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SACT Film Screening; Land and Freedom

Date and Time: 
Sunday, December 14, 2008 - 4:00am

 

SACT presents the next film in our monthly screenings at Jura Books-
Land and Freedom, the classic film directed by Ken Loach about a young
Englishman who joins thefight against fascism during the Spanish Revolution.

5pm Saturday 13th December, Jura Books 440 Parramatta rd, Petersham

The People Armed and the People's Army
A film review of Land and Freedom

 

by Rony Quickenden

"The civil war was never a romantic story. The idea
that war has something romantic about it also serves a political
function and obscures or covers up that which has occurred in reality
".
Ken Loach

During the 15 years or so that my interest in the Spanish
Revolution has been developing , I often dreamt of seeing a full
cinematic treatment of the hopes and achievements of the revolution
and the tragedy of its defeat : a film which would tell with a human
voice the unknown stories of people who were not afraid to fight and
carry through that which we could only theorise about to make their
new society. Land and Freedom may not quite be that film .but it
comes close indeed.

Ken Loach is known for his harshly realistic works of social
criticism , having established his reputation with the acclaimed and
controversial "Kathy Come Home","Kes", and "Raining Stones". He has
the kind of political and technical perspectives demanded by a
subject with themes as complex yet universal as the Spanish Civil
War. In this film he succeeds in bringing to bear a previously
underplayed element in his work ; human warmth and joy. For this is
not a bleak exposition of political theory , nor a war film of
Hollywood heroics but an exploration of some of the achievements and
failings of the revolution through the experiences of a mixed group
of men and women in a militia section.

Telling the story as a sequence of long flashbacks a young girl
discovers her deceased grandfathers past while going through his
belongings , bringing the issues into the here and now , reminding us
of how many people of the 'older' generation have their own
extraordinary stories left untold . Loach brings to the subject
several original and effective film making techniques . Above all he
uses players who are largely unknown, some of whom are indeed not
professional actors at all. He brings extra freshness by encouraging
them to improvise as much as possible with a minimum of formal
direction , and furthermore insisted on shooting the scenes
chronologically, enhancing the actors commitment to their character,
unaware of the next turn in the story . He has also used players
whose regional and national backgrounds match those of their
characters , so that the dialogue of English , American English ,
Castillian , Catalan , French , and German is delivered as naturally
as possible. All of this works superbly well for me , and reaches a
peak of realism in the debate scene where peasants and militia
discuss collectivising the newly acquired land they have just
liberated . This could easily have been shot as a dry conflict of
theories or as a traditional Hollywood clash of egos , but instead we
feel that these people really mean what they are saying, in all their
awkwardness and embarrassment. In this context the two leads Ian Hart
and Rosana Pastor add greatly by being suitably low key and
creditably 'ordinary' , but also being capable of showing great
strength and determination.

To say all this is not to give the impression that the film is
free of faults or compromises . It seems that in the making a major
consideration was how much knowledge could be assumed on the part of
the audience . Plainly very little, but it seems reasonable to
suppose that most viewers would either have read or heard of Orwells
'Homage to Catalonia '. It is perhaps this line of thought which led
to the central reliance on the POUM as the way of exploring the non -
Stalinist revolution in the film ( Loach himself is a Trotskyist and
although the POUM had formally split from Trotsky,this may also serve
to explain the POUM's attraction for Loach).Furthermore ,the POUM can
be described as a' workers party against Stalin' as the script says,
whereas focusing on the much larger and more relevant CNT-FAI would
necessitate much usage of the dread term 'Anarchist'.

Both Orwell and Loach give sympathetic mentions to the Anarchists
but neither give them the space which their numbers, power,
achievements, and opposition to Stalinism would require. Technically,
Loach blurs the line, giving the POUM red and black bandanas and
using CNT songs in the soundtrack, but no attempt is really made to
show what Anarchism or the POUM brand of Marxism really involves .
However, to the films credit , the day to day realities of local
decision making , egalitarian organisation , the position of Women
and to some extent collectivisation are touched on , and there
examples give the casual viewer a much more important lesson in what
was achieved than dry analysis of the theoretical agendas of each
group.

Some other compromises in the film have been picked upon as
absurdities by some reviewers.The compression of time , the very
limited geographical scope, and the difficulties experienced while
crossing into Spain when the border was still open , have all
received unfavourable mentions in the press. But there are small
details which it has been necessary to compromise on in order to show
a variety of experiences and keep within a very low budget. Similarly
troops of so many nations would not all have appeared in the same
section ,especially in a POUM militia unit. But the point here is to
try and show the international dimension of the struggle ( though its
overridingly Spanish character is thankfully, recognised) and to
convey the message of solidarity.

