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

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Night Catches Us (2010)

Director: Tanya Hamilton

Night Catches Us is a film about the mood of the late 70s and the decline of the Civil Rights movement and the mood of that era.  The film focuses on a character named Marcus who was recently released from jail after having been involved with the Black Panther Party.  He faces a host of problems once he returns: the most serious of which being that he is accused of snitching on his former comrades.

As the film focuses on his reintegration into his community, a host of characters and their personal plights are highlighted very well. On top of well done focus of the film, the style of the film is an intimate one with excellent character development and beautiful cinematography, not to mention the great score by The Roots.  The style is important, as it is an attempt to capture the mood of the era.  The film opens with an optimistic speech given by Jimmy Carter who was at that time about to be the incoming President.

The contrast of Carter’s speech and reality is felt throughout the film.  One of the main characters is Iris, a 10 year old girl who is the daughter of Marcus’ comrade from before he was in prison.  Her role in the film is to essentially bring to life the “guilt” of the mistakes of the past.  This is shown by the constant need for Marcus and Patricia (Iris’s mother) to have to explain their past to her, and in an uncomfortable way that echos the mood and theme of the entire film.

The film takes a very honest approach towards the Panthers and indirectly addresses one of the main internal contradictions they faced: paranoia in the face of very real repression.  In this case, the personal relationships and how they were affect is what is being examined, which is an important aspect to these struggles: they were about real people.  That is not to say that the politics of the era took a backseat to personal problems.  Nor is it to say that the film presents a sort of “being involved with radical violent groups has consequences” message.  While the characters are fully aware of the mistakes of the past, a cheesy denouncement of their previously idealistic selves is absent from the film which is quite refreshing compared to many more mainstream narratives about radical movements of the time.

Often when films that deal with “far left” themes are sought out, they can be mediocre or not well done.  Night Catches US is far from that, wining awards and being critically acclaimed while also dealing with an issue far too underrepresented in the media.  It is an important addition to the stock of films that deals with questions that the Left is concerned with, as well as a great addition to film in general.

Documentary a Day: The Take (2004)

Director: Avi Lewis

The Take is a documentary that follows the phenomenon of worker takeovers of factories in Argentina towards the beginning of the 2000s.  The film goes through the historical conditions that lead to crisis in Argentina and how Neo-Liberal market reforms totally devastated the country long before the economic crisis that would eventually come home by the end of the decade.  The response by many workers in Argentina was to “fire the boss” and run factories and resume production as collectives, not organized along capitalist lines.  Not only is the class consciousness of the workers themselves in Argentina demonstrated in a very positive light here, but the communities in which factories like the one featured in the film tend to fully back the workers efforts.

Argentina at the time was in a political uproar, and in the midst of a Presidential election that resulted in a social democratic government that remains today.  The workers movement, as documented in this film, began to respond to the crisis by fighting back and taking matters into their own hands.  They were more than willing to fight back police attempts to retake the factory, and interviews with the factory owner reminded me of a scene in Godard’s Tout Va Bien where the boss tries to justify capitalism and property against a worker uprising (which resulted in the boss being kidnapped in that film).

The documentary does take a “libertarian socialist” stance on the phenomenon, claiming that it is an example of how spontaneous actions by workers are preferable to organizations like Communist parties, which of course Leninist would not agree with.  But all Leftists alike can acknowledge that the film does have a very optimistic tone about workers’ power.

Documentary a Day: Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986)

Director: Anne Lewis

This short (around half an hour) documentary is about a strike by West Virginian coal miners that got violent in the early 1980s.  It should be of interest today as some of the main players of the strike continue to make national news headlines: Richard Trumpka, who is now the president of the AFL-CIO, and Don Blankenship, Massey Energy CEO who got national headlines when a mine operated by Massey exploded a few years ago, killing many workers inside.  Massey Energy also engages in a lot of “mountain top removal” which has become quite a contentious issue in West Virginia, for workers, environmentalists and the coal industry.

This documentary accounts for a strike that got violent and was a very important event for the union movement of West Virginia (the unions have consistently been busted since).  Interviews with striking workers, and scabs that were brought in either from other states or interestingly were local police before the strike, are contrasted throughout the film.  The class consciousness of the striking workers is quite high, the violent history of West Virginia’s labor disputes remains an important lesson for them throughout these interviews.  It’s also interesting to note that a high level of solidarity with South African workers is kept with the striking workers who are well aware that Massey is exploiting workers on an international scale and that solidarity is important if they wanted to have a fighting chance.

Another interesting part of the documentary are the interviews with Don Blankenship and the scab workers.  Blankenship makes similar arguments as a boss of a profit-making corporation that the fictional boss in Godard’s Tout Va Bien makes to not only justify his company’s position against the workers, but to defend capitalism itself.  The scabbing workers often either are visibly uncomfortable about the backlash by the community and striking workers and are very open about the fact that they regret what they’re doing, or their excuses rest on relatively empty notions of “freedom” and the “right to work.”

This short film demonstrates the aspect of coal mining that is all too often left out of the current debate on moutain top removal, and reminds me of a Monthly Review article titled “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism” that links these two important subjects.

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety here: http://appalshop.org/film/minewar/stream.html

Links of interest:

Monthly Review Article – on strikes in West Virginia which includes the one this documentary is about

Ambush at Keystone – An account by Maoist Mike Ely about his invovlement in a wildcat strike in West Virginia in the 1970s

Matewan – A late 1980s film about earlier labor disputes in West Virginia.

