The art house essential:
Salut Les Cubains — Mubi.com
Belgium-born filmmaker Agnès Varda, who died in 2019, was one of the most original and constantly curious of the filmmakers who emerged from the French New Wave movement in the 1960s. This early, now somewhat naively idealistic and little seen short film about the Cuban revolution, may not stand the political test of time but it’s filled with so much joyous, simple and effective creative use of still images and voiceover that it’s hard not to like.
Made using hundreds of photographs that Varda took during a 1963 trip to Cuba, four years after Fidel Castro’s communist forces seized power, it’s a visual essay in which Varda floats a series of serious and light musings arising out of her experience.
Varda’s trip and her film followed on the heels of fellow legend Chris Marker’s far more complicated and intricate 1961 documentary about the revolution, Cuba Si!. It also makes use of the montage of still photographs techniques pioneered by Marker in La Jeteé and his influence and assistance are acknowledged in the credits for Salut Les Cubains. However, Varda’s film, in spite of its obvious and too-uncomplicated celebration of the revolution, still stands as a testament to the spirit and cultural diversity of the people of Cuba, who are now once gain protesting for a different but equally necessary kind of social change. See the trailer here.
The stone-cold classic
The Battle for Algiers — YouTube
The blueprint for generations of political filmmakers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s groundbreaking from-both-sides-account of a pivotal moment in the Algerian independence struggle made in 1966, is still one of the most visceral and urgent depictions of the realities of revolution.
Using a documentary style in its re-enactments of true stories and experiences from the war, the film drops you behind the front lines and into the thick of the street battles, interrogation rooms and homes of the warzone that engulfs its true protagonist — the country of Algeria itself, caught between its oppressive colonial past and its determined but sometimes seemingly Sisyphean dreams of independence.
The questions that Pontecorvo’s freely roving camera provokes are still, unfortunately, as urgently relevant as they ever were: terrorism, guerrilla fighters, torture and racial profiling all still consume current discourse on ideological struggles from the West Bank to the streets of Durban.
Allowing his camera to film the staged events with the immediate feel of a documentary, Pontecorvo creates the feeling of being there in ways that few films since have managed to replicate. The late movie music maestro Ennio Morricone’s tense score serves to rack up the tension in key scenes such as the still much discussed sequence depicting the separate journeys of three female fighters as they make their way to set off bombs in a series of co-ordinated bomb attacks across the city.
Seen by many governments as a how-to-guide for aspirant terrorists, the film was banned in SA for decades by the apartheid government who, like their opposition the ANC, saw useful lessons to be learnt from the Algerian revolution. For the apartheid regime those lessons came in the form of training in interrogation and torture methods by the former colonial enforcers of France while Nelson Mandela and his fellow MK cadres were trained in guerrilla fighting techniques and tactics by the leaders of independent Algeria in the 1960s. Both sides are represented here and while Pontecorvo was certainly on the side of the liberation forces, his film offers a more complex and nuanced approach than simple cheerleading for his favoured team. See the trailer here.
The diamond in the rough
Medium Cool — YouTube
Haskell Wexler was one of the US’s most celebrated and innovative cinematographers when he returned to his native city of Chicago in 1968 to make this seminal film. Mixing documentary and fiction, it’s a timeless interrogation of media behaviour, ethics and accountability that climaxes with a terrifying encounter between its fictional news cameraman protagonist and the very real violence of the battle between anti-Vietnam protesters and Chicago police during the Democratic National Convention.
Keenly and presciently aware of the deep-seated racial discrimination and economic inequality that were bubbling a scratch beneath the surface of US society at the time, Wexler also used the central conceit of the thinly veiled autobiographical cameraman to allow space for those in the margins to air their grievances to camera in their own words.
It all builds with a slow but unrelenting tension towards its unforgettable conclusion and reminds us that the more things apparently change, the more they remain the same. Its provocations about the role and responsibility of the media remain as important, if not more so, than they ever did and few films have captured the anxieties of a moment of tumult as provocatively and clearly since. See the trailer here.