Wednesday, February 23, 2011

‘Slumdog Millionaire’: An Object Lesson in Resistance

Modern mega-slums like Kibera (Nairobi) and Cité-Soleil (Port-au-Prince) have achieved densities comparable to cattle feedlots: crowding more residents per acre into low-rise housing than there were in famous congested tenement districts such as the Lower East Side in the 1900s or in contemporary highrise cores such as central Tokyo and Manhattan. Indeed, Asia’s largest contemporary slum, Dharavi in Mumbai, has a maximum density more than twice than that of the nineteenth-century New York and Bombay streets that Roy Lubove believed were the “most crowded spots on earth” in late-Victorian times.
Mike Davis Planet of Slums [1]

Slumdog Millionaire

The highly successful film Slumdog Millionaire (2008) directed by Danny Boyle is a story of Jamal Malik, a young man from the Juhu slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Kaun Banega Crorepati in the Hindi version) and exceeds people's expectations, thereby arousing the suspicions of the game show host and of law enforcement officials. His motive for appearing on the show is to attract the attention of Latika, a girl he has fallen in love with and who he originally met as a child after the Bombay Riots. [2]

It is a film that appears to put money above all and individual striving as the basis of progress. Yet, even in a time when the dominance of neo liberal ideology is so strong that it has become naturalised, there is still room for an oppositional perspective to shine through cracks in the corrugated iron. This will be argued through an examination of the character Jamal Malik's behaviour as he faces up to the police, Indian elites and crime lords as the narrative unfolds.

Probably one of the most important and revealing scenes in the film is on the show when he is asked by the host Prem Kumar the penultimate question that could win him 10 million rupees. The question is ‘Which cricketer has scored the most first class centuries in history?’ and Prem Kumar warns him: ‘If you answer wrong, you lose everything (clicks his fingers) just like this.’ But then they have to take a break. During the interval Prem Kumar talks over his shoulder to Jamal from the bathroom:

Prem Kumar: A guy from the slums becomes a millionaire one night. You know who is the only other person who has done that? Me. I know what it feels like. I know what you have been through.

Jamal Malik: I am not going to become a millionaire. I don’t know the answer.

Prem Kumar: You said that before, yeah?

Jamal Malik: No, really this time I don’t.

Prem Kumar: Come on, you can’t take the money and run now. You are on the edge of history, kid. Maybe it is written my friend. I don’t know - I’ve got a gut feeling you are going to win this. Trust me, Jamal. You are going to win. [3]

He leaves and when Jamal goes to the bathroom he see the letter B written in the steam on the mirror.

They return to the show.

On the show [4]

Jamal chooses to use his life line and two wrong answers are taken away leaving B and D. Jamal stares at Prem and then chooses D. Prem has a slightly shocked look on his face and badgers him to choose B. But Jamal refuses to budge:

Prem Kumar: B: Ricky Ponting or D: Jack Hobbs?

Jamal Malik: D.

Prem Kumar: Not B? The Ricky Ponting, the Australian great cricketer?

Jamal Malik: D. Jack Hobbs.

Prem Kumar: You know?

Jamal Malik: (Shakes his head)

Prem Kumar: So it could be B: Ricky Ponting?

Jamal Malik: Or it could be D: Jack Hobbs! The final answer D. [5]

The correct answer turns out to be D. In the clapping and uproar Prem Kumar smiles and does a little dance calling (Do the dance! Come on!) and beckoning Jamal to him who refuses and stays in his chair. Jamal stares at him and when asked if he is ready for the final question he looks uncomfortable but then responds sarcastically, ‘But maybe it is written, no?’ Jamal's slum upbringing has taught him never to trust those in power.

The show ends before they have time to do the final question. As Jamal leaves Prem escorts him to the back door where he is grabbed by the police and taken off in a police van. One of the studio managers comes over to Prem when he hears the commotion:

Manager: What's going on?

Prem Kumar: He's a cheat.

Manager: How do you know he's cheating?

Prem Kumar: (Speaks Hindi). I fed him the wrong answer, and he never should call it right.

Manager: You gave him an answer?

