Film as Political Vehicle: Two Films Offer Insight into Today's Iraq
Dickstein, Douglas Evan, The World and I
Film as outlet for political comment is anything but a new concept. Debatably, the two most important silent films ever made were Sergei Eisenstein's ode to the Russian Revolution Potemkin in 1916 and D.W. Griffith's less than politically correct civil war epic Birth of a Nation in 1919. Potemkin acted as a call to arms for the Russian populace while Birth of a Nation is revisionist history about a war barely 50 years old at the time. "We will be able to teach history in the future through the film medium," stated Griffith.(1)
Criticism for both these films has a tendency to concentrate on their technical achievements. The revolutionary technique of Potemkin, with its close-ups and quick-cut editing, gets far more concentration in college film classes than the actual revolution itself that the film was featuring. But both films signaled not merely the next step in how films were made, but set the standard for both political and war films that is still relevant today.
Potemkin brings to mind the words of filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who stated, "There is no cinema which stands above class, no cinema which stands above class struggle."(2) These words would ring true for the cinema verite films of Dreyer, Rosellini, Da Sica, and others that would follow in the ensuing decades. These examples of "live cinema" arose out of political events or reflections(3) that depicted the struggles of the common man of Germany, the repressed masses of Italy and so forth. Championed by the influential French film critic Andre Bazin, these films were often held up as examples of depicting the class, social, and political struggles of the day without the artificiality and manipulative filmmaking techniques demonstrated by Eisenstein.
The arguments of style over substance, however, undermine the very power of the film as political vehicle. The intellectually interesting but ultimately pointless debates among critics about what kind of film is the best form of political filmmaking obscures the very basis for a political film to exist in the first place. To the people watching the political film, the purpose is to move them to thought, anger, action.
The Battle of Algiers
In 1965, The Battle of Algiers was released, a movie that combined the seemingly diametrically opposed theories of Eisenstein and cinema verite to create what some believe is the most stirring political film ever made.
The rerelease of the The Battle of Algiers into American movie theaters earlier this year created more than a bit of timely swirl comparing the landmark film to the current situation the United States finds itself in in Iraq. The film, which focuses on the 1954-57 uprising in Algiers by the National Liberation Front (FLN) against occupying French rule, was prominently featured at the Film Forum in New York on January 9, 2004 (4). A comparison between the film and current events was made by those who would market it. Gems from Pauline Kael's 1966 review of the film in the New Yorker such as "Probably the most stirring revolutionary epic since Potemkin," along with a quote from former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski stating, "If you want to understand what's happening right now in Iraq, I recommend The Battle of Algiers," helped audiences know what they were supposed to think heading into the theater. However, no one line likely stirred curiosity more than that displayed on the trailer for the film, when it states in bold letters "Viewed by the Pentagon, 2003."
This seemingly clear connection between 1950's Algiers and modern-day Iraq, however, was denied by Christopher Hitchens, author of the book A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. "Unless I am wrong," mused Hitchens in an article for Slate.com, "this event will lead to a torrent of pseudo-knowing piffle from the armchair guerrillas." He later states, "Those making a facile comparison between the Algerian revolution depicted in the film and today's Iraq draw a . …