Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd
Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd
Image: Supplied

As the prophet Bob Dylan said in 1989, “We live in a political world/ Wisdom is thrown in jail/ It rots in a cell, is misguided as hell/ Leaving no-one to pick up a trail.” That’s true of most times in human history but it may seem to be even more true now, when the fury of the war in Gaza is spilling onto US and international university campuses; famine rages in Sudan; death is a daily fact of life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the war in Ukraine is still dredging on; and climate change is racing towards the point of no possible reversal.

For SA it’s even more political a year than usual with the seventh general election of the democratic era fast approaching and the future of the ANC uncertain. It’s also election year for America with the return of the Orange Menace seeming depressingly more likely. Across the pond in the UK, Rishi Sunak, the deeply unpopular prime minister, will have to call an election soon that he and the Tories are guaranteed to lose to the more popular, if not charismatic, Labour leader Keir Starmer.

In India, the world’s biggest election will soon get under way to re-elect the dangerous Hindu fundamentalist Narendra Modi for a third term as prime minister and in Russia, Vladimir Putin was recently reinstated for a ninth time to become the longest-serving leader of his country since Joseph Stalin. These uncertain conditions seem pertinent for a film selection of varying aspects of politics in so many places across the globe.

The arthouse essential:

La Commune Paris 1871 — YouTube

Its five-and-a-half-hour runtime is sure to make most prospective viewers balk and beg off but for those who commit to veteran political polemicist Peter Watkins’ dedicatedly detailed and quietly inventive 2000 mega epic, there is plenty of provocative insight to be had.

Filmed as a historical re-enactment in the style of a documentary, the film takes audiences onto the streets and into the fiery meetings that took place among working class revolutionaries during the turbulent months of 1871 when a working-class movement took control of the government of Paris and marked the beginning of a working-class revolution.

It was shot in an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Paris and employed a sprawling cast of predominantly nonprofessional actors. The film is a history lesson, a political treatise and an engaging political drama as Watkins manages to give it a sense of urgency and pace that matches what must have been the mood of its setting.

Watkins has always been a filmmaker willing to work outside the traditional system and to push the boundaries of film convention. In this film, considered by many to be his magnum opus, he takes full advantage of the opportunity to create a feature that is uniquely a product of the communal participation of its makers, reflecting the spirit of the momentous but overlooked moment it celebrates.


The stone cold classic:

A Face in the Crowd — YouTube

Elia Kazan’s 1957 satire, written by Budd Schulberg, takes some sharp and relevant swipes at the media and advertising that hits especially hard in the Trump era.

Andy Griffith plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drunken drifter in an Arkansas jail where local radio host Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is recording a show about prisoners and finds herself charmed and taken by his off-the-cuff sass and musical talents.

Her interest piqued, Marcia sets about turning Lonesome Rhodes from homely hobo sage into first a radio and then a television sensation, travelling with him from the dusty backwoods of Arkansas to the grand old Southern entertainment mecca of Nashville.

Despite his best efforts to sabotage himself by giving the finger to TV advertisers and speaking his mind to the outrage of broadcasters, Rhodes becomes untouchable as his popularity with ordinary folk soars through the roof. From there it’s a short but logical jump to politics where it becomes evident that not every man of the people was necessarily meant to have a say in the running of national affairs.

By the time everyone realises what a monster they’ve helped create, it’s too late and the lighthearted joshing of Schulberg’s script turns into something darker. As we wait for the probable re-election of Trump, the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes and the dangers he poses to democracy seem all too necessary of re-emphasis.


The diamond in the rough 

Occupied —

What does it mean to live daily life with little democratic power and basic rights in the shadow of a hostile, military occupation bent on self-preservation at any cost? That’s the question at the heart of Indian filmmaker Pranav Pingle’s 2021 documentary about the daily lives, hopes, dreams and struggles of Palestinians living in the hostile environment of the West Bank.

Filmed in 2018-19, before the horrific events of October 7, 2023, and the vengeful retribution unleashed on Gaza by Israel in response, the film offers a hopeful but also heartbreaking portrait of a cross-section of people who choose creativity as a means of positively responding to the terrible circumstances they find themselves in.

Its attempt to offer a positive and affirmative message of possibility may land very differently in the wake of recent events but it remains a pertinent reminder of the power of love and life to overcome even the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles.


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