BC Fine Arts Professor Highlights Four Films that Address Social Justice

John MLongtime Boston College Film Studies Professor John Michalczyk is known for tackling some of society’s most pressing concerns in his own work: He has produced films on clergy abuse, peace in the Middle East and Ireland, the lasting effects of the Holocaust, emigration, and interfaith relations. Recently, he spoke to the Boston Globe about four films (that aren’t his own) that address major events associated with issues of social justice. Below are his recommendations.

Battle of Algiers – a 1966 feature film from Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo that exposed the horrors of war and torture, in convincing realism. Empire Magazine named it the sixth best film of world cinema of all time.

“[The striking nature of its realism] was my first reaction on viewing it in the late 1960s,” Michalczyk told the Globe. “The final scenes of the Algerian struggle for independence from 1954 to 1962 radiate with a visual power that could be mistaken for archival footage. The segment of three Algerian women planting bombs must have evoked a chilling relevance when it was screened for the Pentagon in 2003.”

Titicut Follies – This 1967 documentary exposed conditions at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s a movie Roger Ebert called “one of the most despairing documentaries I have ever seen.”

“There is harassment, over-medication, a gruesome force-feeding, and dehumanizing strip searches,” said Michalczyk. “But I still shudder most at the verbal abuse of a prisoner who finally bursts out in impotent rage.”

Harlan County, USA – This 1977 Oscar winner for best documentary feature chronicles a strike conducted by Kentucky coal miners who were seeking better wages and working conditions. According to the Village Voice, “[Director Barbara] Kopple sketches out a succinct historical context of nearly a hundred years of union building and its resultant bloodshed, a vast national story that still goes missing from public-school history texts.”

“Interviewing participants ranging from the strikers and their wives to the upper echelons of the company, Kopple paints a dreary picture of the miner’s life,” said Michalczyk. “Their voices, raspy from black lung, resonated with me, having met neighbors with the same condition as I grew up near an anthracite mine in Pennsylvania.”

Standard Operating Procedure – This 2008 documentary reports on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, and the soldiers who took pictures seeming to celebrate their role as abusers. “This is not a ‘political’ film nor yet another screed about the Bush administration or the war in Iraq,” Ebert wrote. “It is driven simply, powerfully, by the desire to understand those photographs.”

According to Michalczyk, the film shows that these American soldiers were “bored with their duties and passed the time by using the prisoners as sources of entertainment, at one point leading one with a leash, as seen in the iconic photo. For me the artistic production values of the film stood in contrast to the sordid images of the soldiers with ‘dirty hands.’”

“Perspectives” highlights some of the important issues being explored by the Boston College community and beyond that reflect the School of Social Work’s commitment to social justice.

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