Thursday, November 23, 2023

Art and Struggle: Olive Trees as Symbols of Palestinian Culture, Food, and Heritage


Painting by Sliman Mansour

"I hugged the olive tree. It was precious to me, so I hugged it. I felt like I was hugging my child. I'd raised the tree like my child. They attacked around 500 trees filled with olives. Each tree could have filled two sacks of olives. They destroyed my olive tree, but I grew them back. I tended them and they came back even better than before. Settlers will never be able to take my land. This is our land not theirs. We will keep resisting until the world ends."
Mahfodah Shtayyeh (2005 video)

November 26 will be World Olive Tree Day according to the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference (2019). The olive tree has symbolised peace and harmony for millennia.

World Olive Tree Day was proclaimed at the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference in 2019 and takes place on 26 November every year. The olive tree, specifically the olive branch, holds an important place in the minds of men and women. Since ancient times, it has symbolized peace, wisdom and harmony and as such is important not just to the countries where these noble trees grow, but to people and communities around the world.

Think ‘holding out an olive branch’, an idiom that comes from Genesis 8:11 where we read “And the dove came into him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.” 

@aljazeeraenglish "I hugged the olive tree... I'd raised the tree like my child." Mahfodah Shtayyeh . On November 27, 2005, a #Palestinian woman was photographed hugging an olive tree after it was attacked by #Israeli settlers. . The photograph became an iconic image symbolising the daily struggle of many Palestinian farmers in the occupied #WestBank. . Over 800,000 olive trees on #Palestinian ♬ Ambient-style emotional piano - MoppySound

However, in Palestine where the people have been cultivating olives for thousands of years, the olive tree has itself become a subject of destructive battles as settlers cut down or burn the olive groves. Al-Walaja, for example, is a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank, four kilometres northwest of Bethlehem and is the site of Al-Badawi, an ancient olive tree “claimed to be approximately 5,000-year-old and therefore the second oldest olive tree in the world after "The Sisters" olive trees in Bchaaleh, Northern Lebanon.”

It is estimated that about 700,000 Israeli settlers are living illegally in the occupied West Bank and extremist elements are becoming more violent. In October this year (2023) a Palestinian farmer harvesting olives “was shot dead by settlers in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. ‘We are now during the olive harvest season – people have not been able to reach 60 percent of olive trees in the Nablus area because of settler attacks,’ according to Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official monitoring settler activity.”


Olive Tree by the late Ismael Shammout

Traditionally, harvest time would bring families and neighbours together, helping each other in a process called “al Ouna”. The importance to these communities for unity and an income has led to the trees being depicted in the arts, and in particular the visual arts. Many paintings show farmers and families gathering the olives or show the ancient trees as symbols of their struggle and resilience.


Olive Harvest by Maher Naji.

The close connection between the farmers and their trees was famously illustrated in the photo of Mahfodah from the village of Salem hugging what is left of one of her olive trees. This photo has since been the source of many posters and paintings illustrating the political conflicts that the people have been forced to endure.


Salem (2005)

Life for the artists has not been easy either. They have focused on themes such as nationalism, identity, and land. As a result, their art can be political and the artists “sometimes suffer from the confiscation of artwork, refusal to license artists’ organizations, surveillance, and arrests.”


Olive picking (1988) by Sliman Mansour

According to Sliman Mansour, a Palestinian painter based in Jerusalem, the olive tree “represents the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, who are able to live under difficult circumstances”, and like the “way that the trees can survive and have deep roots in their land so, too, do the Palestinian people.”

Painting by Salam Kanaan

Sometimes the paintings and posters incorporate other symbols of Palestinian identity like the City of Jerusalem (al-Quds), plants like Jaffa oranges, watermelon and corn, religious symbols, or the Palestinian flag.

Other traditional Palestinian arts like embroidery have used the olive tree in different ways. For example, the Palestinian History Tapestry “uses the embroidery skills of Palestinian women to illustrate aspects of the land and peoples of Palestine – from Neolithic times to the present. In the past, Palestinian embroiderers have mainly used cross stitch (tatreez) and geometric designs to decorate dresses and other items.”


Olive harvest  [59 x 110 cm]. Design: Hamada Atallah [Al Quds] Al Quds, Palestine
Embroidery: Dowlat Abu Shaweesh [Ne’ane], Ramallah, Palestine

The symbolism in art can take on even harsher characteristics like Sliman Mansour’s painting of an olive tree wrapped in barbed wire (Quiet morning). The subject, a woman in a beautifully embroidered dress, is contrasted with the denial of access to the olive tree and therefore access to her birthright (the past) and an income (the future).

Quiet morning (2009) by Sliman Mansour

The olive trees have provided a steady source of income from their fruit and the “silky, golden oil derived from it”. Moreover, it is believed that “between 80,000 and 100,000 families in the Palestinian territories rely on olives and their oil as primary or secondary sources of income. The industry accounts for about 70 percent of local fruit production and contributes about 14 percent to the local economy.”


