The Influence of Biopolitical Resistance

Paper by Ximena Fernandez.

Now more than ever, in today’s ever-evolving political climate, the public relies on films to learn about the world, whether it be the past or present, the industry will never run out of stories to tell, particularly those of resistance. As we survey these filmographic works, it is apparent that they have become pillars of resistance themselves, and although they could be considered products of their time, they remain relevant even today. Whether it be music, biopolitics, mise-en-scene, or individual strife, the portrayal of these historical plights in film not only speak to the gravity of the events, but to the protest of them in a larger context, in a way that is greater than being just a historical film. In this essay, the films Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008), The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), and The Book Thief (Brian Percival, 2013) will be used to exemplify the biopolitical connections between paramilitary, colonial, and antisemetic resistance as they are portrayed in film, through the examination of the way in which violence is inflicted internally as well as externally under the specific conditions of each film.

The films identified have a clear indication of their resistant nature. The use of biopolitical protest is graphically utilized in these films to varying degrees. In general, the body is sanctified by society. We value superficial attributes such as physical fitness, beauty, and attractiveness. Imperfections are hidden or altered in favor of these attributes, therefore, the decimation of the body, and doing so willingly, is a part of what makes these films so effective in the delivery of their message. To use such a vital part of oneself in such a destructive and egregious way shows how far the masses will go in order to demand change for their cause. Such is the case in Hunger, in which men, stripped of all bodily possessions, use whatever means necessary in order to engage their enemy at the cost of their own detriment. Perhaps the most graphic of the three, this theme is used deliberately, as it becomes the focus of the film and the central idea, existing in tandem with the hunger and dirty protests of the Irish Republican Army prisoners at the exact time of the Troubles in the early 80’s. In The Battle of Algiers, corporeal politics are used with distinct specificity, to outline the amount of loss that is equally afforded to both sides of a conflict, regardless of who is the oppressor (the French) and who is the oppressed (the Algerians) during the Algerian War of Independence. The Book Thief presents biopolitics in a much different structure which involves the personal histories of characters more than the other two films. It is through Rudy, the young and oblivious Hitler Youth, and Max, a Jew in hiding, that we observe the effects of repressed bodily autonomy, juxtaposing that of the free German child during the time of the Holocaust. Although individually, these films have relatively little historical crossover, they all promote the idea of the body as a unique form of power.

In both Hunger and The Book Thief, the characters are restricted to unfathomable living conditions, forcing them to relinquish the most essential part of their being. In the film Hunger, the IRA protesters engage in “dirty-protests” and hunger-strikes, being unable to display their grievances through any other way, they resort to unorthodox and grotesque methods of resistance, most notably, the scene in which a large spiral painting, made entirely of feces is displayed for an uncomfortably long amount of time. In addition, the refusal to bathe, the urine spilled into the hallways of the prison, and the effects of the hunger strike, particularly on Bobby-Sands prove equally impactful. El-Khairy describes these scenes as McQueen’s way of immortalizing the moments for the purpose of careful consideration stating, Every moment – from the wash of a jet of water on a handcrafted spiral of excrement to the soft pink blush of bloodstained water in a sink – is crystallised, held up for appraisal and evaluation, and weighted with gravity simply because we are looking at it (188).

