From Marx to Third World working conditions: progressive cinema at the Sydney Film festival

A scene from The Workers Cup.

The 2017 Sydney Film Festival, which ran from June 7-18, featured a range of progressive-themed films. Below is a look at five by Green Left Weekly’s Zebedee Parkes.


Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
By Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie

This is a genuinely interesting dramatic film, with an epic narrative and visual style.

Not epic in the conventional sense of dozens of locations and scenes with hundreds of actors, but in its scope of ideas, acting, stories and visual diversity.

The film follows four young ultra-left revolutionaries in Quebec in the aftermath of the 2012 student protests against university fees as they create their own cult-like cell filled with experimental art and ideas.

The film is vastly different in style from many films that explore political activism, such as Battle in Seattle or the Baader Meinhof Complex

It’s a film that evokes emotions and ideas through its visual style from using three aspect ratios, archival footage, performance art, quotes as titles and an expansive pallet of colours. It makes for a very diverse film and breaks the norms of cinema. This reflects the attitudes of the revolutionaries in the film, as they believe they are breaking down the norms of capitalist society.

Fans of arthouse cinema will get a lot out of this film, from its avant-garde visual style to the characters’ meditations on politics, art and philosophy. 

An Insignificant Man
By Khushboo Ranka & Vinay Shukla

An Insignificant man is a political documentary that moves with pace and purpose through the campaign of Indian activist Arvind Kejriwal and the Common Man’s Party he formed to fight against corruption and for basic rights such as making water free, in the 2013 Delhi elections.

The two major parties in India that Kejriwal takes on, the governing BJP and Congress, tried to censor the film. India’s classification board required permission from establishment parties to use references of them in the film. Neither were forthcoming.

The film is a pure observational documentary that edits 400 hours of footage of rallies, election doorknocking, meetings, media appearances, conferences, social media posts and funerals to paint a tapestry of Kejriwal’s campaign and politics in India. It is skilfully edited so that it never feels like it needs a voice-over or interview to explain or analyse a situation. 

The film skips through lots of volunteers as they campaign, while keeping Kejriwal at its heart. Its inside-access lays bare the contradictions of campaigning for a more democratic political process while being stubbornly opposed to the party’s volunteer membership.

It is inspiring to watch the Common Man’s Party gain traction with the masses and makes you want to explore Indian politics.  

The Workers Cup
By Adam Sobel

The Workers Cup at times feels like you’re watching a story set in a 21st Century interpretation of Roman slavery and all-powerful overlords.

The documentary follows a team of migrant workers building the facilities for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar as they compete in their own tournament — a workers cup.

In a world where corporations are all-powerful, the workers are representing their companies, fans have to cheer for the company and the competition often seems designed to keep workers subservient as their bosses bid for contracts.

It is the small details in the films narrative, as it follows the players through their lives, that reveal how few rights the workers have. This ranges from not being able to get visas for their families to needing permission to leave the work camp one day a week, which is frequently denied.  

The jokes, conversations and football games that go down to the wire among “the workers”, as they call themselves, creates a film that audiences can connect with as it juxtaposes shots of Qatar’s elegant skyscrapers with the slave-like conditions at the workers’ camps and worksites.

By Laura Poitras

In terms of gaining access to stories and people that have made international headlines, Laura Poitras is one of world’s leading documentary filmmakers. She has been called “an enemy of the US” by the FBI.

Her previous documentary, the Academy Award-winning Citizen Four, was predominantly filmed in the hotel room of Edward Snowden when he leaked the NSA files. Her latest film, Risk, filmed since early 2011, observes Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

The film is engaging, tense and tightly edits several years of footage of Assange and key people in WikiLeaks, from the extradition trial and fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy to the use of the internet in the Arab Spring and the Snowden saga.

Apart from a few musings from Poitras, which she calls her production journals, the film is very observational and explores wider issues through the people and their stories behind the headlines.

There are many candid moments, such as Assange discussing with WikiLeaks staff and friends what he will say publicly and what he thinks privately about the rape allegations against him and his views on what is needed for the world to change.

It is engaging to watch and will add fuel to the fire around debates on Assange’s political and ethical contradictions.

The Young Karl Marx
By Raoul Peck

Marx and Engels’ first encounter in the film is one its most memorable scenes. It starts tensely and is filled with barbs, before moving to a pub where the two discuss politics over several games of chess and many pints. It’s a sequence that showcases the film’s style and its flaws.

The film spends most of its time following characters discussing socialism, with dialogue the film’s key ingredient. At times it felt like watching a stage play with lots of close-ups. The film feels designed to create the greatest sense of realism possible, as if you are watching a recording or re-enactment of Marx and Engels arguing for the League of the Just to become the Communist League at its 1847 congress.

Its dialogue switches between multiple languages as Marx traverses Europe and Britain, in often quite slow scenes set in lecture halls. Visually it is very flat, which ties in with the film’s focus on dialogue.

With its conflict constructed around men in suits debating ideas, it is a film that will probably struggle to engage people with Marxism who don’t already understand it.