As one of the most powerful mediums of our time, film has been and continues to be used as a tool for opposing war, promoting peace with justice, and building international understanding. For this reason, film is an important part of our Make Art Not War project area. To highlight a few examples, we've started a list of films recommended by CoR Network staff, allies, and friends for their powerful treatments of war and peace issues. Although the list is not by any means intended to be exhaustive, we've attempted to present a range of films spanning a range of decades, topics, and countries. If you'd like to suggest a film to add to the list, please email us at campaigns [at] culturesofresistance.org.
Another excellent resource for social justice films is the Wall of Films at Films for Action, where you can watch over 500 great documentaries on topics ranging from GMOs to Iranian politics to contemporary hacktivists—including several of the films listed below—for free!
Click the film title to read a brief synopsis and watch the trailer.
DIRECTED BY JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER (2012)
INDONESIA / USA
Named film of the year by Sight and Sound, The Act of Killing examines a country where death squad leaders are celebrated as heroes, by challenging them to reenact their real-life mass-killings in the style of the American movies they love. The result is an unsettling journey deep into the imaginations of mass-murderers and the shockingly banal regime of corruption and impunity they inhabit.
Official film site: http://actofkilling.com/
DIRECTED BY LEWIS MILLSTONE (1930)
This seminal antiwar film has been banned in numerous countries going to war (the book was burned in Nazi Germany in the lead up to WWII). Set in Germany during WWI, it follows a group of young students who go off to the front with idealism and fanfare, and quickly become disillusioned by the realities of war, as friends are killed or have limbs amputated, and commanding officers prove to be pompous fools, drunks, or both.
DIRECTED BY LEE HIRSCH (2002)
SOUTH AFRICA / USA
Winner of the Audience Award and Freedom of Expression Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Amandla! tells the uplifting and often heart-wrenching story of black South African freedom music and reveals the central role it played in the long battle against apartheid. The power of song to communicate, motivate, console, unite, and effect is masterfully explored in the first documentary film to specifically consider the music that sustained and galvanized black South Africans for more than 40 years. Interviews with key members of the movement, as well as famous South African singers and songwriters like Miriam Makeba, contribute to a rich document about the ultimate "culture of resistance" that helped topple one of the most odious regimes of the twentieth century.
DIRECTED BY GILLO PONTECORVO (1966)
ITALY / ALGERIA
Based on actual events in the Algerian War (1954–62), the Battle of Algiers is a nuanced and deeply moving exploration of colonialism and the implications of armed resistance against it. Focusing on the events of 1954–57, the film dramatizes the bloody conflict between French troops and Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) guerrillas based in the casbah. States and insurgent groups alike have used the film as a case study in guerrilla tactics; it was mostly famously screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as part of counterinsurgency training program early in the Iraq war.
DIRECTED BY TRISTAN BAUER (2006)
Winner of the best narrative feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival, this is the harrowing story of a band of Argentine soldiers sent to fight an unwinnable war and left to bear the brutal scars of the past. After learning of a friend's attempted suicide, a journalist goes back to relive his experiences in the Falklands.
DIRECTED BY KON OCHIKAWA (1956)
A period classic shot in black and white, this is the lyrical story of Mizushima, a Japanese army private at the close of WWII, who disguises himself as a Buddhist monk and stumbles through the war-torn landscape. There is one scene alone that makes the whole movie worth watching. The war has come to a close and Japan has declared its surrender. An Australian contingent surrounds a group of Japanese soldiers in Burma. The soldiers on both sides begin to sing under a full moon. The Japanese sing "Hanyu no yado" and the Australians sing "Home, Sweet Home." It is the same melody, the same angst and desire to leave war behind. It is the same song. The soldiers surrender without a shot being fired, and no blood is shed.
