It's probably a good idea to not put too much stock in the Oscars, but it was great to see the Academy give its prize for best documentary to Laura Poitras's Citizenfour. The film, which chronicles the Edward Snowden leaks with the nerve-wracking suspense of a classic spy thriller, is a worthy entry in the heroic tradition of dissident cinema from around the globe.
To dig deeper into this subject, here are five examples, both fiction and documentary, of superior dissident films.
Title: The Ear (1970)
Plot: A Czech communist party official and his wife return from a party to find that their Prague home has been broken into. They swiftly conclude that their house has been bugged by the authorities. As they scour the home for other signs of tampering, everything they say to each other must be carefully censored, lest it provide ammunition for the omnipresent ear they are convinced is trained on them. As the night progresses, their mounting paranoia will combine with their latent marital problems to bring them to the brink of destruction.
Historical context: The New Wave of Czech cinema, which emerged in the mid-1960s, contributed a number of rich and inventive films to festivals and art house theaters around the world. This daring trend in Czech cinema was in peril of dissolution when the liberalizing reforms of the Dubček government prompted the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the restoration of cold, anti-revisionist communism. Nonetheless, a few bold Czech filmmakers still managed to produce subversive works, like Jaromil Jireš's The Joke (1969) and our subject, Karel Kachyňa's scathing The Ear, which was banned by the communist authorities and left unreleased until 1989.
Where it's streaming: Hulu.
Title: Punishment Park (1971)
Plot: In the near future (from the perspective of 1971), the Vietnam War has drawn China into open conflict with the United States, and President Nixon has declared martial law at home. Various dissidents -- pacifists, communists, black-power activists -- are rounded up by the military authorities and faced with two choices. They can face lengthy imprisonment, or they can opt for the chance to fight for their survival in Punishment Park, a desert wasteland where subversives are hunted down by the authorities for training purposes. Peter Watkins, master of the mockumentary, shot this film in harrowing cinema vérité style.
Historical context: In the early '70's, everything about Punishment Park -- the expansion of the Vietnam War, the crackdown on dissent in the U.S. -- was disturbingly plausible. Nixon had bombed and invaded Cambodia while the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was harassing and persecuting American dissidents (and in some cases, notably that of Fred Hampton, killing them). Watkins's film has only become more poignant since 9/11, as evidenced by the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, the extraordinary rendition program, and the campaign of drone strikes which respect neither borders nor nationality, to name just a few examples.
Where it's streaming: Amazon, Fandor.
Title: The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)
Plot: In this gripping and utterly unique documentary, Japanese army veteran Kenzo Okuzaki embarks on a single-minded crusade to puzzle out the truth regarding the mysterious deaths of two of his fellow soldiers during WWII. As he wages a propaganda war against the aging Emperor Hirohito (who in his maturity, and as part of his campaign, has distributed pornographic images) and interviews other veterans (who he verbally and sometimes even physically attacks), a terrifying picture emerges of what Okuzaki's unit did in New Guinea, and what many in post-war Japan would prefer to forget.
Historical context: Japanese documentarian Kazuo Hara has built his career on immersive films about non-conformists and outcasts. Previous outings include depictions of the plight of handicapped people in Japan (Goodbye CP, 1972) and transgressors of sexual and gender norms (Extreme Private Eros, 1974). Together with The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, these films all address things which peaceful and prosperous post-war Japan would rather keep out of sight and out of mind. Thank God we have someone like Kazuo Hara to gleefully puncture the establishment's façade with his distinctive blend of irreverence and high morality.
Where it's streaming: Fandor.
Title: Before the Flood (2006)
Plot: Beginning in 1994 and continuing for almost two decades, China carried out the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The largest hydroelectric power station in the world, this dam on the Yangtze River displaced approximately 1.3 million people from their homes in the towns and villages swallowed up by the dam's reservoir. In 2002, documentary filmmakers Li Yifan and Yan Yu travelled to the Yangtze town of Fengjie, where they shot Before the Flood, a panoramic look at the lives of the townspeople as they come into conflict with the government that seeks to tear down their homes and forcibly relocate them.
Historical context: I am loath to make sweeping generalizations about a subject as complex as modern China, but there are a few key trends to take into consideration when viewing a film like Before the Flood. First, there is China's stunning economic expansion, born with the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and continuing to this day, which has brought about vast and unwieldy transformations and conflicts in Chinese economic life. It has also brought about a boom in Mainland Chinese film production, including the production of many independent films, both fictional and documentary, which grapple with these issues with remarkable frankness. Before the Flood is just one in a long line of recent Chinese documentaries chronicling the discontent of those marginalized by China's economic ascent.
Where it's streaming: Amazon, Fandor.
Title: This Is Not a Film (2011)
Plot: Following the street protests precipitated by Iran's disputed 2009 presidential elections, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was placed under house arrest and banned from making movies for 20 years (a prison sentence is currently being appealed). Armed with an iPhone and working in collaboration with fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasbh, the two directors set out to skirt Panahi's legal sanctions by making a "non-film" about Panahi's legal troubles, his life under house arrest, and the "real" film he would have been making had he not been forbidden to do so. The result (smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive) is both a piece of stunningly inventive filmmaking and a stirring instance of the victory of the artist over tyranny.
Historical context: For years now, Iranian cinema has been one of the richest in the world, its filmmakers spurred to new heights of imagination by the draconian censorship laws they so often have to circumvent. In 2009, hopes for liberal reform in Iran were dashed and popular dissent in the streets viciously suppressed. There were many who feared for the future of Iranian cinema, with great filmmakers like Panahi facing prison time and others driven into exile. But Iranian filmmakers are a resourceful bunch. They continue to produce bold, even subversive, works of cinema, such as Rafi Pitts's The Hunter (2010) and Ashgar Farhadi's Oscar-winning A Separation (2011). As of this writing, Jafar Panahi has completed his third film since he was banned from making films. The movie is called Taxi (2015) and it just won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Where it's streaming: Netflix.