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10 films about the ugly face of the British Empire

While the vast majority of films both in cinema and television celebrate the British Empire and promote nationalism without any historical balance, a handful of films opt to reveal the very ugly face of Imperialism. We have dug them out for you!

A lot of British would rather forget the oppressive history of the British Empire, and instead bask in the glorious notion of British self-determination, all blended with a tacit sense of racial and cultural superiority. These people are not interested in historical balance and revisionism, and will dismiss Britain’s dark past with a succinct “no country is perfect”. Nationalists will also denounce those asking for a broader and more critical historical debate as anti-patriotic. Why should anyone get these ugly skeletons out of the closet?

Two years ago, the emblematic Ken Loach told us in an exclusive interview: “Gordon Brown once said that we need to stop apologising about the British Empire, but I don’t recall there ever being an apology. The British Empire was founded on land conquests, enslaving people, transporting them to other countries, stealing people’s natural resources, exploitation, brutality, concentration camps. We do need to tell the truth about that. I’m not saying we should wallow in guilt. This is what happened and we need to know our history, that’s all. The fake patriotism of Britannia rules the waves is nonsense.”

There are a countless British films celebrating British history and nationalism, particularly on the topic of WW2 and its aftermath. DMovies‘ editor Victor Fraga argues that films such as Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, released this January, “have a subliminal message of tub-thumping nationalism and anti-German resentment (and, by extension, anti-European) in common, which resonates with Brexiters.” He concludes: “These movies instill a sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority in the British people.”

On the other hand, movies dealing with the atrocities of the British Empire – such as the Bengal famine of 1943 (pictured above), the concentration camps of the Second Boer War and destructive meddling in nearly every corner of the planet – remain rare as a hen’s tooth. That’s why we decided to compile this little list for you. The films are listed backwards in chronological order. Click on the film title in order to accede to our exclusive dirty review (where available).

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1. Bengal Shadows (Joy Banerjee and Partho Bhattacharya):

This 50-minute featurette is a extremely succinct and clear lesson on the causes of said famine. You will learn that the British wilfully crippled Bengal and Orissa (in what’s now Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) in order to prevent the Japanese from occupying the region. They burned the harvest (in what is described as the “scorched earth policy”) and sank the boats in an attempt to render the land unusable. Churchill simply wasn’t interested in the “collateral damage”: up to five million deaths (three million according to questionable figures from the British Empire). The mere redistribution of food from places of abundance to places of scarcity would have solved the problem. That could have been easily done had Churchill been a “nice man”, the film claims. There was no shortage of food, and the 2.5 million Indian soldiers fighting for the British Empire were well fed. To add insult to injury, Britain was importing grain from Australia and the ships would stop at India, before the staple was stored in the Middle East for future consumption in Europe.

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2. Viceroy’s House (Gurinder Chadha, 2017):

asking a coloniser with organising the independence of its colony is the equivalent to assigning Josef Fritzl with the social reintegration of his kids. The outcome is inevitably disastrous, yet the captor will never cease to believe that his victims are to blame. The British-born film director of Punjabi Sikh Kenyan Asian origin Gurinder Chadha opens her film with a quote from Walter Benjamin: “history is written by the victors”, gently reminding British viewers that they must rewrite they history in order to acknowledge the gargantuan atrocities of the past.

The importance of Viceroy’s House as a historical register cannot overstated. It effectively busts the myth that the Partition of India was necessary in order to prevent a bloodshed, instead revealing that it was established as convenient tool for hegemonic and oil interests in the Middle East. It would be much easier to exert control over a small and conservative Pakistan than over a socialist-leaning India, the movie reveals.

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3. Letters from Baghdad (Zeva Oelbauma/ Sabine Krayenbühl, 2017):

Let’s talk about Iraq: “We promised an Arab government with British advisors and delivered it the other way around. We tried to govern and failed. In my opinion, we tried to govern too much”. Does this sound familiar, like these words were uttered last decade? In reality they are from Gertrude Bell in the early 20th century. This British woman, often nicknamed the “the female Lawrence of Arabia” is considered one of the champions of Iraq independence, if often overlooked. The irony that her commentary remains so current a century on suggests that British meddling in the Middle East hasn’t changed so much, perhaps just reinvented itself.

This documentary made out of black and white photographs and moving images, some reenacted and some original, contains so much historical information that you will either need a pen or a prodigy’s brain to in order to retain most of it. With Tilda Swindon as the voice of Gertrude Bell, the movie will take you on a journey and history lesson of British Imperialism, vested interests and female representation.

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4. Victoria & Abdul (Stephen Frears, 2017):

This is a film highly celebratory of the British monarchy, but not without criticism of the British Empire and British colonial mindset in the late 19th century. The movie tells the story of the deeply affectionate relationship between Queen Victoria (with the usually impeccable performance by Dame Judi Dench, a film royalty herself) and her Indian spiritual guide (munshi) Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). They first met as Abdul travelled to the UK in order to hand a present to Her Majesty, who was also the Empress of India at the time. He broke protocol by making eye contact, and Queen Victoria immediately became very fond of the tall and attractive young man.

