Rex Dunn: Battleship Potemkin

The earliest films belong to the category of mimesis, because they are based on a single perspective, shot at eye level, as well as long takes and a minimum of editing. Whereas Battleship Potemkin,  made in 1925 by the  Soviet film maker, Sergei Eisenstein, relies heavily on montage techniques and editing, as a means to express its content. It showed what could be done with the technology of film making itself (such as it was then). It is the essence of revolutionary film making, inspired by the idea of the revolution itself. 

It still stands as a benchmark for filmmakers to emulate today, in terms of its aesthetic achievement
and pioneering techniques. At the same time, it is able to communicate a powerful message
to its audience, in particular, the working class. (However this assertion would be contested
today. But then again, as the Woody Allen’s character says in Manhattan,  after decades
of Hollywood dominance, the standards of the audience have been eroded by Hollywood
production values and commercialism.)

Vintage PotemkinBriefly, Eisenstein’s film is a fictional account of a mutiny on board the Russian battleship,
Potemkin in the southern port of Odessa during the 1905 Revolution.The catalyst for the
mutiny is the sailors’ refusal to eat rotten meat. A turning point is reached when the
captain orders the execution of a small group of sailors, who remain defiant.

But the firing squad refuses to obey the order. The mutiny now erupts. The leader of the
revolt is murdered by one of the officers. When the news of his death spreads to the city,
the masses come out in solidarity, including the middle classes.. But the demonstration
is brutally suppressed by Cossack troops in the famous Odessa Steps scene, later
emulated by Hollywood directors, such as De Palma and Allen. The film ends with
the sailors, now in control of the Potemkin steaming towards the rest of the fleet,
desparately seeking their support. Although the story is fiction; there never was
a massacre in Odessa; nevertheless ‘Battleship Potemkin’ is the
essence of revolution.


In making his revolutionary film, Eisenstein uses semblance or the illusory autonomy of art; albeit the formal techniques used to make the film encourage the audience to distance themselves from reality, so that they might become more critical of the status quo. In other words, Potemkin is an early example of a formalist film making, notable for the the beauty and complexity of its construction. This is all the more remarkable, because it was made for a mass audience and was very successful abroad, as well as
at home. By contrast, today Hollywood is churning out films which are based on mimesis or conventional realism, which  seek to naturalise the everyday, including films with a violent content.

This achievement is largely due to Eisenstein invention of the montage effect.  Instead of an average 500-600 shots in a film that lasts 90 minutes, by the time it was finished, Potemkin at just over 80 minutes, comprises over 1343 shots! By so doing, Eisenstein shifted the emphasis from the actual shooting of the film to cutting and editing in the studio. Some scenes involve only one or two shots; others use ten rapid action shots, e.g. the plate smashing scene to show the sailor’s mutinous feelings.

At the same time, Eisenstein invented the technique of rhythmic editing which later became common in montage films. As a result the film gathers pace at crucial moments in the drama. He also introduced the device of radical camera angles; hence the avoidance of chest-height, straight-on framing. This has the effect of making characters look more threatening, etc. It therefore allowed for multiple perspectives, which was unprecedented at the time. For example, during the famous Odessa Steps sequence, this includes shots whereby the steps create a set of strong diagonal lines, upwards from lower left to upper right, while the running figures move quickly downwards to the right. But in the very next shot, the composition switches  this orientation, with the row of unmoving rifles extending diagonally from upper left to lower right. The Cossacks are coming!

Eisenstein’s montage effect also enabled him to use  visual symbolism very effectively, such as the famous shot of a sleeping lion at the end of the massacre: By shifting the camera angle in a subsequent shot, intercut with fleeting shots of the terrified crowd, the same lion is now seen rearing upwards. It therefore becomes a visual metaphor for the revolutionary masses of the future (1917). In another shot, we see a group of sailors on the left, reflecting the light, while an officer stands on the right, which is in dark shadow. Thus the composition is split into two distinct halves, or two  opposing forces.

By means of his revolutionary montages, Eisenstein enabled every film maker to diversify the conventional, linear narrative form. This is semblance. But if the truth could now be manufactured, Eisenstein also opened pandora’s box: In 1934, Goebbels paid Eisenstein a compliment, when he said that Potemkin had the power to pursuade anyone to become a Bolshevik. This was also an appeal for any film maker, sympathetic to the Nazi cause, to do the same; albeit in the service of fascism. Later that year Goebbels got his wish. Talented German film maker, Leni Riefenstahl  offered to make a documentary film about the upcoming Nuremberg Rally. By so doing she used Eisenstein’s techniques of film making for quite different ends!

