THE NINE MUSES (Dir. John Akomfrah, 2010, UK)

A video essay or an experimental film?

John Akomfrah’s masterly analysis of immigration is a video essay that fluently mixes archive footage with mythological musings. Although it might be useful for critics to label this as an experimental work, the emotional impact of the narrative journey which is based on Homer’s Odyssey, resonated with me on a personal level – this is because my parents are immigrants and part of a South Asian diaspora. At times the wintry Alaskan landscapes juxtaposed to readings of the Odyssey makes everything seem as though it is part of a strange science fiction film. What impressed me the most was Akomfrah’s sensitivity to the process of immigration that took place in the late 50s and onwards. The immigrant experience is depicted as a largely dehumanising one in which strong feelings of displacement and estrangement prevail. Simultaneously, this is a nostalgic work that draws on the personal memories of director John Akomfrah, thus the political dimensions at work find notable parallels in Britain today. Nevertheless, the non linear deconstructive narrative style makes this a challenging work that would defy any attempts at filmic categorisation. Above all, The Nine Muses is a work of real ideological imagination and demands repeated viewings before one can fully appreciate the complexities of the politics at work.

TRISHNA (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2012, UK) – The Troubled Maiden

The beautiful Freida Pinto as Trishna.

Micheal Winterbottom works so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with him. His latest feature sees him returning to Thomas Hardy, this time adapting Tess of the d’Urbervilles for a contemporary postmodern treatment. The setting is modern day Rajasthan and the cast is made up of Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire). I had no knowledge of Hardy going into the film and I haven’t seen any other big screen interpretations of Hardy’s novel so my judgment is based purely on the film I saw. I’m not sure how entirely successful Winterbottom is with this one. I can’t really fault the performances, camerawork or use of locations; they are uniformly vivid and engaging. My biggest criticism with Trishna is when it comes to the script – the characters do go on a journey of self-discovery but we never really feel any emotional connection with them – they remain at a distance. Perhaps this is deliberate, if so, it was the wrong decision. Additionally, the film shifts frantically in terms of narrative from one setting to another, so we never get to really fully experience and savour the milieu which is an essential part of the story.

Jay (Riz Ahmed) is a young, wealthy bachelor but looking for an outlet so to avoid having to run his father’s hotel business in Jaipur. On a trip with some friends, Jay meets Trishna (Freida Pinto), an impoverished but moderately educated girl who belongs to a large family. Jay falls in love with Trishna and gets her a job working at his father’s hotel. The courtship rituals that take place in the hotel leads to a decisive moment between the two of them and it is a moment which will come back to haunt both characters. Jay takes Trishna to Mumbai and briefly they seem content. The sequences in Mumbai involve a reflexive backstory with director Anurag Kashyap and music composer Amit Trivedi appearing as themselves. Once Trishna has revealed her dark secret, the relationship disintegrates. Jay retreats back to his father’s hotel and takes Trishna with him, humiliating her through sex. Without giving away too much about the ending, it was to be expected. The fact that Jay and Trishna cannot reconcile points to a wider class conflict at work and also underlines yet again the economic void between rich and poor in what is a rapidly transforming India. Pinto as Trishna is perfectly cast and she really does carry the film with her understated performance. At times, Winterbottom seems to rush through the narrative so the film could have done with some more time in the editing room. Winterbottom has said in interviews that the film brings together elements from European and Indian cinema. What I found most interesting was the secondary narrative of Trishna which involves her impoverished family who seem out of step with the cosmopolitan side of Mumbai. It is an obvious yet prescient conflict between tradition and modernity which is still at the heart of many of the best Indian films.

Winterbottom doesn’t make bad films; each film he has made is unique and his body of work shows an impressive range that would embarrass most contemporary filmmakers. Trishna has its flaws, like most films these days, but Winterbottom has to be praised for his creative autonomy and capacity to think cinematically about universal ideas which can just as easily and carelessly be reduced to simplistic visual fodder. Trishna has appeared without much of a fanfare and the distribution of the film has been weak. The film has received mixed reviews but given the marketable presence of both Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed, I feel the distributor and marketing dept might have missed a trick here. Trishna is still on general release so it will be interesting to see how well the film performs. Writing this has made me want to go back and watch Trishna again so I can try and understand more about what exactly Winterbottom is trying to achieve. I just want to finish by saying that technically Trishna is faultless and offers some imaginative images of India. It’s just a shame that this film isn’t going to be as successful as it should have been. Ken Loach is right; the cinema screens have been colonised and the consequences are being felt each week for specialised films.

