The revival of radicalism in today's cinema has precedents. Stephen Philip looks at the influence of Communists on radical cinema.
It is the tale of the "steadily moving left show". From Britain, France, Belgium and Denmark, to Latin America and Hollywood (or "Indiewood" - the collaboration of independents and studio resources) we have seen a quantitative growth in politically or socially committed cinema. In addition there is a plethora of underground activist videos.
Another sign of this growth was at last March's Left Forum in New York - a forum bringing together left intellectuals and activists. There was for the first time a seminar entitled "Does left influence in cinema make a difference?" Also the most talked about films at the Cannes film festival have been Ken Loach's film about the Irish civil war, Nanni Morretti's lambasting of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Richard Linklater's indictment of the food industry, Fast Food Nation.
This tectonic shift in the film culture makes one think about the relationship of filmmakers to political and social movements. Some contemporary filmmakers are openly agitating against the system through the prism of anti-capitalism. So was there a different relationship to political filmmakers and the left in the 1930s, a time when progressive filmmakers anchored their artistic ambitions more directly within the labour movement?
The impact of the Communist parties on world cinema is much underrated and underappreciated. Standard film histories hardly mention the role of the organised left. Its political and ideological impact on both cinema in general, and a range of major film authors in particular, has almost been written out of history. Yet the role of the Communist Party (CP) - for better or for worse - is written into the fabric of world cinema. It acted as a forum for filmmakers to forge bonds of solidarity with it or to launch critical disagreements against it.
This brief article doesn't in any way pretend to be an exhaustive or definitive list of the CP's role in cinema and doesn't really touch upon the wider role of Marxist and socialist ideas upon filmmakers. But two things are clear: firstly, that left wing intellectuals - revitalised by political practice, debate in the party and related cultural journals, film workshops and cine clubs and film societies - also produced works of cinema; and secondly, that the contribution of Marxism is an indelible part of film culture, even though Stalinism crushed the innovations of the great Soviet filmmakers.
The Popular Front
In the West, it was the Communist Party's Popular Front strategy that inspired many left-leaning artists to work under its aegis. The Popular Front was a "cross-class" alliance created to fight fascism, but its fault was that it subordinated the radical forces to the political priorities of the most conservative voices in the alliance.
French director Jean Renoir, a towering influence in world cinema, raised money for the CP by supervising the CP-produced film La Vie est à Nous in 1936. He then also made the charming and subversive Le Crime de Monsieur Lange in collaboration with the Groupe Octobre, a left wing theatre group, which the CP was less appreciative of as it thought it too left wing. The social and poetic realism of Jean Renoir in the1930s wasn't simply a creation of his genius but was developed in dialogue with the Popular Front and the French Communist Party.
During the depression in the US the Popular Front also galvanised a layer of artists and filmmakers. Orson Welles, whose favourite filmmaker was Renoir, and who is often cited as one of the greatest US directors, was highly influenced by the organised left in the 1930s. Welles belonged to a range of Popular Front organisations that staged anti-capitalist musicals. When he produced an anti-capitalist opera, The Cradle Will Rock, the police prevented the show from opening. As a result Welles led a march up Broadway — New York's West End — and presented the performance in a rented auditorium. A staunch anti-racist activist, he gave speeches up and down the country and staged the first all black production of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
The Communist Party of the US had a strategic aim to subvert US popular cinema and its genres with left wing writers trained by its cadres. The fact that it produced writers who went on to write some of the outstanding films of the 1940s has only been belatedly recognised.
In Italy filmmakers radicalised in the struggle against fascism looked to the CP for leadership. The father of Italian Neo-Realism was Luchino Visconti who once worked as an assistant for Jean Renoir. Influenced by Renoir's left wing circles he shifted his political allegiances from a flirtation with fascism to a lifelong commitment to the Communist Party. His compassion for the working class shines through in his earlier films such as the dark, poetic, brooding La Terra Trema — which was partly funded by the Communist Party. The film grew out of a commission to highlight the plight of Sicilian fishermen, farm workers and sulphur miners.
The Italian left hotly debated the work of Neo-Realists — some conservative CP critics were rather sniffy of their contribution. Where would we be without Neo-Realism and its offshoot, the operatic realism of Visconti's The Leopard? Would there be a British realism of the 1960s, a Czech new wave or a US indie film culture?
Disenchantment with the CP in Britain after the crushing by Russian troops of the 1956 rising in Hungary gave a boost to the New Left. The British social realism of the 1960s had as its catalyst the Free Cinema movement led by Lindsey Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, who were tired of stale middle class British cinema. In the 1950s they produced seminal documentaries on the emerging vibrant working class youth culture. The intellectual genesis of their ideas was formed in a relationship to the universities and the Left Review Club — an independent alternative to the CP. In fact this club funded a tour of Free Cinema documentaries around the country. The CP may have done some sterling work with the Workers' Film and Photo League in the 1930s but now they were a failed vision for young activists. But you wouldn't think that the New Left had any bearing on the formation of the Free Cinema group if you read authoritative film history books such as the Oxford History of World Cinema or Mark Cousin's Story of Film.
Not only has leftist politics shaped genres and been a catalyst for film movements in the 1930s to the 1950s, it has also been the inspiration for key figures in the film canon. Consider the director of The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci, before he became a Buddhist. His first film, Before The Revolution, was intended as an internal dialogue about his membership of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) and his epic 1900 was a part tribute to the PCI. Space precludes me from mentioning further the work of CP sympathiser Charlie Chaplin, or Communist Party members Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ousmane Sembene and Theo Angelepolous.
In Latin America the organised left found a home within the populist movements. In the late 1960s Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, who were supporters of Juan Peron, formed the Cine Liberacion Group whose work played a central role in defining political cinema in Latin America. Their unforgettable The Hour of the Furnaces is the totemic film of this period. In Chile left wing filmmakers allied themselves with Salvador Allende and his Populist Unity Party. One result was The Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzman, a film of struggle that is utterly compelling in its description of the coup against Allende.
The Popular Front's collapse and the right wing purge of the left in 1950s Hollywood broke the red thread of political cinema for a generation in some countries. However, the film practice of committed documentary, the subversion of popular cinema, social and poetic realism and political modernism are the great legacy of the socialist movement in world cinema.
Today the revolutionary left has a further role to play in engendering a discussion about form and content of cinema. The well attended Socialist Workers Party's Red Friday film showings, the lively review pages on film in SR, and the eagerly anticipated talks on left wing cinema at Marxism 2006 are all part of trying to re-establish a link between cultural theory and practice. Who knows which filmmakers of tomorrow will see their futures linked with a revolutionary working class organisation?