This year has seen the release of two of the most valorised political films in recent years in Ava Duvernay’s Selma, disturbingly relevant in the America of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, an audacious tale of corruption and religion in 21st century Russia. Film has always been a political medium, looking back as far as Eisenstein’s silent films. Here are five other examples from recent years of cinema at its most political, powerful, and often very personal; films that are inextricably linked with the contemporary societal issues they seek to portray.
5 Broken Cameras (2012)
A testament to the evocative power of the small and intimate, 5 Broken Cameras is shot over five years entirely in and around a small Palestinian village on the west bank by peasant, father and husband Emad Burnat (whose footage has appeared on Al Jazeera), and was edited by Israeli Guy Davidi. Initially given to record home videos for his family at the birth of his fourth son in 2005, Burnat’s camera soon becomes a way for the village to empower themselves against The Israeli Army’s simultaneous building of a barrier between Bil’lin and the Jewish settlers, and their continued burning and bulldozing of the village’s olive groves. Framed by each of his five cameras destroyed by the army, the documentary serves as a potent visual autobiography and document to the power of digital media in modern protest, influential in reclaiming land at the cost of significant injuries and even lives.
This is Not a Film (2011)
Made during Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s house arrest pending the results of his appeal against his 6-year prison sentence and 20-year ban on filmmaking, Panahi’s ‘non-film’ is an incredibly revealing visual essay about confinement. Recorded on mini digital camcorders and an iPhone, and smuggled from Tehran to Cannes in a birthday cake, everything from its name with its wry reference to Magritte, to its medium and even its very existence bespeaks a powerful act of protest. There’s something quite captivating about watching an auteur attempt to isolate their film from the normative world of cinema. At times it’s incredibly humbling, like when Panahi is brought to tears, acting out scenes from his script on his Persian rug, questioning, “If we can tell a film, then why make a film?” But other points and, in fact, the entire existence of the film are a testament to the liberating power of cinema.
The Interrupters (2011)
The site of another ungraceful Oscar snub sees Hoop Dreams director Steve James, returning to Chicago to record the work of CeaseFire, a group of so-called ‘Violence Interrupters’. These workers aim to intervene in street violence in Chicago. The three ‘interrupters’, including the charismatic Ameena Matthews, daughter of the infamous Jeff Fort, are not just former gang members but were high-ranking figures with local authority and knowledge, and an eye for rising hostility. At one point in a meeting someone memorably observes, “Man, we got over 500 years of prison time in this room. That’s a lot of wisdom!” There’s a startlingly poignant determination in their identification with the kids they’re trying to save as in the incredible scene where Eddie Bocanegra, a Latino member himself troubled by the murder he committed at 17, takes Lil Mikey, just out of jail, back to the barbershop he robbed. In a year when more Americans were killed in Chicago than Iraq or Afghanistan, this was as necessary a documentary in 2011 as it was enthralling to watch.
A Touch of Sin (2013)
Jia Zhangke’s latest film infuses four stories of vengeance with conventions of Chinese wuxia martial arts films such as King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (1969) and A Touch of Zen (1971) that evoke the outlaws of those films and Chinese folklore. A miner played by Jiang Wu frustrated by the futility and pointlessness of protesting through official channels, even alludes to the tiger-fighter Wu-Song by draping a tiger-design over his rifle when he takes recourse to the exploitation of the miners into his own hands. Inspired by real acts of violence in China unreported by official media since the 2008 Olympics, the film has an added power to those recognising them from Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)
A chronological study of the Black Power Movement is facilitated by hours of often very intimate, witty and probing Swedish TV footage of the movement and its main figures edited together by Göran Hugo Olsson in much the same way the opening shot shows an American flag threading through an editing console. This significant Swedish involvement in both the editing and filming necessarily gives a distance to the subject. However, more authentic experience is illustrated by voiceover by Professors Robin Kelley, Kathleen Cleaver and the uniformly impressive Angela Y. Davis. Input from Erykah Badu and Questlove, and a soundtrack by The Roots make up an important gesture to the place that music has and has always had for black empowerment in America. At one point in an exchange that particularly lingers in the memory, Stokely Carmichael is asked whether he’s afraid to go to jail, to which he bluntly states, “I was born in jail”.
Words by James Munt