Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Land and Freedom
Dir: Ken Loach
Like all of his films, Ken Loach's Land and Freedom is good news for socialists. It has been widely acclaimed since its release in Spain in April and is due to be released in the rest of Europe in the autumn.
The film tells the story of a young Englishman, David Carr, who goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War after attending a solidarity meeting in his native Liverpool. He ends up in the militia of the revolutionary socialist POUM. David witnesses first hand the revolution which accompanies the workers' and peasants' resistance to fascism, and its subsequent destruction.
The parallels with George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia are obvious but, in contrast to Orwell, David is an unemployed worker and member of the Communist Party. The story is told through the eyes of his granddaughter when she finds a suitcase full of old newspaper cuttings and letters after her grandfather's death.
The film shows us the workers' militias which were organised during the summer of 1936 to fight the military uprising. We can compare their lack of resources with the enthusiasm and commitment of the ordinary men and women, both Spanish and foreign, who formed them. The democracy and equality inside the militia contrast with the hierarchical Republican army set up by the government to replace it.
At the centre of the film is the debate over the relationship between the civil war and the revolution. This is brought out most dramatically when peasants and militiamen argue over whether to collectivise the land of a recently conquered village. For the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and the POUM the war and revolution were inseparable. In the face of the fascists' military superiority, the best weapon the workers and peasants possessed was their revolutionary enthusiasm. They were not fighting to defend the ineffectual parliamentary democracy of the Republic, but for a new, just and truly democratic society.
The Communist Party and its middle class allies argued instead that the revolution had to be crushed in order to win the support of the Western democracies.
Land and Freedom takes us from present day Liverpool to the Aragon front and then to Barcelona in May 1937. The Communist Party has tried to seize the telephone exchange from the anarchists. David finds himself in the middle of the subsequent street fighting. Disgusted with what he has seen, he returns to the front and takes part in the POUM forces' last attack before they are disbanded accused of being 'fascist agents' by the increasingly Stalinist influenced Republican government.
As in all his films, Loach uses both professionals and non-actors along with improvisation to get over a feeling of realism. English, Spanish and Catalan intertwine in a wonderful linguistic hotchpotch. There is also the usual dosage of humour, anecdote and sentiment. The result is an explosive mixture of revolutionary politics and down to earth humanity. Whether it be a run down council estate in present day Britain or revolutionary Spain in 1937, Ken Loach takes us there.
Land and Freedom is not just history. It is also a film about today symbolised by the reaction of David's granddaughter when she learns about his past. When fascism, war, mass unemployment and rampant nationalism are rearing their ugly heads once more, here is a timely reminder of when hundreds of thousands of men and women fought for a better world and demonstrated that working class internationalism was the only real ally of the Spanish left.
The reception that Loach's new film has had in Spain has surprised many on the left. Reviews of the film have nearly all been extremely favourable. not only from a cinematographic point of view (it is one of Spain's entries at this years Cannes Film Festival) but also for its politics. More importantly it continues, a month after its release, to attract large, enthusiastic and significantly young audiences all over the country. In May it was fifth in the audience ratings--very unusual for a non-American film.
For many young people this is practically the first time they have ever heard of the revolution, which has been systematically belittled, if not obscured altogether, by the political and educational establishment. Land and Freedom presents its audiences with the sounds, sights and feelings of revolution.
As a result an important minority of young people want to know more. Even the tiny Socialismo Internacional group managed to attract nearly 100 people to a public meeting on the story behind the film in Barcelona and another 50 at the university.
As Loach himself has said, 'The memory of the terrible defeat in the Spanish Civil War can make us despair, but the memory of the Spanish revolution can give us hope.'
Andy Durgan was a historical adviser during the making of Land and Freedom
Dir: Michael Caton-Jones
If, like me, you are a fan of such movies as El Cid and The Last of the Mohicans then you will love Rob Roy. The film is set in the turbulent Scotland of the early 18th century and based on the story of one Rob Roy MacGregor, an individual whom 'honour made a man, courage made a hero and history a legend'. It is a cracker of a movie with a great cast, some very humorous dialogue plus plenty of action and dramatic tension. Jessica Lange and Brian Cox turn in excellent performances.