DIRECTED BY MARK ACHBAR AND JENNIFER ABBOTT (2003)
Based on the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan, this 2003 documentary explores the nature and spectacular rise of the dominant institution of our time through interviews with forty corporate insiders and critics including Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Milton Friedman, Howard Zinn, Vandana Shiva, and Michael Moore. One of the most successful documentaries ever to come out of Canada, The Corporation has helped fuel a decade of outrage at the outsized power of corporations in politics.
DIRECTED BY STANLEY KUBRICK (1964)
UK / USA
Released within two years of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dr. Strangelove tells the story of an unhinged U.S. Air Force General who threatens to unleash a full-on nuclear apocalypse. Starring Peter Sellers in three roles, the film is a brilliant satire of the era of MAD—mutually assured destruction—and makes a compelling case for nuclear disarmament.
DIRECTED BY DEEPA MEHTA (1998)
Based on Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, Cracking India, this is the story of the bloody 1947 partitioning of India and Pakistan as seen through the eyes of Lenny, a young girl in the cosmopolitan city of Lahore. The multi-ethnic group of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh friends who spend their days together in the park with Lenny, and the fate that befalls them, comes to represent a tragic microcosm of the indiscriminate sectarian violence that took the lives of up to a half a million people, after the British Raj created the line of partition only two days after India declared independence.
DIRECTED BY JEFF ZIMBALIST & MATT MOCHARY (2006)
BRAZIL / USA
The inspiring beats of Afro Reggae music, as well as the staggering violence in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, are brought to vivid life in this stylized account of an uplifting musical movement in Brazil. Laced with shocking statistics (3,937 minors died from gun violence in the city between 1987 and 2001, far more than in the Israel-Palestinian conflict) this documentary film tells the story of a group of neighborhood residents who decided to use music, and pride in their local culture, to counteract the violent oppression enforced by teenage drug armies and sustained by corrupt police.
DIRECTED BY ERROL MORRIS (2004)
Using archival footage, United States Cabinet conversation recordings, and interviews with its then eighty-five-year-old protagonist, The Fog of War examines the life and times of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara—who played a key role in escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War—and probes his views on the nature of modern warfare. Directed by Errol Morris, the film features an original score by Philip Glass.
Official film site: http://www.sonyclassics.com/fogofwar/indexFlash.html
DIRECTED BY SPIKE LEE (1997)
A moving documentary about four girls killed by a terrorist bombing at an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. The murders received national press attention and became an iconic symbol of the brutal racism that permeated the American south. The crime galvanized the civil rights movement, and gave that much more force to the organized campaigns of nonviolent action that were sweeping segregationist Jim Crow laws from the books, state by state. A tender memorial to the lives of the four girls, retold in detail by friends and family, the film also pulls together powerful footage and testimony about life in the segregated south, and about the freedom struggle to change it.
Watch director Spike Lee and the parents of the four girls discuss the film with WNYW host Bobby Rivers:
DIRECTED BY RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH (1982)
Richard Attenborough's 1982 biopic is a powerful account of the life of the Mohandas Gandhi and his leadership of the iconic nonviolent movement that overthrew British rule in India. The questions the film raises about the effectiveness of violent and nonviolent resistance remain as pressing as ever today.
DIRECTED BY CHRISTOPHER QUINN (2006)
USA / SUDAN
Three men from the Sudan are granted refugee status in the United States, after ten years of living in U.N. sponsored refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. They are part of a generation of "lost boys," tens of thousands of refugees who fled the civil war in the Sudan in the 1980s and 90s, may of whom perished in the desert during their thousand mile trek to Kenya. Now they must negotiate an entirely different society and culture while holding on their own and maintaining a commitment to the friends and family they left behind. By training its close-up lens on the life stories of these men, this documentary film is a unique window into the lives impacted by the dislocations—physical, emotional and spiritual—of war.
DIRECTED BY ISAO TAKAHATA (1988)
Considered by many to be one of the best antiwar films of the modern era, Grave of the Fireflies is the poignant, animated tale of the relationship between two orphaned children during WWII, after they lose their mother in the firebombing of Kobe and their father to service in the Imperial Japanese Navy.
