These are difficult times. Dark times. Times when we have to prove everyone around us which ‘side’ we are on. It is not enough to be just humans now. It was never enough. We are in a fragile state at the moment. There is a lot of anger, among everyone. Anger we all want to get rid of. While you think about ways to do so (non-violently, of course), here’s something that might interest you. Five films which chart history, politics and oppression. Clubbing five films together and making a list is a nearly impossible task, especially when the choices are so many and so brilliant. Enjoy the films, if you haven’t already. If you have indeed watched them, do watch them again.
The Hour of the Furnaces (1968)
Director: Octavio Getino & Fernando Solanas
Released in 1968 in three parts, with a total runtime of four hours fifteen minutes, The Hour of the Furnaces is a documentary which explores the revolutionary movement in Argentina from 1819 to the present day (1968). Termed as ‘agitprop’, which essentially means political propaganda, the documentary brought to the forefront the Third World political scenario and the effects of the colonial forces in the Latin American society. Interestingly, this film became the manifesto for the ‘Third World Cinema’, which is the cinema of liberation, working outside and against the system. The film calls for a new audience, who would not merely be spectators but ‘actors’ in the social sphere. Direct in its approach from the very beginning, the film alleges the neo-colonialist oppressors of sucking the very spirit out of the Argentinian common people, and leading them into eternal darkness. In a brilliant montage in the film, the directors create a parallel between the cities and the rural areas. When he wishes to shows affluence, we see the image of huge multi-storeyed buildings, whereas when he shows poverty, we see children or poor people looking directly into the camera. The documentary in more ways than one, tries to trace a history of the exploitation brought about by the neo-colonial forces in Latin America.
With regard to the aesthetics, the film posits an experimental language brought together by the confluence of political and formal avant-gardes. The film incorporates a wide variety of techniques, namely, newsreel sequences, interviews, extracts from other films, advertising images, collage etc to satisfy its project of revolution.
Watch this film to perceive how a rich and diverse society can be effectively destroyed by neo-colonial oppressors, leading to huge gaps between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Though this film focuses primarily on Argentina, it is equally relevant for any country which has been colonised and are now suffering from corporate imperialism and neo-colonialism.
La Haine (1995)
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
A Jew, an African and an Arab, belonging to a French suburb (known as banlieue) are the faces of La Haine, a gritty, unsettling portrayal of immigrants and their increasing marginalization in France. Released in 1995, when France was experiencing riots and killings by the police on a regular basis, La Haine presents a day in the life of three friends who wander aimlessly from their suburb, which does not hold any hope for them, to central Paris where the world is different, but with the same threat of violence. Shot in black and white, La Haine was at the time of release thought to be ‘anti-police’ as it commented on the regular police crackdowns in the low-income suburbs leading to arrests and abuse of the youth staying there. The film ends with Vinz (Vincent Cassel) getting accidentally killed by a policeman who he had insulted earlier. This happens after Vinz returns the gun he took from a friend, and his plan to kill a policeman was aborted. The sphere of violence can never be escaped.
La Haine is still relevant even after 20 years of its release because it effectively transforms the anger of the youth towards institutionalised racism and police brutality. Before this film, Paris was considered to be a ‘beautiful’ city, the city of lights. But the visceral portrayal of the Paris ghettos and the pervading violence faced by the ethnic minorities group revealed a new face of Paris, which shocked the world.
Even more good news is the director’s announcement after the Charlie Hebdo attacks that he would start to work on a sequel pretty soon, because France hasn’t yet recovered from the racial tensions and the violence attached with it. Even we are facing a similar battle in our country. Dalits are getting killed, Adivasis are being denied their rights and so on. We are not French, and the French culture is not even close to ours, but we all are humans. This film might just give you an image of what people are facing around the world.
“Any similarity to persons or events is deliberate”. This is how Costa-Gavras begins Z, a political thriller, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Vassilis Vassilikos. The film is a loosely based fictional account of the events surrounding the assassination of democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. Blending satire, dark humour and politics, the film tells the story of an honest prosecutor played by Jean Louis Trintignant, investigating the killing of a reformist leader played by Yves Montand. Democracy disappears in this film, under the veil of conspiracies, murders and lies. The prosecutor, along with the help of a photojournalist, tries to uncover the murder and the people involved. The investigation not only leads to the indictment of two right wing militants, but also four high ranking military officers. Corruption presented itself in the most brutal form through the murder of a politician who follows a different political ideology. Even more surprising in the film is the fact that the murder was deliberately framed as an accident by a drunk driver, whereas it was a pre-planned one.
But the film does not end the way we think it would. After the indictment is over and the charges are pronounced, an epilogue provides a synopsis of the subsequent turn of events, and we learn that nothing has changed. The prosecutor is mysteriously removed from the case, several key witnesses die, the assassins receive short sentences and the photojournalist is jailed for revealing official documents. After immense public outrage, the government resigns, but before election can be carried out, the military seizes power and bans all popular and modern art. Political films do not always end with providing hope and inspiration to the people. Sometimes they reflect what the situation really is, a dangerous vicious circle of which we are all a part, whether we like it or not.
