Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the fourth film of the original Planet of the Apes series and is perhaps the most “radical” of them all (which is not to discount the political importance of the original film).  It is the account of how the apes came to power through a revolution lead by the main character named Caesar.  The film was made in the context of the later civil rights era and during a time of revolutionary upsurge in the United States and around the world, and while it had revolutionary undertones throughout, including an ending that was “sanitized” to be less radical.

The atmosphere of the film is one where apes are driven into what is essentially slave labor by a “dystopian totalitarian” human society.  The subordinate role of the apes in the film was the result of a plague that killed off all of the pets that humans used to own, so they turned to apes to be their “servants” as a result, with the backdrop of the prior film where it was revealed that apes would one day rule humans: thus leading to an authoritarian control over how apes were owned and disciplined.  This drive for satisfaction and ownership while looking to be serviced could perhaps be seen through the lens of a critique of possessiveness and perhaps even a more Marxian notion of commodification.  It was the humans desire for pets to own, not necessarily companionship, and their fear of their “new pets” that lead to the conditions of the society portrayed in Conquest.

The film is itself a portrayal of a revolutionary situation under the leadership of Caesar who gets to work with “the governor” under the top section of the security of the city while secretly plotting a revolt by training and arming many apes in the city.  Small acts of resistance skyrocket in the city, showing the discontent of the apes who are preparing for revolt and spreading the idea of resistance amongst the general population.

The “Authenticator”

There are many important themes dealt with in the film, including the opposition to the brutal repression of the apes within the government of the city (in a sense representing the “liberal” opposition to a McCarthy style witch hunt).  Another interesting scene is when Caesar’s former “master” is being interrogated by a device called the “authentacator” which is essentially an advanced lie detector test that makes the subject tell the truth.  The dialogue contained in that scene is reminiscent of the calls for transparency in today’s world, yet in this context: that very transparency is used to reinforce the existing power structure.  While this analysis may seem overly analytical, it does remind one of certain criticisms of the post-modern phase of global capital, or the “capitalism with a human face” that is appealed to that attempts to justify continued aggression by the system.

The film depicts a very violent revolution, and while the original ending (spoiler alert ahead) has Caesar ordering the death of the oppressive governor, the studio (supposedly due to negative audience reactions) had the ending changed to make Caesar more forgiving in the end.  This effected the entire structure of the following film as well.  This is an excellent example of an ideological intervention in an otherwise seemingly subversive film for the era.

Overall it is also an example of how a film at this level (a highly grossing franchise) can be “subversive.” This is important in that it demonstrates that not only small independent films can contain messages relevant to liberation and struggle. The shortcomings of the venue and arena where it was made (like the forced change in the ending), however, cannot be overlooked. The double edged sword of “subversive film” that is simultaneously a major Hollywood production and an attempt to critique the existing system provides plenty of questions about film and the film industry.

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También la lluvia (2010)

English Title: Even The Rain

Director: Icíar Bollaín

The set of the “film within the film”

Even The Rain is a film about the “Water Wars” of Boliva that took place in late 1999 and early 2000. The plot revolves around a director (played by Gael García Bernal) who is making a film about Christopher Columbus’ early brutal encounters with indigenous populations in the “New World.” This fictional film is depicted throughout Even the Rain as a parallel struggle to the water wars.

Instead of just framing the problems of water privatization and issues of global capital, Even the Rain is as much a film about the actual resistance to those attempts by capital than it is just about the process of (foreign) capital’s attempts to acquire basic resources like water. Throughout the film, one of the main actors hired for the “film within the film” is a leading activist against the water privatization who also plays one of the main ingenious figures who resisted the violence  brought onto indigenous peoples by Christopher Columbus. This perspective of the film provides voice to the resistance to such measures by global capital in ways that go beyond telling the story of globalization as a story of victimizers and victims and instead gives agency to those who are part of the process and attempt to challenge the process itself.

