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Great Political Films

April 1, 2017

 

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

(dir. Ken Loach, 2006)

 

Like Costa-Gavras it was inevitable this list would include Ken Loach and out of the dozens of films from his catalogue, it was inevitable we choose the most controversial one. Like his earlier film Land and Freedom, the Wind that Shakes the Barley’s is a detailed exploration of political motivation and modern history, that is never afraid to work the audiences sympathies and biases. Most particularly it shows in very distressing, but never graphic ways, how killing dehumanizes and divides all. How conflict leaves vacuums that are soon filled by more conflict; as the Irish workers fighting for their freedom from the English state, soon turn on each other as ideologies and agendas clash. Like much of Loachs work and indeed the films on this list, it is a game played by the rich and paid for by the poor.

 

 

Battle of Algiers

(dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

 

Often films bide their time. They let history pass them by before commenting on them. Gillo Pontecorvo’s film ran hand in hand with it. Released in 1966 as wars of national liberation raged in the last strongholds of colonialism, its newsreel style was no accident. So real is its depiction of guerrilla warfare/terrorism, government sponsored terror/counter-terrorism that it has been screened in the Pentagon as an example of the type of warfare facing U.S forces in Iraq, Argentinias President Frondizi  had screenings at counter-insurgency courses in the mid-70’s and the IRA and the Black Panthers are both said to have used it as a training film. What is most surprising though is the single-minded obsession with objectivity the film attempts (well as possible as objectivity truly is). Like many depictions of war it does not take sides, merely shows victims and perpetrators and how one often changes into the other. The finest recognition Battle of Algiers probably ever had is that the film was banned in France for 5 years even though critics could never agree on whose side the film took. It may be a cliche now, but there are no winners. Battle of the Algiers is the finest exponent of this tragically ignored cliche.

 

 

Salt of the Earth

(dir. Herbert Biberman, 1954)

 

When we think of banning films, any art in fact, it should send a shiver down our spine. Of course there are those areas of screen violence, like the case of the Human Centipede and the BBFC, which is equal parts mismanaged censorship and the film-maker being a douche, which are strange moral grey areas, but banning films for political reasons is something, here in the smug west, we attribute to the governmental douchery of say Iran or North Korea. But you only have to go back to 1954 and Salt of the Earth when we can find examples closer to home and although ‘banned’ my be too strong a term, suppression is most certainly not and in fact we could use the term when talking of director Herbert J Biberman, writer Michael Wilson and producer Paul Jarrico, all who were blacklisted during the McCarthy trials. The film, based on a real and extended strike by zinc miners in New Mexico, shot in a rough neo-realist style, was denounced by the United States house of representatives, investigated by the FBI, boycotted by the American Legion and refused screenings by nearly every cinema in the US, all because of suspected communist sympathies. Sympathies toward a safe working environment, stable employment, free from employer harassment and prejudice based on race, and a pioneering but often overlooked example of feminist cinema, would be more accurate, a sentiment that obviously terrified the powers that be in 50’s America (though nothing of the sort exists now)

 

 

In the loop

(dir. Armando Iannucci, 2009)

 

There’s the terrifying stench of truth that emanates from In the Loop. We watch imbiciles, fantasists and sadists go about their daily game of Risk, with the sneaking suspicion that this might be closer to the truth than many ‘straight’ films on politics ever will be. Armando Iannucci eases his TV creation In the Thick of it with disruptive glee onto the big screen, losing none of the series’ anger, absurdity and investigative zeal. As well as the fact this may as well just been a documentary, it is also undoubtedly freakin hilarious, delivering a Withnail quota of repeatable lines. ‘Shut up Love Actually, do you want me to hole punch your face'

 

 

Mr Smith Goes to Washington

(dir. Frank Capra, 1939)

The obligatory ‘proving that we’re not totally heartless’ choice goes quite predictably to Frank Capra’s 1939 film. Which proves (along with It’s a Wonderful Life) that Capra had the unique ability to make you cry because you were so happy, rather than sad. Jimmy Stewart, young, handsome, possibly the most likable person on the planet, plays the idealistic Jefferson Smith who locks horns with Claude Rains in the US senate. The political backstabbery opens Jeffersons eyes, but by-golly does he back down? no siree he does not. You see that’s what it does to you. You go into it all cynical and drowned in postmodernism and irony, and you come out all feverish from the tremendous amount of goodwill and faith in humanity the film emanates. It doesn’t stand up to regular forms of film criticism, you can dissect it all you want, call it all the names under the sun….schmaltzy, unrealistic, heavy-handed, but it still loves you, and gosh-darn it, it defends your god-given right to have these opinions, but please no cussing in front of the little ones………goddamnit, you see what it does, DO YOU SEE!

