Film class — week 13

17 November 2006, 2202 EST

Film #13 “Gandhi” (1982). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Sharp, Gene, There Are Realistic Alternatives (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2003).

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

“Gandhi” is an outstanding film about the public life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, often called Mohatma for “great soul.” The work won 8 Academy Awards, including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. Unfortunately, at 188 minutes, it is difficult to use in a classroom setting. The Tuesday section of my class meets for 150 minutes, plenty of time for almost every film this semester, but insufficient for this one.

Nonetheless, I selected the film because of the unique perspective it offers on global politics.

After all, Gandhi was the key figure in the mass movement leading up to Indian independence and is best known for his advocacy and use of nonviolent noncooperation. Gandhi’s beliefs, teachings and practices constitute the “text” of this film. It is essentially impossible to separate his ideas and life from the action on the screen.

The struggle for independence was difficult. It took years for civil disobedience to evict the British from the Indian subcontinent, many thousands of Gandhi’s followers died in the various related struggles, and his desire for a unified India failed when the independent and separate Muslim state of Pakistan was created.

Nonetheless, the film tells a story of inspirational success — and focuses on actors and ideas that are rarely discussed in the mainstream of the international relations field. Unlike the discipline, this film centers upon the nonviolent noncooperative strategies employed by ordinary people in places — for the most part, at least — far removed from the Great Hall or battlefield.

Arguably, the film belongs to the genre of comedy, which allows me to place it within the broader theme of this class. Comedies, recall, typically focus on the day-to-day successes of ordinary people. While Gandhi’s accomplishments ultimately proved to be sweeping in scope, and certainly changed the identity of those sitting in the Great Hall, the film emphasizes the prolonged incremental progress achieved by his “constancy of purpose.

Gene Sharp’s monograph, which the author has placed in the public domain, puts noncooperative nonviolence in a broader context. On the macro-level, he develops ideas about nonviolent grand strategy. On the micro-level, Sharp identifies nearly 200 tactics for implementing nonviolent action.

I encountered Sharp about 20 years ago in a workshop in Mexico sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and Social Science Research Council. He is a founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and continues to produce interesting work for that organization. His CV is lengthy and impressive, but includes few publications in IR journals.

The students and I discussed a number of reasons why the field pays so little attention to nonviolent strategies of noncooperation. Given core assumptions traditionally embraced by IR scholars, the answer is perhaps unremarkable.

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