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Class Struggle in Portugal and Other New Film Themes

Mitchell Abidor
March 27, 2018
THE ANNUAL FESTIVAL of works by new and newish directors, New Directors/New Films, will be running from March 29 – April 8 at the film Society of Lincoln Center. I had the opportunity to see a few of those on view in advance.

The crisis that has crushed workers in Europe and America has unfortunately resulted in few films that address its class struggle aspects. Rather, it is the rise of racism within the greater societies and, more narrowly, within native working classes, that has been placed at the heart of current affairs -- and films. There’s barely a French film that reaches our shores that doesn’t have racism and xenophobia at its center, be the film political (like the soon-to-be- released This is Our Country), or even coming-of-age tales like Ava or The Workshop.

Portugal and its cinema are something of an exception, however. Not a magnet for mass immigration, Portugal has workers who still protest capitalism. Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory is a tour de force of political filmmaking, shuttling among genres and styles yet all the while remaining faithful to its depiction of the working class, its exploitation and its struggles. The film never paints the workers in a strictly flattering light, yet is always sympathetic to their plight. We see here men and women struggling, arguing, worrying -- in short, real human beings confronting a crisis in their individual lives and that of their class and society.

Based on a true story, The Nothing Factory portrays the workers at an elevator factory in Lisbon who suddenly stumble upon people who are removing equipment from their workplace -- a first step towards the owners closing it down for being unprofitable. After being offered buyouts, the value of which per employee causes much dissension among them, since some receive vastly higher amounts than others, they instead decide to occupy the factory.

At first they do nothing with the place, just holding it on the off-chance that something good will happen. Then, thanks to the presence of a leftwing intellectual who has learned of their action, they receive a manufacturing order from a similarly worker-occupied and -run factory in Argentina, and they are able to stay open.

Along the way, the Portuguese workers and those around them have to confront the realities of worker self-management, which always sounds so good in leftwing rhetoric. Should everyone receive the same wage? Should they hire outside specialist assistance, like an accountant? Will workers running a factory result in any real change in its functioning, since it exists within a capitalist economy and must survive under capitalist rules? However odd it might sound, it is these arguments that provide the most exciting moments of the film, demonstrating how a battle over ideas can be a battle over how to live and organize life.

Director Pinho never gets bogged down in dullness. His actors are real workers, and they address these issues passionately, and are allowed to do so both as characters in the film and as their real-life selves. When they finally receive the order from Argentina, the film briefly becomes a musical, with the workers singing and dancing.

The Nothing Factory doesn’t sentimentally harken back to an era of leftwing filmmaking that placed the future in the hands of the noble proletariat. Rather, in portraying them as they are, warts and all, it reminds us of the hard work a new world would be. It’s easy to say “another world is possible,” but it is a complex matter that must be resolved by complex individuals in a complex world.

Closeness, directed by Kantemir Balagov, is set in 1998 among the Jews of the North Caucasian city of Nalchik in the Kabardino-Balkar republic of Russia. It’s a community under siege, as two of its members are kidnapped, one of them David, the brother of Ilana, the film’s main character. Clearly this is a common occurrence, since no one gets overly exercised, and the Jews gather to assemble the ransom. But they fail to do so, and Ilana, the most unhappy character in a film filed with unhappy characters, reaches her limit with what her mother calls their “tribe.” Ilana has a non-Jewish boyfriend and is a rebel against her insular community, but there’s nothing to be for in this ugly place filled with ugly people doing ugly things.

Closeness, if it’s all realistic, explains why the people who populate Closeness now fill Brooklyn and Queens: The unhappy faces you see on the Q train fill the screen here. It’s a miserabiliste film that leaves the viewer numb. It has no sympathy for its subjects and is so bleak it leaves no opening for the audience.  One moment sums this film up: Ilana has been told by her family that she is to marry handsome, pleasant, loving Rafa, a nice Jewish boy whose wealthy family is willing to pony up the ransom for her brother on condition she marry Rafa. Ila, in defiance, tracks down her Muslim boyfriend, more or less forces him to deflower her, then returns to the family home and drops her bloodstained panties in front of Rafa’s parents. Bleakness can, if carried far enough, become black comedy -- unfunny black comedy.


ALSO ON THE THEME of unhappy teens is the Iranian film Ava, directed by Sadaf Foroughi (this is not the same Ava briefly mentioned above, a French film directed by Léa Mysius). Here, instead of the wretched wretches of Closeness, is a well-off, attractive Tehrani family whose seventeen-year-old daughter Ava is going through a rebellious phase. This is Iran, so it of course has to do with the most sensitive of subjects, male-female relations, though Ava does no more than spend time with the boy on whom she has a crush. Even this is viewed askance by her oddly suspicious and protective mother, who sends Ava to a gynecologist simply after having visited her supposed lover.

All the normal parental fears are multiplied many times by the ambient hysteria about sex in Iran (augmented by some skeletons in the family closet), exemplified by the school principal, a suspicious, hidebound, psoriatic anti-sex warrior who sets out to expel Ava for her transgressions, imagined and real.

Director Foroughi, who studied film in France and the U.S., has a marvelous visual sense. Her framing is almost always slightly off-center, and she plays effectively with focal depth throughout the film. She approaches the overly arty, but never reaches there.

This is an odd Iranian film in several regards. The girls in the film curse like sailors, something that seldom shows up in Iranian films, at least not in the subtitles. Ava and her family live in a stylish, modern flat, one that show no sign of imminent collapse, which, too, is rare in Iranian films, where even the wealthiest live in flats that look like they have a week to go until their collapse. Even more strikingly, this is the first Iranian film I’ve ever seen where the din of car horns honking isn’t the dominant feature of the sound track.

Ava is an angry film, but its anger is under control. If it’s not yet a great film, director Foroughi will likely produce that soon.


I have written several times here about the brilliant documentary Thy Father’s Chair, by Antonio Tibaldi and Alex Lora. The film will be available on demand on  iTunes, Kanopy, and Amazon starting March 30. It’s a small masterpiece and now that it will be readily available everywhere it will hopefully receive the audience it deserves. 

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.