Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 9, 2015

Four new films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

“Dukhtar” (Daughter) is a Pakistani film that ironically follows the same plot as “Mad Max: Fury Road” but that leaves it in the dust—a metaphor appropriate for the tale of women escaping from warlords in a truck driven by a sympathetic man. Where “Dukhtar” uses the chase as a way to show people fighting for their humanity, the Mad Max film preferred to show them as little more than Warner Brothers cartoon characters.

Two rival clansmen in a remote and mountainous area of north Pakistan have been feuding for many years just like the Hatfields and the McCoys, with blood spilt on both sides. When the two warlords sit down for a possible way of ending the feud, one proposes that a marriage from one’s daughter to his long-time rival would finally bring peace. The only problem is that chieftain is in his sixties and the proposed bride is ten years old.

When Allah Rakhi discovers that her daughter Zainab has been promised to the old warlord, she absconds with the child for parts unknown. With her husband’s henchmen in pursuit, her only recourse is to take to the open road with her daughter and hope for the best. In a remote and lawless region of Pakistan, that best is not very good.

Not long after mother and child barely escape capture, the film cuts to a “jingle truck” barreling along a dusty road in a valley beneath the rugged mountains. This vehicle is common to India and Pakistan and incorporates a folk art in which the owners adorn it with a vivid multicolored paint job, bangles, baubles and just about anything else that sparkles.

When the driver stops by the side of the road to check the pokey engine of his work of art on wheels, he spots Allah Rakhi and Zainab on the top of the truck. He orders them down and begins to give them a tongue-lashing. When mom spots one of her husband’s gun thugs heading toward them, she begs the driver—named Sohail—to conceal them from her pursuers, which he does. Despite his gruff exterior, he refuses to allow two women to be degraded or worse.

Sohail takes up their cause and does everything in his power to protect the child from a predatory man even though he will be risking his own life in the conflict. Director and screenwriter Afia Nathaniel, a graduate from the Columbia University film department, obviously is familiar with the adventure movie canon. Sohail is a variation on so many Humphrey Bogart appearances in  films where he plays a cynical and hard-bitten loner who decides to act selflessly in pursuit of a higher goal. Whether it is “Casablanca”, “Key Largo” or “The African Queen”, the character is basically the same and completely lovable.

Sohail is played by Mohib Mirza, a veteran Pakistani actor who is very good at playing the same kind of character, in this instance a veteran of the jihadist campaigns in Afghanistan that he joined when he was only 15 years old. When he saw only the hands of a woman in Kabul, he followed her down the street and fell in love with her instantly. Her early death from an unnamed illness left him alone in the world and without a purpose except to drive his “jingle truck” along Pakistan’s dusty roads for a modest income. When the two women come into his life, he rediscovers what it means to care about other people.

Despite the absence of flame-throwers, bombs, armor-plated trucks and motorcycles, and heavy metal music, “Dukhtar” is a lot more terrifying than the latest Mad Max. The reason for this is simple. When you operate on the basis of reality rather than a Roadrunner cartoon, it is a lot easier to empathize with the characters facing danger.

In addition to the story, the cinematography and film score for “Dukhtar” are about as striking as I have seen in any film over the past few years. Apparently the director coordinated the action of 200 extras in sub-freezing temperatures. It is obvious that she had a powerful vision of what kind of statement she wanted to make in this groundbreaking film. It is too bad that George Miller, the director of all the Mad Max films, lost that ability some time ago.

In an email I received from the film’s publicist, the director is quoted:

The seed of the film is inspired by the true story of a mother from the tribal areas of Pakistan who kidnaps her two daughters and seeks a new future for them. The story resonated with me deeply because in Pakistan, I come from a humble family of very strong women, women who have endured extremely tough lives in hope of a better one for their children. So while studying Film Directing at Columbia University in New York, I penned a fictional screenplay for this road-trip thriller. The mother’s journey into the unknown would raise important questions about the price we are willing to pay for freedom, dignity and love in a time when modernity, tradition and fundamentalism have come to a head. In the ten years that it took me to make this film, I became a mother to a daughter myself and the issue of child marriage became even more personal. Every year, around the world, nearly 15 million girls lose their childhood to marriage and for me this is an unacceptable reality. And so the determination to make the film and have it seen by audiences never left me.

“Dukhtar” opens at the Cinema Village in New York today and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles next Friday. It is not to be missed.

