By: Jack Gross
“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.”Che Guevara
When you hear the term “revolution”, what images come to mind? Maybe it’s French guillotines staining the cobblestone streets with bourgeoise blood, or hastily assembled signs with bold black writing announcing a political, social, and/or economic grievance? Or perhaps your mind wanders to teargas, to martial law, to political coups, to sinister dictators, to megaphones, to locked arms and marching feet? Regardless of what your imagination conjures, chances are it probably isn’t a dark movie theater (and maybe some popcorn).
Yet, the silver screen has been home to a multitude of era-defining, rule-breaking, and politically charged films that have championed image and sound in the place of protests, boycotts, civil (and uncivil) demonstrations. However, revolution doesn’t just target oppressive dictators and tyrannical institutions; it can also be an instrument of change not necessarily tied to political upheaval. Artistic conventions, audience expectations, global prejudice, in addition to political institutions, can all be subjects worthy of revolution and rebellion.
However, what can film do that the written word cannot? From manifestos to pamphlets and declarations, the written word has a longstanding antagonistic relationship with authority. These written texts are composed by the educated, powerful, and influential, and their true targeted audience are those of similar status. Writings like these are meant to be consumed on an individual basis, strictly for literate, well-informed, and connected members of the public, which is why they miss out on one strikingly crucial component of any revolution: camaraderie. Film, on the other hand, is a visual medium, one whose influence, comprehensibility, and consumption is experienced by the masses, regardless of socioeconomic status. In a movie theater, the audience is a living organism, joined together by inescapable collectiveness.
This article will not solely address those films that depict oppressors and the oppressed or about the ironclad rule and unjust treatment; instead, I have elected to discuss films that rebelled against a multitude of both tangible and intangible institutions. These films are undeniably polemical in nature, and in practice, they serve the singular purpose of challenging the viewer and their perception of their world and art as a whole. So please, leave your preconceived notions and pitchforks at the theater door and silence your cell phones, because the film is about to begin.
Soy Cuba (1964) Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
“I am Cuba. Once, Christopher Columbus landed here. He wrote in his diary: “This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.” Thank you, Señor Columbus. When you saw me for the first time, I was singing and laughing. I waved the fronds of my palms to greet your sails. I thought your ships brought happiness. I am Cuba. Ships took my sugar, and left me tears. Strange thing… sugar, Señor Columbus. It contains so many tears, but it is sweet…”
Following the success of his Palme d’Or winning film, The Cranes Are Flying, which chronicled the damaged yet resilient Soviet psyche following the culmination of World War II, Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov was sent to Cuba by the Soviet government to make a film covering their proletariat revolution led by Fidel Castro. The filmmaker and his crew began working on the film just weeks after The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and a year after the US’ ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion. The final result would be a film disowned by Cubans and rejected by Russians, yet its modern-day impact on cinema, Marxist film discourse, and Western perception of revolution is monumental.
Soy Cuba presents four vignettes that document Cuba’s ascent from passive subservience to courageous rebellion fueled with a keen sense of national identity and communal struggle. The camera is almost never stationary, instead constantly floating, swaying, rotating, and gliding through scenes, mirroring the spread of the revolutionary spirit throughout the island. While Cubans felt the film was nothing more than Soviet propaganda and Soviets labeled the film too artsy for any true political use, Kalatozov poured undeniable passion, frenetic creativity, and cinematic ingenuity into every frame of this film.
At the time of the film’s release, the US was at the tail end of its Second Red Scare, and arguably at the peak of the Cold War, so it should come as no surprise that Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba was not seen by Western audiences until after the collapse of the USSR. Yet, Kalatozov’s work stands as a testament to his artistic integrity both as it challenged the Western perspective of Communism and the Soviet expectations for political propaganda.
Rome, Open City (1945) Dir. Roberto Rosselini
“It will end, Pina, and spring will come again, more beautiful than ever, because we’ll be free. We have to believe it and want it.”