Prem Kumar: Not exactly. Well that doesn't matter. That's my show! [6]

In the police station [7]

Prem’s use of charm one minute and aggression the next shows us that his route to the top has not been particularly virtuous. He has achieved wealth and fame and now feels securely part of the class that he had aspired to become a member of. This has allowed him to take on the superior attitudes towards his former slum dweller compatriots that are the mark of a confident class. Prem plays up to the chic audience from the opening lines of the show:

Prem Kumar: [starting lines] So Jamal, tell me something about yourself.

Jamal Malik: I work in a call centre in Juhu.

Prem Kumar: Phone basher! And what type of call centre would that be?

Jamal Malik: XL5 mobile phones.

Prem Kumar: Ohh... so you're the one who calls me up every single day of my life with special offers?

Jamal Malik: Actually I'm an assistant.

Prem Kumar: An assistant phone basher? And what does an assistant phone basher do exactly?

Jamal Malik: I get tea for people and...

Prem Kumar: Chaiwalah! Well ladies and gentlemen, Jamal Malik, garma garam chai dene walah from Mumbai, lets play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire! [8]

Prem has learned the language of the well-to-do who look down on the socially aspirant that managed to get trendy jobs (‘phone bashers’) with a foreign multinational but then seizes with delight on the opportunity to use the word ‘chaiwalah’ (teaboy) which he is all too familiar with from his own lowly past.

This kind of mocking treatment only gets worse in the police station when he is tortured to force him to ‘reveal’ how he is doing so well answering the questions in the show.

So, were you wired up?

A little electricity will loosen his tongue, give him.

Yes sir.

So, were you wired up?

Mobile phone or a pager?

Or coughing accomplice in the audience? [9]

The bias of the police against the poor is evident in their lack of belief in the possibility that he might be telling the truth.

The fact that, in the film, Jamal can be held overnight in a police station while at the same time being the subject of intense media attention says a lot about the power of the police and the censorship of the media. It implies that any kind of opposition to the state can be effectively dealt with by the ‘security forces’ without any fear of public knowledge of what is happening to those arrested.

Survival strategies

So what are the possibilities of opposition for those ignored or exploited by the system? This not a film about political struggle [unlike The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) (The Irish War of Independence), Pan's Labyrinth (2006) (The Spanish Civil War), Che: Part One (2008) (The Cuban Revolution), or The Army of Crime (The French Resistance) (2009) to name some examples].

It is a film about personal struggle. What are the survival strategies for the poor?

In Prem’s case it has been a combination of charm and deceit. Jamal refuses to use the same strategies. Jamal knows that the pursuit of money for its own sake is not the path to happiness.

He resists the symbols of authority and oppression: the police (he refuses to give in to the police to end the torture), the wealthy developers (he gives them no respect), the wealthy who many would like to emulate (he disbelieves Prem’s ‘clue’), tourists (seen as fair game), the use of traditional lore (‘it is written’), child kidnappers (rescues Latika with his brother). He sails past the Scylla of rival crime lords and the Charybdis of the biased state to achieve his goals. This is the most important lesson of the film despite the criticisms by many critics of the neo-liberal ideology contained within the film. One such example:

At the end of the film, Jamal is permanently absolved of his disease-like impoverishment. He accomplishes this by winning millions of dollars as a successful contestant in (what should theoretically be) a chance-based game show. Amazingly, Jamal is able to correctly answer each question by employing his accumulated life experiences and, in a sense, locating the answers ‘within himself.’ The fact that Jamal is pre-configured for success as a contestant on “who wants to be a millionaire” speaks volumes about the sort of subversive ideology embedded in what otherwise seems like a fairly ‘inspiring’ narrative. [10]

While it is true that Jamal locates the answers ‘within himself’ many of the answers derive from personal tragedies in his young life. These experiences taught him not to trust anyone in a position of authority. Jamal wants to go on the show to find an old friend he is in love with while most of the ‘phone bashers’ in the office are desperately trying to get on the show to escape their own lives as technological coolies.

Jamal does not revel in his winnings. In fact, each correct answer only brings back bad memories of terror (when the slum is attacked), extreme sorrow (when his mother is killed), indignities (when he jumps into the open lavatory), horror (when he witnesses another child being blinded to increase begging income for his minders), betrayal (when his brother sleeps with the girl he loves), frustration (when he finds Latika working as a servant), torture (by the police) etc. Even on the show he is betrayed again by the host who tries to trick him out of winning (not to mention calling him a cheat and handing him over to the police to be tortured).

