Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) – dir. Justin Chadwick

Sharpville Massacre May 1960

Sharpville Massacre May 1960

Considering that the period covered was one of the most dynamic and crucial in the development of Black Southern Africa the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is remarkably pedestrian, slow, ponderous and ultimately unsatisfying. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the whole emphasis is placed on an individual with political events merely being a historical backdrop rather than looking at those events and analysing how any individual relates to the greater whole.

Being based on Mandela’s autobiography (of the same name) published in 1994 (a 750 pages doorstop that seems to have been his primary aim after release as he wrote this prior to his being elected South Africa’s first Black President in April 1994) this perhaps is not surprising but I would have thought that a film based in a period of massive upheaval and conflict should have recognised that social movements have a momentum of their own and that an individual’s role should be measured, for good or bad, in how it progresses that social movement.

The film is basically in three parts.

At the very beginning we are presented with an idealised childhood and youth in the South African bush. When he goes off to study at University Mandela’s wish is only to become a successful and wealthy lawyer. He’s a smart-arse lawyer and we are shown an episode in court where he wins a case by playing on the racism of a white woman. She is so disgusted at having to answer questions from a ‘kaffir’ and having to justify to him that a pair of knickers are hers that she walks out of the courtroom and the case collapses. So we are introduced to the Mandela who is a clever and astute lawyer.

But in this period he’s not especially interested in politics. This is the 1940s, before the formal establishment of Apartheid, and although the formal and legal institution of that system has yet to be written into law we are still dealing with a racist and segregated society. But Mandela, although having contact with the African National Congress (ANC), seems more concerned about using the pistol in his trousers than any true weapon against the State.

When, as a result of the openly racist National Party in the whites only election in 1948, strict segregation of the races is enforced and Mandela moves into a house in the Orlando township he is given a speech were it gives the impression that he is the only one who really understands what is going on in the country – here the film seems to play around with the timeline of events for dramatic effect. This establishes a theme that continues throughout the rest of the film, Mandela knows best, Mandela is the one who doesn’t break when the pressure is applied, Mandela is the clear and thoughtful leader who sees the future whilst others are lost in a wilderness. In this way any voices, either in agreement of otherwise are totally ignored.

We get the start of the hagiography that is the film with demonstrations of his ability as a public speaker, a demagogue who says what everyone else is afraid to say – and throughout the rest of the film very few significant statements are made by any of the other characters. In such street meetings the camera flashes to other ANC supporters who look concerned when Mandela makes a statement that might be construed as inflammatory and going too far and which might bring down the wrath and anger of the white racists. This despite the fact that the film, in an earlier scene, shows that many in the ANC were challenging the system BEFORE the active involvement of Mandela. He was not a leader from the off and, in fact, although not shown in the film, Mandela later became instrumental in side-lining the more radical elements within the movement.

Towards the end of this first third he develops as an egoist and self publicist having the newspaper cameras around when he burns his passbook. This follows the Sharpville massacre of May 1960 in which 69 people were butchered during a Pan-African Congress (PAC) organised protest against the obligatory carrying of identification papers. The PAC was much further to the left than the ANC and the two organisations vied for the mass support of the South African population. In those pictures he’s smiling as if it were yet another photo opportunity and demonstrates how he rode on the backs of others who had taken the initiative – not for the last time.

After Sharpville - Mandela burns his passbook

After Sharpville – Mandela burns his passbook

The only period in the whole of his life where Mandela might be vaguely considered to have followed a revolutionary road was during the first couple of years of the 1960s. Then he followed some military training in Algeria and this period saw the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, known in shorthand as MK), the military wing of the ANC. This organisation limited itself to sabotage activities in its beginning and rarely went much further for the rest of its existence and it was the activities of MK that led to the arrest and trial of Mandela and others from the ANC leadership.

Much has been made of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia trial of 1964 where his last words were ‘it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’. This was inspired by Fidel Castro’s speech after the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 7th 1953 and considered the start of the Cuban revolution. Castro’s last words were: ‘Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me’. (Don’t you ever get the impression they were speaking with history in mind rather than anything else?) It is true that they could have been sentenced to death at this trial but the Afrikaaners were to deny them their desire for martyrdom and instead sentenced them to life imprisonment. Fine, stirring and defiant these final words might have been but a better idea of Mandela’s political thinking, which he maintained till the end, can be understood if the whole of the speech is read, where, among other things he speaks of his admiration for the British establishment.

The second section of the film concerns his time in prison. Yet again all the other inmates become mere cyphers. For example, on arrival at Robben Island prison he is shown as the only one remaining defiant as when he shouts out ‘Amandla’ (meaning ‘power’) which would expect the reply ‘Awethu’ (‘to us’) Mandela’s call is met with total, demoralised, silence.