It would also interest the readers to know that Shanghai (2012), directed by Dibakar Banerjee, starring Abhay Deol, Emraan Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin and Prosenjit Chatterjee is based on Z.
Night and Fog (1955)
Director: Alain Resnais
One of the most haunting documentaries in the history of Cinema, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog confronts the catastrophe and the atrocities of the concentration camps during the Nazi regime in Germany and Poland. Shot exactly ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps, it documented the empty grounds and buildings of Auschwitz. The film combines new colour and old black and white wartime footage of the prisoners to show the brutal inhumanity and the horror faced by the prisoners in the concentration camps. Narrated by Michel Bouquet, an actor himself, in a cold unflinching voice, the film shows how the prisoners were methodically tortured and killed in the camps. The prisoners were subjected to medical experimentations, inhuman torture, extreme starvation and prostitution. It is no surprise then that the film was heavily censored upon its release in France, where the authorities deemed some scenes to be too violent.
The mention of this film in this list might surprise the readers. And it should do so. Because this film is not so much about politics in the conventional sense, as we know it. But there is a politics of trauma, of memory and the politics of violence. Most of us have a fair idea of the concentration camps, learnt through documentaries on various television and news channels but Night and Fog is completely different from all of them, because it barely mentions the Jews or Hitler himself, but tries to invoke the violence of the Nazi regime only through images and narration. Resnais tries to substitute the camera for the human eye, with long tracking shots giving us a sense of the empty space in the now broken concentration camps, with the narration describing what went on in those hallowed halls, in the surgical room, and in the gas chambers. It tries to tell us that human violence does not end there, and also suggests that such violence might come again. Alain Resnais was right.
A warning for anyone who would want to watch this film: It is extremely graphic in nature.
The Joke (1969)
Director: Jaromil Jireš
Considered to be one of the last and finest films of the Czech New Wave movement, Jaromil Jireš’ s The Joke (based on Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name) is arguably one of the most politicized films of that period. The film was immediately banned upon its release, and held from Jireš’s official filmography, even though he continued to work.
Ludvik Jahn, a scientist, returns to his homeland after staying away for a long time. Upon his return, he is interviewed by Helena, an attractive older woman, who Ludvik tries to seduce, only to know that she is married to Pavel, Ludvik’s old rival. We then see in flashback why Ludvik was expelled from the Communist Party. Ludvik, during his college days, wrote a joke in a postcard to his then girlfriend Marketa, a staunch believer in Communism, for some good humor. But it did not work out. Marketa instead, turned over the postcard to the Party who took it as an offence. Ludvik is thus called for a Party hearing to answer for his words. Pavel, who was Ludvik’s friend and pledged to support him during the hearing, turned his back on him and called for his expulsion from the college as well as the Party. Ludvik is sent to six years of ‘re-education’, which are split between prison, mining and army service.
The Joke, like many other films from the Czech new wave era, underlines the importance of the individual in spite of the communist insistence on community and the de-emphasis of the individual as a subject. Another theme which was consistently present in other Czech New Wave films is the interaction of the individual with history. Ludvik becomes a different person when he comes back to his homeland, depressed, dark and brooding, finding it difficult to cope with the time he is living in. Ludvik becomes obsessed with the past, trying to seek revenge from the people who expelled him from college and changed his life. He becomes unable to accept the reality of the present. As the film progresses, we learn that only Ludvik is stuck in the past, unable to move on. He even tries to seek revenge by sleeping with Pavel’s wife Helena, only to know that they have separated. Surprisingly, we see even Pavel has moved on and happy to see Ludvik. The film ends abruptly, without any clear conclusion as to what happens to Ludvik. The entire course of action of the film comes to nothing but futility.
Aesthetically speaking, The Joke is one of the most interesting films one would ever see. Jireš uses continuity editing, shot-counter shot and flashbacks to connect Ludvik’s past with his present. Jireš consistently plays with the time frame through juxtaposition to project Ludvik’s past into his present. One of the most interesting scenes in the film is when Ludvik is interviewed by the board and expelled. Even though the scene starts in his hotel room in the present, we see through flashbacks and through his point of view. By showing the past and the present together with such ease, Jireš also tries to tell us the differences between the two, and the constant struggle that Ludvik faces.
P.S: AS IT HAPPENS WITH EVERY LIST, THERE IS ALWAYS A CHANCE OF OMMISSIONS OF SOME GREAT FILMS. THERE ARE SOME BRILLIANT FILMS WHICH COULD NOT BE MENTIONED IN THIS LIST. THIS LIST IS NOT THE FINAL WORD. ANYONE CAN AGREE OR NOT AGREE WITH IT. A HEALTHY DEBATE ON THIS IS WELCOME AND PREFFERED.
AS AN ADVICE AND OUT OF OBVIOUSNESS, NONE OF THE RITWIK GHATAK FILMS ARE MENTIONED, ASSUMING THEY ARE ALREADY SEEN BY THE GENERAL PUBLIC. IF ANYONE HASN’T, IT IS SUGGESTED THAT THEY IMMEDIATELY DO SO.
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