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Notebook Primer: Cinema and Revolutions

From the Russian Revolution to the Hong Kong protests, can cinema act as a tool for liberation? A (tentative) survey of revolutionary films.
Leonardo Goi
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
Commenting on the role of cinema in his native Cuba, director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea once wrote that films should not just add to people’s enjoyment of life, but also “contribute in the most effective way possible to elevating [their] revolutionary consciousness.” Gutiérrez Alea was writing in 1982 (the words are cribbed from his essay “The Viewer’s Dialectic”), over twenty years since Fidel Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista and brought an end to the US-backed dictatorship in the island. But the idea that cinema can serve a higher function that mere entertainment—the belief that films should both educate and agitate spectators—is as old as the medium itself. Lenin once called cinema “the most important of all the arts;” Trotsky “a weapon for collective education.” For Bolivian director Jorge Sanjinés, it was “a summons for action;” for “Father of African Cinema” Ousmane Sembène, a tool to decolonize history.
But the history of “revolutionary” films is fraught with political and creative frictions. If cinema’s potential for social change was instantly recognized by elites and filmmakers alike, films that set out to chronicle something as seismic as a country’s revolution often grew out of the tensions between their directors and those who had metastasized as “the new order”—rulers eager to control these historical narratives, and their role in them. Take the Russian Revolution, and two of its seminal tributes: Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) and Esfir Shub’s Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). Legend has it Shub pieced together her work from an estimated three million feet of preexisting film; the result is a collage of found footage, including home movies by the Imperial family’s cameraman, covering the years 1913-1917. If Shub’s was a documentary, Eisenstein’s October offered something far more singular. An account the tumultuous events in 1917 Petrograd, the film was shot on the original locations, but employed actors and a large cast of extras; most notably, Lenin himself is played by a real-life factory worker. To boot, October also crystallizes Eisenstein’s “intellectual montage:” the idea that the juxtaposition of unrelated objects can convey deeper meaning and intellectual content (here, some eloquent examples come in the comparing/contrasting of Alexander Kerensky to a statue of Napoleon and a mechanical peacock). Soviet critics, especially those associated with the LEF journal, thought Shub’s film superior to Eisenstein’s simply because they saw it as more factual and straightforward. Her documentary approach made for an efficient propaganda tool; Eisenstein’s vision and bold experimentalism did not. As Shub herself wrote in a scathing review of October, “in such matters we need historical truth, fact, documents, and a great strictness in realization—we need a chronicle.”
Even La Marseillaise, Jean Renoir’s 1938 ode to the French Revolution was made under—and greeted by—intense political pressure. The film had been financed in part by the left-wing Popular Front, supported by the French Communist Party and the National Trade Union. But Renoir’s quest for authenticity led him far afield from the original vision of his backers. Those who’d been led to expect a grand, heroic epic in the vein of Abel Gance’s 1927 silent masterwork Napoléon (which, coincidentally, had been re-released in 1935 in a sound version that emphasized its political message) found something that went far beyond: a celebration of the Revolution that focused not on its leaders, but on the everyday people who carried its message forward. “The primary goal of the film,” André Bazin wrote, “is to go beyond the historical images to uncover the mundane, human reality.” In so doing, Renoir “demythologized history by restoring it to man.” Even so, La Marseillaise found itself antagonized by both sides of the spectrum: tepidly received by the Left, and vehemently attacked by the Right.
Troubled Laughter (Yang Yanjin and Deng Yimin, 1979)
Still, what about films that were openly critical of the new order and its leaders? In China, the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) saw a blossoming of titles that sought to repudiate and cinematically reinterpret one of the country’s most violent decades—and one of the Communist Party’s most infamous purges. But the “scar films” released in the years 1977-1981, as Chris Berry has helpfully noted, still followed the patterns of manipulated dissent laid out by the Party itself. Which accounts for works like Yang Yanjin and Deng Yimin’s Troubled Laughter (1979). In it, a journalist must decide whether to write a screed against a surgeon wrongfully accused of treason by a corrupt politician, or follow his conscience and put his life and his family in danger. Yang and Deng could “get away” with their coruscating critique of a broken party and its broken leaders simply because the film was, ultimately, still shaped by the establishment it purported to criticize.
But the window for criticism remained fragile; in fact, it only took one film to shut it. In 1981, Peng Ning’s Bitter Love, based on a script by Bai Hua, promised another tribute to a victim of the Cultural Revolution, an intellectual who returns to his native China after 1949 hoping to contribute to the country’s future, but is quickly persecuted as a bourgeois and spy. Exiled to the marshlands, he traces a question mark on the snow, places his freezing body as the dot beneath it, and dies before his pals can tell him the purge is over (but not before his daughter, earlier in the film, leaves him wrestling with an ominous question: “you love the motherland, but does the motherland love you?”). Troubled Laughter questioned China’s recent past; Bitter Love cast shadows on its future. The film was seized by the Party, never to be released. (For the record, Bai’s story survives in a 1982 Taiwanese adaptation directed by Wang Toon: Portrait of a Fanatic). 
