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CINEMA ‘59 - Jamyang Norbu
Phayul[Monday, September 01, 2008 11:22]
With the end of the Beijing Olympics, exile-Tibetans will no doubt be taking a well-deserved rest from protests and demonstrations though Nepal (Bravo!) seems determined to go on a while longer. It is really important to take a break but make it a short one because 2009 is coming and it will be the 50th anniversary of the Lhasa Uprising and our exile from home. We absolutely need to recover our strength and clear our heads to plan for the next phase of the rangzen revolution.

This brief R & R should ideally provide us not only rest but also inspiration and ideas. I cannot think of a more effective way of accomplishing this dual purpose than by sitting back with a tall drink and watching movies — especially (in this instance) movies of freedom struggles. I put together a list of such films for a project that I hope to get underway sometime in the near future. Anyway, here is the list and an outline of the project, Cinema ‘59, for the reader’s pleasure and edification — to put it in an old fashioned way.

Cinema ’59

The cinema is for us the most important of all the arts.
V. I. Lenin

Though the whole Communist experiment has deservedly failed, the Russian Revolution’s use of the cinema to spread its political message and galvanize its mainly rural population, is certainly something that the Tibetan freedom movement could emulate to spread and keep the Rangzen message alive among Tibetans and friends.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, besides fulfilling its primary political goal, also sparked off a revolution in the way the function of entertainment and art, especially cinema, changed to become a powerful tool of social and political transformation. Lenin appreciated cinema’s value and despite civil war and scarce resources, the Soviet revolutionary cinema was established, reaching even the remotest provinces by train.
Such “Agit-trains” spread the Soviet message and led to the dynamic soviet cinema of the 1920s which “shook the world” with a new heroic style – pioneered by such directors as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kuleshov and Dovzhenko, and documentary makers, notably Vertov and Shub.

Taking into account the fact that Tibetan society is not extensively literate, and that even among educated people there is not much of a reading habit, the use of cinema to promote the rangzen struggle could prove to be an effective alternative. I implemented the idea it in a small way at the Amnye Machen Institute where we screened The Battle of Algiers , Avad and other films for young Tibetans of Dharamshala.

Film Library on Tibet
This aspect of the project could just be started off by providing a list of feature and documentary films on Tibet. A basic catalogue was put together by Sonam Dhargay la in the 80s for the Office of Tibet in New York, and the Amnye Machen Institute created a more extensive digital catalogue. The AMI database provides detailed cross-references, selection of films by key-words, and also a useful synopsis of the film’s content. A more ambitious follow-up undertaking would be the creation of an actual film library (in New York City for instance) of documentary, shorts and features on Tibet that Tibetans and friends could borrow for educational, fund-raising, promotional and awareness-raising purposes

Films by Tibetan Directors
Cinema ‘59 could also provide a forum for aspiring Tibetan filmmakers who, at the moment, receive little acknowledgement, encouragement or support elsewhere. Old and new Tibetan films could be discussed on this website. Interviews with the directors, visual material, and documentation could also be carried. The filmmakers could also file accounts of their current projects with accompanying visuals. I have nearly finished an essay on Cinema in Tibet which could provide the historical and sociological background for the undertaking. Readers can expect this essay to be posted in a few weeks.

World Cinema of Freedom Struggles
Though at the moment there may not be enough Tibetan made films for a sustainable program of social and political education in our society we could use films of freedom struggles and revolutions from other countries to educate and inspire our people. Therefore one aspect of Cinema ’59 should be the selection and screening of such films to Tibetan communities and groups everywhere. An extensive list of such films, videos or DVD’s (with accompanying information) could be considered. In the case of Tibetans in isolated settlements in India and Nepal a touring “Agit” van or something like that could perhaps be attempted later by organizations as the TYC and others.

To make such films accessible to older Tibetans and Tibetans inside Tibet, such films as Gandhi could be dubbed in Tibetan and DVDs sent to Tibet. I think TIPA attempted to dub The Battle of Algiers into Tibetan.

