Thursday, March 04, 2010

Yet Another Politics and Movies Bleg

For a third time, I find myself turning to the Plain People of the Internet (I believe John Holbo trademarked that phrase) to answer a dilemma I have relating to movies and politics in the classroom. This time, though, I'm going international.

In two week's time, I'll start teaching a short evening class at Newman University, almost literally next door to Friends, on "World Government Systems." As I read the course description, it really should be called "Government Systems of the World," to avoid any confusion; in any case, I'm going to be teaching it as a comparative politics course, starting with laying down some general groundwork for comparing different forms of government around the world, and then examining in depth seven or eight (I haven't quite finished the syllabus yet) different countries over the next seven weeks. The selection will be pretty standard (that is, Euro-centric) for this kind of course: Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, India, possibly Nigeria, possibly Russia, etc. What is different is that I want to require the students to experience a bit of cinematic culture along with their required readings. And so, I'm going to assign them to find and watch (and perhaps I will obtain and show a clip of, in each class) a film that comes from and/or focuses on the particular country which were are studying that day. The question is, which one?

The only selection I'm absolutely certain of is showing/requiring The Queen for Great Britain. Not only is an absolutely terrific movie, but it looks directly at the nature and limits of the constitutional monarchy in a time of popular crisis. But what should I do for any of the others? Ideally, all the other movies will be like The Queen, in that they will have something to say about the country's governing system, but I'm not sure that will be an absolute requirement; I want the films to be entertaining and to have something to connect to the students with as well. (If I didn't care about the latter, then I could just so some educational documentary.) I'm thinking about The Nasty Girl for Germany (or possibly The Lives of Others), and Ikiru for Japan. What else? Dare I require Au Revoir, Les Enfants for France? (Or maybe Indochine or The Battle of Algiers--though those are both really about the French interacting with the world beyond France, not touching on France itself.) Can I avoid showing Gandhi for India? (I really liked Slumdog Millionaire--talking about the new, post-globalization India? Or perhaps I should ask my wife for Bollywood recommendations...)

More thoughts, recommendations, anyone?


Douglas said...

It's probably too late for this suggestion, but maybe you've got the direction backwards? Start with the great films and derive the countries from those experiences. Or maybe do up a typology of the kinds of governments you want your students to leave the course understanding, then go to movies, then to countries.

As you say, The Queen demonstrates not only the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but also the constitutional monarchy/parliamentary republic interaction. Taking this approach would also let you discuss other countries as theme-and-variations. I dare say it also would give your students better hooks for remembering.

What other types of government should be on your list? Presidential republics, one-party states, parliamentary republics w/o monarchs, the odd actual monarchy (is there a great Bhutan movie?), military junta, and, um, hm. That's it off the top of my head. I'm sure I've missed something.

And while you go from the type to the film to the countries, students go from the film to the specific place to the type to other countries. So if Evita is good for presidential republics (and I don't know nearly enough films to say), or perhaps one-party states, then you can get France in (if that's a requirement from the university) by saying, ok a lot like Argentina except for 1., 2., 3. etc.

The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin are good for the problems of dictatorship/post-dictatorship. I'm not sure how that fits in your rubrics, but it's a condition that a large part of humanity shares. If/when China emerges from one-party rule, it'll be even more relevant.

Russell Arben Fox said...

You know, you're right Douglas; if I wanted to make the movies a more integral part of what I was doing--as opposed to making them an informative/entertaining/helpful supplement--then I should have begun with the movies, or the governments and governmental problems they exemplify, and work towards countries from there. Of course, if I'd done it that way, it'd really be more of general political science course, rather than one specifically about the comparative politics of today. Maybe someday I work on such a class. For this one, well, I've already ordered the books and everything.

You're probably also right that, at the very least, I should be willing to look at films that exemplify types of governments, and then apply them to certain, possibly unrelated countries, on the grounds that the problems/dynamics outlined in the film are much like those the actual specific country encounters.

Camassia said...

