Ordinary Heroes (Qian yan wan yu, Hong Kong (Cantonese) 1999)

Anthony Wong as Fr. Kam with street children

‘Creative Visions’ is the title of the latest celebration of Hong Kong Cinema at HOME in Manchester (continuing a series of celebrations that started during the cinema’s previous incarnation as Cornerhouse). This latest short season of films presents work from 1997-2017, twenty years since the handover of Hong Kong back to China.

HOME’s seasons come thick and fast these days and this was the only screening I could attend. Ordinary Heroes is an Ann Hui film and the ‘heroes’ of the title are five people engaged in political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly concerned with the Yau Ma Tei boat people. Ann Hui is one of a handful of global auteur Hong Kong filmmakers. She first came to attention in the late 1970s when working in Hong Kong television after training at the London Film School. She has always been interested in displaced and marginal peoples – Hui herself was born in Northern China in 1947 and moved first to Macau and then Hong Kong as a child. Her so-called ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ concerns the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the people who left the country in the late 1970s. These were commercial films and Hui has worked with the major stars of HK cinema. She has tried to straddle the ‘personal’/’commercial’ divide, often with films based on social issues, historical themes and real life stories.

The central character of Ordinary Heroes is based directly on a real political figure – an Italian priest named Franco Mella who arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 as part of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). Fr Mella becomes Fr Peter Kam (Anthony Wong) in Ordinary Heroes, depicted as a dedicated worker with street people and professing a form of Maoism as part of his liberation theology. He works in a garment factory by day and follows his mission by night, eventually committing himself to the needs of the ‘boat people’ – poor fishermen who live on their boots on the Kowloon waterfront. When they attempt to move onto land and seek housing, the colonial authorities decide to deport any wives from the mainland who are not accepted as HK residents. Kam begins a hunger strike in an attempt to shame the authorities. Hui also shows us a more conventional politician/organiser Yau (Tse Kwan-ho) and two young helpers Sow (Loletta Lee) and Tung (Lee Kang-sheng). The whole story is presented as two parallel narratives, one the dedication of Fr Lam and the other the complicated love story between Sow and Tung.

I’m still not quite sure why Ann Hui wanted to present the story in a non-linear fashion so that we see first the aftermath of an accident in which Sow has lost her memory and then through flashbacks (including the use of younger actors to see Sow and Tung as young teenagers) we learn all about the stages of their involvement in the political campaigns. One argument might be that this way we see just how much work goes in to developing the campaigns and how they are rooted in the community. The romance keeps us engaged during what is quite a challenging presentation of political struggle. One final element in the narrative is a ‘street theatre performer’, who also appears to be a ‘real character’ performing a variety of sketches which offer a Marxist and then Maoist history of China in the 20th century.

It’s difficult to source decent quality prints of films from Hong Kong – even when films are less than 20 years old – and HOME had to use what appeared to be a DVD or a digital source derived from a DVD master. It was a little washed out and the subtitles were not the best. Given the non-linear structure, I struggled to follow the first sections of the narrative, but gradually I sorted out the story and the performances of Anthony Wong, Loletta Lee and Lee Kang-sheng began to assert themselves. By the end of the film I was fully aware of the political struggle – another reminder of the suppression meted out by colonial forces as late as the 1980s. We too easily forget that British authorities were acting in this way at the time of Chinese suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. If you can find a DVD, it’s well worth the effort.

Ann Hui is one of the Chinese filmmakers profiled in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Walesa: Man of Hope (Poland 2013)

We watched this film a fortnight ago and it seems a little strange that I haven’t thought much about it since. I’m hoping that Keith will have some comments to add.

