All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008)

Director: Mark Boulos

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a short film by Mark Boulos that contrasts the excesses of capitalism in the depiction of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with one of the most exploited parts of the world, the Niger Delta. The brokers in Chicago passionately trading oil futures are contrasted with members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which is a militant movement in the region to resist companies like Royal Dutch Shell and for expropriation of that oil wealth.

The title of the short film/project comes from a line from The Communist Manifesto. The dialectical nature of such a contrast (two screens directly facing each other showing two extreme ends of capitalism) could not be any clearer. The mere existence of what each screen depicts demonstrates a contradiction of the system of global capital: the dispossession of people from their own resources and land and the foreign ownership of it.

This exhibit/short film is straight forward and to the point and should be a starting point of conversation about neo-colonialism and the continued attempts by the West to dominate places like Africa and the Global South in general. The simultaneous format of the exhibit is an example of how dialectical reasoning can be utilized in art to build consciousness and display methods of resistance.

At the time of this writing the exhibit is on display at the MoMA


The Hunger Games (2012)

Spoilers may follow (as this is a current release)

Director: Gary Ross

The "Reaping"

The Hunger Games is a film adaptation of a novel of the same name that takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopian universe. The premise revolves around a violent competition between various “districts” that had risen up against the Capitol and failed over 70 years prior to the film. Two contestants (one boy and one girl) are chosen from the 12 districts each year to compete to the death in what is called the Hunger Games. The games are a media spectacle that both represent the spectacle of war and TV game shows. This is no coincidence as the author of the books (who also co-wrote the screenplay) even cited the influence of the book as what she saw as the similarities of reality TV and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

The two main characters (Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark) come from what is implied to be Appalachia, and the coal mining roots of their district are made quite evident. Images of the district show that not much has changed for this Appalachian district, poverty is still quite evident and the Capitol’s extracting of two contestants for the games demonstrates their power over the district. Before she knows she will be a competitor in the games, Katniss has a conversation with a friend of hers about the games where he argues that if people “just stopped watching them” that the games would just stop; and Katniss responds by essentially writing off the idea off as naive. This sort of acknowledgement of the naivety of such a statement demonstrates how obvious it should be to us as viewers of the film and to the oppressed districts what the Hunger Games represent: the domination of the districts by the Capitol. Later on and throughout the film, a love interest is developed between Katniss and Peeta. This interest is portrayed as a complex mix of genuine interest and manipulation by the state as a method of controlling the population by giving them a media love interest that they can have hope in. This is a parallel to the “celebrity culture” that is quite prevalent in the United States, whereas in the film, the culture is being intentionally promoted as a means of making the masses passive.

Unfortunately the games themselves, which make up a big part of the film, do not contain as much social commentary as they could have. This is perhaps why Roger Ebert commented that the film “avoids the opportunities sci-fi provides for social criticism.” I think his observation that the film avoids such social commentary may be a bit strong, considering the entire world itself is set up as a critique of imperialism and oppression as well as portraying rebellion and revolt in positive ways (which is hardly a standard plot device for a Hollywood blockbuster these days).

The universe of Hunger Games is a mix of an Orwellian style authoritarian rule over oppressed districts and a depiction of a “decedent” society of wealth and fascination with game show/reality television. The contrast between the bleakness of District 12 and the need for its very existence to be at the service of the wealthy Capitol is perhaps a more honest commentary on a world where mass wealth exist and depend on abject poverty. Thus the very setup of the film is a commentary, although it is certainly lacking in terms of some depth. For example, when a rebellion is depicted in one of the districts during the games: the nature of that district and who are the protagonists of the rebellion are not elaborated.

Katniss Everdeen played by Jennifer Lawrence

Resistance of the oppressed takes various forms in the film. The most obvious being the rebellion that occurs during the games. But perhaps more subtle is the very end where it is announced that one of the “tributes” from District 12 must kill the other. Katniss decides that they ought to both take their lives instead, which would itself be a “final act of resistance” that ends up saving both of their lives. The complex play between their relationship, their resistance to the Capitol, and their origins in what is perhaps one of the more oppressed districts is a nice overview of how complex systems of exploitation and oppression really are.