A Personal List
This list contains a variety of films, not all political or specifically about freedom struggles but most of which have somehow inspired or helped me hang in there. The artistic quality of the films vary considerably.

John Adams, 2008, USA, Tom Hooper.
Americans had their rangzen v. middle-path wrangle in 1775 and the first few parts of this HBO 7-part miniseries, depicts the great national debate at the 2nd Continental Congress at Philadelphia between Adams, Jefferson and those calling for independence and others seeking reconciliation with Britain. I was completely mesmerized by the clash of the two opposing parties but also by the behind-the-scenes negotiations and maneuvers which finally persuaded the delegates to sign the declaration of independence. Some of the speeches and statements at the Congress seem made-to-order for our critical situation right now. History is not romanticized in this biography of America’s least understood and most underestimated founding fathers, John Adams, but is all the more believable and emotionally engaging because of it. This is a 502-minute series that has lots more than the segment I have discussed. Excellent acting all around and high production values. An absolute must see film for Tibetans.

The White Rose (Die Weisse Rose), 1982, West Germany, Michael Verhoeven. Academy Award winning film based on the true story of a group of students in Munich in 1942 who put their lives in danger by distributing leaflets telling the truth of what was going on in the concentration camps. Absolutely a must see for all young activists fighting for truth and freedom. Check out the White Rose web sites and memorials.

Battle of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri), 1956, Algeria/Italy, Gillo Pontecorvo. The quintessential film study of a nationalist insurgency against colonial oppression.

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, USA, David Lean. See movie for the story of the Arab revolt against the Turks. Cautionary tale about how your revolution could get sold out by those (Lawrence et al) professing to be your friend. Amazing desert scenes. Also offers a suggestion or two on what to do about unwanted trains and railway lines.

The Lion of the Desert (Omar Mukhtar), 1981, Egypt, Moustapha Akkad. True account of Bedouin resistance against Mussolini’s occupation force in Libya. Inspiring in parts. A favourite with some older Tibetans in Dharamshala.

The Train, 1963, US, John Frankenheimer. The resistance saves French art treasures from the Nazis. Riveting action film. Nazi’s officer’s (Goering most of all) at least valued French art enough to want to steal it. The Chinese just destroyed everything.

Battleship Potemkin, 1925, USSR, Sergei M. Eisenstein, The classic film of the beginning of the Russian revolution.

Hot Winds (Garam Hawa ), 1973, India, M.S. Satyu. The story of a Muslim family during partition. Very poignant and insightful. Balraj Sahni is terrific.

La Marseillaise, 1938, France, Jean Renoir, Renoir’s epic filming of the French Revolution, beginning with the events of 1789 & leading up to the storming of the Bastille & the birth of the French republic.

Gandhi, 1982, UK, Richard Attenborough. Though the film takes a fair bit of license with history is hugely moving and absolutely inspiring. The thing I liked about the film was that it managed to show that Gandhi was not just a spiritual person but a man of action as well.

Alexander Nevsky, 1938, USSR, Sergei M. Eisenstein. The epic film of the defence of the Russia against invading Teutonic knights.

Les Miserables, 1995, France, Claude Lelouch. This version of Hugo’s classic tale is set during WWII. Scenes of resistance action and D-day make this an exciting film.

The Gathering Storm, 2003, US, Richard Loncrane. It is the mid 1930’s and everyone in power is sucking up to Hitler’s Germany (as they are now to Communist China). A lonely, sidelined but defiant Winston Churchill attempts to warn the world of this impending threat. But who will listen? A beautifully shot HBO film. Vanessa Redgrave as Churchill’s wife is fantastic.

