Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 27, 2015

Big Data

Filed under: computers,Internet — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

On March 24th Art Francisco posted a link to a NY Times article on my Facebook timeline about Facebook hosting news feeds that read in part:

With 1.4 billion users, the social media site has become a vital source of traffic for publishers looking to reach an increasingly fragmented audience glued to smartphones. In recent months, Facebook has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site.

Such a plan would represent a leap of faith for news organizations accustomed to keeping their readers within their own ecosystems, as well as accumulating valuable data on them. Facebook has been trying to allay their fears, according to several of the people briefed on the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were bound by nondisclosure agreements.

This prompted Art to raise the following question:

Facebook is a 21st century social network and news medium owned and operated by our ruling class. Don’t we need a social network and news medium that is for the working class?

Louis N. Proyect, you’re a well known facebook pundit on the left, what do you think? Does facebook serve the needs of the movement, or can we do better?

I was glad to hear from Art since it reminded me that I wanted to write about this matter ever since Greg Grandin’s article on “The Anti-Socialist Origins of Big Data” appeared in The Nation on October 23, 2014. Greg’s article took up in turn a New Yorker article by Evgeny Morozov on the Salvador Allende’s planners making extensive use of computers for economic development as part of Project Cybersyn, the brainchild of cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer, whose “Designing Freedom”—about his work in Chile—I read some twenty years ago. I was interested in what Beer had to say since my colleagues and I had been involved in a similar project but on a much smaller scale in Sandinista Nicaragua.

We learn from Greg that big corporations appropriated the technology but for contrary ends:

Morozov makes the case that, ironically, it is in Allende’s Project Cybersyn that one can trace the beginning of today’s use of computers by our hyper-linked, consumer-desire economy, by Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping,” Uber and the like, as well as new schemes of “algorithmic regulation” cooked up by neoliberal urban planners, who want to “replace rigid rules issued by out-of-touch politicians with fluid and personalized feedback lops generated by gadget-wielding customers.” Project Cybersyn looks like a “dispatch from the future.” “The socialist origins of big data,” runs a teaser for Morozov’s essay.

Greg supplements Morozov’s customary techno-pessimism by pointing out that computers were used by Pinochet to keep track of the left as part of its overall counterrevolutionary mission.

But there’s a part of the story that Morozov misses, concerning the darker side of the pervasiveness of “big data” in our daily lives. He writes that when Augusto Pinochet staged his Washington-backed coup on September 11, 1973, overthrowing Allende and installing his long dictatorship, he dismantled Project Cybersyn. “Pinochet,” Morozov writes, “had no need for real-time centralized planning.”

But he did have a need for computers, which, Cybersyn notwithstanding, were rare in Latin America in the early 1970s. Washington began to provide Latin America’s right-wing dictatorships with the latest in computer technology, as part of its larger campaign to “modernize” and “professionalize” their intelligence agencies.

Of course, this was not the first time fascists used electronic recordkeeping for repressive ends. Edwin Black’s “IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation” demonstrates that the same tab machines being used by insurance companies and banks in the USA were put to use in the Third Reich’s census, which kept track of Jews.

For that matter, the Internet itself was Satan’s Spawn to begin with, when you stop and think about it. It evolved out of ARPANET, a Pentagon project that was designed to link remote computers through a network using TCP/IP.

Morozov has become something of a prophet of doom when it comes to the Internet. In books such as “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” and “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism” and countless articles in Slate, the New Republic, and major media, he issues jeremiads that remind me a bit of the classic New Yorker cartoon with some guy in a long robe, wearing a beard, and carrying a sign—this time with the words “Forsake Twitter to Save Your Soul” or some such thing.

Of course, there’s plenty of grist for his mill with people like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Jeff Bezos controlling much of the software we use to communicate and buy things, plus vultures like Time-Warner and Verizon looking after the infrastructure. In an article about FB banning anonymity, Morozov calls for something that sounds like Art Francisco’s “Don’t we need a social network and news medium that is for the working class?”

It’s time that citizens articulate a vision for a civic Internet that could compete with the dominant corporatist vision. Do we want to preserve anonymity to help dissidents or do we want to eliminate it so that corporations stop worrying about cyber-attacks? Do we want to build new infrastructure for surveillance—hoping it will lead to a better shopping experience—that would be abused by data-hungry governments? Do we want to enhance serendipitous discovery, to ensure exposure to new and controversial ideas, to maximize our ability to think critically about what we see and read on the Net.

Maybe because I was a software developer for 44 years and know what it is involved to create a crappy little financial system for Goldman-Sachs or Columbia University, this sort of proposal strikes me as utterly utopian. As long as we live under capitalism, we are going to have to rely on technology that is a double-edged sword.

It is not only the Internet that is subject to government surveillance. Long before there was an Internet, the left was obsessed over wiretapping. In the SWP, our comrades used to joke about it when we called each other to discuss some antiwar demonstration we were organizing. We were so sure that the FBI was listening in on our conversations, we’d make wisecracks like “FBI, get off our phone call.”

It wasn’t just the phone that was problematic. There was also mail. We assumed that the FBI was opening our mail when it saw fit. But why would we stop using the telephone or the post office to help organize our activity? What would be the alternative? Carrier pigeon? Tin cans connected by waxed string?

I have a different take on these questions, influenced to a large extent by what Lenin wrote (as opposed to what Leninists write.) In “What is to be Done”, he proposed organizational norms that conformed to changes in the mode of production. The “Economists” who preferred struggles to be localized at the plant gate level were a reflection of the more primitive, handicrafts phase of Russian capitalism when shops were smaller and more isolated. He noticed the great concentration of large factories in major cosmopolitan centers and concluded that a more professional and more generalized approach was needed in line with the changed circumstances.

Economism belonged to Russia’s past; orthodox Marxism was the way forward. He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the highly complex and specialized nature of modern mass production. He saw socialist parties as the working-class equivalent of large-scale industrial plants. A centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor was needed to move the struggle forward, just as it was necessary to construct steam locomotives. Lenin was no enemy of capitalist technology and mechanization. Rather he sought to appropriate its positive features whenever necessary.

If the Social Democracy of the early 20th century was a reflection of “Fordist” advances over earlier small-scale manufacturing, isn’t there a need to rethink how we are organized today in light of post-Fordist production, and networked technologies more specifically? If the bourgeoisie relies more and more on such advances for its own purposes, why should the working class be afraid of “being abused by data-hungry governments” as Morozov puts it?