“T(error)”, a documentary that opened two days ago at the IFC Center in New York, tells the story of how the FBI entrapped a Muslim. At first blush, it would seem to be covering the same ground as the “Newburgh Sting”, a documentary I reviewed in August 2014 (http://louisproyect.org/2014/08/04/three-documentaries-of-note-4/). But what distinguishes this new film and recommends it particularly to a left audience is the willingness of a paid informant to be interviewed throughout the film as he carries out a provocation in Pittsburgh against one Khalifa Ali Al-Akili, an white American convert to Islam who was the FBI’s target for more than a year.

At the beginning of the film director Lyric Cabral (an African-American woman who co-directed with David Sutcliffe, who is white) reveals that after she met Sharif the paid informant under circumstances that are not detailed he agreed to be filmed. Given his background, one might suspect that he could make some money out of the project.

Sharif is like many people who become snitches. When he was arrested for robbing token booths in 1987, the cops made him an offer that he probably couldn’t refuse. After they discovered that he had been a member of the Black Panther Party in the early 70s and was a practicing Muslim, he was offered a deal. Early release from prison in exchange for entrapping Muslim radicals, including one Tariq Shah, a Harlem-based jazz musician and martial arts instructor who used to work with Betty Carter and Ahmad Jamal. He is now in prison serving a 15-year term for supposedly telling Sharif that he was willing to train al-Qaeda members in hand-to-hand combat. For his part in setting Tariq Shah up, Sharif was paid handsomely.

Unbeknownst to Sharif, Cabral lined up Khalifa Ali Al-Akili as well. In the final thirty minutes or so, he and Sharif play cat and mouse with the mouse understanding full well that he was the intended victim of a sting.

This compelling documentary is a must-see both for the political lessons it draws about how the FBI operates and as psychological profile of a man who lives in the ethical lower depths. It is a reminder of the malignant forces we will have to deal with as class tensions continue to heighten in the USA.

Also playing now at the IFC is “Winter on Fire”, a regrettably underdeveloped documentary about the Euromaidan protests that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the wars in Eastern Ukraine that finally seem to be dying down.

In its favor, you can say that it is filled with stunning images drawn from many different cameras during the struggle between protestors and cops. For many people who never bothered to look at the material that was uploaded to YouTube, the film is a vivid portrait of the street fighting, the words of the participants, and so on. But it is disjointed and lacking in any sort of political analysis. It does not explain why Ukrainians rose up nor does it address the divisions in the anti-oligarchic ranks between democrats and ultrarightists. Nor does it shed light on the machinations of the men and women waiting in the wings to rule Ukraine in the name of a gentler oligarchic regime.

The Ukraine story is crying out for a substantive documentary that explains why there was such hostility toward the Russians. I imagine that 9 out of 10 Americans, maybe even 95 out of a 100, have no idea that millions died when Stalin imposed a forced collectivization. The film would also explore the circumstances that led to a nationalist movement that welcomed Hitler’s invasion until it became clear that he saw both Ukrainians and Jews as untermenschen. If you come to the film with modest expectations, you won’t be disappointed.

Last and surely the least there is “Steve Jobs: the Man in the Machine”, the third film I have seen about the Apple founder in the past couple of months.

With a script by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame (or infamy), practically the entire film takes place in the hallways, dressing rooms and auditorium of the various places where Jobs’s breakthrough products were revealed to the adoring masses in a well-orchestrated dog-and-pony show.

So the drama, such as it is, consists of—for example—Jobs (Michael Fassbender) warning his lead programmer Andy Hertzfeld thirty minutes before the demonstration of the original Macintosh that if he couldn’t get it to say “hello” over the machine’s speaker that not only would he never work for Apple again, he would never work again period.

And so it goes with the introduction of the Next machine, after Jobs gets booted from Apple, and then the IMac. The verbal confrontations continue with John Scully, Steve Wozniak, Jobs’s ex-girlfriend, their daughter Lisa that he claimed he did not father, and others. All conducted at a breakneck speed and with very little sense of a story that reveals anything about Jobs other than as a martinet.

Sorkin probably never understood how limited this kind of narrow focus would be. The film consists nearly entirely of dialog between two characters face to face, if not in each other’s face. Perhaps he thought that there was something compelling about the Next computer’s architecture. I can only say that despite having spent 44 years as a programmer and being very happy with my second Macbook, it was like watching paint dry for me.