Poster by Abu Manu (1985)

However, the idea of recovery and renewal is also a common theme as the resilient olive tree with its deep roots is shown to be able to recover its vigour despite being chopped down. This has provided inspiration for the farmers and artists alike. The struggle for nature has always been intertwined with the struggle for life, and respect for the olive tree has always been reciprocated with abundance over the millennia.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Afterlife: A Trick or a Treat? Halloween Celebrations Past and Present


Snap-Apple Night, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1833, shows people feasting and playing divination games on Halloween in Ireland. It was inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832.


“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” – Stephen King

Halloween is creeping up on us again replete with all its ghostly traditions celebrated all over the world.

Also known as All Saints’ Eve, it is the time in the liturgical year or Christian year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed. It is followed by All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day on the 1 November, and All Souls’ Day, a day of prayer and remembrance for the faithful departed, observed by certain Christian denominations on 2 November.

However, it is also believed that Halloween is rooted in the ancient pagan Gaelic festival of Samhain which marks the change of seasons and the approach of winter. Samhain begins at sunset on October 31 and continues until sunset on November 1, marking the end of harvest and the start of winter. This Celtic pagan holiday followed the great cycle of life as part of their year-round celebrations of nature along with Imbolc (February 1), Beltane (May 1) and Lughnasadh (August 1).

During Samhain people would:

“bring their cattle back from the summer pastures and slaughter livestock in preparation for the upcoming winter. They would also light ritual bonfires for protection and cleansing as they wished to mimic the sun and hold back the darkness. It was also a time when people believed that spirits or fairies (the Aos Sí ) were more likely to pass into our world. […] Dead and departed relatives played a central role in the tradition, as the connection between the living and dead was believed to be stronger at Samhain, and there was a chance to communicate. Souls of the deceased were thought to return to their homes. Feasts were held and places were set at tables as a way to welcome them home. Food and drink was offered to the unpredictable spirits and fairies to ensure continued health and good fortune.”

Dancing around the bonfire. The Graphic | 7 January 1893

The Celts believed in an afterlife called the Otherworld which was similar to this life but “without all the negative elements like disease, pain, and sorrow.”

Therefore, the Celts had little to fear from death when their soul left their body, or as the Celts believed, their head.

As Christianity spread in pagan communities, the church leaders attempted to incorporate Samhain into the Christian calendar. The Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic lands by A.D. 43 and combined two Roman festivals, Feralia and Pomona with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. Feralia was similar to Samhain as the Romans commemorated the passing of their dead, while Pomona, whose symbol was the apple, was the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, and may be the origin of the apple games of Halloween.

Some centuries later the church moved again to supplant the pagan traditions with Christian ones:

“On May 13, A.D. 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13 to November 1. By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted older Celtic rites. In A.D. 1000, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead.”

While on the surface the changes from the Celtic Otherworld to the Christian concepts of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell may not seem very radical yet when one looks further into the different beliefs about the afterlife a very different story emerges.

The Otherworld

The Celtic Otherworld is “more usually described as a paradisal fairyland than a scary place” and sometimes described as an island to the west in the Ocean and “even shown on some maps of Ireland during the medieval era.” It has been called, or places in the Otherworld have been called, “Tír nAill (“the other land”), Tír Tairngire (“land of promise/promised land”), Tír na nÓg (“land of the young/land of youth”), Tír fo Thuinn (“land under the wave”), Tír na mBeo (“land of the living”), Mag Mell (“plain of delight”), Mag Findargat (“the white-silver plain”), Mag Argatnél (“the silver-cloud plain”), Mag Ildathach (“the multicoloured plain”), Mag Cíuin (“the gentle plain”), and Emain Ablach (possibly “isle of apples”).”

As can be seen from the names given to the places of the Otherworld there are two important, salient points. One is the positive, almost welcoming aspect of the descriptions implied, and secondly their close relationship with nature and places in the real world. The Otherworld is described “either as a parallel world that exists alongside our own, or as a heavenly land beyond the sea or under the earth,” and could be entered through “ancient burial mounds or caves, or by going under water or across the western sea.”

We may then ask who could enter the Otherworld in the afterlife?

“Although there are no surviving texts from the continent which comment on this, on the basis of comparisons with comparable societies and burial practices we can guess that both the gods and the ancestral dead were believed to inhabit the Otherworld. The earliest literary texts in Irish reflect exactly this idea.”

These deductions about the afterlife then reflect the nature-based ideology of pagan religion which is focused on the cycles of nature, and also the fact that we ourselves are part of that nature, thus both the ancestral dead and the gods inhabited the Otherworld. It seems that the dead entered the Otherworld fairly quickly and could even return to visit the living when the darkness started to take over from the light at Samhain. Even the living could visit the Otherworld but these visits would have their own drawbacks, for example, Oisín discovers that what had only seemed a short stay in Tír na nÓg had been hundreds of years in the real world.