Being a prisoner was the most significant role that Mandela played in the South African liberation struggle and became the symbol for anti-Apartheid campaigns throughout the world. For 18 years he was isolated from the struggle like all the other prisoners on Robben Island and wasn’t aware of or in any way involved in the direction of the struggle as it intensified. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s one after another of the countries that had been dominated by European colonial powers gained their independence, often after bitter, bloody and determined armed struggles. It was in this way that Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola gained their freedom from direct foreign control (but not from international capitalist interference). Things were starting to get out of control in South Africa and fearing the country would move much further to the left after any possible victory in the liberation struggle Mandela was brought back into the political process to create division and promote moderation.

This very selection of someone who had been out of contact with the everyday struggle becoming the representative of the black population says a lot about the failure of the ANC to make any significant inroads during their so-called ‘armed struggle’.

This, third, section of the film plainly shows the attitude Mandela had to any sort of collective leadership and decision-making process. Probably the most significant discussion amongst his fellow prisoners and the clearest political stance (and the only one in the film) they took was totally ignored by Mandela. When they voted that he shouldn’t be meeting with the ‘The Boer’ leadership by himself his response was ‘I take note, comrades, but I will do what I think is right.’ He assumes the inalienable right to be the only capable of making the ‘correct’ decisions!

At the same time we are shown that he is becoming increasingly estranged from his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, who, living and fighting in the townships, had realised that the situation had changed radically from what it had been at the beginning of the 1960s when he had been tried and imprisoned.

In this third part of the film we see Mandela playing everything as a one man show. He calls for unity when it’s his ideas that are being challenged, using his international reputation to beat down his opponents. He accuses Winnie of not following the capitulation ANC leadership as she calls for the struggle to become a true armed struggle and not to continue to throw unarmed children in the battle against machine gun-toting thugs in armoured vehicles.

Despite this open individualism and depicting his political manoeuvring the film still arrives at the general consensus in the end, that of a patient, elder statesmen who considers that peace with the white oppressors is preferable to true liberation for the South African working class, both black and white.

It was for that reason he was so fêted at the end of last year after his death on 5th December. His legacy being a South Africa where the same political and economic forces are in control, albeit with some black faces feeding at the trough, and an increasingly desperate situation for the majority.

Art Turning Left – Tate Liverpool – 2013/14

 

La chien lit c'est lui - Atelier Populaire - France 1968

La chien lit c’est lui – Atelier Populaire – France 1968

Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 at The Tate Liverpool advertises itself as the first exhibition to look at how art has been influenced by left-wing values. I don’t believe that claim is strictly correct as a visit to the People’s History Museum in Manchester presents many examples of the material, from posters, pamphlets, Trade Union banners and many other artefacts, where art has been employed by different British working class organisations to promote and explain their ideas and values. But that quibble aside this is a very good, insightful and intelligent presentation of the way that art has influenced politics internationally and has itself been influenced by the level of technology and the political environment in which they are produced.

Taking that the sub-title gives a time frame for the exhibition I was expecting that the exhibits would be in some sort of chronological order so it would be possible to see if there was an evolution in thinking and designs. That isn’t the case – in fact, the earliest piece is encountered at the far end of the second room. There’s no order whatsoever and no specific connection between neighbouring presentations. What we have instead are small examples from a number of countries throughout the globe to give just an idea of how art and the left-wing have co-existed in different historical epochs.

Before going any further perhaps it’s worthwhile quoting from Atelier Populaire, the group of students from the École des Beaux Artes (the Fine Arts School) in Paris in 1968. This was not reproduced in the exhibition but is from the preface of a book they reproduced of examples of their work in 1969:

‘The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it.

Their rightful place is in the centre of conflict, that is to say in the streets and on the walls of the factories.

To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect. This is why the Atelier Populaire has always refused to put them on sale.

Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle is of such primary importance that the position of an “outside” observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class.’

I would agree with the majority of those sentiments with a proviso. I would like to think that many who have already visited (and those yet to visit) this exhibition on Liverpool’s waterfront would be doing so to gather ideas so that they could be put into practice in future struggles against capitalism and imperialism, but I think that’s more like wishful thinking. Future revolutionary artists shouldn’t need to start from scratch and an analysis of what has been produced in the past can become a springboard for the future. This doesn’t mean slavish imitation but more of a synthesis of what has come before to produce even better in the forthcoming struggles.

So what of the exhibition itself?