I’ve always been a fan of Andrzej Wajda and I looked forward to this biopic of Lech Walesa very much. It’s the final part of a loose trilogy of films stretching back to Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981). In the first of these films Wajda adopted an approach not dissimilar to contemporary films from other countries. He mixed fictional and archive material in a film that tells the ‘real’ story of a model worker in the 1950s. This story is uncovered by a young TV director making a documentary. The second film then explores what happened to the son of the bricklayer from the first film. It focuses on the Gdańsk shipyard in the late 1970s with an appearance by the real Lech Walesa. Man of Hope focuses directly on Walesa himself but again utilises an investigatory narrative structure so that the early part of Walesa’s story (i.e. from his first brush with the authorities on the night his first child is born during the food protests in Gdańsk in 1970) is told via the device of an interview conducted by a visiting Italian journalist in 1983. The film ends with the downfall of the Polish government in 1989 and Walesa clearly an important and charismatic leader of a workers’ movement –but with some doubts about exactly what he did and how it affected the eventual outcome.

Wajda has been making films since the early 1950s and Man of Hope is of course very well executed with good performances by the two leads, Robert Wieckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska as Lech and Danuta Walesa. Many critics have pointed out that only Wajda is capable of so expertly melding the fictional and archive footage to recreate specific events from the 1980s. However, the enterprise is fraught with dangers. There are several different audiences for the film, each with different views on Walesa and the history of Poland during the post-war period and up to the present. Walesa himself has gone through periods of popularity culminating in his election as the second President of the New Poland in 1990. Since 1995, when he narrowly failed to be re-elected, he has lost support at home whilst still being lauded in international circles.

Wajda is said to have seen this production as a personal goal, although it followed his earlier film about the Polish officers killed by the Russians at Katyn. That really was ‘personal’ and concerned his memories of his father. I’m not sure how he feels about Walesa. He promised a film about Walesa that would not be hagiographic and Man of Hope does cast some doubts on the legend, including references to Walesa being forced to act as a stooge for the Polish secret police in his early days – something he at first naïvely accepted. Did he then repudiate the links later?

Danuta Walesa at home in the family's tiny flat with the Walesa children.

Danuta Walesa at home in the family’s tiny flat with the Walesa children.

I don’t know enough about Polish political and social history to make any kind of reasoned comment on how the ‘real’ Walesa is represented. I’ve never taken to him as a public character. He was not a trade union leader in the conventional sense or a socialist. His social views seem highly conservative. In fact I confess that the collapse of Eastern European communism has always seemed to me a mixed blessing – out of the frying pan of Soviet state capitalism and into the fire of privatisation, the (not) free market etc. The story about the rise of Solidarity has the capacity for great drama, but without the depth of historical knowledge needed to analyse events I turn to the more personal stories. In Man of Hope I found Danuta to be more interesting as a character – left to cope with the children and humiliated by the Polish authorities when she returned from Oslo with her husband’s Nobel Peace Prize. (I noted in my review of Katyn that Wajda had represented the women at home in order to show the effects of the Russian invasion in 1939.)

Wajda’s film is in the end perhaps too polished. Wajda himself has argued that Polish films were artistically stronger when making films was a struggle against censorship. Now films with serious themes struggle to find audiences unless they become more conventional (and perhaps shorter – this one at 125 minutes is much shorter than its two predecessors). At least in the UK it has got a release from the Polish independent distributor ‘Project London’. In its first weekend it was in 44 cinemas but managed only a £1,497 screen average. But in Poland the film topped the box office with the best opening of the year and attracted 150,000 cinemagoers over the first weekend. Fandor rounds up some of the American reactions (to screenings at festival, I don’t think it’s out in the US yet) and I noted that Marilyn Ferdinand praises the “energetic mise en scène of the Gdańsk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists”. I do agree that this was one of the positives of the film and it is simply good to see images of a mass of workers in an industrial dispute. The workers’ tactics sometimes struck me as naïve – presumably this is due to the years of repression of free trade unions. The lack of proper union leadership was perhaps why an opportunity arose for a charismatic outsider like Walesa?

 

Hannah Arendt (Germany/Lux/France 2012)

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

I fear that I don’t have time to do this marvellous film justice, but I’ll do what I can. At the beginning of the film I found it a little difficult to engage with and I’ve seen criticism of the direction and performances. However, whatever the problem was, I overcame it quite quickly and became completely absorbed. It was only afterwards that I realised what a controversial film it has become. Although there have been the occasional gainsayers, most of the reviews have been very good and Barbara Sukowa gives one of the performances of the year.

