Political cinema

Political cinema in the narrow sense of the term is a cinema which portrays current or historical events or social conditions in a partisan way in order to inform or to agitate the spectator. Political cinema exists in different forms such as documentaries, feature films, or even animated and experimental films.


Political cinema in the narrow sense of the term refers to political films which do not hide their political stance. This does not mean that they are necessarily pure propaganda. The difference to other films is not that they are political but how they show it.

Even ostensibly "apolitical" escapist films, which promise "mere entertainment" as an escape from everyday life, however, fulfill a political function. The authorities in Nazi Germany knew this very well and organized a large production of deliberately escapist movies.

In other entertainment movies, for example westerns, the ideological bias is evident in the distortion of historical reality. A "classical" western would rarely portray black cowboys, although there were a great many of them. Hollywood Cinema or more generally speaking so called Dominant Cinema, was often accused of misrepresenting black, women, gays and working-class people.

More fundamentally not only the content of individual films is political but also the institution of cinema itself. A huge number of people congregate not to act together or to talk to each other but, after having paid for it, to sit silently, to be spectators separated from each other. (Of course the behaviour of the public is not always the same in all countries.) Guy Debord, a critic of the society of the spectacle, for whom "separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle" was therefore also violently opposed to Cinema, even though he would make several movies portraying his ideas.

Cinema, World War I and its aftermath

Before World War I French cinema had a big share of the world market. Hollywood used the collapse of the French production to establish its hegemony. Ever since it has dominated world film production not only economically but has transformed cinema into a means to disseminate American values.

In Germany the Universum Film AG, better known as UFA, was founded to counter the perceived dominance of American propaganda. During the Weimar Republic many films about Frederick II of Prussia had a conservative nationalistic agenda, as Siegfried Kracauer and other film critics noted.

Communists like Willi Münzenberg saw the Russian cinema as a model of political cinema. Soviet films by Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and others combined a partisan view of the bolshevist regime with artistic innovation which also appealed to western audiences.

Film and National Socialism

Leni Riefenstahl has never been able or willing to face her responsibility as a chief propagandist for National Socialism. Almost unlimited resources and her undeniable talent led to results which despite their hideous aims still fascinate some film aficionados. There is much controversy around her work, but it is generally accepted that Riefenstahl's main commitment was to moviemaking, rather than to the Nazi party. Proof of that might be seen by the portrayal of Jesse Owens' victory on the movie Olympia (about the Olympic games in Germany) and in her later work, mostly on her photographic expeditions to Africa. (This section is heavily biased and impartial. It needs rewording.)

The same is certainly not true of the violently antisemite films of Fritz Hippler. Other Nazi political films made propaganda for so-called euthanasia.


Form has always been an important concern for political film makers. While some, like pioneering Lionel Rogosin, argued that radical films, in order to liberate the imagination of the spectator, have to break not only with the content but also with the form of Dominant cinema, the falsely reassuring clichés and stereotypes of conventional narrative film making, other directors such as Francesco Rosi, Costa Gavras, Ken Loach, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee or Lina Wertmüller preferred to work within mainstream cinema to reach a wider audience.

The subversive tradition dates back at least to the French avant-garde of the 1920s. Even in his more conventional films Luis Buñuel stuck to the spirit of outright revolt of L'Âge d'or. The bourgeoisie had to be expropriated and all its values destroyed, the surrealists believed. This spirit of revolt is also present in all films of Jean Vigo.

Remembrance and reflection

Especially in the last decades of the twentieth century, many film makers considered focusing on remembrance of and reflection upon major collective crimes such as The Holocaust, slavery and disasters such as the Chernobyl disaster to be their political and moral duty.

Political cinema of the twenty-first century seems to focus on controversial topics such as globalization, AIDS and other health-care concerns, issues pertaining to the environment, such as world energy resources and consumption and climate change, and other complex matters pertaining to terrorism, war, peace, religious and related forms of intolerance, and civil and political rights and other human rights.