LAND AND FREEDOM (Dir. Ken Loach, 1995, UK/Spain/Germany/Italy) – Transformative Political Cinema

The POUM militia – The Workers Party of Marxist Unification.
‘Come, join in the only battle wherein no man can fail,

Where whoso fadeth and dieth, yet his deed shall still prevail.’

The cinema of Loach is transformative. What this means is that his way of looking at reality, which is through a leftist internationalist political prism, is one that can alter the manufactured and largely consensual reality of the spectator who has been normalised into adopting apolitical conformist ideology. So much of mainstream cinema is intrinsically connected to the idea of the market that dissent is suppressed in favour of maintaining a derisory status quo in which materialistic ideals are aggressively promoted as a mass aspiration. Some mainstream filmmakers and industries justify the transparent propagation of the market as entertainment for the masses because apparently film should be viewed as an escapist and sensory medium. Such an obviously conformist position points to a cowardice and subjugation that is implicit in the way a film is produced, marketed and celebrated in the media at large. Any kind of political critique can rarely occur in the same space in which the film is celebrated because the media and subsequently film discourse tends to be patented by an infectious and at times myopic Euro centric agenda. What this means is that limited ways of thinking about certain films, genres and narratives circulate, thus political cinema specifically becomes obfuscated so much that its absence from critical discourse makes it appear unimportant and insignificant to the common perceptions of film. The worst kind of mainstream Hollywood cinema seems to give the impression of empowering the spectator when in fact it is asking us to obey and validate wider ideological ideals that contradict our own criticisms of the market. The film spectator is not merely gazing but fully participating in the spectacle of the market by maintaining the processes, thus transforming spectatorship into a secondary narrative that mirrors the fictional one. It seems almost sacrilege to accuse postmodern mashup artists such as Quentin Tarantino of dissolving ideology and rendering it obsolete because their work have become embedded within the history of film as beatnik bricolage, which means his films are hip yet apparently sophisticated given the depth of the intertextual discourse on display for our instantaneous diverted spectator like minds to savour. And savour we do, with the instantaneous preoccupations of a YouTube browser. If the market dictates what kinds of films are made and which are distributed then where exactly does Ken Loach fit in this corporatist universe? 

To begin with, filmmakers who usually have something overly political to articulate as part of an on going participatory discourse find it virtually impossible to work in the mainstream because of market regulations – this means that iconoclasm can only exist in a designated vacuum aimed at supposedly marginalised tastes. Another mismatch when it comes to political filmmakers is that they are usually middle class. The political disconnect between someone as middle class as Loach propagating politics of the working class left to a predominately middle class audience is usually a class dialectic that critics are quick to acknowledge in an attempt to skew the argument or to throw in doubt the true intentions of the director. It might actually be more accurate to propose that if Alan Clarke understands the psychology of the working class then Loach understands the politics of such psychology. Is Ken Loach the only British filmmaker to have been able to make a film about the revolutionary militia that took up arms against the fascist takeover of a democratically elected socialist government in Spain? He might be alone in having achieved such a political feat but he has done so on his terms and with collaborator Jim Allen, the film is resolutely political in its entire being. In the context of the market and mainstream cinema, Land and Freedom proves a critical point: transformative cinema functions on the intrinsic relationship between history and politics. The historical context is Spain in the 1930s and the conflict between socialism and fascism may seem likely candidates for points of ideological discussion but Loach politicises the narrative by training his gaze on the internal power struggle that occurred within the communist party of Spain. Additionally and perhaps most importantly the film internationalises the POUM’s revolutionary ideals as a Marxist class struggle. By opening and ending in Liverpool, the story of David Carr (Ian Hart) is interconnected through a working class solidarity that transcends nationality, culture and identity. Upon hearing a talk about the POUM in Liverpool, David volunteers to join the people’s army in Spain. The narrative charts David’s journey as part of the international brigades and his eventual face to face confrontation with Stalinist opposition to the militia, leading to the death of Blanca – a symbol of Marxist ideology. Ken Loach has argued that the rise of fascism was a direct result of Europe’s failure to stand up to Franco. The POUM was a true Marxist group betrayed by Stalinist propaganda, thus sealing the fate of an entire generation. The final reading of a poem by William Morris titled ‘The Day is Coming’, suggests that although the POUM were unsuccessful in their revolutionary aims of collectivism, political integrity and the refusal to compromise are aspects of a dissident ideology that should be celebrated in today’s largely apolitical apathetic society.

PARTITION (Dir. Ken McMullen, 1987, UK) – ‘What have you done to my world?!’

