Culture | The pros of propaganda

A historical look at cinema’s dealings with social uprising

Like many of my friends and peers, I’m finding it hard to move on with day to day duties and hobbies in light of the larger events that have been shaking our campus lately. The recent Daily editorial’s use of the idiom “Changed, changed utterly” in the November 12 issue reflects the way that many feel about the current state of affairs based on events that have taken place, not only on our campus over the past week, but also across the globe. To say that it feels as though we, as McGill students, are on the cusp of a revolution may be snarled at by some as grossly idealistic, but a feeling of unrest and anxiety strongly lingers in the campus air. Many are already moving forward to instigate change. At times like these, we should look at the links between art and activism, paying particular attention to how artists – alongside politicians, protestors, and police – contribute to change.

Cinema is often believed to be mere entertainment – a simple distraction from the hard realities of everyday life. In its early history, however, film was often not developed for entertainment purposes, but rather as a revolutionary tool. Many would identify German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and her collaboration with the Nazi Party as a prime example of propaganda filmmaking, but her style is rooted in earlier work from the Soviet Union. Following the new state’s formation in 1922, leaders saw a potential in film to gestate a revolutionary consciousness among its geographically-detached population. Lenin is said to have declared it the best means by which to educate and mobilize the masses in the ways of Communism. The government produced a number of short propaganda films known as agitki – films intended to agitate – and brought them to the USSR’s numerous towns and villages, creating a veritable Communism Travelling Fair (bring the kids). The soviet grandfathers of cinema, at this time, made massive gains in filmmaking techniques, and many of the films of the era continue to be considered some of history’s greatest, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.

A number of filmmakers have since adopted some of these foundational techniques in order to make their films explicitly political and provocative. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is often cited as being revolutionary in his approach and content, imbuing much of his work with Marxist and Maoist ideologies. The 1950s and 1960s also saw the increasing prominence of documentaries, which, in many ways similar to propaganda films, were aimed at raising awareness for certain social conditions and concerns. Night and Fog, a short documentary that revisits the abandoned concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek, stands out as a particularly chilling example of the power and resonance of the documentary form.

Today, examples abound of films that deal with movements and revolution – some revisiting historical moments (such as Che), and others looking at contemporary problems and challenges (for example documentaries made by Michael Moore). Many of these films provoke thought and emotions in their audiences, but these are too often left behind among the theatre’s sticky aisles. Our consumption of art should not be easily dismissed as passive and unengaged. The fear, anger, passion, and inspiration that many films lead us to should be viewed as useful resources that ought to be applied more often to our real-life activities and concerns. Viewers today are arguably more cynical towards, and immune to, propagandist content than ever, but that doesn’t mean that the revolutionary sentiment found in propaganda is invalid. So, in light of the myriad of issues facing us recently, comrades, let us unite…and share some popcorn.