The revolt

The film opens with a nod to Howard Zinn, whose style of telling history from the eyes of the oppressed is quite clear in the film through the use of the “film within the film” to depict the parallels of the struggles of the past as similar to contemporary struggles. The complexities of oppression are also present in the film, for example a scene in the car of the filmmaker includes a conversation about language and privileged (an argument breaks out about not filming in English, which would have made more money, and the lack of presence of indigenous language).

The main event of the film, or climax, revolves around a revolt in the city of Cochabamba. This famous event eventually helped lead to the ascendency of the Evo Morales government to power. The revolt is certainly portrayed in a positive light (which even emotionally affects some characters who had clearly been skeptical to the demands of the local residents).

Overall, the film has an important message of social justice, and is a cinematic achievement in itself. It does an excellent job at capturing a revolutionary period while at the same time avoiding cinematic cliches about such struggles.

Les Noms des Gens (2010)

This post was submitted by Anna Lekas Miller who is a writer for Alternet

Director: Michel Leclerc

English Title: The Names of Love

So, France has a new president.

In a close election, François Hollande, of the French Socialist Party, defeated the infamous Nicolas Sarkozy. There were many symbolic moments—instead of celebrating in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, as Sarkozy’s supporters had the year before, Hollande’s supporters gathered to rejoice at the other end of the city at Place de La Bastille—the historic site of the French revolution and the numerous social movements, general strikes, protests, marches and celebrations that have characterized the French Left ever since.

François Hollande is part of a growing electoral theme in Europe—tired by austerity measures, and the successive, costly bailouts, the results at the polls are swinging towards the (politically palatable) left.

But will the election of a socialist president translate to a socialist re-configuration of society, where wealth is radically redistributed, bailouts that save the asses of the elite while sacrificing the well-being of the people are off the table, and everyone—immigrants, nationals, bourgeoisie and working classes—lives in harmonious, indistinguishable equity?

Probably not.

Instead of sorting through twitter, and trying to find the balance between the cynics who see a reflection of Barack Obama’s unfulfilled promises in François Hollande and my French friends surrounding me celebrating the end of Sarkozy, I decided to do what any sensible, politically-engaged woman trying to make sense of the left would do on the night of a significant election. I opened a bottle of red wine, lit some candles and watched my favorite French movie in the world, Les Noms des Gens for what has to finally be the ten millionth time.

Les Noms des Gens—translated as “People’s Names”—is a love story based in French identity politics. It opens with Arthur Martin, an ordinary and at first mundane man who makes his living doing autopsies on dead geese. He is predictable, and as his name might imply, comes off as very classically and comfortably French.

Quickly, the camera cuts to Baya Benmahmoud—his polar opposite. She is young, vivaciously sexual and rabidly outspoken, and as she says, “No one in France shares my name.” She is half-Algerian, and half French—and like many French children of Algerian immigrants, struggles with reconciling her white skin and French appearance with her disgust towards racism, colonialism, and the treatment of immigrants.

She has an unabated adoration of the left—which she displays through only sleeping with right-wingers with the sole purpose of converting them to the left.

“When I say I fuck them, I really do,” she says, while explaining her practices to Arthur. “Someone from the Front National takes about ten days. But a centrist, he can be converted in an afternoon.”

Gradually, the two polar opposites begin to fall in love—but not without hilarious moments of political differences punctuating their relationship. In one scene, Baya’s ebulliently leftist mother tries to convince Arthur to marry one of her friends for her citizenship. In another, Arthur tells Baya all the topics of conversation that she must avoid when she meets his parents. Exasperated, she blurts out,

“So what are we supposed to talk about? The weather?”

“Yes! That is perfect!” he replies.

Baya finds out that Arthur is actually Jewish—and his mother’s family experienced the genuine suffering of the Holocaust. She falls even more deeply in love with him.

“This is great,” she says as they are sitting at a bar, “I am Arab, and you are Jewish! Together we are two forgotten pieces of France’s history. We wont have true world peace until we are all mixed.”

