By CHELSEA SHU, USA
Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, 2015
Professor Dan Edelstein
Graduate TA: Sarah Grandin
From clips of the red sun to full-length feature films about the perilous class struggles, films are known for their involvement in many revolutions. They were viewed as vessels of propaganda in the eyes of the revolutionary leaders and sources of education to the common people. Despite the fact that films hold a substantial importance in almost every modern revolution, it was most significant in the Cuban Revolution and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Not only did the industry manipulate the minds of the people in favor of the revolution, but it also underwent major changes itself throughout the process. Although the film industry played a major role in both the Cuban Revolution and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it inaugurated more of an impact, both socially and politically, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution than it did in the Cuban Revolution.
Throughout recent Chinese history, the film industry has been a vital aspect of culture. Film first reached China in the August of 1896, where the first movies were projected in teahouses in Shanghai . Movies at this time were heavily influenced by Western and foreign culture. Foreign directors directed eighty eight percent of movies produced during that time and only a few films were produced by Chinese directors. Furthermore, foreigners also dominated the film demography. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s did movies spread to the heart of China and finally take root in Chinese culture. In Beijing, Chinese entrepreneurs thought of utilizing films as a method of profit from the local audience. Henceforth, the film industry expanded towards a more common audience, including locals and even peasants. In addition, films also utilized the nationwide language, Putonghua, so they became a vital medium of language standardization amongst the Chinese people . Chinese intellectuals have long recognized the film industry as not only a source of entertainment, but also a vessel of education. The early Communist Party implemented many educational elements into films to enlighten the public and promote the Party. However, their purposes were difficult to achieve because the audience established a strict regiment between the educational and entertainment values of film. The Party continuously struggled with this tension until the 1960’s, where the film industry underwent a major change under Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution .
As Mao’s ultimate attempt to regain the trust of the Chinese people after the failure of the Great Leap Forward , the Cultural Revolution created a completely new film aesthetic, one that focused on “class struggles” rather than entertainment. Old traditions were despised and censored in films. For instance, western cultural aspects were identified as “bourgeois” and “counterrevolutionary” and were replaced by “social realism”. In addition, ideas of romance were declared taboo and banned from even being mentioned in movies. As a result of these new revolutionary ideas, Chinese films became strictly propagandist and followed one set and “sinified” model. This layout required three main and rather static aspects, or in Chinese, santuchu, an emphasis of positive characters, a band of heroes, and a leading hero representing Mao’s revolutionary ideals. Moreover, formalism also became a vital element in films. Movies would always follow the same plot of an epic hero, conveniently an influential revolutionary, conquering the supposed evils of the world, including the Japanese and the KMD. These films established many stereotypes, such as the old woman, or “granny”, who tells the tragic backstory to the children and the heinous Japanese villains that attempt to take over China. This new film aesthetic reflected how the Chinese film industry during the Cultural Revolution lacked originality and diversity. However, at the time of the revolution, this monotonous style was praised by filmmakers because it repelled “tedious and ineffective trills”.
One of most significant films during the revolution, “Haixia” (1975), follows Haixia as she matures from a helpless little girl oppressed by the landlord to a powerful feminist militiawoman contributing to communist efforts. The film’s plot obeys the strict guidelines that the Communist Party established during that time. For instance, Haixia, the main character of the story, grows up in a society where the peasants are strained by the wealthy landlord and with a strong hatred toward class enemies. As the story developed, the evil landlord kills Haixia’s family, and she becomes determined to demolish the malicious people of the world and take revenge. Along the way, she befriends the PLA, People’s Liberation Army, and emerges as the leader of the militiawomen in her hometown. As can be seen, the storyline of the film coheres greatly to the mainstream plot line established during the revolution. In addition to the story’s generality, the film style is also very conventional. The liberal and revolutionary characters, such as Haixia, are differentiated from other characters through their outfits and the color red, the color of Mao and the CCP. Moreover, the film also incorporated many stereotypes that were established because of the new film aesthetic. For instance, the KMD was depicted as selfish demons that plan to take over China while the PLA was shown as kind-hearted people who want the best for everybody. There were many scenes throughout the film that displayed this contrast between the two groups. An example would be near the beginning of the story, where the KMD invades Haixia’s hometown and violently command the people to their will, causing chaos in the town. On the other hand, when the PLA came to liberate the town from its malicious oppressors, they politely ask for help and aid from the people. Furthermore, the movie also contains strong elements of feminism, an important ideology during the Cultural Revolution. For instance, the character of Haixia and other militiawomen are depicted to be representations of power and the fact that women can also take up arms and defend the people. Although films such as “Haixia” were very influential during the Cultural Revolution, new styles of film were also being established and substantially gaining popularity and dominance.
