A specter is haunting the globe: the specter of fascism, and all the powers of global dominance have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise it. The once imponderable reality of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen ruling the Western world has manifested itself and artists across disciplines have increasingly withdrawn from apolitical notions of art making to engage in the moral duty of political dissent. Cinema, like all forms of art, possesses a long history of political production. But what does it mean for cinema to be political?
Russian constructivism is the earliest and most notable era of political argumentation in the short history of cinema. Eschewing individual narratives to depict class struggle, socialist realism attempted to counter the ideological function of bourgeois American and European cinema. Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) and Grigori Aleksandrov’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928, co-directed with Eisenstein) are among the most cited triumphs of revolutionary Soviet cinema. But even these auteurs were conflicted by socialist realism’s strict adherence to Communist subjectivity. Eisenstein’s films were censored multiple times after his return from the United States in 1930 for relying too heavily on formal techniques. In Bezhin Meadow (1937), Eisenstein shifted his focus to religious symbolism and abandoned his signature montage of the masses in order to focus on a single protagonist. Joseph Stalin, an admirer of the filmmaker, personally ordered the termination of the film’s production.
One might be tempted to envision a post-colonial classic such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) as political cinema par excellence. Its depiction of armed resistance and self-determination against colonial oppression enables an idealized form of political progress. While such resistance is indispensable to the material construction of revolutions, it cannot monopolize the means of political action within the cinematic realm. It is the duty of political cinema to disrupt the romantic image of revolution by presenting its internal chaos and failures alongside its triumphs. Extracting pure effect out of revolution while neglecting its idiosyncrasies amounts to a revisionism that borders on propagandistic. Political cinema, therefore, must also encompass a broad range of films that offer narrative alternatives to films depicting mass uprisings and violent revolution in the linear form.
Ambiguous storytelling and non-linear narratives, for example, are not just useful strategies for evading state censorship. Christian Gazi’s A Hundred Faces for a Single Day (1972) departs from Arab cinema’s reliance on realism to wage an experimental polemic against what he viewed as the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s inadequacy. Comedy, too, has a place in political cinema, as seen in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven (1975), a black comedy about the bureaucracy of the German Communist Party and its clash with anarchists. Not to be misled by the hush of his films, Pedro Costa brings individuals on the periphery of social life into the core of politics by the simple means of visual representation. In a system that silences people to maintain its violence against them, quiet cinema is necessarily political. A cinema that puts into question the efficacy of traditional revolutionary aesthetics and challenges the popular conception of revolution is able to broaden the conditions of possibility that constitute the political subject.
What distinguishes the mid-century avant-garde filmmakers from their predecessors is their attention to cinema as an epistemological struggle. British film critic Peter Sainsbury defines epistemological cinema as “self-reflexive films that reference nothing but themselves…so the films are about the constituents of cinema, its history and its traditional forms, its use of spatial and temporal relationships and its processes of recording and transcription.” These films existed outside the dichotomy that hitherto encompassed cinema: experimental formalism as an end goal and linear narrativization as a means of political posturing. Far from being dichotomous, modernist cinema affirmed that the aesthetic is embedded in the political project. Inheriting a body of cultural criticism from Marxist theorists, semioticians, and psychoanalysts, the modernist avant-garde was wary of the ideological function of cinema and set out to use its elements against itself. Notably, the leftists of the French New Wave, mobilized by the events of May 1968, produced an oeuvre simultaneously formalist and political. Jean-Luc Godard’s use of meta-narrative in the opening sequence of Tout Va Bien (1972) serves as an indictment on the process of filmmaking in a capitalist economy.
Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gentino, two key figures in the New Latin American Cinema movement, describe revolutionary cinema as that which “does not illustrate, document, or establish a situation passively; it attempts instead to intervene in that situation as a way of providing impetus towards its correction.” It might be more beneficial to consider whether or not pedagogy even has an appropriate role in cinema. Can filmmakers elucidate in 120 minutes or less what writers, educators, activists, thinkers spend years laboring over? Probably not, but providing the means for an attainment of greater knowledge upon which future action may be grounded is practical. The ingenuity of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (2006) lies in the sense that the film transcends a pedagogical function despite being so forthright about global capitalism and neocolonialism. The sequences of dignified social life (ie: survival) interspersed throughout the fervent drama of the film’s mock trial, coupled with an unresolved ending, abstain from facile depictions of good vs. evil/victim vs. oppressor along with the mystified catharsis of watching the former vanquish the latter. Sissako’s film moves its viewers because of the fullness of its creative capacities, not because of the facts stated about the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
The efficacy of political cinema cannot be quantified by its proximity to concrete, political action – that is to say, the ‘best’ of political cinema is not that which will move its audience, made newly aware of the intolerable conditions of the world, to abandon the movie theater en masse in favor of riots in the streets. Linear mappings of causality between art and material tremors in the social-political sphere cannot sustain the former’s multiplicity of form and subjectivity. What new channels of thought can emerge from rethinking political cinema less as the practice of political consciousness than a domain for the contemplation of complex, indeterminate ideas that surround the political subject? Reimagining representation, forming a new language to express a world not yet realized is paramount to cinema as a ‘post-reality’ medium. Cinema is to material representation what poetry is to language: a transcendence of limitations, a flood to break its dams. If Wittgenstein (dubiously) claimed that, “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”, it should be contended then that what we cannot see we must film.
Political cinema today oscillates between two poles: on one hand that which advocates for didacticism as its essential feature, and on the other the new sensibility of modernist cinema that problematized the desire for knowledge and disrupted traditional structures of storytelling. How does political cinema navigate the ethics of social-political representation without abandoning the aesthetic and thematic elements of modernism? Political cinema must be considered as a mutable medium that is constantly addressing the unique temporal and spatial circumstances in which it is made. Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016) could not have been made had neoliberal austerity not reigned over Europe for the last decade. Political cinema would serve little should it embody an ahistorical brand of cinema that is easily distinguishable upon a set of signifiers. Political cinema as a discourse cannot be attributed to any one film or auteur or influential essay written about a film. It is the sum total of a cache of films, directly or indirectly in dialogue with each other, that constitutes the epistemology of what we today call ‘political cinema.’ A cinema that bypasses multiplicities to offer up closed hermeneutics – in other words, to provide us what it thinks we want to see rather than the capacity to stand back and think – is, to a large extent, useless.
Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, "Towards a Third Cinema", Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema (1983).
Peter Sainsbury, "Editorial", Afterimage Vol.4 (Spring 1974).