Background (There are some spoilers here, but the film is largely based on historical record)

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a brilliant philosophy student in Germany in the 1920s and her PhD was supervised by Martin Heidegger. He eventually joined the Nazis but she was from a secular Jewish family and left Germany for France in 1933. In 1941 she fled France as well when the ’round-up’ of Jews began and landed in the US, eventually establishing herself as the first female university lecturer at Princeton in 1959. In the immediate postwar period she helped Zionist organisations to take Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

The film begins in 1960 when Israeli agents from Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and smuggled him to Jerusalem where a show trial was organised. Eichmann was one of the principal administrators of the transport of Jews to the gas chambers and the trial was an international event. Hannah was commissioned to write about the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Even before the trial her friends and colleagues were divided about whether and how she should cover it. By this time, Arendt described herself as a ‘political theorist’ – certainly she wasn’t a journalist and the New Yorker had to wait for the long articles that were published first in the magazine and then in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963. Arendt’s arguments in her report proved highly controversial for three reasons. Firstly she criticised the whole basis of the trial, since it was an attempt to put an ideology on trial, but only a man was in the dock. Second, she descred Eichmann as a man who had ceased to behave like a thinking person – in his statements to the court he didn’t display anti-semitism as such and he claimed to be an efficient bureacrat. From this observation Arendt developed her ideas about the ‘banality of evil’. Third, she suggested that some Jewish leaders had, through their behaviour in responding to the Nazis in an orderly manner, indirectly contributed to the extent of the deaths in the Holocaust.

Commentary

The film is not a biopic as such. It focuses mainly on the events surrounding the arrest of Eichmann, the trial and its aftermath from 1960 to 1964. There are also two flashbacks to Hannah as a philosophy student (played by Freiderike Becht) and then to a second meeting with Martin Heidigger in Germany after the war. It is a film largely about ‘thinking’ – and the greatest compliment that could be paid to director and co-writer (with Pamela Katz) Margarethe von Trotta is that she makes long scenes of Hannah smoking and thinking supremely watchable. Margarethe von Trotta is the New German Cinema director who has struggled the most to get a decent film release in the UK. Some of her films have had pretty bad reviews but I’ve only seen the two releases which got some support, Das Versprechen (The Promise) from 1995 which I liked a great deal and Rosa Luxemburg from 1986 which I enjoyed, but can’t remember very well. Rosa Luxemburg was another great German Jewish figure, also portrayed by Barbara Sukowa. Margarethe von Trotta has been careful to avoid the tag of ‘woman’s film’ or ‘feminist director’ but it is worth noting that she works closely with other women as creatives and often features women as central characters in her narratives. Hannah Arendt was photographed by Caroline Champetier and edited by  Bettina Böhler.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah's New York apartment.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah’s New York apartment.

A few days after seeing the film I came across the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ at the Chinese Film Forum (in conjunction with films about the Nanking Massacre in 1937). This suggests that film and other media can act as a kind of constructed historical memory coming between an individual and a historical event. I was profoundly moved by Hannah Arendt, partly through the excellence of the filmmaking and the performances but also because of my own personal memories. I was 11 when Eichmann was captured and I remember the furore surrounding the trial. I didn’t fully understand it at that age but I was aware of the issue and I think it was a defining moment re representations of the Holocaust (though I didn’t know that term at the time). But perhaps as important was the film’s use of costume and hairstyles etc. My mother was born the year after Hannah and she wore similar boxy suits in the early 1960s. The film brought back a lot of memories associated with that time. Margarethe von Trotta’s direction and Barbara Sukowa’s performance captures a thinking woman, but also a real emotional woman in a loving relationship and with a group of friends and supporters. I believed everything that Hannah said and I followed the arguments carefully – but I also responded to her as a recognisable woman. Her relationship with her husband (an interesting character in his own right as played by Axel Milberg) is also very well presented.