Mention should be made of an episode which occurred when Eisenstein was at the height of his fame. It concerns  his visit to Hollywood in 1930. Given his success, both at home and abroad, Eisenstein was elevated to the position of globe-trotting ambassador for Soviet avant garde film. Hollywood was one of his first port of calls. Whilst there he and a few of his colleagues met Charlie Chaplin, along with some American journalists. Eisenstein was asked, ‘What have you come for?’ ‘To learn about film and sound effects’ was the reply. Chaplin then cut in with a wonderful one-liner, ‘But we don’t make films here, we make money! If you want to find out about that, you will have to ask him [Eisenstein].’

What follows is also salutary lesson re the relationship between art house directors and the Hollywood studio system: Eisenstein stayed long enough in Hollywood to complete a film script for the novel, An American Tragedy. The famous producer, David O. Selznick, said it was the most moving film script he had ever read; but added that it would have no chance of success with American audiences. It was ‘too dark and depressing’. Later a more romantic version of the novel was turned into a success at the box office, starring a young Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Although Eisenstein attributed his failure in Hollywood to his Soviet connections, according to another Soviet director, Andrei Konchalovsky, Eisenstein was too theoretical and intellectual for Hollywood. He was naive enough to believe that genius and freedom of expression were a  guarantee of success. But he soon realised that this was not true; not only in Hollywood; but also in Stalin’s Soviet Union. 

As a film maker, Eisenstein was committed to the idea of artistic freedom. Without his own  personal vision and the ability to experiment with  new techniques, he would never have made a film like Potemkin, which fully deserves its place as a bench mark in the history of film making. At the same time, he wanted to serve the revolution. But his position as an avant garde film maker  would soon lead him into conflict with the Stalinist bureaucracy.  Objectively speaking,the latter marked the consolidation of the counter-revolution: the international revolution had now acquired a national character. Bureaucratic centralism and autarky affected all areas of society. It led to drastic changes in the economic base  - epitomised by the first Five Year Plan (began in 1928)  -  regardless of the human cost. it also had negative effects for art and culture. Not only was artistic freedom was abruptly terminated; artists were reduced to mere servants of the state. In Stalin's own words, they had a key role to play as 'engineers of human souls': their role was to inculcate in the minds of the masses the idea that, under Stalin's guidance, despite the sacrifice, and regardless of what was happening in the rest of the world, the Soviet Union was building socialism all on its own. Any artist who refused ran the risk of losing his career or even death.

Wwhat happened to Eisenstein? In 1932 the  Kremlin recalled him from his globe-trotting mission. Within a couple of years his youthful enthusiasm for the revolution would be brutally crushed by Stalinist conservatism and means/end necessity. view of art. In 1934, Stalin’s cultural commissar, Zhadanov, issued his infamous decree which  dictated that, from now on,  ‘socialist realism’ was to be the official art form of the revolution. Not only did this mark a return to conventional realism, socialist realism quickly revealed itself to be neither ‘socialist’ or ‘realism’. Film makers were now told what to do, as well as how to do it: Convince the masses that the five year plans were creating a paradise on earth. In the same year, Eisenstein was publically humiliated by the Union of Soviet Film Makers. However, not even Stalin could ignore the success of his earlier work. Eisenstein was recalled to make a new film. By so doing, he made his own Faustian pact with the devil; albeit  for his own survival. After constant interference and despite many changes, Eisenstein was forced to destroy the film. ‘I am no longer an inhabitant of this earth’, he told his colleagues. In 1937, at the height of the Show Trials and the repression, Eisenstein’s friend, the writer, Isaac Babel, warned him that his life was in danger, advising him to leave Moscow for a while, which he did. Then Babel himself was arrested, only to disappear for ever in one of Stalin’s gulags!