Ghosts walk the night in Brittany by F. De Haenen | The Graphic | 5 November 1910

Christian Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

The differences between nature-based paganism and the Master and Martyr ethics of Christianity mean that entry to heaven is not guaranteed and may even be delayed for a long time in purgatory. For example:

“Christianity considers the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to entail the final judgment by God of all people who have ever lived, resulting in the approval of some and the penalizing of most. […] Belief in the Last Judgment (often linked with the general judgment) is held firmly in Catholicism. Immediately upon death each person undergoes the particular judgment, and depending upon one’s behavior on earth, goes to heaven, purgatory, or hell. Those in purgatory will always reach heaven, but those in hell will be there eternally.”

Hell is often depicted with fire and torture of the guilty. Thus, Christianity brings a strong element of fear into perceptions of the afterlife. The people whose behaviour needs to be controlled are frightened into being good and given long promises about eventual eternal bliss at the end of time.

The patriarchal element of Christianity and its desire to control and direct the remnants of pagan religion gave rise to other important aspects of Halloween. The dark symbolism of witches on broomsticks with black cats are an essential element of the Halloween imagery. By late medieval/early modern Europe, fears about witchcraft rose to fever pitch and sometimes led to large-scale witch-hunts. The Church saw these women (whose knowledge of nature was transformed into healing homoeopathic treatments) as a threat to their authority and demonised them before their own communities.

The witches “occasionally functioned as midwives, assisting the delivery and birth of babies, aiding the mother with different plant-based medicines to help with the pain of childbirth. […] The word Witch comes from the word for ‘wise one’ that was ‘Wicca’, and who were once considered wise soon became something to be feared and avoided.”

“Halloween Days”, article from American newspaper, The Sunday Oregonian, 1916

Like many traditional festivals Halloween has different historical sources, pagan and Christian, that have come together to form the holiday as we know it today.


Jack-o’-lantern represents the soul caught between heaven and hell who can know no rest and must wander on the earth forever. It is believed to originate in an old Irish folk tale from the mid-18th century which tells of Stingy Jack, “a lazy yet shrewd blacksmith who uses a cross to trap Satan.”

A plaster cast of a traditional Irish Jack-o’-Lantern in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland. Rutabaga or turnip were often used.

Jack tricks Satan who lets him go only after he agrees to never take his soul. When the blacksmith dies he is considered too sinful to enter heaven. He could not enter hell either and asks Satan how he will be able to see his way in the dark. Satan’s response was to toss him “a burning coal, to light his way. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which were his favorite food), put the coal inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place.”

The Irish emigrants to the United States are believed to have switched the turnip for a pumpkin as it was more accessible and easier to carve. Ironically, in Ireland now, pumpkins are grown and sold to make modern Jack-o’-lanterns.

Modern carving of a Cornish Jack-o’-Lantern made from a turnip.

Door to Door Traditions

Another American tradition, trick-or-treating, has also taken root in Ireland in recent decades. As a child growing up in the United States, I also went trick-or-treating in Boston. However, after our move to Dublin, our trick-or-treating questions at Halloween were met with bewilderment as Irish people were used to a simple request for ‘anything for the Halloween party’.

The tradition of going door to door on Halloween may come from the belief that supernatural beings, or the souls of the dead, roamed the earth at this time and needed to be appeased. In Europe, from the 12th century, special ‘soul cakes’ would be baked and shared. People would pray for the poor souls of the dead (in purgatory) in return for soul cakes. In Ireland and Scotland “mumming and guising (going door-to-door in disguise and performing in exchange for food) was taken up as another variation on these ancient customs. Pranks were thought to be a way of confounding evil spirits. Pranks at Samhain date as far back as 1736 in Scotland and Ireland, and this led to Samhain being dubbed ‘Mischief Night.’”

Antrobus Soul Cakers at the end of a performance in a village hall in or near Antrobus, Cheshire, England in the mid 1970s. The Soul Cakers are a traditional group of mummers, who perform around All Soul’s Day (October 31st, Hallowe’en) each year. The characters are (left to right) Beelzebub, Doctor, Black Prince, Letter-In, Dairy Doubt, King George, Driver, Old Lady, and Dick, the Wild Horse in the foreground.

Antrobus Soul Cakers at the end of a performance in a village hall in or near Antrobus, Cheshire, England in the mid 1970s. The Soul Cakers are a traditional group of mummers, who perform around All Soul’s Day (October 31st, Hallowe’en) each year. The characters are (left to right) Beelzebub, Doctor, Black Prince, Letter-In, Dairy Doubt, King George, Driver, Old Lady, and Dick, the Wild Horse in the foreground. 

It has also been suggested that trick-or-treating “evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the spirits, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf.” It was thought that they “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune”. Impersonating these spirits or souls was believed to protect oneself from them.

