Gilbey on Film: Cinemagoers of the world unite!

The Bread and Roses film festival kicks off today.

Cinemagoers of a revolutionary inclination rejoice! Cannes may already be creeping into media coverage a full fortnight before the festival begins, but Londoners can turn their attention instead to a different festival which kicks off today, its principles unlikely to be diluted by flashbulbs and red carpets. Not only that but it’s free (well, lots of it is, anyway). The Bread and Roses Film Festival marks the centenary of the 1912 textile workers strike. There will be screenings held across London, some even at the Clapham Common bandstand. (A tip: when you study the BBC’s five-day weather forecast, try not to think of the blue pearl dropping from the black cloud on each day as a splodge of rain, but rather a tear shed poignantly in recognition of the workers’ struggle. Also: pack a brolly.)

Here’s why it’s all going down:

The centenary of the 1912 strikes marks a window of opportunity to interrogate through film depictions and representations of capitalism, workers’ rights particularly female worker’s rights, strikes, social activism and immigration, debates and issues that are very much alive, if not the defining topics, of 2012. The festival was conceived to attract new and underrepresented audiences to film—groups, communities, and individuals that otherwise do not have access to seek out or afford access to such films… All community hosted screenings are free to attend allowing audiences normally economically marginalised from cinemas to be able to access films in their local community.

You can read more on the festival website. There’s an impressive menu of screenings and discussions. Eisenstein’s Strike will be shown with the accompaniment of a live score by The Cabinet of Living Cinema, whose repertoire includes Russian and Soviet folk and classical music rendered with a bewildering array of instruments which may or may not include a kitchen sink. A screening of Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses, about a Los Angeles cleaners’ uprising, will be followed by a Q&A with his producer, Rebecca O’Brien. Other influential figures speaking at the festival include Kim Longinotto and Nick Broomfield.  

Also in London next week, and unconnected with the Bread & Roses festival, is a free screening of Mathieu Kassovitz’s dynamic 1995 banlieue-set thriller La Haine, presented by the very wonderful Other Cinema, and accompanied by Asian Dub Foundation’s live score. The key detail here is that the screening takes place at the Broadwater Farm Estate community centre in Tottenham, North London. There will be further screenings of the movie in London and Paris, but Tottenham, where last summer’s riots began, is a particularly apposite venue for this film about the urban unrest following police brutality. Or is it too literal a venue? The Other Cinema has expressed a desire to screen movies such as Casablanca and Jules et Jim on the estate in the future—but should they have started there? La Haine is a good hook, and a fine film, but imagine screening something jazzy and colourful instead— Zazie Dans La Metro or Spirited Away or the mad Thai western Tears of the Black Tiger. What do you reckon?

Or, if jazzy isn’t your bag, then some Ken Loach: wouldn’t he go down well? Kes is the way into cinema for a lot of young people; it was one of mine. Or, if you think Larky Loach would go down better, Looking For Eric would be a rousing choice. I haven’t seen his forthcoming film, The Angels’ Share, which opens in the UK in June, but I hear it has a comic bent. They could have premiered it at Broadwater Farm if it wasn’t already receiving its grand unveiling at, erm . . . Cannes.  

Ken Loach (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times