In addition to the evolution of the industry, movies also became a significant method of propaganda used by the Communist Party. The early Party did use film as a method of promotion, but they weren’t successful due to the demography of the audience. However, now that the Cultural Revolution was in full force and the film industry has become more arbitrary and lenient, the Party was able to triumphantly achieve its pre-established goals. Soon full-length feature films became title-less musicals and ballets praising Chairman Mao. An example of a propaganda film would be a ballet dedicated to the revolution. In the movie, a girl dressed a red jumpsuit is oppressed by the “bourgeois” capitalists and forced to labor amongst the other peasants. Fortunately, the girl was able to escape this maltreatment by running away and finding shelter with the Red Guards living in the mountains. Through perilous training and graceful ballets, the girl becomes an official Red Guard and receives validation by obtaining a gun. The story ends with the girl conquering the land from the landowners and spreading it amongst the good-hearted peasants. This movie explicitly represents every single revolutionary element incorporated into films during that time. For instance, the theme of the color red was used widely throughout the feature to represent the Communist Party and Mao himself. Most importantly, the film followed the exact guidelines set by the Mao and the Party, it told the story of a young heroine that becomes a red guard to defeat the evil landowners and defend the innocent peasants. With the advantage of these propaganda films, Mao was able to spread his ideas across China effectively. As a result, the Chinese people became enveloped in the euphoric atmosphere of a socialist “utopian”.
On the other hand, the Cuban film industry, like the Chinese, was also an important element of culture. The first Cuban films were debuted in 1897 and by 1898 the industry became a source of historical falsification. Since Cuba during the 1890’s was amidst the Spanish-American War and most movies were mainly produced by foreigners, historical facts were twisted in favor of the West. For instance, many battle scenes documented in movies were not legitimate and shot in Cuba, instead, they were filmed in the U.S. with a clear bias towards the West. After the war ended in 1898, Cuba’s own film industry is yet to be inaugurated. Soon, the country became a popular location for foreign films and it provided a large audience that was eager for productions. However, as the 1900’s came around, the Cuban film industry became more significant as Cuban filmmakers began to rise. Alongside with this sudden acceleration in authentic Cuban films, movies began to lose its imperialistic aspect and become more focused on art and Cuban aesthetic. As a result, the Cuban film industry became the most lucrative company in Cuba and in a few years of time, with thousands of movies were produced and released in the country.
One of the impactful films before the revolution would be “Maracas y bongó”, a story about a young man and his jealousy towards his girlfriend. It was significant because it was the first short film with sound to be released in Cuba. The movie was displayed in the Havana Film Festival in New York in 1932. In light of the fact that the movie was released before the revolution, the film is filled with musical acts and dances instead of scenes that promote Marxist ideas. Furthermore, the rhetoric of the short film was also affected, which was very festive and lenient compared to the tones of movies released afterwards. The most important aspect of this film was that it displayed how the Cuban cinema valued artistic expression over story and rhetoric. Instead of telling a tale of imperialism one way or another, the film recites the beauty of Cuban culture and tradition. This trend was observed in many other Cuban films until the 1950’s, where Castro and his communist army took over the Cuban government.
Unlike China, the Cuban film industry wasn’t significantly altered or revolutionized until after the Cuban revolution. Throughout the revolution, films did incorporate radical spirit and were mass-produced as a result of the people’s enthusiasm, however, they still maintained their traditional artistic aspects over revolutionary ones. For instance, eighty eight percent of the films produced during the revolution were still foreign made. But even when it wasn’t substantially changed, films were still able to help the revolution progress. In the forms of propaganda, Castro used film to gain the support of the people. After Fidel Castro’s complete communist takeover, the industry was declared by Castro himself to be the "powerful instruments of ideological education, molders of the collective consciousness whose use and development must not be left to improvisation or spontaneity" and the most important form of artistic expression. With the creation of this new ideology, many new companies, such as the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), were founded. In addition, since Cuba was under the leadership of a communist ruler, film became more satirical and was utilized to criticize the lingering bourgeois attitudes in certain individuals. Furthermore, with the end of the revolution and an increase in the distribution of television, filmmakers began to abandon their old traditions and adopt elements of neo-realism, an Italian movement that represented the modified form of realism. The film industry also became very animated and less cinematic. The people became so accustomed of viewing motion pictures on their home television that the idea of cinematic films almost withered away.
