For me, a summer movie does not mean the latest car chase extravaganza, but something more like the two distinctly low budget and offbeat items I saw over the past couple of days. The first is the odder, a Danish fiction film titled “Brotherhood” that is about gay neo-Nazis, influenced strongly it would seem by “Brokeback Mountain”. The other is a documentary titled “Summer Pasture” about Tibetan nomads living in the Kham region that overlaps Tibet and the Sichuan province in China. My kind of movies, in other words. The availability of such movies in New York is one of the few reasons I remain in this hedge fund manager’s paradise, other than the fact that my wife teaches at a local college.
When I first got some email from a publicist about an upcoming Danish movie that had a gay neo-Nazi as a main character, my immediate reaction was to put it on my calendar. What could that possibly be about?
In the opening scene we meet Lars, a sergeant in the Danish army, meeting with an officer who informs him that his promotion has been turned down because men under his command complained to higher-up’s that he had made passes at them. Needless to say, this movie does not provide ammunition for those pushing for allowing gays in the military, in Denmark, the USA or elsewhere. This premise has to be accepted on its own terms in order to continue watching a movie that has many improbable elements, despite which it remains gripping drama.
Without providing any background, we see Lars showing up at a neo-Nazi meeting where he tells those in attendance that they are basically punks and cowards for beating up what he refers to as “Pakis”. It appears that Lars is a racist and a neo-Nazi but has little use for such violence in much the same way that David Duke decided long ago that neither did he—at least verbally.
We first meet these neo-Nazis at the beginning of the film where they gang up on a gay man cruising late at night and beat the crap out of him. “Fatty”, their leader, gives his men a stern warning. They have to cut this out—not because of moral qualms but because a complaint to the cops might lead to their arrest.
Fatty decides at once that Lars would be a good candidate member since he has military experience and a feel for tactics. Unlike the knuckle-dragging skinhead members of the troop, Lars has longer blond hair and a pretty if Aryan face that might look good from a speaker’s podium.
After Lars has a fight with his parents, he decides to move out and find lodging with Fatty. He puts him up in a luxurious seaside estate owned by their top leader Ebbe and that is being upgraded by Jimmy, a skinhead member who has an enormous Nazi emblem tattooed on his back and the number 88 tattooed on his chest. (This is a coded number significant to fellow neo-Nazi’s. The eighth letter in the alphabet is “h”, hence “Heil Hitler”.)
Jimmy and Lars get into bed in around the same amount of time that it took the two sheepherders to get it on in “Brokeback Mountain”. Needless to say, their “forbidden love” eventually gets them in hot water with Fatty and the gang.
Yes, I know that this sounds like totally repellent stuff but the acting, writing and directing are first-rate rate. You don’t exactly care about Jimmy and Lars in the same way you might have cared about the two sheepherders, but your hatred for the other neo-Nazis is so profound that you prefer them as a “lesser evil”.
There are two scenes that are fascinating engagements with the ironies of homosexuality and fascism. When Jimmy offers Lars a beer, Lars has a laugh about it being organic. What’s this he asks, beating up Pakis and drinking organic beer? How does that go together? Jimmy insists that the neo-Nazis are fighting for nature, meaning the environment as well as pure sexual and racial standards. From what little I know of fascist movements today, environmentalism is not a major concern. Of course, a number of scholars have tried to depict Adolph Hitler as a big-time environmentalist, a claim I dispense with here.
The other scene involves Fatty and the rest of the gang, Lars included, having a discussion about Ernst Rohm, a Nazi leader that Hitler had murdered in the night of the long knives. They argue among themselves whether it was because Rohm was gay or because he was a rival to Hitler that he wanted eliminated. Lars argues for the latter.
Nicolo Donato, the director (a Dane of Italian origin), gave an interview to Cineuropa in which he explained the origins of the project:
Where did the idea of a gay neo-Nazi romance come from specifically?