There remains the question of “is The Hunger Games a left wing film?” Unlike the Cyberpunk Review, this website does not list the “degree” that a film is left wing. Instead films should be viewed for what they “bring to the table” overall. For example, Avatar was an interesting case of what could be considered an anti-imperialist film becoming one of the best selling of all time, yet it had significant problems of how race was depicted. Hunger Games certainly deals with various issues that ought to be of interest to leftists and progressive folks in general. While more obscure films have more room for being more faithful to revolutionary theory and history (and certainly have an important place in film), perhaps there is something more subversive about a blockbuster that deals with the nature of rebellion and control that is quite important as well.

Circus (1936)

I wrote the following for an undergraduate assignment for a Soviet Film course

Director: Grigori Aleksandrov

May Day Parade towards the end of the film

In Circus, the main character Marion Dixon slowly comes to accept the Stalinist ideology and sees that the Soviet Union is an accepting, inclusive nation.  Through out the film, Dixon’s “protector and tormentor us the German ringmaster Franz von Kneischutz” (Stites, 89) who continually keeps Dixon in a subordinate position by threatening to expose the fact that she has a black child. This is a threat for Dixon as when it was exposed that she had a black child, it lead to “scandal” in the United States which is why she left the US and went to work in the USSR. With this threat always in the back of Dixon’s mind, she meets and enters in a romantic relationship with Ivan Petrovich Martynov, who is in a sense the embodiment of the “perfect Stalinist character”.

Martynov, a caring decent character, throughout the film attempts to help Dixon “understand” the USSR and what it stands for, which is in a sense is the representation of the role of Stalin as the extreme “Vanguard” of the continuation and protection of the revolution. He is a joyful person that represents the “laughter” of Stalinist culture: life is to be enjoyed and we should “laugh more”.  Although he does not necessarily go around laughing at everything, his attitude towards the situations he finds himself in are certainly in line with this Stalinist idea.

One of the most important scenes in the film before the end is the scene where Martynov and Dixon are in the apartment and both sing the song “Song of the Motherland.” This song is a good example of how Stalinist ideology is being portrayed in this film and as Stites says on page 90 “the lyrics… embodied some of the major myths about the early Stalin era.” The song talks about how beautiful the USSR is and how there is no other country that is as free as the USSR. This scene is an example of the conversion process for Dixon, as by singing this song she realizes the Stalinist Soviet Union is a joyful place that is the most free and tolerant in the world, although she still has the threat of her black child being “exposed” by von Kneischutz, so at this point she has not fully accepted it but has taken a large step in the “right direction.”

Von Kneischutz becomes jealous by this move of Dixon, and it’s portrayed as a personal jealousy which is analogous of an ideological jealousy. His character represents fascist Germany which was ideologically the very opposite of Stalinist USSR by being very intolerant, which is represented in von Kneischutz’s desire to keep Dixon blackmailed through the threat of exposing her black child. This conflict comes to its climax at the end where von Kneischutz actually does expose Dixon’s black child to the crowd at the circus. He expects the crowd to reject Dixon and see her having a black child as something to be embarrassed and ashamed about, when to von Kneischutz’s surprise: the crowd does not see it as a problem. When von Kneischutz is shocked to discover the crowd is accepting of the child, someone even approaches him and says (to paraphrase) “what are we supposed to do, cry?”  This is in line with the “joyfulness” of Stalinist ideology. Citizens were expected to laugh during the Stalin era, and this situation is a perfect example of them approaching a situation with laughter.  The crowd then breaks into a lullaby sung by the different national languages that make up the USSR to demonstrate further the tolerance of Stalinist USSR.

The film ends with the May Day parade where Dixon is marching along with the masses and finally expresses that she understands Stalinist USSR.