That political elites should exert such tight control over who gets to film the revolution—and what should be said about it—is nothing surprising.  Films like La Marseillaise, October or Troubled Laughter did not just crystallize pivotal moments in their countries’ history, they also helped to shape people’s understanding of their own nations. Drawing from Latin America, Jesús Martín-Barbero has argued that cinema helped translating the political idea of nationhood in emotional, everyday terms; for the first time, “people were able to conceive of the country in their own image.” Beginning with the 1960s, new cinematic movements in the region took national destiny as a central theme. Poverty, oligarchy, hunger, and foreign exploitation were the cornerstones of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, Argentina’s Third Cinema and Cuba’s post-revolutionary films, bent on exposing the forces that kept the continent in a socioeconomic coma, and rally audiences against them.
Nowhere does this urge feel more vivid than in The Hour of the Furnaces (1968). Made clandestinely by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, the Argentinian filmmakers behind the 1969 “Towards a Third Cinema” manifesto, the three-part documentary offers a genealogy of Argentina’s impasse, revealing the ties between its elites and foreign powers, while reminding viewers of their responsibility in rectifying the country’s path. And the quotes that bob up all through the film (musings by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Perón, among others) are just as startling as the footage of the deprivation suffered by the wretched of the continent. “A people without hatred cannot triumph,” an early quote by Frantz Fanon warns early on: “the colonized man frees himself in and through violence.” And the film maintains its belligerent tone throughout. This is guerrilla cinema in its most literal and powerful sense: images and slogans come at you like bullets, in what unspools as an infuriating call to arms.
 The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
The echoes of that call would stretch far beyond Latin America. In 1966, Gillo Pontecorvo chronicled Algeria’s war of independence against the French in The Battle of Algiers, a lucid and dispassionate account of two sides engaged in two struggles: one against each other, and one to defend the legitimacy of their actions. It’s a riveting, fast-paced and action-packed study of urban warfare, stashed with scenes that, over fifty years since the film’s release, are still stunning for their realism and the danger they crackle with. But Pontecorvo strikes an exquisite balance between theory and praxis. His characters, be they French or Algerians, talk and plan as much as they act, and part of the many joys of submitting to this monumental work is to hear the two sides justify their strategies—including and especially the most inhumane. In a film of memorable exchanges, the most indelible belongs to French colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin). Needled by the press into admitting his soldiers are torturing Algerian prisoners, he claims extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary methods, before leaving the reporters with a question that hangs over Algiers like a Sword of Damocles: “should France stay in Algeria? If the answer is yes, you must accept all the consequences.”
Assistant director to Pontecorvo in the film was Sarah Maldoror, a French cineaste of West Indies descent who’d become the first woman to direct a feature in the African continent. Based on a novella by José Luandino Vieira, her Sambizanga (1972) is an incendiary take on the genesis of Angola’s independence war against the Portuguese. It follows an Angolan worker imprisoned and tortured to death by the Portuguese on account of his ties with the emerging independence movement. But the film rests squarely on his wife Maria, for whom it builds a fortress of dignity. Played by Elisa Andrade (previously seen in Maldoror’s 1968 short Monangambee, another ferocious foray into the barbarities of Portuguese rule in Angola), she marches through the film as a symbol of the emerging consciousness of the Angolan people, evoking in Maldoror’s eyes “the alone-ness of a woman, and the time it takes to trudge.”
Witnessing Maria’s political awakening, I was jolted back to Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993), the mystical story of a young African American model who, in the middle of a photo shoot in Ghana, is magically plucked out of her present-day setting and thrown into a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana. Played by the same actress, Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Mona the model re-awakens as Shola the house slave, but neither knows of the other. Rather, Mona sees Shola more or less the way we do, and what Gerima shows us is a brutal, inhumane world in which slaves seek to overcome the everyday atrocities by fashioning an alternative society, one that draws strength and meaning from its pre-slavery rituals and codes. There’s an interesting parallel to be made here between Gerima and one of his acolytes, Spike Lee: an emphasis on cultural signifiers as means to forge and defend a collective identity that aligns Sankofa with Do the Right Thing (1989), arguably Lee’s most rebellious film. The Akan word sankofa—signifying the exhumation of one’s past in order to better comprehend the present—gives Gerima’s film its title and logic: the movie itself unfurls as a bearing of witness, a lesson in human dignity that reconnects Mona to an uninterrupted struggle for freedom. 
