REVIEW – Winter of Discontent (2012)

Winter of DiscontentFilmJuice have my review of Ibrahim El Batout’s film about the Egyptian revolution Winter of Discontent.

Made in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak regime, Winter of Discontent follows a group of Egyptians as revolution changes their relationship with their government. Thus, one of the strands follows a TV presenter on a government network who is effectively forced out of her job for daring to ask awkward questions of politicians. Initially, this makes her incredibly fearful for her life but as events in Tahrir square unfold, we see her becoming increasingly bold and defiant before eventually switching sides and using Youtube to denounce the corrupt government. This story is beautifully juxtaposed with that of a secret policeman who moves from a position of absolute certainty in which he feels free to threaten and torture respectable citizens to a position where he owes his family’s safety to the forgiving nature of brutes with sticks.

Let me be clear, despite its shortcomings, I very much enjoyed Winter of Discontent and part of what made the film enjoyable was the fact that it was an incredibly middle-class film made by middle-class Egyptians about their experience of political upheaval. According to the filmmakers, this was a decidedly quiet revolution and that is something of a cinematic rarity:

Sergei Eisenstein’s immortal Battleship Potemkin begins with sailors eating maggoty food and ends with many of those exact same sailors cheering the revolution as their fellows decide to join them in open revolt against the Tsarist regime. Ken Loach’s magnificent ode to the Spanish Civil War Land and Freedom contains oodles of dead fascists and Spanish peasants finally getting a say in how to work their own fields but it ends with the granddaughter of a dead veteran giving a sad but defiant raised fist salute. These cinematic accounts of real-world revolutions may be brilliant, maudlin, triumphalist and manipulative but one thing they are not is quiet. By this measure alone, Ibrahim El Batout’s Winter of Discontent is something entirely unique: a quiet film about revolution.

Watching this film made me reflect on Western attitudes to revolution as I feel most people’s aversion to the idea of overthrowing their government stems from the fact that they are afraid of what might happen to them. This fear is perfectly captured in Marjane Sattrapi and Vincent’s Paronnaud’s Persepolis where a liberal middle-class family wind up being judged and mistreated by uneducated working class people who have been placed in positions of authority by the new regime. One of the fascinating things about Winter of Discontent is that it is entirely free from this sort of class-bound paranoia… the characters sense that something is wrong and face down brutal oppression in order to speak out but while one of the characters is a bit mistrustful of his uneducated upstairs neighbours, his feelings of solidarity quickly overwhelm any misgivings he might have had about the great unwashed. A more romantic and — dare I say it? — politically engaged director might have made a good deal more of that moment of solidarity but El Batout handles it with a quiet restraint that is actually quite refreshing.

Nada (1974) – The Political is in fact The Personal

It was never going to be easy for Claude Chabrol to move on from his most productive period.  Between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Chabrol produced a series of films that would not only secure his reputation to the present day, but also leave an indelible mark upon what comes to mind when one thinks of French cinema.  Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidele (1969), Que La Bete Meure (1969), Le Boucher (1970), Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) and Les Noces Rouges (1973) were shot almost on top of each other with a similar cast of actors who almost came to resemble a repertory company performing only the works of Claude Chabrol.  A company of actors who knew exactly what was expected of them in a series of films that positively simmered with anger and resentment at the provincial bourgeoisie who ran the country and defended the status quo while angry young men such as Chabrol climbed the barricades in the hope of creating a better world.

However, watching the films of this period, it strikes me that Chabrol and revolutionary politics were never going to be a perfect fit.  Chabrol’s vision of the world is deeply morally complex.  When he looks out the window he sees shades of grey rather than the stark black and white demanded by revolutionaries willing to use force to change the world.  In fact, while films such as La Femme Infidele, Que La Bete Meure and Les Noces Rouges did a brilliant job of critiquing the middle classes by suggesting a world of sex, passion, drink and self-destruction beneath the mannered politeness and brass-buttons, these criticisms also humanised them.  There is something almost comical and easy to empathise with about the husband in La Femme Infidele who kills his wife’s lover but never mentions it to her or the man in Que La Bete Meure who tracks down his son’s killer only to discover that the man’s entire family are hoping that someone will kill him for them.  These are not the kinds of people you simply put up against a wall… these are weak, pitiful and ultimately on some level sympathetic creatures.  They are victims of the system just like everyone else.  Given the general timbre of Chabrol’s work during the late 60s and early 70s, Chabrol’s political history and the political climate of the French cinema scene at the time (Cahiers du Cinema was run by a Maoist collective during the mid-70s) it was clear that something had to give and the result was Nada, a satirical comedy-thriller based upon a noir novel by the influential French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, that sees Chabrol turning his ire from the bourgeoisie to the functionaries of the state and the radical Leftists who would overthrow them.

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