The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.
I think if we’ve all learned anything from the last few decades of study and research about women in cinema is that there has been a paucity of women creating cinema since the silent era, i.e. from when cinema started to be seen as a viable industry and not just a hobby or a sideshow. This means a lot of women’s work in cinema has been in non-commercial spheres like the experimental avant garde, or else in oppositional contexts, and that is where we find the French/West Indian filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who chose her surname and began to make films with her Angolan nationalist husband after having been an assistant on The Battle of Algiers. That first short I review below was also made in Algeria, but is specifically about the Angolan situation, before its independence. She made a feature film a few years later, Sambizanga (again filmed in absentia in the Republic of Congo/Brazzaville, but about Angola), which I will be covering shortly in my Global Cinema series when we get to Angola. Sadly, Maldoror died earlier this year, in April 2020, as a result of complications from COVID-19, at the age of 90. The three short films below were made available for a short time by Another Gaze journal, in support of a panel featuring her daughters, poetry recital, and a discussion amongst film critics, which was insightful and also, for me, rather unusual in centering the experiences of African and Caribbean women.
A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.
I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.
It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.
I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.
It can sometimes feel to me as if too many people in the UK (or, say, Australia or NZ, as other examples) look to race riots in the United States and feel somehow as if they are unrelated to struggles taking place in their own country, as if the toxic legacy of slavery in the US doesn’t somehow also apply to other countries, especially ones with their own long colonialist histories. Another sad theme of my week dedicated to the ‘cinema of resistance’ (as I’m calling it), is that struggles that were documented playing out decades ago, and sometimes centuries ago, are still relevant.
Looking to the situation in the UK, these two films were made almost 35 years ago, dealing with race relations — and, in the case of the first film (a documentary), race riots — playing out in the United Kingdom. The impetus to rioting may have been somewhat quelled by a report which identified institutional racism within the police and took steps to alleviate the immediate problems, but it’s certainly very far from the case that the police in the UK (or Australia or NZ) are somehow colour-blind or that there are no cases of violence against the bodies of minority ethnic people. You can look to more recent films like The Hard Stop or Generation Revolution to see that clearly enough, and the ongoing fight against injustice. Race, often intertwined with class, continues to be a source of conflict in most Western countries, and the police and forces of state violence continue to be the main actors, even under conditions where it seems unrelated (witness a report even just today in the UK linking Black and minority ethnicities to higher instances of COVID-related deaths).
For those interested, Handsworth Songs can be watched on YouTube (so look it up), though I can’t find anywhere you can see The Passion of Remembrance.
The historical antecedents to the current turbulent relationship between Black people and entrenched white power in the contemporary United States stretch back a long way, obviously starting with slavery, but developing through the Civil War, Jim Crow policies in the South, the Great Northward Migration of the early-20th century (on which topic The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson is excellent), and then the Civil Rights era. It is during this latter period that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (they subsequently shortened their name) were a key player. Agnès Varda filmed a short documentary about them in 1968, but a more thorough retrospective work is this one by Stanley Nelson. Incidentally, you can see a bit of their current work in Roberto Minervini’s documentary What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2019). The Black Panthers continue to be committed to supporting their own communities in straitened times. The hope for revolution may have receded, but systemic change is very clearly still very much required, and ever more urgently so.
A solid, involving and engrossing story that is rooted in the displacement and fallout from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which leads to the formation of the Black Panther Party, which took a rather more militant stance towards (white) aggression but also underpinned it with radical transformative community-based care. It’s in some sense a story of resistance to power, an almost utopian viewpoint albeit one grounded in bitter reality, undone by the forces of the state — and this is where the film’s real bad guys, the FBI (supported by the police), come in. Of course, the story is never really straightforward, and there’s some infighting and fall-outs along the way from within, but on the whole this film is clear about what the Black Panthers were offering, and how tantalisingly close they came to true revolution before being targeted and all-but-destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover’s Feds.
Director Stanley Nelson Jr.; Cinematographers Rick Butler and Antonio Rossi; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 24 October 2019.
Taking a rather more abstract approach towards the theme of resisting demagogues is this film by the directing partnership of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, whose films have increasingly illustrated a certain high modernist style in the cinema, one that is almost architectural, especially given the unmoving statuary of their actors (though that at least seems earned given this film’s origins in ancient Greek drama). It also features one of their typically unwieldy titles, which is far more about explaining the origins of the text as evoking any particular feeling. At some point, I need to devote some proper space to the way that my own feelings towards Straub-Huillet’s films has progressed over the years (sometimes they bore me, sometimes I love them, and I think most of that is in me, as their own gaze seems almost sublimely disinterested in how anyone might feel). For more context about their work, Pedro Costa made an excellent documentary called Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001). This film, Antigone, is currently on Mubi, though leaving very soon I believe.