Thus, while Halloween may have become highly commercialised in recent years it is still an important custom that brings people and families together in their communities. It still marks an important part of the annual  cycles of nature as the bountifulness of harvestime is contrasted with the bareness of winter. It prepares us psychologically for the dark days ahead. In the past Halloween allowed people to celebrate the completion of the work of life (the production of food) to having the time to contemplate the absence of their forebears: the people who gave them life, nurtured them, and taught them the skills of survival. It is a time to make the young generation aware of their parents’ temporary existence too, in a fun way.

Halloween is a time for confronting our basic fears about death and darkness. It is a time to remember the ancestral spirits of past generations who have ‘passed’ (a word that has become more popular than ‘died’ in recent years) through the thin veil between life and death. And, most importantly, a time to rethink our relationship with nature.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here

He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG).

Captain Rock: The Symbol of a Risen People. Paintings and the History of Irish Resistance

 “My unlucky countrymen have always had a taste for justice, a taste as inconvenient to them, situated as they always have been, as a fancy for horse-racing would be to a Venetian.” —Thomas Moore (1779–1852) – Memoirs of Captain Rock: The Celebrated Irish Chieftain, with Some Account of His Ancestors (1824) 



Featured image: Ralph Chaplin – Cartoon published in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) journal Solidarity on June 30, 1917.


The raised or clenched fist is a symbol of unity and solidarity that became associated with trade unionism and the labour movement going back to the 1910s in Europe and the USA. Soon after, it was taken up as a symbol of political unity by socialist, communist and various other revolutionary social movements. The clenched fist is ever more powerful than the individual fingers and in art it has been used as a metaphor for strength in unity of the peoples’ movements.

The painting, Le Soulèvement (The Uprising) by Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) of the French Revolution of 1848 includes a possible early example of a “political clenched fist,” according to curator Francesca Seravalle. She writes:

“A raised fist appeared for the first time as a political sign in a painting in 1848 by Daumier representing a woman during the Third French Revolution, until that time fists were just expressions of human nature.”

Le Soulèvement (The Uprising) by Honoré Daumier

However, another painting, The Installation of Captain Rock (1834), by the Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806–1870) in the National Gallery of Ireland, depicts the protagonist with a raised, clenched fist as a political sign fourteen years earlier than Daumier’s revolutionary painting, surely demonstrating that the depth of oppression of colonialism in Ireland had already produced self-conscious radical political groups.

Captain Rock was a fictitious figure that was associated with the militant agrarian organisations in Ireland known as “the ‘Whiteboys’, the ‘Ribbonmen’, and the followers of ‘Captain Steel’ or ‘Captain Right'”.

The Installation of Captain Rock (1834) by Daniel Maclise (1806–1870)

These agrarian groups “issued warnings of violent reprisals against landlords and their agents who tried to arbitrarily put up rents, collectors of tithes for the Anglican Church of Ireland, government magistrates who tried to evict tenants, and informers who fingered out Rockites to the authorities,”  and involved many incidents of murder, arson, beatings and mutilation of cattle.

The source of the unrest was the hunger and death suffered by Irish families while their landlords shipped harvests and cattle to the English markets. Peter Berresford Ellis writes:

“This was the cause of the agrarian unrest among the rural population. Indeed, in 1822 a major artificial famine was about to occur. We have William Cobbett’s horrendous picture of people starving in the midst of plenty in that year. In June, 1822, in Cork alone, 122,000 were on the verge of starvation and existing on charity. How many people died is hard to say. A minimum figure of 100,000 has been proposed. Most likely around 250,000. At the same time, landowners were able to ship 7 million pounds (weight) of grain and countless herds of cattle, sheep and swine to the markets in England.”

Captain Rock’s Banditti – Swearing in a new member.

Insurrections occurred in 1822 that involved many thousands of ‘Rockites’ that had armed themselves with pikes and confronted British garrisons. According to Berresford Ellis:

“Colonel James Barry, commanding the garrison at Millstreet, reported that upwards of 5,000 ‘rebels’ had surrounded the town and many houses of loyalists between Inchigeelagh and Macroom were destroyed. The local Millstreet magistrate, E McCarty, added: ‘The people are all risen with what arms they possess and crown all the heights close to the town …’ Cork City and Tralee were cut off for two days before troops fought their way through.” 

‘Captain Rock’ had already made it into Irish literary history in the fictitious book, Memoirs of Captain Rock: The Celebrated Irish Chieftain, with Some Account of His Ancestors (1824) written by the Irish writer, poet, and lyricist Thomas Moore (1779–1852). In these ‘memoirs’ Captain Rock is depicted in a folkloric way, a character who brushes off lightly the dangers of his profession, as he states:

“Discord is, indeed, our natural element ; like that storm-loving animal, the seal, we are comfortable only in a tempest; and the object of the following historical and biographical sketch is to show how kindly the English government has at all times consulted our taste in this particular ministering to our love of riot through every successive reign, from the invasion of Henry II. down to the present day, so as to leave scarcely an interval during the whole six hundred years in which the Captain Rock for the time might not exclaim

“Quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris?”
or, as it has been translated by one of my family : —
Through Leinster, Ulster, Connaught, Munster, Rock ‘s the boy to make the fun stir!”