In 1940-41 Eisenstein was restored to favour again, in order to make an impassioned appeal on shortwave radio for US intervention in the  War. He was also commissioned to make a patriotic historical epic: Alexander Nevsky,  with music by Prokofiev. At the same time, another of Eisenstein’s friends and influences, the great theatre director, Meyerhold, was arrested, tortured and brutally murdered. Eisenstein was already a broken man when he began work on his final project, another historical epic: Ivan The Terrible. Stalin liked Part I. At the war’s end, Eisenstein started work on Part II. But this time, he felt sufficiently emboldened to answer back. The character of Ivan the Terrible was modelled on Stalin himself. The 'Chief also saw through Eisenstein’s thin disguise. While the latter was celebrating the success of Part I at a ball in his honour, Stalin was watching a freshly cut version of Part II alone in the Kremlin . According to an aid, he suddenly stood up during the screening and ordered it to be stopped, saying, ‘This is not a film, this is a nightmare!’. He realised that the increasingly neurotic and murdering tyrant he was watching on the screen, was none other than himself! Meanwhile, at the ball in his honour, Eisenstein sensing that he had gone too far; danced himself to a frenzy, before collapsing from a stroke. Although still in his mid-forties, he died two years later. At the very least, he had cheated the new tyrant in the Kremlin!

According to film maker, Renny Bartlett (who has just finished making his own biopic about Eisenstein) ‘after years of co-operation and compromise, Eisenstein found the strength to defy the authorities - by being faithful to the more humane revolutionary ideals he had celebrated in his masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, which still thrills us to this day. Eisenstein had created images that shook the world.’   

[Most of the above is based on Thompson and Bordell’s ‘Film History’, Second Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003, Chapter 6, pp 130-3, 135-7; as well as my own transcription of Renny Bartlett’s introduction to a showing of  ‘Battleship Potemkin’ on BBC4 in 2008, called Art That Shook The World: Battleship Potemkin. ]

Pontecorvo - Two Contrasting Movies

Pontecorvo is arguably Eisenstein’s successor; certainly in terms of the earlier Eisenstein, the maker of Strike and Battleship Potemkin. Whilst the latter film is Eisenstein’s paen the proletarian revolution (as well as revolutionary film-making), in the 1960s Pontecorvo set out to make revolutionary films about the  the aftermath to the colonial revolution, then in full swing. He was concerned to point out that, in may ways the assumption of power by national liberation movements, is only the beginning of the struggle for liberation. Being close to Marxism, he was well aware of the challenges that neo-colonialism posed for the victorious national liberation movements in South East Asia and Africa. For Marxists the term neo-colonialism means that the domination of the former colonies by their old rulers continues after the seizure of power, since the latter are still in control of the world market. No doubt Pontecorvo was also aware of effects of  the US blockade against the Cuban Revolution. This forced Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union, to enable the new regime to remain in power. It began soon after Castro and Guevara’s victory in 1959. But once Cuba was forced to become dependent on the USSR for its survival, the rapid degeneration of the revolution became inevitable. In this regard, it would seem that Pontecorvo was reading from the same script as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, or what the latter called ‘permanent revolution’: The seizure of political power is only the end of the beginning.

If the revolution is to succeed in overthrowing private property and removing all vestiges of capitalist rule, including the bourgeois social division of labour, and go on to create a new classless society, then the revolution has to go beyond its own borders and be successful on a regional scale, at the very least. Otherwise it becomes mired in the cul-de-sac of nationalism. This in turn facilitates the rise of a privileged bureaucratic caste, whose raison d’etre is to take the cream off the limited resources that are available. It therefore follows that the bureaucracy is required to police its own people. In other words, the cycle of revolution  and counter-revolution which first occured in the Soviet Union would be repeated.