With much less fanfare, Alex Gibney’s documentary and Joshua Stephen’s narrative film “Jobs” that starred Aston Kutcher are far better. Sorkin has never made a film that I found at all interesting. As was the case with ”The Social Network”, his biopic about Mark Zuckerberg, he is fixated on his character’s unpleasantness. That’s not something that I expect from a film, even if in reality Zuckerberg and Jobs were total pricks. For an alternative to this kind of filmmaking, I recommend “Citizen Kane”, the type of film that could never be made today for a variety of reasons. In fact even when Orson Welles was alive, he could not make that kind of film himself today.

October 7, 2015

Dark Horse; Whale Rider

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

At a breakfast hosted by film publicists this morning I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet Cliff Curtis, the Maori actor who plays Genesis Potini in “Dark Horse”, a film that opens on Dec. 11th in NYC. I will be posting a reminder about “Dark Horse” when it is about to open. It is my pick for best narrative film of 2015.

I reviewed the film in conjunction with two other films about chess for CounterPunch a couple of weeks ago.

In real life Potini trained Maori children to compete in chess tournaments. Despite suffering from bipolar disorder, he made a major contribution to Maori society.

Curtis is not the typical actor. He had a tremendous grasp of the importance of the film as both art and message. He has been in many films over the years, including some that address Maori identity such as “Once Were Warriors” and “Whale Rider” that I reviewed 11 years ago, before I began blogging. He is visible in the image accompanying part one of the film immediately below:

My review:

Whale Rider

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 2, 2004

Considering all the hype surrounding “Lord of the Rings”, one might have missed another New Zealand export that is now available in DVD/Video and whose 13 year old star was nominated as Best Actress in 2004. I am speaking of “Whale Rider”, a Maori coming of age story with a twist–in this case the protagonist is a teenage girl rather than a boy.

Although Keisha Castle-Hughes is an Australian Aboriginal, she clearly has an exceptional ability to make her character Pai come to life. When Pai is born, her twin brother and mother die at the same time. Her grief-stricken father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) leaves New Zealand to pursue a career as an artist, leaving her in the care of her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), a chief of the Ngati Kanoahi people.

He is entrusted with teaching Maori traditions that go back for millennia to the 12 year old boys in the village. This consists of lessons in how to chant, dance, wield a club and make fearsome warrior faces. Like any other 12 year olds, their attention span is limited. In many ways, their training reminded me of what it was like to go to Hebrew School in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah.

As it turns out, Pai is much more avid to learn Maori skills than any of the boys. In some ways, she is overly zealous. When she encounters Maori women smoking during a card game, she warns them that smoking will weaken their Maori child-bearing properties. Like Lisa Simpson, her conscientiousness goes against the grain of a village as laid-back as Homer and Bart.

Although she and her grandfather seem to be on the same wave-length temperamentally, he is dead-set opposed to her learning Maori skills. Over and over he reprimands her for eavesdropping on training sessions for the village boys in hopes of achieving a station that her gender does not permit. Despite obvious differences with western industrial societies, it is reminiscent of the kind of sexism a young girl who aspires to be a football player might encounter.

Fortunately, Pai has her grandmother Nanny’s (Vicky Haughton) support, who views her husband as hopelessly backward. She refers to him contemptuously as “old Paka” and intercedes on Pai’s behalf throughout this marvelous story.

The title of the film is derived from the climactic scene in which the villagers struggle in vain to get a group of beached whales to return to the ocean. Since the animals are their totem, this is a matter of life-and-death. Suffice it to say that Pai becomes chief of her people through her heroic intervention.

This Sunday’s NY Times Magazine had an article on “dying languages” that takes a light-hearted attitude toward the efforts of such people to preserve their cultural identity. From a paper on the Northern ArizonaUniversity website titled “Four Successful Indigenous Language Programs”, we discover:

The Maori people of New Zealand comprise 15 percent of the New Zealand population of approximately four million people. At first contact with Europeans, 75 percent of the native population died of disease. The history of the Maori reads like the history of the Native American tribes; land taken without treaties, slaughter, and subhuman treatment (Holmes, 1992). The Maori have a common language regardless of where in New Zealand they reside. The tribes trace their ancestry to Polynesian migrants about 800 AD or earlier and followed by other waves of migration, the last major influx at about 1300 AD. Tribes based on family ancestry were further divided into subgroups that lived in villages. They hunted, gathered, and practiced subsistence agriculture. The public meeting house was the center of village life.