I’ve seen a number of Straub/Huillet films, and I find myself constantly on the cusp of really “getting” their work. By this period of their output, certainly, they had pared down their dramaturgy to having their actors stand and emote in particular ways in a particular setting, often not looking at one another, often unmoving, sometimes just looking at the text, and it certainly has a peculiar affect. Here they take a Brechtian update on Sophocles play, but stage their actors in ancient Greek ruins, bringing it somehow back to the original in a way. There is perhaps less artifice in the staging (in terms of sets), but the ruins and the togas and the statuesque poses bring their own form of reinvention to the text. I feel I would have got a lot more out of this (and it’s a feeling I have with a lot of Straub/Huillet’s work) if I had been familiar with the original play better, but through the staging and editing and the excellent declamatory acting, it becomes clear what’s going on, and it’s a universal theme as resonant today, right now in our world of demagogues and oligarchs, as it was when it was written, of a powerful ruler who loses all those around him whom he loves because of a hubris that slights the gods (the refusal to bury a fallen leader). Even when I felt the text going over my head, there was still a solid, silent power in the staging, almost a purity that carries the film through.
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the play Antigone by Bertolt Brecht, itself adapted from Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of the play Ἀντιγόνη by Sophocles Σοφοκλῆς); Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Astrid Ofner, Werner Rehm; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 27 May 2020.
This week I’m theming my films around a rather intangible concept I’m calling the “Cinema of Resistance”, a title that’s been applied to a wide range of films in various film programmes over the years, but which I am defining as films either opposed to the forces of authoritarianism, fascism, white supremacy and colonialism, along with the other power structures used to oppress people and popular dissent, or films which elucidate those structures (and, generally, to understand the workings of systems of oppression is the first step towards dismantling them). Therefore a number of the films this week will deal with revolutionaries, or stories that derive from this position. These are themes that remain continually relevant, never more so than in 2020. I am hardly an authority on such things, so my recommendation (aside from the films I’m covering this week) is to educate yourself, read some books, and if you have money support those who are fighting for these causes.
Today’s film is by Mauretanian filmmaker Med Hondo, a number of whose works I’ve already covered, like the magisterial West Indies (1979) or the indigenous epic of resistance, Sarraounia (1986). However, Soleil Ô is probably his most recognised work, and one that continues to stay relevant over 50 years on. It is sadly not currently available to watch online, though hopefully it will get a proper release in time.
If you want to see what feels like the cinematic scream of an entire race of people against white European colonialist attitudes, then this is probably the film for you. That’s not to say it trades purely in anger, though. A lot of it is almost humorous, and it feels rather episodic in the way it builds up its narratives. Not unlike some of Med Hondo’s other work (e.g. Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins a few years later), it feels drawn to a variety of forms of expression, channelling something of the thrill of the New Wave in trying out not just formal innovations, but a variety of registers in conveying its clash between the liberal platitudes of post-revolutionary France and the reality of migration from their African colonies. A young African man (Robert Liensol) tries to find a job in a French city, only to run up against racism, abuse and (possibly even worse in some ways, certainly more humiliating) a thin veneer of acceptance from some white people. Some of the film’s methods can get a bit distracting, but Liensol is a fine screen presence and pulls the disparate film together, and it makes enough salient points about the contemptuousness and sheer suffocation provoked by colonialism that it is absolutely worth watching for anyone interested in the racism that is at the heart of ‘Western’ civilisation.
[NB I note that it’s listed as a 1967 production, but it looks from the film as if scenes were filmed later than that (I spotted a big calendar from 1969 in one background), so I wonder if the film wasn’t finished until a few years later? Certainly it feels like aspects of it draw from the events of May 68, and even if they don’t it certainly dovetails nicely into that period of revolutionary ferment.]
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers François Catonne and Jean-Claude Rahanga; Starring Robert Liensol; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 3 December 2019.
Every exploitation genre has its austere or vaunted arthouse predecessor, and just as slasher horror in 1960 had Psycho, so the rape-revenge film has Ingmar Bergman here. That said, I don’t mean to impugn it by association; the bleakness and moral ambiguities are very much intended by Bergman, and you can tell what’s coming by quite how innocent and jolly the opening third is, as Karin (Brgitta Pettersson), the daughter of farmer Töre (Max von Sydow), prepares for a journey to church through — of course — a big scary forest, the very sight of which seems to push their servant (Gunnel Lindblom) into overacting/breakdown. In that sense the folktale elements loom large (and is indeed adapted from a 13th century narrative, though these are themes that recur throughout fairytales and legend), and the fate of our titular virgin is pretty clear as soon as these elements are introduced. I think what sets the film apart is the moral complexity and even dubiousness that’s cast on the revenge, and though the father purifies himself and atones for his sins, there’s a clear sense that what he’s doing has some equivalency to the crimes he’s punishing, albeit given thin justification with invocations of God (and I don’t think Bergman is presenting this as a particularly Christian victory). This film also marks his first major collaboration with Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer who could go on to make most of the rest of his films, and it is immaculately lensed, with great expressive pools of light and dark as the film progresses.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writer Ulla Isaksson (based on the traditional ballad “Töres döttrar i Wänge” [“Töre’s Daughters in Vänge”]); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2020.