If revolutions are transitions between old and new orders, between contradictory and often irreconcilable cosmogonies, their protagonists’ identities and purposes are often caught in a state of endless flux. It’s the predicament that haunts one of Glauber Rocha’s most indelible characters, the eponymous hero of his Antonio Das Mortes (1969). Set in Brazil’s Sertão in the 1940s, a barren rural landscape whose lone village seems to jut out of some prehistoric era, Antonio (Maurício do Valle) is a jagunço, a hired gun whom a wealthy landowner has brought in to kill a cangaceiro, an outlaw turned peasant leader, Coirana (Lorival Pariz). As a jagunço, Antonio has turned into a pawn of the Europeanized elite, and distanced himself from his own reality; his desire to face his nemesis is fueled by a desire to confront himself, and reconnect with a past identity he thought forever lost.
Antonio Das Mortes (Glauber Rocha, 1969)
Antonio challenges Coirana to a duel—jagunço and cangaceiro swinging their machetes while biting and pulling from both ends of Antonio’s pink scarf, an entrancing sequence in a film that’s full of them. And while the fight ends with Coirana’s death, it triggers Antonio’s conversion. He turns against the landowner who recruited him, and embraces the crowd of landless peasants that have pirouetted and chanted around their messiah in a kind of Dionysian trance. Herein lies the film’s radical message: to morph into a truly revolutionary force, the Brazilian people must not suppress, but wholeheartedly embrace their indigenous fabric and its primeval forces. Only then will the promise Rocha gestures toward—that those who have nothing shall inherit the earth—turn into an inevitable, ineluctable fact.
Where Antonio’s U-turn might be read as an oblique statement on the role of the armed forces in a revolution, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) focuses instead on the positioning of the intellectuals. Taken at face value, this decadent, in turns seductive and repulsive portrait of a bourgeois adrift in 1961 Cuba, lends itself to some ambiguous readings. Was Gutiérrez Alea peddling an anti-Castro, anti-revolution message (as Andrew Sarris and other US critics saw it at the time)? Or did Memories amount to an attack on the people and values which Castro himself saw as derailing Cuba from its path to progress?
The answer, I suspect, lies in Sergio’s postures toward his own people. Played by Sergio Corrieri, the man saunters through Memories as a not-so-distant cousin to Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita: a creatively impotent artist irreparably alienated from his society. But as Stephen M. Hart has observed, Gutiérrez Alea turns Sergio into the butt of political satire. All through the film, he glares at fellow Cubans in utter contempt, which only grows larger for the women he routinely preys on. They have no interest in art; they are inconsistent; they stare too much; “they are fruit that rots at an astonishing speed.” They are, in other words, epitomes of the whole nation, mired in a chronic, inescapable state of underdevelopment. But the accusations Sergio throws at those around him are more appropriately leveled at himself; the underdeveloped, Gutiérrez Alea seems to suggest, is him. And though he may scoff at the people fleeing Cuba for the United States (comparing them to parts of his body he’s vomiting out), Memories purposely blurs all differences between them and Sergio, leaving the man marooned in his ivory tower, watching the island from a telescope, a place at once so close and yet forever beyond his grasp. 
Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968)
Michael Chanan has described Sergio as “suspended between the old and the new,” and I like to think the description would also suit Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, the hero of Luchino Visconti’s majestic epic The Leopard (1963). As played by Burt Lancaster, the Prince belongs to a species on the brink of extinction: an aristocrat struggling to preserve his family’s integrity amid the tumultuous uprisings of Italy’s Risorgimento. And The Leopard is a merciless depiction of the way elites shift and endure, its entire philosophy condensed in the axiom Lancaster mutters time and again: “for things to stay the same, everything has to change.” But it’s a truth shot through with sorrow. Just like Sergio conceived of underdevelopment as an infectious disease, Visconti here paints the immutability Sicily is trapped in as another malaise: a chronic, voluptuous and irresistible sleep. If ensuring things will never change is the only means for the Salinas to withstand the test of time, The Leopard ends on a lugubrious note, the Prince finally aware of the full meaning of his mantra, and of the stasis his land and people are condemned to.
For the prince of Salina—and the nobles buffeted by the winds of History in Renoir’s La Marseillaise — the succession of old and new orders is a dance between forms of governments, between past and future elites. For the tragic heroes dotting films like Battle of Algiers, Sambizanga, and Monangambeee, the unrest is couched as a struggle against colonialism and its legacy. One of Haile Gerima’s earliest works brings home the point with ferocious zeal. Harvest: 3000 Years (1975) is a tale of continuities, a look at how systems of oppressions are passed on by colonial to postcolonial rulers. It’s the story of a peasant family toiling under a wealthy feudal landlord in rural Ethiopia. A despot submitting his workers to a panoptic-like surveillance and endless humiliations, the landlord has — a peasant whose land he’s stolen reminds us — “learned a few tricks” from the Italian colonizers. And though Harvest ends with his overthrowing, a funereal note lingers over the film: that the elites of newly liberated nations can only build a new world in the selfsame image of the oppressors that came before them.
