Maudie’s Top 10 socialist film classics

Solidarity grows inside the Old Oak. Photo is a still from the film.
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Going to the movies, for so many, is fundamentally, a form of escapism — or at least, we like to think so! By watching a good film, the viewer can let go of the day-to-day woes of capitalism as we forget about our troubles and enjoy some light entertainment. But at its best, cinema can cause us to think and reflect more critically about our lives, and about society at large. Art has, and will continue to remain, a mirror that is held up against society — for better or worse.

Films inspired by socialism appear to be few and far between. But, did you know that the film introducing the technique known as “montage” was about the Russian Revolution? Or that one of the greatest Hollywood epics ever made was about the leftwing journalist, John Reed? Some of the innovative and impactful films ever put to celluloid have been inspired by working class struggles.

Putting together a comprehensive list of films about socialism may seem challenging. But let me tell you, it is both possible and enjoyable! So without further ado, here is a list of my top 10 all-time favourites, in no particular order.

Battleship Potemkin — Sergei Eistenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was banned upon its release in the U.S. in 1925, celebrated in Europe, and today is still considered one of the greatest films ever made. The story, set during the revolution of 1905, is based on the mutiny of Russian sailors aboard the Potemkin. Their victory was short-lived. When they attempted to get to Odessa to launch a massive revolution, the Cossacks arrived and destroyed the rebels. The film is a powerful exposé of all that was rotten in Tsarist Russia. These conditions fanned the winds of war and ultimately resulted in the 1917 revolution which created the first workers’ state. An artistic triumph of the Soviet Union’s new society, Battleship Potemkin completely revolutionised filmmaking as it was known, and is still spectacularly referenced in many contemporary films today.

Salt of the Earth — One of the first films to deal explicitly with feminist and socialist causes, Salt of the Earth is based on the 1951 miners’ strike against the Empire Zinc Company in New Mexico. A horrific accident in the mine unites the Mexican and Anglo workers against their common enemy, the bosses. The story of the strike is told from the perspective of one of the miners’ wives, Esperanza Quintero, who is empowered through her involvement in the struggle. The film depicts inspiring leadership as Esperanza defies her husband, standing her ground to overcome the sexist and racist bigotry she is subjected to by participating in the strike. The film, which was made during the McCarthy era, was directed by communists and leftists who were blacklisted. It was banned for its message of resistance. It also stars the real-life characters who inspired the events of the film. Unionists, leftists, feminists, Mexican-Americans, and film historians today continue to be inspired by this film, the optimism and the triumph of ordinary people rising up, working together and winning!

The Battle of Algiers — This film is based on the events of the Algerian revolution and its fierce battle to defeat French imperialism and colonialism. The Battle of Algiers follows the revolutionary leadership of ordinary people — men, women and children — who work together to overthrow their French occupiers, and install a new society in Algeria. It draws on the personal experiences of these freedom fighters, as they engage in political struggle. Similar to the film-making style used in Salt of the Earth, The Battle of Algiers also features actors who portray themselves in the movie version of their struggle. It is a remarkable film and captures the essence of revolutionary fervour so brilliantly — inspiring hope, optimism and the very real possibility of a society free from capitalism, imperialism, colonialism and violence. The Battle of Algiers is a film you simply must experience. It is a powerful combination of both documentary and fiction. The images are so powerful and so awe-inspiring, that you’ll be thinking about this film long after the credits have rolled.

Man with a Movie Camera — This experimental 1929 film is a documentary that depicts everyday life in Soviet Russia, from increasingly strange angles, images, montages and overlays. While the tendency to focus on the mundane did dominate many documentary films of the time, Man with a Movie Camera is an innovative, exciting look at a new society in the early days of its fruition. A love letter to cinema, the film features almost no plot at all, but instead is interested in capturing the images of the everyday — proving to many that we all have the capacity and capability to be “men” with movie cameras. Who’s to say you can’t make a movie on your smartphone?! Man with a Movie Camera scrunches up everything I was taught about film at uni and throws it in the bin. Breaking barriers and showing the potential that cinema has, it is an exciting, avant-garde piece of work that can be found anywhere online and watched for free!

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb — Released during the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic remains as sharp as it was when it was released. Comic and acting powerhouse, Peter Sellers, plays three different characters, including none other than the President of the United States. This is a satirical movie about the Cold War, released during the Cold War. Mocking the absurdities of the fear-mongering, violence and conservatism of the period in which it was made, Dr. Strangelove moves between the humorous, ludicrous and genuinely terrifying. The film recently marked its sixtieth anniversary, and rather alarmingly, the commentary remains relevant to the political landscape we see today. While the Cold War is over, how the most powerful continue to operate remains essentially the same.

