This year’s Fourth of July, Independence day, didn’t need President Trump’s chest-thumping, military orgy of bogus patriotism to further vulgarize what has long been an embarrassment of ugly jingoism and national myth-making by politicians and media pundits. Most US workers enjoy the mandatory fireworks, cook outs, and the day off, but partake little of the official babble.
But this year, we were blessed with two meaningful “entertainments”
book-ending the early-summer holiday.
On July 2, Amazon Prime released for streaming Mike Leigh’s powerful film, Peterloo. While its theatrical releases in the UK and US were earlier, US subscribers to Amazon Prime could now watch the entire 154-minute historical depiction of the massacre of Lancashire workers gathered at St. Peter’s Field on the outskirts of Manchester (Peterloo takes its name from irony-- the military slaughter at Waterloo four years earlier). In the aftermath of the bloody, costly Napoleonic Wars, an economic downturn and protectionist Corn Laws forced unemployment and impoverishment upon the workers of the UK.
With a long history of petitioning authority (from the peasant risings to the chartist movement), English workers sought to organize meetings to appeal for suffrage, repeal of the Corn Laws, and other reforms. Some 60,000 petitioners-- men, women, and children-- gathered at St. Peter’s Field to hear famed orator Henry Hunt speak on the matter of reform.
Fear and the size of the peaceful crowd led the magistrates, the manufacturers, and the government authorities to unleash the militia and the military on the unarmed crowd, resulting in many deaths and several hundred casualties. Like most unprovoked attacks on protesters, officialdom, fearing the wrath of the people, followed up with further repression of the victims and the reformers.
All movies are political, despite what the art-for-art's-sake crowd says. Some are consciously political, some are unintentionally political; some are politically clumsy, some politically nuanced. But all reflect the politics of their creators and the contextual politics of their times. In an era of fear and simplistic moralizing, of zombies and action heroes, Peterloo is a refreshing, thoughtful tribute to conscious, nuanced political filmmaking.
The movie explores the layers of commitment and understanding that inform mass action. It exposes the role of various political tendencies in shaping the climactic moment and its outcome. Like Claude Berri’s wonderful, but neglected film version of Zola’s Germinal, Peterloo forces the viewer to think about the political alternatives available to the oppressed. It is impossible to watch either movie without carrying on an internal debate (or, better, a comradely discussion with others) over the larger questions of the effective routes to social justice.
Equally, Peterloo does not spare us the damage of misleadership. Viewed by the masses as a kind of biblical savior, the self-assured, wealthy, patronizing Henry Hunt is depicted as man-not-of-the-people. As Paul Foley reminds us in The Morning Star: “Rory Kinnear’s Henry Hunt, while being a great orator, is condescending towards working people in general and the north of England in particular. It is a timely reminder that, as with Hunt, liberal social democrats will always sell working people short.” (A comment that conjures the Democratic Party “saviors” who are currently vying for Presidential brass wing)
It is unlikely that tales of zombies and DC comic heroes would inspire a poet like Percy Bysshe Shelley who, when he learned of Peterloo, wrote of the martyred:
“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many, they are few.” (quoted in The Morning Star review)
On the other side of the Fourth of July holiday (July 6), Turner Classic Movies screened the incomparable The Battle of Algiers as part of its Essentials series. Hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and the amazing Ava Duvernay (When They See Us), TCM brought the seldom shown Gillo Pontecorvo 1966 masterpiece back to a broad national audience. Duvernay’s passionate enthusiasm for the film pushed Mankiewicz to declare that it was his favorite film, a claim from which he tactfully backed away.
Depicting the Algerian national liberation struggle, focusing on the city, Algiers, between 1954 and 1957, The Battle of Algiers captures the intense resistance of the Algerian people to their French colonial masters in a vivid, black-and-white documentary style. With one exception, the participants are non-actors, several of whom were actual participants in the national liberation front, the FLN.
The film both graphically and honestly deals with the theme of revolutionary violence. A fictional leader, Ben M’Hidi, captured and showcased to the press by French paratroopers, is grilled by reporters on the FLN’s use of violence against French civilian colonists. Explaining that FLN violence was a response to colonial violence, Ben M’Hidi went further, pointing out the asymmetry of a subjugated people fighting a mighty modern army: “Let us have your bombers and you can have our women’s baskets [in which the FLN plants bombs].” No better answer has ever been devised to the ubiquitous charge of “terrorism” lodged by cruel, cynical imperialist masters whether they be the South African apartheid regime, the Israeli IDF, or the US expeditionary forces.
Pontecorvo also addresses the question of historic immunity, linked by many today with the legacy of Nazi persecution of the Jews. The para colonel Mathieu, the figure who visits the most vicious, draconian tactics on the FLN, was a resistance hero against the Nazis. Despite his experience of Nazi inhumanity, he is fully capable of exhibiting his own inhumanity against another people; he is capable of savagery, just as descendants of death camp victims are capable of injustices against Palestinians today.
Pontecorvo boldly shows that the “civilized” French people were capable of the most brutal torture, including waterboarding, electro-shock, and forced contortions. Like every other “civilized” imperialist country, France went into official denial, banning the film until 1971 (France similarly banned Henri Alleg’s autobiographical account of his torture at the hands of the paras, La Question). It is not possible to ignore the parallels of national denial of torture by the US in Vietnam and Iraq or by Israel in Palestine.
The Battle of Algiers-- a fictional artifact-- underscores a truth that imperialists must relearn again and again: an oppressed people cannot be dominated indefinitely. Though the French appear to destroy the FLN movement, the film ends with another rising of the people, a more effective, more popular rising, that succeeds in driving the French from Algeria, a lesson that the US has yet to absorb with its interminable wars of aggression.
Like so many other militantly left political films, The Battle of Algiers has been largely relegated to art-house showings. Yet its profound capture of people’s resistance has not been lost on the agents of counter-revolution. In August of 2003, in the course of the occupation of Iraq, the Pentagon offered its fighters a showing of The Battle of Algiers explaining, as its flyer announced:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (and Ava Duvernay), a wider audience could now understand how a poor, long suffering people can defeat a far greater power determined to impose its will.
In the midst of another extreme-climate summer, offering little more than shallow political theater, corrupted journalism, the constant frightful encounters with the walking dead, and the moralizing adventures of superheroes, what a treat to digest these two important, sophisticated, and fulfilling movies!