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Monday, 31 August 2015

Air-brushed from history ?

This is a Festival preview of Héroes Invisibles (Invisible Heroes) (2015)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

29 August

This is a Festival preview of Héroes Invisibles (Invisible Heroes) (2015) (for Cambridge Film Festival 2015)

Héroes Invisibles (Invisible Heroes) (2015) is subtitled Afroamericanos en la Guerra de España (The part played by Afro-Americans in The Spanish Civil War [NB an interpretative rendering of the title (which is in Spanish) for this blog]).

It is the mark of a well-thought-through documentary that, in little more than an hour, it can not only tell its story, but also although much of what we are told about has happened in the late 1930s, and in Spain have us conclude its significance to where we are now, in the States (amongst many other places), with regard to 'respecting' everyone’s civil rights [dare one say human rights ?], i.e. that euphemism for the fact that such rights are not always respected (?) :

As directors Alfonso Domingo and Jordi Torrent clearly appreciate very well, black-and-white photographs (the visual record mainly takes that form here) can so often, when simply displayed, just somehow invoke disconnection, both from when they were taken, and, as a result, from the lives of those pictured*. On one level, of course, it is a little as if one looks at one’s parents (or grandparents) if lucky enough to have known them without being able to conceive of their having (or ever having had) childish, irrational or lustful desires.

[Not least given that, as fifteen-year-olds, we cannot easily (pleasantly ?) imagine the act that brought us into being], then, on another level, we are at four potential removes, at least, from men such as James Yates (author of From Mississippi to Madrid, and whose life the film partly takes time following) :

(1) He was still a young man at the time of the Spanish Civil War (19361939) [the link is to an article in the Encyclopædia Britannica]

(2) Before going to Spain, and because of being a black man (or some would prefer to say ‘a person of colour’), as well as someone who had stood, in various places of work, for unions to be recognized, Yates had experienced discrimination and persecution

(3) He then took part in a conflict : although Yates was a driver, not a combatant**, the conflict was fierce, and he most certainly saw action in this role (and saw others die, or, in the case of a good friend, Yates only learnt of his death once he had newly arrived in Spain)

(4) When he came back, from a place where he had been treated very differently from at home, his support for what he still believed in had probably hardly begun

By taking steps to make these points clear to us (please see below), this film ensures that there are no hiding-places for what seems, unless checked, to be our human tendency to apathy or lack of compassion, and so it makes better use of monochrome images than did Still the Enemy Within (2014) [a review is still to come...], which had converted some of what it presented to us to 3D : doing so almost became a distraction*** to seeing what participants in the strike by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had shot (or those very few journalists who troubled to cover the story on the ground) ?

Instead (by using various means), Héroes Invisibles much more imaginatively**** visualizes how the Afro-Americans who fought in the International Brigades (specifically, the Lincoln Brigade) have, in our non-specialist conception, been effectively air-brushed from history (though that phrase is not heard in the film). Which is to say that Torrent and Domingo enlarge our understanding of this supposed civil war (please see below), partly because we probably have not had reason to see black American soldiers, nurses, drivers amongst those who stood against the fascist forces under General Franco.

Actually, that is because we do not usually have ready access to the visual evidence, whereas at least half-a-dozen historians, at various points, make appearances in the film to share what their research has established from the contemporary photographic record, alongside documents, and memoirs and other publications. As to the status of the conflict, one also thinks of Syria, and what Return to Homs (2013) wanted to propose, with the accord of Amnesty International (@amnesty), i.e. the assertion that what was happening in that country, if properly described, did not constitute 'civil war' (as claimed).

(That said, unlike with the calls on Yates' longer-lived (if maybe less-demanding) tenacity, we can see in The Salt of the Earth (2014) [which Torrent (@nycjordi), as well as Mark Cousins (@markcousinsfilm), highly approve], how Sebastião Salgado, a photographer who had been committed to covering events in conflict-zones, found that he could not go on with his photographic reportage after the experience of seeing yet more lives destroyed in the former Yugoslavia and, on a return trip, in Rwanda. (This was after the time that Salgado had spent shooting scenes of struggle in the not unrelated sphere of the effect of global economic pressures on jobs and work.))