In a flurry of personal emotions, Arthur suddenly decides to cut things off with Baya. The relationship has become too serious, and he fears that Baya is making too many waves in his once quiet, predicatable life. However, life without Baya—and her unabated adoration of all that makes the left and how she manifests this in her daily actions—is a dull life. There is no one to hold the subway doors open while an elderly couple struggles to make the train, no one to save the crabs at the market place from being eaten, and no one to blame everyone who doesn’t ardently adhere to the left for being a fascist.

Also, there is far less sex.

In the end, the two lovers reunite—this time when they are at the polling place together, Baya is very pregnant. At one point, she looks down and realizes that she accidently voted for Sarkozy. Her blood curdling screams cut to her in the hospital in labor, giving birth and looking at the TV in horror as Nicolas Sarkozy is elected to La Marseillaise.

“His name?” the nurse asks

“Chung. Martin. Benmahmoud” they say

“His background?”

“His background, we don’t care,” the two reply, smiling at one another.

Baya would have celebrated in the streets when François Hollande was elected—but will he really be the leader that the left wants to see transform France? Perhaps the deregulation and austerity measures started under Sarkozy will be halted and curbed, but the racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and remnants of a colonial past that still plague France, and the many different types of people who make up France won’t be washed away overnight. These aspects of French culture—or any culture—are ingrained in the history, in the family tree that traces its French origins back to the 1500s and in the awkward dinner conversations where a daughter brings her Algerian boyfriend home to meet her father who had also been in Algeria for “different reasons.”

It’s in the streets and the schools, the micro-aggressions and conversations that dictate whether one population feels tolerated or welcomed far more than political parties or policies. It’s in the unlikely friendships and relationships—and, as more and more opposites make love and create a new generation of multiple identities, differences become less distinct and more celebrated and, as Baya says, as our identities mix and mingle we get a little bit closer to world peace.

So, I’m not so sure that an elected leader—especially one who despite his socialist label seems ready to pander to neoliberalism, and doesn’t seem to have anything particularly radical to say about anything—will change France, or any country for that matter. But maybe the people—through meeting one another, sharing stories, being frank about their identity politics, opening each others minds through personal relationships, and making lots and lots and lots of love just might.

The Edukators (2004)

The following review was written by Kate Devlin

Director: Hans Weingarnter

The title in German has been translated both as “The Fat Years Are Over”, a phrase from the German Luther bible, and “Your Days of Plenty Are Numbered”. The film stars  Daniel Bruhl as Jan, Stipe Erugen as Peter, and Julia Jentsch as Jule.

Cabin where the hostage is held

This film concerns three young leftist activists living in contemporary Berlin. The character’s lives are introduced in the opening scenes showing them to be active in anti-corporate protests. For example, one scene shows activists at an anti-sweatshop protest, disrupting a shop selling high priced sneakers made by sweatshop labor.

Jule is financially “up against it,” working in a low paid job as a waitress, serving meals to wealthy customers who are often arrogant and abusive towards her. One evening at work, after an evening of abuse from both customers and her boss, Jule takes a break and chats with a male co-worker, who himself as been previously reprimanded by the boss. Unfortunately for Jule and her co-worker, this happens to be a busy time for the restaurant. When the boss sees his employees doing what he regards as “goofing off” he flies into a rage and fires both of them.

She is soon after evicted from her apartment for paying her rent late. And although this is set in Berlin in 2004, Jule’s situation is easy for contemporary young people in the US to identify with and reflects the predicament of many young people in the US; saddled with un-payable student loans and stuck in low level, dead end service sector jobs famous for abusive working conditions.

While Jule and Jan are painting, they develop a friendship. Soon after Jule ends up accompanying him in his and Peter’s van. Jan tells Julia what he and her boyfriend really do at night. Instead of posting advertising signs around Berlin they are the “Edukators”, anarchists who have gained publicity by breaking into wealthy people’s houses, rearranging furniture, and putting up signs saying, “You have too much money.” Jan explains this as their form of activism. They educate the wealthy ruling class in the dangers of having too much money and educate radicalizing youth and the working class to struggle against capitalism. Jan explains that he feels that an anti-capitalist revolution will occur in the near future.