I saw a documentary a long time ago about gay Nazis, and I felt stupid when I watched that. I was an anti-Nazi guy then, when I did a lot of stupid things. [Leni] Riefenstahl, she did this intro in one of her movies on the Olympics where the athletes are washing each other, rubbing each other’s backs, and all the guys are naked. And I thought, what’s going on here? Isn’t this supposed to be a Hitler movie? It didn’t fit with my idea of Nazism. But of course, you can’t choose your sexuality. I don’t know if there are gay Nazis in Denmark. But in Germany there are, that’s why they did this documentary.
“Brotherhood” opens at the Cinema Village in NY on August 6th.
“Summer Pasture” has the same kind of intrinsic appeal as movies like “The Story of a Weeping Camel” do. The lives of nomads, either Mongolian or Tibetan, on the great steppes of Asia are so unlike our own that we are drawn to narratives that allow them to tell their own story.
The documentary features a family consisting of a husband Locho, his wife Yama and their as yet unnamed infant daughter who they have nicknamed “pale, chubby one”. Locho tends to their herd of yaks while Yama collects yak dung for cooking and tends to household chores in their tent. The movie is titled “Summer Pasture” because it shows them in just such a place. When the seasons change, they pack everything up and move to a new pasture geared to the requirements of the season.
While the surrounding countryside is breathtakingly beautiful and the couple appears committed to a nomadic life (the Tibetans have lived in Kham for four thousand years), this is a very tough life. Yama is not in good health and the doctor has advised her that her arduous housekeeping tasks might end up killing her, especially since their diet is spotty at best. She has already lost two children to early deaths from illness and only hopes to be able to have another couple of children to fulfill the quota set by the Chinese government. This quota, of course, puts nomads and subsistence farmers at a disadvantage since they need large families for economic reasons. Locho states that it was not unusual in the past to see nomad families with 18 children.
Locho and Yama are keenly aware that nomadic life is dying out. Poverty forces the nomad to move to a village and assume regular jobs and a permanent dwelling. As is the case generally with precapitalist social formations in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, assimilation is not forced by carried out through the “invisible hand”. This is how American Indians are losing their own traditional way of life as well.
The Tibetan nomad’s primary mode of production is the yak that supplies transportation of goods, milk, wool, hides, and dung for fuel. While watching the documentary, I could not help but think of the Blackfoot Indian who relied on the bison in the same manner as I pointed out in an article written about a decade ago:
Because the Blackfoot warriors held the upper hand until relatively late in the 19th century, the bison remained plentiful in their territory. In the first instance the animal provided excellent nutritional value. Practically every part was edible, including the brains, liver, kidneys, soft nose gristle and bone marrow. The meat itself was either roasted or boiled. Care was taken to prepare pemmican, a preserved dried meat, in advance of the long, harsh winter. Pemmican was made by taking layers of dried meat and separating them with back fat, wild peppermint and berries. The pemmican bags themselves were made of the skins of unborn bison calves and could themselves be eaten in lean times.
They also made their clothing from bison skins. Making use of steel knives obtained through the fur trade, the Blackfoot made beautiful, long-wearing, waterproof clothing. All of the horsegear was made from bison hides as well: including saddles, bridles and shoes for sore-footed horses. Arms were also made from rawhide, including the strong shields constructed from the bull’s neck. Warclubs were held together by thongs made of rawhide.
In addition to providing food and clothing, the Blackfoot transformed bison skins into lodging and furniture as well. Soft-dressed bison skins without the hair were used for lodges (tipis). The bison-hide covering for a lodge weighed about one hundred pounds. Each day when a village moved to a new hunting ground, the lodge covering was packed up and stowed in a travois that was also made of rawhide, along with the rawhide bedding.
I deeply regret not having gotten the word out about “Summer Pasture” until now. The movie opened on July 30th in New York’s IFC Center and closes on Thursday night. But it opens in Los Angeles’s Arclight Theater the day after and runs until the 12th. I urge New Yorkers to try to catch the movie either tomorrow or Thursday night, and for Los Angelenos to put it on their calendar.
A visit to http://www.khamfilmproject.org is also worthwhile since you will get an idea of what motivates this collective of American and Tibetan filmmakers. Trust me, it is not money.