 

 

 

Even the Rain

(dir. Icíar Bollaíns, 2010)

 

A mix of Hoppers Last Movie, Carlos Reygadas, Herzog and Sayle, may seem like a recipe for a mess, but Icíar Bollaíns film keeps these influences well hidden, instead she has made a clear film about fantasy and deception. A film of social realism that depicts the layers of fantasy which maintains the conditions of ruler and ruled. Luis Tosar and Gael Garcia Bernal play a film producer and director who arrive in Bolivia to make a film about Columbus’s voyage to the new world, his subjection of the indigenous people and their subsequent rebellion. The filmmakers themselves exploit the indigenous extras by having them do unpaid work, but their moral hypocrisy begins to be challenged when they witness their extras real life rebellion against the privatization of their water supply. Unlike many films that depict both a film and its creation, the borders of what is real and what is not are clearly defined, and we are left at the films end wondering if we are complicit in the complex power structures that quell us.

 

 

Punishment Park

(dir. Peter Watkins, 1971)

 

Peter Watkins’ film is so troubling it borders on the absurd. Perhaps it is better to contextualize and make you aware of the climate in which it was made. 3 years previous to its release the assassination of Martin Luther King had sparked hundreds of riots across the country, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy followed soon after, leading to the violent events at Democratic National Conference in Chicago, where the National Guard supported riot police in the tear gassing and beating of protesters, as well as assaults by security sevices on journalists inside the convention. The unrest in Chicago led to the arrest and charging of seven people on conspiracy and incitement to riot. The subsequent trial inspired Peter Watkins pseudo-documentary about the detainment of those deemed ‘a risk to internal security’ by the U.S government without referral to congress. The film follows a group of European filmmakers as they document the trial and punishment of various leftists, civil rights activists and feminists as they are detained and given the choice of either serving their sentence or spending 3 days in punishment park; where they must reach an American flag in their allotted time whilst being pursued by National guardsmen on ‘field training’. As a metaphor it has all the subtlety of a truncheon to the face, but Punishment Park makes no apologies for its politics or its goals. It realizes the inherent divisive nature in art, let alone in ones of such a political nature.

 

 Matewan

(dir. John Sayle, 1987)

 

John Sayle is most definitely a favourite here at Anti/Type. He has maintained a career which has been wide ranging, challenging, fun and, most important of all, uncompromising. He is a filmmaker, a writer for hire and a novelist, and he made three music videos for the Boss, so that’s some extremely beautiful icing on an extremely tasty cake. In a career that has faced social issues straight on with a perceptive and balanced eye Matewan stands out as possibly his finest work (though Lone Star and City of Hope run it close). As an historical film it depicts beautifully a little known event in American history, the coal miners strike in Matewan, West Virginia in 1920. But as a political film its depiction of systems being corrupted is second to none; work, family, religion and community are corrupted by those who control, and whose singular goal is to maintain control. It reveals that the growth of capitalism was originally opposed by the land and business owners because it meant a route out of the system of serfdom they created for their workers. The great dramatic irony of what this ‘escape route’ would become is the most eye opening aspect to the viewer and therefore the most tragic to those trying to escape.

 

 

Black God, White Devil

(dir. Glauber Rocha, 1964)

 

The strangest film on the list and perhaps the most ferocious. Glauber Rocha’s film is a scything and brutal dissection of colonialism, religion, the elite and their subjection of the poor, in the form of surrealist depiction of historical events (it shares similarities with the War of Canudo, which was fictionalized more thoroughly in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War at the End of the World) Rocha was one of the founders of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, a movement heavily influenced by neo-realism and the new wave but fueled by social and racial inequality and the conflicts of class, and his second feature was an unapologetic polemic the follows a ranch-hand who murders his abusive employer and flees with his wife. Together they join the violent cult of a wandering prophet, before moving on to one form of servitude after another. Still unsettling to this day Black God, White Devil, lacking in hope and subtlety, is a relentless attack on dogma and subjection.