I must have missed the moment near the start of the film when Hannah’s American friend is introduced. She is played by Janet McTeer, a remarkable physical presence who defends Hannah like a mountain lion. It was only afterwards that I realised that this was Mary McCarthy whose novel The Group I read as a teenager. I hadn’t previously researched McCarthy’s interesting political background. The only disappointment for me was that Julia Jentsch has such a small role in the film as Hannah’s loyal assistant. She is one of the many German actors in the film which features both English and German dialogue.

Thinking and smoking . . .

Thinking and smoking . . . (photo: Véronique Kolber)

If Hannah Arendt sounds like a film filled with speech and long periods of solitary smoking, it is – but it’s also about ferocious arguments and it includes one of the most impassioned public lectures you are ever going to have the pleasure to watch. If you can find it in a cinema, go for it – I’m hoping we get it in Bradford in December.

Press pack to download.

Satyagraha (India 2013)

Amitabh Bachchan as the Gandhi-type figure in 'Satyagraha'

Amitabh Bachchan as the Gandhi-type figure in ‘Satyagraha’

I only see the occasional mainstream Bollywood film on release, but I try to keep up with how the industry is changing so I joined four other brave souls for a lunchtime screening of the latest film to star the ‘Big B’, Amitabh Bachchan.  I knew little about the director Prakash Jha except that he is an industry veteran. It was only afterwards that I realised that he had made similar films in the past, including Raajneeti (2010) which has a narrative comprising very similar elements to Satyagraha – and three key stars are common to both films. So, we are dealing here with familiar genre material for mainstream Hindi cinema: corruption in business, politics and the police force and a specific family situation involving possible betrayals of principle etc. My real interest is in whether the material is being presented in a different way, engaging its audiences differently etc. In particular, I’m interested in possible indications that ‘new’ Bollywood or ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ is having an impact on the mainstream.

Manoj Bajpai as the villainous local politician

Manoj Bajpai as the villainous local politician

Satyagraha is being promoted as a ‘political thriller’ that is ‘torn from the headlines’, enabling some reviewers to claim that this is a ‘wake-up call for the nation’ etc. I think that this is unlikely – but the film kept me entertained for its 152 minutes and early reports suggest that it is a hit in India (on 2,400 to 2,500 screens). The title refers to the practice of non-violent activism or resistance to bad government and specifically to the campaigns led by Gandhi. The Gandhi figure in the film is a retired headmaster played by Amitabh Bachchan who is trying to build a school for the poor children in his part of town in a district of Madhya Pradesh in North Central India – the literal geographical ‘heart of India’ (most of the film seems to have been shot around Bhopal). In one of those beloved Hindi cinema conventions, Daduji has a son, a brilliant civil engineer involved in developing the region with new roads. In a prologue we see the son about to be married and welcoming back his childhood friend, an orphan who has been more or less adopted by Daduji’s family. This is Manav played by Ajay Devgn – a very different ‘young man’ (the actor is in his 40s) who has chosen to become an unscrupulous entrepreneur in the telecoms industry. Manav is not very welcome now in Daduji’s household, but he returns when a tragedy occurs. The tragedy and its aftermath also attracts a crusading TV journalist played by Kareena Kapoor. For the media, the story begins when Daduji, finally snapping after the latest insult to poor people seeking their rights, slaps the local government official and ends up in the local cells. Manav with the help of one of Daduji’s former pupils (Arjun Rampal) organises a local campaign to free the old man.