They then break into the house of someone Jule indebted to. Jule is amazed at the lavishness of Harding’s home, a vast contrast to her and her friends squalid surroundings .She appears emotionally mixed, in this scene and though out the movie. She hates the rich, the stranglehold they have on society and the denial of opportunities to those not in the ruling class. At the same time she is adamant in her pacifist beliefs of strict non-violence and in not stealing property from Harding’s house. Jan is not as strict in these beliefs and there is a debate between the two.

A few days after the break in of Harding’s house Julia realizes she has left her cell phone there. She tells Jan. Together they plan another break in to retrieve it. It takes them quite some time to find the phone. Shortly after the phone is located Harding unexpectedly arrives home. He is seen talking on his phone to his wife explaining the details of why he ended his vacation early. Through a frantic reaction of how to act, they decide to kidnap Harding.

Most of the remainder of the film takes place at the cabin located in the Austrian Tyrol. At first Jan, Jule and Peter are hostile and mistrustful towards Harding. They are also unsure of what to do next. They seriously discuss “going for broke,” carrying out an attack on a TV tower as an anti-capitalist gesture. They have discussions about capitalism with Harding. The three young people see the capitalist system as being inherently exploitive and based on greed. Harding seems to believe in a meritocratic system in which success is the result of hard work and having creative ideas. Jule mentions how sweatshop workers in the Third World are left out of this “meritocracy” “What about their good ideas?” she asks.

The anti-capitalist points  raised by the three young  people are interesting but somewhat maddening from a more Marxist perspective. Their anti-capitalism seems to be based on moral grounds and they do not appear to have a theory of the underlying workings of capitalism or what an alternative to it may be like. The film of course was made four years before the current economic crisis and reflects a milieu which did not fully understand Marxist or other leftist economic critiques. The attitude and earnestness of the three is to be admired however.

During an early discussion Jule mentions the fact that the debt she incurred though her accident ruined her life. Harding tells the three, to the effect that, “you should have told me, we could have worked out something.” Harding’s wealth and seeming obliviousness to the situation of those less privileged and lack of social consciousness do not make him sound convincing though.

The rearranged furniture

The three anarchists and Harding very gradually warm up towards each other.  One time they begin talking after a joint is past around. Harding tells the three that he had once had similar beliefs as they do. It turns out he had been in the leadership of the German SDS (Socialist German Student Union), a 60s/70s organization somewhat more radical than the US group of the same acronym, and had been personal friends with Rudi Dutschke and other well-known activists of the German New Left. The four of them discuss leftist lore and the history of the German New Left. While the attitude of the three towards Harding is still wary, they loosen up towards him after this.

Harding describes how he gradually changed his leftist philosophy. He says “when you first buy a new car, you feel guilty. Then you find you gradually make other changes.” He describes a process of gradually fist accommodating to and then embracing capitalism as a way of life. Musing while he and Jan are chopping wood and doing outdoor tasks, Harding appears to rethink his life, saying he is sick of the corporate world and longs for a simpler life in the countryside.

Harding makes a deal to not call the police if he is released, and the activists agree. The concluding scenes show Julia, Jan, and Peter sleeping together in a large bed. Anti-terrorist police are shown clammering up the stairs. It appears that, predictably from a Marxist view that “conditions produce consciousness” that Harding, back in his comfortable home, has gone back on his promise. The film ends with an interesting twist.

Overall this is an excellent film. The conditions facing many of today’s youth, especially those in their 20s though out much of the developed world are movingly shown. The film also shows the differences and continuities between the struggles of the original New Left 60s/70s generation and those of radicalized youth today. The film reflects an anarchist viewpoint which relies more on individual anti-capitalist activism and education as methods of struggle. Most Marxists would favor activism based on helping workers increase their level of class that is moving people through struggle, of an understanding that their interests are different from that of the ruling class and those who own capital.

