Critical Review: Solanas and Getino – Towards a Third Cinema

A libertarian look at the classic 1969 communist, anti-imperialist manifesto of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (also shown in their film The Hour of the Furnaces) considering the necessity of using film and culture to promote revolutionary practice while denouncing Western influence over “ex” colonies. The movement their text was contributing to, known as Third Cinema, attempted to undermine the hegemony of commercial Western film.

Solanas and Getino believe that cinema, along with other artistic expressions, is constrained by bourgeois imperialist values. When a film represented the decay of bourgeois values they never explained the cause, only the effect, what the authors call surplus value cinema They identify the most mainstream forms, like Hollywood melodrama, as first cinema, an “extension of bourgeois world-view”.

Previous attempts to produce alternatives, such as “author’s cinema”, also known as second cinema, are limited because they depend on first cinema’s distribution channels, the filmmaker’s themselves “trapped inside the fortress” as Godard put it. In the authors’ view, this situation demands the creation of a third cinema, liberated from the constraints of capitalist production and distribution: “outside and against the System”.

They set out to create a new mode of production: guerrilla film-making, along with alternative distribution and exhibition channels: “the camera is the inexhaustible expropriator of image-weapons; the projector, a gun that can shoot 24 frames per second”. Walter Benjamin already identified film and photography to be revolutionary due to the ease of reproducibility in comparison to theatre or painting in his book Illuminations: “The liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (Benjamin, 1999).

Older forms of art, like statues or paintings, were objects of cult, with restricted access and usually controlled by a hierarchy, but with the technological development of photography and film, reproduction and distribution make art more accessible to the masses, to the point where Benjamin equals photography to socialism. Solanas and Getino, like Benjamin, believe the reaction of the public to a film is going to be more positive than a speech or a surrealist painting.

Their political influences include figures such as Mao Tse-Tung, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Frantz Fanon. Their vision for the process of decolonisation is through the need of an anti-imperialist nation guided by a strong authoritarian communist state. Thus, one could argue against the nationalist element, by employing Benedict Anderson’s analysis of the origins of nationalism as inherently middle-class, as well as challenging the authoritarian aspect, in favour of a more democratic or anti-authoritarian revolution.

Latin American left-wing politics are marked by the legacy of the Cuban Revolution. In the case of the authors, Che Guevara’s notions of vanguardism and voluntarism (close to Mao) are essential in the process of decolonisation they wish to achieve. The defenders of vanguards, and Che Guevara specifically, believe that the so-called “masses” of oppressed people are incapable of revolutionary activity by themselves and must be led by Marxist-Leninist intellectuals, the only true revolutionaries. Guevara believed in a strict military hierarchical vanguard that would lead the revolution and rule as a one-party state form of communism, a form of socialism from above, similar to Stalin. In analyzing the man behind the symbol, we see that Guevara wasn’t very successful at understanding the “masses”, going from contempt and pity to outright disinterest and disdain for the common people he was supposed to be fighting for. Not only did he disregard people, but also situations, as Samuel Farber notes:

“One of the important features of Che Guevara’s political thought and activism was his disregard for specific political contexts as crucial guides for political action. His exclusive focus on making the revolution and on the tactics of the armed struggle led him, by the mid-1960s, to the conclusion that practically all the countries in Latin America were ready to take up arms in their rural hinterlands, ignoring the widely differing political and socioeconomic conditions prevailing throughout the continent.”

In The Hour of the Furnaces, a long segment is dedicated to the death of Che Guevara. The impressive, soundless footage of his body being laid down is followed by a long shot of his face, with his eyes fixated on the public, elevating the figure of the icon we are all too familiar with.

Solanas and Getino believed that certain political vanguards should discover the importance of films as a form of effective communication to educate the masses, many of whom may otherwise reject a political speech but will be penetrated by a film. This idea seems to be contradictory to some other passages in the article, such as the idea of film-making as a collective experience, lacking the specialism and individualism of the capitalist mode of production, which we could interpret as closer to the do-it-yourself attitude of anarcho-punk collectives such as Crass during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Debates around decolonisation and liberation struggles have often fallen under the trap of nationalism. Left-wing freedom fighters are able to perform mental gymnastics in order to justify their nationalism in contrast with that of the imperialist state they are wishing to expel. In the case of Solanas and Getino, they proclaim to be anti-system while trying to impose another system, authoritarian communism. They adhere to this form of anti-colonial nationalism which depends on a strong homogenising force to make the “us vs them” mentality easier to unite all oppressed people against a common enemy, the coloniser, usually embodied by the white man or “the West”.

But, despite the efforts of centuries of colonisation, many cultures have survived this, and to subject such a vast region as Latin America to one identity, under the brutal hand of authoritarian communism, is perhaps further damaging to these cultures that have already been oppressed, by uniting them only under their historical identity as subjects of European rule. Communities should be held together on more than common trauma.

Furthermore, if the authors proclaim to be against bourgeois culture, why are they engaging in a common principle of bourgeois politics such as nationalism? As Benedict Anderson notes in his book Imagined Communities, the creation of nationalism is ultimately a middle-class construct aided by the circulation of the written word and has long been used as a tool to divide the working class, as we see with right-wing anti-migrant rhetoric in the “First World” turning people against each other instead of uniting against the ruling classes and overthrowing capitalism.

Solanas and Getino are very clear when blaming the “native” ruling classes for selling out to imperialist powers such as the United States, but the problem here is capitalism, perhaps with a touch of racism, not the lack of national identity of a bourgeoisie who is very likely to perform patriotism when necessary — because that’s what it is, a performance to beguile, distract, divide and conquer. In other words, nationalism is a way to keep people submissive to capital. The combination of nationalism and authoritarian socialism leads to state capitalism, not to full communism.

The idea of Third Cinema as a revolutionary project actively involved in the fight against capitalism is fascinating. The nationalism and authoritarianism, not so much. Today things are much easier in some ways: access to internet makes reproduction and distribution of media much faster than in Solanas and Getino’s time. Promoting a cause or idea has never been more available. But, at the same time, the over-saturation of information coming to us through the internet makes us more passive, less passionate. We have become consumers of information rather than thinkers and activists. Some consider sharing click-bait videos and articles on social media platforms a form of political activism.

Alternative cinema production still has obstacles to overcome: the over specialisation that S&G warned against, costly equipment, the space and energy needed to maintain a strong online presence, as well as finding the resources so that members of the creative collective can survive with access to shelter and food in a world where these basic needs are becoming costlier every day. Low wages and precarious employment make us less likely to have the time or the energy to invest in volunteering for the revolutionary cause, sometimes survival is the only thing we can do.

In conclusion, Third Cinema played an important part in the development of political and artistic expressions last century, from the anti-colonisation struggles still ongoing to guerrilla filmmaking. Now it’s time for another cinema, and other politics.

~ Salvadora Carmen Medina Onrubia


Bibliography

Anderson, B., 2006. Imagined Communities. 3rd ed. London: Verso.

Benjamin, W., 1999. Illuminations. London: Pimlico Random House.

Farber, S., 2016. Che Guevara’s political relevance today. International Socialist Review, Summer.Issue 101.

Solanas, F. & Getino, O., 1997. Towards a Third Cinema. In: M. T. Martin, ed. New Latin American Cinema. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 33-58.