In fact the activists using IPhones to record police brutality for Youtube or Facebook to organize protests do not need to read Lenin to get the green light to build movements that take advantage of the Internet. Our task as Marxists is to help the scattered movements unite into a mighty and united force that is capable of transforming society—in essence the same task that existed in Czarist Russia in 1903 but within the context of less advanced tools.


My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

A Quixotic Longing for a Benign Authority

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq


I attended the press screening for “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” with the expectation that I would learn something about the controversial novelist whose name has become synonymous with Islamophobia. Fully expecting his character (he plays himself) to be a cross between Pamela Geller and Salman Rushdie, I was surprised—if not shocked—to see him rendered as a genial, self-deprecating and altogether likeable individual who wins over his kidnappers in the course of the film. Since the film is fiction, it was up to writer/director Guillaume Nicloux to imagine a writer who met his own ideals—and implicitly that of Houellebecq as well. So instead of imagining the kidnappers as jihadists anxious to take vengeance on a writer who has insulted Islam, they are instead three apolitical but physically intimidating men hired by an unidentified party on a contract basis.

Luc the ringleader is a longhaired Roma with the body of a sumo wrestler who tells Houellebecq that he trained Israeli soldiers in the martial arts including the technique needed to rip off an enemy’s ear, not the sort of person you would want to trifle with. But in a scene that epitomizes the film’s off-kilter comic sense, the tensest moment between captors and captive is over some detail in Houellebecq’s first book—a biography of the Gothic novelist H.P. Lovecraft. Luc insists that the book describes Houellebecq purloining a sweat-stained cushion that belonged to Lovecraft from some museum, which he denies is in the book. As Luc grows increasingly angry at Houellebecq’s denial, the author follows the Falstaffian principle that discretion is the better part of valor and states that he might have forgotten what he wrote after all. Since Houellebecq has the appearance of a Bowery flophouse resident and drinks glass after glass of wine throughout the film (one suspects that it was not grape juice), we suspect that Luc had it right all along.

read full article

March 25, 2015

The Chimpanzee and the Storks: an excerpt from Michel Houellebecq’s “Whatever”

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Celine has entered great literature as others enter their homes.

–Leon Trotsky

An excerpt from Michel Houellebecq’s “Whatever”:

Friday and Saturday I didn’t do much; let’s say I meditated, if you can all it that I remember having thought of suicide, of its paradoxical usefulness. Let’s put a chimpanzee in a tiny cage fronted by concrete barn. The animal would go berserk, throw itself against the walls, rip out its hair, inflict cruel bites on itself, and in 73% of cases will actually end up killing itself. Let’s now make a breach in one of the walls, which we will place right next to a bottomless precipice. Our friendly sample quadrumane will approach the edge, he’ll look down, remain at the edge for ages, return there time and again, but generally he won’t teeter over the brink; and in all events his nervous state will be radically assuaged.

My meditation on chimpanzees prolonged late into the night of Saturday and Sunday, and I finished up laying the foundations for an animal story called Dialogues Between a Chimpanzee and a Stork, which in fact constituted a political pamphlet of rare violence. Taken prisoner by a tribe of storks, the chimpanzee was at first self-preoccupied, his thoughts fur away. One morning, summoning up his courage, he demanded to see the eldest of the storks. Immediately brought before the bird, he raised his arms dramatically to the sky before pronouncing this despairing discourse:

Of all economic and social systems, capitalism is unquestionably the most natural. This already suffices to show that it is bound to be the worst. Once this conclusion is drawn it only remains to develop a workable and consistent set of concepts, that is, one whose mechanical functioning will permit, proceeding from facts introduced by chalice, the generation of multiple proofs which reinforce the predetermined judgment, the way that bars of graphite can reinforce the structure of a nuclear reactor. That in a simple task, worthy of a very young monkey; however I would like to disregard it.

During the migration of the spermatic flood towards the neck of the uterus, an imposing phenomenon, completely respectable and absolutely essential for the reproduction of species, one sometimes observes the aberrant comportment of certain spermatozoa. They look ahead, they look behind, they sometimes even swim against the current for a few brief seconds, and the accelerated wriggling of their tail now seems to translate as the revising of an ontological decision. If they do not compensate for this surprising indecision by a given velocity they generally arrive too late, and consequently rarely participate at the grand festival of genetic recombination. And so it was in August 1793 that Maximilien Robespierre was carried along by the movement of history like a crystal of chalcedony caught in a distant avalanche, or better still like a young stork with still too feeble wings, born by unhappy chance just before the approach of winter, and which suffers considerable difficulty — the thing is understandable — in maintaining a correct course during the crossing of jet-streams. Now jet streams are, as we know, particularly violent on the approaches of Africa. Rut I shall refine my thinking once more.

On the day of his execution Maximilien Robespierre had a broken jaw. It was held together by a bandage. Just before placing his head under the blade the executioner wrenched off his bandage; Robespierre let out a scream of pain, torrents of blood spurted from his wound, his broken teeth spilled forth on the ground. Then the executioner blandished the bandage at the end of his arm like a trophy, showing it to the crowd massed mound the scaffold. People were laughing, jeering. At this point the chroniclers generally add: “The Revolution was over.” This is rigorously exact. ‘At the very moment the executioner brandished his disgusting blood soaked bandage to the acclaim of the crowd, I like to think that in the mind of Robespierre there was something other than suffering. Something apart from the feeling of failure. A hope? Or doubtless the feeling that he’d done what he had to do, Maximilien Robespierre, I love you.

The eldest stork replied simply, in a slow and terrible voice: Tat twam asi. [LP: this is Sanskrit for “That thou art”, words found in the Rig Veda to indicate one’s connection to the Infinite] Shortly afterwards the chimpanzee was executed by the tribe of storks; he died in atrocious pain, transpierced and emasculated by their pointed beaks. For having questioned the order of the world the chimpanzee had to perish; in fact one could understand it; really, that’s how it was.

A Wolf at the Door

Filed under: Brazil,Film — louisproyect @ 5:22 pm

Opening Friday at the Village East Cinema in NY, “A Wolf at the Door” is a distinctly noirish tale of obsession and murder by first-time Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra. It is distinguished by its realism and the use of working-class subjects, a bus inspector named Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz) and his lover Rosa (Leandra Leal) who are reminiscent of the characters found in a Jim Thompson novel even though they are based on a real-life incident that shocked Brazil, namely the kidnapping and murder of the bus inspector’s young daughter by his lover after he had dumped her.

While my general orientation is to review films with some kind of social or political relevance, I have a decided weakness for film noir, a genre associated in part with the post-WWII disillusionment that some leftist screenwriters felt with the looming Cold War and the loss of New Deal idealism.