Similar comparisons can be made with the contemporary Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who combines social realism of contemporary society with mythical elements as a way of illustrating his radical themes, for example in Devil on the Cross (1980), Jacinta Wariinga, is invited to a Devil’s Feast by a mysterious  figure called Munti that turns out to be a business meeting for the Organization for Modern Theft and Robbery.

Image: Devil on the Cross (1980) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

The high educational level of ‘Captain Rock’ is attributed to his associations with the teachers of the Irish ‘hedge schools’, which were small informal secret and illegal schools set up in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to provide primary education to children of ‘non-conforming’ Catholic and Presbyterian faiths.

According to Maeve Casserly, “the hedge schoolmaster played a pivotal role, as both an educator and prominent member in agrarian society, in encouraging the militant political and social sentiments” and that “in an age which promoted the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and emphasised ‘useful learning’ that subjects like Greek, Latin and Hebrew, which formed an intrinsic part of the hedge school curriculum, were wastefully taught instead of necessary vocation skills.” To direct attention away from their militant leadership roles, the hedge schoolmasters used poor grammar and mis-spelled words. She notes that “William Carleton was of a similar opinion that many of the letters, oaths and catechisms of the Rockite insurrectionists, were the work of village schoolmasters.”

Thus, the very public ‘Installation of Captain Rock’ in Maclise’s painting points to the symbolism of the patriotic movement rather than its reality. The clenched fist represents not only the unity of the gathered crowd but also the passing of responsibility for radical social and political change from the deceased elder leader to the vigorous, radical youth.

A depiction of a 19th century hedge school.

In the painting Maclise depicts the scene as a joyous occasion within a hall where many groups of ordinary people are busy getting on with life, yet plotting revolution. To the left a group is making a pact signified by their collective hand grasp, while behind them in a dark alcove appears to be a hedge school master surrounded by listeners and readers. To the right of the hall there is much merriment as a man and a woman dance wildly. Our eyes are drawn around a distracting group of young lovers as we suddenly realise that a gun is being pointed right at us by a young man in front who is just about to shoot (signified by a girl putting her hands to her ears), demonstrating that youthful ‘fun’ should never be underestimated and can suddenly turn deadly serious.

The background to Maclise’s painting looks more like a group of people digging their way down to the hall where the secret ceremony is taking place. This signifies the working class aspect of the dangers of mining work (often carried out by children in the nineteenth century), as well as the necessity for literal and metaphorical underground bunkers to hide from the often overwhelming force of the oppressor.

Overall, the people in the painting are portrayed as active, animated, excited, and fearless.

 Image: 1857 lithograph of Daniel Maclise by Charles Baugniet

Maclise excelled in paintings of large groups of people engaged in various activities grouped around a theme. Maclise had an ongoing interest in the ideology, history, and traditions of ordinary people as can be seen in the subject matter of some of his paintings, for example, Snap-Apple Night (1833) [Hallowe’en traditions], Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838) [containing many figures of various ranks and degrees and depicts aspects of the declining traditional Christmas festivities of his time, see my article A Poem for Christmas: Christmas Revels (1838)], The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854) [depiction of the Norman conquest of Ireland and the death of Gaelic Ireland].

Maclise’s positive portrayal of people is in contrast with the often melancholy depictions of oppressed people around the world, an unfortunate side effect of Social Realism which tried to show the treatment of the poor in all its brutality. However, depictions of the moment of uprising also sows the seeds of hope for a better future, while at the same time providing a fair warning to all elites to beware of the retaliation of a community which has nothing left to lose.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG).

Monday, August 21, 2023

Warriors and Domestics: Plotting a New Course in Cinema


Che (2008 film) directed
by Steven Soderbergh.


"Just a short time ago it would have seemed like a Quixotic adventure in the colonised, neocolonised, or even the imperialist nations themselves to make any attempt to create films of decolonisation that turned their back on or actively opposed the System."

Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino
‘Towards a Third Cinema’

From the short black and white films of the Lumiére brothers to the technically superb blockbusters of today, cinema has been analysed from every kind of social and political perspective. Yet, it is still a relatively young art, and its technical and narrative forms have made it a rich source of discussion and speculation, and one has the feeling that we are still only grappling with a crude understanding of its complexity.

'The director gets first cut' is a well-known statement that shows the business interest of the investors in making a profit or, at the very least, getting their money back. The ever-growing costs involved in making films have been an influential factor in their form and content.

There is no doubt that the realism of the reflected world in cinema fundamentally, consciously or unconsciously, reflects the structures of society itself. This is not always obvious, and commentary can be added to explain what is not instantly apparent from what is, after all, a visual medium, unlike in literature for example, where underlying societal hierarchies and structures can be explained as part of the narrative.