Ajay Devgn in one of several scenes of protests broken up by the local police

Ajay Devgn in one of several scenes of protests broken up by the local police

Manav’s prowess with mobile phone technology and social media use means that the campaign takes off very rapidly. This aspect of the film can be seen as both a contemporary reference and as an attempt to exploit some of the innovations of earlier similar films that feature social media such as Who Killed Jessica?. It’s also part of the film’s attempt to attract younger viewers with an element of youth rebellion like that in Rang De Basanti. But of course, this is Bollywood – all the technology works instantly on huge screens with perfect pictures etc. In fact there is an enormous amount of product placement which seems rather incongruous when the main thrust of the story at least moves away from the metros and artificiality of most Bollywood towards the poorest part of India. But then, this is billed as a ‘middle-class revolution’, requiring the audience to negotiate that knotty problem around what ‘middle-class’ actually means in modern India. I would say that all the main participants are relatively privileged, but to be fair to the script, the real story is about how this group attempts to take on leadership of the ‘ordinary people’ – and finds it quite difficult to maintain a Gandhian consistency of action. The script brings in questions of communalism as well as corruption and hypocrisy.

This isn’t a masala film if by that term we mean a mixture of romance, action, adventure and comedy. It sticks largely to the central narrative which commentators have suggested draws heavily on the ‘real world’ story of the campaigner Anna Hazare – especially as a hunger strike is included. The songs in the film are mainly integrated into the storyline – in the muted romance moments and as part of the large public events. This means that the traditional appeals to the audience, beyond the central social issue, come from the ‘large’ performances by the film’s stars. Amitabh Bachchan pulls out all the stops and is certainly worth watching. Kareena Kapoor struck me as miscast – but then casting a female Bollywood star as a glamorous reporter is now so clichéd in films like this that the role seems impossible. The most intriguing casting is that of the chief villain, the local politico played by Manoj Bajpai who was so good as the gangster leader in Gangs of Wasseypur. Here he gives a highly coloured performance, complete with what looks like a jet-black wig. He even has a comedy henchman. Having said that, in a mainstream popular feature, the villain needs to be distinctive and he fulfils the role well.

I don’t know whether the film will prove to be an example of how traditional Bollywood can hold on to its ‘all-India’ audience while it tries to please the younger, better-educated metro cinemagoers with more radical stories. Bollywood Trade suggests that its prime audience seems to be in those regions outside the metros – in Central India. Meanwhile Sharukh Khan in Chennai Express cleans up across the Hindi cinema universe. Perhaps I’ll try to catch it.

Here’s the title song for Satyagraha:

Martin Luther King and the March on Washington (UK/US 2013)

This Smoking Dogs production for BBC2 and PBS, directed by John Akomfrah, is perhaps the best television programme I’ve ever seen. There are three reasons why I say this. First is the political and historical importance of the material. I can’t say that I appreciated it at the time, but only a few years later I think I recognised the political import of Martin Luther King’s speech on that August day in 1963. Second, I was blown away by both the range of archive material that the researchers had found and by its quality. Here was film footage of every crucial moment of the story of the preparations for the march as well as the event itself – and mostly looking as if it was shot yesterday. And thirdly was the skill involved in the editing process which stitched together archive and contemporary interview footage with a subtle underpinning soundtrack of electronic beats and synths to accompany Denzel Washington’s expertly delivered narration.

If you missed this, look out for it on iPlayer and YouTube – I’m sure it will appear somewhere.

An excellent piece on the doc. as it appeared on PBS in the US and with comments from John Akomfrah:

http://buzzymag.com/john-akomfrah-on-the-march-pbs/

and here’s a clip:

BIFF 2013 #17: What Happened to This City? (Kya Hua Iss Shaher Ko, India 1986)

Deepa Dhanraj from the Berlin Film Festival site

Deepa Dhanraj from the Berlin Film Festival site in 2013

BIFF19logoThere is a long story behind this film and watching it was a strange experience for me. I’m not sure what sense I made of it but the film was impressive formally and important as a historical document. What it means in terms of contemporary India is less clear and I would need a great deal of research to offer even an outline response. In his introduction, Festival Director Tom Vincent explained that he and his co-director had wanted to include a politically committed documentary as part of their 100 Years of Indian Cinema Anniversary and that when this film appeared at Berlin earlier this year, they sought it out.