Made just two months after German forces left Rome, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City is widely regarded as the catalyst for Italian Neorealism, and perhaps even popularized realism in global cinema. Using a handful of non-actors, war-stricken shooting locations, and a style meant to emulate truth rather than fiction, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City was not only a film rebelling against fascism and the defeated Nazi regime but also against the structure of film itself. Rome, Open City, and many other Italian films in this period, brazenly pushed back against the globally accepted Hollywood style of filmmaking (A-list actors, sound stage production, invisible editing, happy endings, etc). In doing so, Italian filmmakers began to make films that more accurately reflected those that watched them: everyday people. With representation came cultural consciousness, and as Italy’s working-class began to expand in the aftermath of the war, so did its cinematic depiction.
The film itself is a war drama that follows the lives of multiple Italian citizens either suffering from or rebelling against the Nazi occupation. Pina, an unrelentingly passionate wife and mother live day to day married to a Resistance fighter Francesco, as Don Pietro a virtuous yet also rebellious priest attempts to wander the moral gray area between sin and justice. As their struggles for liberation seemingly grow increasingly futile, Francesco promises Pina that “Spring” will come, or a time Italy is finally free from German rule and where they can all live freely together. This message remains thoroughly at the forefront of the film, even when Pina is unceremoniously gunned down and Don Pietro is executed. The film ends as a group of kids walk together out of frame, while St. Peter’s Basilica, a well-known church, is seen in the background, a clear indication that while Rome still stands, and the youth still wander the streets, there can forever be hope that “Spring” will come.
Besides its clear optimistic message, Rome, Open City is also notable for its championing of the working class. While in the grand scheme of things it might have been an oversimplification on Rosselini’s part, Rome, Open City does not appear to present a country stricken with a socioeconomic power struggle, but rather a unified national coalition against a singular oppressor. It is in this way that Rome, Open City, and other Neorealist films further rebel against western standards, instead of looking to uplift the middle class in a new emerging social hierarchy. While Rome, Open City concerned itself with the arrival of “Spring”, the Neorealist films following it proved Spring was just the beginning of a new national struggle aimed at rebuilding and rediscovering identity.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) Dir. William Greaves
“Terry, your job is that you’re the person that is in charge of filming this film being filmed. Okay?”
1968 is perhaps one of the most tumultuous, iconic, and monumental years in American history. However, before society’s fateful move away from the rambunctious free love attitude of the 60s, rebellious sentiment seeped into film, arguably culminating in William Greave’s boundary-breaking docufiction titled Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One.
The film’s premise is presented in a rather unbelievably innovative fashion, as it works to present a clear allegory for revolution between a filmmaker and his crew. Director William Greaves is filming a scene in the park with actors, and with him are three sets of film crews—one focused on the actors for the immediate plot, another instructed to film behind the scenes of the first crew, and the third given complete creative freedom as to the subject of their coverage, whether it be people walking in the park or a dog lying in the grass. What follows is a complete deconstruction of documentary filmmaking, an entirely revolutionary multilayered look into both narrative, documentary, and spontaneity. However, the innovation doesn’t stop there, as in a later key scene, a group of crew members begin to question Greaves’ abilities as a filmmaker, suspecting they are supposed to secretly contribute to the film’s structure without the Director knowing in an attempt to salvage what they consider to be a doomed project.
Greaves himself further elaborates on this connection between avant-garde creation and revolution in the film. When discussing his intentions to force the crew to revolt against his own film, a film Greaves acknowledged was never going to work, the film suddenly presents itself as a self-contained metaphor for the changes America was undergoing in the 60s. Greaves explains that when a group of educated and problem-solving individuals identifies a broken system, it is their job to rectify it by any means necessary. In a profound and revealing conversation in the park, the Director labels his film (both the core scene the first crew was shooting and the structure of all three crews together) a flawed approach, one that he hoped his crew would not only realize was defective, but one they would rally together to fix. By joining together before this revelation, and working together to question, debate, add meaning to, and challenge Greave’s vision and control, the crew inadvertently gave much more meaning to the film itself and helped cement it as one of the most impressive revolution films of all time. It is in this sense that Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the most innovative and effective revolution films because, besides its structure, it expertly reveals itself to be a brilliant allegory for the collective challenging of authority and well-organized change.