The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitié), 1969, West Germany, Switzerland, Marcel Ophuls. A classic documentary depicting the life of a French town during the Nazi occupation.
The story of cowardice and collaboration but also of heroism and the resistance. Powerful and insightful. Goldstein in his history of Tibet insists on pointing out that Chinese soldiers were well behaved in Tibet. Well, Ophuls shows you how Nazi soldiers would give their bus seats to old ladies and help farmers in order to deceive the French population

Braveheart, 1995, US, Mel Gibson. Not a bad film in spite of Mel’s posturing. The film also played a surprisingly influential part in the political changes that swept Scotland in the nineties, mobilising public opinion to aid the return of a Scottish Parliament after a gap of 300 years. The real William Wallace didn’t paint his face blue and he was a physically bigger and a more imposing man than Mel.

Rob Roy, 1994, US, Michael Bay. Another film of how the Brits misbehaved in Scotland and how a few brave Scotsmen stood up to them. Although the story here is fictional it is nonetheless as stirring and exciting as Braveheart. I actually preferred Rob Roy. The film also never soft-pedals the historical and political realities.

The Killing Fields, 1984, Britain, Roland Joffe. We’ve all seen this epic movie of the Cambodian genocide, but we should watch it again (and again) if only to
remind ourselves that all Pol Pot was doing was following the teachings of Chairman Mao. Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian doctor who won an Oscar playing Dith Pran in the film wrote in his autobiography: “Except for their dark skins, everything about the Khmer Rouge was alien, from China. They had borrowed their ideology from Mao… like the concept of the Great Leap Forward. Sending the intellectuals to the countryside to learn from the peasants was an idea of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Their AK-47s and their olive green caps and their trucks were Chinese. Even the music they played from the loudspeakers was Chinese, with Khmer words.

Director Roland Joffé, when discussing Dith Pran’s escape from the Khmer Rouge death camp, made this sage observation: “and yet there’s always a chance of life… and the strength that Haing had, that Dith had, was that they took risks. They weren’t victims.” Its something all Tibetans should ponder. Being a victim is not just a question of circumstance or history, but also of choice.

A Generation, (Part I of a War Trilogy) 1954, Poland, Andrzej Wajda (War Trilogy) A film about the Polish underground and the Warsaw resistance; specifically the story of a youth resistance group. You could call it a propaganda film of sorts, but it is also exciting and powerful.

Kanal, (Part II of a War Trilogy) 1956, Poland, Andrzej Wajda (War Trilogy). A group of partisans try to escape from the Nazis through the sewers of Warsaw. Very intense and dark but poetically uplifting at times.

Ashes and Diamonds, (Part III of a War Trilogy) 1958, Poland, Andrzej Wajda. The final part of the trilogy features Cybulski (the Polish James Dean) as a fighter in the first days of peace waiting to assassinate a Communist official. Least satisfying of the trilogy.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1943, US, Sam Woods. Hemingway’s story of an American volunteer fighting with partisans in the Spanish Civil War. Saw a re-run in Darjeeling as a schoolboy and was hugely impressed. The partisans seemed just like the Khampas at Mustang. Fell in love with Ingrid Bergman as María.

Bridge on the River Kwai
, 1957, US, David Lean. A British colonel, taken prisoner by the Japanese, builds a bridge for them and in the end even gives up his life trying to save it, so obsessed by pride in his work that he has forgotten it will serve the wrong cause. Sounds familiar… Hmm.

Operation Daybreak, 1957, USA, Lewis Gilbert. Based on the true story of the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich by Czech agents parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia by British Intelligence. Standard WWII action film but scenes of Nazi reprisals are disturbing, and the last quarter of the film is poignant and inspiring. A big hit at TCV in eighty(?).

Geronimo: An American Legend
, 1993, USA, Walter Hill. The authentic bloody chronicle of the last Apache leader as recorded in the memoirs of one of the cavalrymen who hunted him down. Lots of violence but it is the injustice of the white man that is upsetting and makes you mad. It also has a real Indian actor, Wes Studi, in the lead. He’s convincing. It’s in bad form to quote from your own writing, but I have to repeat this passage from my Rangzen Charter: “Of all the millions of native Americans who suffered and died under the injustice and violence of the white man, only the names of great war chiefs like Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull are still remembered with respect by Americans. Those native leaders who tried to live peacefully under the white man and went to Washington DC to submit to the ‘Great White Father’ are forgotten.”