“Whale Rider” is a very convincing account of the Maori people to resist assimilation. The public meeting house of Pai’s village is where most of the dramatic scenes take place. This is a film for anybody with a young daughter who might be encountering confining sexual roles in school or in the neighborhood. It is also for anybody who wants to see fine performances in an uplifting film. Strongly recommended.



October 2, 2015


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran

Paradoxically, Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi” is now the third film the Iranian director has made despite the twenty-year ban on making films imposed by his nation’s morality police. What keeps him out of prison, you might ask? It is likely a function of his enormous prestige. Since he is widely recognized as one of Iran’s leading directors along with Abbas Kiarostami, with whom he has written two films, and Asghar Farhadi, it would be unacceptable to put him in prison. As a sign of the delicate balance between acclaim and censure, the state-controlled Cinema Organisation, congratulated Panahi for winning the Berlin Film Festival while at the same time accusing it of undermining the Iranian state. Its top executive Hojjatollah Ayyubi stated, “I am delighted to announce that the director of Taxi continues to drive in the fast lane of his life, freely enjoying all of its blessings.”

Read full article

September 25, 2015

Chess as Metaphor

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

More importantly, the game has entered the parlance of political science as a metaphor for the Cold War and its lingering traces with Washington and Moscow pitted against each other. If you Google “Geopolitical Chess Game”, you will encounter 363,000 results. Not surprisingly, Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research is at the top of the heap, a website that sees every struggle on earth as involving pieces moved about on the board. Pace Chussodovsky, can we say that the white pieces stand for Moscow and the black ones for Washington? It is impossible to determine why the game’s inventors allowed white to move first but a preference for that color springs to mind.

“Pawn Sacrifice”, a film that opened in September and that is playing at middle-brow theaters everywhere, is about as close to the geopolitical metaphor as you are going to get since it is based on the historic showdown between the 29-year old Bobby Fischer and the reigning world champion Boris Spassky, who was six years older. As the title of the film suggests, Fischer was a foot soldier in the Cold War at the time even though he was one with superpowers. Arguably the greatest chess player that ever lived, Fischer had a burning hatred of the Russians based more on their Bill Belichick bending of the rules than anything that mattered to policy-makers in Washington. Indeed, despite the fact that his mother was a Communist Party member, his hostility to her was based not so much on politics but on his generally contrary nature. In an early scene in the film, Fischer, who is in his early teens, throws his mother and her boyfriend out of the house because their lovemaking noises seeping through the thin bedroom walls did not allow him to concentrate on his game.

read full review

September 17, 2015

The Cut

Filed under: Armenians,Film,genocide,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Opening today at Lincoln Plaza in New York is “The Cut”, a film by Turkish director Fatih Akin that uses the Armenian genocide as a backdrop for a family drama that is the director’s best work by far. It is notable for its unstinting depiction of Turkish bestiality and is particularly welcome at this point given the AKP’s eagerness to resort to ethnic cleansing once again on the most cruel and cynical basis, namely to corral votes from nationalistic minded Turks for the upcoming election.

In the city of Mardin in 1915 a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) lives with his wife and his twin daughters who are attending elementary school. At dinner, the Manoogians and their guests are anxious about reports of Armenians being rounded up but Nazaret assures them that they have nothing to worry about since they are no threats to the existing order.

A few days later Turkish soldiers pound on the door in the middle of the night demanding to be admitted in the name of the military. Seizing Nazaret, they claim that he and other Armenian men are being rounded up for the draft. This turns out to be a lie. Instead they have been dragooned into building roads in the desolate countryside of eastern Anatolia near the border with Syria. This period was integral to the formation of the modern state of Turkey that rested on the slavery and mass murder of Armenians. It was the tragic fate of the Armenians to be subject to both forms of oppression, combining forced labor of the kind that existed in the Deep South with Andrew Jackson’s forced march that cost the lives of countless Cherokees.

The Armenians spend their days breaking rocks under the desert sun just like convict labor in Jim Crow days. When weaker men fail to keep up with the backbreaking pace, Turkish overseers casually beat them to death. Relief from the hellish chain gang finally comes but at a terrible price. They are told that they will be spared if they become Muslims. While Akin probably wrote his script before the current madness began taking place in Iraq and Syria, you cannot help but be reminded of Daesh since those men who refuse conversion will find themselves taken out and executed, including Nazaret.

As the Turkish soldiers look on, a Turkish convict is ordered to cut the throats of the men one by one since they don’t want to waste a bullet on an Armenian. When he comes to Nazaret, he cuts his neck but not deeply enough to kill him. Later in the day, as Nazaret lies wounded among his dead comrades, the convict returns and gives him water and food. He explains that even though he is a thief, he is not a killer.