I remember about 15 years ago I saw a film called The Middleman by Satyajit Ray, which was an interesting (if depressing) snapshot of how an individual experienced "the system" in 1970s India, and the conflict between it and traditional obligations of family and honor. I don't know if it's really to your purpose, but if you haven't seen it it would be worth checking out. Actually it might be worth leafing through the Ray catalog in general -- it would certainly provide a counterweight to Gandhi!

Russell Arben Fox said...

Camassia, thanks for the recommendation--I'd never heard of Middleman before. Looking it up--actual title, "Jana Aranya"--makes me want to see it...and actually makes me wonder it might be an interesting film to set alongside Slumdog Millionaire. Fortunately it appears to be on Netflix, so I'll be able to watch it shortly.

Camassia said...

I like the idea of compare-and-contrast films (though if you did that for every country you might overload your students). If there's a chance of doing Argentina, putting Evita alongside The Official Story would pack quite a wallop.

Also, is China on your "possibly" list? The Last Emperor might be a good choice for that one.

Aloysius said...

This movie

would be a good one to show the coming socialism of America.

David said...

That's funny Aloysius, but the long term trend is the other way. Compared to the 50s, 60s, and 70s the economy is under much less government control and influence.

And back on topic:
I always look for excuses to show Mississippi Massala but this ain't it.

For some reason I'm fixated on Africa:
Is there a movie version of Things Fall Apart? There's always Biko.

Stuart said...

It sounds like a fascinating class

Some suggestions

Mexico La ley de Herodes (

England: A Very British Coup (

House of Cards (

(East) Germany Goodbye Lenin (

Soviet Russia:

October (

Anonymous said...

I agree that Goodbye Lenin could work for Germany. I'm surprised how difficult it is (at least for me) to think of a good candidate for France. (The Battle of Algiers is great, and I show it in classes whenever I get the chance, but the colonizer-colonized dynamic portrayed therein isn't especially or uniquely French).

As someone who teaches something very much like this course regularly, I echo the above suggestion to include what will almost certainly the be most important state, except for maybe this one, in your students adult lives. The level of interest in China tends to be quite a bit higher than most of the other countries on the list. (And your film options are great. To Live is a personal favorite of mine, but if you wanted to focus more on contemporary China, Blind Shaft might be appropriate. (An eerie, depressing film about murderous grifters taking advantage of the labor surplus and corruption in modern-day China).

ikl said...

In general, I don't think that politics and movies mix together that well. So despite having watched a fair number of foreign films, I can only think of a couple of clear winners for this purpose:

Russia - Andrei Rublev.
Yes, it is ostensibly about the Middle Ages. But aside for being a really great movie, it has a lot to say about state and religion, politics and morality in Russia throughout history. Since it was shot in Soviet times, the movie's themes could only have been explored in an historical context even though they were just as relevant to conditions under Stalin. Andrei Rublev also displays a strain of Russian nationalism (Christian, non-statist) that is not often seen or understood abroad but is an important part of Russian cultural heritage. This is a difficult film to follow, but I think that there is value in assigning things that your students are unlikely to watch on their own.

Former Yugoslavia - Underground.
Surreal look at Yugoslavian history from WWII to the wars of the 1990s. Funny, entertaining, deeply sad (although not depressive) and engaging. Very popular in Europe when it was released - less well known in the US.

Czechoslovakia / Nazism - The Shop on Main Street
One of the better World War II era movies that I have seen. This one won prize for best foreign film when it came out in the 1960s. The story of a simple-minded Slovak man (great acting performance) in a small city who is appointed the Aryan controller of the shop of a old Jewish widow after the Nazis take over his town. A very sensitive exploration of the moral complexities and compromises of living under Nazi occupation. The film shows how both Jews and non-Jews try to adapt and explores the peculiar gray area between collaboration and resistence (the Slovak main character ends up in the pay of both the Nazis and the Jewish community!). Vastly better than Au Revoir, Les Enfants (which is awfully cliched and rather predictable).