This is a documentary, mostly in the form of eye-witness statements with a brief historical background and some ‘live coverage’/reportage of events in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh in 1984. Over three summer months communal riots in the city left 41 dead, many critically injured and hundreds of shops and homes looted, wrecked and in some cases set on fire. The main conclusion of the film is that these riots were orchestrated by the various political parties in the state as part of their jostling for power. The police seemed to have either turned away from the trouble or simply established curfews which made it impossible for poor people to earn a living and who therefore suffered real hardships. Only a few of the perpetrators were ever prosecuted. Before the film, Tom read out a statement by the director Deepa Dhanraj who suggested that her film was prophetic about subsequent communal riots in Mumbai and Gujarat. It’s dispiriting to think that she was right. Even so there are some positives to take away from the film.

The poor archiving facilities in India mean that films have been lost. A healthy stock of archive film helps younger filmmakers to explore the past and the issues at stake in this film depend on knowledge of Hyderabad from its days as a princely state with Muslim rulers throughout the British Raj and how that change after 1947 with the absorption into the Union and the changes in power in Hyderabad city. The most devastating part of the film for me was the demonstration in the closing stages of the ways in which the different parties (from communist to nationalist to conservative) were prepared to instruct their supporters just to vote on religious/sectarian lines. Democracy becomes farce on this basis. Can social documentaries like this change opinions by exposing these kinds of issues. It’s interesting to reflect on the impact of popular cinema addressing similar issues and the ‘New Bollywood’ film Kai po che based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel approaches the issue with its references to the communal riots in Gujarat.

What Happened to This City? also has a value as a historical document about India in the 1980s. It’s a good-looking film. Shot on 16mm, it was , like many Indian productions of the period, not properly archived but a print turned up in the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin and this print along with a negative from India enabled a German project to produce a new HD digital print. The results are surprisingly good. For me, images of 1980s India came flooding back, especially with key landmarks such as the Charminar in Hyderabad. India in those days had few cars (and those mostly old-fashioned Ambassadors) and no US branded goods. It was a less materialist and supposedly more ‘planned’ society, but corruption was rife and the police didn’t have a good reputation. Deepa Dhanraj was a brave young filmmaker. In this interview in Jump Cut magazine in 1981 she describes the ecology of political filmmaking at the time and her own work in a group making socialist-feminist films. It’s sad to think that one of the films she was making then was about piecework for women working at home that paid low rates for beautifully made garments then sold cheaply in the stores of Europe and North America. Not much changes.

The question I can’t answer is whether the appearance of this restored film on the festival circuit has any relevance for politically-committed documentary films in contemporary Indian film cultures. The industry is now more corporatised, there are co-productions and filmmakers returning from abroad. There are dozens of television channels in a more pluralistic media ecology but are there enough committed filmmakers able to fund themselves to make films like What Happened to This City? It’s good that Anand Patwardhan is still very active but I don’t know enough about what else is happening. Seeing this film has energised me to look out for more documentary material. I found this document on ‘FilmIndia Worldwide‘ published to cover the Indian entries in both Berlin and Rotterdam Festivals this year useful in providing some more names and ideas.

Bravo to BIFF for screening this film. Can we have more like it please?

BIFF 2013 #13 1913 Massacre (US 2011)

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BIFF19logoOn Christmas Eve 1913 in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan a group of miners and their wives and children were having a party in the Italian Hall when somebody shouted “Fire!”. In the ensuing panic, 74 people lost their lives, 59 of them children crushed and asphyxiated as they tumbled down the stairs. This happened during a strike at the copper mine. Ever since there has been controversy surrounding who started the rush for the doors and why so many died. In 1941 Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the events and called it ‘1913 Massacre’. In the documentary discussed here Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie plays the song in the town’s impressive theatre. A little later he visits the memorial for those who died which comprises a plaque at the sight of the last surviving brick arch of the Italian Hall (demolished in 1984). At the site of this memorial he tells us that he’s learned a great deal about American history over the years – not in a classroom or from a book, but from songs. The film turns out to be about the song, about the memories and about the narration of  history. And now this film has become part of that history. It’s clearly a history that needs to be retold for succeeding generations and also as an example of a ‘people’s history’.

