Top ten nationalism movies

These movies are selected partly for their artistic qualities but mainly for the insights they can provide into nationalist thought and behavior. It is of course a subjective selection and I would welcome additional suggestions. Some of the best nationalism-related films are little known: made for TV or shot in distant countries on low budgets (such as The Terrorist, which cost $50,000).

I tried to avoid straight nationalist propaganda films such as Henry V (1989), Braveheart (1995), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Brotherhood of War (2004) or Opium War (1997), although these films are valuable in their own way.

1          Battle of Algiers (1966) Gillo Pontecorvo’s documentary-style portrayal of Algeria’s war against French colonialism became an instant classic. Pontevorvo’s stated goal was to represent the Algerian people as a major protagonist, and in this he largely succeeds. The film retains sufficient distance to enable viewers to understand the position of the French army bent on crushing the rebellion. The Pentagon showed the film to US officers before their deployment to Iraq.

2          Schindler’s List (1993) Steven Spielberg’s account of the true story of the rescue of 1,000 Polish Jews, based on the novel by Thomas Keneally. It won seven Academy awards and helped stimulate a serious public debate about the Holocaust in Germany. One drawback to the film as a representation of the Holocaust is that it depicts survival. Movies that show the Holocaust without hope, such as The Grey Zone (2001) are too brutal to take in.

3          Sometime in April (2005) This movie, made for HBO by Haitian film maker Raoul Peck, recreates the dynamics of the Rwandan genocide in chilling realistic fashion.  In contrast the better known Hotel Rwanda (2004) avoids confronting the horrors directly, choosing instead to center its story around survivors, and the foreigners trapped in the hotel.

4          Before the Rain (1994). Milcho Manchevski offers an explanation of the Balkan wars through the prism of rival clans (Albanians and Macedonians) with a gripping Romeo and Juliet plot line. Beautifully filmed and with haunting music, it is more effective than other well-meaning films that try to depict the Yugoslav Wars head on, such as Welcome to Sarajevo (1997). It includes a not entirely successful middle section set in London where he tries to show such primal group antagonisms are not unique to the Balkans.

5          Bloody Sunday, (2001). Paul Greengrass’s documentary style reconstruction of the fateful 1972 protest march where paratroops killed 13, triggering the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland. Greengrass focuses on the decisions made by the leaders on both sides as events slide beyond their control. Other impressive films on the Troubles include Omagh, and on the 1920s Irish civil war The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) and Michael Collins (1996).

6          Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) Aparna Sen’s film places a Hindu women and Muslim man together on a bus trip down from the mountains in which they encounter nationalist thugs and indifferent police. A low-key and somewhat sentimental but very humane film.  Deepak Mehta’s Earth (1998) is a powerful account of the 1947 Partition, through the eyes of a Parsi family caught in the middle.

7          The Terrorist (1998). Santosh Sivan, an Indian Tamil, tells the story of the recruitment and dispatch of the 19 year old girl who carries out the 1991 suicide bombing that killed Rajiv Gandhi, on behalf of the Tamil Tigers waging a secessionist war in Sri Lanka. As convincing a depiction of the terrorist mind-set as you are going to find.

8          Skin (2008) Anthony Fabian’s film is based on the true case of Sandra Laing, a girl with African features born to two white Afrikaner parents in 1950s South Africa. Her parents won a court case defining race as based on descent and not appearance, but she was ostracized by white society and eventually disowned by her family.

9          Night of Truth (2004) This film by Fanta Regina Nacro tells of a reconciliation gathering between two warring tribes in an allegorical West African state. Fear and revenge are not so easily dispelled. One of the few indigenous films that try to tackle the nature of bloody ethnic conflict in Africa head on.

10        The Russian Ark (2002) Aleksandr Sokurov’s slow, hypnotic tour of the Hermitage museum come to life is a brilliant essay on how a nation’s history can be compressed into a series of tableaux. It is also the first and as far as I know only movie recorded in a single live take.

If after all that you need some light relief, there is a small set of nationalism-themed comedy films out of the UK, such as Passport to Pimlico (1949); The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995), and Stone Of Destiny (2008).


2 thoughts on “Top ten nationalism movies

  1. I am glad to see Mr and Mrs. Iyer being mentioned as a nationalist film, here in India, we commonly would look into it as an anti-communal film. In fact, there was a gentre of nationalist films created in the 60s and 70s with a hyperbolic flavour in India, which is obvious after the colonial experiences. Among the lifht but entertaining films of Bollywood , Lagan was one that took up a cricket match as the meta narrative and made quite an impact. And as far as I remember was also selected for Oscar nomination as well. Similarly, a very recent Bengali film, Egaro , meaning eleven took up a historic football match as their story line. It was the match where Bengal team Mohunbagan played against the Bristish football team barefooted and won the match-they created a history. Now when India is nowhere in the world cup and Bengal teams comprise of mercinary players from various states of Africa, this story stirrs the common Bengali nostalgia of the past. Bengal suffers a golden age syndrome which actually has a historic context. Another film on Indian Hockey team of women winning against Pakistan , trained by a Muslim coach, who had been charged for allowing his team to lose against Pakistan , had been quite a hit. It seems this story also is based on partial truth. But this anti-Pakistan fervour ultimately narrows down the broader base of Indian nationalism as a whole.It only highlights one perspective of it. But, strangely , it is true that the feeling of competition leads to a frezy when it comes against Pakistan during Cricket matches! It is even more funny, that this film on Hockey, titled Chuk De India, had a subtle yet vivid campaign against India’s overt favouritism towards cricket. But, alas! Chuk De India, the title song is happily taken by the Indian cricket team and sung during each of its success moments, if especially the win comes against the divorced nation-i mean Pakistan.

  2. I agree with Lagan – the film makes me feel uncomfortable and I’m American, not British.

    And the movie that fails the quality test but screams USA is of course “Red Dawn”. I’m 55 and was born and raised on US Naval Air stations. To me, the Chinese and Russians are still commies and I still like to watch Red Dawn, as goofy as it is. My children don’t even know what “duck and cover” means.


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