The Long Walk Home, 1989, US, Richard Pearce. A small but compelling film about the Montgomery bus boycott. The best feature film I have seen on the civil rights movement. Whoopi Goldberg is fantastic. A more effective and convincing film than better known works on the subject as Mississippi Burning.

Malcolm X, 1992, US, Spike Lee. Epic biography of America’s fiery black revolutionary, from his early days as a zoot-suited hustler known as “Detroit Red” to his pilgrimage to Mecca, as a Black Muslim — all with an broad sweep and vitality that illuminates personal details as well as political ideology.

Citizen King, 2004, US, Orlando Bagwell/Noland Walker. There are quite a few documentaries on the Civil Rights leader, but I liked this one as it was very balanced, showing Dr. King’s flaws (womanizing, poor health habits, questionable associations, etc.,) but emphasizing the good that Dr. King accomplished without compromising on his Gandhian philosophy. Another documentary worth watching is King (1978) directed by Paul Winfield.

American Roots Music (4 part documentary), 2001, US, Jim Brown. 200 years of music in America (some going back farther than that) is presented in this wonderful four-hour story that ties in the many peoples and sounds and styles. A continuous musical tapestry with excerpts (and also full-length performances in bonus disc) of live performances of all types: Folk, Country, Blues, Gospel, Western Swing, Bluegrass, Cajun, Zydeco, Tejano and Native American music interviews with performers. This documentary gives you a true feel for the importance of music in the struggle of ordinary people (especially blacks) for survival and freedom. Aspiring Tibetan songwriters and singers should check out the music of the old native American protest singer, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, and note how he gets his political message into a wonderfully traditional native singing style.

The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai), 1954, Japan, Akira Kurosawa. The ultimate lesson on why you must stand up to injustice and help others do so; also expect no thanks or rewards, just do it for the ing. I watch this film at least once a year to recharge my simshug batteries.

Carve Her Name With Pride
, 1958, UK, Lewis Gilbert. Inspirational story of the allied spy Violette Szabo in Nazi occupied France. Standard story of wartime heroism and martyrdom, yet strangely moving because you know it really happened. Violette was captured by the Gestapo, tortured and executed. She received the George Cross posthumously. The first woman to receive this highest British award.

Charlotte Grey, 2002, UK, Gillian Armstrong, The fictional story of a British agent in Nazi occupied France who works with the French resistance to rescue her lover, a missing RAF pilot. God, what crap. Especially when you know that real women like Violette Szabo had given up their lives to fight the Nazis. The incredible thing is that so many other young women as Lilian Rolfe, Odette Hallowes, Yvonne Coremeau, and the incredibly beautiful Indian Sufi princess, Noor Inayat Khan (codename Madeline) had done the same and had parachuted into occupied France as agents. Lillian and Noor were captured by the Germans, and after being tortured and, God knows what else, executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp. At the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamshala I found an old children’s book, Twenty Jataka Tales, about the former lives of the Buddha. It had been written by Noor Inayat Khan in 1939.

Casablanca, 1942, USA, Michael Curtiz. The ultimate WWII romance movie. Inspiring in parts, especially the defiant singing of the French national anthem in Ricks café. Yvonne a pretty French coquette, drinking with the Germans, and flirting with the chief Gestapo officer, has a turn of conscience and, with tears streaming down her cheeks, joins in the singing of La Marseillaise.

Elliot Sperling of Indiana University argues that visitors to present day Tibet (including experts) encountering a population going about its daily business and not expressing open defiance of Chinese occupation, and then concluding that Tibetans are satisfied with the status quo, invariably fail to take into account what he terms the “Yvonne factor” of dormant or suppressed Tibetan nationalism, which could be galvanized by a crisis or some unusual event, as it happened in 1979.

Spartacus, 1960, US, Stanley Kubrick. A must see. George Orwell, in one of his newspaper columns, reflected on the fact that though the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome had rested entirely on slavery, in the same way as modern society depends on electricity or fossil fuels, we cannot recall the name of a single slave, except perhaps for Spartacus. And we remember him “…because he did not obey the injunction to ‘resist not evil’, but raised violent rebellion”.