DIRECTED BY PETER DAVIS (1974)
This Academy Award winning documentary recounts the history and attitudes of the opposing sides of the Vietnam War using archival news footage, as well as original footage and interviews. A key theme is how attitudes of American racism and self-righteous militarism helped create and prolong this bloody conflict.
DIRECTED BY EUGENE JARECKI (2012)
As America remains embroiled in conflict overseas, a less visible war is taking place at home, costing countless lives, destroying families, and inflicting untold damage on future generations of Americans. Over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever before. Filmed in more than twenty states, The House I Live In captures the stories of individuals at all levels of America’s War on Drugs—from the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the senator, the inmate to the federal judge—and offers a penetrating look inside America’s longest war. Beyond simple misguided policy, The House I Live In examines how political and economic corruption have fueled the war for forty years, despite persistent evidence of its moral, economic, and practical failures.
Official film site: http://www.thehouseilivein.org/
DIRECTED BY CHRISTIAN CARION (2005)
FRANCE / GERMANY / UK
"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Based on a true story, this film portrays one epic night on the front lines of World War I, when German, Scottish, and French soldiers called a temporary cease fire and celebrated Christmas Eve together. The war lasted four years, pulled in over thirty-five countries, dissolved empires, and killed over twenty million people. But on December 24, 1914, arms were set down and "enemies" became associates, listened to music, shared toasts, and enjoyed a much too short-lived peace.
DIRECTED BY LAURA POITRAS (2006)
IRAQ / USA
This Academy Award nominated documentary is an intimate journey into the heart of war-ravaged Iraq in the months leading up to the January 2005 elections, and one of the most prescient portrayals of the tragic contradictions of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its project to spread democracy in the Middle East. The story follows Dr. Riyadh, an Iraqi medical doctor, family man, and Sunni political candidate. An outspoken critic of the occupation, he is equally passionate about the need to establish democracy in Iraq, arguing that Sunni participation in the January 2005 elections is essential. Yet all around him, Dr. Riyadh sees only chaos, as his waiting room fills each day with patients suffering the physical and mental effects of ever-increasing violence.
DIRECTED BY DANIS TANOVIC (2001)
BOSNIA / SERBIA / FRANCE
A powerfully acerbic dark comedy about two men on opposite sides of the Balkans conflict (an ethnic Serb and an ethnic Bosnian) who find themselves stuck in the same trench between the two enemy lines, trading insults and even finding some common ground. Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003.
DIRECTED BY ALEX GIBNEY (2012)
Nowhere, says documentarian Alex Gibney, is America's divide between rich and poor more evident than on Park Avenue in New York. 740 Park, in Manhattan, is home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the country. Across the river, less than five miles away, Park Avenue runs through the South Bronx, home to the poorest congressional district in the United States. In the film, Gibney contends that America’s richest citizens have “rigged the game in their favor” and created unprecedented inequality in the United States.
DIRECTED BY CARLOS BOLADO, B.Z. GOLDBERG, JUSTINE SHAPIRO (2001)
ISRAEL / USA
Winner of dozens of film awards around the world, this 2001 documentary filmed over the course of four years explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of seven children and preteens living in the Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Israeli neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Rather than focusing on specific political events, the film lets its subjects tell their own stories of daily life, stories that seem much farther apart than the mere 20-minute distance between their completely separate worlds. Eventually a meeting is arranged between the Palestinian and Israeli youth, a rare event in this part of the world. A follow up interview series, Promises: Four Years Later, shot after the launch of the second Intifada, provides a dispiriting reminder of how quickly this hard won mutual understanding can dissipate.
DIRECTED BY ZACH NILES AND BANKER WHITE (2006)
SIERRA LEONE / USA
The powerful documentary is about a group of musicians that meet each other in refugee camps in Guinea, displaced by the brutal civil war that was waged in Sierra Leone for over a decade (1991 – 2002). The band they form together, "The Refugee All Stars," starts touring and performing at other refugee camps all over Guinea, and their songs are full of soulful and powerful anti-war messages that speak to the painful experience of living in exile. After a peace treaty was signed in 2002, the band returns to the capital (Freetown) and records their first album, called "Living Like a Refugee." In 2006 the group set out on its first international concert tour.