Getting autograph (‘Poo’ is actually a mixture of chocolate and peanut butter) [11]

Despite all the criticism of neo-liberal ideology it cannot be ignored that Jamal has learned the most important lesson about middle class hypocrisy – that for the wealthy to remain wealthy the poor must be kept poor. It is no secret that slums provide the middle classes with an enormous pool of very cheap labour for their financial investments with very few costs to the state. Here is how one business writer put it in an article about the slum Dharavi:

Dharavi enjoys relatively reliable power and water supply and an unending stream of cheap labour from rural areas under economic duress. Add to this the reluctance of government officials to intervene into the slum physically or otherwise and the central location within Mumbai’s transport hub, and one begins to understand the economic miracle of Dharavi. And miracle it is: one estimate places the annual value of goods produced in Dharavi at USD 500 million. Commercial and manufacturing enterprises provide employment for a large share of Dharavi’s population as well as for some living outside Dharavi. [12]

This fact is a constant source of embarrassment for some members of the middle classes who would prefer to see the attention shifted away to other more western conceptions of the relationship between ‘employees’ and ‘entrepreneurs’. For example, Shilpa Shetty, "a Bollywood actor who became a star in Britain after winning Celebrity Big Brother, told newspapers that she felt 'that internationally recognised films focus more on our slums and poverty'." [13]

Of course, there are individuals who focus on slums and poverty in the form of slum tourism. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that to reveal is to change. Slum tourism reveals the positive (community spirit) and negative (dire poverty) aspects of life in the slum to well-off tourists who react in different ways to slum living conditions. However, the inhabitants of the slum also have a viewpoint which is rarely heard. In an article in The New York Times, Kennedy Odede, a resident of Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, writes:

Slum tourism has its advocates, who say it promotes social awareness. And it’s good money, which helps the local economy. But it’s not worth it. Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before. I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.

Odede is sceptical of the long term benefits of such experience on the tourists:

To be fair, many foreigners come to the slums wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among the visitors and the tour organizers, is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home. But it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough. Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity. [14]

However, it is possible that the issue is one of scale. The vast exposure of slum life in a film like Slumdog Millionaire could have far-reaching effects on the social, legal and political life of the Indian state. Chitra Divakaruni, a poet and professor at the University of Houston defended an article she wrote in the Los Angeles Times called ‘The Slumdog Fight’:

On NPR, she responded to Priya Rajsekar, saying that the film is not “poverty porn.” She cited Charles Dickens as an artist who, through his work, changed child labor laws in England, and that Danny Boyle follows in that tradition. [15]

It may be that such exposure can bring changes to labour laws, attitudes etc but in the end it will come down to the people living in slum conditions themselves to bring about change. If we look at the Factory Acts in England we can see that it took ‘radical agitation’ (see, for example, Richard Oastler who urged workers to use strikes and sabotage [16]) to change the labour laws:

Many children (and adults) worked 16 hour days. As early as 1802 and 1819 Factory Acts were passed to regulate the working hours of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day. These acts were largely ineffective and after radical agitation, by for example the "Short Time Committees" in 1831, a Royal Commission recommended in 1833 that children aged 11–18 should work a maximum of 12 hours per day, children aged 9–11 a maximum of eight hours, and children under the age of nine were no longer permitted to work. [17]

In the end, Jamal finds success not because of his win but mainly by defeating every middle class attempt to exploit him along the way. The final scene shows Jamal, not celebrating by drinking champagne with his new rich friends, but dancing in solidarity with ordinary people in a type of flash mob scene in a train station. To experience a flash mob of people coming together to dance a particular routine and then melt away back into the crowd is to experience a moment of identity with a group of strangers in a highly alienated modern society.

In the train station [18]

Slumdog Millionaire is not a political film (as noted above). Nor is it a film about money (as argued above). Slumdog Millionaire is a spiritual film, which also makes it subversive. That is because genuine change cannot come about by people corrupted by the state or by the love of money. Change can only come about by people who believe in an ideal that has the love of other people as its basis. Once freed from the fear of authority and the desire for material gain, solidarity in the face of oppression is a very real possibility.


