Land and Freedom
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Jim Allen
Fucking Stalinists are the worst.
Land and Freedom is an emotional tale of the Spanish Civil War, one that’s based loosely on George Orwell’s experiences as recounted in his book Homage to Catalonia. It follows a young unemployed communist from England who heads off to volunteer his life for the Spanish revolution, fighting at the Aragon front alongside the men and women of the POUM, a Marxist militia. There, despite poor training and poorer equipment, they liberate a village from fascists and hold the line.
The most important scene in the movie, twelve minutes long, is the argument in the liberated village whether to collectivize all of the land around the village immediately or to only collectivize the land of the Franco supporters at first. Everyone speaks passionately, everyone’s opinions are given weight and consideration by the filmmaker.
Narrative film is rarely meant to convey specific, factual information — it is meant to convey emotional and aesthetic understandings.
This is a fine film, aesthetically and emotionally moving. It shows you both the strength of solidarity — party communists and anarchists fighting side by side, in a shared revolution — and what it means to have that solidarity betrayed.
As for analysis… I have this unfortunate tendency to, after watching a film I love, look up reviews and critiques online.
Most analysis of this film is positive, laced with a few specific critiques such as the lack of sympathetic portrayal of the international brigades.
And then? Then I ran across a startlingly negative review on LibCom by Gilles Dauvé.
Dauvé’s central (stated) complaint is that the film is propagandistic in its anti-Stalinism. He compares the film to advertising, complains that we are following our protagonist’s journey through disillusionment. It complains that the film “does our thinking for us.”
I’ll try to keep this refutation short, because this article is meant first and foremost as a positive review of the film. But I will say two things about Dauvé’s review: first, it is (likely willfully) ignorant of the aesthetic purpose of art: propagandistic work is not inherently “bad” art. Narrative film is rarely meant to convey specific, factual information — it is meant to convey emotional and aesthetic understandings. We, as radicals and consumers of media, are well-aware of the necessity of critical thinking — we’re not the naive simpletons Dauvé believes us to be. Furthermore, the storyline of Land and Freedom was not fabricated whole cloth: it is very much based on Orwell’s actual experience, including his actual disillusionment. While every event that transpires is not real, it is still a real story.
Second, and this is more important to me, his review has a hidden double-purpose. Dauvé sets out to critique Land and Freedom not because it is propagandistic, but because Dauvé is sympathetic to the very cause that Land and Freedom attacks: the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution. In the subtext of his article he makes this quite clear: a scrappy band of militia could not have stopped fascism (he argues) so therefore the militia should have abandoned its autonomy and taken orders from Stalinist Russia. As far as I can tell, he’s defending state communist violence against anarchists and Marxists who don’t bow to statist demands.
Dauvé attacks Land and Freedom for making its purpose too obvious. I herein suggest Dauvé has made his too obscure.
And I laud Ken Loach for, yet again, making one of the finest radical films to exist.
2 thoughts on “Land and Freedom (1995)”
I don’t think its possible to say enough good things about this film, so I feel compelled to say a few more. Ken Loach’s understated realism draws you in like a window into real life. Its impossible not to relate to the characters because it feels like you are magically watching real people doing real things. Perhaps that why it is one of the very few films that have actually moved me to tears. As for the power of its political message, although it was the 1995 Cannes film festival winner, practically guaranteeing an audience, it has never had an American DVD release. Corporate censorship? I think so. Fortunately the Korean DVD release is compatable with North American players.
Does the Korean dvd have subtitles for the Spanish language bits?