Friday 14 October 2016

Exploring the international through film

As part of my teaching this term, I am screening and introducing five films (or collections of films) from around the world that deal with various aspects of international politics. Below are my synopses. Looking forward to it!

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Regularly listed as one of the greatest films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece has won plaudits and provoked controversy ever since its release. Set during the Vietnam War in 1969, the film follows Benjamin L. Willard, a Captain instructed to travel up the Nung river and assassinate Walter E. Kurtz, a Special Forces Colonel gone rogue, establishing himself as a demigod somewhere inside neutral Cambodia. Simultaneously realistic and surreal, Coppola once claimed that: "My movie is not a movie. My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is Vietnam." Having as much to do with the drugs, the lies and the madness of the era as with the war itself, Apocalypse Now will make us ask: Does this film really criticise war or, rather, subtly glorify it? Does it undercut racism or just reproduce existing prejudices? And can we, in the end, separate the cinematic spectacle, the 'entertainment value,' from the politics it plays out?

2. Our Friend the Atom (1957)/The War Game (1965)
Appearing just eight years apart, these two short films show two very different sides of Western nuclear politics in the mid-twentieth century. Our Friend the Atom was produced by Disney to educate the public about nuclear science and extol the virtues of this 'magical' technology for everything from energy and transportation to health. In stark contrast to such bubbly optimism, The War Game depicts the events and aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack on Britain. It was produced for the BBC but deemed "too horrifying" to broadcast. With recent debates around the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system and, in light of global warming, the vices and virtues of nuclear power, these films offer a window onto past attitudes to nuclear politics that will help inform our thinking in the present. These films will make us ask: How are apparently 'elite' issues of strategy and planning connected to public perceptions of legitimacy, security and science? What do these differing understandings of nuclear technology tell us about our collective attitudes towards the future? And is it even possible to have a 'rational' debate around these issues, given how massively emotive they have been for such a long time?

3. Mustang (2015)
Set in a parochial, provincial Turkish village ("1000 miles from Istanbul"), this Franco-Turkish production tells the story of five teenage sisters, rebellious and orphaned, living with their kind but conservative grandmother and brutal, controlling uncle. After one act of youthful disobedience too many, it is decided that the girls are to be married – forcibly, if needs be. As a result, their home is gradually turned into a prisonlike "wife factory" – complete with bars on the windows. However, while the film does not shy away from the horrors possible in a patriarchal society, it is not a film about suffering but, rather, about resistance, love and the exuberance of youth. With a relevance that transcends its particular cultural circumstances, Mustang will make us ask: What are the sorts of violence that young women are particularly vulnerable to and how are these vulnerabilities perpetuated? What sorts of agency do women, of all ages, have to resist these unequal and unjust relationships? And what message might this film have for those of us living, seemingly, much further away than "1000 miles from Istanbul"?

4. World War II short films (1935-1945)
World War II was perhaps the heyday of propaganda films. Huge numbers were produced on all sides, across a wide variety of genres. This session will play a selection of British, American, French, German, Japanese and Soviet short films and cartoons, as well as excerpts from feature films such as the infamous Nazi epic Triumph of the Will (1935). Placing all these audiovisual artefacts side-by-side will demonstrate the differences but also the similarities between the competing schemes of national representation and vilification that were tearing the world apart at this time. While in many ways 'of their era,' we will find in these films certain tropes and techniques that remain in continual use, right up to today. These films will make us ask: How were perceptions of the War produced through film and how did they differ between different nations? What do these differences tell us about our own hyperactive media environments? And what, in the end, is a 'propaganda' film, anyway?

5. Embrace of the Serpent (2016)
Like Coppola's Apocalypse Now, this film also features a journey down a tropical river – a journey taken under desperate circumstances. Théo, a German explorer, seeks the help of an Amazonian shaman, the only man for many miles who can cure his fatal illness. However, this is not another story of a white European disappearing into the frightful foliage of the wild and 'primitive.' Instead, the story is told from the perspective of Karamakate, the shaman. Set against the background of the 'rubber wars' perpetrated by Euro-American invaders seeking to exploit Amazonian rubber trees, Embrace of the Serpent is simultaneously a scathing indictment of colonialism and, in the words of its director, "an attempt to build a bridge between Western and Amazonian storytelling." This film will make us ask: What place is there in our political attention-spans for forms of violence and exploitation apparently at the 'fringes' of civilisation? Are we even able to recognise all the forms of violence that such projects of domination enact? And how, given all of that, can we 'build bridges' between different ways of living and surviving in the world?