by John Hess
Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 35-36
POETRY AS WEAPON
— John Hess
THE TERROR AND THE TIME is a breathtaking film, one that is so complex in its imagery — so poetic in fact — that I find it difficult to conjure up in words. Images appear first as simple denotation: a torch to light the way, a clock tower, urban slums, sugarcane fields. But then they accrue connotations with each reappearance until the torch is revolution, the clock tower is time, the slum is hades, and the cane fields signify the strength of the Guyanese people.
Like Martin Carter's poetry, which runs through the film as a sort of narration, the film is composed of loosely connected images (not randomly) which are both public and private, real and unreal, specific and general. And the power of the whole to evoke the suffering and the struggle of the people derives from the contradictions and the tensions in these images.
Example: in a short sequence two bits of documentary footage are intercut. In slow motion, silhouetted against an evening sky, men carry huge bundles of sugarcane up ramps and throw them down into waiting gondola cars. The cutting emphasizes the downward thrust of this backbreaking work. In the second bit, a man addresses a large crowd of workers. To underline his points he strikes downward with his right arm as if to hit a nonexistent podium. We don't hear his words; there is only percussion music on the soundtrack of this sequence.
At the most immediate level this is a beautifully edited short sequence, intercutting and thus associating two downward thrusting gestures. Yet at the next level, one — because of the slow motion, the darkness, the upward tilt of the camera, the rhythm — represents the harsh working conditions of the sugar estates while the second is clearly an exhortation to change those conditions.
The sequence does not stand by itself, however. It is a poetic transition between a sequence depicting slavery, accompanied by verses from Carter's "I Come from the Niggeryard," and a sequence showing how, for the first time since 1924, the East Indian sugar workers joined in solidarity with the African urban workers by going on strike and burning cane fields as an act of resistance.
Finally, the incredible economy of means in this series of sequences stands out. These filmmakers didn't have much to work with, but they made the most of it. Like Santiago Alvarez, whose work has clearly influenced them, these filmmakers have made the skimpy materials and resources available to them really work. They carefully planned what they wanted to do and aggressively tore into the documentary footage and pulled out only the images they wanted.
They have also created their own images (in addition to the interviews they did). They built one terrifying and astounding sequence — a mixture of Alvarez and Bruce Conner — around the image of a destitute man dying in a gutter as people and vehicles pass by, hardly noticing his agony and appeals for help. They shot the scene from two perspectives — one, a long shot from down the street; the other, a medium shot from across the intersection. They sped up (or step printed) the first shot to emphasize the uncaring passage of people and vehicles past the dying man. The second shot concentrates on his agony and gestured appeals for help.
They have intercut this material with a butcher chopping up meat on an outdoor chopping block and a series of newspaper ads for cosmetics and luxury goods. To top it all off they have put "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" on the soundtrack. It's a lengthy sequence which ends with the man collapsing on the final note of the music.
This sequence comes in the midst of a long section of the film on the repression of the duly elected PPP government by the British. Carter's "This Is the Dark Time My Love" sets the somber mood of the whole section. While the sequence I'm discussing contains no images, verbal or visual, of the repression, it conveys the horror of it in ways that the preceding images of troops and barbed wire don't. The dying man, the chopped neat, the oblivious ads, and the banal North American popular song all strongly connote the physical and cultural crushing of a people — "the dark time."
But, as in all good poetry, it's more than that. There is a whole analysis of capitalism and imperialism available in the sequence, in the images of fragmentation, advertising, mass culture, alienation, and commodity fetishism. The sequence is as rich as it is horrifying and one needs to see it several times to fully comprehend it.
Another remarkable sequence accompanies Carter's three letters from prison. A series of high contrast still and moving images of small windows, hallways, barred windows, barbed wire, stone walls, empty cells, and the play of light through small holes in pieces of metal used to cover tiny prison windows creates an incredible sense of confinement because of the agonizing beauty of the images. At the end of this sequence, Eusi Kwayana says,
And learning from Carter's verse, the Victor Jara Collective has learned how to make us feel things, too.
Finally, after a title indicating the end of Part One: Colonialism, there is a nearly ten-minute rift of images. Most of them are already familiar to the viewer but some are new. I'm told this is material for the next part of the intended three-part film. But I found the sequence breathtaking, a testament to how well the film works. The sequence makes an exciting coda to the present film and should stay where it is, perhaps coming before the title.
While I was watching and thinking about this film, one question returned often — what are the politics of this film? I address this question here not as some sort of ultimate question, although I think it is very important, but because it seems a puzzle. As with much third-world nationalist and anti-imperialist art — say Carter's or Ernesto Cardenal's poetry or Alvarez's films — it's much clearer what people are against than what they are for. In the heat of the struggle, naturally enough, they create a kind of Manichaean purity designed to include as many as possible on the right side while pumping them up for the battle. There is usually little or no analysis of either side or even the nature of the struggle. You don't expect poetry to analyze, nor perhaps the agit-films of Alvarez, but a feature-length political documentary is different. It's not usually made for the immediate struggle, for the moment, but rather for more leisurely contemplation.
Clearly TERROR AND THE TIME does analyze, or at least does describe quite clearly, the nature of British imperialism in Guyana. And it clearly intervenes in a number of political struggles. In his interview here, Rupert Roopnaraine talks about the struggle against the bourgeois (Hollywood) film. He and Bert Hogenkamp, in the latter's review, both discuss the importance of recapturing history. And the film emphasizes this point by opening with a quote by Fanon. The film also contributes to the important struggles in Guyana against sexism and racial divisions. Yet I still feel that something important is missing.
The People's Progressive Party won the elections of 1953 overwhelmingly but in a few months was overthrown by British Imperialism. There was no struggle, no guerrilla war, no significant resistance. This is in stark contrast to the many other anti-imperialist struggles referred to in the film: Kenya, Malaya, Cuba. Vietnam — where guerrilla war was central to the struggle. What does this mean? Was the PPP naive or misguided, or did they take a calculated risk and lose? What did Guyanese socialists learn from this experience? These questions are not addressed in the film. Although I imagine that there were many practical and political reasons for this omission, it still seems a serious one to me.
In spite of this criticism, I find TERROR AND THE TIME one of the most innovative and interesting political documentaries since HOUR OF THE FURNACES, which clearly influenced it in positive ways. The film deserves wide distribution, and anyone interested in the third-world struggle for liberation and in political filmmaking should see it.
Third World Newsreel distributes THE TERROR AND THE TIME. Contact them at 160 5th Ave., Rm. 911. New York, NY, 10010. (212) 243-2310.