Throw Away Your Books, Rally on the Streets (1971) Dir. Shūji Terayama
“Even people who don’t like America like running hot water, their own cars, Hollywood movies, a high standard of living.”
Following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski, the US occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952. During these seven years, the US initiated sweeping social and political reforms aimed at propping up Japan as America’s capitalist puppet. The US initiated laws to establish Japan as an egalitarian society with a strong consumerist economy. Even after its withdrawal, the US maintained a strong military force in Japan allowed by the 1952 Security Treaty. This agreement became a contentious topic for Japanese youths, who protested against the US’ continued military presence first in 1960 and later in 1970. What was to be later known as the Anpo Protests birthed strong anti-capitalist and anti-US sentiment in the emerging anarchist Japanese youth. This radical shift in behavior did not go undocumented in film, and I think the epitome of Japanese angst, rebellion, and bitterness is seen in the experimental playwright Shūji Terayama’s debut feature film, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets.
The film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Sometimes it’s a nauseating mess of bright colors and strange vignettes, at other times it shatters the fourth wall with confessions made directly to the camera, and never once does it feel like a normal viewing experience. In short, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets may be one of the best artistic renditions of anarchism. The anti-American imagery is undeniably provocative, yet what stands out more is the filmmaker’s utter disregard for rules, establishment, or any semblance of order, both in terms of filmmaking and societal expectations. Japan’s descent into materialism, a notion critiqued as early as the 1950s with the films of Yasujirô Ozu, seemed to be the main concern of Terayama, who correlated the country’s poor living conditions, banal philosophical/ political introspection, and obsession with national image as having direct correlation with America’s influence, a perspective undoubtedly born from and cultivated by the Anpo protests.
This is Not a Film (2011) Dir. Jafar Panahi
“If we could tell a film, then why make a film?”
Iran has long censored its media to an extreme extent, giving it a reputation as one of the most restrictive and difficult nations in which to create art. Filmmakers are often worried about imprisonment if their films are too vocal about Iran’s government, which has led many filmmakers to find artistic ways to criticize Iranian society without alerting the government, such as meta cinema or the use of child actors. Examples of this include one of Jafar Panahi’s earlier films titled The Mirror, which follows a young girl’s journey home from school and operated as a critique of the ways in which women are treated in Iranian society. Another is There is No Evil, a film consisting of vignettes all serving as scathing critiques of Iran’s death penalty. One of the most renowned and successful Iranian filmmakers that was repeatedly able to make films critical of the government was Jafar Panahi, who was put under house arrest and ordered to stop making films by Iranian leadership in 2011.
With a pending trial and anxiety surrounding possible prison time, Panahi underwent a film project as a means of metaphorical and artistic escape; however, in order to abide by the unjust law enforced on him, Panahi first accepted the help of a friend and fellow filmmaker to film him. Over the course of one single day, This is Not a Film chronicles Panahi’s slow insubordination, as he goes from explaining his failed film endeavors to talking about past projects, to slowly filming his partner with his iPhone, to finally interviewing a staff member working at his apartment complex. The film works as a patient progression tracking the shift from compliance to rebellion, all in the form of a home movie. After being copied onto a USB flash drive and smuggled out of Iran in a cake, the film went on to premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) Dir. Alan Resnais
“An entire city will be lifted off the ground, and fall back to earth in ashes…I meet you. I remember you. Who are you? You’re destroying me. You’re good for me. How could I know this city was tailor-made for love?”
Following the end of WWII, many countries seemed completely unable or unwilling to address or discuss the traumatic and devastating lasting effects of war. While countries like the US and Italy seemed to jump at the opportunity to depict the global armed conflict on the screen, both as a means of profit and self-discovery, countries like Germany and Japan were left struggling to discover their new identity. Through this cultural setback came prominent societal conundrums these countries would need to face: selective amnesia as a result of national trauma, reluctance to revisit wrongdoing, and general unpreparedness to reexamine the events of the Second World War. French filmmaker Alain Resnais not only took notice of this, but took monumental strides to rebel against repression, denial, and cultural amnesia.