 

 

Goodnight and Good luck 

(dir. George Clooney, 2005)

 

You know what South Park, I’d be smug too if I made a film as good Goodnight and Good Luck. Serial right wing baiter George Clooney’s second film is a highly principled and austere tale of journalists Edward R. Murrows stand against Joseph McCarthy. It is the epitome of intelligent, adult film-making. It is quietly spoken and serious, never shouting or shoving its ideas in your face. Because of this approach and a hoard of rich, nuanced performances, the films themes of freedom of the press and of expression, and the influence and illumination such a press can have on us is far more effectively delivered. It asks us to think and debate and in the end draw our own conclusions. It is an example of the best form of dissention; focused, open-minded, knowledgeable, unmoveable, dignified and brave. Not only is Goodnight and Good Luck an excellent lesson to film-makers on how to structure a lean and effective narrative, it is also an excellent example on how to live our lives.

 

 

Il Conformista

(dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

 

Il Conformista is a truly unbalancing film, a sensual film about fascism, a beautiful film about an ugly subject. In fact beautiful would be understating just how visually sumptuous this film is. Vittorio Storraro’s cinematography mixes the anxiety and atheistic of film noir with the rich colours of European cinema and the clean, bold lines of fascist decor, making the film play out like a fever dream, 1 degree off normal and highly unsettling. A slow, dreamy descent into the hazy hell of the conclusions midnight Italian streets during the fall of Mussolini, where ‘the conformist’ Marcello Clerici denounces  another as a fascist and a murderer, to conform with the political will boiling up around the downfall of the right wing government. Marcello’s body and soul are vessels to accommodate whatever ideology is in power and he drifts through the film barely seeming human, first obeying and killing for the fascists so he can ‘belong’ before finally denouncing them to feel belonging in a new ideology. Bertolucci’s film is a disturbing parable about our willingness to conform without assessment and the moral blindness of complicity.

 

 

Z

(dir. Costa Gavras, 1969)

 

It is quite a film that enrages a countries rulers (in this case the military dictatorship of Greece), makes a powerful political statement, is an important political document and a cracking thriller to boot. Costa Gavras does this with his third feature, but most importantly they never exist as separate entities, they are intertwined elements of a whole. A face paced and exciting film about how honesty is punished in a political climate where repression and obedience are the order of the day. Z is also a fine example of how the injustices of history can be exposed by creative mediums, particularly and most effectively in a way that is accessible to a mass audience. Take note young filmmakers, film can be powerful, informative, artful and entertaining, Z is a prime example of this.

 

 

 

Le mani sulla città (Hands over the City)

(dir. Francesco Rosi, 1963)

 

A stark neo-realist assessment of post-war Napoli’s political structure and one of the few films to depict the procedural structure of power in detail. It is also one of the great ‘city’ films (Rossellinis Rome, Allens New York, Manns Los Angeles ), Rosi’s Napoli is crumbling, corrupt, vibrant and angry. Like in his previous masterpiece Salvatore Giuliano, Rosi evolved the neo-realism of his countrymen to incorporate social issues. In Hands over the City housing and in particular the corruption of contracts and the political fallout caused by the collapse of one of property developer Edoardo Nottolas (Rod Steiger) buildings provides the background to the ensuing back-handers, polictical stand-offs and cover-ups. Steigers performance perfectly showcases the arrogance of the elite (in particular a scene where he rants about all the good he has done for the people of Napoli, while throughout the film oblivious to all the harm he has caused), but it is the performance of Carlo Fermariello as De Vita a communist councilman who launches an inquiry in Nottolas ruthless land developing and the accident that lead from it, that really catches the eye. Very much the spirit of the leftwing cinema of the 60’s and 70’s instilled within one character. Rosi never simplifys the political processe for us, he never resorts to stylisation or melodrama, his great achievement in this film is that he makes us care and understand processes that in recent times we have been pushed out of

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