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Political cinema, in the narrow sense of the term, is films that portray current or historical events or social conditions through a partisan perspective in order to inform or to agitate the spectator.
In the narrow sense of the term, political cinema refers to films that do not hide their political stance. In this sense, they differ from other films not because they are political, but because of the way in which their politics is presented. As such, a film does not necessarily have to be pure propaganda to be considered 'political cinema'.
The broader meaning of 'political cinema' is argued to be that "all films are political;" even films that are ostensibly 'apolitical' and escapist, merely promising 'entertainment' as an escape from everyday life, can be understood as fulfilling a political function. The authorities in Nazi Germany, for instance, knew this very well and organized a large production of deliberately escapist films. In other 'entertainment' films, such as westerns, the ideological bias is evident in the distortion of historical reality. A "classical" western would rarely portray black cowboys, although there were a great many of them in the American frontier. Hollywood cinema, which can be understood as the dominant industry of cinema, was often accused of misrepresenting black, female, gay, and working-class people. More fundamentally, not only are the contents of individual films political, but the institution of cinema itself can also be taken as political as well. A huge number of people congregate, not to act together or to talk to each other, but to sit silently, after having paid for it, to be spectators separated from each other. Guy Debord, a critic of the 'society of the spectacle', for whom "separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle," was therefore also violently opposed to cinema, even though he would make several films portraying his ideas.
In order to differentiate between the narrow and broad notions of 'political cinema', film scholar Ewa Mazierska suggested to divide all such films into the categories of conformist or oppositional and marked or unmarked:
- Conformist ﬁlms "accept the political status quo;" while oppositional ﬁlms reject it.
- Marked political ﬁlms are willing to reveal to their viewers the party/ideology "they serve"; while unmarked ﬁlms prefer to hide it.
From this point of view, it is the oppositional and marked political ﬁlms that the most viewers regard as 'political', as discussions about politics in ﬁlm typically single out these two categories.
Cinema, World War I and its aftermath
Before World War I French cinema had a big share of the world market. Hollywood used the collapse of the French production to establish its hegemony. Ever since it has dominated world film production not only economically but has transformed cinema into a means to disseminate American values.
In Germany the Universum Film AG, better known as UFA, was founded to counter the perceived dominance of American propaganda. During the Weimar Republic many films about Frederick II of Prussia had a conservative nationalistic agenda, as Siegfried Kracauer and other film critics noted.
Communists like Willi Münzenberg saw the Russian cinema as a model of political cinema. Soviet films by Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and others combined a partisan view of the bolshevist regime with artistic innovation which also appealed to western audiences.
This section may be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints. (March 2021)
Leni Riefenstahl has never been able or willing to face her responsibility as a chief propagandist for National-Socialism, i.e., Nazism. Almost unlimited resources and her undeniable talent led to results, which, despite their hideous aims, still fascinate some aficionados of film. While there is much controversy around her work, it is generally accepted that Riefenstahl's main commitment was to filmmaking, rather than to the Nazi Party. Proof of this might be seen by the portrayal of Jesse Owens' victory in her film about the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Olympia (1938), and in her later work, mostly on her photographic expeditions to Africa.
Especially in the last decades of the 20th century, many filmmakers considered focusing on remembrance of and reflection upon major collective crimes such as the Holocaust, slavery and disasters such as the Chernobyl disaster to be their political and moral duty.
Political cinema of the 21st century seems to focus on controversial topics such as globalization, AIDS, and other health-care concerns, issues pertaining to the environment, such as world energy resources and consumption and climate change, and other complex matters pertaining to discrimination, capitalism, terrorism, war, peace, religious and related forms of intolerance, and civil and political rights, as well as other human rights.
The form has always been an important concern for political filmmakers. While some, like pioneering Lionel Rogosin, argued that radical films, in order to liberate the imagination of the spectator, have to break not only with the content but also with the form of Dominant cinema, the falsely reassuring clichés and stereotypes of conventional narrative film making, other directors such as Francesco Rosi, Costa Gavras, Ken Loach, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee or Lina Wertmüller preferred to work within mainstream cinema to reach a wider audience.
The subversive tradition dates back at least to the French avant-garde of the 1920s. Even in his more conventional films Luis Buñuel stuck to the spirit of outright revolt of L'Âge d'or. The bourgeoisie had to be expropriated and all its values destroyed, the surrealists believed. This spirit of revolt is also present in all films of Jean Vigo.
- The following is a listing of notable political films or political films made by notable directors:
- 1915 – The Birth of a Nation – Director: D. W. Griffith.
- 1924 – Stachka (Strike) – Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet.
- 1925 – Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin) – Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet.
- 1927 – The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty – Esfir Shub.
- 1929 – Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera) – Dziga Vertov.
- 1931 – Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in uniform) – Leontine Sagan.
- 1932 – Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt? (To Whom Does the World Belong?) – Slatan Dudow.
- 1933 – Misère au Borinage – Joris Ivens and Henri Storck.
- 1935 – Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) – Leni Riefenstahl, Germany.