Films opposed to the status quo 

From a political perspective, the conservative forces that determine what films get made, publicised, and exhibited, also make it difficult to produce cinema that is opposed to the general status quo. Yet such films do get made from time to time. Even though we can see that films generally reflect the dominant order of society, there are also narratives that go beyond the conservative order to try and change it or, in some cases, even advocate overthrowing it.

The norm in visual art for centuries has been the representation of people who accept the hierarchies in society. In general, over the years the forms change but the content remains the same, right up to today's modern cinema. Attempts made to create a new type of radical narrative in cinema history have produced some memorable works, but they have not managed to compete with the commercial, popular, 'bread and circuses', action-based, globalised contemporary cinema.

The different 'movements' for change in cinema have tried to show the problem of class interests and who benefits from 'the System'. The more radical films highlight problems of neo-colonialism and imperialism, and their aims range from exposing how elites operate and manipulate people, to producing 'revolutionary cinema' that seeks to inspire more profound change in society. For example, the social realist films of Frank Capra during the 1930s and 1940s, Italian neo-realism in the 1940s and 1950s, the Third cinema of the 1960s and 1970s were all attempts to go beyond the commercialisation of cinema and turn it into a force for social change.

Films and class consciousness

Why does cinema provide mass catharsis yet effect no real change in the multi-faceted problems of society? What kinds of films make us conscious of our socio-economic predicament? I will look at these questions about cinema from the perspective of class interests and elite manipulation of culture to maintain the status quo.



Linear action: 'serving the Man'


Christ as Martyr and Master
Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych, c. 1430–1440
Jan van Eyck (1390–1441)

To refer back to the human predicament of slavery (in its different forms) I am using the same metaphor from my previous articles [see Origins of Violence and Resistance Culture] based on Jan van Eyck's (c. 1390 – 1441) painting, Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych (c. 1430–1440) where we see Christ as 'Martyr' and 'Master':

In Christianity the rulers had a religion that assured their objectives. The warring adventurism of the new rulers needed soldiers for their campaigns and slaves to produce their food and mine their metals for their armaments and wealth. Thus, Christ was portrayed as Martyr and Master. In his own crucifixion as Martyr he provided a brave example to the soldiers, and as Master he would reward or punish the slaves according to how well they had behaved.

The 'warriors' and the 'domestics' are watched over by the 'lord' (the all-seeing eye). This basic scenario is common to much of cinema narratives from early cinema to today's blockbusters. The 'warrior' is the active protagonist upon which the narrative is focused, while the domestics in general facilitate or impede the progress of the 'warrior' protagonist. The important point in this scenario is that the protagonist is ultimately working for the 'man', e.g., criminal gangs, mafia dons, the bourgeois government, the deep state, secret services etc. - to defend the state, not to overthrow it.

His/her role has become more complex over time, and he/she is used to maintain or expand the dominant position of the 'lord', or the all-seeing eye that surveys and controls the action. The ultimate holders of power are not necessarily present or seen but operate in the background controlling the action. The action contained within the film contains the range of sight of the 'all-seeing eye' but is presumed to 'see' before and after the film narrative. The action of the 'warrior' is linear because it does not change or threaten the position of the 'lord'.



(1) Linear action
(Illustration by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)



Early cinema
An early example of such a structure is the Bataille de boules de neige (Snow Fight) recorded by the Lumiére brothers in 1896. It is believed that the people throwing the snowballs at each other were from the local factory. A cyclist comes upon the scene, cycles into the centre of the group and is knocked off his bicycle by the snowball throwers and his hat falls on the ground. He gets up, grabs his bike, and cycles off without his hat. This short scene has all the elements of a movie: documentary (people throwing snowballs) combined with a narrative/story (cyclist cycles into scene and leaves), combined with drama/action (cyclist falls off his bicycle, loses his hat).

Thus, in this scenario the cyclist is the 'warrior' and the people throwing the snowballs from the local factory are the 'domestics'. There is the interplay of the two worlds of the 'warrior' and the 'domestics' as the cyclist protagonist enters and leaves again in this short 'story' (he arrives / he falls off / he leaves). The 'lord' is not included in the film (except as the all-seeing eye of the camera itself).



Bataille de boules de neige (Snow Fight) (1896)
short silent film produced by the Lumiére brothers.

(See video here)


Italian Neo-Realism

The same type of action is played out in the later Italian Neo-Realist film, The Bicycle Thieves (1948). The protagonist meets with his wife telling her he needs to get a bicycle to secure his new job offer. He marches on ahead of her, only stopping when his wife (who is carrying two buckets of water) needs help to walk down a small incline, and then marches off forcefully again. As the 'warrior', he engages with the 'domestic' only when his help/action is needed but he is mainly concerned with his problem of securing a bike so he can secure a wage and an income for his family. The drudgery of her 'domestic' role is in sharp contrast to the 'action' of his linear 'warrior' role.



