This is Part II of ToC’s exploration of fearless directors.
If by any chance you, the reader, will think someone is missing, than relax-more is on the way. As always, knowledgeable feedback is welcome.
11. Glauber Rocha
One doesn’t take on capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism with timidity.
Rocha was a shining symbol of Cinema Novo movement, and both in form and content exhibited raw power and tremendous audacity.
Topical cinema can seem dull at times, where the need to deliver a message becomes didactic. That wasn’t the case with Rocha-he was an Eisenstein of Brazil, with his rapid montage, fiery theatrics, intense allegories. Rocha often spoke and wrote of the influence of Afro-Brazilian music and rituals on his work, and it was obvious from his very first feature, “Barravento.”
But it was the follow-up, “Black God, White Devil,” that brought him fame. The delirious, BW parable still holds up to this day, and is often considered the best Brazilian film ever made. The tale of people caught between “god” and “devil” in the arid northeastern Brazil, it’s Leone meets Jodorowsky.
Rocha would never let up. He upped the ante with “Land in Aguish,” and returned to NE Brazil with his famous “Antonio da Mortes,” telling the story of a bandit turned revolutionary. Though stylistically different from “Black God, White Devil,” the leftist themes are even more pronounced here.
And he didn’t limit his fight to Brazil. “The Lion Has Several Heads” was made in Congo-Brazzaville, and is the most damning anti-colonial film ever.
Though Rocha went into exile after the 1971, to protest the Brazilian dictatorship, he never lost his touch. His last feature, “The Age of the Earth,” might as well have been his first-all the memorable elements are there. The regimes didn’t get him-but, sadly, cancer did, at mere age of 42.
“Art is not only talent, but mainly courage,” said Rocha-and he backed the statement with his life.
12. Aleksei German
If you want to make films your way in Soviet Union, be prepared for a fight.
Statistically, German is the most banned of all Soviet directors-every one of his Soviet-made films received a ban of some kind. The system was defending itself-although not overtly anti-Soviet, German’s aesthetics were decidedly un-Soviet. His dedication to telling things like they are, without embellishments or officially-approved lacquer, ensured that his filmography remained slim. The fact that he has just five solo film outings in his 40+ years of work cannot be simply attributed to his meticulous methods.
The first ban also lasted the longest. “Trial on the Road” (1971) is a slice-of-life WWII film set in a guerilla camp. While officials lauded the falsified and glorified film frescoes like “Liberation” or “Soldiers of Freedom,” German presented war as a nuanced and deglorified subject. Goskino officials were blunt with German, telling him-“You’ve gone too deep. Our people have illusions about war, guerrillas, life in the rear during wartime. We can’t allow you to break them.”
But German didn’t heed the warning. His next outing, “Twenty Days Without War,” was a similarly meticulously crafted effort. Being now a person under suspicion, German received numerous orders to reshoot material…and simply ignored them. The censors had a special problem with Yuri Nikulin, a famous comedian and a legendary circus clown, being the protagonist. According to German, they literally told him “we’ll spear you in the back.” But the legendary status of Konstantin Simonov, author of the source material, saved the project. The film was only shelved for about a year (with explanation “for technical reasons”).
German’s status as a son of a famous Soviet author gave him the bargaining chip in his dealings with authorities. His methods of resistance is an art form itself-he always ignored orders, shot the way he wanted, and always had a hidden copy of the shot material. That allowed him to avoid cuts and edits.
His statements, such as “our minister of cinema is not Soviet power itself” didn’t make German’s life any easier. “My Friend Ivan Lapshin,” made in 1982, joined the ranked of banned works. It’s supposedly-squalid portrayal of 1935 provincial Soviet life and themes of control and conscience, horrified the officials. Even more so German became a persona non grata, forced to write scripts under fake names. But perestroika was just around the corner. In 1986, both “Trial” and “Lapshin” were un-shelved and shown to public, and in 1990, the latter was deemed the best Soviet film of all time.
German didn’t change his ways in the post-Soviet Russia, and refused to compromise. His 1998 “Khrustalyov, My Car!” is a challenging film, but is aging really well, and 2013’s “Hard to Be God” is considered one of the most astonishing films ever made.
13. Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Prison is the best school for a fearless radical.
Makhmalbaf was, in a sense, forged, like steel, by the tumultuous history of Iran. A founder of anti-Shah militia at 15, shot at 17, and then imprisoned for over four years-and yet, still, he finds poetry and structure in the chaotic world.