[1] Mike Davis Planet of Slums (Verso, London, 2007) p.92.
[3] My transcription
[6] My transcription

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist who has exhibited widely around Ireland. His work consists of drawings and paintings and features cityscapes of Dublin, images based on Irish history and other work with social/political themes ( He is also developing a blog database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world. These paintings can be viewed country by country on his blog at

Monday, January 31, 2011

‘The Army of Crime’: Immigration and Identity

Because the truth is, today's immigrants, as they have for generation after generation, work the longest hours at the hardest jobs for the lowest pay, jobs that are just about impossible to fill.
Luis Gutierrez

All over the world the question of immigration is a vexing one as is it brings into sharp relief questions of nationhood and identity for the people of the countries experiencing immigration.

The Geneva-based intergovernmental body, the International Organization for Migration stated in its 4th World Migration Report that there are more than 200 million migrants around the world today. The report said that in 2005 Europe hosted the largest number of immigrants, with 70.6 million people and North American, with over 45.1 million immigrants, is second, followed by Asia, which hosts nearly 25.3 million. The report also stated that most of today's migrant workers come from Asia, and demographic data suggests that by 2030, China and India will provide 40 percent of the global work force. [1]

According to the United Nations International Migration Report 2006: A Global Assessment:

In 2004, official migrant remittances amounted to US$ 226 billion, US$ 145 billion of which went to developing countries. Remittances sent back to the home country by migrants are a major source of foreign exchange earnings for some countries and are an important addition to the gross domestic product. [2]

Immigration has often been described in terms of push and pull factors. Push factors can be to escape from poverty and the availability of jobs is a pull factor. Other push factors can be to escape oppression, persecution, dictatorship and war.

Immigrants make huge contributions to cultural, economic and political life despite the recent negative associations with terrorism, national security and unemployment. Immigrants bring variety to cultures that have been closed through tradition or narrow nationalism. The presence of immigrants also stirs up questions of national identity in the peoples of their new homeland and this in turn is reflected in culture.

In cinema, the effects of globalisation have become so strong that a developing concept of Transnational cinema has sought a redefinition or even a refutation of the concept of national cinema as production, funding and distribution increasingly supersede national borders. As communities become increasingly fragmented in terms of ethnicity, social class, gender and political belief, the influence and role of immigrants becomes more salient. In cinema, immigrant groups often initially serve as a social or political foil but which is then soon turned on its head as other aspects of immigrant culture come into play.

Immigration and cinema

In recent years three films Gangs of New York (2002), Gran Torino (2008), and The Army of Crime (French: L'Armée du crime) (2009) have looked at the issue of immigration from different perspectives that show the trials, sufferings and ultimately sacrifice of immigrants in their new homeland. In Gangs of New York many of the newly arriving Irish rapidly become canon fodder for the American Civil War or else fight it out with other immigrants for survival. In Gran Torino a conservative widower gradually comes to understand and empathise with the culture of his Hmong neighbours. In The Army of Crime a group of immigrants take up the fight against Nazi occupation in France and pay the ultimate price for their adopted country.

Gangs of New York

My whole family has been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country. Edgar Y. Harburg

Gangs of New York is a 2002 American historical crime film set in the mid-19th century in the Five Points district of New York City. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. The film begins in 1846 and quickly jumps to the early 1860s. The two principal issues of the era in New York were Irish immigration to the city and the Federal government's execution of the Civil War. The story follows Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in his roles as crime boss and political kingmaker under the helm of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent). The film culminates in a confrontation between Cutting and his mob with the protagonist Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his immigrant allies, which coincides with the New York Draft Riots of 1863. [3]

An extraordinary mise-en-scène shot that almost serves as a mini film within the film tells the story of the fate of many new arrivals into New York in a time of civil war in America. In one long shot the story of many Irish men was told, from their arrival in America to their tragic end in the land that they had hoped would fulfil all their hopes and dreams.

Bill (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Gangs of New York (2002) [4]

The scene starts with Bill and Amsterdam turning their backs as Bill responds, “Not our future” to the Boss Tweed who has just claimed that they were turning their backs on the future i.e. the political and economic potential of the new immigrants. The camera then pans to the left as the new Irish immigrants who have just got off one ship from Ireland are queuing up at the recruiter's harbour table where they are sworn in to the army.

Army Recruiter: That document makes you a citizen, and this one makes you a private in the Union army. Now go fight for your country.

