Cecile Pin examines the complex relationship between politics and art
Film and politics have maintained a close relation since film’s inception. This ambiguous relationship can express itself in an array of ways, the most evident of which is perhaps propaganda films. Studies have shown that people who have grown up watching monochrome television predominantly dream in black and white. This shows that television and film affect us in a way that goes beyond our conscious will. It is no wonder that propaganda films have proven so popular amongst governments as a medium to spread their messages. These films tend to be associated, and perhaps rightly so, with totalitarian regimes.
The Third Reich in the 1930s took control of the German film industry, giving birth to numerous films glorifying Hitler and Nazism. The most famous one is probably Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935. It was commissioned by the Fuhrer himself, chronicles the Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg, and praises Hitler as the true German leader, bringing glory back to his nation. Today, although perceived as controversial for its glorification of Nazi Germany, it is still highly recognized for its cinematography and use of music.
Non-totalitarian regimes have also used film as a medium of propaganda, but perhaps in a softer way. Casablanca is often considered an anti-fascist film, whose goal was to encourage Americans to participate in the war effort. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is also an anti-totalitarian film, which uses satire and humor to condemn the Nazi regime. More recently, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has been seen by some as propaganda-like, for its glorification of gun culture and the American military.
While propaganda films can be an effective way to influence people’s opinion on certain political issues and ideas, they do not seem to gain wider acknowledgement. What then happens when a political film, or a piece of art, has an impact that exceeds its ambitions? The Interview, a satirical movie ridiculing Kim Jong-un and North Korea, caused controversy when the latter threatened “merciless” action if the movie was released. After threats of terrorist attacks, the movie was pulled out of most cinemas. This event can be linked to the recent Charlie Hebdo shooting. The attack came from Islamist terrorists who took offence to the French satirical magazine, known for making fun of the Muslim religion. The main goal for both The Interview and Charlie Hebdo was to make people laugh, even if it was shocking in style. Both had strong reactions and serious real-life repercussions.
Generally speaking, art and politics usually make for a controversial mix. Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is today renowned for using his art to denounce the Chinese government’s stance on democracy and human rights. His art includes a triptych depicting him casually dropping and breaking a Han Dynasty Urn and photographs of him giving the middle-finger to the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The documentary film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry follows Ai through his art installation process in Munich and London. In between, he gets beaten up by the Chinese police, has his Shanghai studio destroyed by the government, and is detained at Beijing airport on his way to Hong Kong.
What do an American comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, a French magazine, and a Chinese artist have in common? The three have created controversy in taking a stance against a political regime or religion, and faced strong ramifications and consequences for it. Strangely, it is those same consequences that have made them stronger and even more renowned. The Interview’s censorship for some highlighted the limits of American freedom of speech and expression.
The Charlie Hebdo shooting prompted a worldwide rally of support and the now famous Je suis Charlie slogan. Following the shooting, the journal’s next issue sold seven million copies, in comparison to its usual sixty-thousand print run.
Ai Weiwei’s arrests and altercations with the Chinese police and government have made him an artist notorious worldwide for his courage and political stance. By being broken and weakened, the political messages of these art forms have gained in strength and popularity, making them international symbols of freedom of speech and expression.
While propaganda films have proven an effective way to promote a certain political ideology, controversial films and art in seem to have an even stronger and more universal effect on us. Opposite to propaganda films, which appeal to a specific audience or a specific country, films denouncing an oppressive regime or an injustice by controversial means, appeal to a universal need for freedom of speech and expression. Attempts to shut down controversial works of art only make this point clearer and stronger.
Header Image: Film Still: Criterion Collection