint’ had preached that he would lead the dispossessed to utopia where the ‘land is sea, and sea is land’. As Lucia Nagib puts it:
‘Glauber’s mythic backland-sea formula expresses the harrowing feeling of this utopian country that could have turned out right but was fated not to from the day it was discovered. (Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia, (IB Taurus), p9)
Whilst the French were, initially at least, in love with Hollywood, the Third World filmmakers of Latin America had no love for America as they suffered under US-supported military dictatorships. As Corisco says, directly to camera: ‘The dragon of evil swallows the people to fatten the Republic.’ This emphasis upon the political had its roots in Italian neo realism; and, as noted above, Eistenstein – who worked in Mexico during the 1930s. This link details more of Rocha’s influences and this takes you to his manifesto the aesthetics of hunger’.