It is shots like these that create confusion among the audience, forcing them to look on, to attempt to understand exactly what they are looking at in order to receive the full impact of the message that is attempted. Once the message is realized, the audience becomes unsettled, creating a particular disgust, but also interest as to why they would subject themselves to such things. They prisoners hurt themselves for the sake of a cause that they are willing to die for, and not as martyrs, but as hopefuls of the rebellion, still, they are forced to endure abuse for the sake of their cause, “There’s a clear message: the men whom Thatcher labeled criminals have such an unshakeable conviction that Ireland should be free from British rule that they will endure torture and self-imposed degradation to the nth degree” (Fuller, 2). Additionally, McQueen emphasizes the setting in which the resistance takes place, citing both the body, and its place within the cell as the “central sites of contested politics” (188), emphasizing the idea that, even when there is nothing left to fight with, the body remains as the one permanent possession. Thereafter, it is no longer thought of as a body in the traditional sense, but a weapon of self-destruction. The setting in which the body exists is limited, the stakes become higher, and desperation invokes endurance. In The Book Thief, the theme of the body in a room is equally prevalent. The character Max, a Jew hidden in the basement of the Hubermann household under the watchful eye of a Nazi ridden community, is confined to this room throughout the film, fearing for his life, unable to move, starving, and constantly fighting the cold. Yet he persists for the sake of survival, like in Hunger, the character is forced to rely on the one thing unobtainable to all others, and so again the body becomes the catalyst for resistance. The corporeal politics that is displayed, meaning, the refusal to submit to a less physically taxing approach, undermines the limits and abuse that are imposed by the enemy, (Velasquez-Potts, 28). For Max, bodily politics is forced by religious persecution and his status within German society, forced to suppress the very definition of living for a chance at future survival. For the IRA this was a deliberate effort to dissuade the enemy. What unites the audience with the theme is the universal understanding of the body as our basic unit upon which all experiences are necessitated. To turn the body into the experience, whether willfully, as is done with the prisoners in Hunger or forcefully as is true for Max in The Book Thief, it absolves the idea that the body is the most important aspect of human life, leaving the audience to question the morality of the conflict, and to support the people they see on screen in their plight of resistance.

In both The Battle of Algiers and The Book Thief, the youth are portrayed within the epicenter of the chaos. Too young to be at fault for any conflict, they are still the individuals who shoulder the consequences of irresponsible adults. Children in political films are often used as tools to exhibit cruelties, injustice, and corruption because they are essentially blank slates, untouched by the pressures of society, and champions of the future. Their experiences as a result of their environment allows the audience to understand that no matter what conflict the adults engage in, they were all once children. As such, the very same cruelties that older generations are inflicting, can easily be repeated by the impressionable youth, however these conflicts are often justified by the oppressive environment within which the younger generation would otherwise be forced to grow up in. The most notable example of this in The Battle of Algiers, a film unique in its honesty of the “sameness” between the oppressor and the oppressed, “There is no false objectivity, and the film doesn’t hide its fundamental sympathy for the insurgents, but neither does it obscure the contradictions of the liberation struggle” (Chanan). Again, such is exemplified through the use of children as innocents. For example, the bombing of the Algerians, followed by the bombing of the French, in these two sequences, music plays a significant part in drawing parallels between the oppressed and the oppressor. In the aftermath of the Algerian bombing, it is primarily children that are being dragged out of the rubble, in the graphic and highly emotional scene, their lifeless corpses are dragged out of the crumbling infrastructure to sound of the very same orchestral score that is played after the bombing of the French, which was essentially the vengeance of the Algerian people in order to avenge their loved ones.. Again the body is shown as the sacred source of life, and the fact that it is children who are being killed amplifies their desire to resist and avenge their loved ones. Similarly, the Book Thief’s portrayal of the death of young Rudy in a bombing provides the same effect. A character that is positioned throughout the film as charming and loveable, is threatened by his role as a Hitler Youth. This shows the audience that even children, unknowing and uneducated on the realities of war and conflict, will grow up to retain the same ideals of their forefathers. Rudy, an innocent, was victimized by the same institution that promised to protect him. Furthermore, the scene in which the protagonist Liesel, burns herself in the process of hiding a banned book shows how even children are capable of sacrificing themselves for a greater purpose, even doing so unknowingly. This exemplifies the lack of escape in an unjust society, and the need for intervention and opposition. It is this juxtaposition of youthful innocence and cruelty that impacts the audience’s perception of a war’s purpose, and in what ways these tragedies could be avoided, the films thereby becoming a work of resistance.