Official film site: www.refugeeallstars.org
DIRECTED BY INGMAR BERGMAN (1968)
A dark, psychologically devastating, masterful film that tells the story of a quiet couple who live on an unnamed island in Sweden, where they had moved to escape the ongoing civil war in the rest of the country, the cause or ideology of which is never described or elaborated upon. Their rural idyll is soon spoiled by invading rebels, who soon invite recriminations and a downward spiral of violence and betrayal felt by all residents of the island.
DIRECTED BY DAVID ZEIGER (2005)
A documentary that puts a spotlight on the suppressed story of the wide ranging antiwar movement amongst American GIs during the Vietnam War. The film artfully brings to life just how incredibly unpopular the Vietnam War was amongst much of the U.S. public, including those who were drafted to fight it, featuring interviews with many former soldiers who refused to fight, and people who organized the anti-war coffee shops near army bases that sprung up around the country.
Official film site: www.sirnosir.com
DIRECTED BY RAOUL PECK (2005)
The most honest and nuanced film made about the Rwandan genocide to date. Sometimes in April is a heartbreaking rendering of the 100-day killing spree that took the lives of 800,000 to a million Rwandans, as the international community sat idly by. Unlike other films about the genocide, Sometimes in April offers one of the most intelligent treatments of the colonial and post-colonial historical specifics that lay at the root of the conflict. The story centers around two brothers divided by political loyalties, both before and after the unbelievably tragic events unfold.
DIRECTED BY BAHMAN GHOBADI (1994)
IRAN / IRAQ
One of the first features shot in Iraq after the war, this haunting film was shot entirely with nonprofessional child actors at a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. The narrative follows a ragtag army of Kurdish orphans on the eve of the U.S. invasion, most of whom make their living by collecting and deactivating old land mines, often with devastating consequences.
FEATURING NORMAN SOLOMON, NARRATED BY SEAN PENN
DIRECTED & WRITTEN BY: LORETTA ALPER & JEREMY EARP (2007)
War Made Easy brings to the screen Norman Solomon's analysis of the strategies used by U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, to promote their agendas for war from Vietnam to Iraq. By familiarizing viewers with the techniques of war propaganda, War Made Easy encourages us to think critically about the messages put out by today's spin doctors--messages which are designed to promote and prolong a policy of militarism under the guise of the "war on terror." War Made Easy is a recipient of a grant from the Conflict Zone Film Fund.
DIRECTED BY ALEX GIBNEY (2013)
Following the release of Park Avenue, director Alex Gibney turned his attention controversial website launched by Julian Assange, which facilitated the largest release of secret government documents in U.S. history. We Steal Secrets tells Assange's sotry in parallel with that of Pfc. Chelsea Manning, the brilliant, troubled young soldier who leaked the classified documents and revealed the behind-the-scenes workings of the government’s international diplomacy and military strategy.
Check out the film's Facebook page to learn more.
DIRECTED BY ZIAD DOUEIRI (1998)
The year is 1975, when civil war engulfed the Mediterranean capital of Lebanon. The story follows young Tarek and Omar as Beirut is partitioned along a Muslim-Christian line and divided into East and West Beirut. As seen through the boys' eyes, at first the war is a lark: school has closed, the violence is fascinating, and getting from West to East is a game. But as they come of age, the war moves inexorably from adventure to tragedy.
DIRECTED BY EUGENE JARECKI (2005)
This award-winning documentary dissects the "military-industrial complex" in the United States, a phrase actually coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, in which he warned of the dangers of unaccountable war-profiteers run amok. Why We Fight is an unflinching look at the anatomy of the American war machine, weaving unforgettable personal stories with commentary by a "who's who" of military and Washington beltway insiders.
Official film site: www.whywefight.com