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(DV) Billet: Toward a New Left Filmmaking







Eat Your Heart Out Clooney!

Toward a New Left Filmmaking
by Alexander Billet
May 29, 2006

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Beneath all the furor created over The DaVinci Code (which is shaping up to be the most dreadful film from Ron Howard since… well… his last film), the Cannes Film Festival this year is alive with other debates, with three other films striking quite a chord with audiences -- and becoming a big thorn in the side of juries and censors. The good news: unlike DaVinci, apparently these films are actually watchable; all are in competition to receive the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ highest honor. The bad news: one can only speculate about how they’ll do here in the States.


The New York Times’ Arts section ran a piece on May 19th entitled “At Cannes, Foreign Art Films Mix with Politics.” In the UK, The Guardian ran the story “Cannes’ Pictures of Resistance Stir up Political Rows.” To listen to these newspapers, one would think that Cannes is starting to look more like the campus of UC Berkeley than a sophisticated, red-carpet-laden celebration. But despite the controversy, these three films -- Summer Palace from China, The Wind that Shakes the Barley from Britain, and the United States’ Fast Food Nation -- are well needed in a world dominated by war, poverty, and political repression.


Lou Ye’s Summer Palace has been receiving harsh threats from China’s government censors. When one hears what the content of the film is, it’s not hard to see why. Lou’s film follows the exploits of a young student in Beijing (played by actress Yu Hong) as she comes of age with the rest of her generation against the backdrop of the worker/student uprisings in the late eighties. True to life, the film includes portrayals of the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, and the brutal repression protesters faced. Summer Palace is being praised for its skillful blend of the personal and the political, as well as its atmospheric cinematography. 


But given the film’s subject matter, the Chinese censors are outraged, and are claiming that they did not give permission for Lou to screen it outside of China. For a country that continues to rule with such massive repression, and is the quickest growing economy in the world, it’s expected that they would want to maintain some form of “damage control.” What’s more, China has seen in recent years a growing number of anti-government strikes and protests. The example this film presents could be a huge danger to the ruling elites and an inspiration to workers and protesters who know full well that China doesn’t represent real socialism. 


It will be interesting to see what American distributors make of the film too, as the US barely maintains any kind of civil relationship with the rival superpower. Will the film be denounced for its “radicalism”? Will it be lauded as a stunning portrait of China’s brutal police state? Or will it simply slip under the radar, as so many other brilliant foreign and independent films do in this country? My money’s on the third option.


The subject matter of The Wind that Shakes the Barley is just as, if not more, hard-hitting than that of Summer Palace. The latest film from socialist director Ken Loach, it chronicles the radicalization of a young Irish doctor (played by Cillian Murphy) who joins up with the newly formed Irish Republican Army in 1918. The film takes an honest look at the violent consequences of imperialism, and draws obvious parallels to the occupation of Iraq. “If we knew our history properly,” says screenwriter Paul Laverty, “we would not be able to ignore the lies about Iraq.” [1]


Loach, too has been outspoken about the film’s message. He has been receiving flak for the film’s “anti-British” message. In the New York Times piece from the 19th, Manohla Dargis claims that Loach’s depiction of British forces closely resembles “movie-made Nazis.” [2] But Loach, in typical fashion, rebuffs these claims: “the British were subject to the same kind of politics as the people of Ireland… Churchill was one of the people sending in the Black and Tans, but he also sent the army in to quash Welsh miners. He was very indiscriminate about where to send troops if his class interests were at stake.” [3]


The relevance and timeliness of this film is obvious. The problem is that Loach, despite being considered a master filmmaker internationally and garnering fistfuls of praise and awards (including the Palme d’Or ten years ago), is a virtual unknown in the US. His last film, Ae Fond Kiss, nominated for seven awards at several different film festivals, didn’t even make it stateside. When his works do make it to the states, they are mostly relegated to small “art-house” cinemas. The Wind that Shakes the Barley will most likely do quite well in Europe. But the tragedy of this film not reaching the US is palpable, as a vast majority of Americans are absolutely fed up with the war in Iraq and are anxious to see the troops brought home. 


The third film, however, provides a glimmer of hope; if for no other reason than it is from an American director and has an American distributor. Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling nonfiction book, is also competing at the festival this year. The film (written by both Linklater and Schlosser) is a fictionalized adaptation of the book, following several characters on both sides of the Mexican/American border as they struggle to survive in a world being consumed by corporate globalization.


The good timing of this movie’s release couldn’t be better, as the swiftly growing immigrant rights movement brings the inequality of “free trade” to the forefront for the first time since the collapse of the anti-globalization movement five years ago. Unlike the first two, this film is guaranteed to be seen in the US (Fox Searchlight has agreed to distribute it). And we will most likely be treated to another string of shrill denunciations from McDonald’s well oiled PR machine. 


These three films represent a glaring contradiction in American cinema today. The Cannes Film Festival is regarded as a great authority on good filmmaking around the world… yes, even more than the Oscars. Yet the jingoism and cultural isolationism of this country has made it so that if it isn’t “Hollywood,” then it isn’t worthwhile. [4] The irony is sad and tragic. So many of the best foreign films, political or not, never make it to this side of the pond. Yet in a display of almost laughable one-sidedness, Hollywood manages to export its own films all over the world. Any cinema outside of the US will have an undeniable mark of American films mixed in with other foreign and domestic works. Yet in the US, even that nominal “balance” is absent, apart from the few token foreign films that the distributors think will make them money. It is a kind of cultural hegemony that the US maintains to complement its economic and military domination. The upshot of this here at home is that despite all the lauding that goes on about the “international community” in the newly globalized world, American cultural horizons remain surprisingly narrow. 