In the films, violence that is inflicted externally becomes the motivator for resistance. In Hunger, the audience is privy to the heinous accosting of the prisoners at the hands of the authorities, thereby exemplifying the lengths at which the individual will go further to secure a communal victory. This violence is reiterated in the capture and interrogation of the National Liberation Front at the hands of the French, who conduct various methods of torture in order to obtain information. The relationship between the two is expanded upon in these gruesome depictions, whereby in The Battle of Algiers it serves to guide the audience’s perspective, to draw a clear line between who is the enemy and who is struggling to survive. Holtmeier points that in this film, “The distinction between peoples is not only political, a question of independence, or religious, a matter of an Islamic state, but also racial, ideological, and biopolitical insofar as it concerns ways of living in the world: an ‘us’ and ‘them’” (308). The concept is not limited to just bodily harm, but to the systematic division between the two. Where there is a separation of a body of people in regards to another, there is a biopolitical struggle. Hunger shows us snippets of the opposing argument in the scene where the police officer leaves the examination room to cry, revealing to the audience that within these conflicts there exists a common humanity. That perhaps, the many in the opposition do not believe in their methods, yet they continue to participate in their refusal to admonish themselves and their responsibilities within the conflict. Another scene which lends itself to the themes of resistance would be the final bombing scene which is also used in the opening of the film, at this point the length at which the insurgents were willing to go is made clear as is outlined in Hunger as well. Death proves imminent and unavoidable in their corresponding circumstances. In the latter, this is a gradual visual process in the character of Bobby Sands, where the audience is assaulted with the image of Michael Fassbender’s emaciated body. In the The Battle of Algiers, biopolitical resistance is evident in the female insurgent’s transformation of self, the depersonalization of one’s culture and normality in order to successfully infiltrate the enemy. The final scene in which the Algerians compose a musical cacophony opposes that idea of assimilation by joining together in an effort to be heard, not with the use of weaponry or the like, but again with their bodies by singing and running throughout the streets, making their presence known in a deliberate refusal to give into colonialism. Additionally, the willingness of the rebel group to die in the makeshift hideaway is effective in its use of multiple people of varying ages and genders to exemplify the generational consensus that motivates the finality of their decision to destroy themselves for a greater purpose.

In essence, these films are effective in their message of resistance because they explore topics that are deemed uncomfortable to witness. The use of one’s own body to assert protest takes the most unifying human experience could be considered horrifying to many. However the willingness and unforgiving reality of this biopolitical lens allows the audience to understand the desperation within the rebellion and the refusal to conform to societal standards. Thus, producing uniquely realistic image-weapons that serve to “shock” the audience out of the mindset that protected them from having to have conversations about these issues and how they could possibly have gone so far. Biopolitical protest asserts the idea that there is no willingness to compromise in the battle for human rights.

Works Cited
Assem El-Khairy, Omar. “Snowflakes on a Scarred Knuckle: The Biopolitics of the ‘War on
Terror’ through Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.”
Millennium, vol. 39, no. 1, Aug. 2010, pp. 187–191, doi:10.1177/0305829810372694. Chanan, Michael. “Outsiders: The Battle of Algiers and Political Cinema .” Sight and Sound, vol.
17, no. 6, 06, 2007, pp. 38-40. ProQuest, edu/magazines/outsiders-battle-algiers-political-cinema/docview/237119675/se-2?accoun tid=9839.
Fuller, Graham. “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.” Film Comment, vol. 45, no. 2, 2009, pp. 36-39. ProQuest,
edu/scholarly-journals/any-means-necessary/docview/210262743/se-2?accountid=9839. Holtmeier, Matthew. “The Modern Political Cinema: From Third Cinema to Contemporary Networked Biopolitics.” Film-Philosophy, vol. 20, no. 2/3, July 2016, pp. 303–323.
EBSCOhost, doi:10.3366/film.2016.0017.
Velasquez-Potts, Michelle C. “Staging Incapacitation: The Corporeal Politics of Hunger
Striking.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, vol. 29, no. 1, 2019, pp. 25–40., doi:10.1080/0740770X.2019.1571865.

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