Crazy Horse, 1996, John Irvin (TV bio) Gripping story of the great Indian war chief leading the Cheyenne and Sioux nations against Custer and the US army. A very satisfying film. Especially when Custer gets his. Listen to Johnny Cash’s wonderfully sarcastic song Custer. “Now I will tell you buster that I ain’t a fan of Custer”… etc.

Mandela (documentary), 1995, US, Jo Mennel. A full and inspiring account of Mandela’s life and struggle. A must see. Also check out the A&E documentary Biography — Nelson Mandela: Journey to Freedom.

Cry, the Beloved Country, 1995, South Africa, Darrell Roodt. Based on Alan Patten’s classic novel this (the 1951 version) was the first entertainment feature film set against the backdrop of apartheid. Both films are well made and intensely moving.

Cry Freedom, 1987, UK, Richard Attenborough. Story of the murder of black activist Steve Biko by South African police, and the uncovering of the story by journalist Donald Woods. Political cinema at its best.

Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (documentary), 2002, US/ South Africa, Lee Hirsch. This stunning film tells the story of protest music in South Africa — but as it does so, it tells the story of the struggle against apartheid itself. Through archival footage and interviews with musicians, freedom fighters, and even members of the former government police, Amandla! creates a vivid and powerful portrait of how music was crucial not only to communicating a political message beyond words, but also to the resistance itself — how songs bonded communities, buoyed resistance in the face of bullets and tear gas, and sowed fear in the ruling elite. Also check out Rhythm of Resistance - Black South African Music (1990). Heard good things about it but haven’t seen it yet.

Beyond Rangoon, 1995, US, John Boorman. An interesting film on the conflict in Burma between the military junta and the dissident democracy movement. Ignore the contrived story of the “troubled” American doctor and watch the film for the freedom struggle of the Burmese people. Convincingly chaotic scenes of demonstrations, riots and military crackdowns. Aung San Suu Kyi makes a brief appearance. The actress doesn’t look very much like her, but hey, I’m not complaining. Even a brief fantasy darshan of this supremely courageous woman, is good enough for me.

Z, 1968, France/Algeria, Costa-Gavras. Left wing political thriller, uncovering the corruption of the military junta in Greece in the sixties. See it.

Missing, 1981, US, Costa-Gavras. Based on true events during the Chilean coup of 1973, this extraordinary film explores the disappearance of a young American writer, and the search for him by his wife and father. The tension and fear of living in a country under fascist military rule is graphically depicted. Helps you understand how people in Lhasa must live under the illusion of economic progress.

The Crossing, 2000, US, Robert Harmon. When it seemed to everyone that the American revolution was just about finished, George Washington pulled off a desperate surprise attack on the British army on Christmas day in 1776. An exciting story well told and historically accurate.

Joan of Arc, 1948, UK, Victor Fleming. The story of the 15th century French freedom fighter and visionary (in the literal sense) has been made into quite a few feature films. Fleming’s version sticks fairly closely to the historical facts and is worth watching for the young Ingrid Bergman as Joan and the sumptuous production values. The 1957 Saint Joan directed by Otto Preminger is also not bad. The latest version, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, 1999, directed by Luc Besson is not satisfying though it has John Malkovich as the conniving Dauphin. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928, is in black and white, silent, and devoid of scenery, costumes and extras but is, even now, regarded as a masterpiece of filmmaking and a great classic in film history.

The Battle of Neretva, 1969, Yugoslavia, Veljko Bulajic. Big budget nationalist film (with imported Hollywood actors) of Yugoslav partisans fighting against the Nazis, Italians and local Chetnik collaborators. A young man from Lhasa told me it was screened to the public in that city in the mid-seventies. He said he enjoyed the film but not for the reasons the Chinese intended. The film was also screened at TCV in Dharamshala. Kids loved it.