A song is overlaid on the scene sung by a woman with the following lyrics:

Irish Singer: [singing] Well, meself and a hundred more, to America sailed o'er, with our fortunes to be made, so we were thinkin' / When we got to Yankee land, they shoved a gun into our hands / Saying "Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln."/ There is nothing here but war, where the murderin' cannons roar, and I wish I was back home in dear old Dublin.

The camera pans following the new recruits as they move on up to one who is changing his Irish cap for a soldier's cap. Others are getting into the uniform in assembly line fashion as another recruiter puts a gun into their hands. They then get into another line fully kitted out moving slowly towards another gangway for the ship that will take them to the war. Two soldiers can be heard conversing:

Irish Immigrant: Where we goin'?

Another Immigrant: I heard Tennessee.

Irish Immigrant: Where's that?

The camera then slowly pans along the new recruits as family members, possibly his wife and daughter, run up to one new soldier. A girl with red hair talks to another worried- looking soldier. As they start up the gangway another soldier asks:

Irish Soldier: Do they feed us now do you think?

[Earlier in the film new recruits were promised three square meals a day if they joined up].

As they move slowly up the gangway the camera cranes up higher and we can see soldiers sitting around on the ship waiting. Just then a coffin comes into view [with the number 61 stuck to it] as it is lifted with ropes by a crane in the direction of the quays. The coffin flies over the heads of the line of recruits and more coffins come into view for the first time. Soon we see two rows of 10 coffins each neatly laid out and being inspected by soldiers. Two workers carry one of the coffins past the line of new recruits [who don’t seem to notice it] and up the quay presumably to a graveyard. At this point there is a cut to a presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This whole mise-en-scène shot lasts one minute and eight seconds.

Quay scene: Life and death. The new recruits line up on the left in Gangs of New York (2002) [5]

Historical and political ironies

Of the many ironies in this scene two stand out. In a slightly earlier scene the politician says:

Boss Tweed: That's the building of our country right there, Mr. Cutting. Americans aborning.

They may be new American citizens but the scene on the docks starts with the idea of birth and ends with death symbolised by the rows of coffins revealing the way many immigrants were seen as cannon fodder for a war they knew nothing about. Their basic desires for acceptance and food led them to a fate they were scarcely aware of.

Continuing the above dialogue, Bill, a Protestant, states his view of the Irish bluntly:

Bill: I don't see no Americans. I see trespassers, Irish harps. Do a job for a nickel what a nigger does for a dime and a white man used to get a quarter for. What have they done? Name one thing they've contributed.

Boss Tweed: Votes.

Bill: Votes, you say? They vote how the archbishop tells them, and who tells the archbishop? Their king in the pointy hat what sits on his throne in Rome.

The second irony here is that Bill sees them in religious terms and feels no solidarity or empathy for their plight as victims of British colonial policy back in Ireland despite the fact that Bill’s own father also suffered at the hands of the British:

Bill: My father gave his life, making this country what it is. Murdered by the British with all of his men on the twenty fifth of July, Anno Domini, 1814. Do you think I'm going to help you befoul his legacy, by giving this country over to them, what's had no hand in the fighting for it? Why, because they come off a boat crawling with lice and begging you for soup?

Another irony here is that the Irish immigrants were queuing up to fight and die for their new home despite not knowing very much about the issues involved and had just come off a boat ‘crawling with lice’ and begging for soup. Their lack of awareness is emphasised by the fact that they don’t seem to notice or question the array of coffins on the quay that they are walking past. They seem blissfully unaware that they have jumped from the frying pan into the fire in their relief and excitement of having finally arrived in America.

Of course, Bill was right when he said that the immigrants were not part of his future as the reign of the gangs in New York was eventually overtaken by a unified state and built up on the backs of the many immigrants who would pour in for many years to come.

Gran Torino

The more you can increase fear of drugs and crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all the people. Noam Chomsky

Gran Torino is a 2008 American drama film directed, produced and starring Clint Eastwood. The story follows a Polish American, Walt Kowalski, a retired Ford automobile assembly line worker and recently widowed Korean War veteran who is alienated from his family and angry at the world. [6]

A Hmong family moves in next door and Walt refuses to have any dealings with them. Then Walt's young Hmong neighbor, Thao, tries to steal Walt's prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino on a dare by his cousin for initiation into a gang. Walt develops a relationship with the boy and his family. Their strong sense of community values and openness towards him has a profound affect on Walt. They insist that Thao makes reparations for his misdeed and at the same time invite Walt into their Hmong family gatherings where he is treated as one of the family. Initially embarrassed by their kindness and food offerings he begins to reflect on the values of his own family. Although he is not an easy person to get on with Walt is disappointed that his sons are far too busy to see him, his grandchildren are selfish and spoilt and, in general, they seem more interested in getting him into a retirement community.

