I saw the noted film, Birth of a Nation, made by D.W. Griffith in 1915, for the first time this week, and it turns out to be an abominable work, racist to its core. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it is still considered, especially in the United States, as one of the greatest films ever made. After all, the United States is a nation that was founded with a ringing declaration of its belief in the equality of all men, a declaration of principle drawn up by a bunch of slave-owners.
In other words, hypocrisy has been at the very core of American values ever since the nation was born.
Birth of a Nation is about the American civil war. It sees that conflict from the point of view of the south, but it is in its last section, describing the aftermath of the war, that it becomes totally racist, and so unacceptable that it should have been thrown on the scrapheap years ago. The black people of the United States, newly freed from their horrendous experience of slavery, are cruelly caricatured as primitives unable to carry out any serious function of government, or even of daily life. And according to Griffith the nation was rescued from the anarchy of ignoramuses only by the gallant soldiers of the Ku Klux Klan.
I found this so revolting that I am really not capable of pretending to be other than disgusted by this movie. But it does permit me to pontificate briefly about the dichotomy between the technique by which a film is put together, and the content of the finished film. When I first got into making films at the Naional Film Board in 1971, I was frankly fairly contemptuous of the Board’s concentration on always producing a product of technical excellence.
To that end, they employed some of the finest documentary cameramen in the world, wonderful sound men, and highly skilled producers and directors who took exceptional pains to turn out a polished product. My interest at the time was totally in what the film was trying to say, and I thought it strange when a filmmaker, midway through finalizing his production, would show an assembly to anyone who liked to turn up, and would listen to every comment, and try to take every opinion into account in whatever changes he might make as a result of the screening. I thought this was ludicrous: I had been employed for twenty-five years as a kind of wandering reporter, equipped only with a pen and notebook, and the idea I should check everything I wrote with colleagues sitting at neighbouring desks was something that never once occurred to me.
I remember the occasion that crystallized my attitude: I was interviewing a Cree hunter far up in the wilderness, in a tent, getting from him insights that I thought were marvelous, and rare, when suddenly the soundman tore off the equipment through which he was listening to it all, and announced, “It’s no good. I can hear the snow falling on the tent!”
This struck me as the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard, and it was only gradually, as I became accustomed to the methods used at the NFB, that I began to realize the importance of producing a smooth, professional, and careful product that would allow the audience to concentrate, not on the quality of production, which was a given, but on the message it was being so cunningly used to elucidate.
Mind you, I have seen movies, kind of rough around the edges, that nevertheless carried a tremendous punch. The model of such a movie I always cite as a film made by the French Communist Chris Marker, about the socialist revolution in Chile and the subsequent counter-revolution. That movie was full of scratchy old tapes taken from television programmes, and yet the impact of the whole film was immense. But then Chris Marker was a genius who actually stood for something.
Griffith’s film is highly regarded because of its being so many years ahead of its time in technical expertise. Film buffs can tell you about the kind of shots he invented or pioneered, methods of shooting that had never been used before, and it is true that the film was expertly made. Still, speaking personally, I don’t think that justifies his film in any way: it is an offence in the nostrils of any decent person, and should be cast on the scrapheap.
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