The Art of Politics and Film

My most recent foray into film theory is The Art of Politics and Film (Orr, 2000). Chapter 5 is titled The Art of Identity: Greenaway, Jarman, Jordan. It investigates the concepts of personal and collective (national) identity, and the conflict between them, through the work of filmmakers Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Neil Jordan. This caught my eye, because I’m particularly interested in how film represents a nation’s post revolutionary culture; the changing concept of national identity is one of the most powerful markers of the cultural shift that occurs during and after a revolution.

I’ve previously looked at the melding of documentary and fiction in cinema and speculated that this trait might come from a desire to maintain an appearance of political ambiguity, whilst still saying something about the society in which the filmmakers live. I also think that that this combination of documentary and fiction derives from the conflict between the idealism of people fighting for change and the pragmatism (and ennui) of a post-revolutionary realisation that little has really changed. This is something that Orr describes as “the conceit of cessation (Orr, 2000 p134)” which is “not only the agony of the decision to start the fight but the decision about whether to relinquish the fight because it is no longer fruitful to go on (Orr, 2000 p134)”.

In The Art of Politics and Film Orr looks at a parallel conflict, that between personal and national identity, writing that “Film is at its most effective when it challenges national identity (Orr, 2000 p107)”. He goes on to state that:

[Films] probe a similar point of connection – that of the personal and the national. In varying degrees they explore the identity of the person in harness with the identity of the nation, only to pinpoint the different forms of breakdown that occur between the public and the personal […] the dislocation between selfhood and nationhood. (Orr, 2000 p107)

This conflict between the self and the nation seems to reflect the drive for revolution which appears when enough people find the disconnect between the two so oppressive that they can no longer bear it.


Orr later writes about this conflict as being akin to the “impersonal nature of the artwork over the persona of the artist (Orr, 2000 p108)”. This is a point which is neatly illustrated in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (Ceylan, 2006), which juxtaposes a fictional story with which all viewers can empathise against the two leads who are played by Ceylan himself and his wife.

Orr also links this conflict between the personal and the collective to the historical and autobiographical film genres, noting that they are classic examples of cinematic fiction meeting documentary reality. He highlights Caravaggio (Jarman, 1986) and The Belly of an Architect (Greenaway, 1987) as works which expose “key confrontations between Englishness and Otherness (Orr, 2000 p109)”. He goes on to suggest that the reason for the proliferation of historical and autobiographical films is their ability to explore the “vexed identities of England past and present (Orr, 2000 p110)” and to create an environment in which “past and present are brought in tandem by anti-historicist and anti-pshychologistic means (Orr, 2000 p112)”.


In writing about Irish director Neil Jordan, Orr notes the financial challenges faced by Jordan: “In a small island population only a few have made their mark as cineastes, able to use the frail resources of elusive funding to reach international audiences (Orr, 2000 p120)”. This reference to a scarcity of funding reminds me of the similar issues faced by Iranian and other Middle Eastern filmmakers. And indeed Orr goes on to link the the success of Irish art to the country’s political and cultural divisions:

This paucity [of successful cineastes] contrasts with the profusion of published talent in Irish writing, but one thing Irish cineastes have in common with their literary counterparts is the catalyst of the Troubles, a key source over thirty years for the urgency of art. (Orr, 2000 p 120)

Later Orr links this social upheaval to artistic productivity and insight, “Politics and religion are catalysts to something deeper. The despairing unvoiced ‘Who am I?’ (Orr, 2000 p122)”. This question of identity is fundamental to the art of revolution and the trauma that it brings. And Orr suggests that this question finds particular form in the art of film “a clear homology exists […] between the collapse of the neurotic subject and the cineaste’s delirium of film form (Orr, 2000 p124)”. The breakdown of traditional literary discourse structures possible in the free and apparently unrestricted nature of cinematic narrative reflects breakdown of individuals and societies that is catalysed by revolution.

Orr also makes a link to the use of non-place in films motivated by political and social upheaval, describing the use of the border between the Republic of Ireland and its British controlled Northern counterpart.

Jordan makes the border, as a division within Ireland, work upon the spectator’s subconscious, a lurking presence never explicitly shown but felt in the weight and the pressure of narrative. Border territory is both actual and metaphorical. It is implied in the represented image but also in the weight and pressure of the boundary as an unwanted imprint on the soul. (Orr, 2000 p130)

It’s this allegorical use of borders (places of transience) together with the convergence of fiction and reality that interests me most in the cinema of post-revolutionary cultures and in the films which represent the oppressed and marginalized peoples of all societies.


Ceylan, N. B., (2006), Climates, NBC Film – Pyramide Productions

Greenaway, P., (1987), The Belly of an Architect, Callender Company

Jarman, D., (1986), Caravaggio, British Film Institute (BFI)

Orr, J., (2000), The Art and Politics of Film, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press



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