Sue (Ahney Her) and Walt (Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino (2008) [7]

Gradually Walt’s attitude shifts from resentment towards his poor Asian immigrant neighbours to one of empathy and support for the underdog. The gang beat up Thao for failing to rob the car and Walt steps in threatening to kill the gang if they didn’t leave Thao alone. However, the gang’s response is to attack Thao’s house in a drive-by shooting and rape his sister.

Walt realises that Thao’s family would never be safe with the gang around and devises a plan to get the gang to commit another serious crime. This time there would be plenty of witnesses and they would be put in prison for a long time but Walt sacrifices his own life in the process.

The Hmong Vang Lor family and Walt (Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino (2008) [8]

While there are many conservative aspects to Gran Torino, the film uses an elderly protagonist and a minority community to great effect showing how racial stereotypes and negative attitudes can be overcome. It also shows how human values can transcend national identity particularly as Walt’s own family were once immigrants from Poland.

The Army of Crime (French: L'Armée du crime)

The most superficial student of Roman history must be struck by the extraordinary degree in which the fortunes of the republic were affected by the presence of foreigners, under different names, on her soil. Henry James Sumner Maine

The Army of Crime (French: L'Armée du crime) is a 2009 French drama-war film directed by Robert Guédiguian and based on a story by Serge Le Péron, one of three credited for the screenplay. It received a wide release in France on September 16, 2009 and opened in the United States in 2010.

The film deals with the events of the Affiche Rouge ("red poster") affair. The title was taken from the caption on a propaganda poster, in which the Nazis sought to present prominent resistance fighters as foreign criminals. The caption read "Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime".

Affiche Rouge ("red poster") [9]

In Paris during the German occupation, an ill-assorted group of resistance fighters commits disorganized attacks. Its membership included 22 men: eight Poles, five Italians, three Hungarians, two Armenians, a Spaniard, and three French; and one woman, who was Romanian. Eleven were also Jewish.

The film traces the story of this group, from its shaping to the execution of its members in 1944. Missak Manouchian, an Armenian exile, was ready to help but reluctant to kill; for him, being ready to die but not to kill was an ethical matter. However, circumstances led him to abandon his reluctance and under his leadership, the group structured and planned its guerrilla actions. [10]

Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian ) [centre] in The Army of Crime (2009) [11]

At a gathering for the group, Manouchian’s toast reminds us of his old and new identities:

Today is the anniversary of the Soviet Armenia. I remember my father killed by Turkish soldiers, my mother who died of grief and the brother I loved so much. I’m an orphan like all the other Armenian victims but I’m lucky because you’re all here, because you have become my family. A family of fighters to confront the occupier! Long live France! Long live Armenia! Long live the ILO!

However, the French police follow the group and eventually through torture find and capture the members. The film ends with the group being brought off to their execution by the Nazis.

The Manouchian group in The Army of Crime (2009) [12]

The attempt by the Nazis to portray the Manouchian group as terrorists backfired when ‘Morts pour la France’ (They died for France) was written beneath some of the Affiche Rouge posters. The complexity of national identity is revealed in the ironies of a group of foreign immigrants fighting for the freedom of France from its Nazi occupiers being captured and tortured by French police. The importance of this lesson is not lost on Arsène Tchakarian, who, at ninety-three years of age is the last living member of the Manouchian group (along with Henri Karahian). When asked, in an interview by Gérard Devienne, if the story contained in the film is important today, he replied:

One should know history so that the memory of what happened is not lost. That’s why I have already visited nearly 220 schools and given dozens of lectures, so that people might know the historical truth and can make it their own. An educational film, in the making of which I was involved, concerning the part played by emigrants in the resistance, is ready for release and will be shown in schools and colleges. [13]

Memorial to the Manouchian Group [14]

Role and influence of immigrants

As the world becomes more globalised and boundaries of national identity become more and more confused and diffused the role and influence of immigrants will also become more complex. As the above three films have shown immigrants can play many different roles, both conscious and unconscious, in the future of all our societies.
















Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist who has exhibited widely around Ireland. His work consists of drawings and paintings and features cityscapes of Dublin, images based on Irish history and other work with social/political themes ( He is also developing a blog database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world. These paintings can be viewed country by country on his blog at

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Torture Porn": World Cinema at its Lowest Ebb

You walk in to a very large darkened room with a high ceiling. There is a large audience watching in anticipation. A story unfolds before your eyes, in vivid colour. It is the story of a good person who was captured and tortured. The torture is shown in 3D and in metaphor. The audience is hushed and contemplative. Despite the horrors of the torture the protagonist of the story eventually escapes and returns to his friends who are overjoyed, if not a bit shocked at his wounds. But his return signals to all in the audience that there is hope in this world despite the daily horrors.

Of course, the possibility of hope is one of the main differences between the Catholic Mass and certain modern films.

While torture is not new in cinema its depiction has become progressively (or should I say regressively?) more realistic and graphic.

A Serbian Film

What were once vices are the fashion of the day.

The relatively new genre of torture porn is being highlighted once again by the arrival of A Serbian Film, a film of unspeakable horrors with absolutely no hope. This film has been described as a film about politics as the director defended “his choices by saying that the film represents the molestation of the Serbian people and that you have to feel the violence to understand it”. According to The Guardian:

“the British Board of Film Classification were less convinced and demanded 49 individual cuts that amount to nearly four minutes of screen time. ‘The film-makers have stated that A Serbian Film is intended as an allegory about Serbia itself,’ admitted a BBFC spokeswoman. ‘The board recognises that the images are intended to shock, but the sexual and sexualised violence goes beyond what is acceptable under current BBFC guidelines [for an 18-certificate].’” [1]

The extreme nature of the film has even caused it to be dropped from the Film4 Frightfest film festival, “the UK's premiere fantasy and horror film festival.” [2] (For those with a very strong stomach here is a link to a review of A Serbian Film, but be warned, it doesn’t have two disclaimers for nothing: Calls for censorship have come from reviewers and groups that would normally be quite liberal about such films. The consensus seems to be that the extreme nature of the content of the film undermines any political message.

There have been many films in this genre over the past few years: Saw (2004) [3], Hostel (2005) [4], Wolf Creek (2005) [5] etc. Torture porn has been creeping into mainstream films for some years now with The Life of David Gale (2003) [6], The Passion of Christ (2004) [7] and Casino Royale (2006) [8].

Changing aesthetic

The changing aesthetic of violence can be seen in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) [9] with three kinds of violence occurring throughout the film. There is an opening 30-minute war scene of the D-Day invasion of Normandy which is executed in a gritty realistic manner and a final battle scene of the soldiers holding off a German counter-attack with a more typical Hollywood war movie aesthetic.

However, there is a scene before the final battle of hand to hand warfare in the ruined houses where one soldier sticks a knife in another lying on the floor and talks quietly to him as he slowly pushes the knife in. This is a different aesthetic from the other two scenes as one starts feel like a voyeur watching how a person dies rather than why. The voyeur aspect is a strong element of the torture porn genre where victimisation, pain and suffering are lingered over.

There has been much discussion about the desensitizing effects of such violence in mainstream cinema on society on the one hand and the grip of the nanny state on the other. However, we live in an unfair society and there is no doubt that whether cinema begets violence or not is an important subject necessitating constant debate. The organisation of society itself creates many frustrations and these can be expressed in many kinds of violence: state violence (e.g. riot police), political violence, sexual violence, criminal violence, blood sports, bullying, structural violence etc.

Rather than looking at the affects of watching violence on audiences, I would like to look at the ideological impact of violence in films in the context of power and social control in society in general.

In this sense, it is fruitful to look at the prevalence of violence in films from the perspective of the asymmetrical power relations between the victims and the perpetrators. Instead of questioning whether there should be violence or not, we can examine if the violence is justified or not, who ultimately benefits from the violence and whether the violence used is excessive or not.