The last thing I am trying to do is feed into the stereotype of the fat, lazy, SUV-driving American. I don’t believe that there is an “American mystique” that somehow makes us more ignorant than the rest of the world. Rather, I think the blame lies in the options (or lack thereof) in American politics. It is no coincidence that the largest imperial power in the world also has the narrowest terms of political debate outside of a military dictatorship. In a country where the “liberal” media refuses to counter (and even supports) so many of the lies coming from Fox News, then the culture is bound to be stunted too. 


There are, of course, some signs of life in American filmmaking. Films such as Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain and The Constant Gardener have indicated a shift to the left among directors and screenwriters. While this new crop of “progressive” movies is certainly welcome, and many of them are beautiful pieces of filmmaking, they still face a rightward pull from the Hollywood behemoth in the name of profit and marketability. For the most part, American films have yet to challenge head-on the system of war, poverty and racism we live in. Fast Food Nation may, hopefully, do just that. What may set it apart is its being released right on the heels of a movement that highlights the same inequalities as the film. 


American film is still teetering on the cusp. Directors are still testing the waters, seeing if it is safe to take the plunge, knowing that the big studio executives are constantly looking over their shoulder. But art is made to go for the jugular. It answers to its own rules, and abhors being kept within any boundaries. It is not meant to be safe, sanitized or approved by overseers whose first concern is the bottom line. Truly honest filmmaking has to challenge the status quo, and we are in desperate need of films that question the US’ agenda. Such films could potentially play a big role in the radicalization currently taking place in American society. Those who call this a pipe dream would do well to look at the filmmaking of the 1960s and early 70s. While students and workers around the world took to the streets against imperialism, racism and oppression, directors were openly questioning the very fabric of the system. In the Heat of the Night saw Sydney Poitier, a Black man, slap a white man in the face for the first time on screen (“they call me MISTER Tibbs!”). Midnight Cowboy put a picture of American poverty on the screen that had never been seen before. And Dog Day Afternoon saw Al Pacino’s Sonny, a disillusioned Vietnam vet, screaming “Attica” at a line of cops. Rather incendiary stuff, even by today’s standards.


Those who say that art is meant to be kept separate from politics and that the combination of two can only result in preachy, shrill creations should watch Loach’s Land and Freedom, or Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers; each an example of stellar filmmaking which never compromise their politics. Furthermore, to insist that art should be hermetically sealed from politics, and be forced to stay within its “country of origin,” is to deny art its very nature. 


Art cannot help but be political due to the fact that it is made in the real world. An artist cannot help but reflect the time he/she is creating in. The only question that arises is whether their creation serves to prop up or break down the status quo. One need only look at the praise that Paul Greengrass’ United 93 received from conservative pundit George Will to see that (Will went so far as to claim that seeing the movie was a “civic duty” of all Americans to the war on terror). The film has also influenced a small string of anti-Muslim incidents since its release. [5]


While Hollywood seems indifferent to the effect movies like this have in propping up racism and American chauvinism, they seem to be keeping the lid on any effort for left-wing filmmakers to develop and mature. Granted, when it comes to Hollywood becoming a beacon of radicalism, I’m not holding my breath (or Cannes for that matter). But their vice-like grip can’t last forever. It’s up to a new generation of independent writers and directors to continue to turn the tide, and create films that are relevant to the struggles to build a better world. To take inspiration from those struggles, as well as break down the boundaries between the American film and the rest of the world. Such efforts could only benefit filmmaking and art as a whole. But they will only be successful if they attach themselves to the fight to re-build a strong and confident left in this country. 


Alexander Billet, 23, recently graduated from Syracuse University with a BFA in drama. A playwright, cultural critic, and social justice activist, he is a contributor to such publications as Socialist Worker, CounterPunch, and The Prince George’s Post. He lives in Washington, DC and is a member of the National Writers Union/UAW local 1981. He can be reached at: alexbillet@hotmail.com.



1) Higgins, Charlotte. “Cannes’ Pictures of Resistance Stir up Political Rows.” The Guardian May 19, 2006.

2) Dargis, Manohla. “At Cannes, Foreign Art Films Mix with Politics.” New York Times May 19, 2006. This was an interesting assertion coming from a newspaper that said nothing about Peter Jackson’s racist depiction of the natives of Skull Island as little more than “dark savages” in his remake of King Kong. When it comes to defending white harbingers of western empire, though, no double standard is tolerated.

3) Higgins.

4) Crossover examples are rare, but also dangerous. Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or at Cannes two years ago, and because of the large amount of hype, it was indeed released in the US and became the largest grossing documentary in history. This must have bugged executives at Disney, who originally agreed to distribute the movie but pulled out right before Cannes, claiming that they do not put out such “partisan” films like Fahrenheit. Apparently, though, Disney has no problem broadcasting and syndicating the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. It must be the taste of a prestigious international board of film experts that Disney find threatening.

5) According to Elizabeth Schulte in a May 12th Socialist Worker review of United 93, three Muslim women wearing hijabs were harassed by a couple who had just seen the film in a mall in Scottsdale, Arizona. Another incident occurred when five men (one Israeli helicopter school student and four members of the Angolan military) were removed from a plane in Newark because they had been reading flight manuals. Issue 588.