That being said, there is an issue that does have a social resonance even though director maintains was not intended as social commentary, namely the abortion that Bernardo forces on Rosa. For Brazilian woman, the restrictive laws that make abortion illegal except for cases of rape or to save a woman’s life have led to up to a million illegal abortions a year. However, Rosa sought to have the baby and not terminate the pregnancy. Perhaps the main link between the film and the state of women in Brazil is the power that men have over their bodies.

Bernardo begins his affair with Rosa while waiting for a commuter train one afternoon on the same platform with her. They share nothing but animal magnetism that requires very little commitment until she demands more and more of his time. The more that she demands, the more distance he puts between them until her obsession leads her to stalk his home and interject herself into his family’s life. She pretends to be a friend of a friend of Bernardo’s wife who innocently welcomes into her home and as a kind of surrogate aunt to their young daughter.

After Bernardo shanghaies her into a doctor’s office to have a forced abortion, Rosa retaliates by robbing him of his own flesh-and-blood. There is no moral to this story except one of human frailty. The director likens it to the Greek tragedy of Medea, who slays the children she had with Jason after he abandons her.

But as I said, for me the film evokes film noir much more than Greek tragedy especially those based on novels by Jim Thompson (The Grifters, The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me) or Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Cry of the Owl). With its gritty realism and believable dialog, this starkly rendered tale of obsession and murder has considerable power. Strongly recommended.

March 24, 2015

Socially Relevant Film Festival wrap-up

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Screen shot 2015-03-24 at 3.32.31 PM

SR Socially Relevant Film Festival New York wraps 2nd edition with awards to the winning films, in Memoriam to Albert Maysles and the Justice and Peace Award to Guy Davidi

SR Socially Relevant Film Festival New York wrapped its 2nd annual edition on March 22, at The Fourth Restaurant, after a week of screenings of 53 films from 33 countries and weekend industry panels. The festival opened at CUNY Graduate Center – Proshansky Auditorium with Hüseyin Karabey’s Come to My Voice sponsored by the German Consulate General of New York and co-sponsored by MEMEAC CUNY.

The following two days of the festival took place at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, the home of legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles who was scheduled to give a Masterclass and participate in the Storytelling panel of SR 2015. SR Film festival honored Albert Maysles posthumously, in Memoriam, with the Lifetime of Inspiration Award for inspiring and guiding more than one generation of filmmakers in the US and abroad.

One of the documentaries of the festival’s slate, Lighter than Orange, directed by Matthias Leupold won the Best Documentary Award of the festival in the form of a DVD-VOD distribution deal offered by festival partner Cinema Libre Studio of Los Angeles. The award trophy was the Sona Vessel created and donated by Michael Aram symbolizing the art of storytelling. Presented by Jury member Nareg Hartounian, the award was received on behalf of the director during the closing awards ceremony on Sunday, by Simona Foersch, Press and Cultural Affairs Representative at the German Consulate General of New York.

The Festival moved downtown to the Tribeca Cinemas from the 19th to the 21st of March, where the second part of the program was screened in the narrative and documentary feature categories with a number of shorts. The winner of the Narrative Feature Category, The Challat of Tunis directed by Kaouther Ben Hania won a week-long run at the Quad Cinema and was offered the Sona Vessel award trophy. The award was presented by Nicole Ansari-Cox, member of the Narrative Grand Jury during the closing award ceremony.

The Documentary and Narrative shorts Mamma är Gud directed by Maria Bäck and Zacharie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore directed by Alberto Segre, respectively won a digital distribution deal with festival partner IndiePix and scriptwriting software offered by Final Draft for the narrative film. The awards were presented by Filippo Piscopo member of the documentary shorts Jury and Mariette Monpierre, member of the Narrative and Grand Jury.

The Copenhagen Restaurant next door to Tribeca Cinemas became the festival media hub with a special menu and drinks featuring the titles of the films, while AOA Grill received the festival crowd for discussions that continued into the wee hours of the morning each day of the festival.

This year, the festival held Industry panels that were hosted by academic partner The School of Visual Arts SocDoc MFA department in Chelsea. These panels covered Distribution moderated by Mike Sargent of WBAI Pacifica Radio a media partner of the festival, Storytelling moderated by Louis Proyect, and Diversity Casting, co-organised by SAG-AFTRA’s Adam Moore, with a culminating panel, Next: Dialogue on the Potential of Art as a Revolutionary Tool, organized by Adam Kritzer at the Center for Remembering and Sharing, also one of the festival’s partners.

A special award, The SR Peace and Justice Award, was presented this year to Guy Davidi (Five Broken Cameras) for his short film High Hopes which was part of the festival slate. Guy Davidi was Skyped in from Tel Aviv for an interview following the screening of High Hopes at Tribeca Cinemas. The film screened with Cinema Palestine directed by Tim Schwab and was attended by well-known Palestinian film and stage actor Mohammad Barki, featured in Cinema Palestine, who participated in the Q&A. Bakri will personally deliver Guy Davidi’s trophy when he returns to Tel Aviv later this week.

In her presentation speech, Founding Artistic Director Nora Armani said, “I see the festival as a movement for the promotion of socially relevant film content not just a week of screenings.” SR Socially Relevant Film Festival New York also awarded its annual Vanya Exerjian Award – Empowering Women and Girls, named after Founder Artistic Director Nora Armani’s cousin actress/ film producer Vanya Exerjian and uncle Jack H. Exerjian who were victims of a hate crime 11 years ago. The award was offered to E’ Stata Lei (It Was Her), directed by Francesca Archibugi, for her film treating the issue of violence against women.

For the second year in a row, the Women Film Critics Circle (WFCC) presented an award to one of the films, and the winner this year was We Cannot Go There Now, My Dear directed by Carol Mansour, winner of last year’s Documentary Award.

The jury for screenwriting headed by Pulitzer Prize and multi-award winning screen and stage writer Robert Schenkkan and dramaturg Morgan Jenness, selected as best script Stepping Out by Steve Bensinger. The award is a certificate from Final Draft and free inclusion in InkTip a website where producers look for their next projects. The award was presented by Jury members Morgan Jenness, Brigitte Gauthier and Ruth Priscilla Kirstein.

Winners of the festival awards and panelists were offered a special thank you gift, courtesy of festival partner City Winery, in the form of a bottle of wine with customised Winner or Panelist labels with the festival laurels and logo and a festival bag.

The awards ceremony was sponsored by The Fourth Restaurant and Fair Vodka. A host of VIP, film directors, panelists, jury members and festival goers gathered on Sunday to celebrate the 2nd annual SR Socially Relevant Film Festival New York, sipping the festival’s official drink: The SR Winter Tonic based on Quinoa Vodka, anisette and an orange peel. Cheers to year 2 and looking forward to Y3!