A movie produced after the revolution that displays revolutionary ideas would be “Soy Cuba”. The film explores a spectrum of characters, including a Cuban woman fascinated by the imperialistic West, an aged revolutionary fighting against the Western imperialists, and Castro’s forces in the mountains. Since the movie was published amidst the Cold War, a time period where relations between the West and the USSR were in turmoil, the overarching theme of the story was the Marxist theory that the capitalist state would always be eventually overthrown by the proletariats. The movie also strongly reflects the ideology of social realism, which, afore mentioned, was an important element of Cuban films after the revolution. This can be seen in many scenes that depict the revolutionaries as liberating heroes of the people while dehumanizing foreigners into thieves and counterrevolutionaries. However, even though social realism was a major feature of the film, there were still a majority of scenes flies over the luscious mountains and fields that idealize Cuba as a country. This was probably due to the fact that the director wanted to pretentiously show the Westerners that Cuba is a flourishing country and not one that is struggling with issues. Even though “Soy Cuba” was not the only movie produced during post-revolution Cuba, it was considered to be significant because of its unique themes that strayed from the status quo.
From a general perspective, films created during the Cuban Revolution and Chinese Cultural Revolution shared many similarities. For instance, both film industries were highly active during the time of revolution and were used as tools of propaganda to promote the radical ideas of the movement. This can be seen from the musicals and ballets praising Chairman Mao and the Communist Party in China and the movies spreading the ideas of socialism in Cuba. In addition, films from both sides also share the same euphoric rhetoric that is incorporated into many aspects of the stories. For instance, in the movies “Haixia” and “Soy Cuba” the revolutionary parties are acclaimed as ebullient saviors that either helped the liberation process or have contributed. Moreover, since both countries were communist at the time, the two industries incorporated the idea of social realism. Chinese films assimilated this element by intentionally imagining and filming peasants that are strongly oppressed by the landlords and the KMD. On the other hand, Cuban films did so by using clips that critique Cuba’s past government under the Batista. Equally important, both industries had a very similar audience, one that is mainly dominated by the local people and peasants and not Westerners. As can be seen, the Cuban film industry during the Cuban Revolution was very identical the Chinese film industry during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
However, from a more in depth perspective, especially from a social and political one, films during the Chinese Cultural Revolution was more impactful than those during the Cuban Revolution. First of all, as before mentioned, the film industry during the Cuban Revolution only went through minor alterations and it wasn’t until after Castro’s takeover did the film industry undergo major transformations. Secondly, since short propaganda films were the only method for Mao and the CCP to control the people, it was mass-produced and contained a revolutionary rhetoric that was more powerful than any Cuban film. This can be seen from the movie “Haixia”, where the film develops the plot in a way that causes the audience to love the innocent Communist revolutionaries and hate the dreadful Westerners and landlords. On the other hand, even though famous influential Cuban films did transform the people’s ideas, most of these films weren’t released until after the revolution. Thirdly, compared to the Cuban government during the Cuban Revolution, the Chinese government during Cultural Revolution was much more authoritative and absolute, forcing the people to either obey Mao’s orders or face persecution. The strict regime under Mao and the CPP allowed films such as “Haixia” to press the people into thinking in a communist ideology. The Cuban government, on the contrary, was more benign in comparison to the Chinese government. This was due to the weakened government during the Batista’s final years of rule and the beginning of Castro’s regime.
As can be seen, the film industry was substantially impactful in both the Chinese and Cuban Revolution. If it had not existed, then both revolutions would have had completely different outcomes. For instance, the Cultural Revolution would have been less dynamic because it heavily depended on films to promote the ideologies of Mao and the CCP. Furthermore, Castro might not have been able to win over the people during the revolution because of a lack of communication. Although the film industry was important in both revolutions, it was much more significant, both socially and politically, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Not only was it a vessel of effective propaganda, but also a tool of Mao’s absolutist political power. As can be seen, films were very important to revolutions during the 1900’s, however, as modern technology continues to develop, many new methods of communication, such as Facebook, have been created to aid revolutionary processes. In the end, as the world enters a new era, one that is dominated by technology, there is no telling what future revolutions and their sources of assistances will become.
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