Sydney Film Festival showcases political films

Cairo 678.

The Sydney Film Festival, held over June 8-13, featured 161 films from 42 countries. Every one of the eight films I was able to see was packed out, even the beautiful State Theatre which holds more than 2000 people.

Four films I saw are a must-see if they ever get a general release in suburban cinemas.

The first was Sing Your Song, a biography of African-American singer and actor Harry Belafonte.

I was introduced to Belafonte 50 years ago, when my mother bought our first record player. The first vinyl record she bought was Belafonte’s “Calypso’’, the first record to sell more than 1 million copies in the 1950s.

So it was no wonder half the audience in the State Theatre, myself included, sang along to the “Banana Boat” song and “Day-o”.

I’m not sure how many of those who bought those records were aware of the humiliation and discrimination Belafonte suffered when he was performing in the US during the those early years ― including the fuss created when he held the hand of a white woman in a film.

As a black performer, he had to enter through back doors of hotels and theatres.

Belafonte has been a political activist his whole life, and remains one today. So Sing Your Song is also a political history of the US, as Belafonte engages in key political struggles of the 20th century.

Belafonte was hugely influenced by the legendary singer, communist and political activist Paul Robeson.

Belafonte threw himself into the civil rights movement, raising money and organising marches. He became a close friend of Dr Martin Luther King.

On one occasion, he flew into one of the cities in the US south to bring urgent cash to retrieve the bodies of two civil rights volunteers murdered by the Klu Klux Klan.

It was a dangerous mission, but he survived.

This period of US history is largely forgotten ― with its huge, police sanctioned-murder of Black people and white students who campaigned for the Black vote in the south.

Belafonte later turned his attention to the anti-apartheid movement to protest the racist policies of South Africa.

Unfortunately, there is no mention in the film of the murder of the revolutionary African American leader Malcolm X and only one shot of Cuba.

However, Belafonte has given huge support to the Cuban Revolution and its struggle against US attempts to destroy it. This includes the campaign to free the “Cuban Five” ― five Cuban men jailed in the US for the “crime” of infiltrating right-wing terrorist groups operating in Florida.

Belafonte also helped organise a public meeting in New York with left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2006.

This was just after Chavez controversially called then-US president George Bush the devil at the United Nations General Assembly ― earning him the ire of the US media and political establishment, but the respect of ordinary people all over the world.

Belafonte, now 84 years old, is still campaigning ― this time for the release of Black youths from prison. The film shows a five-year-old Black girl being handcuffed and brutally arrested by police.

Belafonte explains that he could go and live in a luxury apartment and forget it all. “But I can’t let those bastards win,’’ he says.

It is a powerful film depicting a lifetime of political activism.

Another good film was Even the Rain, a drama weaved around the fight to stop water being privatised in Bolivia.

Spanish director Iciar Bollain uses the plot device of having filmmakers set out to make a drama about the Spanish conquest of Latin America, only to be interrupted with the present day struggle against the privatisation of water. So it’s a film within a film.

A hard-nosed producer, Costa, decides to shoot the film in Bolivia because he has to pay the actors only US$2 a day.

However, his main indigenous actor Daniel, who plays a leader of resistance to the Spanish invasion in 1512, is in reality a leader of the huge struggle against the privatisation of water in Cochabamba.

The depiction of the two struggles, the indigenous uprising in the 16th century and the water battles of the 21st century, serve to show that colonialism remains.

The Bolivian army fire on the anti-privatisation protesters and many indigenous people are killed and injured. The film shows the cowardice of the Spanish film crew, who flee as fast as they can when the shooting starts.

This time, the indigenous win ― at least in the water battle ― but at a great human cost.

In a nice touch at the end, impoverished Daniel presents the film producer with a small box of cigars. But when the producer opens it on the way to the airport, it is a bottle of precious water.

The third great film was the drama 678 Cairo, about sexual harassment in Egypt. It is one of the best feminist films I have seen.

The subject is veiled in collective silence in Egypt.

We follow three stories. One is of a very wealthy, educated woman, Seba, who, although accompanied by her doctor husband, was raped at a football match.

Another woman, from the middle-class, wants to bring the first sexual harassment lawsuit in Cairo.

The third woman is devout, working class Fayza, who faces sexual harassment daily by men on overcrowded public transport.

The film opens with Seba giving classes on self-defence for women in public. At the end of the class, she asks the six women present to write down the number of incidents of sexual harassment they have suffered.

To her continual frustration, they all deny anything has ever happened to them. Finally, Fayza, covered in a scarf and long dress and coat, confesses.

She is encouraged to use her sharp pin, holding her scarf, to stab the offending men in their genitals on the bus.

The drama continues with a fascinating confrontation between the the wealthier women and the working-class Fayza.

It’s brilliantly done and all by a team of filmmakers under the age of 30.

Filmgoers were lucky to have a question and answer session with one of the actors, Bushra Rozza, who played Fayza.

She said the film started off as a short story about Fayza and her sexually frustrated working class husband. However, sexual harassment had long been a subject Rozza had wanted to make a film about.

So she convinced writer director Mohamed Diab to extend the film to the three cases of women of different classes, to emphasise that no woman is safe in Egypt. The film had a huge impact in Egypt when it was released, just before the mass uprising that overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The fourth remarkable film was called Mama Africa, a biography of South African singer Miriam Makeba.

Made by Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki, the film was to be a live tribute but changed direction when Makeba died suddenly in the middle of production, while singing in Milan, Italy at the age of 76 in 2008.

Makeba was brought as a 19-year-old to the US by a little known promoter in 1960. She was unable to return to South Africa, whose government banned her music.

Belafonte helped make her into an international star, especially in the US. He also gave her good advice ― never to forget her roots.

This advice kept her grounded and she also became a political activist and sung in many languages, including Xhosa and Zulu.

She helped launch the international anti-apartheid campaign in 1963 by speaking at the United Nations, calling for a boycott.

However, she was blacklisted by the industry in the US when she married Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968.

The day after the marriage, all her singing engagements were cancelled and her records were never heard on US radio again.

Makeba was forced to live in exile in Guinea. She donated much of her earnings to Black South African students so that they could study in Guinea.

She personally suffered enormously with the accidental death of her third grandchild in Guinea, from eating pills he picked up off the ground; her only daughter Bongi died in childbirth a month later, aged 35.

Makeba is survived by two other grandchildren, Lumumba and Zenzile, who recount their lives in the film.

Her second husband, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, says that on Makeba's return to South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released, she was never accorded her proper place and given proper recognition in her long fight for Black African human right ― though she was known internationally as Mama Africa.

There are also interviews with Benin singer Angelique Kidjo, who says every Black African singer was influenced by Makeba.

The film is an illustration of the long legacy passed from one generation of Africans to the next. Starting with Robeson, the baton was passed to Belafonte, then to Makeba, and handed onto Kidjo.

So although liberation may not be obtained in one’s lifetime, the examples of how to live your life and how to fight can teach others to do the same with dignity and purpose.

Eventually, the struggle will be won.

The film festival will also be travelling around Australia ― don't miss these great films.