1913 Massacre is a conventional documentary film but it is skilfully constructed so that it enables several discourses around the history, culture and politics as well as the personal tragedies of that day. Directors Ken Ross and Louis Galieri have put together eye-witness (or family memory) testimonies with home movies (what looks like 8mm and video footage), archive footage from the early twentieth century and even a corporate film from the mining company with Arlo Guthrie’s presentations to camera, his performances of the song and various statements by local historians. The filmmakers have worked on the film for many years, shooting hundreds of hours of interviews. Ken Ross is the filmmaker who has also taught film and Louis Galieri was first a university teacher of history and literature before moving into film production. The background to the filming of 1913 Massacre is covered on the detailed film project website.

I think I knew the name ‘Calumet’ but I certainly didn’t know the story and the film has resonated with me in many ways. Some years ago I remember being told about a similar incident in a Yorkshire coal-mining district during roughly the same period when 16 children died in a crush trying to leave a film showing in a public hall in 1908. This Wikipedia page also refers to an even worse disaster in Sunderland in 1883 when 183 children were killed in a crush at the Victoria Hall during a children’s variety show. Each of these three disasters took place in working-class communities in urban areas where the first mass entertainment venues were being developed. What was lacking was what we would now know as ‘risk assessment’ and specifically the development of ’emergency exits’ with doors opening outwards to allow crowds to ‘spill out’ in the event of fire or other emergencies. The direction in which the doors opened was a key issue in the Italian Hall disaster and discussion of this is supremely important in the film.

The filmmakers have found photographic evidence to show that the doors at the Italian Hall opened outwards, refuting what many of the townspeople have been told over the decades. Responses to the question “which way did the doors open?” are edited together with everyone saying “inwards”. It is then pointed out that it is suspicious when everyone trots out the same line. So, did someone block the doorway and then spread the rumour that the doors opened the ‘wrong way’? The film’s audience realises that the ‘disaster’ became a political issue.

Calumet was part of an extraordinary community in Northern Michigan in the 1910s. One of the biggest copper-mining regions in the world attracted migrant workers from Italy, Poland, Finland and many other parts of Europe. In 1913 workers began a major strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company – which didn’t want to see a unionised workforce and which persuaded the local authorities to send 2,000 armed National Guards to police the workers’ demonstrations. This was the context for the Italian Hall ‘massacre’ which the workers believed was started by a scab and exacerbated by deliberate police inaction/obstruction. The filmmakers present this material fairly dispassionately but in a key scene they record a group of supporters of the company who are then challenged by a previously ‘neutral’ speaker. In this way, the apologists are exposed. I wish I knew more about US labour history, but I’ve always thought that it was the brutality of the US capitalists and their hired thugs, especially towards migrant workers in the first three decades of the twentieth century, that prevented the development of democratic socialism in the US becoming part of mainstream political life and paved the way for the greedy materialist Amerika of the rest of the twentieth century. Imagine what a democratic socialist America might have done with all its wealth and the goodwill and hard work of its workers. Woody Guthrie had the imagination to promote that vision. “This land is our land” – for all Americans, not just the rich. That’s why he could see that the Italian Hall massacre was an important political-historical event.

Here’s the trailer:

and a short clip of the responses to the film after it was screened in Calumet:

The DVD of the film is available via the website. Watching the film brought back memories of similarly themed documentaries such as The Wobblies (1979), the story of the International Workers of the World (available in full on YouTube) and features such as The Ballad of Joe Hill (Sweden/US 1970), sadly unavailable and also Claude Jutra’s classic Mon Oncle Antoine (Canada 1971) set in a ‘company mining town’ in Quebec in the late 1940s. Watching 1913 Massacre in the UK on the day before the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the biggest union-basher in UK history, has made me think a great deal about the narration of ‘people’s history’. I suspect that I’ll return to these films.