Pontecortvo’s 1969 film, Burn (Queimada) is an historical epic, inspired by the existing anti-colonial struggle. Set in the Caribbean during the Napoleonic period, it concerns a slave revolt on fictional the island of Queimada, which led to the  military defeat of the empire of Portugal, only to end with the takeover of the island and its sugar industry by Britain. Nevertheless  the film resonated strongly with the political situation at the time when it was made, i.e. the colonial revolution then at a cross-roads. This was, of course, exactly what Pontecorvo and his team intended, despite the fact that the film was made under the auspices of Hollywood and  MGM. On the other hand, Pontecorvo benefitted from the fact that, at this time, Hollywood itself could hardly ignore the explosion of a radicalised youth movement across the Western world in opposition to the Vietnam war. The student revolt also threatened to link up with a latent workers movement, which only needed a catalyst to be aroused, e.g. the May events in France and the Prague Spring (both of which occured within weeks of each other during 1968). By the time that the Americans withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, nearly 2,000,000 Vietnamese and over 50,000 Americans had died. The Vietnam war also coincided with the ongoing national liberation struggles against Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique, not forgetting the struggle against the Smith regime in British ‘Rhodesia’, as it was then called; and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Set against this backdrop, one of the film’s great achievements is its ability to develop a marxist discourse about the dangers of neo-colonialism (above) within the context of a moving drama.  One of its two main protagonists is Walker, a  British agent (played by Marlon Brando). He helps Dolores, the leader of  a slave revolt to rebel against their Portuguese masters. In a reality, however, the latter is  merely a pawn of the British, whose aim is to get their hands on Queimada’s sugar plantations. In one memorable scene, Walker explains to his ‘protege’, that under the circumstances, it is not enough to win the struggle for political power. How can a bunch of illiterate former slaves make their way in the world, in the face of the British empire? Unlike them, only Britain has capital, the know-how and technology to enable Queimada to produce large quantities of sugar and find a market for it; but only if the British sugar cartels are in control the industry. However, Walker, Pontecorvo’s cynical and self-loathing anti-hero is no stereotype. The latter (Brando himself, no less) is heard declaiming in words which echo the warning of Marx and his successors, namely Trotsky and Lenin. It is the message of Permanent the revolution, albeit from the reverse angle: The revolutionary regime has no chance of survival unless it capitulates to the British Empire. But by so doing, its leaders must betray their own people. The former slaves must now become wage slaves. The outcome is the same. For the majority, the new mode of production means a life of  exploitation and grinding poverty.

Dolores is not just the leader of any slave revolt. His character (played by an unknown actor, with no previous acting experience) is loosely based on the historical figure of Toussaint L’ Ouverture, who in the early 1800s, on the island of Santo Domingo (now Haiti), became the leader of the only successful slave revolt in history. Dolores, of course,  chooses to fight on; although he soon realises that victory is impossible. Whilst his motley army is able to defeat a local militia, it is no match for the British marines, who are sent in to finish them off. They use now familiar ‘search and destroy tactics’, attacking undefended villages without mercy; once again setting fire to most of the island; thereby Dolores and his dwindling band of guerrislla are cut off from their own people; whilst the latter suffer terribly as ‘collateral damage’.  Of course, one is not required to to be a rocket scientist to draw the parallel between what they see happening in ‘Burn’ and what America was doing in Vietnam at that time. True to his revolutionary ideals of ‘liberte o muerte’, Dolores is forced to flee into the mountains, before eventually being caught, more dead than alive. Given the choice between money and exile or death by hanging, he chooses the latter.

Compared to his 1966 masterpiece, Battle of Algiers,  Burn is conventional in form.  Pontecorvo’s more conservative approach in this later film may be explained, at least in part, to the restrictions imposed on him by his financial backers, i.e. the conglomerates that financed this film for MGM studios in the late 1960s. For their part, MGM were more interested in signing a big name star like Marlon Brando in the title role. (N.B. As it happens, this was a fortuitous decision, because Brando produced one of his best performances, as he himself said.)  Dramatically speaking, Burn is the cinematic quivalent of an Aristotelian drama: In short, this film has a cathartic effect on its audience. Therefore, as soon as it is over, we tend to relax and forget about it.

Yet despite its conventional form, Burn is still a great film. This is due in large part to its subject matter or ‘content’. If it does not succeed in the formal sense, like other arthouse movies, it is still a film of great artistic quality. Consider for a moment, the way in which Pontecorvo’s  cinematographer balances repeatedly between close-ups of the dramatis personae and panoramic shots. It reinforces the fact that this is not just a gripping drama of personal betrayal and heroism; we are also witnessing an historic and epic struggle, granted it is a fictional one; but like Potemkin,  this is truth through fiction. The film’s impact is further enhanced by Morricone’s marvellous score, combined with natural sounds, such as the ominous cries of the circling vultures, who follow in the wake of the marauding colonial troops. But when he wishes to pay tribute to the suffering masses, Morricone has the humility to quote a brief passage from Bach’s St Mathew’s Passion. This has a powerful emotional effect. Mention must also be made of the way in which the colour balance of the film begins to fade from a rich technicolour to bleached out tones, once the colonial troops resort to burning the entire island in order to flush out the rebel leader and his few remaining fighters. Finally, it has to be reiterated that, although  Pontecorvo does rely on a conventional form, as a basis for the film’s illusionary effects, nevertheless it errs on the side of allusion or semblance, eschewing the standard Hollywood use of mimetic effects or the attempt to recreate reality. Thus Burn achieves a gravitas which enables it to transcend its Hollywood constraints - and its own time.


