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April 22, 2018

Cinema of resistance


April 22, 2018

If you want to learn how to challenge authoritarianism with creativity, film directors and writers during post-WWII Europe can serve as role models. Be it Gunter Grass and Milan Kundera in terms of writing novels or Andrzej Wajda and Milos Forman through filmmaking, there is an impressive array of geniuses who have produced great works with their creative crafts. Milos Forman (pronounced Meelosh Forrmahn), who was a master craftsman of Czech origin, died on April 13, 2018 in Connecticut.

Europe was a dreary continent in the 1950s and 1960s. The mass destruction of the Second World War had left deep imprints on European soil. These marks became even more pronounced when the cold war engendered a sense of doom and gloom. This weary outlook was reflected not only in Italian and French cinema but also in Polish and Czech films. While a new wave was sweeping across the French cinematic landscape, another cinematic trend was unfolding in Czechoslovakia. This was called the Czechoslovakia New Wave – sometimes referred to as the Czech New Wave because most of the films were made in Czech language.

Milos Forman was one of the pioneers of this new wave. What Forman and other directors achieved in the 1960s was nothing short of a miracle. They could challenge authority with a subtle openness and without compromising on quality. As we know, most Eastern European countries had seen a brutal Nazi occupation, only to be replaced by Stalinist regimes. A communist government had taken over Czechoslovakia in 1948. By the 1960s, the people were already disgruntled with its arbitrary and dictatorial rule. When all traces of political opposition had been crushed, the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague took up the challenge.

This serves to explain why no such academy has been established in Pakistan’s 70-year history. Although we have had various religious councils and boards as well as numerous academies that have peddled dominant ideologies, there have neither been any independent academies of art and culture nor councils that can promote cinematic arts and inculcate a sense of courage among people to speak out against injustice.

So, Czech filmmakers of the 1960s sought to make the people of Czechoslovakia aware of the oppression and incompetence that had been imposed on them. If a society is brutalised – as it has happened in many other countries, including Pakistan – somebody has to take up the challenge and question the unquestionable. Czech directors did this by using unscripted dialogues and dark humour. The absurdity of the dominant ideology became clear when these directors used non-professional actors. This was done because most ‘professionals’ tend to be more interested in saving their own skin rather than standing up to oppression.

A milestone in this struggle was presented by Milos Forman in 1963, when his film ‘Black Peter’ somehow gained the approval of the censor board. This film is about a teenage apprentice who finds no excitement in his work. Although this was Forman’s first feature film, it made him a noticeable director of his age. Peter, the protagonist, is supposed to spy on the customers in a shop to catch any shoplifters. The film possibly gained approval because the communists considered it to be an attempt to promote socialist work ethics. But Forman used it as a commentary on communism. Peter’s distaste for spying on customers has a clear political overtone.

Forman’s next film, ‘Loves of a Blonde’, went even further in exposing the farce that had been imposed on the people in the name of communism. The film shows an all-girls factory run by an old man in a rural area. All the boys of this particular village have been drafted into the army and sent to the country’s border with West Germany. The factory’s director feels the anguish and agony of these lonely young girls and wants to help them. He goes to the army commander and requests him to send some of the boys back to the village so that a sense of normalcy returns to rural life.

The insistence of the commander with his one-liner – “the war may come any time” – and the response of the director with his riposte – “the war may not come for 50 years and in the meantime why don’t you help us” – rings a bell for many. Instead, the commander sends married and middle-aged reservists to the village for a weekend dance. The film is an ideal portrayal of a regimented mentality that refuses to respond to the real needs identified by a citizen. The reservists are totally cut off from the ground realities and are immersed in their own thoughtless discussions.

Forman continued his creative assault on authoritarianism with his next film, ‘The Fireman’s Ball’ (1967). This time, his focus was a rural fire department that is planning to have a party to celebrate the 86th birthday of the former head of the department. Just like the shop and the factory in his previous films, the fire department in this film becomes an analogy, not only for the stupidities of the civil and military bureaucracy but also for the brutal and, at times, comic alienation of the power-wielders from their primary responsibilities.

‘The Fireman’s Ball’ shows how things go awry when the celebrations don’t go as planned. The whole town is invited to the party, but somebody steals the raffle prizes. The officials of the fire department also want to hold a beauty contest, but the candidates picked by the officials are neither beautiful nor willing. With the fire department, Forman exposes the entire state machinery that subjugates society through the use of various gimmicks while being least interested in their primary duties. The movie proved to be the proverbial last straw before the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968.

After the Soviet forces entered Prague, many creative artistes left for Western Europe and America. Forman also landed in Hollywood and directed the first of his many masterpieces there in 1975. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ became the only movie after 1935 to win all four major Oscar awards for the best film, direction, actor and actress. In this film, he wasn’t criticising the communist rule, but was exposing the institutionalised brutality of society, even in capitalist countries. A mental hospital is run by an authoritarian female nurse who is not only incompetent but is also frustrated and takes out her frustration on hapless inmates.

Soon after that, Forman ventured into musicals and directed ‘Hair’ (1979), a musical film based on a theatre production. He later worked on the biopic of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1984. The film ‘Amadeus’ garnered many Oscar awards and still remains one of the best biopics made anywhere in the world. The list of Forman’s movies is long and varied. But a common streak is evident in almost all of his films: the struggle against senseless and useless authoritarianism. ‘People vs Larry Flint’ (1997), which is based on a real court case, shows how freedom of expression is crushed on the pretext of obscenity.

For countries such as Pakistan, Forman’s movies have a clear message: you can challenge oppression and hypocrisy through the creative arts. The dominant and suppressive ideologies need to be exposed. In order to do that, we need to learn from books and movies alike. We must ideally learn about how other countries have managed to challenge their oppressors.

The writer holds a PhD from the

University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]