The book references above are for Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900 by Richard Stites

The Red Detachment of Women (1970)

Directors: Pan Wenzhan, Fu Jie

The Women's Detachment

The Red Detachment of Women is a film adaptation (or rather filmed version of) of a Chinese ballet from the mid 1960s. It was produced during the Cultural Revolution in China, which itself made quite an impact on the Western Left (and particularly in the French Left).

The film (and ballet) follows a poor peasant named Wu Qinghua who goes from being imprisoned by her landlord for being in debt through her escape and journey to become part of the Red Army. Throughout the film, she receives training from the Red Army as they prepare to assault the landlord class’ stronghold.

The scenes that depict the Red Army are usually filled with upbeat music and show a joyful cadre willing to fight for the cause. This is reminiscent of classic “Stalinist” films such as Circus (1936) where “joy” is part of every day life and how that every day life relates to the state. In the case of Detachment, these scenes are contrasted with the elite, who are depicted as a classic “bad guys.” An interesting example to highlight how the Red Army is portrayed, when Wu Qinghua enters the camp and falls down, the entire army physically moves down to prevent her from falling; while this is perhaps an exaggeration in analysis due to this being a ballet performance it still shows how the “ideology” is supposed to come through. Criticisms of “binary contrasts” and oversimplification aside, this makes for a plot device that highlights class struggle, and more importantly: the role of women in that struggle.

Red Army helping Wu Qinghua

Throughout the film, women are portrayed as a fighting force, from their training to actual combat (where they take leadership roles as well). This is contrasted with the landlord from the beginning of the film who imprisoned women who owed him debt, and the “tyrant’s” lair, where women were subjected to male rule. While this is all through the lens of the Red Army (and thus the Party) as a whole, it demonstrates the interconnectedness of the two struggles, or at least an attempt to connect the two struggles in this context.

Although the film did have this positive portrayal of women as agents of change, the “hero” of the film who was made a martyr towards the end is a male character. While this makes the film a bit more complicated in terms of portrayal of gender, the film itself still stands as an example of linking the struggle against property and the struggle for women’s liberation (which at the time of this film was an ongoing struggle).

At the time of this writing, the film can be seen in its entirety on “The Internet Archive”

There are also various clips of the film on YouTube

Asghar Farhadi’s speech after winning Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Perhaps even more important than the film itself is the geopolitical implications of this Oscar win and the acceptance speech: Asghar Farhadi, director of A Separation, implicitly denounced the growing tensions between the United States and Iran. It seems to have been received better than Michael Moore’s anti-war speech during the Iraq war.

I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.

The Speech can be viewed at 1:25:

Maestra (2010)

The Cuban literacy campaign began 51 years ago this month.  This was an important moment for the Cuban revolution that would help set Cuba apart from the rest of the Caribbean.  This is a review of a documentary about that campaign.

The following is re-posted with the permission from the author and originally appeared here

Freedom Through a Pencil: The 1961 Literacy Campaign in Cuba

by Sujatha Fernandes

The high rate of literacy in Cuba is one of the proud and much touted accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution. Beginning half a century ago, in 1961, the literacy campaign mobilized more than 1 million Cubans as teachers or students. In that same year, 707,000 Cubans learned how to read or write. Maestra tells the story of that inspiring campaign through the memories of the women who served as literacy teachers—the maestras themselves.

The filmmaker, Catherine Murphy, lived in Cuba in the 1990s and earned a master’s degree at the University of Havana. She is the founder and director of a multimedia project known as the Literacy Project, which focuses on gathering oral histories of volunteer teachers from the literacy campaign. For Maestra, the first documentary to arise from the project, she interviewed more than 50 women and 13 men who were involved in the campaign. Many of them are now in their seventies. She also carried out five years of research in the Cuban national film archives.

Documentary footage shows the energy and enthusiasm of the young women who traveled on trains into the small towns and countryside of Cuba to live among the people and teach them how to read and write. But the challenges they faced were extreme. These women often faced opposition from their families, and many left against their parents’ wishes. They lived with poor rural families, sleeping in hammocks at night. During the day they would work in the fields alongside the peasants, and in the few hours they had in the evening, they would prepare lessons and conduct classes.

