Film Society Lincoln Center brings “cinema of resistance” to its programming calendar, an unearthed look at films that function as political protests and calls to arms. From regions far and wide, the films encapsulated within this series examine some of the more commercially viable Western conflicts (Vietnam War and Occupy Wall Street) and other disputes that have gone under the coverage radar (centuries old land dispute in Quebec, the French colonization of the Caribbean islands).
Divorced from their tempestuous origins, resistance cinema can and should be re-examined through a slightly different lens than it would have been upon release. Rather than becoming swept up in the film’s zeitgeist, a logical consequence, the audience should now look at how well the director contextualizes their protest and how the film functions on a purely formal level. In this re-evaluation, an inevitable question arises: if a film works by capturing lightning in a bottle, inspiring political participation or interest, but then fails as either an enduring historical document or an interesting piece of filmmaking, does it still work? Can a politically motivated film, be it an issue/agenda documentary or a piece of resistance cinema, be re-discovered with as much enthusiasm?
The marquee name in the programming is Far From Vietnam, an omnibus treatise on the eponymous conflict from the perspective of foreigners removed from action, as shot by the French New Wave cadre of Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Joris Ivens, and edited by Chris Marker. With all that pedigree, you’d expect some insight and formal invention, especially given the charged nature of the content. For the most part the filmmakers comply, to varying degrees of excitement. One of the film’s first proclamations is “to show solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle,” a rather obvious statement that probably didn’t need to be articulated, but nevertheless signals that this is, indeed, a film with a purpose.
Despite its episodic structure, Far From Vietnam presents a mostly coherent vision of protest. The best of it captures impassioned polemical discourse from both sides, whether at rallies or in casual street conversations. Though these vignettes are filmed by French filmmakers, they never feel like casual ethnographies; these views are felt around the world, including by the filmmakers themselves. There are heartfelt pieces of black and white documentary footage weaved throughout, very much in the vein of Resnais’s Holocaust remembrance Night and Fog. He is not responsible for them, instead offering the film’s clear low-point – a pretentious, fictionalized monologue starring actor Bernard Fresson that clashes with the rest of the film’s patchwork structure.
Godard’s contribution, surprisingly, is direct and moving. Vietnamese government denied his requests for entry, so he laments the war from afar the only way he knows how, from behind the lens. He speaks eloquently about his investment in the conflict, vowing to instill political ideals into his following works. His words rang true, as his next phase was also his most political. In all, the film’s legacy remains intact some 45 years after its initial release, mostly due to its passionate yet never dogmatic pleas and unique perspective.
If Vietnam is the A-list draw (it’s receiving a theatrical run at FilmLinc following this series), Med Hondo’s visionary West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty is the standout discovery. Filmed on a single expansive, versatile stage, Hondo’s film charts Centuries-long French colonization of the West Indies islands that border the Caribbean Sea. Through the continual transformation of an elaborate stage and an inspired cast, Hondo traverses historical regimes and oppression, creating a wholly unique cinematic parable that deftly combines aspects of the American musical, interpretive dance, and Brechtian dramaturgy.
Few films can telegraph their educational purpose while retaining their uncompromised entertainment value. Perhaps it’s because Hondo creates such a singular viewing experience, but his scathing re-contextualization of history plays as an entirely earned endeavor. Regardless of the period, there’s a beautiful interplay between the indigenous populations and the foreign rulers, a tenuous relationship that sways throughout history.
What makes these films stand out is that they’re great films, not just passion projects surrounding a heated topic. They work on a variety of levels, and most of all they never sacrifice quality for topicality. Hondo’s film in particular deserves a bit of canonization.
Other titles of note include Rene Vautier’s To Be Twenty In the Aures, a scathing indictment of the Algerian war, Robert Kramer’s 16mm Ice, billed as an “unclassifiable thriller” about revolutionaries, and Joris Iven’s The 17th Parallel.
The “Cinema of Resistance” series runs August from 23rd through the 29th.