1. Xala, Metaphor and Satire
Metaphor and satire is a perfect pair of instruments in terms of expressing political ideas and evoking popular audience. Satire manages to get anger and laughter at the same time. Metaphor offers the audience a chance to figure out the hidden agenda by themselves. However it doesn’t necessarily strengthen the political ideals that are the film’s underpinning. I think metaphor and satire allow the director to get his or her idea out to the public easily but less powerful. I think people do not take satire seriously.
Take “Xala” as an example, “Xala” is literally a story about marriages and "Xala," a curse of impotence. Sembene Ousmane takes the conflict between modernity and tradition as a breakthrough point to criticize the post-colonial African government of Senegal. Sembene reveals the hypocrisies and absurdities of the post-colonialism through El’s ridiculous marriages.
In Xala, the aggregated portrait of female characters particularly demonstrates the tension between the western “Frenchness” and the traditional “Africaness”. In the scene where El Hadji collects his two wives for his wedding to this third, Sembene introduces us to three different types of African women by contrasting their dressing styles. El Hadji’s elder wife, Adja, is a traditional docile African woman. She wears a vibrantly colored grand boubou with her hair wrapped in a scarf. We not only see a faithful and supportive wife but also discover the African traditions, history and religious duties from Adja’s dressing and body gestures. Oumi, El’s second wife who is completely different from Adia, is totally modern and westernized. She wears a black backless dress with sunglasses and a wig. These western “consumer goods” that she wears highlight Oumi’s “possessive individualism” and her characteristic of money worship. During their conversation in Oumi’s apartment, she also disparages the traditions as she speaks in French, referring to Awa as an “old dried up fish”. And finally El Hadji’s third wife, N’Goni, has no mind of her own, is dressed in her white European style wedding dress under a veil simply as an object to satisfy El’s sexual and materialistic desires. The transformation of these three women parallels and leads to the corruption that El Hadji has been through. Sembene says, “He got his first wife before becoming a somebody. Along with his economic and social development, he takes a second who corresponds, so to speak, to a second historical phase. During this process, El Hadji too, is engulfed by the western modernity. He dresses in western suit, speaks French instead of his mother tongue, and spends a huge amount of money to get a wife who matches his understanding of western modernity. As he betrays his first wife, he betrays his African traditions and identity. When El’s second wife mercenarily takes away his money and his third wife brings him the “Xala,” his blind worship and imitation of Europeaness finally destroy him. It shows that the European power continues to rule the country even after Senegal’s independence.
3. Dialectics and Political Films
Starting with Eisenstein, dialectic approach plays a big part in political films but not the most powerful approach in my opinion. I don't think it has evolved much in the trajectory of our class or as a tool in political filmmaking.
Dialectical approach emphasizes that everything is composed of contradictions, two opposing forces. Dualism is particularly useful since it makes things muddy and simpler. I think the power of a political film with dialectic approach depends on its audience intellectual level. Eisenstein’s theory is revolutionary because he is the first one who took dialectic into film. Dialectic itself is a real old instrument. I don’t think there has been much development in terms of dialectic approach in filmmaking.
In “the General line”, Eisenstein used dialectical approach to show the dualism between the old and new, how they transform from and to each other. He intended to show that there are two sides to everything. “The General Line” is a very successful and persuasive movie for its target audience, nearly illiterate Russian, and the post revolution time period. If the film faces a highly critical and educated audience, it probably wouldn’t have much influence.
In “the Battle of Algiers,” the colonizer and the colonized form a dualism, the violence and peace form a dualism, and the modernism and traditionalism form a dualism. Comparing to “the General Line”, I think “the battle of Algiers” is less manipulative and more faithful to history. However its notion to justify and reasoning the colonizer makes me very uncomfortable, as well as Albert Memmi’s book “the colonizer and the colonized” does.
“The Cache” is made in 2005. Dialectical filmmaking has traveled a long way to that point. However, it hasn’t evolved much, at least, I still recognize it right away. There is the opposition between social classes which is expressed in such a loud and unsubtle way, with the contradiction between the setting of George’s house and Majid’s house; There are also the French and the Algiers; the conflict between generations. I feel that the director expresses so many ideas and has so many agendas that the film becomes weak.
“Jeanne” is an example of not using dialectical approach at all. I read some review calling the film a feminism film whose main conflict is Jeanne against the patriarchal world. I disagree. Actually I don’t know how to describe the approach used in “Jeanne.” There isn't a term for that. It’s a unique Chantel Akerman approach and philosophy.