Although the time line suggests a period of more than two centuries the overwhelming number of the items on display are from the 20th century. The only item from the 18th century is Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting and etchings of ‘The Death of Marat’. I’m familiar with this painting but didn’t know until seeing it at the Tate that David’s workshop copied the original and many reproductions were distributed throughout France. The same with some of the etchings that he made as preliminary studies. This was done to break down the exclusiveness that surrounded paintings. We sometimes forget that extensive public access to the great art of the past is a very recent development and David was way ahead of his time in getting his poignant image of his friend and popular hero out to the greatest audience. It also played a political role in that he would hope that this would make the people angry and pursue those enemies of the revolution who sought to rein in the working people.

There’s then a big jump towards the end of the 19th century where we encounter a couple of the British examples on display.

First there’s a Trade Union banner from 1898. Here I have a major criticism of the curator. These banners were made to be carried through the streets as part of a march or a demonstration, the public expression of the ideas of those who followed behind. In the Tate this banner is lying flat. Not only does this make it difficult to appreciate fully it also goes against the whole meaning of its production in the first place. The manner in which they are displayed in the Manchester Peoples’ History Museum stands in strict contrast.

The second British subject from the end of the 19th century is the work of William Morris, specifically his designs for wallpaper. His inclusion doesn’t necessarily go against the general theme of the exhibition but it does take a slight veer away from art as political. Morris’s idea that good quality design shouldn’t be just for the rich is all very well and good but there would have been few working class homes indeed that could have afforded his wallpaper. As far as I could make out the work produced by Morris was the only one on display that was intentionally produced for the market. The fact that many other artefacts now have a value which the originators had not intended is just an example of how capital appropriates anything it can and tries to place a value that bears no relationship to its cost of production.

Not surprisingly the Soviet Union is well represented. Immediately after the 1917 Revolution and up to the Great Patriotic War (22nd June 1941 – 9th May 1945) artists of various schools were active in the young Soviet Union. They included: drawings made by the Futurist Eil Lissitzky, who believed in the production of propaganda for the new workers’ state through all forms of art and is represented in the exhibition by drawings he made in relation to a theatre production; posters produced by the Constructivist Alexandr Rodchenko, his work being represented by posters of a photomontage that he produced in 1925 commemorating an anniversary of the All Russian Communist Party; and the Productivist Liubov Popova who designed, amongst others, products which were of everyday use and believed that the just because something was ‘basic’ it needn’t lack aesthetic merit. What’s interesting about one of Popova’s designs is that the curator has taken the plan of a display board created in the early 1920s and has used that for the information about Tucamán Arde, the Argentinian collective, which is just a few metres away in the same room.

Five Year Plan - Artists' Brigade - 1933

Five Year Plan – Artists’ Brigade – 1933

I’ve already mentioned Atelier Populaire and there’s quiet a few of their posters on display. I would like to think that most of the young students involved in the silkscreen workshop during the heady days of May 1968 would be horrified if they saw their work on the walls of such a bourgeois institution as the Tate Liverpool but, at the same time, wouldn’t be over surprised if some of them had entered main stream social-democratic parties in their home countries, as have some other ‘revolutionaries’ of that time such a Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Regis Debray.

One of the principles of Atelier Populaire is the involvement of the artists in the struggle. It’s not just designing and printing in the comfort of a school basement. It’s going out on the streets and demonstrating when the call is made as well as walking around with wallpaper paste in a plastic bag and fixing those posters where they will have an effect on the current struggle, at times playing hide and seek with the police – which in France in 1968 meant the neo-Fascist Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the riot police, who were responsible for an unknown number of deaths.

Also having to face the dangers of a fascistic military government was the Argentinian art collective known as Tucamán Arde (Tucamán (a region of Argentina) Burns). This is a group I’ve never encountered before and they believed that the unity of art and violence was not a choice but a given and challenged the military junta from the late 1960s onwards. One of their slogans in an English translation is ‘We must always resist the lure of complicity’.

China is represented by four posters from the era of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. Many thousands of these posters were printed during that period and distributed all over the world, as well as being published in magazines such as Chinese Literature and Peking Review. Many of these used traditional techniques but the subjects were the life and times of the workers and peasants, at that time the rulers of the country who were attempting to build a socialist society.

The New Classroom - Ou Yang - Cultural Revolution 1966-76

The New Classroom – Ou Yang – Cultural Revolution 1966-76

During the Cultural Revolution one of the ways ordinary people could express their points of view was by writing something and posting them on the Da Zi Baos (the wall newspapers) were people would congregate not only to read but discuss the matters raised. Social Media might claim to play that role nowadays but, to me, that lacks the spontaneity and personal interaction that made the wall newspapers so special in all Chinese communities. An effort of the American Group Material in the 1980s to transfer the idea into the home of the beast met, as far as I read, with mixed results, but if people wrote and remained to fight their corner then the principle of the practice would be retained.