For example, in Hostel II wealthy men bid for the opportunity to torture and kill. In one scene in Hostel II:

“[Stuart] takes the sack off Beth's head and explains about Elite Hunting. Stuart tells Beth that the group is a worldwide secret society where wealthy members come to Slovakia to kill people that the organization abducts as a twisted satisfaction for the psychopath members to kill people in various fantasy-like ways for the sole purpose to watch them die and to get the satisfaction of killing a human. All the members are important people of society in every country in the world (politicians, lawyers, doctors, policemen, directors, actors, businessmen, etc).” [10]

Hostel II describes the ultimate ‘service industry’ where the most extreme fantasies can be ‘enjoyed’ if you have enough dough. Thus, in the film it is the elite of society who are seen to enjoy any kind of activity they desire to be indulged in. They can 'buy' a victim upon whom they can conduct extreme forms of torture and murder. It is unjustified, excessive violence perpetrated on unknowing victims.

In films where it is ordinary people engaging in violence (aside from violent criminality), it tends to be revenge violence or revolutionary violence.

Revenge violence

Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.
Sir Francis Bacon

The problem with revenge violence is that it is anarchic and so can be difficult to stop from spiraling out of control. A lynch mob is an example of violence that is carried out in anger and may result in the group murder of an innocent person.

In cinema, revenge violence can express a collective unconscious of revenge on someone who it was felt had never properly faced justice for their crimes. For example, in Inglourious Basterds (2009) a fantasy of revenge is created through violence which is used against Hitler:

"On her cue, Marcel flicks his cigarette into the pile of nitrate film behind the screen, igniting it. The fire bursts through the screen, causing pandemonium in the auditorium. Just then, Donowitz and Ulmer burst into Hitler's box and gun down Hitler, Goebbels and the other Nazi leaders." [11]

Thus a violent retribution is enacted upon those who caused much suffering and death to millions of Jews but who in reality escaped justice through suicide. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) [12] we see a different form of revenge violence when the torture and violent rape of a woman leads her to seek revenge through reciprocal violence and then becomes a ‘saviour’ of all women when she tracks down a serial killer of young women and refuses to pull him from his burning car.

Revolutionary violence

It is organized violence on top which creates individual violence at the bottom. It is the accumulated indignation against organized wrong, organized crime, organized injustice, which drives the political offender to act.
Emma Goldman

Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006) [13]

In The Battle of Algiers (1966) frustrations caused by colonial oppression result in political violence by the oppressed, whereby “the torture used by the French is contrasted with the Algerian's use of bombs in soda shops.” [14]

"The Battle of Algiers" (1966) [15]

In other films there is the calculated revolutionary violence that is used to bring about social and political change in films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) (The Irish War of Independence) [16], Pan's Labyrinth (2006) (The Spanish Civil War) [17] and Che: Part One (2008) (The Cuban Revolution) [18]. In these films violence is contextualised, directed at specific targets for specific reasons, and always with a long term goal in mind. Whether these films are anti-colonial, anti-fascist or stories of popular uprising they counteract the negative ideology of individualised suffering and torture without hope.

"Che: Part II" (2008) [19]

New cathedrals

It has often been stated that shopping malls are the new cathedrals of society yet the process of film-making has much more in common with church rituals. In the church the mass goers learn of the Christian narrative through the Stations of the Cross (unfolding picture story of the crucifixion), stained glass windows (vivid colour), the Crucifix hanging behind the altar (3D), Breaking of the Bread and Communion (metaphor), Eucharistic Prayer and Apostles’ Creed (the Good News) ending with the Blessing and Dismissal. [20]

In cinemas we watch multi-million dollar block buster movies that are based around a core of a few well-known actors who are the focus of attention over and above minor actors and extras around them. These films follow quite rigid narrative structures that are usually ideologically conservative. The films are then shown all over the world in cinemas with audiences soaking in an ideology which is legitimised by the fame of the primary ‘A-list’ actors.

In the church, the story of capture and torture is balanced by the idea of hope and redemption. The cinema can do the same. It is possible to reject the torture of despair and question the actors and directors who indulge in such film-making while, at the same time, continually asserting our desire for a cinema of hope, of stories that show heroism and courage in the face of the multi-faceted forms of violence and oppression in modern society.





















[20] See:

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist who has exhibited widely around Ireland. His work consists of drawings and paintings and features cityscapes of Dublin, images based on Irish history and other work with social/political themes ( He is also developing a blog database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world. These paintings can be viewed country by country on his blog at