In 1956, Resnais released a short documentary titled Night and Fog, which utilizes both wartime archival footage with footage he shot on-site at various concentration camps long after they had been abandoned. The effect is undeniably poignant, demonstrating the indescribable connection between the past and present, as well as his trepidation regarding the sanctity of the future. However, I think his most revolutionary film in galvanizing viewers into pushing back against Post-War amnesia is the feature he made right after Night and Fog, titled Hiroshima Mon Amour.
The film’s structure is rather simple. We follow two lovers, Elle and Lui, on one day as they casually discuss both of their distressing and tragic experiences regarding the end of the war. Elle, in the city of Nevers, France, fell in love with a German soldier who was killed the day Nevers was liberated, leaving Elle to be ostracized from her community. Lui was a Japanese soldier whose family was killed in the Hiroshima bombing. The two are irrevocably bound together through their experiences and memories, and while they attain some semblance of catharsis through their discussions of memory, pain, and regret, they ultimately decide they can’t be together. This realization is made when the two leads discover they only know each other through their trauma, that the events of Hiroshima and Nevers are truly the only identifiers between them, signifying a relationship that can only survive on emotional suffering.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is a revolutionary film in that it was able to critically and effectively discuss the complex ramifications of the war before so many countries were. While classified as a film belonging to the French New Wave movement, I think Hiroshima Mon Amour is as close as we’ll get to a global response to some of the most devastating and influential events of human history. Resnais uses Elle as a stand-in for the nation of France, and Lui as a representation of Japan, both nations suffering from the aftermath of the war, as the world struggles to use art as a means of recovery. Hiroshima Mon Amour reaffirms that the memory of tragedy is inescapable, yet the balance between remembrance and indulgence is one that needs to be traversed delicately, for the lines between recovery and denial can easily be blurred.
The Act of Killing (2012) Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
“What I regret… Honestly, I never expected it would look this awful. My friends kept telling me to act more sadistic, but then I saw the women and children. Imagine those children’s future. They’ve been tortured. Now their houses will be burned down. What future do they have? They will curse us for the rest of their lives.”
In 1965 and 1966, Indonesia experienced a wave of mass killings targeting “supposed” members of the Communist party. Among the almost one million murdered include many individuals with no true connection to Communism. Some were killed because they spoke out against the government, some because they disobeyed the Death Squad leaders, and many because they were sadly just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Almost 50 years later, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer would travel to Indonesia to make a documentary about these Death Squad leaders, under the ruse of attempting to reenact their horrid “accomplishments” so they can recreate them in their favorite styles of film (western, gangster, etc.) However as they recount their undeniably reprehensible and unforgivable acts of violence, it’s clear it begins to weigh on some of their consciences. It isn’t often we as the audience get to see the other side of a power struggle, because The Act of Killing is not a film about the oppressed, instead it looks to answer the question: how do murderers sleep at night? The answer at first: shockingly soundly.
Through film, Oppenheimer forces these evil men to act as their helpless victims. By using the very film we are watching as a tool for empathy (by having the men act in his film as the victims), Oppenheimer finally gets at least one of the Death Squad members, Anwar Congo, to experience the true pain and immobilizing terror he caused so many people. The audience can only hope this leads to a true semblance of remorse from the mass murderer. The Act of Killing creatively moves past the struggle for justice and centers its attention on questions surrounding culpability and guilt for the unredeemable few on the other side of the metaphorical trenches.
“The Revolution introduced me to art, and in turn, art introduced me to the Revolution!”Albert Einstein
For centuries the leading art form for revolution has been the written word. However, as the world has globalized and modernized, the library has been usurped by the theater, the author has been overthrown by the director, and ultimately, the reader has been beheaded by the viewer. Stories of revolution will forever best be told by the most cutting edge and revolutionary art form to exist, and until the apple falls, that medium will be film. I think this collection of films undoubtedly proves that.