According to Wikipedia in 2009 a statue was stolen from convicted swindler Bernie Madoff was returned with a note that read “Bernie the Swindler, Lesson: Return stolen property to rightful owners”. It was signed “the Educators”.

Harlan County, USA (1976)

Director: Barbara Kopple

This academy award winning documentary is itself an important contribution to the 20th century working class movement of the United States.  While it not only played an important role in documenting a violent struggle for unionization in Kentucky, the presence of the film crew was itself cited in helping achieve victory for the miners who were the subject of the film.

As with many cases of violent struggle with attempted unionization in coal mines, Harlan county was one where company thugs, workers, and police all played an all too cliche role. Thugs and police helped (with the interesting exception of the complex role of the Sheriff) maintain the company’s power while the workers had to face legal challenges, attempted murders, and intimidation to form their union. This familiar narrative is not only the result of the same struggle taking on a similar form various times throughout American history, but the film itself inspired other films, for example Matewan. (John Sayles on Harlan County)

The most striking thing about the case of Harlan County is how similar the film’s structure is to that of the various other films/narratives about unionizing efforts in other coal mining areas that date back to the late 19th century. The exception in this case, however, is a demonstration of some serious corruption at the union level. While the story of the drive itself is familiar, one significant difference is that this was not the beginning of the United Mine Workers of America but rather that there had been decades of development for that organization. There is even a case where a rank-and-file candidate runs for the presidency of the union and is murdered by folks connected to what is perceived as the corrupt leadership.

These struggles demonstrate the real problems that go into organizing that is not simply a romanticized version of “the workers vs the bosses” but rather demonstrate the complexities. The “labor aristocracy” is shown to be quite clear in this film and the future of the union is questioned even with the optimistic overtones towards the end of the film and victory of the particular drive. Some of the members remain quite unsatisfied with the contract that they won, for example.

Further reading: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/422-harlan-county-usa-no-neutrals-there

Woman Rebel (2010)

Director: Kiran Deol

Nepal

Woman Rebel is a short documentary that aired on HBO in 2010 that follows a woman named Uma Bhujel during her times as a Maoist rebel in Nepal. Throughout the film Bhujel (whose codename in the military is “Silu”) describes the various aspects of the experience of fighting the war. Early on, while being introduced to her family, we learn that her brother had joined the Royal Army. This framework makes her story a sad “classic case” of civil conflict splitting a family. Although unlike the cliche “brother vs brother” notion, Nepal’s Maoist rebels are composed of 40% women and are trying to fight gender inequality in Nepal and this departure from the cliche represents how important gender is not only for the conflict’s impact on Uma’s family, but for Nepali society.

The rebellion itself is not shown as the result of an ideological battle (although this is implied to an extent in the Maoists calling for and end to the class inequality). Rather, the conflict is shown in the backdrop of a deeply unequal and unjust society where people are rising up, for example a story of a woman who committed suicide after her husband’s family (in which the marriage was prearranged) treated her poorly is used to highlight the gendered inequality that exists in Nepali society. There are none of the anti-Communist declarations or cautions that we would find if this were to appear as a history channel show which makes the film a refreshing look at a contentious issue.

A Maoist fighter and her child

The director of the film claims that she wants the viewer to “see a portrait” of a fighter in a complex struggle. She also claims that the film is meant to “focus on agents of change instead of victims of circumstance.” This intention is quite important, as it portrays those living in the Global South not as helpless victims that are just in need of help from Western NGO’s and “freedoms” but rather that those very impoverished people have the ability to mobilize and get what they want directly.

Overall, the film is an interesting look into the conflict that is not covered often in Western media which ended the long standing monarchy of Nepal and established a republic. There have been continued issues with the pace and nature of social change in the country (of which are out of the scope of this film review), but the most important part of this film is that it shows the conflict through the lens of a fighter who sees her struggle as part of a movement for social justice. The structure of the short film keeps it interesting the whole way through, with stock footage of the conflict going back to the 1990s to the contemporary countryside. It serves as an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with the conflict, and for those familiar it is a way to promote education and discussion about the issue.

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