Having heard that the film contained very innovatory and realistic
combat sequences ,I must say I found these a little disappointing. It
is true that the improvised low tech and rather chaotic nature of the
fighting was captured,along with some convincing loud explosions.
However, the fear, confusion and tunnel vision experienced in combat
was not realised ,and the storming of a nationalist held village was
filmed in a very traditional way.Using a hand held camera would have
helped to convey something of the confusion and limited view open to
the combatants as can be seen in recent news footage
(Bosnia/Checnaya). Loach used the hand held camera to give a more
intimate feel to Blancas grief scene , so it would not have been out
of place in the preceding combat sequences .

Politically, the central theme of the film is the betrayal of the
revolution by the communist party and the crisis of belief which this
induce's. In 1936 the Communist party was a very small , even
insignificant party which came to prominence due to the increasing
importance of Soviet material , by recruiting disaffected bourgeois
elements and by virtue of its reputation for discipline and
efficiency. In fact , their agenda was fundamentally reactionary ,as
they fought to secure the privileges of private property and reverse
the process of spreading collectivisation which the CNT-FAI, the most
significant working class organisation in 1936 was promoting . It was
important for the USSR to show that their form of Marxism was the
only true revolutionary path, and so genuine libertarian successes
could not be tolerated.

In this sense publicising the reality of the role of the Communist
party in Spain was an important weapon for libertarians,as the party
did everything possible to distract attention from these events.
Similarly, the Western democracies did not want their workers to be
infected by the example of a successful revolution in Spain ,with the
result not only of the non intervention committee , but also that the
revolutionary dimension of the civil war and the Communist reaction
to it being very much downplayed . The establishment has preferred a
view of history in which the extremists of Fascism and Communism
fought each other in a far off foreign land. It is in this context
that Loachs film should be seen, helping in some way to tell stories
which have for too long been obscured or distorted by established
interests.

In Land and freedom the conflict between the libertarians and
authoritarians is mainly illustrated by the militarisation of the
militias and the fighting known as the May days. These were struggles
of great significance for the direction of the revolution in Spain
and the workers movement in general . Similar issues had been fought
out in Russia, the Ukraine, Germany and elsewhere in the period after
WW1 , but the more general divergence between these two strands of
political thought , organisation and action are timeless themes.

In Spain , the struggle did not end with the 'Maydays', Anarchist
collectives continued to resist being brought under state or private
control for years to come : many individuals were persecuted or
killed for their libertarian work, for example the famous Italian
Anarchist Camille Berneri . The conflict had other less clear aspects
, such as the participation in the government of prominent Anarchists
,compromising in order to avoid being completely sidelined by the
increasingly powerful state apparatus . These themes are either not
mentioned or merely hinted at in the film.

Overall , it is clear that ordinary people, only moderately
organised and poorly armed made enormous social and military strides
in the initial period following the Generals' rising . But the
revolutionary spirit which drove the resistance was difficult to
maintain in the face of the escalating conflict and mismanagement
behind the lines as the war at the front became a slogging match
between conscripted armies. Above all the nature of the revolution
was being altered as the earliest gains were eroded at first
insidiously and then quite openly , by a range of conservative
elements in the republican camp .The successes promised if the CNT-
FAI submitted to militarisation and central control were as illusory
in the military and economic field : Communist efficiency was not
particularly efficient after all. In these cases the film is
sympathetic with a vaguely antiauthoritarian position , but stops
short of explaining the CNTFAI role , which would have been a real
innovation , a real contribution .Loach himself has said that in the
making of the film Trotsky's influence was indispensable , but that
of the anarchists and libertarian communists merely amount to 'other
influence'.

"Land and Freedom" has attracted a good deal of attention in Spain
itself , some ex POUM members even considering a relaunch of their
party . Speaking with Spanish people it is noticeable that the Franco
years and the subsequent move towards consumerism , have succeeded in
leaving young people with only a limited interest in , or knowledge
of the period. Indeed the actors/actresses in the film frankly
admitted that the events portrayed in the film were new to them.

The Spanish Revolution and Civil War can be seen as a political
laboratory, in which one can glimpse the kind of world that each of
the political groupings were working towards. "Land and Freedom"
spotlights events which form some of the crucial lessons of the
period , and in an accessible way raises some issues which are of
deep significance to the question of how human beings organise
themselves and their world , and for that alone it is extremely
welcome.