Burn has just been re-released on DVD, nearly 40 years on. Once again, this could not be more timely, given the victory of neo-colonialism over the national liberation struggle during the ensuing period. One by one, each of the victorious post-colonial regimes have capitulated, not just to the American empire, but more importantly to the stranglehold of global capitalism and the free market. Rather than quote a long listof failed revolutions, and because Pontecorvo’s film is based on a real historical event, i.e. the slave uprising in Haiti 300 years ago, I shall summarise the long slide of the Haitian people into poverty, misery and tyranny, largely at the hands of neo-colonialism. The general is in the particular!  This account is doubly pertinent, given the recent devasting earthquake in Haiti, just as the new decade of 2010 was about to begin. What follows is a summary of  article, Haiti: Long  Descent to Hell,  written by British journalist in The Guardian, (14/01/2010):

‘In the 18th century [the French colony of] Haiti - then called Saint Dominique - was the pearl of the Antilles, one of the richest islands in France’s empire (though 800,000 slaves who produced the wealth saw little of it). In the 180s Haiti exported 60% of all the coffee and 40% of all the sugar consumed in Europe: more than all of Britian’s West Indian colonies combined. {But] It subsequently became the first independent nation in Latin America, and remains the world’s second-oldest republic in the western hemisphere after the United States. So what went wrong?....

‘Haiti’s revolution may have brought it independence but it also ‘ended up destroying the country’s infrastructure and most of its plantations. It wasn’t the best of starts for the fledgling republic.’ Moreover, in exchange for diplomatic recognition from France, the new republic was forced to pay enormous reparations: some 150m francs, in gold. it was an immense sum, even reduced by more than half in 1830, far more than Haiti could afford....

‘... ‘Haiti was paying reparations to France from 1825 until 1947’.... ‘ To come up with the money, it took out huge loans from American, German and French banks, at exorbitant interest rates. By 1900, Haiti was spending about 80% of its national budget on loan repayments. It completely wrecked the economy....

‘The closing decades, though, of the 19th century did at least mark a period of relative stability. Haitian culture flourished, an intelligentsia emerged, and the sugar and rum industries started to grow once more. But in 1911 came another revolution, folowed... by nearly 20 years of occupation by a US, terrified that Haiti was about to default on its massive debts. The Great Depression devastated the country’s exports. [After numerous revolts, coups and dictatorships] in 1957 came Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvallier,...[his] regime [is] widely seen as one of the most corrupt and repressive in modern history. He exploited Haiti’s traditional belief in voodoo to establish a personal militia, the feared and hated Tonton Macoutes, said to be zombies raised from the dead....

‘[In more recent times] the country’s agriculture has been virtually destroyed by deforestation. Poor farmers cut down the surrounding forests to obtain wood for cooking. Soil erosion was so severe that the amount of arable land was drastically reduced. People everywhere were starving.] There were shocking reports of desperate people mixing vegetable oil with mud to make...biscuit[s].

‘I wouldn’t lay it all at the door of history’, [says one commentator], ‘But it’s true to say that while this earthquake was unprecedented and unpredictable and would have caused huge problems everywhere, Haiti is impacted by natural disasters [including fours hurricanes in 2008] much more than some of its neighbours. The infrastructure is so poor; the government can’t control all its territory....[Thus we find] Haiti in the state that it is in today....

‘ ‘[Along with Somalia, Haiti] is just about the worst society on earth. Even in Afghanistan there is a middle class. [where] people aren’t living in sewers’. [Today Haiti is even more overcrowded. Its population now stands at 9 million.] 80% of the population live below the poverty line. The country is in an advanced state of collapse, with a GDP per capita of $2 a day. [66% of Haitians are farmers, but this is mainly small-scale subsistence farming.] The unemployment rate is 75%. Foreign aid accounts for 30-40% of the budget. There are 80 deaths per live births, and the survival rate of newborns is the lowest in the western hemisphere. For many adults, the most promising sources of income are...drug dealing, weapons trading, gang membership, kidnapping and extortion....'

