Thursday, 28 February 2013

Cry Freedom (1987)

It strikes me with a tolling bell that it's a quarter of a century since I first began active regular cinemagoing - it began with The Mission to some degree, but my own conscious choice to go the cinema and see a film that interested me was Cry Freedom - a good choice. Another strong memory is that of the slightly quaint ritual (for a film of more than two and a half hour's length) of a now strange word appearing in the middle of Richard Attenborough's political drama at the Odeon Colchester Screen 2.

This was also the era - it seems astonishing to think now - when South Africa was still firmly entrenched in the grip of legal racial segregation. Astonishing now to think that such a thing could have existed, astonishing then to think that Apartheid could have been dismantled at all, by anything other than violent means. That it didn't was thanks to the likes of Nelson Mandela (freed at last in 1990 after 27 years imprisonment), the sustained pressure by those corporations and nations (who did not include Great Britain) that imposed sanctions on South Africa's wealthy economy, and also the slightly underrated F.W. de Clerk - South Africa's Gorbachev to some extent - who climbed down from his predecessors' extreme enforcement of Apartheid. And not least of all, from campaigners like Sir Richard Attenborough.

Attenborough of course, had made Gandhi, which featured a brief early sequence where the Mahatma begins his great crusade for freedom by fighting for rights for Indian immigrants. This "sequel" of sorts to Gandhi covered many of the same themes, transferring Gandhi's values into the rather more complex but charismatic figure of Steve Biko, played with dignity and style by Denzel Washington, a star in the making.

John Briley's screenplay also gave a winning portrayal of the human and heroic side of Steve Biko.

Biko's story is told from the perspective of Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods, played by another emerging American star, Kevin Kline. There were those who criticised this notion of the Black Consciousness movement seen through the eyes of a white liberal perspective, although if anyone takes the trouble to watch the film this is a stance which Biko quickly mocks.

Nonetheless, mindful of the audience reaction (particularly in America) and the lack of focus on Biko's story, the makers chose late in post-production to reedit the film that began sequentially from Biko's struggle to Donald Woods', so that some of Biko's thoughts and experiences could be told in flashback by Woods during his escape from exile.

Crucially, this structure also leaves one of the major set pieces for the end: the infamous Soweto massacre in 1976. The impact of the massacre leaves an imprint on the mind. That, and the film's closing message, where the many hundreds of other victims besides Biko are listed, together with the "official" causes of death - a powerful indictment of a regime that at the time seemed immovable and invincible.

It is a fitting tribute to the film that Nelson Mandela himself thanked Attenborough years later, for awakening the world to the cruelty of Apartheid and bringing about its eventual downfall.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

It Happened Here (1964)

Dilys Powell mentions in her review of It Happened Here how the British can be rather complacent about the winning of the World War II, when they did not suffer the trauma of occupation (with the minor exception of the Channel Islands.)

Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo however, brought these elements sharply into perspective, drawing on the experience of the French just across the Channel, and transposed it into a chillingly believable occupied Britain of 1940. It was also in Brownlow's small way - as someone who wasn't personally involved in the war - his own WWII film as a tribute to those who gave their lives to fight fascism, by demonstrating what would have happened if they hadn't.

On a threadbare budget, Brownlow's initial concept was brilliantly and economically filmed with the support of fellow film student Andrew Mollo who worked on the authenticity of the uniforms and the general militaristic look of the film, the two young film makers using whatever out of the way run-down - and still bombed-out - locations they could find in the 1950s, with the remainder of the budget covered by Woodfall films in 1964, who provided the means for the minor dramatic framework of a nurse (Pauline Murray) resettled into London after her local village is attacked by partisans.

My own curiosity in the film was aroused by the presence in the (mostly non-professional) cast of Sebastian Shaw - the original Anakin Skywalker himself, from the original Return of the Jedi. (Not only Shaw, but also a future cinematographer for The Empire Strikes Back, Peter Suschitzky, also got his first break on It Happened Here.) Murray's experiences with her old friends when contrasted with her harsh new fascist masters, underline the difficulties that face those who actually were occupied during WWII, that the rest of us all too easily brush under the carpet.

Nurse Murray watches her friends about to be arrested outside Belsize Square

The ending to the film, where our erstwhile nurse is tending to the wounded (of either side), was probably the best the makers could manage given the budget, but still makes a telling anti-war message. Wars don't just end like that  - hostilities may cease, but for the ordinary person it is a severe period of recovery and recuperation, as the wounds dig deep and take their time to heal. It should also be noted that the effects of Britain's sacrifice in World War II were still being felt for years afterwards - rationing remember, was not removed until nearly 10 years after the war.

There have been many versions of an alternative Nazi future (including most recently, a bizarre Nazi-style future dictatorship in the blockbuster V for Vendetta), but It Happened Here is by far the best, most chillingly authentic depiction, without dwelling upon obvious imagery such as Hitler at 10 Downing Street or swastikas over Buckingham Palace. No, what is at work here is a much more persuasive, downbeat documentary-type view felt very much by those at the ground level, which adds to its chillingness as a depiction of day-to-day ordinary life in extraordinary - and thankfully hypothetical -  circumstances.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films