Revolution and communism on the big screen: Report from Toronto
Still from "Youth."

TORONTO—There were several movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) that dealt with progressive politics and history—documentaries, narratives, and even a couple of creative experimental approaches to the subject. Probably the most revolutionary film at TIFF was The Nothing Factory, an exhaustive three-hour study of labor in the workplace. Reminiscent of the The Take, where workers take over empty factories in Argentina, this film by Portuguese director Pedro Pinha shows workers determined to keep their jobs at an elevator parts factory. The bosses slowly and secretly remove the parts and machinery while the workers debate whether to occupy or strike. They choose both and in the process go through the pains of negotiating workers’ rights, trying to keep the factory intact while trucks are carrying out their machines and parts.

Scene from “The Nothing Factory.”

The bulk of the story is how they deal with staying in the building with no way to make anything. They debate creating a workers’ co-op, the market economy and the role of labor. They discuss political strategy while addressing the systemic limitations of capitalism—described as a vulture that will kill itself. One Marxist worker reminds others that “work and money” are the problem, that the ultimate goal of communism is to eliminate money and work, and enjoy life for everyone. The film was made as a collective using workers as actors. The non-professionals are very convincing, but there are long periods of boredom much like the reality they most likely face in the workplace. The most radical film at TIFF this year is dedicated to the real workers who were on strike for eight years.

Le Fort De Fous is also a creative and challenging study, but about imperialism and colonialism, by Algerian director Narimane Mari (Bloody Beans), who filmed in her homeland and Greece. Using experimental directing methods, mixing film styles and structure, this revolutionary three-act documentary covers the colonial period of Algeria and the present-day harsh realities of an economically exhausted Greece. Although the experimental style is complex and confusing at times, the subject is handled in depth as the message states that the colonialist period has never ended.

It’s becoming more possible to see movies from China, many of which are colossal undertakings. It’s nothing for them to get casts of thousands to recreate awesome historical scenes. The new historical epic Youth, by veteran Chinese director Feng Xiaogang (I Am Not Madame Bovary), centers on the 1970s People’s Liberation Army and the troupe of young performers who use music, dance and theater to promote their revolutionary Maoist convictions. Films with these political themes, having been kept from Western viewing audiences for so long, open up an amazing new world of understanding. To know a people’s history and culture helps explain behavior and ideology, and this film goes through several historical stages. The extremely talented and committed Chinese youth also have dreams, many that don’t get fulfilled. There are touching and bittersweet stories, and war scenes of such shocking effect using advanced film techniques, that it’s hard to believe that history can be brought back so vividly.

A poignant and entertaining anti-fascist drama from the renowned Taviani Brothers, Rainbow: A Private Affair is set in Italy during World War II. A beautiful love story centers around the growing partisan movement that aligns the love of country with the personal love between two guys who happen to fall for the same girl. The great Yip Harburg classic “Over the Rainbow” is used to full advantage as the young lady who works in a music store sings to her potential courters while setting the tone of hope for a new world beyond the deadly destruction wrought by Mussolini and the fascist government. The aging and revered Taviani Brothers have filmmaking down to an art and you can’t get much better than this.

The Shape of Water is a fantasy by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, master of monster movies. It’s already a blockbuster and winner of the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award. But many who were thrilled by his politically themed horror film, Pan’s Labyrinth, set during the Spanish Civil War, will most likely be disappointed by this purely entertaining diversion set during the 1960s Cold War. A mute cleaning lady falls in love with a giant water monster who is cruelly imprisoned in a Los Alamos-type government warehouse. The preposterous story has a Soviet villain trying to steal the monster while a federal agent played to the hilt by Michael Shannon (99 Homes), scarface and all, tortures the innocent monster while trying to kill it. Del Toro also directed The Devil’s Backbone, another great film set during the Spanish Civil War. Guess we’ll just have to wait for his next serious monster film.

There were a couple of notable anti-communist films that probably need little mention here, but they were well made and even entertaining:

Most often “anti-Stalin” is a substitute for “anti-communist.” The dark political comedy The Death of Stalin goes not only after Stalin, but every other Soviet leader and beyond. They’re all buffoons and criminals here: The grossly simplified caricatures will offend most communists but also those who feel Stalin’s crimes shouldn’t be treated comically at all. The acerbic script pulls no punches, but also fails to provide historical accuracy. The “loosely based on the true story” satire goes to great lengths creating a fiction about Stalin’s death for humorous advantage. Very little of the dialogue is based on fact, since these people were obviously not all in Stalin’s office while he lay on the floor appearing to be dead, only to wake up again later. So it’s a fantasy comedy for anti-communists. Next will be Allende, Castro, Che, and any enemy the empire deems worthy of burying again for humorous results. Those worried that there might be negative public reaction to the rape and murder jokes should feel comforted by the strong and acceptable corporate anti-communist message necessary to sustain Western imperialism—and productions like this.

Serbian director, Mila Turajlić recently made a wonderfully nostalgic documentary called Cinema Komunisto, about the relatively unknown history of the thriving film industry in Yugoslavia during Tito’s reign. It was the largest film studio in Eastern Europe and even employed Western actors appearing in patriotic war epics about the courageous communist partisans. But the anti-communist side of the director is more evident in her newest documentary, The Other Side of Everything. It’s a family tale covering the time span of Yugoslavia’s recent history.

Her mother lived in the same bourgeois housing complex owned by her family for 80 years. A door in her mother’s Belgrade apartment has been sealed for over 65 years since Tito and the communists came in to make living space for proletarians, victors coming home from the war against Hitler. Since then there has been a war going on in the building between the anti-communists and the communist workers who live in parts of the building. Although the mother and most of the family disliked the system, they liked the atheist communist tenant, Nada, the last remnant from the proletarian days.

The director’s mother was a teacher and became the Serbian minister of education in 2000 after they threw out Slobodan Milošević. As in many countries where the West seeks regime change, the opposition was funded by the U.S. and trained by the CIA to overthrow Milošević. Now, 17 years later, they have a right-wing nationalist government and a leader much like Trump. The mother in her newly gained wisdom opines, “We spend too much time arguing the past when we should be thinking about the future.”


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.