The Awards:

  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

In Memoriam

Lifetime of Inspiration

Albert Maysles



  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

The Challat of Tunis

By Kaouther Ben Hania

Feature Film Award

Grand Prize

The Award was presented by Nicole Ansari-Cox, member of the Narrative Grand Jury. And was received on behalf of the Production by a team member.


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Lighter Than Orange

By Matthias Leupold

Documentary Film Award

Grand Prize

The award was presented by Nareg Hartounian, member of the Documentary Feature Jury and was received on behalf of the director by Simona Foersch, Press and Cultural Affairs, at the German Consulate General of New York.


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Vanya Exerjian Award

(Empowering Women and Girls)

E’ Stata Lei (It Was Her)

by Francesca Archibugi

The award was presented by Jessica Vale the winner of the same award at the inaugural edition of SR in 2014.


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Justice and Peace Award

Guy Davidi – High Hopes


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Documentary Short

Mamma är Gud

by Maria Bäck

The award was accepted by a festival team member on behalf of the director.


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Narrative Short

Zacharie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

by Alberto Segre

The award was accepted by a friend of the filmmaker.


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

WFCC Award

We Cannot Go There Now, My Dear

by Carol Mansour

The award was presented by Edie Nugent of WFCC.




SR Socially Relevant Film Festival NY

Nora Armani or Lucie Tripon


(917) 318 2290


New Directors/New Films 2015

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

Although this article will review only three of the offerings from the 2015 New Directors/New Films Festival, a yearly event co-produced by the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center, I strongly urge New Yorkers to check the full schedule at http://newdirectors.org/. Those who appreciate my aesthetic and political judgment can rest assured that the festival will connect you with today’s filmmaking vanguard. The festival began last Wednesday and runs through Sunday. The three films considered in this article will be showing later this week and epitomize exactly what I am looking for in cinema. Combining politics with art, they are a reminder of what good filmmaking is all about in an age of declining standards.

“Line of Credit”, which plays at MOMA on Thursday at 8:45pm, is now the fourth film I have seen made by a Georgian director and proof once again that this beleaguered former Soviet republic is producing some leading edge films even if it is falling apart economically and socially.

Of course, it might be the case that there is an inversely proportional relationship between the economic health of a society and the quality of films, with the USA demonstrating that economic power is not conducive to making quality films. By the same token, a Georgian (or Palestinian or Kurdish, etc.) director feels a certain urgency about his country’s fate that rules out escapist fantasies.

Like the Dardenne brothers’ brilliant “Two Days, One Night”, “Line of Credit” is a film with a repeating motif from beginning to end. In their film, it is scene after scene in which the leading character, a woman factory worker, tries to persuade former fellow workers to forsake their yearly bonus in exchange for gettng her job back and escaping economic ruin.

In “Line of Credit”, we see Nino, an attractive fortyish woman played by Nino Kasradze who appears in every scene, on a non-stop search for money to keep a roof over her family’s head and creditors at bay. A series of bad investment decisions exacerbated by the war with separatists and the general economic collapse in Georgia have left her hanging by a thread. The film—literally—consists of her making trips to pawn shops or used jewelry stores, etc. where she is unloading one precious family possession or another in order to pay off a loan shark breathing down her neck, gas bills, her best friend’s cancer treatments, her daughter’s tuition at a private school (she can ill afford to begin with) and the like.

The “drama”, such as it is, is exactly that faced by other Georgians, Greeks, the Irish, Spaniards, and millions of Americans—namely how to survive in a world in which one is forced to live on credit. As grim as this sounds, the film is enlivened by sardonic wit of the kind that I have learned to appreciate in Georgian film. In one scene, a French tourist who has missed the tour bus in Tbilisi, stops in at Nino’s tiny bake shop that has been bereft of customers for months. To demonstrate the Georgian propensity for hospitality, she not only treats the Frenchman to free pastries but rushes home to bring back a bottle of Georgian brandy to accompany the pastries. Part of her motivation in doing so is to get drunk, a way to anesthetize herself against the stress brought on by financial insecurity.

In this scene, her waitress, who has joined in the festivities, recounts a national legend about Georgia’s place in the world. After God created Earth, he assigned various peoples territories but the Georgians forgot to show up at the ceremony since they were off somewhere having a party. When they finally came to meet with the deity, he told them that the lands had already been meted out. But since he loved the Georgians so much, he would give them his own land—namely the beautiful Georgia of today. The joke of course is that it is much more like hell.

In a very intelligent storytelling approach, director Salome Alexi decided to make Nino and her family people from the upper ranks of the middle class with absolutely no social consciousness. Their main desire is not to eliminate the system that has put them on the edge of the cliff but to restore their privileges, an impossibility given the realities of Georgian life. When Nino gets a second mortgage on her house, she uses part of the proceeds to buy a new pocketbook—the last thing on earth she needs but an apt symbol of the consumerism that seduces Georgians even today.

The film ends on the consequences of her supposed salvation—the second mortgage. The collapse of the mortgage loan industry in Georgia and the terrible social consequences led Salome Alexi to make this darkly comic and politically insightful film. Highly recommended.

Playing Saturday, 3:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, “The Great Man” is a French film directed by Sarah Leonor that is both an examination of racist immigration policies—a theme also found in a number of the films shown at the Socially Relevant Film Festival—and the age-old personal drama of father-and-son relationships.

The film begins with Markov and Hamilton on patrol in Afghanistan as members of the French Foreign Legion. We learn from a voice-over that the two are best friends as well as brothers-in-arms for the past five years. Near a riverbank, the Taliban ambushes the two and Hamilton falls to the ground badly wounded. Markov chooses friendship over duty and piggybacks Hamilton to safety but only after leaving his weapon behind, a major offense in the French Foreign Legion, so much so that he is discharged without the benefit of achieving French citizenship—the only reason he ever enlisted to begin with.

We next see Markov in Paris where he has returned to civilian life. It turns out that he is a Chechen named Mourad Massaev and that he hopes to sink roots in France despite being undocumented. His first step toward normalcy is getting an apartment and picking up his ten-year-old son Khadji from the Chechen women who have been looking after him while Mourad was in the military. Khadji’s initial reaction to being reunited with dad is anger, a child’s natural reaction to being abandoned (his mother—a Russian—stayed behind.) Mourad explains to him that he had no choice. The war in Chechnya forced the family to break up and he wanted to make a new start.