One small ‘installation’ that caught my attention was by the Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Miereles. This is a small presentation of three Coca Cola bottles, on one of which are instructions on how to make a Molotov Cocktail (petrol bomb). If Coca Cola was to adopt this policy then there would be reason for buying this expensive addictive sugar drink but I would have thought the glass in the bottles is too thick to make a truly effective weapon.

There were many other artists and groups on show, as I said before each installation was small, allowing for many to be mentioned the whole affair being much more of a ‘taster’ than a full meal. It’s worth mentioning: OSPAAAL and posters they produced in conjunction with the Cuban magazine Tricontinental; a US TV programme from the 1960s discussing the impact of Bertolt Brecht on both the American artistic and left-wing communities; the Hackney Flashers, a group of worker photographers which used their skills in community campaigns in the late 1970s; Equipo 57, a group I’ve never heard of before, who were a group of Spanish exiles from Franco’s Fascism who set up a Marxist orientated collective in Paris in May 1957; Guerilla Girls, an international women artist collective who campaign for more by women to be made available in art galleries throughout the world – I thought their small section gave the impression of whingers rather than innovative and imaginative artists; an interesting and amusing banner of The International Union of Sex Workers; an installation called ‘A Jukebox of people Trying to Change the World’ by Ruth Ewan, where visitors are invited to select from an ever-expanding collections of CDs of protest songs (and to suggest any new ones) – although when I went to the exhibition one of the attendants was making her selection so it was impossible to extrapolate the political leanings of fellow visitors; as well as a few audio-visual presentations I (foolishly) didn’t have the time to fully appreciate.

There were a few areas where I think the curator had gone slightly off beam, especially on some of the projects that took place in the last few years. Although taking pictures of, and displaying the results in places and locations normally reserved for the wealthy or just advertising of consumer goods I don’t consider that is necessarily looking at art in relation to the left in politics. Neither was the collection of photographs of locations throughout the country where individuals had decorated their homes in a peculiar way. Yes, this might well have been ignored and deserves to be recognised as valid an art form as other by professionals but this is not art that has been created in order to get across a political message

There was also, I believe, a glaring omission and that was any real reference to Socialist Realism. The small collection of Chinese posters was the only place in the gallery where workers were shown carrying out their everyday activities, even though in a stylised form. Now I accept that this could be a big topic and could flood the galleries but I would have thought the subject merited some reference. Although much of this material is not on show in the same way that it was before 1990 there is a vast treasure of Socialist Realist riches to be found and I would like to think that at some time ij the not too distant future someone at the Tate will consider a special exhibition sourcing material from Europe and Asia.

Building Socialism - National Art Gallery - Tirana

Building Socialism – National Art Gallery – Tirana

What I realised on leaving the floor was that this field is really vast and its unfortunate that political activists on the left don’t always appreciate the contribution they have made to culture through the very fact of their activity and the publicising of it. For example, how many silk screen posters have been totally lost form the late 1960s and 1970s which were the cheapest and most common medium for advertising meetings, demonstrations and making statements on the issues of the time?

Although I have a few quibbles this was an interesting and innovative exhibition. It’s a pity that once in finishes in Tate Liverpool next month there are no plans for it to go travelling to other galleries in the country. I also hope that it has been successful enough (I’m sure it hasn’t brought in such crowds as some of the recent special exhibitions at the riverside gallery) for further ventures along the same lines in the future.

Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 is at the Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool until 2nd February 2014.

Entrance: Adults: £8.00

Concessions: £6.00

 

All is Lost (2013) Dir. JC Chandor

Storm at sea

Storm at sea

Hollywood must be in crisis! Within a few weeks of each other two films are released that are basically one handers, with so-called ‘A’ list actors but as there’s only one wage bill to pay that obviously saves a fortune. And both these films revolve around single individuals who have to find a way out of a life-threatening situation which was not of their making. In one (Gravity – 2013) an astronaut is stranded in space, in the other (All is Lost – 2013) a sailor has to fight for his life in the middle of the Indian Ocean. By far the better of the two is ‘All is Lost’.

Robert Redford plays ‘Our Man’ (why ‘Our Man’ and not ‘The Man’ I don’t know – perhaps to encourage us to feel some affinity to his plight?) who wakes up to find knee-high levels of water in his small yacht. He has had the bad luck of coming into contact with a shipping container and his yacht has come off worse.

