Cinema Train, Report from Leipzig

  • 1972
  • B D Garga
  • 1554 Words

In one of the last films, Vent d’Est (Wind from the East), Godard states, ‘It is no longer a question of what path to take; it is a question of what one should do practically on a path that the history of revolutionary struggles has helped us to recognize. To make a film, for example, is to ask oneself the question, ‘where do we stand?’”

In Leipzig, where I had the extraordinary experience of sitting through over a hundred political films, and none seemed to be in any doubt as to where one stood. The films covered a set of vast and varied socio-political landscapes, ranging from the Vietnam War to the struggle of the Chilean copper miners, from the American-Negro intellectual Angela Davis to the apartheid in South Africa, from the Irish religious riots to Arab refugees. At the end of a thousand minutes of screening, I was not quite the same person as when I had started. If my political consciousness had heightened, my response had also been dulled somewhat with so heavy a dose of political propaganda.

The political capacity of the motion picture was discovered much earlier than Godard; in fact, Godard’s own inspiration came from the Soviet film maker, Dziga Vertov, who, in 1921 founded the Kino-Eye group and whose films ‘blended facts, feelings and propaganda into a kind of political surrealism’.  That many of the filmmakers like Godard, Chris Marker, Bernard Paul and others have gone to Soviet sources to find a point of contact, was brought home to me by the several French entries at the Festival. More particularly, the film, Le Train en March (1973) made by Chris Marker, a virtuoso’s work about an extraordinary man, Alexander Medvedkin.


Now in his early seventies, genial, modest but vigorous, Medvedkin was a member of the Jury. Medvedkin’s contribution to Soviet cinema, though little known, is significant. In 1930, he made a direct approach to the fulfillment of the five-year Plan in the Soviet Union, and conceived the idea of a cinema train. The individual coaches contained everything from cameras to cutting room and processing laboratories. They also had sleeping accommodation, a kitchen and a dining room. Equipped thus, the train travelled across the country, always heading for places where there were problems, whether in a factory or a collective farm.  Medvedkin and his colleagues examined the reasons behind these difficulties and captured them on film. The film also posed questions.

Filmed by day, the material was developed and edited by night and then shown to the farmers or factory workers the following day. This was quite extraordinary, because it enabled the film makers to plunge into events as they happened and to help bring about changes.

Chris Marker’s film showed all this with Medvedkin talking about his train, showing clippings from some of the films, inter-cut with shots of the train moving from one region of the Soviet Union to another.

Of the Soviet entries, the two most impressive were Meeting Maxim Gorky and The Hour of Ireland. Marvellously evocative, the film on Gorky showed the great writer arriving in Moscow from abroad, after an interval of several years. In his absence, the country has undergone a tremendous traumatic experience, and muchof what Gorky had known had changed forever. The Hour of Ireland concerned the recent religious riots in that country. Starting with some breathtakingly beautiful shots of the Irish countryside, the film immediately gets down to business, with the urgency typical of television reportage. Composed mainly of interviews with intellectuals, priests, government officials and ordinary men and women, we are given samples of religious fanaticism and military cynicism. There is a rather revealing interview with a Russian-speaking British soldier who had been posted to Cyprus and Suez and who justifies the British military action in Northern Ireland.

Eagerly one looked forward to the films of the Latin American countries - Cuba, Chile and Brazil - for the reputation young film makers like Santiago Alvares (with his shorts Now! and Hanoi), Fausto Canel (a film about Hemingway) and the ‘Cinema Nove’ group have earned for themselves.  I was a trifle disappointed with the aesthetic quality of the Latin American films. The Cuban film, To Taketo heels was about the US military intervention in Laos. Despite its engaging technique-collage of posters, stills, cartoons, and live-action shots - or perhaps because of it, the film failed to involve the spectator.

In comparison, The Price Chile Had To Pay, about their copper miners, was a more penetrating study. It showed the grinding poverty of the miners and the inhuman conditions in which they lived, all of which finally led to the nationalization of the mines. If its visuals had been more telling and its tone a little less didactic, this could have been a truly effective film. The other film on Chile, Viva Chela was made by a team of Czech film makers. Mercifully sans narration and concentrating mostly on people its visual impact was hypnotic.

Talking of racial exploitation, the film that most impressed me was End of Dialogue, about Apartheid in South Arica, a British entry. The film was clandestinely shot by the members of the South African National Congress and smuggled out of the country.  It was admittedly an act of considerable courage and risk, especially in view of the strict censorship in that country.The film showed graphically, segregation as practiced in the towns of South Africa. The blacks live huddled together in shanty towns, in dwellings made of cardboard boxes, broken crates and sheets of corrugated iron. The Whites, of course, have their mansions, their tennis-courts and well laid out lawns. There is a beautifully worked out scene in the film, where a group of Blacks silently mow the lawn of their White masters who are shown playing tennis. The sound of the racquet hitting the ball is carried over the black faces and acts like a rapier stab. Obviously, shot under trying conditions, which sometimes told upon its technical quality and made it look like a rough-cut, the over-all impact was staggering.

The Vietnam War overshadowed all else. There were several films about Vietnam, some made by the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese and quite a few by others, including the Americans. Interestingly, the American entries were not only more numerous, but also more impressive. The one I liked most was The Girls of Ngu Thuy. Shorn of overt propaganda, it concerned 37 girls of a fishing village, who, while living under constant threat of bombing, form a Costal Defense group. The fish is needed for the soldiers, so they must get it. While they suffer and struggle,they also manage to keep smiling, plant trees and savour the little pleasures of life. The film was all the more credible, because it made no attempt to present the girls as some kind of heroines. They were ordinary fisher-girls, having learnt to cope with an arduous situation.

The American entries, Eight Flags for 99 cents, Different Sons and The Pentagon Papers, highlighted the discussions on Vietnam going on in the United States. In The Eight Flags for 99 cents, for instance some middle class people are seen discussing the Vietnam War. They are all ordinary people, drawn from different walks of life, with no particular political background, but they feel concerned at their country’s involvement in a far-away land which has vitally affected their lives. In Different Sons, we see a protest march of the U S veterans of the war. 

The Pentagon Papers, which arrived at the last minute, was truly the surprise of the festival. It is set in Boston where Daniel Ellsberg who made the Pentagon Papers public, now lives. Ellsberg talks of his childhood in Boston, his father, his involvement in Vietnam as a top ranking beaurocrat and finally what led him to change sides. The sheer brilliance of Ellsberg’s argument makes the film convincing and credible.

The prize ceremony for the 1972 edition of the festival

The climax of the festival however, came with the Vietnamese delegation turning up at the Awards function in battle dress and the American contingent led by Mark Lane (author of Rush to Judgement, about President Kennedy’s assassination), starting a symbolic blood donation campaign for the wounded of Vietnam.

In the midst of so much blood, want and war, the appearance of Ravi Shankar (India’s lone entry in competition) was like Nero fiddling while Rome burnt: It was simply posted to the wrong address.


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