Loud Cheers for Marx; Economic Crisis a Major Theme for Movies at International Film Festival of Kerala
Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck would have been overjoyed had he seen the Kerala audience’s reaction to his latest film The Young Karl Marx. The movie was screened at the 22nd edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram, and the viewers erupted frequently into cheerful applause during its three screenings.
The Young Karl Marx (2017) depicts the period from April 1843 – when the Prussian Government’s ban on the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News) where Marx was the editor-in-chief took effect – till the publication of the Communist Manifesto in February 1848. Apart from Marx and Engels, Marx’s wife Jenny von Westphalen and Engels’s lifelong partner Mary Burns figure prominently in the film.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the screenings of the movie saw packed houses and enthusiastic response at a festival in Left-ruled Kerala. Nevertheless, the moments which drew applause also were instructive and stood as testimony to how close Marx and the ideals he espoused are to the hearts of so many people here.
For instance, Marx’s famous words from Theses On Feuerbach appear in the movie as part of a conversation between Marx and Engels: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”. The massive audience at the 2500-seater Nishagandhi auditorium cheered as if they were just waiting for the words to be uttered.
Likewise, Jenny’s words “Happiness requires rebellion. Rebellion against the establishment, the old world… And I hope to see the old world crack soon” met with spirited applause. While Marx and Jenny were living in Paris with their baby daughter, Engels, who was in England, asks Marx to join him in London to visit the leaders of the League of the Just. Jenny urging Marx to go ahead – an indication of the sacrifices that she had to make – drew warm appreciation.
Apart from rousing dialogues, vital moments in the young Marx’s rise as a leading thinker also saw the audience applauding – for instance, the scene which depicts the publication of The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx’s response to the French philosopher Proudhon’s work The Philosophy of Poverty.
And of course, there were loud cheers, for the renaming of the League of the Just as the Communist League and its adoption of the motto suggested by Marx and Engels – “Workers of all countries, unite!”
A selection of Raoul Peck’s films including Lumumba (2000) had been screened at the 14th IFFK in 2009 under the section “Contemporary Master in Focus”. He had also delivered the Aravindan Memorial Lecture at the festival that year.
The timing of his new film could not have been more apt, coming as it does on the 150th year of the publication of the first volume of Marx’s magnum opus, Capital. The coming year also marks the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and his ideas have seen a revival in popularity across the globe with the persisting worldwide economic crisis. It might be fitting, therefore, that among the movies that were screened at the IFFK 2017, the economic crisis found particular resonance in the movies from southern Europe. Portugal and Greece in particular, with 11.2% and 23.6% unemployment rates respectively, provided the setting for some gripping movies shown as part of the World Cinema section at the festival.
The Nothing Factory (2017)
The Young Karl Marx ends with the iconic words from the Communist Manifesto, beginning with “A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism.”
The Portuguese film The Nothing Factory which was screened at IFFK paraphrased these words, with the line: “A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of its ending.”
The 3-hour film directed by Pedro Pinho is inspired by true events at an Otis lift factory in Portugal.
The Nothing Factory begins with workers stopping machinery and equipment from being taken out of the factory at night. Soon it becomes clear that the management wants to shut down the plant. The savvy Human Resources manager seeks to present layoffs of workers as “reformulations” and “readjustments”.
The workers start pickets to protect the factory, to prevent more equipment from being taken out. The workers are asked by the management to wait at their machines during the day, but they have no work as production has stopped. It has become a factory that produces nothing.
While the management calls the workers one by one to negotiate retrenchment and severance packages, the workers face the challenge of staying united without falling prey to the temptations dangling before them. The Human Resources manager, a woman, even goes to the wife of Ze, one of the workers, in order to ask her to persuade him to accept the management’s offer.
The management says that the international crisis has affected lift sales, but how is it that they are driving around in Mercedes cars while the company is supposedly becoming insolvent, ask the workers.
They occupy the factory, and as the owners abandon the factory, the workers decide to form a cooperative to manage the factory of their own.