Casting for Mourad and Khadji was just one among many strong elements of this powerful film with Surho Sugaipov, who fled Grozny in 1999, playing the father and Ramzan Idiev playing the son, a member of a family that escaped from Grozny five years later. Needless to say, the dialog between the two actors had a conviction wrought by a common lived experience.

After setting up a household in the new apartment, we find Khadji ensconced in a red pup tent in the middle of the living room floor—a canny maneuver by Mourad to give his son a sense of both having his own space and the possible benefits of having a veteran of the Foreign Legion for a father. Next on dad’s agenda is meeting up with Hamilton at a veteran’s hospital where he is undergoing physical therapy. Over dinner one night, Mourad tells Hamilton that he is having trouble finding work because he is not a French citizen. Since Hamilton knows that being a legionnaire veteran qualifies you for citizenship, he asks him why five years of service did not qualify. Obviously concerned that his friend would feel guilty for forcing him for leaving his weapon behind, Mourad replies that his service was apparently inadequate in French eyes without going into any further detail.

Hamilton has the solution. He gives Mourad his identity card that was issued to Michaël Hernandez, his real name. Like Mourad, “Hamilton” is also a stranger in a strange land. He is also a bit like Khadji, having been brought up by foster parents until he found his only true home—the Foreign Legion.

As fate would have it, Hamilton and Khadji come together in unforeseen and tragic circumstances. As a surrogate father, Hamilton is ill equipped to look after a ten-year-old boy especially since his only goal is to finish his physical therapy and get back into uniform. With a shared experience of being abandoned as children, Hamilton and Khadji would have the potential for bonding even if there are obstacles in their path, not the least of which is the cruelty of the French immigration authorities who are determined to send Khadji back to Grozny.

Sarah Leonor has made an exceptionally sensitive film demonstrating how sentiment differs from sentimentality, the stock in trade of Hollywood films exploiting father-and-son relationships such as Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy” or Mark Ruffalo’s “The Kids are All Right”. At the risk of sounding like the typical critic churning out hype, I’d say that comparison here is much more with Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid”, the gold standard for an adult looking after an abandoned child.

“Los Hongos” (fungi) is the first Colombian film I have seen. Directed and written by Oscar Ruiz Navia, it is a study of the underground graffiti artist scene in Cali. The two main characters are in their late teens, one from a white, middle-class family named Calvin (Jovan Alexis Marquinez); the other is his best friend Jovan (Jovan Alexis Marquinez), an Afro-Colombian from a poor family that fled the civil war raging in the countryside. To his peers in the graffiti community Jovan is better known as Ras Skate.

The lingering effects of “La Violencia” are present in Calvin’s world as well. When he joins his father at a local hangout, he observes him from afar arguing politics with his cronies about the upcoming mayoral campaign that he casts doubt on since both candidates are tied in to the ongoing civil wars. He reminds them that Karl Marx was right when he said that we had to rely on the power of the masses. Calvin’s grandmother also has memories of the decades long war since she used to hide a rebel from the death squads in her village.

For Jovan and Calvin’s generation, the Colombia civil war has little resonance. What matters most to them is the anarchy of the graffiti artists, the punk rockers, and underground radio broadcasters who constitute Cali’s pole of resistance. Getting their information from the Internet rather than Marxist pamphlets, the two young men are determined to paint a graffiti that incorporates a veiled woman they saw in Tahrir Square who said, “We are no longer afraid”. As such, they were benefiting from a benign globalization that connects graffiti artists in Cali with the young people who fought against the Mubarak dictatorship.

“Los Hongos” does not have much of a plot. The film is structured as a series of incidents where we see Jovan and Calvin doing what comes naturally: painting on a wall, going to a punk rock concert, hanging out with young women, smoking a joint, skateboarding, riding a bike, etc. Despite my strong preference for storytelling, I found the film altogether engaging because it showed me a side of Latin American reality I was utterly unfamiliar with. The film has an energy and flair that is commensurate with its theme. It plays 9:30pm at the MOMA on Saturday night.

March 23, 2015

The assassination of Matiullah Khan

Filed under: Afghanistan — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

By an eerie coincidence, the very day I was writing my review of Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living”, the N.Y. Times reported on the assassination of a warlord who figured prominently in his book. The Times might be good at reporting the facts but they tend to be disjointed. The article below quotes Anand on why Matiullah was killed but fails to place him into the broader context of Afghan politics. The passage from “No Good Men Among the Living” that follows the NY Times article will give you a better idea of how people “succeed” in Afghanistan, which is the same way that Tony Soprano succeeded but with the added complication of overlapping with some progressive steps forward, including his support for Heela’s candidacy as the first female senator in Afghanistan. If you’ve read my CounterPunch review of “No Good Men Among the Living”, you’ll recall that she was a courageous woman who defied paternalistic oppression—thus antagonizing both the Taliban and the miserable warlords like Matiullah Khan who they sought to overthrow.

Matiullah Khan in 2010. He was killed in Kabul on Wednesday after a person approached him and detonated a suicide vest. CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times
 KABUL, Afghanistan — Matiullah Khan, whose rise from local militia commander to powerful regional police chief left him one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in southern Afghanistan, was killed on Wednesday in a targeted suicide bombing in Kabul, officials said on Thursday.

From his beginnings as an illiterate highway patrol commander in Oruzgan Province, Mr. Khan started a militia operation that made millions of dollars securing military coalition supply convoys through a decade of war and turmoil. He obtained so much influence during his years as a private commander that even before 2011, when he was anointed police chief of Oruzgan by President Hamid Karzai, who hailed from his Popalzai tribe, he could freely appoint government officials in the province.

The Afghan government remained silent about Mr. Khan’s death on Wednesday night and through much of Thursday, referring all questions to the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, who did not respond to requests for comment. Accounts of Mr. Khan’s killing obtained from members of Parliament and other officials varied, though Mr. Khan was said to be in Kabul on official business, staying at a downtown hotel, the Safi Landmark.

Around 8 p.m., he was walking in the streets of Kabul’s Police District 6 when a person wearing a burqa approached and detonated a suicide vest, according to a senior Afghan security official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing investigation. Officials who saw Mr. Khan’s body said his chest had been wounded by shrapnel.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday afternoon, a seeming insurgent success after trying to kill Mr. Khan at least six other times. Still, while the attack bore all the hallmarks of an insurgent hit job, some warned that Mr. Khan had numerous rivals within the government.

An outpouring of condolences followed news of Mr. Khan’s death, even from people who in the past might have criticized his heavy-handed influence.