Enemy at the Gates, 2001, USA, Jean-Jacques Annaud. In the winter of 1942, the German and Russian Armies meet in the great Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most murderous and critical engagements of the Second World War. Enter into this horror a young Russian soldier, formerly a peasant boy with an extraordinary ability as a sharpshooter. The Russian sniper soon gains fame after killing a record number of German officers causing the Germans to bring in their own master sniper: a war weathered Major who always accomplishes his mission no matter what the cost. With the Battle of Stalingrad raging around them, these two men must now fight each other. And this is a real story. With even a true (and moving) romantic sub-plot thrown in! Surely Academy Award material, you would think? But Jean-Jacques Annaud manages to squander such genuinely epic material as he did with Seven Years in Tibet. Bad casting, bad script, and a complete inability to move beyond usual Hollywood stereotypes. Still some amazing battle scenes, and great moments with Bob Hoskins chewing the carpet (and drapes) as a brutal Khrushchev, chief political commissar of beleaguered Stalingrad.

Exodus, 1960, USA, Otto Preminger. Reverential film version of Leon Uris’s blockbuster novel about the founding of modern Israel. Lots of action and romance, though clunky in parts. Way too long at four hours. After seeing the film Mort Sahl (the comedian) is supposed to have said “Otto, let my people go.”

The Pianist, 2002, France, Poland etc., Roman Polanski. An adaptation of concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoirs about his experiences in Nazi occupied Warsaw. Incredibly moving film. No heroics. Sometimes all you can really do is just survive that sort of mega-shit. If you weren’t before, you will become a Chopin fan after the film.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta), 2004, USA, Argentina etc., Walter Salles. True life account of Che Guevera’s travels and adventures as a young man on the road in South America. The film captures the breathtaking view and diversity of the continent. The social and political problems of Latin America that drove Che to become a revolutionary are presented in an intelligent and subtle way. Bit of left-wing church bashing at the Amazonian leper colony scene where Catholic nuns wear protective gloves to treat patients. The “enlightened” Doctor Che dramatically refuses a pair. The problem for me was while the simple nuns, no matter how medically ignorant they were, had dedicated their lives to aiding the lepers, Che was just passing through. So the revolutionary condescension grates a bit here. Che’s mythic swim across the Amazon has overtones of Mao’s dip in the Yangtze. Revolutionary hero battling raw nature kind of stuff. Che’s companion Alberto is a delight. All young Tibetans who have buzzed around the Himalayas on their Enfields will love this film.

Hotel Rawanda, 2004, USA, Terry George. As Rawanda descends into genocidal madness, hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina sets out to save his family. But when he sees that the world will not intervene in the massacre of minority Tutsis, he finds the courage to open his hotel to over 1,200 refugees. Paul uses his wits and words to keep the rabid Hutu militia from massacring the refugees (and his own family). One man, does, it seems, make a big difference if he takes the difficult decision to do so. Also a good lesson not to expect the help of America, the UN or any other big power if you don’t have oil or big business opportunities in your country.

Pathfinder (Ofelas or Veiviseren), 1987, Norway, Nils Gaup,. The first film in the Sami language. A young Sami boy in Lapland (northern Norway, Sweden and Finland) 1000 years ago, is captured by black-clad savage invaders who want to wipe out the boy’ peaceful tribe. What can he do to save his people? Exciting action-packed film shot against a frozen landscape of breathtaking beauty. Won the ‘87 Academy Award for best foreign film. A member of the Saami parliament I met in Dharamshala told me that this film had had a tremendously inspirational effect on young Sami’s who were loosing touch with their own history and culture.

Rabbit Proof Fence, 2002, Philip Noyce. Incredibly harrowing and rage-provoking film about three little aborigine girls who escape from a white orphanage to travel across 1200 miles of Australian desert to get home. The whites who had forcefully taken the girls from their mothers to train them to become servants, see themselves as only helping these uncivilized people. Hey, where have we heard that one before?