I am bound to add that, most recently US meddling with Haiti includes the military coup which ousted President Aristide, who was democratically elected and had widespread support among the poor. Clinton had him reinstated, but as a quid pro quo, he had to agree to the  neoliberal demands of the World Bank, etc. for a free market economy, in the interests of foriegn competitors, which further crippled Haiti’s poor.

Thus when we consider the way in which the US has taken over the currrent international aid effort, following one of the worst earthquakes in recent history, which is meant to offer the Haitian people the best possible assistance, we should also bear all of the above in mind. The hypocrisy of US imperialism, aided and abetted by its first ever black American president, simply beggars belief.


Battle of Algiers, (1966)

In some ways this film is the antithesis of Burn: Innovative in form, Battle for Algiers is deficient in the political sense; i.e. it deals only with the revolutionary struggle itself, whilst it eschews the question of what happens after the conquest of power. On the other hand, it is a great artistic achievement, in formal terms. Ironically this is achieved by means of a pseudo-documentary style. The question arises, why did Pontecorvo deal only with the liberation struggle itself, rather than deliver a coherent political message, as he does in Burn? One possible answer is that this may have been deliberate, in the sense that he intended to make a film with a more rounded marxist mesage later on. That film became the 1969 film, Burn, despite its defects.

Whatever the reason, when Pontecorvo made his earlier film,  he had a smaller budget. But he also had more independence as the film’s auteur director. The result is a more experimental film in terms of its formal qualities: In contrast to the technique more conventional technique, evident in Burn, arguably Battle... is inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s theory of estrangement; i.e. Pontecorvo has successfully transposed the Brechtian strategy for political drama from the stage to the medium of cinema. In order to challenge the audience to think about what they are watching, the director uses a number of techniques  which are designed to disrupt the illusion of reality: The audience is constantly being reminded of the fact that they are watching an allusion to  reality - or semblance - in the form of a movie.

Pontecorvo achieves this by means of grainy film (which gives it a documentary feel), as well as discontinuities of time and space. The film ends with the defeat of the FLN in Algiers by the French army; but then Pontecorvo adds a coda, showing the final victory of the revolution a few years later. (N.B. What happened next, is another matter!) Therefore, each event in the film, such as acts of terrorism and torture, carried out by the FLN and the French forces respectively, urges the audience to confront its equivalent in the real world outside the cinema. Battle of Algiers not only relies on a  pseudo-documentary style; Pontecorvo enhances this effect by using a largely amateur cast. Once again, he is ably assisted by another driving music score from Morricone, inter-cut with the sounds of wailing Arab women; all of which enhances the film’s moral and political power. Paradoxically, in this case, if  Pontecorvo was trying to adapt Brecht’s notion of estrangement to the medium of film, he has also helped create a new cinematic style.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this film is that, whilst Pontecorvo shows terrorism in all its inhuman horror, this is not one-sided account. We see the terrorism of the oppressed (the Algerian people) ranged against the terrorism of the oppressor (the French colonial power and its state). But the audience is left to make up its own mind as to which side is justified in this struggle. Though it becomes pretty clear to most people which side they should be on: In their struggle for freedom, the Algerian masses have no option but to resort to terrorism. Only in this way can they begin to even up the struggle in military terms. Whereas the French state always has the edge in this regard. But in order to stamp out a peoples’ liberation struggle, the latter abandons the rule of law which we associate with a civilised society. The inglorious Fourth republic chose to hold on to the oldest part of its empire at all costs.  By so doing, the French state forfeited the moral high ground. (Cf. the record of the British state in Northern Ireland.)

Pontecorvo’s radical approach to political film-making succeeds here, because he forces the audience to think about the real world, i.e. what is wrong with it and he suggests ways in which it can put right. That is about as far as you can go with cinema or any art form.  Nevertheless Battle For Algiers is an art-film, despite its left-wing politics; because it eschews the temptation to preach to its audience. Finally, as the American occupation of Iraq (and now Afghanistan) seems to be spinning out of control, this type of film has a deep resonance even today. (Hence lately, Battle... has been enjoying a limited revival, closely followed by Burn.)

A Worthy Followup

Paradise Now (2005) is an unusual film in several respects: It is the first Hollywood- backed feature film directed by a Palestinian. (It was therefore also the first of its kind to receive an academy nomination.) It is co-written by a Palestinian and an Israeli. An Israeli arts organisation has helped with the film’s distribution. Yet this is a film about two childhood friends who are recruited as suicide bombers for the Palestinian cause. It was also made during the period when Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in Israel for real. That is quite remarkable, to say the least. Surprisingly, there is no violence in this film; but it hangs over it like the blackest of clouds.