Bicycle Thieves (Italian: Ladri di biciclette) (1948)

Italian neorealist drama film directed by Vittorio De Sica.


If a 'domestic' ever becomes active, he/she switches over to become a 'warrior' protagonist. Over time the 'warriors' expanded to include different ethnicities and sexualities. The 'warriors' are often alienated from the 'domestics' as they are often shown in cinema as a loner, undomesticated, and/or a whisky drinking hero. 

Fundamentally, the 'warrior' is active for himself or for the needs of the elites but is never threatening to the system itself. This basic format can be seen repeatedly in films from early cowboy movies, James Bond, Mission Impossible (Ethan Hunt), Jack Reacher, The Matrix (Neo), John Wick, etc.

Dialectical Action: 'sticking it to the Man'

However, there are films where the 'warrior' narrative changes from a linear type of thinking to a dialectical consciousness whereby he/she slowly becomes aware of his/her entrapment, oppression, or enslavement. This awareness gradually develops until eventually the protagonist confronts the 'lord' and throws off his/her oppression. The power of the 'all-seeing eye' breaks down and the protagonist escapes or changes the world, while at the same time breaking the hold of the vanquished overlord.


(2) Dialectical Action
(Illustration by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)



The film The Truman Show (1998) depicts such a journey on a personal and philosophical level. As Truman Burbank becomes gradually aware of the limitations of his artificial world, the prospect of freedom is too powerful, and he decides to go through his dome door and leave the monitored world forever.  He is given the opportunity to talk directly to the 'all-seeing eye', his 'lord', Christof (the show's creator and executive producer) but ultimately, he rejects Christof's pleas to return to the 'familiar' world of total control. While this is not a political film, the dialectics of growing consciousness are well illustrated, in that returning to his previous unconscious state is an impossibility.

Over the years popular cinema has produced films of varying degrees of opposition to the boss, the lord, or the 'the System', for example, Salt of the Earth (1954), Spartacus (1960), The Battle of Algiers (1966), Che (2008), The White Tiger (2021), etc. and wherein there is a profound change in the consciousness of the protagonist/s.


Salt of the Earth (1954)

In  Salt of the Earth (1954), the story of a mining community where the unionized workers go on strike, the miners wives take the place of their husbands on the picket line due to an injunction on the union. The wives face opposition from their menfolk who take conservative positions on the role of women in society. The ensuing arguments with their husbands and actions taken against them by the state create the dialectics in the narrative that result in a stronger community where the women's role is finally accepted. Ultimately the power of the company and the anti-union laws of the state are broken when the company admits defeat and plans to negotiate.

Spartacus (1960)

The film narrative is  based on the rebellious slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), "who had done only manual labour since childhood; his life changes when he is purchased and trained as a gladiator. Spartacus gradually comes to not only hate his own servitude but to despise the institution of slavery, and to see it as an offence against human dignity. A chance opportunity to escape leads to a massive slave revolt, one which threatened the significant power of Rome."

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

In this film about the Algerian war of the French colonists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiers, the narrative ranges from the growing consciousness of an individual like Ali La Pointe, who goes from being an informal gambler to FLN leader, to the growing politicization of the whole Arab community itself in their struggle against French colonialism which is eventually defeated.

Che (2008)

The dialectical process of transformation is clear in the change of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio del Toro) from intellectual and doctor to a Latin America revolutionary. Che joined forces with Cuban exile Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and starts a revolution that eventually brings an end to the Batista regime in Cuba.

The White Tiger (2021)

The writer of the original novel (The White Tiger, p254, 2008) Aravind Adiga, noted in the novel that:

I won't be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles (the peeing in the potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc.) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years.

Balram's escape from slavery, his resistance to and eventual murder of his master, leads him to go to another city in India and set up his own taxi business but with a conscious workforce, not another set of workers with a slave mentality. He believes that he is a White Tiger, a symbol of freedom, because he escaped slavery and ultimately encourages his own employees to do the same.


Poster for the film Spartacus (1960)
directed by Stanley Kubrick.



First, Second and Third Cinema

The idea of using cinema to promote social change has been around for a long time. The social realism in the films of Frank Capra, or the cinema of the Italian Neo-Realists tend to represent the reality of poverty, but not necessarily the kind of social consciousness needed to question the hierarchy. In other words, they reflect the system but do not change it.

The Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (members of the Grupo Cine Liberación) reflected on these types of problems when they wrote their manifesto 'Hacia un tercer cine' ('Toward a Third Cinema') in the late 1960s:

Solanas and Getino's manifesto considers 'First Cinema' to be the Hollywood production model that idealizes bourgeois values to a passive audience through escapist spectacle and individual characters. 'Second Cinema' is the European art film, which rejects Hollywood conventions but is centred on the individual expression of the auteur director. Third Cinema is meant to be non-commercialized, challenging Hollywood's model. Third Cinema rejects the view of cinema as a vehicle for personal expression, seeing the director instead as part of a collective; it appeals to the masses by presenting the truth and inspiring revolutionary activism.