Victoria and Abdul is a very funny and witty film, with plenty of subtle comments on tolerance (or rather on the British inability to embrace it at the time). The court’s reaction to Abdul’s burka-clad wife and mother-in-law arriving in the UK are particularly amusing and symbolic of the British failure to embrace tolerance.

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5. Demons in Paradise (Jude Ratnam, 2017):

This film is both extremely personal and extremely universal. Personal because Canada-based Tamil-born documentarist Jude Ratnam travels back to his homeland Sri Lanka, which he fled decades earlier as a refugee, and opens up profound wounds of the past. And universal because it’s borderline impossible not to relate to his tragic personal history.

Demons in Paradise explores the Civil War between the dominant Sinhalese and the abject Tamil, which has ravaged the country since its independence from the UK. The demons in the title are the ghosts of an irresponsible handover from the British colonisers to the Sinhalese in 1948, the director clarifies very early on in the movie. This conflict remains largely unknown or ignored in the West, making this documentary an extremely urgent denunciation tool and piece of filmmaking.

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6. Toba Tek Singh (Ketan Mehta, 2017):

Another film about the largest forced displacement of people in the history of mankind, the Partition of India. The joy of independence in India didn’t last long: it was closely followed by the pains and the jolt of the Partition. On the 14 of August 1947 two twin nations were born, covered in blood and hatred: India and Pakistan. Toba Tek Singh, directed by the commercially and critically acclaimed Indian filmmaker Ketan Mehta, utilises a lunatic asylum – the common name for psychiatric institutions back then – as a metaphor of the madness, division and turmoil that the region experienced back then.

The institution is located in Lahore, then part of India and now firmly in Pakistan. Its inmates are almost entirely young men, with the exception of Bishen Singh (played by Pankaj Kapur, pictured above), a mostly silent old Sikh man who allegedly hasn’t slept in 15 years. Perhaps his self-imposed insomnia is a prescient sign of impending fate of his homeland. The Partition was very violent, with notions of national identity torn to pieces, family and friends divided.

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7. If Only I Were That Warrior (Valerio Ciriaci, 2015):

This one isn’t directly aimed at the British Empire, but it reveals how it lent a helping hand to its murderous associates in Italy, ensuring that war criminals remain unpunished. After all, what are friends for?

The movie investigates the most recent symbol of the Italian colonial past, the 2012 monument in Affile (a commune in Rome) dedicated to Rodolfo Graziani, a prominent military officer who acted as Mussolini’s viceroy in Ethiopia. The erection sparked an uproar, voiced by left-wing politicians and national commentators, such as Igiaba Scego, an Italian writer and activist born to Somali parents in Rome, and the collective of Bologna-based writers Wu-Ming. Scego even launched a petition. This monument stands at the centre of Ciriaci’s documentary as Graziani himself; unlike their German and Japanese counterparts, Italian war criminals never faced trial.

For many years, Ethiopia tried to put the officer on trial, but these efforts were halted by Italian and British authorities, despite the fact that his name was on the UN list of war criminals. The British Foreign Office vehemently opposed Ethiopia’s inclusion in the UN War Crimes Commission and the trial on Italian crimes committed during the 1935/36 invasion.

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8. White Mischief (Richard Radford, 1987):

A number of wealthy British aristocrats fled Britain during WW2 for Kenya, seeking refuge and a safe haven. They indulged in a debauched and hedonistic life, with little regard for locals and local customs. This film dramatises the events of the Happy Valley murder case in Kenya in 1941, when Sir Henry “Jock” Delves Broughton was tried for the murder of Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll.

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9. Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982):

This epic historical drama is based on the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the leader of India’s non-violent, non-cooperative independence struggle against the United Kingdom’s rule of India. It covers his life from the late 19th century to his assassination in 1948. Key moments include Gandhi for being on a “white” carriage of a train in South Africa and the Sal March, against the British-imposed tax on salt. The film also deals with violence against independence protesters and Gandhi’s occasional imprisonment, both perpetrated by the British colonisers.

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10. Poor Cow (Ken Loach, 1967):

Ok, we have cheated. And we love cheating on our Top 10 lists, as long as there’s a very good reason for that. Poor Cow isn’t a film about the British Empire, about how ugly life inside Britain can be. It’s a film about how our motherland can mistreat and abuse not just those outside our small island, but also those inside it. The film is authored by Ken Loach, the loudest voice of British social and political consciousness.

Based on the eponymous novel by Nell Dunn, Ken Loach’s debut drama follows the life of a young working-class mother in all of her traumas and tribulations. The beautiful Joy (Carol White) is married to Tom (John Bindon), a physically and emotionally abusive criminal who ends up in prison. She is left alone bringing up her son, and soon finds comfort with Tom’s associate Dave (a very cocky, charming any playful Terence Stamp). But he too ends up incarcerated, and Joy is once again left to fend for herself. She has to work in a pub, to do erotic modelling and to engage with richer boyfriends in order to make ends meet.

The living conditions were squalid, there was hardly any cultural diversity, the job market was scarce and as a consequence many people opted for a criminal life. This is a very powerful reminder of the conditions of the British working class five decades ago. This is not to say that everything has changed since then.

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By DMovies's team - 28-06-2018

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