MMP 2013

Political Film Event


Based on the event  of 05.11.13 held at Mannheim Meeting Place 2013 during the 62nd IFF Mannheim Heidelberg under the title “How to produce a good political film in 2014?”


The idea to hold an event on the topic of producing contemporary political film came at Cannes FF 2013 after a market screening of Ryszard Bugajski’s “Closed Circuit” and the awareness that the film had been refused local public funding.

The fiction drama/political thriller deals with the true story of public functionaries who try, illegally, to wrest a successful new company from the rightful owners for their own profit. After the refusal of public funds for an established filmmaker for this film (lack of funds was cited), it was in fact finished with money from business sources and became a strong hit with local cinema audiences on release.

The dilemma for today’s public cinema funding systems (for many, even in Western Europe, a relic of communist models in need of drastic overhaul anyway) is quite obviously where to stop and when not to stop. For outsiders, “Closed Circuit” is yet another attempt to deal with more negative aspects of Transition (at least for those who understand the term), while for the funders – who knows? 

Quite naturally, one would expect such subjects to be “decided on their own merits” as they come up. Only practise can show if this is the fairest system, while ultimately there is agreement that there can’t be a formula. Funders can be happy that the problem does not – so far - come up very often. 

At around the same time in 2013 a Tagesspiegel programme “Staatsgeheimnis Bankenrettung” (”Quand l’Europe sauve les Banques, qui paye?”) was produced and transmitted on Arte, touching on very sore points dealing with fault finding for the European banking crisis. The programme, carrying uncomfortable truths, disappeared very quickly, despite its strong public interest content, acute relevance, and non-aggressive style. We know that in today’s post-modern times, where vested interests so often sway the paths that truth moves on, it is far from enough to tell that truth in a recorded form.  So does political programming and/or film-making now always carry the potential seeds of its own burial?  Seen as political event-making, it seems that the answer is yes. 

Voices at Mannheim MMP 2013:

Kaare Schmidt:
Political Films in Denmark

Kaare Schmidt

“This is a short topic: there aren’t any (political films in Denmark) and there haven’t been any. The Danes are educated to be critical of authority, and they are highly critical in that way, but they don’t make politically critical movies.

When the welfare state came about, in the early sixties, film production funding became increasingly state-supported. You don’t bite the hand that feeds and, despite some early satire on the coming welfare state, topics soon became “non-political”, with producers steering to the side of safety.

One of the very few exceptions to this rule was a film made by Peter Watkins  in 1977 in Denmark (with 192 non-professionals) called Aftenlandet (Evening Land).

Danish cinema is nevertheless critical socially, and the pervasive national cinema style is everyday realism, which by definition carries some criticism of social conditions.

But what can you be critical of in a country where “everybody is well off”? Your drama will deal with psychological or child-based problems of a middle class that is considered by the United Nations as the “happiest people on earth”.  So why be critical at all?

Indeed, why are the Danes so happy? Statistically, they have mature institutions and one of the lowest corruption levels in the world, meaning that society trusts authorities and people trust each other, and when that happens you have a further definition of people who are happy. So why make political movies? 

Denmark has, on the other hand, a very successful political television series called “Borgen” (“Parliament”), dealing mostly with political compromise and coalitions, and what politics should be about.  It is popular outside its own country – probably because it is dealing with positive people doing positive things. Many other television series dealing with politics (e.g. the Chicago based “Boss”) almost automatically paint a corrupt picture – what we in fact expect from politics.” 

David Arratia Flores:
Political Cinema and Bolivia

David Arratia Flores

“In the seventies and eighties the national cinematography went through a particularly important period due to military dictatorship supported by the American government - this was the “Movement of the New Latin American Cinema”: a proposal for cinema as a weapon of liberation, and as an instrument of decolonisation, both in the documentary area (example:  Guzman’s “Battle of Chile” 1976-79) and fiction (example: Sanjinés’ “La Nation Clandestina”) .

This movement lost force with emergent democracy and a period of 5 presidents within 10 years, a time when national film funding was non-existent – for reasons of bankruptcy, not politics. This also meant, for the films that did manage to be made, a lighter and less critical social tone. 

Then popular support emerged in 2006 - and a new feeling of national pride - with Evo Morales. This change from largely neo-liberal values was possibly most important on the broad cultural front, but was not supported by any great developments in cinema. Apart from documentaries and bio-pics, recent Bolivian cinema has been a cinema of film d’auteur: examples include Valdivia’s 2009 “Zona  Sur” (best director at Sundance) or the earlier “Sexual Dependency” from Rodrigo Bellott. Funding came 100% from private sources. 

In the last three years (2010-2013) a new film support fund was established, so that films such as “Insurgentes” from Sanjonés could be made, but without the political charge of the (New Latin American Cinema”) seventies and eighties.

Apparently, political cinema in Bolivia is now absent, however temporarily. As we learned earlier, political cinema arises from social needs, not funding. And filmmakers in Bolivia are not taking part in the social debate that characterizes the country today, where American blockbusters reign at the box-office.”  

Dean Sosa

Dean Sosa

“I was happy to hear my colleague from Denmark who said there was no practical need for political cinema there because in Croatia the situation is different. Since twenty years Croatian cinema has been developing on the basis of the new public funding – you are free to shoot what you like. In the last ten years in Croatia there are five to six features a year, and many documentaries, shorts and animation, but you can count on the fingers of one hand any political films that have been made in the period.

Back in the late sixties, when Croatia was part of ex-Yugoslavia, the situation was the opposite: there were large amounts of political films, subversive movies made thanks to a liberal government. Today the romantic theory is that these filmmakers were fighting the regime, but you need to remember the nature of that regime: it was not like the USSR or Czechoslovakia. It was mostly straightforward to get a passport, and there were Rolling Stones concerts in Zagreb. Yugoslavia needed to show its differences to other countries of the “Socialist Bloc” and this was also reflected in her cinematography. And so, similarly to Hollywood and other parts of the world, Croatia’s best political cinema came in the late sixties and early seventies.

