‘Cinema of Resistance’: Reels of Rage


‘I make films—that’s what I can do for Vietnam,” says Jean-Luc Godard in the omnibus anti-war project Far From Vietnam (1967). If you replace “Vietnam” in that statement with, for starters, Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Northern Ireland, the French West Indies, various factions of the New Left, and the Occupy movement, you’ll have a sense of the bracing scope of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s weeklong “Cinema of Resistance” series. The 15 feature-length works and various shorts programs here—whether fact, fiction, or, more often, an explosive hybrid of the two—are all acts of bearing witness, made to provoke outrage over abuses, conflicts, and wars.

Made a decade after Algeria won its independence from France, René Vautier’s To Be Twenty in the Aurès (1972) is set near the end of the brutal battle between those two nations, every frame a scorching indictment of colonialism. A dozen Breton pacifists, sent to a desert camp in the mountains of the title, near the Algerian-Tunisian border, quickly lose their principles—and their minds—after a lieutenant transforms them into a commando unit. “Then you take aim, and you get a taste for it,” one formerly nonviolent soldier tells another during shooting practice, their proclivities soon to include beating, raping, and torture.

France’s ignominious history in the Caribbean comes under attack in Mauritanian-born filmmaker Med Hondo’s puckish West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (1979). This centuries-spanning, stage-set chronicle of Martinique and Guadeloupe—both colonized in the 1600s by France, which imported human chattel from Africa to harvest the islands’ sugar and tobacco—often erupts into musical numbers. These delirious, incendiary interludes suggest song and dance as concocted by Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Demy, Alvin Ailey, and Frantz Fanon.

The blending of diverse styles into a singular howl of fury also defines Far From Vietnam. Under the guidance of Chris Marker, the collective behind the movie, which comprises 13 different segments, united to protest a war waged by the U.S.—”the biggest industrial and military power of all time,” as the voiceover narration reminds us—against one of the world’s poorest countries. (Many of the seven filmmakers—who, in addition to Godard, include Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda—involved in Far From Vietnam are French; France’s occupation, from 1887 until 1954, of the Southeast Asian nation does not go unremarked upon.) Interspersed between footage of Hanoi bombings and corpses of children are anti-war protests in Paris, where the demonstrators are clubbed by gendarmes, and in New York, where those who demand peace are shouted down by those who call for more bloodshed.

“American society is disintegrating,” someone says in Far From Vietnam. Another collectively made film about the war, Winter Soldier (1972), offers first-hand testimony about the U.S. military’s deepening depravity. Organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (member John Kerry is seen fleetingly in the documentary), the Winter Soldier Investigation convened at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit; from January 31 through February 2, 1971, vets recounted the mutilations, rapes, stonings, and other atrocities they either participated in or witnessed while in Southeast Asia. “I didn’t like being an animal, and I didn’t like seeing everybody else turned into animals,” one Purple Heart–earning Marine tells the filmmakers (a group that included Barbara Kopple) about his decision to speak out against the war.

The event in Detroit was not without its fissures: The cameras capture an African-American vet confronting a white testifier over racial politics. The splintering and infighting that began to erode “the movement” in the late ’60s and early ’70s plays a larger role in Robert Kramer’s Ice (1970), a fictional work that imagines the “National Committee of Independent Revolutionary Organizations” fighting a fascist Amerikkka at war with Mexico. The movie may be fantasy, but many of the scenarios were surely rooted in the real experiences of activists like Kramer, one of the founding members of Newsreel, a collective that made scores of short films and documentaries devoted to far-left and anti-war causes between 1967 and 1971.

One communiqué in Ice emphasizes the “necessity of armed struggle” to overthrow the U.S. government—the goal espoused by the five fugitive members of the Weather Underground in the 1976 documentary Underground, a collaborative work by Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, and Haskell Wexler. Wanted by the FBI at the time of filming, Bill Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernadine Dorhn, Jeff Jones, and Cathy Wilkerson are shot only from the back or through an obscuring scrim as they recapitulate the experiences that made them “full-time revolutionaries,” each recollection amplified by footage from the 1967 March on the Pentagon, the 1969 Days of Rage, and other pivotal moments during this convulsive epoch. Though sympathetic toward (or at the very least intrigued by) the group, de Antonio, a deeply committed leftist documentarian, and his colleagues are not uncritical: A scroll lists all the bombings sponsored by the radical organization. Yet another block of text is also crucial: “The future will be what we the people struggle to make it,” reads a banner in the safe house where the insurrectionists were interviewed—a credo that serves as the organizing principle for most of the films in this terrific retrospective.