The hardships and poverty they encountered were not always conducive to learning how to read and write. Literacy teacher Diana Balboa recounts the story of a 47-year-old palm tree cutter: “His hands were swollen and deformed by such a violent job. He was unable to hold a pencil. I helped him hold the pencil but it fell out of his hands.” The man learned to read a bit, but he was never able to write.

In the midst of the literacy campaign, Cuban exiles launched the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion. Although it was discovered and thwarted by the Cuban armed forces, escaped mercenaries combed the countryside, harassing the peasants and their literacy teachers.

In a country where the urban and rural poor had long been denied access to education, literacy was empowerment. For the counter-revolutionaries who wanted to see Cuba return to the status quo, teaching literacy to the poor was an affront to the class order. One teacher recounts the threats to her host family from gunmen who pounded on their door, demanding, “Bring out the literacy teachers!” But this family, like others across the country, put their lives on the line to protect the teachers. Sadly, they were not always able to escape these threats, and one teacher, Manuel Ascunce, was killed by insurgents.

As the literacy teachers recount, the campaign broke taboos, particularly around gender. Young women in general were subject to the norms of patriarchy. They were not expected to excel at their studies. They were confined to the house, and their futures were limited to what their parents decided for them. Being part of the literacy campaign helped these young women break away from parental constraints. For Norma Guillard, going on the campaign at the age of 15 was an adventure. It was her first time away from home, and it gave her a feeling of freedom and independence.

The film shows how the literacy campaign not only promoted literacy, but also profoundly changed the lives of the maestras themselves. Upon returning from the campaign, they were given scholarships to continue their studies. Guillard signed up immediately. As she recounts, “I had become used to moving around and being independent.” She eventually trained as a psychologist. Another maestra became a mathematics teacher. These professions were rare for women in the pre-revolutionary order.

In the documentary, we are reminded of the major milestone that Cuba achieved in such a short time. One of the most touching moments is the footage of a man who writes his name on a blackboard in slow, deliberate cursive strokes while a teacher watches from the side. When he finishes he stands in front of his completed name: Pablo Benitez. He has a quiet, proud smile on his face.

The literacy campaign is vitally important to revisit today, given the global challenges of illiteracy. We often think of illiteracy, particularly in Western nations, as a problem eradicated years ago, along with smallpox. But according to UNESCO, about 1 billion people—or 26% of the world’s adult population—remain non-literate. While developing countries have the highest rates of illiteracy, Western developed nations also have surprisingly high rates. A study carried out in 1998 by the National Institute for Literacy estimated that 47% of adults in Detroit and 36% in New York City were Level 1 readers and writers, meaning that they “could perform many tasks involving simple texts and documents,” such as signing their names or totaling a bank deposit entry, but could not read well enough to, “fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child.”

Maestra is a compelling and beautifully filmed reconstruction of one of the most significant campaigns in Cuba’s history. Fifty years on, the film clearly demonstrates the impact that it had on the lives of all those who took part.

Opening in Moscow (1959)

Director: D.A. Pennebaker

Opening in Moscow is about the 1959 American Exhibition in the USSR.  The event was meant to spread the US capitalist perspective in the Soviet Union, but the documentary provides some interesting insight into the response by some of the attendees of the exhibition.  The reactions of the attendees, as well as focusing on contrasting the exhibition itself with normal life in Moscow are the focus of the film.

The every day shots of Moscow are interesting by themselves, as they serve as a simple portrayal of the late 1950s USSR in a way that is not trying to demonize it.  This normalcy that is demonstrated is perhaps meant to be a shock to the American audience, a sort of “look how the Soviet citizens actually have lives apart from political repression” kind of attitude.  Of course, the idea that this should come as a shock is itself problematic and demonstrates a level of propaganda and misconception about the Soviet Union, especially during the period this documentary was made.

Overall the documentary is an interesting inquiry into the differences between the USSR and USA.

