Political cinema  

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"This subversive masterpiece -- a shattering indictment of American imperialism in South America -- is a brilliant tour de force of tumultuous images, sophisticated montage, and sledgehammer titles, fused into a passionate onslaught of radical provocation to jolt the spectator to a new level of consciousness. Here is a Marxist film that "rocks": a proudly subjective, passionately dogmatic, totally conscious plea for violent revolution." --Film as a Subversive Art (1974) by Amos Vogel

Now, what kind of government do we want?

Very little government would be good, I think.

- Without too many laws. - And no passports.

No passports.

- And no prisons. - No prisons.


- No taxes. - No taxes.

This is getting to be a perfect government.

And I will add... No laws and no money.

--Atoll K, 1:02:00

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Political cinema in the narrow sense of the term is a cinema which portrays current or historical events or social conditions in a partisan way in order to inform or to agitate the spectator. Political cinema exists in different forms such as documentaries, feature films, or even animated and experimental films.


The notion of political cinema

Political Cinema in the narrow sense of the term refers to political films which do not hide their political stance. This does not mean that they are necessarily pure propaganda. The difference to other films is not that they are political but how they show it.

However, even ostentatively 'apolitical' escapist films which promise 'mere entertainment', an escape from every day life, fulfil a political function. The authorities in Nazi Germany knew this very well and organized a large production of deliberately escapist movies.

In other entertainment movies, for example westerns, the ideological bias is evident in the distortion of historical reality. A 'classical' western would rarely portray black cowboys, although there were a great many of them. Hollywood Cinema, or more generally speaking so called Dominant Cinema, was often accused of misrepresenting black, women, gays and working class people.

More fundamentally not only the content of individual films is political but also the institution of cinema itself. A huge number of people congregate not to act together or to talk to each other but, after having paid for it, to sit silently, to be spectators separated from each other. (Of course the behaviour of the public is not always the same in all countries.) Guy Debord, a critic of the society of the spectacle, for whom "separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle" was therefore also violently opposed to Cinema, even tho he would make several movies portraying his ideas.

Cinema, World War I and its aftermath

Before World War I French cinema had a big share of the world market. Hollywood used the collapse of the French production to establish its hegemony. Ever since it has dominated world film production not only economically but has transformed cinema into a means to disseminate American values.

In Germany the Universum Film AG, better known as UFA, was founded to counter the perceived dominance of western propaganda. During the Weimar Republic many films about Frederick II of Prussia had a conservative nationalistic agenda, as Siegfried Kracauer and other film critics noted.

Communists like Willi Münzenberg saw the Russian cinema as a model of political cinema. Soviet films by Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and others combined a partisan view of the bolshevist regime with artistic innovation which also appealed to western audiences.

Film and National Socialism

Leni Riefenstahl has never been able or willing to face her responsibility as a chief propagandist for National Socialism. Almost unlimited resources and her undeniable talent led to results which despite their hideous aims still fascinate some film aficionados. There is much controversy around her work, but it is generally accepted that Riefenstahl's main commitment was to moviemaking, rather than to the Nazi party. Proof of that might be seen by the portrayal of Jesse Owens' victory on the movie Olympia (about the Olympic games in Germany) and in her later work, mostly on her photographic expeditions to Africa.

The same is certainly not true of the violently antisemite films of Fritz Hippler. Other Nazi political films made propaganda for so-called euthanasia.

Forms of Political Cinema

Form has always been an important concern for political film makers. While some argued that radical films, in order to liberate the imagination of the spectator, have to break not only with the content but also with the form of Dominant cinema, the falsely reassuring clichés and stereotypes of conventional narrative film making, other directors such as Francesco Rosi, Costa Gavras, Ken Loach, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee or Lina Wertmüller preferred to work within mainstream cinema to reach a wider audience.

The subversive tradition dates back at least to the French avant-garde of the 1920s. Even in his more conventional films Luis Buñuel stuck to the spirit of outright revolt of L’age d’or. The bourgeoisie had to be expropriated and all its values destroyed, the surrealists believed. This spirit of revolt is also present in all films of Jean Vigo.

Against Hollywood

Classical documentary started by supporting the bolshevist regime or promoting a statist agenda in a rather paternalistic way (John Grierson). Both were opposed to 'bourgeois' feature film making.

Direct Cinema was a form of documentary film with a more liberal agenda. Using new techniques of sound recording, talking with ordinary people (as opposed to talking about them) became a central concern. Techniques of direct cinema were also used in early feminist cinema.

In the 1960s emerged Third World Cinema or Third Cinema and other forms of radical cinema which were not only concerned with immediate observation (like direct cinema) but rather with political and historical analysis and calls to action.

As Amos Vogel and other have pointed out, the subversion of dominant ideologies can even happen by formal means without an explicit political content.


Especially in the last decades of the twentieth century many film makers saw remembrance and reflection upon major collective crimes (like the Holocaust) and disasters (like the Chernobyl disaster) as their political and moral duty.

Current topics

Since a few years a renewed interest in openly addressing current problems is apparent, especially in the context of the controversial discussions about globalization.

Selected filmography

The following is a listing of notable political films or political films made by notable directors:

See also

countercultural cinema


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Political cinema" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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