Dost Mohammad Nayab, the spokesman for the governor of Oruzgan, said it “will take 14 years to fill the gap he leaves behind.” Hajji Mohammad Essa, an elder in Tirin Kot, said, “He was like a mountain for us.”

For years, Mr. Khan enjoyed unparalleled influence in Oruzgan, where he gained a reputation as a fierce enemy of the Taliban. Villagers and elders came to ask his assistance or seek his guidance.

He became a classic symbol of the American-backed strongman turned government official, a hallmark of the long war in Afghanistan.

Like his counterpart in Kandahar Province, Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, who is widely accused of human rights abuses and running illicit businesses, Mr. Khan enjoyed the support of coalition military officials, who found him an indispensable ally in their fight against the Taliban.

“He was representative of a new breed of warlords,” said Anand Gopal, the author of the book “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.” “These are people entirely created by the international presence.”

read full article

Anand Gopal, “No Good Men Among the Living”, pp. 252-257:

In rural Afghanistan, people discuss roads the way we discuss the weather—before they head out for work or at the mosque or in the market. On any given day, highways are prone to sudden tempests of violence between the warring sides. They can be rendered impassable by roadside bombs, or impromptu insurgent checkpoints, or trigger-happy American convoys. (“We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” US war commander General Stanley McChrystal commented in 2010, “and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat.”) Next week’s travel can be as unpredictable as next week’s skies.

If the roads attracted so much violence, it was because without them there could be no resupplying of American bases, and therefore no American mission. And with no American mission, there would have been no Matiullah Khan, no meshr [leader]. But what exactly was he the leader of? By 2009, he had become the most powerful person in Uruzgan Province and one of Washington’s closest allies—all without holding a government position.

In the summer of 2011, I rented a car in Kandahar city and set out for Uruzgan to learn who exactly Matiullah was. I started on the city’s out-skirts, in a mud-sodden field filled with eighteen-wheelers, sixteen-wheelers, cabs with two trailers, Indian-made trucks festooned with ruby-colored mirrors and dangling metallic tassels—all of them bearing fuel or other crucial cargo for US troops, and all waiting to travel the eighty treacherous miles north to Tirin Kot. Just a few years earlier, the truckers told me, such a trip would have been a probable death sentence. The route was then under Taliban control, so trucks often ended up as charred heaps, dotting the roadside like signposts in some ravaged alien land. Drivers were losing their heads and the American base in Tirin Kot was being starved of supplies. “If you ask me what I worry about at night,” said American general Duncan J. McNabb, “it is the fact that our supply chain is always under attack.” As the insurgency grew stronger in 2006-7, and the Americans sent in more troops, requiring more supplies, the problem only multiplied. The Kandahar-Tirin Kot road became one of the most dangerous highways in the world. But everything changed in 2008, when an illiterate militiaman began organizing his cousins and friends to protect the trucks. His name was Matiullah.

He was a man of humble origins who, unlike Jan Muhammad and other Soviet-era mujahedeen warlords, made himself entirely in the shadow of twenty-first-century American power. In the 1990s, he was operating a taxi on the Kandahar-Tirin Kot highway, occasionally moonlighting as a driver for Taliban commanders. He may have been poor, unschooled, and seemingly without political ambition, but as a member of the Popalzai tribe and a nephew of JMK, a world of opportunities opened up for him in the wake of the US invasion. He joined Karzai’s 2001 campaign to capture Uruzgan, and by the following year ha had worked his way into his uncle’s militia, commanding an elite Taliban-hunting unit. With no actual Taliban around, however, this effectively meant life as a hit man knocking off JMK’s rivals. Soon he was providing security for the perimeter of the main US base in Tirin Kot and accompanying American special forces missions. In 2007, he was appointed to head a short-lived highway police force, and when it was disbanded a few months later, he appropriated its guns and trucks and continued to patrol the Kandahar-Tirin Kot highway on a fee-for-service basis. In no time, he was supplying heavily armed men—most of them relatives or fellow tribesmen—to protect trucks hauling American sup-plies into Tirin Kot. The Taliban proved no match.

It was noon at the truck depot when we spotted the seemingly unending stream of desert beige Ford pickups heading toward us, Afghan flags whipping in the wind. Some had Matiullah’s image pasted decal-style to their cab windows, but most were unmarked. The supply trucks fell into place behind them, and we were off. The convoy drove along a canal as wide as the highway itself, its waters shimmering a brilliant cerulean blue against the dull brown scrubland rolling away into the distance. An hour into the trip, we passed through the shadow of a massive concrete dam. It was here that Jason Amerine’s unit had called in the wrong coordinates almost ten years earlier, bombing themselves and nearly killing Karzai.

Farther north, the mud houses and rutted dirt paths by the roadside disappeared and we were in open country, with barren slopes and a naked, treeless horizon. Perched here and there on the slopes were small teams of Matiullah’s gunmen, part of a private army thousands strong financed through his contracting business. For every truck escorted, he charged the Americans $1,000 to $2,000. With hundreds of trucks heading for the US base in Tirin Kot weekly, he was pulling in millions of dollars a month—in a country where the average income is a few hundred dollars a year. You could not move a truck into Uruzgan without his permission. “No one leaves without paying,” said Rashid Popal, another trucking contractor. “Matiullah will kill anyone on this highway, Taliban or not.” When another private security company, the Australian firm Compass, once attempted to escort US supplies up the highway, they were met by a hundred or so of Matiullah’s heavily armed men, who demanded $2,000 to $3,000 per truck for “passing rights.” The exchange grew so heated that the US military was called in. Eventually a settlement was negotiated and the trucks were allowed to pass, but the message was clear enough: Matiullah Khan owned the highway.

Our convoy passed through a defile that opened onto the earthen bowl where Mullah Manan’s forces had battled Jason Amerine’s Green Berets for control of Uruzgan. We arrived in Tirin Kot as dusk fell, with-out a shot fired en route, without encountering a single roadside bomb or illegal checkpoint. American officials believe that Matiullah’s success hinges in part on a protection racket, in which he pays off certain Tali-ban commanders not to disturb his convoys—meaning that the United States, by hiring Matiullah, is indirectly paying its enemies.

Under Matiullah Khan, Tirin Kot was a changed town. Using his windfall funds he gobbled up real estate, elbowing aside his exiled uncle as the major landowner in the area. He leased bases to the Americans and financed bazaar shops. Soon, just about every business transaction of note in the city required his imprimatur. “Nothing happens in Tirin Kot without him,” Hajji Shirin Dil, a wholesaler from Kabul, told me. “You can’t make a single dollar without his permission, without giving him a cut.”

