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Land and Freedom
History (Part 3 of 4: Truth and the Spanish Civil War)
A couple of things:
One: Too wonderful: I can’t believe this song exists. Spoiler alert for Everything Everywhere All at Once, which I’ve now seen three times in theaters. Go watch this movie.
Two: One of the great things about watching great films (or taking in great stories in general) is that you can find a lesson that is applicable to the present day. While watching this week’s movie, I was reminded of a very recent podcast episode of The Problem with Jon Stewart, in which he interviews Isabel Wilkerson on America’s Caste system. Around the 27 minute mark, Wilkerson eloquently states:
...in recent years it’s not unusual to hear people say something to this effect: ‘This is not America’ or ‘I don’t recognize my country’ or ‘this is not who we are’. Well that means that we, as the majority of Americans, have been deprived of the opportunity really to know our country's true and full history, and if you knew our country's true and full history you’d realize our country is like an old house. It’s like an old house, and if you inherit an old house, if you take possession of an old house; You did not build the uneven pillars and joists and beams. You did not build the frayed electrical wiring. You did not build the corroded pipes that you’re now having to deal with. But when you take possession of an old house, guilt and shame are not going to help you fix it. You have to look at that building inspector’s report, and see what is it that we’re dealing with? And then you don’t get emotional about it, you roll up your sleeves and you get to work in fixing that.
Spain has faced a similar problem, though not exactly the same, for years; it was articulated well at the end of Parallel Mothers and covered entirely in The Mexican Suitcase. For Week 3, we look at a film that takes us directly into the conflict itself:
P.S. Buy Isabel Wilkerson’s book: Caste: The Origins of our Discontent from her website. My copy is on the way and I’m excited to read it.
On to this week’s recommendation:
Land and Freedom (Ken Loach, 1995) begins with a death in the present; an event that can have a profound effect on the living, and spur us to examine an unexamined past. We then get perhaps the best short explanation of the Spanish Civil War that I’ve seen on film. In no time at all, we understand how the fascists came to seek and wrest power in Spain. The way in which this film views its story is something we’ve seen in other films on this subject: events are being explored from the present via letters and photographs that the grand-daughter, Kim (Suzanne Maddock), discovers while going through her grandfather’s old possessions: This is a story that was once lost.
We jump back in time, to a Spanish resistance that is attempting to take shape. A resistance leader is organizing in London and David (Ian Hart), our point-of-view character, decides that he’d rather go to Spain to fight than stay home in a crumbling economy. Besides, he’s a card-carrying member of the communist party; he feels that this is something he is compelled to do. With that, we travel to Spain.
Despite the speed at which Land and Freedom sets the stage, it doesn’t understate the difficulty of movement for a working class citizen circa 1936 to make his way from England to Spain. To watch the group of supporters and recruits gather could almost make one think that the war was being fought by tourists. At one point, soldiers are being divided into platoons based on what language they speak; “English speakers over here, French speakers over there” etc.
At times I forgot I was watching a meticulously conceived period piece, given the increased interest I’ve had in the importance of the events unfolding and their impact on the history of the world, through the eyes of our main character and also from what we know. The film cuts between David in the past and Kim in present-day England. He’s corresponding about his daily life in the fight against fascism. We get a sense of the fear that builds in them as they spend days at a time waiting and ‘doing nothing’. By the time the fighting starts, we’re so sensitized to the illusion of peace and civility that it jars in its matter-of-factness. A city becomes a battleground without warning; citizens are terrified and flee from the gunfire; we don’t completely understand what is happening, but we’re shocked, as they would be.
After the first battle it becomes clear why the socialists, communists, anti-fascists, and various other leftist factions are struggling to mount a fight; post-victory arguments break out on how to divide up reclaimed land; an American points out in a troublingly salient fashion that they’re fighting more than just Franco; they’re fighting Mussolini and Hitler. Bear in mind that this is 1936, and the world had yet to register the threat of these totalitarians in the same way that Europe was beginning to understand. The US was not keen to support an anti-capitalist force, despite the fact that the anti-capitalists were clearly on the right side of history in their fight against fascism. This wasn’t only a war of bullets, but a war of ideas, and this scene acutely illustrates this: the leftists are unable to agree on the best path forward, while the right stays united in their pursuit of power.
Ken Loach, the director, is no stranger to a film with a strong leftist message; he’s won the Palm d’Or twice; once in 2006 for The Wind that Shakes the Barley and again in 2016 for I, Daniel Blake: both films are focused on workers and oppressive power structures. While Land and Freedom may be one of his lesser known works, it’s as strong in its socialist message. The film paints an indelible picture of the complicated ways in which the left works to solve problems, schisming into factions in the process. It also shows us that power, when used in pursuit of more power and for the sake of power, is seemingly unstoppable.
Ultimately the film is a love letter to the freedom of the human spirit, and a warning that failing to see what unites us and focusing on divisions rather than the big picture can have dire consequences. Land and Freedom is focused on recreating forgotten events; on showing us what happened, not so much why and how it happened. This is for us to judge, and (hopefully) act on. It is history recreated, in the face of a recorded history that has failed to show us the truth in our past.
Land and Freedom
Written by Jim Allen and Directed by Ken Loach