Reds — This is an exquisite, sweeping Hollywood epic that is deeply sympathetic to the socialist cause. Set mostly during the period of the Russian revolution, Reds revolves around the life and careers of Louise Bryant and John Reed, two North American journalists who travelled to Russia to document the revolution. Reed would famously go on to write Ten Days that Shook the World in 1919, a classic account of the events of the October revolution. While the film’s director, Warren Beatty, was a life-long Democrat, the film accurately depicts revolutionary politics and is deeply sympathetic in its characterisation of the Russian revolution. You cannot help but get swept up in the beauty of a society in the midst of events that would change the course of history. Just as engaging is the tempestuous and loving relationship between Bryant and Reed. The film features interviews with people who knew the real-life figures depicted in the movie. It’s extraordinary watching a film that doesn’t place the historical figures it depicts on a pedestal. Instead, we get an insight and understanding into the lives of two interesting, intelligent, funny and flawed people who were involved in an incredible event in human history. A magnificent film that deserves to be revisited each and every year!

Che: Part One and Two — The Hollywood machine is known for releasing countless biopics that are formulaic, dull and predictable accounts of “real-life” figures being glamorised or smeared. Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part One and Two avoids this. Rejecting the typical formula of Hollywood biopics, the film is concerned with the legacy of the Cuban Revolution, and how fundamental was the role of revolutionary leader, Ernesto Che Guevara, in inspiring millions of revolutionaries in the years following the revolution and after his death. Part One follows the triumph and victory of the Cuban Revolution. Part Two is about the terrible failure of the Bolivia mission, which led to Che’s untimely death. Empathetic to the revolutionary Marxist doctor at the centre of the story, Benicio Del Toro delivers quite possibly one of the greatest on-screen performances I have ever seen. Che: Part One and Two is best watched over two nights to take in the brilliance of both these films and reflect on the impact that the Cuban Revolution had on Latin America.

Soy Cuba — “Excellent,” is the word I would use to describe the 1964 landmark film, Soy Cuba. Unavailable to watch for many years following its release, Soy Cuba was a co-production between the Cuban government and the Soviet Union, told in vignettes about the events that led to the Cuban Revolution and what resulted in the upheaval of the Cuban masses to overthrow its tyrannical government and boot out Yankee imperialism. Four distinct tales are told from the lives of the Cuban peasant and working classes, as they are beaten down and oppressed trying to survive in a sick system that denies them access to the basic necessities of life. The cinematography alone in this film makes it worth seeking out. It also captures the extraordinary uprising of the most oppressed as they band together for political, economic and social change. I love this movie and was delighted to discover that it had recently been restored and released not too long ago!

Missing — While many are familiar with the horrible events that led to the U.S.-backed military coup of Chile in 1973, Costa-Garvas’ 1982 film about these events is less familiar. Missing is based on the true story of the disappearance of American journalist, Charles Horman. The bloody downfall of Chile’s social-democratic president, Salvador Allende, remain a stain on the country’s history. Missing follows the conflict between Horman’s wife and father as both press the Chilean military and the U.S. government for answers about the coup and the disappearance of the man that they both love. Left-wing and conservative values clash as they discover the role of the U.S. government in this coup is not all as it seems. Missing, while not an inherently socialist film, is a powerful warning of the dangers of capitalism and reformism. More than anything, the film serves as a warning, making it timely viewing.

The Old Oak — This is the last film that brilliant filmmaker and socialist, Ken Loach, has said that he will make. The Old Oak is a beautiful and inspiring story, based on the true events of Syrian refugees living in a remote former mining town in County Durham, England. The film follows pub owner, TJ Ballantyne, as he struggles to hold onto his pub from developers and an increasingly despondent and divided community. Upon the arrival of a small group of displaced Syrian refugees, racist tensions and violence soon arise. TJ, who comes from a family of unionist miners, soon strikes up a friendship with one of the refugees, a photographer, Yara. The two establish a community kitchen in the town together, feeding countless hungry families and children, and developing a friendship. This sparks a backlash, as TJ faces animosity and anger from the local residents over his solidarity with the refugees. This is a powerful film about international working-class solidarity. Loach doesn’t shy away from the heavy issues at hand, concluding that it is not our differences, but our class that unites us.

Maudie loves movies! She is a visual artist and film producer. She is also member of the Community and Public Sector Union. She welcomes feedback at freedom.socialist.party@ozemail.com.au

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