With Jan Muhammad in Kabul, Matiullah quickly monopolized the political scene as well. Yet he was eager to distance himself from his uncle’s ruinous regime. JMK’s excesses had eventually turned the Dutch’ and other NATO allies against him, and Matiullah was keen to keep in the foreigners’ good graces. He built schools, established radio stations erected mosques, sent poor children to university in Kabul, settled Ian disputes, and protected widows like Heela. Through his militias and construction companies, he also provided jobs for thousands.

As with his uncle, however, governance was a sideline to Matiullah’ principal occupation: fighting “terror,” with no holds barred. When roadside bomb once went off near his convoy, killing one of his me Matiullah leapt out of his vehicle in a rage and grabbed a bystander—shopkeeper in the wrong place at the wrong time. Matiullah tied him the rear bumper of his pickup truck and drove around town. When t body was returned to the family, it was barely recognizable. In anoth village, Matiullah captured a suspected Talib (who, locals claim, was actually just a poor farmer) and took an already radical measure emasculation—chopping off his beard—a step farther: he smashed the man’s chin. And in yet another incident, Matiullah’s men attacked a madrassa suspected of being a center of Taliban influence. Dozens were taken hostage and executed, most of them young boys.


March 22, 2015

The Tecnica video is back online

Filed under: Film,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 8:06 pm

In July 2008 I digitized a video about Tecnica from VHS and posted it to Google/Video. This was before Google bought Youtube and when it was a reasonable alternative for longer videos like “Tecnica—at Work in Nicaragua”, which ran for 20 minutes.

I just took a look at my posting of the Google video on my blog that month and was pleased to see the late Roger Burbach’s comment:


Great article and video. You captured the spirit of the 80s in Nicaragua and among those internationalistas to went to participate in a dream.

Drop me a note.

Roger Burbach

I was not so pleased, however, to have learned a few months ago that the video had disappeared. A bit of research turned up the following on Wikipedia:

On April 15, 2011, Google announced via email that after April 29 they would no longer allow playback of content hosted on their service, but reversed the decision one week later to provide users with greater support for migration to YouTube. Google Video was shut down and replaced by Google Videos on August 20, 2012. The remaining Google Videos content was automatically moved to YouTube.

Well, I never got any fucking email from fucking Google because I did not have a Gmail account at the time. Or maybe I had a Gmail account and they never bothered to contact me. In the meantime I had disposed of the VHS tape and was now shit out of luck. Email to the few Tecnica returned volunteers I had contact with turned up nothing.

Searching around desperately, I discovered that a copy of the tape was in the University of Wisconsin’s historical archives for Tecnica—I guess a cardboard box sitting somewhere for people doing research on Nicaragua. I called them up to see if they could send me a copy but was upset to learn from the first person I spoke to that they did not do such things. When I remonstrated with the person about how we had risked our lives in volunteering in Nicaragua (Ben Linder was not a volunteer but our volunteers completed his project), she turned me over to the head librarian who was kind enough to have a DVD made. This is the finished product, hopefully something that will not get lost in a corporate black hole again.


March 21, 2015

The Rise and the Fall of the Borscht Belt

Filed under: Catskills,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

A while back FB friend Maxene Diamond Spindell, who posts a lot of interesting material to the Memories of the Catskills group, posted a ten minute excerpt from Peter Davis’s “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, a documentary made in 1986 that I saw when it first came out. Since I have my own “The Unrepentant Marxist Returns to the Catskills” video in the works, I was very interested to see the whole film and perhaps include some footage under the fair use provision.

As it turns out the film was not available from all the usual sources either online or as a DVD. Taking advantage of my retiree benefits from Columbia University, I ordered a VHS through BorrowDirect, an interlibrary service that most universities belong to. After I had the film digitized, I put it up on my Vimeo website for everyone to see. Hopefully I won’t get any intellectual property static over this especially since I emailed Peter Davis a week ago and got no reply.

I appealed to Davis as a fellow leftist. For those in the know, he was one of America’s top leftist documentary filmmakers of the past half-century with films like “Hearts and Minds” to his credit, the definitive Vietnam antiwar film in my view. His last film, “In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid”, was made in 1993.

His leftist orientation can be seen in “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, although not in an obvious way. The film is a mixture of social history and nostalgic entertainment as we see both former vacationers and hotel owners and employees reminiscing about the Borscht Belt in its heyday. For regular readers of my blog, you are probably aware that I grew up in the area and included a good 20 or so pages about my background there in the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar.

As the term borscht implies, the people who worked and stayed in the hotels and bungalow colonies were almost all Jews. The “fall” in the title of Davis’s film refers to the tourist industry collapsing after Jews became wealthier and more assimilated. After moving from the garment industry cutting rooms to accounting firms, they could now afford vacations in Puerto Rico and no longer felt the need to be in a hotel that served kosher food.

My memories include both happy and sad moments. For example, I will never forget the wonderment I felt as a 10-year-old boy watching the Mighty Atom (née Joseph Greenstein) bend an iron bar across his nose at his Paramount Health Farm. On the other hand, I was turned off by the materialism of the hotel owners and small businessmen in the area whose life seemed to revolve around Cadillac convertibles and mink coats for their wives. In a piece about Harvey Pekar’s wonderful memoir “The Quitter”, I described one of those painful (but partly uplifting) moments:

One summer, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my mother wrangled tickets to see the legendary Jewish tenor Richard Tucker perform at the Concord Hotel. She brought me and her mother in the family car, a 1952 Studebaker that not only looked like crap but was burning oil. When we arrived at the entrance to the Concord, the fanciest hotel in the Catskills, you could see a plume of smoke trailing the car for about 50 feet. My mom turned the key over to a valet who I heard make some wisecrack about the jalopy to the other valets. Meanwhile, the guests at the hotel out for an evening stroll in their mink stoles stared at us as if we were from another planet. It did not help that my deaf grandma spoke so loud that you could hear her from the next county. All I wanted to do is put as much distance as I could from these yokels as I could. Now at the age of 64 I feel somehow proud of the fact that appearances meant nothing to my mother. Plus, Richard Tucker was in great form that night.

Within a week or so, I will begin making my own film about the Catskills that will include an interview I did with people at Lansman’s bungalow colony in Hurleyvile, including Maxene. I had found out about the colony in an article in the NY Times about people trying to keep the spirit of the Catskills alive:

Each colony has its own personality. At the woodsy and quiet Buffalo Colony, which has much larger, family-size units, there are gay and straight parents, and biological and adopted children of many races. Lansman’s, an 85-unit colony in Woodbourne, which was bought by former renters from back in its family-owned days, is still mostly Jewish. Stephanie Kreiner, president of the board there, said residents still play mah-jongg and attend Saturday evening entertainment in the casino. Spring Glen Woods, in Ellenville, N.Y., has residents from New Jersey, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. “We want to bring it back to its heyday,” Ms. Schneider said.

