Great scenes from politically engaged cinema
Luke Disney | November 2006 issue
Say “politically engaged cinema” to Westerners these days and the first image that comes to mind might be American documentary director Michael Moore. The creator of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine is one of the highest-profile members of a new cadre of filmmakers who are less interested pouring their talents into standard action-adventure movies or romantic comedies than in crafting dramatic environmental, political and social statements on film.
Following a quiet period after September 11th, many key Hollywood figures have rejoined the ranks of the socially aware. “A-list” producers and actors, including George Clooney (Syriana, 2005) and Steven Spielberg (Munich, 2005) and sociological cinematographer Oliver Stone (World Trade Center, 2006) are once again climbing onto celluloid soapboxes to enlighten as well as entertain audiences around the world.
As one would expect of Hollywood, focusing on “the public good” has not meant making sacrifices at the box office. Witness the critical and financial success of Ang Lee’s look at homosexuality among macho cowboy culture in Brokeback Mountain (2005) or Oliver Hirschbiegel’s surprise hit Der Untergang (“Downfall,” 2004) providing a German angle on Hitler’s last days.
Politics is anything but new to the silver screen. Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein set the stage with his 1925 classic The Battleship Potemkin. In his film Eisenstein employed modern editing techniques to heighten audience sympathy for sailors rising up against the oppressive czarist officers. Potemkin was followed by a long line of films that aimed not only to please, but also to inform and move audiences for a wide range of noble and not-so-noble causes.
Recently, Manière de voir, the monthly supplement to the leading French newspaper Le Monde diplomatique, blew the dust off its archive of film reviews to provide us with a timely and well-documented anthology called Cinémas Engagés (literally, “committed movies”). The review is packed full of lists and essays from film connoisseurs around the world. In their essays, the authors describe topics and genres that once gripped the attention of filmmakers and moviegoers around the world.
Many have been largely forgotten, along with the issues they addressed. The Spanish Civil War may have lost its once-prominent place in the popular imagination, but its mark on cinema remains indelible as the first major conflict following the advent of talking movies in 1927. Both sides in the war used film as a means of propagating their ideals with varying degrees of quality and success. The improbable musical comedy !Nosotros somos así! (This is who we are!) by Valentín González, was one of 84(!) films turned out by the anarchist-Republicans in a 10-month mad-dash of cinematographic fury in 1936 and 1937.
Other themes seem sadly destined to remain timeless. Claude Lanzmann’s epic film on the Israeli army, Tsahal (1994), falls into this category. As the world recovers from the violent footage of yet another war in the Middle East, the words of one Israeli general captured in the film fall hard on audience members’ ears: “Our army is pure… it does not kill children. We have a conscience and values, and, because of our morals, there are few victims.”
Interesting shifts in focus have become visible in some movie themes. In his essay on cinematic portraits of British society, Boston University professor Gareth McFeely describes the return to a kinder, gentler form of engaged filmmaking. “Acidic” insights provided by Thatcher-era films such as Stephen Frears’ Bloody Kids (1979) or Ken Loach’s Which Side Are You On? (1984) have made way for movies with “a sense of hope.” Modern British films, such as Mark Herman’s Brassed Off (1996) and Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996), have become more “affectionate” in their portrayal of the working class. The setting has also shifted. Whereas London once provided the backdrop, British films are now being shot in Yorkshire (Brassed Off), Edinburgh (Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, 1996) and Liverpool (Loach’s Raining Stones, 1993).
Outside of the traditionally class-infatuated United Kingdom, moviemakers are making daring forays into previously neglected societal taboos. Danish movie critic Dorthe Wendt writes about a new generation of Danish filmmakers, including Lars von Trier and others from the Dogma 95 school (the members of which shoot their films in sequence, with hand-held cameras and in the absence of any artificial effects), who are showing the ugly underside of their tiny, seemingly happy country.
Next to class, race also features prominently in the work of socially engaged filmmakers. In her essay, Marie-France Briselance gives a European’s view of the role of blacks in early American cinema. She describes the progression from blackface (white actors painting their faces black) through to Sidney Poitier’s “breakthrough” in films such as Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950) and Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967).
While the focus of black American films has always been centered on the here and now, French journalist Thérèse-Marie Deffontaines writes about the trend in modern African films to return to the past. In his film Tilaï (“The Law,” 1990), Idrissa Ouédraogo (Burkina Faso) looks at customs through a young man who returns to his village to find that his fiancée has married his father. Malian director Adama Drabo examines the importance of traditions through the experiences of a young engineer sent to a rural community in Ta Dona (“On Fire,” 1991).
Cinema came of age in the bloodiest century known to man. As a result, war has featured prominently as a theme over the years. In fact, half of the essays in Cinémas Engagés deal with war-related films. World War II has been a source of inspiration for generations of filmmakers, from Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be, 1942) to Terrence Mallick (The Thin Red Line, 1998). Vietnam heralded the arrival of a new genre of war films with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), which have taken their place in the annals of classic American cinema. The Cold War gave the genre yet another twist with a series of movies about a war that was yet to happen, such as in Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove (1964) or John Badham’s WarGames (1983).
Away from the Anglo-American focus of Hollywood, other filmmakers have explored their own country’s triumphs and follies. Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf provides a portrait of a traumatized combatant returning from the Iran-Iraq war in his 1989 film Arousi-ye Khouban. Meanwhile Jean-Luc Godard (Le Petit Soldat, 1963), Gillo Pontecorvo (La Battaglia di Algeri, “The Battle of Algiers,” 1966) and Merzak Allouache (Omar Gatlato, 1976) are three notables among a host of filmmakers to have examined France’s bloody history in Algeria.
Whether you are interested in war, race, religion, class or other social issues, much can be gained by looking back at the history of politically and socially engaged cinema. At the very least, it is pleasantly surprising to (re)discover the immense number of interesting films dealing with a large number of issues about which we do not hear nearly enough. But it is also comforting to see that even during our societies’ darkest hours, some filmmakers have continued to go against the grain, asking the difficult questions and calling attention to difficult truths.
The best movies you’ve never seen
The Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925
Mutiny spells precursor to the Russian Revolution
The Bicycle Thief, Vittorio De Sica, 1948
Hard times in post-World War II Italy
The Third Man, Carol Reed, 1949
The classic Cold War thriller
La Battaglia di Algeri (“The Battle of Algiers,”) Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966
A cinematic landmark chronicling the Algerian War
In the Heat of the Night, Norman Jewison, 1967
Race relations in America
Z, Costa-Gavras, 1969
A Greek political thriller
Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, 1985
A Nine-and-a-half-hour exploration of the Holocaust
Brassed Off, Mark Herman, 1996
Coal miners in Thatcher’s Britain
Italian for Beginners, Lone Scherfig, 2000
A look at romance in rural Denmark
Veer-Zaara, Shah Rukh Khan, 2004
Love against the odds during the Indo-Pakistani conflict