(That’s something most of us never think about but it’s becoming an increasingly serious hazard for the small vessels that travel the world’s oceans. These containers fall off the huge container ships and the loss goes unnoticed or is just ignored as the ship would have no facilities to recover such an item in mid-voyage. The first I heard it was a potential hazard was when I sailed across the Atlantic in a small sailing ship at the beginning of 2013. Water may cover seven tenths of the planet’s surface but if the container has got your name on it then there’s little you can do.)

But Our Man is not fazed by this potentially fatal event. He doesn’t rush but assesses the situation and then calmly seeks to find a solution to the problem in a logical way. When he can’t lever the two apart he uses his yacht’s sea anchor to slow down the container and allow his vessel to separate. That was clever and I was impressed from the start but was even more so when he returned to salvage that very same sea anchor as he might need it himself at some time in the future. That thinking of the future whilst dealing with a problem in the present was the only way he was going to survive.

All electrical equipment has been soaked and his batteries have been shorted out so he has to hand pump the water out of the cabin. He gets out a fibre glass repair kit and makes a reasonable repair of the gash on the starboard side, just above the water line. He starts to dry out crucial items of equipment like his radio and charts and even the cushions on his sofa. The situation has been desperate but by quietly addressing the issues in order of their importance he has returned to some level of security and although certainly not out of danger he was now no longer about to sink. He even has the opportunity to cook himself a hot meal.

Then the bad luck just seems to be queuing up to meet him. A tropical storm hits but he survives that one but not the next that overturns the boat on two occasions but managing to re-right itself on both occasions. This is after he had had a shave, something which would be fairly low on the list of my priorities but presumably is in the film to give us some idea of the character of Our Man.

But the damage to the yacht is terminal and he has to leave the Virginia Jean for the life raft.

This is serious enough but Our Man has to be put through more trails before we reach the end. A lot has been made, in different reviews, of the voice over comments made at the very beginning of the film. These are from a note he writes and places in a glass jar when (8 days after hitting the container) he was down to his last rations – but he could live for days without food, considering he had a relatively secure, though meagre, water supply). But what are we to make of these notes. The thoughts of a person who believes they are on the point of dying are notoriously unreliable. And if we think about it most of us could dredge back into our past and remember things we would have preferred to have done differently.

The other side of it is that I’m not sure how carefully people listen to these voice overs before the action has begun. You assume that the story will eventually be unravelled through what appears on-screen. And – having read those words subsequently on the IMDB site – I don’t believe they really matter. There’s an obsession now about so-called ‘back stories’ in cinema, as if the medium has to cross all t’s and dot all i’s. But a half decent film stands or falls on how a particular story is unravelled before out eyes, not necessarily upon whether the protagonists are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Whatever his past this does not save him from yet more misfortunes – even having his lunch stolen by sharks.

His abilities are pushed to the limits. He gets thrown into the sea for a second time – something I’ve always considered near enough fatal if you are alone. The amount of physical and emotional energy expended would make getting back on board a little bit of a miracle. I’ve tried to get into a life raft and it’s not easy in safe and controlled situations. In the middle of an ocean, in the middle of a storm are certainly not ideal conditions.

He uses a sextant to make celestial readings to determine his position. The one he uses is a truly beautiful instrument (the card he discards when he opens the box indicating that it was a gift from someone before he left land) but it’s not something he is familiar with as he is seen handling it whilst reading a ‘how to’ book on how to use the sun to work out his location. For a first timer he seems to be remarkably adept when it might have been better if instead of this fine piece of engineering he had been given a modern GPS. They’re tiny, robust, give accurate readings and are waterproof.

The way that two large ocean-going ships just pass within metres of him is also a comment on modern shipping. Crews have been reduced to a minimum and it’s more than likely that only one person would have been on watch and quite likely would have missed even a red flare at night and certainly wouldn’t have heard him calling. Considering he speaks so little during the course of the film it’s strange that he uses the most words in the most fruitless circumstances. Calling out to a floating block of flats being propelled by a huge and powerful diesel engine must rank as one of the most futile of exercises.

The fact that there’s so little dialogue in this film makes it an interesting experiment in film making. His calm exterior is reflected in his language – or rather lack of it. It just seems to me however taciturn he might have been, however long he might have spent alone at sea, he would have come out with his one word obscenity of frustration a lot sooner than he did. Or perhaps I’m just speaking for myself.

Whether this film has a happy ending or not depends upon your interpretation of the last scene. Is it reality or a dream? Whatever the result I think you end up supporting Our Man in his struggle to survive whilst I would have been quite happy for Sandra Bullock to be still floating around in space.