There is another surprise, the film has the look of a Hollywood thriller: It relies on  classical Greek tragedy for its dramatic impact, which holds the audience’s attention right to the last shot: Only the audience knows what will happen in the end, not the unsuspecting victims, i.e. off-duty Israeli soldiers and civilians. This point is quietly driven home in the final scene on a crowded bus. Of course, the families and friends of the two young  would-be martyrs don’t know anything either. Therefore they have to spend their last night at home without saying a final goodbye. (That comes later, when we see them making their botched video messages, in which there is a bit of gallows humour.) The tension is raised by numerous false climaxes, until the goal is finally achieved (actually it is left open for the audience to decide). In addition the film was shot on location, around the Palestinian town of Nablus, in rich colour (no grainy black and film here!) There is even a pretty young girl and a blossoming love interest. This, of course, is cut brutally short.

There the comparison with Hollywood ends. For this is a film made entirely from the point of view of the Palestinians, perhaps too late in the day; because  they have suffered under a brutal and illegal Israeli occupation for over 40 years. Better late than never! There is also a lot of  sharp dialogue, which mixes the political and the personal, especially between Said, one of the young men, and the girl who is falling in love with him:  Although the justice of the Palestinian cause is never called into question, the strategy of terrorism is. Said likes the young girl, and in one scene he hesitates in front of her house; maybe he is having second thoughts about his one-way mission? Later he argues that for the people of the occupied territories, life is a living death anyway. It doesn’t matter whether there is a hereafter or not. Even if  the idea that a martyr goes straight to heaven is a cruel lie, he won’t change his mind. Furthermore, he has to redeem his family’s honour, since his father was executed as a collaborator. Said explains that when men like his father, who was a good man,  become collaborators,  the Israelis have won the war psychologically. They have reduced the Palestinian people to a nadir in their history; it cannot go unanswered, otherwise the Israelis have succeeded in their aim to destroy the collective psyche of the Palestinian people.

As for terrorism itself, he uses the same argument as the captured FLN leader in Battle For Algiers: Terrorism is justified, because there is no other way to fight back. The Israelis have all the weapons; we have only our bodies as weapons! A desperate people have to resort to desperate measures. The girl says that what Said is doing is just revenge. It will give the Israelis the excuse to be more violent. Said replies, the Israelis will not stop; they are building more settlements in the occupied West Bank; the USA gives them carte blanche to continue, while the rest of the world , including the Arab states, turn their backs. The biggest insult of all, is the fact that the Israelis have convinced themselves and the rest of the world, that it is them who are the ‘victims’, whilst the Palestinians are the ‘aggressors’. But how can an occupying power call itself the ‘victim’!

Like Battle...,  Paradise Now fails to establish a broad perspective. Its subject is the struggle itself. Once again, this is a weakness. The film could have been better if somehow it found a way to bring up the secular beginnings of the struggle for  Palestinian liberation. During that time the PLO had an army of guerrilla fighters and terrorist attacks were left to more radical splinter groups, such as the PFLP, etc. The latter were able to recruit volunteers in the festering refugee camps in ther Lebanon and elsewhere. But again, the might of the Israeli Defence Force, combined with US support, as well as  the indifference of the rest of the world, led to the massacre of Palestinian refugees, defeat of the PLO which was forced into ignominious exile abroad.

As a result of  these defeats, as well as its isolation,  over the years Fatah degenerated into a corrupt and impotent movement. In his final days, Arafat was holed up in his bunker and  prepared to sell out on the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, with or without a viable state of their own. Many Palestinians feel betrayed, specially the younger generation. Thus we see the rise of militant Islam to fill the vacuum, as the only force prepared to fight for the Palstinian cause; albeit by increasingly authoritarian and terroristic means. Theocratic rule is making a comeback. History is not merely repeating itself; it is running backwards! At the end of the day, the inability of the world community to reign in Israel’s colonial ambitions and to resolve this conflict through peace and justice, is yet another example of  the decline of capitalism itself. Nevertheless if a film like Paradise Now can raise all of these important questions, there may still be a glimmer of hope; but only just!.