Favorite 10 Feature Films of Nonviolent Protest and Nonviolent Struggle

by samdiener | created - 25 Apr 2012 | updated - 19 Sep 2012 | Public

Feature films which show the dynamics of nonviolence, civil disobedience, war resistance/resistance to war, pacifism, and conscientious objection/acts based on conscience, at work.

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1. The Official Story (1985)

Not Rated | 112 min | Drama, History, War

During the final months of Argentinian Military Dictatorship in 1983, a high school teacher sets out to find out who the mother of her adopted daughter is.

Director: Luis Puenzo | Stars: Norma Aleandro, Héctor Alterio, Chunchuna Villafañe, Hugo Arana

Votes: 7,736 | Gross: $0.03M

An astonishing film relating the story of a privileged woman, a teacher, during Argentina's "Dirty War" of the 1970s, as she is awakened by women involved with the Mothers of the Disappeared to the lies and brutality on which she has unwittingly been complicit. The extent of the tragedy might be unexpected, and it breaks your heart -- open.

2. Z (1969)

M/PG | 127 min | Crime, Drama, History

Following the murder of a prominent leftist, an investigator tries to uncover the truth while government officials attempt to cover up their roles.

Director: Costa-Gavras | Stars: Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, François Périer

Votes: 22,997 | Gross: $0.08M

Based on the real-life assassination of Greek pacifist leader Grigoris Lambrakis, it's a whodunit, a work about the power of investigative journalism, and a terrifying film about the abuse of government power in the name of nationalism and militarism. The momentum and pacing of the film is indelible.

3. Mapantsula (1988)

Not Rated | 100 min | Crime, Drama

Mapantsula tells the story of Panic, a petty gangster who inevitably becomes caught up in the growing anti-apartheid struggle and has to choose between individual gain and a united stand ... See full summary »

Director: Oliver Schmitz | Stars: Thomas Mogotlane, Marcel van Heerden, Thembi Mtshali, Dolly Rathebe

Votes: 151

I believe Mapantsula is one of the best movies about the struggle against oppression ever made (almost up there with Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder, Puenzo's Official Story, and Beresford's Breaker Morant in my book). Like these other films, it beautifully and powerfully focuses on the impact of government violence on the lives of characters who are, at first, unaware of the larger forces which have been shaping their lives.

Mapantsula was ingeniously made under the noses of the South African apartheid censors. The director submitted a script for an innocuous crime-drama, and while the censors were on the set, that is what they filmed. When the censors were not hovering immediately nearby, they filmed the real script - the story of a mapantsula, or thief, who becomes politicized in an apartheid jail. Once they edited the film, they smuggled the finished print out of the country.

The film is at times brutal in its realistic depiction of the physical and psychological tortures employed by the regime of that time. At other times, it is a lyrical and believable evocation of the growing consciousness, and evolving conscience, of the title character, as he encounters more overtly political prisoners in the jail.

4. Salt of the Earth (1954)

Not Rated | 94 min | Drama, History

74 Metascore

Mexican workers at a Zinc mine call a general strike. It is only through the solidarity of the workers, and importantly the indomitable resolve of their wives, mothers and daughters, that they eventually triumph.

Director: Herbert J. Biberman | Stars: Juan Chacón, Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Bauer

Votes: 2,958

A pro-feminist union-organizing classic of effective nonviolent organizing, made in defiance of McCarthyism, featuring the heated debates between male workers and their families as they strive to build solidarity in the face of corporate exploitation and violent repression.

5. Moolaadé (2004)

Unrated | 124 min | Drama

91 Metascore

When a woman shelters a group of girls from suffering female genital mutilation, she starts a conflict that tears her village apart.

Director: Ousmane Sembene | Stars: Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélène Diarra, Salimata Traoré, Dominique Zeïda

Votes: 3,473 | Gross: $0.21M

A wrenching story of a few girls who seek the protection of a woman and a few women and male allies in a Senegalese village to avoid undergoing the torture of the traditional genital mutilation.

6. City of Hope (1991)

R | 129 min | Crime, Drama

An intersecting tale with a multitude of characters living lives which, in one way or another, revolve around an old apartment block scheduled to be demolished.

Director: John Sayles | Stars: Vincent Spano, Tony Lo Bianco, Stephen Mendillo, Chris Cooper

Votes: 2,176 | Gross: $1.26M

This one is a bit of a stretch for this category, but I think it's Sayle's best work (and that's saying a lot), and it empathetically depicts the interlocking lives of a dozen characters, including activists who are realistically depicted as simultaneously idealistic and demagogic, as they struggle to deal with an economically imploding US ex-industrial city.

7. Matewan (1987)

PG-13 | 135 min | Drama, History

73 Metascore

A labor union organizer comes to an embattled mining community brutally and violently dominated and harassed by the mining company.

Director: John Sayles | Stars: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham

Votes: 7,126 | Gross: $1.68M

The challenges of unionizing in the coal fields of West Virginia when the union was under attack from imported strikebreakers, divide-and-rule racist tactics by the coal operators, fundamentalist religious opposition, hired gun-using strike breakers, and an agent provocateur. The tragedy in this case is expected, and it still breaks your heart.

8. The Home and the World (1984)

Not Rated | 140 min | Drama

When the movie opens, a woman is recalling the events that molded her perspective on the world. Years ago, her husband, a wealthy Western-educated landowner, challenged tradition by ... See full summary »

Director: Satyajit Ray | Stars: Soumitra Chatterjee, Victor Banerjee, Swatilekha Sengupta, Gopa Aich

Votes: 1,280

At once an argument against the cloistering of women in India and a warning against the danger of demagogic social movement "leaders" who base their appeal on ethnic bigotry, religious hatred, and violent tactics. Another Satyajit Ray masterpiece.

9. Dead Man Walking (1995)

R | 122 min | Crime, Drama

80 Metascore

A nun, while comforting a convicted killer on death row, empathizes with both the killer and his victim's families.

Director: Tim Robbins | Stars: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry

Votes: 86,521 | Gross: $39.39M

A fictionalized version of the work of capital punishment abolitionist and nun Helen Prejean (whose famous line is: which of us would want to be judged solely by our worst action). The power of the anti-death penalty message is reinforced by depicting the convict on death row as fully guilty of a horribly brutal crime, but still a human being.

10. Gandhi (1982)

PG | 191 min | Biography, Drama, History

79 Metascore

The life of the lawyer who became the famed leader of the Indian revolts against the British rule through his philosophy of nonviolent protest.

Director: Richard Attenborough | Stars: Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Rohini Hattangadi, Roshan Seth

Votes: 214,234 | Gross: $52.77M

I hesitate to list this one, because it is horribly hagiographic about Gandhi the very flawed person, which it utterly refuses to depict. Ben Kingsley does a fantastic acting job, but the screenplay does violence to the truth, and thus to Gandhi's best messages, by portraying him as a plaster Mahatma (great soul). (For a short "pacifist critique of Gandhi," see my short piece at http://www.peaceworkmagazine.org/pacifist-critique-gandhi). Despite it's utter failure as a biography, it does show powerful scenes of nonviolent action at work that are spectacular and unparallelled, and for this reason I reluctantly include it.

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