The movie is interspersed with a voiceover that offers commentary on the larger events and the capitalist crisis – the voice apparently belongs to Daniele, a filmmaker who is a sensitive observer of the crisis and who takes a keen interest in the developments at the factory. Stylistically eclectic, the film reveals a touch of surrealism in a scene in which ostriches appear in a field, almost out of nowhere. Towards the end, the workers break out in songs and dances, with one of the shots happily reminiscent of the classic play Machine by Indian street theatre group Jana Natya Manch (founded by the legendary Safdar Hashmi).
The film also shows intense debates involving Daniele and some other thinkers on cooperatives, the possibilities that they offer as well as their limitations. A cooperative, as long as it participates in the market, is still a market agent and has to “succeed” in the market. It is still subject to the logic of the capitalist system. But it opens up a new path, with workers learning to manage the enterprise themselves and picking up new skills, thereby at least reducing the supposed basis for the enormous inequality in pay packets between the workers and those at the top. (Kerala has its own experience of successful cooperatives, such as the Uralungal Labour Contract Cooperative Society, the subject of a new book by TM Thomas Isaac and Michelle Williams.)
The workers also engage in heated discussions regarding the future of the company, on how it should be managed, and regarding whether to hire professionals with higher salaries to help manage the factory. Meanwhile an offer of help arrives in the form of an order from a cooperative in Argentina. Will they succeed? Only time will tell.
The social dislocations spawned by the economic crisis and wars waged by the imperialist powers constitute a major theme in the French-Greek film Djam, directed by Tony Gatlif.
Djam, a young Greek woman, is sent to Istanbul by her uncle Kakourgos to find a motor-boat part. In the Turkish city, she meets Avril, a French girl who had come to volunteer with refugees. Avril has run out of money, and Djam takes her along on the way to Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos which is separated from Turkey only by a narrow strait. Their journey is enlivened by exciting encounters and music. The free-spirited Djam doesn’t mince words to condemn fascists – including her own grandfather – with the pithy line, “I piss on those who ban music and freedom”.
There are strong pointers in the film to the devastation of human lives in Syria, a direct result of wars waged by the US-led NATO in collaboration with their allies – the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia. The devastation caused by war led people to take huge risks to migrate to Europe seeking refuge.
A scene in Djam shows a large number of abandoned boats – which carried refugees to Greece – washed ashore a Greek beach with large black pebbles. Nearby, there is a mound of thousands of life jackets. One of the boats is named Hikmet, reminding one of the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet and his poem “A Sad State of Freedom”, which talks about the “great freedom to be out of work”, and the “freedom to be arrested, go to prison, even be hanged”. “This freedom is a sad thing beneath the stars”, wrote Hikmet.
With the intensifying crisis, the bank seizes the property of the Kakourgos family, but they are unbowed, determined to fight on.
(Another film screened at IFFK this year – the Malaysian film Aqerat – depicts the atrocities that the Rohingyan refugees fleeing from persecution in their homeland have to face.)
Colo, a Portuguese film directed by Teresa Villaverde, is the story of a family which finds it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves amidst the crisis. The husband is unemployed, and the wife is forced to double up jobs to make ends meet. They don’t have enough food, and electricity at their house is cut off after they run out of money to pay the bills. To further complicate things, the pregnant friend of their young daughter also seeks refuge at their home.
The film shows the various ways in which people respond to the upheavals in their lives. Sometimes they react with compassion and solidarity, sometimes with anger. And often they are overcome by human frailty, atomised and drained of empathy as families are ripped apart by the storm of the economic crisis.
The Nothing Factory, Djam and Colo portray the lives of people caught in the interstices of the human tragedy which has become the marker of the times we live in – a tragedy fuelled by the systemic failures of the capitalist system.
As the voiceover in The Nothing Factory points out, the welfare state died with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was, after all, a response to the Soviet bloc. Without the “threat” of a socialist takeover, there is no need to rub ointment on the back of the poor; hence the utter callousness with which the capitalist class has responded to the crisis.
Taken together, these films lead us to face up to some unavoidable questions. As the crises that have engulfed our planet lead to increased barbarisation of society, will humanity allow itself to descend to more barbarism? Or will we build alternatives and fight to transcend the monstrous capitalist system which is leading our planet to catastrophe?
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