Guerrilla Girl (2005)

Director: Frank Poulsen

Isabel discusses isses with a FARC commander

This documentary details the decision by a young woman named Isabel to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  Isabel comes from a university background and decided to join the FARC because of what she felt was increased political repression in the city.  She comes from what is clearly a more privileged background than many of the fighters in the FARC and that privilege shows up throughout various points in the documentary (for example, she seems for a while unable to limit her bathing time to what is supposed to be allocated for everyone).  Although she comes from a more comfortable background, it is made clear that her father has been involved in Left wing politics, and that she was also involved when she was in the university.

The film is not necessarily a political take on the FARC but instead aims to focus on the “up close and personal” details of new recruits to the militant group.  There are some minor jabs at the group, for example there is text in the documentary that talks about how joining the FARC is a life time commitment, meant to make it a sort of scary notion.  But for the most part, the way the more controversial aspects of the FARC are dealt with in the film are through a dialogue between Isabel and some of the commanders/teachers in her unit.  For example, she brings up the conceptions of the FARC’s involvement in drug trade, to which the FARC commander denies, and later in the film points to the fact that the FARC has been trying to encourage other crop growth based on food, not coca.  These are issues that James J. Brittain addresses in his book Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The origin and direction of the FARC-EP.

Class of new recruits

On top of the interestingly “neutral” or “non-political” take on the FARC and the war in Colombia, the film has excellent cinematography.  This more artistic take on the subject is an excellent way to shed light on an issue that many folks don’t know much about, and documentaries and news stories on the subject tend to be static and “uninteresting” to those not already interested in the content.

The film is of interest because it shows what it’s really like to join a self described Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, and one of the more notorious ones of Latin America.  It doesn’t quite address, through statistics and arguments, the conceptions and criticisms that many on the Left have of the group directly.  But as was mentioned earlier, seeing the group through the eyes of a new recruit does shed some light on the organization.

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

Director: Margarethe von Trotta

(Original German title: Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg)

The Uprising

The film Rosa Luxemburg deals with an important period of German history.  While the film is about Luxemburg herself, the important points of the film are really about the developments in German Social Democracy and Socialism at that time, although these were important themes for and were a major part of Rosa Luxemburg’s own life.

At least that is the backdrop of the film.  Much like the film Reds, the historical characters are the focus.  The mood is also an important part of the film: the optimism shared by many characters that quickly fades to pessimism and confusion as the organizations like the Social Democratic Party begin to support Germany’s entry into WWI.

The film’s focus did have it’s shortcomings, however.  The two periods focused on the most in the film are firstly, Luxemburg’s involvement in socialist politics leading up to WWI and secondly her time in jail during the war itself.  The Spartacus League was not a focus of the group, even though it was an important group in the history of the German Left.  The Spartacist Uprising did play an important part towards the end, but it seemed a bit rushed in the context of the film that focused much on Luxemburg’s personal life.

It is quite interesting to see important historical figures fighting personal battles in the film.  For example even at dinner events, Luxemburg polemicizes against who she sees as “reformist leaders” who are not attached to the working class masses.  While some of these scenes seem a bit forced, watching it with politics in mind can be quite helpful.  Then again, films like this are usually watched by folks who are already somewhat interested in either in the particular kind of history being dealt with or in Left wing politics and theory.

Besides the over focus on certain parts of Luxemburg’s personal life (it was a biographical film after all), it was refreshing to view a film that contained polemics by revolutionaries against those who were turning away from that kind of politics at the time.  The split between Marxism and Social Democracy was an important moment for the European Left and particularly in Germany, where the SPD played a significant role in the promotion of Marxism and the working class movement itself.

While the film only deals with a small part of the German Revolution, and important and overlooked event in working class history, it is still an important contribution and deals with a famous historical figure of the Left.

Left Film Review Exclusive: Interview with the director of The Trotsky

This fall the Left Film Review was able to sit down with Jacob Tierney, director of The Trotsky, at the Atrium (60 Wall St.)

We discussed the role of politics in film, the role that film can play in social change, how the structure of film plays into these themes, and his film The Trotsky.