The aim of Third Cinema was to go straight for the jugular, and to try and unite 'Third World' peoples experiencing oppression by depicting subjects in such a way as to inspire critical thinking and a revolutionary attitude. Both form and content were affected by Third Cinema principles, by emphasizing the drama of everyday life over dramatic narratives, and by using amateur styles and not relying on expensive action set pieces.
Examples are:

Vidas Secas (A poor peasant family from the Northeast region of Brazil flees drought and famine. Brazil, 1963),

La Hora de Los Hornos (The Hour of Furnaces captures many of struggles and issues of the Argentinians, as well as the role of mass communication in either silencing or activating populations. Argentina, 1968),

Memorias del Subdesarrollo(Sergio, a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer, decides to stay in Cuba even though his wife and friends flee to Miami. Sergio looks back over the changes in Cuba, from the Cuban Revolution to the missile crisis, the effect of living in what he calls an underdeveloped country, and his relations with his girlfriends Elena and Hanna. Cuba, 1968),

Antonio das Mortes (A group of impoverished peasant mystics (beatos) gathered around Dona Santa (Rosa Maria Penna), a female spiritual figure, join in veneration of Saint George with an obscure figure named Coirana (Lorival Pariz). Coirana claims to have restarted the cangaço and seeks to take the revenge of Lampião and other cangaceiro martyrs, presenting the tale of Saint George and the Dragon in a contemporary class conflict context. Brazil, 1969),

Blood of the Condor
 (An indigenous Bolivian community receiving medical care from the Peace Corps-like American agency Cuerpo del Progreso ("Progress Corps") which is secretly sterilising local women. Bolivia, 1969),

Mandabi (Ibrahima faces numerous difficulties trying to obtain a money order. Not having an ID, Ibrahima must go through several levels of Senegalese bureaucracy to try to get one, only to fail after spending money he does not have. The film explores themes of neocolonialism, religion, corruption, and relationships in Senegalese society. Senegal, 1969),

México, la revolución congelada (An Argentine documentary film, which details the history and progress of the Mexican Revolution (1911-1917). Argentina, 1971).

As these films are written to be polemical and didactic (thought and revolution-provoking) the process of conscientization is a fundamental theme and important part of the narrative structure.




Cover of La Hora de Los Hornos (Argentina, 1968) 

 directed by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas.

However, if the aim is to depict a growing socio-political consciousness, resulting in radical or revolutionary change or even an attempt at such change, then the films of First and Second Cinema can be just as effective as the films of Third cinema. The heroic, dramatic style of Hollywood in Spartacus (1960) made for a popular, successful film. The difficulty lies with the conservative, elite control of an expensive medium, coupled with elite control of conservative content.

Second Cinema is often described as European art cinema, which in the case of socio-political content is perceived to blunt any political message. Yet, the 'art' effects used in Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) were perceived to add to its sense of historical authenticity:

Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti filmed [The Battle of Algiers] in black and white and experimented with various techniques to give the film the look of newsreel and documentary film. The effect was so convincing that American releases carried a notice that "not one foot" of newsreel was used.



The Battle of Algiers (1966) Italian-Algerian war film
co-written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

U.S. theatrical release poster.


That authenticity added to its negative reception and temporary banning in France, yet acclaim among academics and continued popularity to this day.

A new force for radical change?

The negative side of Second Cinema comes down to what Solanas and Getino described as its inability to go beyond being merely the 'progressive' wing of Establishment cinema. They write:

The most daring attempts of those film-makers who strove to conquer the fortress of official cinema ended, as Jean-Luc Godard eloquently put it, with the filmmakers themselves 'trapped inside the fortress.'

Thus, the strictures of Second Cinema were believed to have led to the concept of a militant new Third cinema that would develop new styles, forms and means of production and distribution that would break down the fortress walls. One could argue that the auteurs of Third Cinema had a Gramscian idea of a counter-hegemonic culture: if bourgeois values represented natural or normal values for society, then the working-class needed to develop a culture of its own. While Lenin would have argued that "culture was ancillary to political objectives", Gramsci saw "culture as fundamental to the attainment of power" and "that cultural hegemony be achieved first."

There is no doubt that the expense and control of distribution in the past led to the frustration of radical filmmakers and their desire to overcome these difficulties with various alternative models of filmmaking and distribution. However, times have changed and the rise of cheaper digital cameras, editing software, and the internet itself as a means of distribution have changed the accessibility of filmmaking and film viewing. Films can be made now using phones and viewed using phones. Life experience in the 'system' can be turned into art by almost anyone now. The question is: will such contemporary cinema simply supply more reflections of the status quo, or will it rise above the media cacophony and become a new cinematic force for radical change?


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.