Documentary a Day: Cuba! Africa! Revolution! (2007)

Director: Jihan El Tahri’

Also known as “Cuba, an African Odyssey”

This documentary offers an excellent account of Cuban involvement in Africa.  The documentary accounts for a long period in this “Chapter of Cold War history” (thus is too much to sum up in one post here).  The documentary is in two parts and covers the time from when Che first went to Africa to help with the conflict in the Congo all the way until the fall of Apartheid.

(Image from Wikipedia)

The documentary also does an excellent job at contextualizing Cuba’s involvement as an anti-imperialist endeavor.  It is very sympathetic and honest about the fact that Cuba was instrumental in ending colonialism in Africa (especially via Cuba’s invovlement in Angola) .  It’s hard to explore this topic and not come to the conclusion that Cuba’s involvement in Africa was anything but liberating to the people of Africa.

The most interesting thing about the documentary is its account for the relationship between the USSR and Cuba in the context of involvement in Africa.  The documentary portrays the USSR as not really wanting to get too involved in Africa for various diplomatic reasons, yet Cuba was the driving force here.  Cuba was acting independently and even trying to use its relationship with the USSR to help liberate Africa from colonialism by playing cold war politics very intelligently.  This certainly dispells the myth of “all allies of the USSR just took dictates from Moscow” as Cuba, in this case, was the real driving force.

I highly recommend this documentary to those interested in Cuba and anti-imperialist struggles in general.

Further Reading:

Africans call for BBC to screen “Cuba! Africa! Revolution!”

(Edit: the original publishing of this I was under the impression that this was a BBC documentary, which it is not.  I have edited the post to reflect this)

The Trotsky (2010)

Director: Jacob Tierney

When I started this site, I never thought I’d be writing about a teen comedy in the project to document, analyze, and display films with strong Leftist themes.  But after seeing the film The Trotsky, that had to change.  A teen comedy filled with references to the Spanish Civil War, a Ken Loach retrospective.  Its director described it as “Reds in high school that makes you laugh” (YouTube video)

Boredom or Apathy?

The film has a very bizarre premise: the main character Leon believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky.  And to top that off with being a teen film, it was certain to make for a strange film (which isn’t to say a bad film).  The main conflict (or contradictions) in the film revolves around the main character trying to live out his life the way that Trotsky did.  Through this process he finds him self on more than one occasion trying to unionize (first his father’s workplace, then his high school).

The structure of the film is similar to many teen comedy films, and at first I felt that the premise was just a “wacky plot device” instead of an actual attempt to discuss the nature of class struggle.  But as the film developed, the message of social justice and organizing resistance became the driving force and motivation for the characters.  After a while into the film, the illusions of being the reincarnation of Trotsky took a backseat to the main characters drive to organize his fellow students.

One of the major themes in the film is about the struggle between “apathy and boredom” of the youth of Canada (which can certainly be applied to the United States as well).  The principal of the school (an authoritarian or repressive figure for the film) is sure that the students are apathetic to the plight of Leon, and after the first attempt to organize a walk-out of class: the principal seems to be right, as most of the students do not take it seriously even though they walked out.

As Leon wrestles with this throughout the film, he plots on how to best mobilize his high school against their conditions to give them a voice.  This is what the unique aspect of the film should be seen as and is what made me consider the progressive themes in it to not just be a plot device, but instead are the goal of the film.

This progressive message, guided by achieving socialism for the main character, is an interesting thing to appear in a film like this, and while it certainly won’t achieve a “wide release” that many Hollywood teen comedy films do, it’s an excellent contribution to the genre that for reasons that ought to be obvious aren’t of interest to the Left.  But the way in which the contemporary youth, and the perceived apathy, are dealt with in the film is an interesting take that offers a bit of optimism for a generation who is often labeled one that just “doesn’t care.”

La Faute à Fidel (2006)

Directed by Julie Gavras

Julie Gavras’ debut narrative film focuses on a sort of “coming of age” story of a young girl (Anna) who is raised in a family in political transition. Anna’s family becomes more radicalized in post-1968 France where her father takes on the cause of defending Allende’s Chile while her mother goes into womens’ liberation. The story revolves around Anna’s anxiety due to the drastic changes in her own life that must occur as a result of the ongoing political changes within her immediate family. The story essentially uses Anna’s growing up as an analogy to explain certain political changes that occurred in the West in places like France during the time the film takes place (the 1970s).

Anna’s father feels quite guilty for his family’s support of Franco in Spain which motivates him to become a passionate supporter of Allende in Chile. Their family hosts exiles, activists working on Allende’s campaigns, etc. throughout the film which make from some interesting interactions between the young Anna and the Communist activists. For example there is a scene where Anna is up late one night and has a conversation with the activists about trading an orange for money. They insist that trade should not be done for personal benefit over another but in an egalitarian way, while Anna resists these progressive notions. The conversation is a sort of “Communism for children” style of dialogue that demonstrates the bourgeois ideology that still dominates Anna’s preconceptions of the world and makes for an interesting scene when those notions are directly challenged.

As the story progresses, Anna beings to challenge these preconceptions in places like her Catholic school which leads her to some trouble (after having already been removed from certain religious classes in the school). These developments make her grandparents quite uncomfortable and they clearly are opposed to the leftward turn the family has made.

There is also tension within the family that is itself representative of greater tension amongst the Left of that time. Anna’s mother becomes quite involved with abortion rights, while her father sees this as a sort of deviation or even a negative struggle to get involved in. This is of course one of the biggest criticisms of the “Old Left”: the theoretical and political “blind spot” of what the Old Left considered to be single issue causes that were considered to be distractions from the more important class struggle. These questions don’t get resolved in the most comfortable way in the film, just as they weren’t “comfortably resolved” in the real history of the Left.

The film does an excellent job at using the perspective of a child to explain a time that was quite crucial in understanding the contemporary Left and at least some of the important developments that got it to where it is today.