Perhaps this just plays much more strongly to American audiences, but the swelling orchestral music that comes in at key moments makes it pretty clear what a fundamentally honourable man this simple Abraham Lincoln was, even when he was a young man just starting out in the law. This would be nothing more than hagiography (or perhaps a superhero origin story) were it not for Henry Fonda’s performance and John Ford’s guiding hand that somehow keeps it from turning too mawkish, focusing instead on the justice he wrings from a case of two young lads getting into a dust-up with a local ruffian (and Deputy Sheriff). Still, simple values isn’t the same as simplistic, and for all its overwrought melodrama, this is a canny film about a national hero made at a time of global crisis.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Lamar Trotti; Cinematographers Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller; Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Ward Bond; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 26 May 2020.
Algeria is the largest country in Africa by size (though not by population), and its colonialist history with France still looms large in culture, where a lot of its actors and filmmakers either live in or got their start in France, hence the film today is as much about being an Algerian immigrant to France, as it is about Algeria itself. Of course there are plenty of notable examples of films which deal with the Algerian War of independence from France, whether in the background as in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) or directly as in The Battle of Algiers (1966). Perhaps the best film in that respect, and certainly a key text in African cinema, is the indigenous epic Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975), which I’ve already reviewed otherwise it would be ideal for this feature.
People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria الجزایر
population 43 million | capital Algiers (3.9m) (الجزائر) | largest cities Algiers, Oran, Constantine, Annaba | area 2,381,000 km2 | religion Islam (99%) | official languages Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ) and Berber (Tamaziɣt) | major ethnicity Arab-Berber (99%) | currency Dinar (دج/DA) [DZD] | internet .dz
Mountainous in the north, where it borders the Mediterranean Sea, and taking in a large part of the Sahara Desert to the south, Algeria is the largest country by size in Africa and the Arab world (since the breakup of Sudan), and 10th largest in the world. Its name comes from the name of its capital, itself derived from a phrase used by Mediaeval geographers meaning “the islands” suggesting its rule by various tribes. It has been populated since deep into prehistoric times, and has been part of various dynasties and empires (include Rome’s), but can date its current existence to the Ottoman province of the 16th century. The French colonised the country starting in 1830, which continued through WW2 but came to a head in 1954; after the Algerian War against France, independence was declared on 3 July 1962. A Civil War took up much of the 1990s, followed by the rule for two decades of President Abdelaziz Boutaflika. Despite presidential elections, military intelligence remains the dominant source of power in the country (which also has a role of Prime Minister, appointed by the President).
Although under French colonisation there was cinema in Algeria, it was only with independence in the 1960s that their own production commenced in earnest. Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina was a key figure (whose major film Chronicle of the Years of Fire has already been mentioned in the intro). There was a slump in production in the 1980s and this has only started to turn around, and Francophone productions remain the most popular, though there are very few cinema screens in the country.
Inch’Allah dimanche (2001, aka إن شاء الله الأحد)
There’s something beguilingly restful to this film about Zouina, a woman who has emigrated with her kids from Algeria to France to be with her husband in the mid-1970s, following a change in the law (and based somewhat on the director’s own experiences, it seems). The film is filled with bright, saturated colours, it has a laidback soundtrack which both suggests a France stuck in the past as well as hinting towards the future (something about the instrumental pieces suggest 80s TV to me), and it has an excellent lead actor in Fejria Deliba, who does plenty without very much in the way of words. This gentle restfulness is why the occasional eruptions of violence are so surprising and affecting — whether her fights with the older woman next door (who shares more in common with Zouina than either admits), the verbal aggression of Zouina’s mother-in-law (Rabia Mokeddem) who harbours little love for the old country, or the beatings her husband metes out from time to time, treating his wife not unlike a wayward child. The divided title of the film, which is in both French and Arabic, itself hints at how torn she is between these two cultures, and if there’s aggression from both French and Algerian characters, there’s also warmth and generosity on show too — the title refers to the day of the week on which she gets a little respite from her husband and his mother — though her search for a fellow Algerian to whom she can open up doesn’t end quite as she (and we) expect. The film gently moves through these challenges to its lead character, hinting in the end that there might be some positive resolution to the difficulty inherent in her life.
Director/Writer Yamina Benguigui يمينة بن قيقي; Cinematographer Antoine Roch; Starring Fejria Deliba, Rabia Mokeddem رابيع موكديم; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 5 September 2016.