Deliverance (Sadgati), India, 1981, Satyajit Ray. The ultimate cry of rage against injustice and oppression. In this Ray masterpiece, Dukhi, a low caste chamar is to all purposes worked to death in a single day by a heartless Brahmin. Based on a Munshi Premchand short story, with outstanding performances by Om Puri and the inimitable Smita Patel. I saw this Doordarshan production on Indian TV in 1983. Seems unobtainable now on either DVD or video. If anyone has a copy please let me know.

The Home and the World (Ghare Baire), India, 1984, Satyajit Ray, Another masterpiece from India’s greatest director, this film deals with a sheltered Bengali woman who falls in love with her husband’s nationalist friend and becomes politically committed in the turmoil of 1907-08 Bengal partition and the first Swadeshi movement. Based on gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s novel. The film is a bit “talky” and demanding, but the acting is uniformly excellent and the issues are presented with great clarity. Don’t expect Bhagat Singh style nationalism here.

The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari), India, Satyajit Ray. Once again a Ray adaptation of a Munshi Premchand short-story. A big budget film (by Ray standards), this is the story of the British annexation of Lucknow in 1856. Being Ray there are no nationalist tirades (a la Manoj Kumar) against the British or easy condemnation of the victim, the weak decadent native ruler, the nawab of Oudh. Instead we get a nuanced, contemplative, though unsparing view of the clash of two cultures – one effete and ineffectual and the other, vigorous and malignant. Historical events are seen as the background to the chess obsession of two Lucknow aristocrats, who ignore the plight of their ruler, and leave their city to continue their games undisturbed. A funny and ultimately profound film.

The Concert for Bangladesh, 1972, USA, Saul Swimmer, The Concert for Bangladesh was the first benefit concert of its kind in that it brought together an extraordinary assemblage of major artists collaborating for a common humanitarian cause, setting the precedent that music could be used to serve a higher purpose, in this case to bring world attention to terrible suffering of the Bengali refugees and the tragedy of Bangladesh. Tremendously moving documentary with really inspiring music by George Harrison, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Bob Dylan, Ringo Star, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and others. Eric Clapton is also there but looks pretty wasted. He had problems of his own then. Unlike benefit concerts these days the artists and bands just don’t perform their number and leave. Most of the time they seem to hang around the stage and back up the other acts in a friendly informal way.

Army of Shadows (L’ Armee Des Ombres), 1969, France, Jean Pierre Melville. Great news for all freedom cinema fans. This ultimate feature film of the French resistance has been restored and re-released. Adapted from Joseph Kessel’s wartime novel the film is an exciting but utterly uncompromising account of a group of resistance fighters in Occupied France during World War II. Avoiding acts of spectacular heroism, Melville presents a twilight world, where the clandestine freedom-fighters seek to avoid capture and are forced to eliminate informants from their own ranks.
In many ways Army of The Shadows resembles one of the director’s better known gangster pictures like Le Samourai and Bob le Flambeur: hence the chilly colours, the movingly restrained performances, the blurring of moral boundaries (nowhere more evident than when a teenage traitor is strangled to death with a towel), and the iconographic details of hats, guns and cars. I saw the film on a Russian issue DVD which wasn’t really satisfying. Last year it finally came to the USA and played at the Film Forum on Houston Street. Its out on DVD now.

Michael Collins, 1996, USA, Neil Jordan. Exciting historical drama about the life of the heroic leader of the Irish nationalist struggle. Beautiful cinematography by Chris Menges (who also shot the Killing Fields).

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, 2006, Ireland, Ken Loach. Ireland 1920. This film, also about the “Troubles” is an interesting counterpoint to Michael Collins. This is the version of Irish history that regards Collin’s compromise with Britain as a betrayal of the “revolution”. When I was in Dharamshala last year I gave a talk about “Films of Freedom Struggles” and Tenzin Tsundue la screened this film with the title translated as drushing truknyen ghi lhakpa.

When possible watch the movie with friends and have a discussion afterwards. Feedback from readers is welcome. Let me know of films that I might have overlooked.
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