The Internationale
directed by Peter Miller,
with Pete Seeger & Billy Bragg
(First Run, 2006)

"Arise you prisoners of starvation. Arise you wretched of the earth!" So begins the words to the world-renowned anthem, and so begins the film.

Peter Miller's The Internationale was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002 for Best Short Documentary. It follows the song from its conception by Eugene Pottier after the fall of the Paris Commune in the late 19th century, to being set to music a few years later by Pierre Degeyter, to being translated into dozens of languages, spreading like wildfire in the hearts of men and women throughout the word. From there, the film briefly touches upon its incorporation into officialdom during the rise of Soviet Russia in 1917, and its singing amongst much flag-waving at the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Miller reminds us that this anthem was a rallying cry for the Wobblies during the textile worker strike and, again, by volunteers who gave their lives in the Spanish Civil War fighting fascism. Other than these more well-known historic events, Miller also brings some attention to the song's role in bringing together peasant farmers in the Philippines and how it inspired the migratory workers of Mexico's Imperial Valley to organize. The film even includes a few minutes covering the adoption of the song by Jamaicans as well, at which point the soundtrack offers a fun (what else can it be called?) reggae version of the familiar melody.

Albeit, the film is short, but it is not too heavy on the history lessons. Instead, it offers a number of personal reactions to, and memories of, the song and how it impacted many lives. Briefly exploring the somewhat paradoxical associations evoked by the song, the film offers a collage of interviews with historians, activists, musicians and plain working people. These interviews are further juxtaposed with a slough of wonderful stock footage of many (perhaps long-forgotten) union meetings and protest marches. In doing so, Miller manages to show how the story of these international cries of protest and revolution is also a personal one.

Upon hearing the song today, some people are reminded of the hope it instills in calling for the freedom of the oppressed. At the same time, many hear in its tune the “establishment” overtones of the totalitarian state as once seen in Soviet Russia.

One of the highlights of the film, as such was advertised to be, is the five minutes or so of Billy Bragg's involvement. Commenting upon the creation of some new verses to replace the archaic lyrics of the British version, Bragg says that it is "time for this generation to redefine what socialism and communism mean." He wrote these verses in an attempt to refresh the energy of the song and to see if it "can translate into the 21st century" and, as his new lyrics say, "unite the human race." Bragg is followed shortly thereafter by activist Dorothy Ray Healy, who reiterates the idea that this song was sung to help realize the "dream of a world in which man's exploitation of man will end." As she points out, the song (and therefore this film) is as relevant now as ever, for economic turmoil still abounds. In a time in which a new world order is slowly settling, the oppressed the world over could sorely use a reminder of the power of song and solidarity. I believe this film will serve as a wonderful reminder for generations to come.

Now doesn't that sound like a good time?

The Internationale may get you raising your fist in the air, singing the words (in whichever language you choose) to this 136-year-old international rallying song for socialists, communists, anarchists and who knows what other -ists besides. Be careful not to sing too loudly, though; the neighbors may complain. After watching it, you may find yourself doing Google searches for the IWW chapter nearest you. Also, you'll want to fight the urge to don a black armband and too much red at work, for your colleagues may start looking at you funny, your boss may give you dirty looks and you may hear more (what seems like) static on your telephone (See Eliot Katz's "What's That Clicking on My Telephone Line").

Most of the film's advertising, as well as the DVD case, is generous with the promise of appearances by Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg. Though Seeger acts as central narrator of the film, I couldn't help but feel a little gypped to find Bragg in the film for nothing more than five minutes -- it almost feels like false advertising. I imagine the film could have also been a little longer, for wouldn't such a subject deserve more airtime? It was broadcast on PBS, but I wonder if another half hour could have been filmed with many more personalities. I mean, where was Zack de La Rocha and Howard Zinn? And what about Noam Chomsky? Surely they would have had something intelligent to add.

Though the documentary was short, the DVD does include a number of interesting extras. Most noteworthy is footage of Toscanini conducting Verdi's "Hymn of the Nations." This uncensored version includes the performance of "The Internationale" along with "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Save the Queen." Ironically enough, this footage is just as long as the featured film. The special features also include the lyrics to "The Internationale" in numerous languages, including the original French and the American and British English versions, in addition to translations in Spanish, Russian, Chinese and even Zulu!

The Internationale marks the directorial debut of producer Peter Miller. Previously, Miller has produced many documentaries directed by Ken Burns, including The War, Franklin Lloyd Wright and the highly celebrated Jazz. Those who have enjoyed The Internationale will certainly be looking forward to the 2007 release of Sacco & Vanzetti.

by Kevin Shlosberg
7 April 2007

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