Learning from Revolutionary Film
December 9, 2008
To the Editors, New York Times,
I am currently teaching a course, Media Praxis, on the histories and theories of revolutionary cinema. While I greatly appreciate Terrence Rafferty’s Sunday, December 7 review of one such film, Che (Stephen Soderbergh, 2008), I hope to add two items of correction to his otherwise adept effort at historically situating this particular film into one of cinema’s seminal genres. Most notably, Cuban cinema of the past 50 years is not understood in the field as producing a “dreary Stalinist aesthetic” (while such films are certainly produced there). Rather it is known for its frequently celebrated (in international festivals) body of aesthetically complex narrative and documenary cinema, film school, ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos), and festival (International Festival of the New Latin-American Cinema) which model possibilities for film style, production, education, and distribution outside the imperatives of capital. Even dominant Hollywood cinema has learned much from cinematic experimentation which can occus when profit is not the bottom line. Two of my favorite Cuban films, Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomas Alea, 1968) and the lesser known One Way or Another (Sara Gomez, 1977), engage revolutionary cinema tactics (including the evocative and elegant mixing of documentary and scripted materials) to accomplish precisely that hardest of projects, one that Rafferty claims falls outside this tradition: representing the mundane and contradictory work of living after the fighting, bloodshed, and romantic manifestoes have quieted. In fact, both directors mobliize “fiercely exciting cinema” style because it is precisely such sophisticated narrative, editing, and shooting techniques that help viewers comprehend the complicated differences between post-revolutionary rhetoric and lived reality, propaganda and human practices. Secondly, while battle scenes are certainly the stuff of good cinema, many of the great films of this tradition document and contribute to this century’s non-violent revolutions, including many of America’s civil rights movements (feminism, civil rights, gay rights). In this vein, I need point only to Gus Van Sant’s recently released Milk to demonstrate how politically committed directors strive to express the ambiguous daily realities of governing after the “wild hopes” of protest have waned, and how necessary mediamaking is to the ongoing project of educating, inspiring, and historicizing revolution (or activism) in its many stages.