Although the style of his early films is crude and didactic, Makhmalbaf’s hand gained skill with time. His reputation really began with 1987’s “The Cyclist,” and grew on, as he turned attention to cinema itself and the role of the artist in the world. By early 90’s, the crudeness of his political vision was replaced with growing sophistication-“A Time of Love” and “The Nights of Zayandehroud”-both of which also landed him in hot water with the authorities over the depiction of sex and for questioning the Revolution.
With “Gabbeh” and “A Moment of Innocence,” Makhmalbaf achieved global renown. The first is a unique and dazzling portrayal of the Islamic culture, while the second revisits an incident in which director himself was involved in from different perspectives.
Makhmalbaf turned a keen eye on the events in the region, with powerful “Kandahar” exploring post-Taliban Afghanistan. At the same time, with age, his material became more and more poetic-the balletic “Sex and Philosophy” explores questions of love and fidelity, while the banned-in-Iran documentary “The Gardener” is an excursion in search of religion’s impact. Since he went to Israel to film it, it carries an automatic sentence in Iran. But Makhmalbaf left Iran in 2005, soon after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and currently resides in Paris.
However, his influence remains large in Iran, where he trained a generation of young and active filmmakers, ensuring his legacy there, despite several of his films being banned in his homeland and all removed from national archives.
14. Gaspar Noe
“All history is written in sperm and blood.”
A simple and adolescent statement from Noe, but one that accurately describes his visceral worldview, one that he flings at the audience with gusto and complete lack of remorse. In the well-combed and civilized world, Noe reduces his protagonists to their animal form, and invites you to sit back and enjoy the show.
Perhaps background helped, as Noe arrived to cultured Paris via Buenos Aires and New York. The bloody verve of his work was evident from his 40-minute short “Carne,” which he reworked into a feature “I Stand Alone.” The tale of the butcher’s search for place in the world is not one of toxic masculinity, but of masculinity itself, and how it can mis-manifest itself.
The notorious and bloody “Irreversible” was a follow-up. Presented in reverse, it’s famous for the graphic killing scene and for Monica Belluci’s character being subjected to a brutal rape. The filmed shocked then, and has been revisited with charges of supposed homophobia (the main transgressor is a transsexual pimp).
The hallucinogenic “Enter the Void” was a bit of a change of pace. Mixing influences such as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” experimental cinema, and artwork of Ernst Haeckel, Noe’s Tokyo and Montreal-shot film, presented entirely in POV is, in a sense, a homage to his idol Kubrick’s “2001: The Space Odyssey.” The star-gate sequence comes to mind in particular. Before Noe was assaulting the minds of viewers, and now he decided to just blow them.
Noe appears to have mellowed out a bit with a much warmer “Love” (2015), a fragmented tale of a relationship. But he came roaring back with the soon-to-be-released in the US “Climax,” a trippy musical horror outing (and we all know that the world can always use more of those). It’s tremendously refreshing to see an artist sticking to vision despite the whimperings of cuddled audience.
15. Dusan Makavejev
Makavejev saw cinema as a “guerrilla operation. Guerrilla against everything that is fixed, defined, established, dogmatic, eternal.” Though his time is past, in his heyday he brought that indomitable fighting Serb spirit from Balkans onto the silver screen.
After honing his skill with experimental shorts and documentaries, Makavejev came into his own with his very first feature, “Man is Not a Bird,” about an engineer’s sexual odyssey in Yugoslavia. It’s still watchable today, as is the follow-up, “The Switchboard Operator.” A tragicomic love affair story, it takes many digressions into such fascinating subjects as strudel-making and rat catching, as well as lectures from sexologists.
In his next one, the big-screen experimental feature “Innocence Unprotected,” which includes footage from the very first Serbian sound film (a terrible melodrama made by and starring gymnast and strongman Dragoljub Aleksic), Makavejev uses Eisenstein’s “montage of attractions” to explore cinema, history, folklore, and other themes.
Although the free air of the 60’s began to be stifled in the next decade, it didn’t faze Makavejev. “W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism” is his best-known work, where sexual liberation is presented as the basis for the political one. It would have shocked even in the West at the time. For Makavejev, it resulted in a ban at home, his career there effectively over. His next shocker, “Sweet Movie,” was made in Canada. There, Makavejev seemed to have lost all brakes, running wild with depictions of sexuality.
But then, something interesting happened. It’s as if the absence of controlling arm of the State deprived Makavejev of an ultimate adversary. His subsequent films-“Montenegro,” rom-com “Coca-Cola Kid,” Zola adaptation “Manifesto,” post-Soviet “Gorilla Bathes at Noon,” etc.-all are, while technically still efficient and interesting, appear much tamer in comparison to early efforts.
Though the 86-year-old Makavejev is unlikely to shock the film world ever again, what he did in his heyday is inspiring in principle.