- 1940 – Der ewige Jude. Ein Filmbeitrag zum Weltjudentum (The Eternal Jew) – Fritz Hippler.
- 1948 – Strange Victory – Leo Hurwitz.
- 1953 – Salt of the Earth – Herbert Biberman.
- 1954 – Ernst Thälmann (Sohn seiner Klasse. Ein Farbfilm der DEFA) – Kurt Maetzig.
- 1956 – On the Bowery – Lionel Rogosin.
- 1964 – The Cool World – Shirley Clarke.
- 1965 – Obyknovennyy fashizm (Ordinary Fascism) – Mikhail Romm.
- 1966 – The Battle of Algiers – Gillo Pontecorvo.
- 1967 – La Chinoise – Jean-Luc Godard.
- 1967 – Titicut Follies – Frederick Wiseman.
- 1968 – La Hora de los hornos: Acto para la liberación: notas, testimonios y debate sobre las recientes luchas de liberación del pueblo argentino (The Hour of the Furnaces) – Fernando Solanas.
- 1968 – In the Year of the Pig – Emile de Antonio.
- 1968 – Teorema – Pier Paolo Pasolini.
- 1968 – if.... – Lindsay Anderson.
- 1969 – Z – Costa-Gavras.
- 1969 – Yawar mallku (Blood of the Condor) – Jorge Sanjinés.
- 1969 – Salesman – Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.
- 1970 – Le chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) – Marcel Ophüls.
- 1970 – Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
- 1971 – Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives) – Rosa von Praunheim.
- 1971 – Wanda – Barbara Loden
- 1971 – La classe operaia va in paradiso (The Working Class Goes to Heaven) – Elio Petri.
- 1972 – Il Caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair) – Francesco Rosi.
- 1972 – Sambizanga – Sarah Maldoror.
- 1973 – La Société du spectacle (Society of the Spectacle) – Guy Debord.
- 1974 – Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). – Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
- 1975 – Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Everyday Life of a Housewife) – Chantal Akerman.
- 1976 – Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple.
- 1977 – Yarinsiz Adam, (The Man without Tomorrow) – Remzi Aydın Jöntürk, Turkey
- 1977/78 – Yıkılmayan Adam, (Indestructible Man) – Remzi Aydın Jöntürk, Turkey
- 1978 – Baara (Work) – Souleymane Cissé.
- 1981 – Reds – Warren Beatty.
- 1982 – Yol (The Road or The Way) – Yılmaz Güney and Şerif Gören.
- 1984 – Before Stonewall – Greta Schiller.
- 1986 – Shoah – Claude Lanzmann.
- 1989 – Camp de Thiaroye – Ousmane Sembène.
- 1991 – American Dream – Barbara Kopple.
- 1995 – Land and Freedom – Ken Loach.
- 2000 – Lumumba – Raoul Peck.
- 2001 – Intimacy – Patrice Chéreau.
- 2002 – Jang aur Aman/War and Peace – Anand Patwardhan.
- 2003 – Gujarat: A Laboratory of Hindu Rastra, Fascism – Suma Josson.
- 2004 – Memoria del saqueo (Social Genocide) – Fernando Solanas.
- 2004 – Darwin's Nightmare – Hubert Sauper.
- 2005 – 500 Years Later – Owen Alik Shahadah
- 2005 – Syriana – George Clooney.
- 2006 – The Road to Guantanamo – Michael Winterbottom.
- 2006 – The Last Communist – Amir Muhammad, Malaysia.
- 2006 – The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez – Heidi Specogna.
- 2006 – An Inconvenient Truth – Davis Guggenheim.
- 2007 – Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud.
- 2007 – Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada's Genocide – Louie Lawless.
- 2007 – Sicko – Michael Moore.
- 2007 – What Would Jesus Buy
- 2008 – The World Without US – Mitch Anderson and Jason J. Tomaric.
- 2008 – Religulous – Larry Charles.
- 2008 – Milk – Gus Van Sant.
- 2009 – Capitalism: A Love Story
- 2009 – American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein – Nicolas Rossier & David Ridgen
- 2009 – The Yes Men Fix the World
- 2010 – Motherland – Owen Alik Shahadah
- 2011 – The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975. Director: Goran Olson
- 2011 – The Ides of March – George Clooney
- 2011 – ToryBoy The Movie – John Walsh
- 2017 – The Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci
- Political films category
- Cultural industry
- Political Film Society
- African cinema
- Documentary film
- List of racism-related films
- List of films dealing with Anarchism
- List of films featuring colonialism
- Social criticism
- Women's cinema
- Zimmer, Christian, and Lee Leggett. 1974. "All Films Are Political." SubStance 3(9):123–36. doi:10.2307/3684517. JSTOR 3684517.
- Schoenbrun, Jane. "All Movies are Political Movies. We Need to Do Better". Filmmaker Magazine. Retrieved 2021-03-10.
- Welle (www.dw.com), Deutsche. "Cinema is Always Political, Says Star Director Costa-Gavras | DW | 03.02.2008". DW.COM. Retrieved 2021-03-10.
