Tuesday, 30 October 2012

World Cinema: Social and Political Context

Another one for my students, this is an example of an answer for Section A of the A2 Film Studies examSection A covers world cinema and there is a focus on urban stories and how they deal with issues of power, poverty and conflict.  The films looked at are City of God, La Haine and Tsotsi.

Do you think it is necessary to locate world cinema films within their social and political contexts in order to appreciate them fully?

World cinema films often deal with important and serious social issues.  They are frequently more realistic and socially and politically relevant to the countries in which they are produced.  Knowledge of the context in which the films are produced can help audiences to appreciate the films in a fuller and more rewarding way.  City of God, La Haine and Tsotsi all feature narratives that revolve around issues of power, poverty and conflict and accurately represent the specific elements of the countries that they are from.

Film making traditions: American Independent Cinema and The history of Brazilian cinema

City of God and La Haine are both influenced by past films in cinematic history.  City of God comes from a tradition of Brazilian and Latin American cinema that has often been revolutionary and uses a documentary style.  The founders of Third Cinema wanted film to be a revolutionary medium with the power to make the poor people of developing countries realise how exploited they are and that they should do something to improve their situations.  Cinema Novo of Brazil was a movement that followed this by aiming to reveal oppression to the oppressed people.  City of God is interesting because although it might have aspects of documentary style such as handheld cameras, it is far more like a Hollywood film in terms of traditional generic conventions such as having a single hero (Rocket) who can escape the favelas through a career in photography.  Though it shows the hardships and tragic circumstances of the favelas, it does not overly agitate viewers or encourage them to be revolutionary.  It suggests that one man can exploit his access to the favelas to help him escape a life of poverty and crime, not that society can be changed through collective action.


La Haine on the other hand is useful to consider in the context of American independent cinema.  The director Matthieu Kassovitz was inspired by the early works of Martin Scorsese such as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.  Also ‘hood’ films like New Jack City feed into the hip-hop inspired culture and music of the film.  Knowledge of the references to Taxi Driver particularly with Vinz pretending to shoot at the mirror, but also the long flowing tracking shots enhance appreciation of the film and help the audience to position La Haine as auteur cinema.  Like so many American ‘hood’ movies it deals with young men struggling to leave the hood but being forced into cycles of escalating violence.

White middle class filmmakers, production, distribution and exploitation

Both films are made by white middle class filmmakers who have gone on to work in American cinema.  Kassovitz comes from a family with a background in film and the directors of City of God, Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund received funding for the film from Brazils biggest TV and commercials companies.  This has led some to accuse the films of being exploitative of the people they represent.  The elite in society make films about people in poverty and screen these films to audiences at international film festivals.  They then make huge profits that do not benefit the people of the favelas and les banlieues.  Similarly Tsotsi is made by white South African Gavin Hood who has also gone on to work in Hollywood on X-Men: Origins: Wolverine.  In this context, the films could be seen as helping to perpetuate some negative images of people in poverty and keeping the elite in power by making them profit.  The films could be seen as exploitation by the rich and some theorists have referred to the increasing trend for film and TV about favelas as ‘slumsploitation’.   

However some would also argue that these films give underrepresented people in the media a voice and serious issues such as poverty and crime can be brought to the attention of wide audiences.  There are also many positive representations of these marginalised people and the films do not appear to hold hegemonic values.  La Haine for example was viewed by France’s cabinet at a special screening.  This was to help those in power to see what it is like for those in poverty who are rioting on the streets at night and to help change their attitudes and policies.

Real life stories

It is important to note that two of the films are based on true stories.  City of God is based on a book written by a real inhabitant of the favelas who really did become a successful photographer.  Many of the characters in the film are based on real people such as Knockout Ned and the real Ned is shown talking in the credits of the film.  Similarly, La Haine uses real footage of the riots in the opening credits and was inspired by the murder of youth while in police custody.  Tsotsi is also based on a book and features a story of a thug in a township but this is not based on a factual person.  City of God and La Haine gain much of their power from the knowledge that they are based on real stories of violence, prejudice, corruption and brutality.  Despite their entertaining use of genre conventions, they are about real stories and are therefore informed by their social and political context.

Social and political issues: racism, emasculation, exclusion, police corruption and brutality

All of the world cinema films studied deal with social and political issues in their narratives.  They all represent racist societies where ethnic groups are marginalised and excluded from the elite and even the middle class.  The youths in La Haine are from diverse backgrounds and are targeted by police and skinheads for their ethnicities.  In City of God, the favela dwellers are mostly black, the descendants of slaves brought over from Africa by colonialism.  Tsotsi shows the racial and economic divide between those with power and wealth in South Africa and those without in the townships of Soweto. 

The films also deal with the emasculation of modern males who no longer feel like they are ‘real’ men.  Since feminism and the increase of women in the workplace, more and more men are unemployed and are less often the providers for their families.  These unemployed and angry young men are aggressive towards women like the youths are in the art gallery scene in La Haine and Lil Ze is towards Ned’s girlfriend.  Tsotsi becomes more feminine as he takes care of a baby he has stolen.  All these men are struggling to maintain a sense of masculinity in the modern world. 

Police corruption and brutality are also dealt with in City of God showing the shooting of an innocent young man and the selling of guns to gangs by the police.  The youths in La Haine are tortured and the whole film revolves around the death of a youth in custody and was even inspired by a similar real event.  These social issues are highly relevant to the films stories and an awareness of their reality adds to the power of the narratives.

Genre and escapism

On the other hand, these films work as entertaining examples of genre cinema.  They can be enjoyed as escapism for people from other countries with very little or even no knowledge of the social and political contexts.  The favelas and les banlieues are depressing but to an extent interesting and vaguely exotic locations and the inclusion of gangster film iconography makes the films appealing to a mass audience.  The guns, drugs, rise and fall of evil villains like Lil Ze and redemptive character arcs of protagonists such as Tsotsi and Vinz all make these films accessible and enjoyable without awareness of the social and political context.  Also the films offer some of this context within their screenplays and have scenes that inform and educate the audience about the contexts.  For example City of God does refer to the corruption of police and La Haine even uses real footage of riots to show the reality of the story it tells.  However this reference to real-life context is less prominent than the engaging and exciting stories that are told and without knowledge of the reality of the situations, some viewers may be less moved by the films.

Overall I would suggest that knowledge of the social and political context is vital for a full appreciation of the films studied.  It makes audiences fully realise the based in reality elements of the films and the hardships and prejudice that real people are facing around the world.  Enjoying the films for their generic conventions such as guns, drugs and violence is too simplistic and finding out about the contexts that have produced these films will allow for viewers to engage in a more active and therefore more rewarding viewing experience.

More A2 exam answers:

Is Fight Club a film about power and control rather than liberation?

Analysing La Haine

World Cinema: Distinctive Visual Features

World Cinema: Social and Political Context

WJEC A2 Film Studies Exam Practice Section B

A2 Film Studies Exam Practice Section B


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