In this country, significant energy per se may be devoted to marking anniversaries of VE Day, or the outbreak of World War I, but maybe ‘the establishment’ conveniently neglects recalling when the States and Great Britain stood by as a war was prosecuted, on Spanish soil, and very greatly helped by Hitler’s German forces, and those,
from Italy, of Mussolini. It ended on 1 April 1939, yet only for World War II to break out, and Britain to enter it on 3 September, a bare five months later. Catalan film directors (as well as authors, artists, etc.), have, of course, wanted to oppose such neglect of the memory of what happened (quite apart from any consideration of the gratuitous tactical gain that Axis powers had obtained, by being able to practise the tactics of Blitzkrieg ?).

Focusing on its topic, Héroes Invisibles steers clear of very much national accusation, and also of the complicating issue of factions that arose amongst the different republican / anti-fascist groupings*****. That said, there are other films that have come to Festival Central in preceding years of Camera Catalonia [the link is to 'What is Catalan cinema ?'], such as Eyes on the Sky (Mirant al Cel) (2008), which movingly centres on the Italian Air Force’s bombing of Barcelona [an era obliquely alluded to in [ ] Born (2014??)].

One thing that this film does, of course, desire is to challenge our impression of those who fought, if we derive it from the famous novel set during The Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls. The reason is that what Hemingway purported to tell us through the character of Robert Jordan, Héroes Invisibles states, in passing, is highly atypical with regard to the actual composition of the International Brigades. The consequence is that our having had regard to, and believed, a fictionalized account, rather than knowing the facts, has significantly marginalized knowledge of what James Yates
did (and others in his position).

Ernest Hemingway, working at his book For Whom the Bell Tolls, at Sun Valley, Idaho, in December 1939 [taken from the Wikipedia® web-page on him : is Hemingway working, or is this another pose (please see below) ?]

Yet, probably more significantly than whether ‘Papa’ Hemingway told truth, or betrayed the nature of the men whom he had met in Spain (as some say, in favour of a portrait of such a man as himself ?), this film informs us, through what happened to Yates, so much about the lives of people who substantially underpinned what is shown taking place in films such as Selma (2014) :

In Spain, welcomed, and treated as equals, but they soon had, as Yates did, unpleasant reminders of the past on their return. Yet they had the continuing courage, vision and fight to want to stake their claim on such better things in the States…


* Likewise, the flickering of a silent film needs a good score, and it is best performed live. Not, though (although it is too often said), to bring it alive / to life, but to ease our way into its world, when, in its own terms, it was made for, and to have, accompaniment. Indeed, such films, after good image-quality and frame-rate had been secured, already do have movement (hence ‘moving / motion picture’, although often styled ‘movie’. (The giving of The Academy Awards ('Oscars®') is decided by The International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences [emphasis added] (@TheAcademy)).

The best silent films have arguably and deservedly survived better, and are so much more alive, than many a Cinemascope release in Technicolor®. Yet perfectly posed early silver-nitrate ?? can be gorgeous, but does having a predilection for colour (e.g. even early colour footage of Hitler) cause us to keep our distance ?

** One substituted the word ‘fighter’ with ‘combatant’, because the film shows what a fighter Yates was, and continued to be, for what he believed in.

*** One can only speak as one alive at the time [which, then, benefited watching Generation Right (2015)], whereas other viewers are necessarily too young. However, we all respond with a variety of experiences to cinema (it is almost what cinema is for, to be a malleable medium of the mind and spirit ?), so, for some, 3D-ized photos, rendered almost spectral, would evoke a near-psychotic episode, because of their coupling with the disturbance of the audio [of background voices, making comment too quiet to be wholly audible, too audible to be wholly ignored]...

**** For example, in the documentary Virunga (2014) [which came to Festival Central (@CamPicturehouse) for a Q&A (before its impressive nominations for BAFTAs (@BAFTA) and The Academy Awards (@)], the ‘tick-over’ of a teleprinter was used to help present the pressure of events unfolding because director Orlando von Einsiedel had employed a drama editor (Masahiro Hirakubo).

***** For which, though, we can look to Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995), or Catalan director Óscar Aibar’s El bosc (The Forest) (2012), the latter of which screened at Cambridge Film Festival 2013 (#CamFF), during Camera Catalonia [the link is to 'What is Catalan cinema ?'].

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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