- Wayne, Mike. 2001. Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema. London: Pluto Press. p. 1.
- Mazierska, Ewa. 2014. "Introduction: Marking Political Cinema." Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 55(1):35–44. doi:10.13110/framework.55.1.0033.
- "Birth of a Nation." filmsite.org.
D. W. Griffith's highly controversial film, which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, is widely considered to be a masterpiece because of its impact on the development of the cinema. The basic structure consists of a description of an idealized lost idyll ("the Old South"), the disruption of this order during reconstruction after the Civil War, and the restoration of White supremacy, which is shown a legitimate goal that unites the former enemies. In the end the leader of the Ku Klux Klan secures his private happiness too and the alleged idyll is restored.
- Militant film about the misery of Belgian coal miners. Cf. Les Enfants du borinage: Lettre à Henri Storck, Director: Patric Jean, 2000.
- Technically brilliant propaganda film about the Reichsparteitag in Nuremberg 1934.
- Virulently antisemitic.
- "He creates the image of an America that is complacent in its victory, prosperity and racism; the narrator warns: 'Nigger, kike, wop, take my advice and accept the facts – the world is already arranged for you' " (Barsam).
- Legendary documentary feature film about a strike in New Mexico. Not only do the workers have to fight against the company, but also their women against their macho attitude in order to be "allowed" to support them fully.
- Socialist realism – German Democratic Republic style.
- An important film about alcoholism; homeless people in New York City.
- About the cruel reality of street life in the U.S.
- In his first film Wiseman shows the inhumane conditions in Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. For more than 20 years the film could not been shown in the USA.
- A compilation film about the Vietnam War.
- The power of desire disrupts a rich family.
- Four men try to sell the Bible; one of the most important films of Direct Cinema.
- Politically a pathbreaking documentary about collaboration in France during the German occupation.
- Concerns the humiliating madness of ordinary life.
- This film started the second gay movement in Germany.
- A feature film about the liberation movement in Angola.
- A poignant feature film about racism, sexuality, love and ageism.
- Cult Cinema - Ernest Mathijs, Jamie Sexton - Google Boeken. 2012-03-30. p. 140. Retrieved 2015-02-20.
- A moving and very intelligent poetical reflection on the presence of apparently bygone hopes and disasters. Dubbed in English.
- Intense feature film on solitude, alienated sexuality, and an impossible love.
- On nuclear madness in India and Pakistan and their efforts to imitate Big Brother, USA.
- A passionately partisan survey of the history of neoliberalism in Argentina.
- Using the effect of fishing the Nile perch in Tanzania's Lake Victoria as an example, Sauper shows how Africa functions today, how famine, wars and aids, European "aid" and the ruthless plundering of African resources are connected.
- An African American documentary on race and the social impact of slavery.
- Documentary film based on the autobiography of Chin Peng, born in 1924, the last chairman of the forbidden Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) but this is not a conventional biographical film. Key elements in the film are the songs Hardesh Singh composed for the occasion. This is an often funny film about a difficult chapter in Malaysian history which is still taboo "back home".
- Animated film based on the graphic novel of the same name.
- Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust: The Untold Story of the Aboriginal Genocide Archived 2005-05-10 at the Wayback Machine. Hidden from History.org. Accessed 4 March 2009.
- "The World Without US: Editorial Review" (Web). Amazon.com. Retrieved 2009-03-04.
[This 2008 documentary film is described as] 'a quick overview of the state of the world today, and a quick history lesson in how things have been going for the last 20 years or so, followed by a few things that seem very likely to occur if America decided to pull all of its military bases out of foreign countries and stop mucking about in foreign parts.'
- Mitch Anderson. "Mitch Anderson's Biography". Mitch Anderson. Archived from the original (Web) on 2008-06-15. Retrieved 2009-03-04. Released in 2008, the documentary explores what might happen if the United States were to leave the international arena, rescind its global reach and become an isolationist nation for the first time since the early 20th century.
- Trailer and "About the film" at "The World Without US (Home Page)" (Web). Retrieved 2009-03-04.
- An African documentary on the history and contemporary state of Africa and African people.
- Baldwin, James.  2000. The Devil Finds Work. New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks (Dell Publishing). ISBN 0-385-33460-5.
- Barnouw, Erik. 1993. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford UP. ISBN 0-19-507898-5, 978-0-19-507898-5. (A useful introduction.)
- Barsam, Richard M. 2003. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97436-7, 978-0-393-97436-2. (Book and CD-ROM eds.)
- Daressa, Larry. 2008 May 10. "The Political Film and Its Audience in the Digital Age: Newsreel at Forty And Zero." California Newsreel.
- Rosenbaum, Jonathan. 1997. Movies as Politics. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-20615-0.
- Unterburger, Amy L., ed. 1999. The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera. Detroit: Visible Ink Press. ISBN 1-57859-092-2, 978-1-57859-092-6.
- Vogel, Amos. 2006. Film as a Subversive Art. London: CT Editions. ISBN 1-933045-27-2.
- Zaniello, Tom. 2003. Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-4009-2