That lesson would be further articulated in the cinema of Ousmane Sembène. From his 1966 feature debut Black Girl to his farewell opus, Mooladé (2004), Sembène’s pantheon of contemporary Africans has often hosted characters straddling tradition and modernity. Such is the case of El Hadji, the fifty-something businessman at the center of his Xala (1975). A freshly minted member of Senegal’s Chamber of Commerce, he swaggers into Xala, in Teshome H. Gabriel’s apt description, as “a prototype of the emerging African bourgeoisie, who destroy the continent politically in the name of African Socialism and Progress.” And Xala doubles as a rollicking and unflinching satire about his class. Convinced someone’s cursed him with a temporal impotence that won’t allow him to consummate his third marriage, El Hadji must travel from one marabout to the other to cure his lost virility. Becoming (or re-becoming) a man requires the Europeanized entrepreneur to restore his ties with the traditions and folklore he’s repudiated.
Xala (Ousmane Sembène, 1975)
Films like Xala and Harvest shame postcolonial ruling classes for betraying the revolutionary aspirations of their people (literally so, in the case of Xala, whose final shot shows us El Hadji being spat on by a horde of street beggars). Gaston Kabore’s Zan Boko (1988) follows in their footsteps. The film homes in on Tinga (Joseph Nikiema), a man whose life and home are threatened by rampant urbanization in Burkina Faso. No sooner have the development planners flocked from Ouagadougou to his rural village than the capital city sprawls and gobbles up the whole place; Tinga’s family hut is the only one left standing, flanked by new European-style villas home to the same crooked nouveau riche of Sembène’s Xala. There’s even a parallel storyline involving a journalist willing to risk his entire career to uncover the government’s illegal land appropriation schemes. In the film’s epilogue, he invites Tinga to a TV panel with the urban developers who’ve stripped him of his land. As these flee the studio after a few uncomfortable questions, Kaboré turns our eyes to Tinga, who tells the journalist: “I urge you to remain true to your convictions, and to yourself as a human being.”
There’s something reinvigorating about hearing that same plea ricochet intact through the films about the mass uprisings of today. Stay true to your convictions and reclaim your own story is a sort of leitmotif in Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013), a choral journal of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that covers the days leading up to Mubarak’s ousting and the months of bloodshed that led the military to fill the power vacuum and appoint General al-Sisi as the country’s new dictator. With the mainstream media channels controlled by the regime, the only chance the revolutionaries have to shed light on the relentless atrocities committed against the people is to pick up a camera, film, and share the footage online. Pointedly, The Square couches filming as an act of resistance, a civic and revolutionary duty. And in the film’s most moving segment, Noujaim introduces us to Cinema Tahrir, a makeshift street theatre set up in the middle of the square that hosted the 2011 uprisings. It’s a harrowing meta-rupture that harkens back to the ending of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer; Noujaim invites us to watch as the young protesters react to the very footage we’ve been shown moments earlier. This is what Cinema Tahrir is for, a revolutionary tells us: “to remind us why we’re still here,” that “only we can tell our stories.”
The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013)
If We Burn (James Leong and Lynn Lee, 2020)
What scope is left for filmmaking to still act as a vehicle for revolutionary struggle? Watching films like The Square, or the growing body of documentaries on the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, or again the videos that fueled and emerged from the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the future looks promising. New tools are giving birth to new works. Citizen footage has long played a role in protests, but camera phones have become essential instruments for civic movements—propelling, documenting, and sharing their causes. New aesthetics are emerging. The unpolished, unfinished looks of many of these films mimic the ongoing revolutions they capture; they are “works in progress,” archives in the making—like two of the seminal 2020 docs on the Hong Kong uprisings, James Leong and Lynn Lee’s Hong Kong If We Burn and Evans Chan’s We Have Boots. Understanding the nexus between today’s revolutions and the films that capture them requires us to forge a new language and a new way of searching, an openness to the ways in which these works are made and disseminated (and on that note, I’d be remiss not to spotlight this phenomenal archive of video essays on the Black Lives Matter movement compiled by co-curators Cydnii Wilde Harris. Kevin B. Lee and Will DiGravio). And while it’s still too early to speculate, I like to think that some of the multi-authored and people-centered films that have portrayed these mass movements are nudging us closer to Jorge Sanjinés’s prediction: that revolutionary cinema “can only be collective, just as the Revolution itself.” As the medium keeps on changing, rehashing timeless questions as to what is/isn’t cinema, its potential for political change remains intact. After all, as a young activist prophesies in The Square, “as long as there’s a camera, the revolution will continue.”
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