Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin instills the pangs of revolution in the hearts of the audience who bask in inspiration after watching the Odessa steps sequence in the film. A film, wherever it is made, has the reflection of the society and history of the community. Habermas has argued in his essay, Modernity: An Incomplete Project, that with the transition to modernism, art has made an endeavor to dissociate it from the social constrictions and become liberated, in the sense that it would be art for art’s sake. The avant garde artist would like to immerse the soul in the unending artistic pursuit for creative freedom.
But, it is only those expressions of art which have been comprehended in association with the historical and social context that have reached a transcendental dais in the history of artistic expression. Films are no exception in this regard. While like a Dadaist, an auteur might choose to shock his audience, still he should not be seen as an individual who is outside the domain of tradition and culture. No matter how artists may endeavor to create their own avenue of creative expression with no liabilities to the society, that is practically impossible as one cannot escape the ethnic or the societal influence. Films, as such, are the reflections of culture, history and society and cinematically document the events in multisensory modalities to exude the quintessential charm of artistic expression.
For instance, Battleship Potemkin can only be comprehended properly if it is placed in the socio-historic context of Russia. The scene depicting the rising of the lions signify the uprising of the unified mass against the oppressive stand of the state machinery. This metaphor can only be understood by the aid of linking this to the larger societal perspective.
Another film, Soy Cuba, a Cuban Communist propaganda film, portrays the oppressions carried out by the American overlords and the woeful conditions of the natives of the land. While the foreigners engage in promiscuity and excess, the native are left in pitiable states from where they unite and finally rise up to achieve freedom. Not only these kinds of films develop a social picture on-screen, but only immortalize the history of the land cinematically. In this way, films are similar to any other art form which imbibes in itself reflects of the society and time, passively or actively.
Walter Benjamin, in the essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, has strongly argued in favor of utilizing films as the medium for mobilizing the masses. He stresses on the ability of this medium in reaching the innermost core of the heart of a viewer and work on his unconscious. Propaganda films are produced for the same reason across the globe. Leni Riefenstahl’s film, Triumph of the Will, which released in 1935, portrays the character of Adolf Hitler as the messiah for the German people and glories all his activities. When one is to delve deep into the dynamics of this film, it needs to in mind that this is essentially a German propaganda film prior to Hitler’s fall. It fabricates many of the ‘facts’ just to fulfill its ambition of holding forth the Nazis and Hitler as the invincible and transcendental power in the world. Indeed, Benjamin was absolutely correct in pointing out this capacity of this art form.
In recent times a very controversial film was banned by the United States. This film had gone viral over the internet and was assumed to be produced by North Korean government. Propaganda, the film, was a blatant blow on the American nation by the Communist government. It went on t criticize America’s role in the world politics and endeavored to portray North Korea in a glorified light was the sole nation committed to fight this evil. To understand this film, and to critique it, one requires tracing the historical context which led the North Korean government to make this film go viral. The ideological difference and the economic policies which are at loggerheads are factors that work as the driving force behind the film’s content. Thus, such political films can never be seen dissociated from the social and historical context as that would lead to an erroneous bias in the minds of the audience.
Another important aspect of films is the portraiture of stereotypes that give us a clear picture of the society. If one travels back in time and analyses the film Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, one can find the stereotypical portrayal of the blacks. The film definitely is seen as one that sparks off pangs of racism and it actually did see such violent reactions after its release. It was banned in many states in America and severely criticized for its biased approach. This can trace its roots back to the oppression and subordination which the blacks faced at the hands of whites and the ills of racism and slavery.
If we traverse a long way down to a third world nation, India, which is shrouded with issues regarding political and religious unrest, and patriarchal ideology, films reflect the same. While the majority of films portray insignificant characters of females, the female sex is screened as subordinate and passive. Also, films portray the social disintegration and clashes that perturb the Indian society continuously. Mani Ratnam’s famous film, Dil Se, portrays the struggle of ULFA, a terrorist organization, to achieve freedom for the north-eastern states which are left in the periphery of the nation. Themes of religious riots are portrayed in films like Black Friday by the renowned director Anurag Kashyap and Bombay by Mani Ratnam. Both the films portray the times when the riots that took place in Mumbai and the series of bomb blasts that shook the metropolis from its core. With references to Daewood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, Black Friday is a chilling tale of the religious fanaticism that leads to terrorism in the name of jihad. Unfortunately, there are hardly any films in comparison to the array to such works which try to delve into the human nature of the Muslim. They are simply stereotyped as blood-thirsty, aggressive fanatics who engage in manslaughter in the name of religious war. However, this even remains to be the tell-tale sign of the notion which the majority of the non-Muslim population poses toward the Islamic people in India.
As such, it becomes impossible and perhaps extremely absurd to try and understand a film without finding links with the contemporary society or tracing its historical basis. A film is simply the expression of the director which cannot escape the influence of the socio-cultural boundaries of the community. Rather, it is only though reviewing films one can fully grasp the intricate intertwining relationships that prevail in a society at a point of time.
One may be reminiscent of the stalwart, Stuart Hall’s seminal work Encoding, Decoding, where the author goes on to argue that every work of art tries to communicate with the population. To make the communication possible, the creative artists would endeavor to incorporate certain cultural markers in the art work. These would be compliant with the institutionalized cultural markers which would appeal to the audience and make them strike a common cord with the work on screen. The author further goes on to say that the creative artist would encode a message in the work of art and it is up to the audience how the encoded message would be interpreted.
