Streaming spotlight: revolutions

Fictional and factual rebellions caught on film

by Amber Wilkinson

The Battle Of Algiers
The Battle Of Algiers
France celebrated Bastille Day this week on July 14 - a turning point of the French Revolution - and we've taken our inspiration for this week's Streaming Spotlight from that. It turns out that, in the UK at least, films about the French Revolution itself are hard to come by on streaming services - though if you can find a DVD copy of Farewell, My Queen, Danton or The Lady And The Duke, they're all worth a look - so instead we're taking a look at some of the best films that have tackled the subject of revolution across the globe.  If you're looking for more inspiration, check out our weekly Stay-At-Home Seven column.

Battleship Potemkin, BFI Player

Sergei Eisenstein's film might have been made all the way back in 1925 but it returns a potency - and a place in many critics' favourite lists today. If you've never watched this tale of an Odessa sailor's uprising, you'll still almost certainly recognise the Odessa steps sequence when it appears - which has been referenced in everything from The Untouchables to Naked Gun 33?. Propaganda films have rarely been as compelling as this, as sharp editing and strong montage imagery result in a tension that you can feel rising up from your bones. The film has also benefited greatly from a 2011 restoration that lends it an additional immediacy for a modern audience.

A Field In England, Amazon, iTunes, from £3.49

This trippy little number from Ben Wheatley, takes a minimalist - and monochrome - approach to the English Civil War (also recently tackled in stripped-back fashion in Fanny Lye Deliver'd). A group of deserters find themselves helping a sinister and brutal alchemist (Michael Smiley) in a treasure quest. Rebellion stews as a once-fixed world order of allegiance to God and king begins to unhinge. World upside down horror mixes with arthouse stylings as Wheatley's film considers what it means to be "your own man" and radicalism mixes with the, often brutal, realities of the men's existence.

Argo, Now TV, Amazon, from £2.49

The 1979 Iranian Revolution provides the backdrop for Ben Affleck's thriller, which scooped the Best Picture Oscar in 2013. He also takes on acting duties in this real-life story of how CIA agent Tony Mendez tried to extract six American diplomats. Shot in a gritty style to match the period when it's set, the story is one of those that proves fact can be stranger than fiction, as the CIA's "best bad idea" is to create a fully-functioning science-fiction film set up and sneak the diplomats out while ostensibly on a location shoot. By sprinkling humour through the early scenes, Affleck makes the move to the life-threatening reality the diplomats are facing all the more tense, and though he takes a few liberties with the true story, that won't stop you sweating nearly as much Mendez by the time the credits roll.

The Square, Amazon Prime

One of the many documentaries to tackle the Arab Spring, Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-nominated film examines the Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of a group of activists. This is an immersive document that sees Noujaim get down to street level - often in dangerous circumstances - to record events as they unfolded in Tahrir Square. With the situation moving swiftly, she charts the idealism and hope of the original movement, but also the fracturing of solidarity as time moves on.

The Battle Of Algiers, Amazon Prime

Jennie Kermode writes: Even the most necessary revolutions are terrible things. Though Algeria's uprising against French colonial rule is now widely considered to have been inevitable, and friendly relations have been re-established between the two countries, The Battle Of Algiers' celebration of this success does not detract from its raw portrayal of the horror involved. It's more potent because most of those involved are none actors and were, in fact, directly involved in events like those they portray, recapturing the intense emotions of the time even whilst they work alongside their former enemies to capture the history important to all. Director Gillo Pontecorvo gets right to the heart of what drives them. Every character, even when seen only briefly, is a human being; we are invited to care about those on both sides. Even the bombers and the soldiers who shoot into crowds attract sympathy because we see what they are going through. The big impassioned speeches are underscored by small, desperate acts, and it becomes impossible to separate the personal and the political. With stunning camerawork and a powerful score by the late Ennio Morrocone, this is a true classic.

How To Start A Revolution, Vimeo On Demand, £5

If you've ever wondered how revolutions get started in the first place, this film by Ruaridh Arrow offers some answers. In it, he documents the ideas and work of Nobel Peace Prize nominee Gene Sharp - who is interviewed in the film but who died in 2018 - the world's leading expert on non-violent revolution before his death. This is a hopeful film, that shows how suggestions in Sharp's book From Dictatorship To Democracy - from "civil disobedience" to "writing signs in English" - has been used by peaceful protestors in their fight for change everywhere from Ukraine to Sudan. Watch the film here.

Spartacus, Amazon Prime

Sword and sandals epics don't come much more stylish than this tale of slave revolt in Rome from Stanley Kubrick. And heroes don't get much more iconic than Kirk Douglas' Thracian slave with a passion for freedom, with the declaration: "I'm Spartacus!" still holding cultural weight 60 years on. It's not just Douglas who holds the attention, there's plenty of depth in the cast, from Peter Ustinov, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for turn as gladiator dealer Bataitus (Douglas missed out on a nomination), to Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier as scheming senators and Jean Simmons as the love interest. The gladiatorial scenes are where the film really grabs the attention, however, still gripping despite the passage of time and shot with verve by Russell Metty, who also won a cinematography Oscar for his efforts.

Our short suggestion is Farahnaz Sharifi's Revolutionary Memories Of Bahman Who Loved Leila - a contemplative and absorbing documentary short that uses recoloured photos to recount a love story that played out against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution.

Revolutionary Memories of Bahman Who Loved Leila from idfa on Vimeo.

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