It was of extraordinary interest to me that Peter Davis filmed at Lansman’s himself and found the same enchantment there that I did. I hope that in its own modest way my video can be called “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Catskills”.

I say that out of respect for Cissie Blumberg, who owned the Olympic Hotel in Woodridge and hated the term Borscht Belt. Cissie was a die-hard Communist and like many other hotel owners and small businesspeople a product of the Great Depression. Even if the 1950s brought prosperity, these folks remembered what it meant to suffer under capitalism. One of the people I interviewed upstate was a Communist like Cissie and remains political to this day.

In an article I wrote a good fifteen years or so ago titled “Borscht Belt Reds” (it probably should have been titled Catskill Reds!)  that was prompted by a conference held at the Sunny Oaks hotel, one of the first in a series convened by Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Brown University and the son of hotel owners. The article ended:

After the conference was over, I phoned Cissie Blumberg, the author of “Remember the Catskills: Tales of a Recovering Hotelkeeper” and a leftist. Cissie is a woman of strong opinions and was boycotting the Sunny Oaks conference because she thought the term “Borscht Belt” was offensive. She had also had a number of spats with my mother over religious questions. The two wrote for the same local paper and my mother hoped that I would be able to calm her down. This was as much of a chance of me doing this as getting my strongly opinionated mother to calm down.

There’s a chapter in Cissie’s book titled “Just Causes”. She writes:

Not everything [about my father] was controversial or political. He was a prime organizer of the Credit Union, a moving force in the Hotelmen’s Federation, and an acknowledged leader in the Fire Insurance Company as a director and president of the board. He convinced our reluctant neighbors in Lake Huntington to utilize the WPA programs for construction of the first sewer system, and though not religious himself, actively led the small Jewish community in the building of its first synagogue.

I was in grade school when the Civil War broke out in Spain. My father used his talent for oratory on behalf of the Loyalists, long before the world recognized that conflict as the beginning of World War II.

Bob [her brother and my old 9th grade social studies teacher] accompanied him one night to a rally at the Nemerson Hotel in South Fallsburg to raise funds for the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers in Spain. As part of his address, our dad quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s famous words on the people and the Constitution: ‘Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they shall exercise their constitutional rights of amending it, or their revolutionary rights to dismember or overthrow it.’ Suddenly the resort’s casino, in which the meeting was being held, was plunged into darkness by its owner, Mr. Nemerson. ‘Rosenberg is talking Communist propaganda,’ thundered the angry hotel man. ‘But sir, that statement is a quote from Abraham Lincoln,’ replied a helper of my father’s. ‘Oh, Abraham Lincoln?’ The lights came on!”

March 20, 2015


Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

The press notice for “Jauja” that opened today at Lincoln Center Cinema and the IFC gave me the impression that indigenous peoples might have played a major role in this Argentine film directed by Lisandro Alonso, whose work was unfamiliar to me:

Patagonia, 1882: In a remote military outpost, during the so-called Conquest of the Desert, a genocidal campaign is being waged against the indigenous population of the region. Acts of savagery abound on all sides. Captain Gunnar Dinesen has come from Denmark with his 15-year-old daughter, Ingeborg, to take an engineering job with the Argentinian army. Being the only female in the area, Ingeborg creates quite a stir among the men. She falls in love with a young soldier, and one night they run away together. When he wakes up, Captain Dinesen realizes what has happened and decides to venture into enemy territory to find the young couple.

As it turns out, the Indians only make a brief appearance in a scene approximately twenty minutes into the film. Actually it is only a single Indian who steals Captain Dinesen’s horse and rides off into the Argentine desert laughing triumphantly as he disappears across the horizon.

While the film starts off as if it were an updated version of “The Searchers”, it soon becomes something much more like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” with Captain Dinesen [Vigo Mortensen] squaring off against the Patagonian desert rather than the jungle. Except that no Indians wreak justice on the Danish colonizer as they do in Werner Herzog’s classic, nor does the captain have to deal with resentful underlings who become convinced that his trek is suicidal. Instead, the narrative is much more about someone lost in the desert, evoking films such as Gus Van Zant’s “Gerry” or Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout”.

Until the final fifteen minutes of the film, there is not a single word spoken. If you expect Alonso’s film to be about survival strategies of the kind seen the aforementioned films or those seen in “All is Lost” or “Cast Away”, you will be disappointed.

So without conflict with Indians or Nature, what is the momentum that drives the film forward? The answer to that is to simply go with the flow since Alonso has made a powerful film in which Nature itself is the subject. You see some of the most awe-inspiring landscape that at least to me is worth the price of a ticket. Furthermore, your interest is sustained because you want to know Captain Dinesen’s fate.

What makes it all work is Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen’s novel technique, which is perfectly suited to such a film. He uses a square frame instead of the typical 3×4 ratio most films use. Additionally, he eschews the shallow depth of field that most directors rely on to privilege a character against some backdrop. A shallow depth of field will typically show the actor in sharp relief against a blurry background. Instead, Salminen practically shows a tree a mile in the distance in as much detail as Vigo Mortensen’s face. Salminen has worked most frequently in the past with Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director whose work I have praised in the past but there’s nothing in his past work that has the look of “Jauja”.

Lisandro Alonso is a member of the New Argentine Cinema, which emerged as a reaction to the films of an earlier period that were engaged with the problems of military rule, repression and the like. While no single theme unites their work, film scholars generally agree that an aversion to conventional narrative is widespread.

In Gonzalo Aguilar’s “New Argentine Film: Other Worlds” that can be read on Google books with the usual massive amount of dropped pages, he characterizes Alonso and his peers as breaking with the Argentine films of the 1980s.

Instead of a message to decode, these movies offer us a world: a language, an atmosphere, some characters…a brushstroke—a brushstroke that does not respond to questions formulated insistently beforehand but sketches out its own questioning.

In his chapter titled “The Politics of Indeterminacy: Renouncement and Liberty in a Lisandro Alonso Movie”, he quotes the director: “I don’t want to tell a story. I’m only interested in observing.” That certainly describes “Jauja”. Considering the fact that I am generally averse to films that lack a story (I am moderating a panel on storytelling tomorrow at the Socially Relevant Film Festival for what that’s worth), my rapt attention to “Jauja” probably amounts to a rave review—even if I had no idea what point the director was trying to make.


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