And at that time directors throughout the planet had one very important element: hope. That after communism everything would be better. Hope that after Nixon things would be better.  So they made films to expose the bad sides of regimes and governments. With hope.

Today there is enormous ballast in Central Europe that is called Transition. The re-shaping of societies into post-socialist forms is long and often very painful, parallel to Austerity in Western Europe.  With rare exceptions - and in line with Denmark’s phenomenon of social criticism often existing as satire or comedy* - world-wide national cinemas do not express themselves politically today. It is very difficult in such structures, where it is often impossible to establish who exactly is the enemy (Bush or Obama?) to pursue a meaningful political cinema. In Central Europe, this will certainly take time.

Transition in Central Europe – and a quote from a Serbian director: “ Freedom is not enough: We are happy because we have freedom but we are unhappy because it is empty”.  Translated, this can also mean that lack of freedom was very positive for creativity in this part of the world. Today one doesn’t really believe one can change anything as a filmmaker so one doesn’t try very hard. Of course the exceptions keep us going.” 

Mark Spratt

Mark Spratt

“Audience reaction to political films in Australia is ambivalent. “Borgen” was shown on the multi-cultural channel SBS, during the final year of the term of the country’s first female prime minister leading  a minority government. So the contrast was fascinating. Far from “Borgen”’s civilised discussions between parties making up coalitions, you had continued expression of hysterical rage selling conservative newspapers and propping  up a conservative opposition.

When one thinks of political films in Australia one thinks of the documentaries of David Bradbury, (considered by many a loony and outsider) , and works concerning the Australian treatment of  the Aboriginal people. “Rabbit Proof Fence”, for example, broke through, but taken generally, a feature film with a political label is  box office poison. A re-release of “Z”, for example, should not be contemplated even promoted as a classic detective thriller, due to its heavy political taint. Exceptions do exist however and recent examples are the true story-based “Red Dog”, or  2012’s   “The Sapphires”, which tells the story of the Aboriginal girl singing group that went to Vietnam in 1968 to entertain US troops.

And though Australian TV audiences show a voracious appetite for domestic product almost nothing of Australia’s political problems of the last ten years (the situations with boat people included) will ever end up as any kind of TV drama.”

Peter Armstrong 

Peter Armstrong

"The Fifth Estate" is an example of a present-day political film from Hollywood about Julian Assange, perhaps not in the full sense of what has just been said, but it is certainly contentious. As a docu-drama it is different from a  pure documentary ("The Story of  Wikileaks," 2013), in as much as it takes dramatic licence.

From a legal point of view, you first approach the exact subject or subjects of the work – how they are going to react. Under the law of defamation, legal claims can be raised against untruthfulness. So a first early decision is whether the life story rights of the protagonists are going to be obtained or not. If yes, then it is logical that rights of consultation or even approval will be sought by such persons as part of a deal. If no, then one faces the threat of legal blowback. 

In this case, the film was based on books written mostly by journalists, for which, Mr. Assange claimed, approval was never given.

Defamation laws do actually give some leeway - not every second of portrayal needs to be completely true, thus allowing for fictional characters that bring things more to life, as long as the overall story does not contain any (deliberate) untruths. However, it is to be stressed that final decisions on the merits of such activity would lie with the judge and the jury of any action that was brought.

In this case, even though the protagonist did nothing when the literary sources were published, one should remember that films tend to excite the attention of lawyers far more than most books do.

In this case, even though the protagonist did nothing when the literary sources were published, one should remember that films tend to excite the attention of lawyers far more than most books do.

One can mention the "Da Vinci Code," where an action was brought by the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" against Random House, presumably on the basis that once they had won with the publisher they could then have a go at Sony Pictures which had just made a film on the subject. But that action was lost.

Mr Assange did make his point - he leaked the script of the film just before the premiere."  

Freddy Olsson

Freddy Olsson

From the audience:
“Sweden: the film “Call girl” is a recent political film phenomenon – the story is based on a case where in the seventies a Justice Minister enjoyed the favours of under age girls. The film also suggested that Olof Palme, the Prime Minister assassinated in 1986, was of a similar bent.

The ensuing scandal ended with the film being taken out of distribution, at horrendous expense, and being re-edited for international sales and TV.”

Armstrong: “Strictly legally, you cannot libel the dead. Having said that, we now have “moral rights” so it is possible in certain circumstances for the family of a dead person to bring a claim in certain countries in Europe.” 

Olsson: “I think a big mistake was made by suggesting Palme was like the Minister of Justice. Putting Palme into this took away from the strength of the film which was the focus on the story of the Minister of Justice.”


*One thinks of Vinko Bresan especially from Croatia. Comedy remains a preferred and natural window on social/political comment – viz. Pavo Marinkovic’s upcoming “Ministry of Love” (2014), or Bojan Vuletic’s latest project, the suicide-themed “Requiem for Mrs.J” from Serbia.

Defining “political film” fully is elusive since so many things can be regarded as political on so many levels. 

From the audience: 

Julian Friedmann

Julian Friedmann

“Political films don’t necessarily have to deal with things related directly to politics, but also everyday ordinary lives. A film will be political if it helps change peoples’ lives.”

Also the planet’s great political films do not always translate into appreciation world-wide – take as an example the continuing near-total lack of popularity for Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers” in Germany.

Ultimately, one realises that the good political film in 2014 will be a serious exception, and in fact one should not look for more than a single example in any film year – world-wide.  

For Jean Marie Teno please note the separate web-page entitled MMP 2013: JM Teno