Selected filmography

The following is a listing of notable political films or political films made by notable directors:

See also


  1. For detailed information, see: Birth of a Nation at filmsite.org.
  2. D. W. Griffith's highly controversial film, which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, is widely considered to be a masterpiece because of its impact on the development of the cinema. The basic structure consists of a description of an idealized lost idyll ("the Old South"), the disruption of this order during reconstruction after the Civil War, and the restoration of White supremacy, which is shown a legitimate goal that unites the former enemies. In the end the leader of the Ku Klux Klan secures his private happiness too and the alleged idyll is restored.
  3. Militant film about the misery of Belgian coal miners. Cf. Les Enfants du borinage: Lettre à Henri Storck, Director: Patric Jean, 2000.
  4. Technically brilliant propaganda film about the Reichsparteitag in Nuremberg 1934.
  5. Virulently antisemitic.
  6. "He creates the image of an America that is complacent in its victory, prosperity and racism; the narrator warns: 'Nigger, kike, wop, take my advice and accept the facts – the world is already arranged for you' " (Barsam).
  7. Legendary documentary feature film about a strike in New Mexico. Not only do the workers have to fight against the company, but also their women against their macho attitude in order to be "allowed" to support them fully.
  8. Socialist realismGerman Democratic Republic style.
  9. An important film about alcoholism; homeless people in New York City.
  10. About the cruel reality of street life in the U.S.
  11. In his first film Wiseman shows the inhumane conditions in Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. For more than 20 years the film could not been shown in the USA.
  12. A compilation film about the Vietnam War.
  13. The power of desire disrupts a rich family.
  14. Four men try to sell the Bible; one of the most important films of Direct Cinema.
  15. Politically a pathbreaking documentary about collaboration in France during the German occupation.
  16. Concerns the humiliating madness of ordinary life.
  17. This film started the second gay movement in Germany.
  18. A feature film about the liberation movement in Angola.
  19. A poignant feature film about racism, sexuality, love and ageism.
  20. Cult Cinema - Ernest Mathijs, Jamie Sexton - Google Boeken. 2012-03-30. p. 140. Retrieved 2015-02-20.
  21. http://www.elle.fr/Loisirs/Cinema/News/Chantal-Akerman-retour-sur-la-carriere-d-une-cineaste-discrete-3002285
  22. A moving and very intelligent poetical reflection on the presence of apparently bygone hopes and disasters. Dubbed in English.
  23. Intense feature film on solitude, alienated sexuality, and an impossible love.
  24. On nuclear madness in India and Pakistan and their efforts to imitate Big Brother, USA.
  25. A passionately partisan survey of the history of neoliberalism in Argentina.
  26. Using the effect of fishing the Nile perch in Tanzania's Lake Victoria as an example, Sauper shows how Africa functions today, how famine, wars and aids, European "aid" and the ruthless plundering of African resources are connected.
  27. An African American documentary on race and the social impact of slavery.
  28. Documentary film based on the autobiography of Chin Peng, born in 1924, the last chairman of the forbidden Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) but this is not a conventional biographical film. Key elements in the film are the songs Hardesh Singh composed for the occasion. This is an often funny film about a difficult chapter in Malaysian history which is still taboo "back home".
  29. Animated film based on the graphic novel of the same name.
  30. Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust: The Untold Story of the Aboriginal Genocide. Hidden from History.org. Accessed 4 March 2009.
  31. "The World Without US: Editorial Review" (Web). Amazon.com. Retrieved 2009-03-04. [This 2008 documentary film is described as] 'a quick overview of the state of the world today, and a quick history lesson in how things have been going for the last 20 years or so, followed by a few things that seem very likely to occur if America decided to pull all of its military bases out of foreign countries and stop mucking about in foreign parts.' 
  32. Mitch Anderson. "Mitch Anderson's Biography". Mitch Anderson. Archived from the original (Web) on 2008-06-15. Retrieved 2009-03-04. Released in 2008, the documentary explores what might happen if the United States were to leave the international arena, rescind its global reach and become an isolationist nation for the first time since the early 20th century.
  33. Trailer and "About the film" at "The World Without US (Home Page)" (Web). Retrieved 2009-03-04.
  34. An African documentary on the history and contemporary state of Africa and African people.


  • Baldwin, James. The Devil Finds Work. 1976. New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks (A Division of Dell Publishing), 2000. ISBN 0-385-33460-5.
  • Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507898-5 (10). ISBN 978-0-19-507898-5 (13). (A useful introduction.)
  • Barsam, Richard M. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. ISBN 0-393-97436-7 (10). ISBN 978-0-393-97436-2 (13). (Book and CD-ROM eds.)
  • Unterburger, Amy L., ed. The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1999. ISBN 1-57859-092-2 (10). ISBN 978-1-57859-092-6 (13).
  • Rosenbaum, Jonathan: Movies as Politics, University of California Press, 1997. ISBN 0-520-20615-0
  • Vogel, Amos. Film as a Subversive Art. London: CT Editions; [New York]: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2006. ISBN 1-933045-27-2.
  • Tom Zaniello: Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor (ILR Press books), Cornell University Press, revised and expanded edition 2003, ISBN 0-8014-4009-2
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