Commissioned by Channel 4 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the partitioning of India, Partition is more political theatre than cinema. Reassuringly, some of the finest British leftist promulgators were involved in the task of adapting writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s famous short story ‘Toba Tekh Singh’. Produced by Tariq Ali and Darcus Howe, directed by Ken McMullen and starring some excellent actors including Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey and Zia Mohyeddin, Second Run Films have been impressive in their release of the DVD which contains a wealth of extras including a new interview with Tariq Ali on the making of the film. Tariq Ali argues that back in the eighties Channel Four were more willing to commission films such as Partition regardless of the political content. Perhaps this is true in light of today’s Americanised scheduling and the predominance of reality shows. European and alternative cinema has more or less been banished from terrestrial television and rarely do new writers and directors get an autonomous opportunity to be creative anymore. Manto is regarded as one of South Asia’s finest short story writers and whilst much of his work is still not as well known as it should be in the west, his critical reputation and importance to the discourse on the trauma of partition offers both a historical record and autobiographical account of his personal experiences. This is not a mainstream exploration but one of the few experimental accounts that has originated from British cinema on the question and legacy of partition. In effect it should be viewed as a commemoration of the millions of lives that were lost during the horror of partition. Much of the setting in Manto’s short story takes place in a lunatic asylum in Lahore on the eve of partition which would mark the end of British rule, grant independence for India and lead to the establishment of Pakistan as a new Muslim nation. However, at that critical point in history not even Gandhi, Jinnah or Nehru could have foreseen the levels of carnage and loss of human life partition would incur from a catastrophic imperial decision concerning power, control and the economic state of South Asia.

Much of the film taps into this vein of imperial sabotage and resentment secretly harboured by the British towards the Indian people as a whole. At one point the British are criticised for deliberating undermining social progress during their rule by refusing to promote literacy to the rural population as this would have likely accelerated the end of imperial rule. Partition is a highly ideological piece of work with much of the political reasoning articulated through the use of direct camera address in which subjugation, guilt, perversion and hegemony are accentuated as markers of a colonial discourse often repressed in historical attempts to reconstruct the past. Manto was only 42 when he died due to the cirrhosis of the liver as a result of alcoholism and the film is dedicated to his memory. Much of his work has been translated into English now and I have ordered a collection of his short stories as I am interested in pursuing Manto as a writer to investigate what else he had to say about India and partition. What is clear though is that Manto was critical of all politicians and seemed very sceptical about India’s independence and whether or not this would actually lead to self liberation for the ordinary Indian – in many ways it was his vitriolic and outspoken voice that made him such a controversial figure amongst the intelligentsia. In one of the interviews on the DVD, Tariq Ali reads out Manto’s self penned epitaph as sign of the writer’s arrogance. Such is the boldness of the epitaph; it actually sums up pretty well the spirit of Manto:

“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried the arts of short-story telling. Here he lies underneath tons of mud still wondering if he was a better short-story writer than God”

WINSTANLEY (Dir. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1975, UK) – ‘There shall be no buying and selling…’

It was pretty dispiriting to read a couple of reviews from mainstream publications that rubbished such an extraordinary and unique British film. I approached Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley from an entirely neutral perspective and whilst I had heard good things about it I knew absolutely nothing about the real life figure of Gerrard Winstanley. The BFI invest a lot of time and effort into the DVD’s and now Blu Ray discs they release each year. In many ways, their careful academic approach echoes Criterion in America and on the strength of their booklets alone, they exceed many of their nearest competitors. The special features on the Winstanley Blu Ray disc are exhaustive and rich including a definitive documentary on the making of the film, a newly recorded interview with Brownlow and Mollo and an early short from Kevin Brownlow. Released in 1975, Winstanley is a magnificent film which I am finding difficult to discuss without becoming ideologically discursive. As the 1970s are slowly rescued from the bonfire of British cinema, it is becoming apparent how important the decade was in terms of producing some of the toughest, idiosyncratic and romantic British films of the last fifty years; Get Carter, Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange, to name but a few. Brownlow and Mollo only ever made two feature films together (the first being It Happened Here in 1966)– a disappointing fact given Brownlow’s comments in the interview included on the disc in which he criticises the British film industry for failing to nurture and support their talent which is not surprising given their choice of political subjects. Winstanley is a rarity, a socialist manifesto that takes place in a rural England of 1649 but through its call for equality pays tribute to a familiar class struggle. Here’s a quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum who contributes in his regularly brilliant way to the notes for the film included in the booklet:

‘There’s really not much to be said for Winstanley, except that it’s the most mysteriously beautiful English film since the best of Michael Powell (which it resembles in no other respect) and the best pre-twentieth century historical film I can recall since The Rise of Louis XIV [Rossellini] or Straub’s Bach film [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena]. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t help it. Mysteriously beautiful films which tell one something about the past are rare commodities, and one certainly doesn’t expect to find anything as idiosyncratic as this one in the English cinema.’