As such, while critiquing a film and imbibing its essence, it becomes greatly necessary to understand the cultural markers which are hidden in the film. The cultural markers would point to the societal conditions and the history of the community. If one fails to take these into consideration, the film would not have its original essence and might come across as less relevant.
One might argue at this juncture that any art-work is a compilation of quotations, alluding to Roland Barthes’ famous work, The Death of the Author. The argument would be that the author or in this case the director is a mere scripter of the events shown in the film and the freedom and onus of interpretation lies on the shoulders of the audience. The audience would then interpret the cultural markers in context of their own society and community.
There would emerge an analogy with the native history and philosophy of the audience watching the film. Nonetheless, the societal and historical perspective cannot be done away with while analyzing a film. One method can be endeavoring to decipher the society and history of the land where the film has been made. The other way can be comparing the structure of the community portrayed in the film with the society of the audience.
In fact, it is in this way that a film emerges to be universal in appeal. The success of the director and the other artists related to a film lie in evoking the emotions and successfully leaving a mark in the hearts of the audience. For that the connection needs to be formed, and the stronger the better.
Glauber Rocha in his seminal work, Aesthetics of Hunger, argues how the foreign observes the misery of Latin America not as a tragedy, but a formal element in the field of interest. He opines that Latin America does not communicate its perils to the outsider, while the outsider also is not interested in truly understanding the plight of the land. Such an observation should not evoke nostalgia of primitivism. One needs to understand that the pitiable condition has been the aftermath of colonization. Cinema Novo portrays the hunger that looms over the lands of Latin America.
But, to the sheer misfortune, though this hunger is felt, it is never intellectually understood. The portraiture of this plight should be seen as a tropical surrealism. It is rather a shame for Brazil that hunger threatens to kill innumerable people residing in the nation. Cinema Novo shows hunger to be the normal behavior that comes from starvation. These moments of violence are not mere portraitures of primitivism, rather at these moments the colonizer becomes aware of the worldly existence of the colonized. One has to be aware of the socio-economic condition and the history of the land from where the cinema originates. In case this is not understood properly, the chances of misinterpretations rise alarmingly, as in the case of Cinema Novo.
A threat that looms over the artistic avenue of film production is the ambition of excessive commercialization. Clement Greenberg in his essay, Avant Garde and Kitsch, argues that in the market where every producer aims to fetch maximum profits and films are treated as products, it is the general trend to produce a work that has already been tried and tested to gain profits. As such, the structure of the films becomes similar and there remains hardly much room for creative freedom of the director. The film is thus crippled of its ability to portray the socio-cultural aspects of the community.
Frederic Jameson in his seminal work, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, argues that art works may also be utilized to dissociate the individual from his past and thus be left in a state of free spirit, devoid of emotional coherence. This would further lead to a fragmented sense of reality and the ability of a person to have a holistic view of life and society would be thwarted. Just as literature has been patronized in the past to create resonance of the elite, films may also be oblivious of the society’s true situations and rather go on to portray the clichéd realm and bound the imagination and articulation of the audience within the dungeon of commercialism or consumerism.
The challenge is thus to overcome these bondages and break the shackles to tread toward the realization of the historical and social contexts of films. It is equally important to be conscious of not becoming conditioned by a biased portraiture of Technicolor. One should always endeavor to look beyond the apparent and get the inner essence of cinema which will render worldly knowledge and realization in reference to society and civilization.
Godard’s famous film, La Chinoise, portrays the dichotomy of ideology and pragmatics. The group of youths who vow to fight against bourgeoisie culture are themselves encompassed by the products of capitalism. This is the true essence of cinema. Something so complex is so simply communicated to the gazillion audience through the 70 mm screen. The viewer can only muse about the haunting questions that bind the society. Watching the film, Matir Moyna, by Tareque Masud from Bangladesh, one gets to know of the history of the land. The shadows of history and society are inseparable from the art form, if one only knows where and how to look. In Lives of Others, by Florian Henckel, the oppressive measures and censorship of the Communist regime is explored. Argo, the Ben Affleck film which recently won the Academy Award, interprets the third world with its own looking glass of the West. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the stalwart director, hence bring out the societal plight of Afghanistan in his hailed work, Kandahar. The patriarchal society, the Taliban, the violence and the lessons on using a machine gun which are indoctrinated in the children in the schools, all leave an everlasting mark on the hearts of the viewer.
A film can be best understood by placing it in the social and historical context. A film is a form of creative expression which never escapes the influence of the community and culture. It has to be viewed subjectively. The one mantra to remember is that there is nothing called objective reality. Lars von Trier had once correctly opined that a film is like a rock in the shoe. Film is an integral part of culture and is the mirror of the society and the past of the civilization.
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Hall, Stuart. ‘Encoding, Decoding.’ [Online] Available at
Harbord, Janet. 2002. Film Cultures, SAGE Publications Ltd., New Delhi.
Jameson, Frederic. 1991. ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.’ [Online]
Available at http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/jameson.htm
Miles, Peter & Smith, Malcolm. 1987. Cinema, Literature and Society, Billing & Sons Ltd.,
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