Unfortunately, not all the critics agree. Too many words, too long and those terrible Scottish accents! Which particular Scottish accents are they talking about? Jessica Lange is the only one to attempt a West Highland accent. The rest of the cast sound as if they have just stepped out of an episode of Taggart and as for Liam Neeson's Ulster brogue, if that is a Scots dialect, then I am the Pope of Rome!
On a more serious note, Alan Sharpe, who wrote the screenplay, claims that he tried to inject a socialist tone into the film, stating that Rob Roy was a small man caught up in the struggle between two great lords, Montrose and Argyle, for political power in Scotland. As first among equals he tried to guide his clan through the tangled web of Scottish politics.
This is, unfortunately, far from the truth. Rob Roy was a landowner, not a landholder. His clansmen were also his tenants and they paid him rent in both kind and coin. Of course, this relationship was not quite so sharp as it is today, but by the 1700s social differentiation was already well in place in the Highlands and would eventually lead to the laird and chiefs clearing the clansfolk to make way for more profitable sheep.
Many more would leave before then, ground down by famine and poverty, taking the ship from Scotland and heading for Virginia as indentured servants to tobacco planters.
Rob Roy also ran a protection racket. Landlords paid him not to steal their cattle and he made sure no one else did either. This was an entirely legal activity. It even had a name: blackmail. Profits from these activities were used to finance his speculation in cattle futures. He would buy low in Scotland and sell high in England.
His dispute with Montrose, on which the film is centred, is substantially true but his relationship with Campbell of Argyle is much more complicated. Rob Roy was a Jacobite, Argyle was not, and in order to survive, Rob Roy reputedly turned double agent and kept an eye on Jacobite clans for Argyle. Rob was nothing if not even handed. Arriving late for the battle of Sherriffmuir and, seeing that neither side would get the upper hand, he plundered both baggage trains.
So you will not be surprised to learn that Rob Roy died a moderately wealthy man, leaving his lands to his sons and their heirs who would later clear their tenants and serve the monarchy as officers in Highland regiments. Perhaps life is stranger than fiction after all.
Dir: Boaz Yakin
Fresh is a story of a 12 year old black boy growing up in New York. It has already won many awards. The film is not sentimental. It brings the unpalatable, hard facts of black ghetto life to the screen.
Michael, nicknamed 'Fresh', distributes cocaine for Corky, a black dealer, and heroin for Esteban, a Hispanic drug king. Each sees the very bright Michael as a future leader. But what Michael sees is the heroin dealers prostituting his sister, the poverty of eight people living in one room, the senseless killing of a school friend who beat a drug pusher at basketball.
His father is a brilliant chess player, but he's also black which means he will never be a Bobby Fischer. He symbolises the terrible waste inherent in their situation. But through chess he manages to teach his son some key values in life: how to protect his own and take out his enemies and how to use strategy.
This film is exciting, though of a different nature than Boyz 'n the Hood in which there is seen to be no way out, because its message is that you can play the system and win.
The film was made with French money. American money was not forthcoming because it couldn't be fitted into a 'Black film' category and certainly doesn't fit into the new Republican ideology of 'blame the victim'. Not only is Boaz Yakin white but Fresh also tears the head off Clinton's America. In watching the film what becomes clear is that without welfare there can only be drug fare. The dealers are entrepreneurs par excellence.
Despite its brilliant description of the horror of American society, the film's message of blame the dealers for the mess is too limited. But, to its credit, it doesn't show black Americans as simple victims of their situation. Perhaps as a response to the puerile Forest Gump, Disclosure or Falling Down some film makers are trying to produce something that takes a new look at America. Many of these films are increasingly political in an overt sense without losing their entertainment value. This is where Fresh fits in.
A Great Day In Harlem
Dir: Jean Bach
The front step of a New York brownstone, summer 1958. Never before or since have so many jazz greats gathered together in one place at the same time. A young photographer, Art Kane, wanted a photo to illustrate a special issue of Esquire to celebrate the golden age of jazz and so the word went round. The result is a unique piece of jazz history which is not only captured in the resulting picture but in the clips from a home movie of the day. This shows everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Thelonious Monk, all big name stars in their own right, making the most of this rare opportunity to meet fellow musicians at a time of the day--10 am--which most hadn't seen in years! A Great Day in Harlem brings together this footage with rare clips of many of the artists' live performances and recent interviews. I defy anyone not to be moved by this testimony to the talent and creativity of a generation of black artists who made music that to this day is some of the greatest ever.