4. Jeanne and the Structure of Despair
“Jeanne” breaks almost every rule of classical cinematic narrative yet it achieves what conventional film would never achieve. I don’t think I have ever seen a film that has as much negative and destructive power as “Jeanne”. “Jeanne” made me tremble with its passive aggressive way of persuasion. It reminds me the time when I first watched “Werckmeister Harmonies” by Bela Tarr. I remember once he was commenting on narration and he said: “I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another ... All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that's still genuine -- time itself; the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds." I didn't fully understand his words until I saw “Jeannie.” I think Bela Tarr’s word would be a perfect example and an exact interpretation of “Jeanne.” Also, Chantel Akerman said, “ It's a film which both makes you aware that it's a film, unlike - say most Hollywood films (which hide the fact of being a film in order to tell a story), yet I could imagine my mother, who is not used to avant-garde films, understanding what's going on in it.” Hollywood films try to drag the audience into the fiction world. . Most films rely on story, on music, and on character. On the other hand, “Jeannie” has a quite passive narration, minimalism acting, and no emotional evoking background music. Jeannie is a character with no backstory, no character depth. We learn about her life with the space of one apartment and in the time span of three days. There is no question posed and no conclusion made. The film dragged me into its time and space. I felt despair. My despair came from a mixture of the boredom of watching a three hours and twenty minutes long movie and Jeanne’s despair. The film tortured me physically and mentally. Its structurelessness and length are part of its structure. The form of “Jeanne” works so well with its content. Without the structure, I don't think it would be as powerfully destructive as it is now.
Other than Chantel Akerman’s unique way of using time and space, her visual style is original. I think she used a lower than normal angle through out the film. Camera movement is reduced as much as possible. The framing is extremely simple as well. As a result, the distance and equality between Jeanne and me was indescribable. I felt that I breathe the same air as “Jeannie” and that our classroom became part of the film. I had my doubts about its editing. Long takes make people think but what’s the point of extremely long takes which let the audience drift off. For instance, the last scene when Jeanne killed the man. After that, She sits in the living room for 6 or 7 minutes. I asked myself. What is the difference between 3 minutes and 7 minutes? Is this absolutely necessary? I guess she has so much to say that she has to say it with the most volume. Akerman pushes the button so hard. She tries to challenge her audience to the extent that they can not bear.
6 Limits and Potential of Hollywood Political Films
The limits of political thought within the framework of Hollywood filmmaking are mainly the problem of money and its audiences’ intellectual level. Hollywood is a business. Movies need to sell and need to be sold to a sensationalism crowd. The political thought can’t be too subtle or too complicated. It can’t be too serious and heavy.
“Jeanne” is a great movie. If “Jeanne” opens in North American theaters, it would be a box office disaster. I can imagine people falling asleep in theaters or leaving. Akerman intentionally made the sex and nudity in it not sensational at all, which I admire the most. She wants people to concentrate.
Sensationalism is powerful and terrible. Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is a very political film. It’s the highest grossing documentary of all time as well. But it’s a horrible film. On the other hand, Hollywood doesn’t like him. Moore won an Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine”. He gave a speech that night on stage about against Iraq war and he was booed down. In the after party, no one would like to talk to him, except the head of Paramount. I read this stories last year and it sticks with me. Somehow I always pictured Hollywood as very liberal. I guess in fact it’s not.
“The Siege” and “the Grapes of Wrath” both came out of Hollywood. “The Grapes of Wrath” was made in 1940. It looks deeply into capitalism and conflict between classes. Today when I think about a good Hollywood film that talks about capitalism, I can’t find any. I was touched by independent film “the Wolf of Wall Street” because I think it’s about materialism and capitalism but many people only see sex and drugs in it. It is too entertaining. Hollywood films have to be entertaining. I think political thought can be expressed in an entertaining way but the sensational factors prevent people from thinking. There isn’t a balance between keeping the audience and conveying political thought seriously.
“The Siege,” made in 1995, is a not so good movie but there are political thoughts worth thinking in it. There is the voice of terrorists. It’s trying to be a fair movie. The scary things are things like “Argo” or “Zero Dark Thirty”. “Argo” is such a well-made film with amazing actors and writers but it reads like pure propaganda. I’m not an American. The patriotic evoking agenda in political film like “Argo” really upsets me. It’s a successful movie with the emotion driving music, the plot and the sensational tagline with bad words in it. Its usage of dialectics is so persuasive and manipulative however the portrait of Iran is unacceptable.
“Argo” won the Oscar and then “Twelve Years a Slave” won the Oscar. I really don't see the potential of Hollywood political films.