Although his life has been spared, the cut of the convict’s knife was deep enough to damage his vocal chords. From this point on in the film, Nazaret is rendered mute. Tahar Rahim delivers a stunning performance using his hands and facial muscles to convey a character whose suffering is oceanic. Rahim, an Algerian who grew up in France, starred most recently in “The Past”, a film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi that I considered the best in 2013. I would rank Rahim as one of the top five actors in the world and is at his best in Akin’s film.

The two men head toward Syria and finally part ways when the convict must return to his village. Once in Syria, Nazaret learns that his wife died in a Turkish concentration camp but not before she had a chance to turn her daughters over to Bedouins who would pass them off as their own children to protect them from the Turks. The kindness of many Syrians is stressed in “The Cut”, including the solidarity shown toward Nazaret by an Arab soap merchant who identifies with the Armenians despite having a different faith. There is a tension throughout the film between solidarity and ethnic cleavage.

Resisting the temptation to demonize Turks, Akin depicts the expulsion of ordinary citizens from Syria in early 1920s as the Ottoman Empire was unraveling. As they parade in silence through the main streets of Aleppo, Arabs pelt the Turks with stones. The expression on Nazaret’s face is one of disgust as he sees how the victims can so easily become victimizers.

Seeking assistance from an Armenian social service agency, he learns that his daughters are no longer with the Bedouins but are now in a foster home somewhere in Syria. Thus begins a search to find them that takes him into the Armenian diaspora with desperate trips to Cuba and the northern plains of the United States where his poverty and loss of speech make his task all the more difficult. Those who have seen John Ford’s “The Searchers” will see a clear resemblance even though this was probably not Akin’s intention.

Although Akin takes pains to differentiate his work from ones that are more narrowly focused on the social and political origins of the first genocide of the 20th century, there is little doubt that the audience will sympathize for the community’s demand to be compensated by the Turkish state for their suffering.

As I have pointed out in previous articles, it is to the everlasting shame of the Zionist state that it sided with the Turks in dismissing Armenian claims. In an article dated April 19, 2015 I referred to the work of an Israeli historian:

But the State of Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the genocide of the Armenian People. Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled, In 1982, the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an inter-national conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film. “Journey to Armenia,” was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.

“The Cut” is the final installment in a trilogy that began in 2004 with “Head-On” and continued with “The Edge of Heaven” in 2007. He refers to the three films as “Love, Death and the Devil”. “Head-On” is a tale about a middle-aged Turkish man living “down and out” in Germany who hooks up with a much younger Turkish woman on the basis of a phony marriage that would allow her to leave her repressively conservative family life. Theirs is a grim sadomasochistic relation that will remind you of Sid Cox’s “Sid and Nancy”, about the Sex Pistol bassist and the girlfriend he killed. Although I regarded the film as pointless despite Akin’s profession that it was a statement about Turks being caught between German and Turkish identity, 90 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes thought it was “fresh”.

I reviewed “The Edge of Heaven” when it came out and dismissed it as a derivative attempt to cash in on a trend set by films such as “Babel” and “Crash” that I referred to as having a combination of far-fetched coincidence and liberal pieties that seem to be irresistible to film festival award panels.

None of this prepared me for the power of “The Cut” that left me just this close to sobbing in the final minute.

“The Cut” is a remarkable film on many levels. Technically, it is a demonstration of the lasting power of 35 mm film with Akin insisting on the use of Cinemascope. In the scenes shot in eastern Anatolia, mountains and the desert have an immediacy that would not be achieved using a digital camera.

It is also a work that gives you a feeling of being transported into a remote time and place as if you have traveled in a time machine. In the press notes, Akin reveals a dedication to “getting it right” that is virtually heroic:

I think I’ve read about 100 books on the topic, even the diary of an Armenian who emigrated to Cuba. Documents about orphanages, stories about the brothels in Aleppo. I also travelled to Armenia for the first time and visited the genocide memorial in Yerevan, where I met the memorial’s director, Hayk Demoyan. He told me that a lot of Armenians had emigrated to Cuba to reach North America. There are lots of Armenians who don’t even know this! So I incorporated that into the film.

This is a film of uncompromising integrity with a commitment to both a victimized people and to the higher calling of filmmaking. Look for it in your better theaters across the USA and elsewhere since it is of paramount importance particularly given the dynamics of a looming catastrophe in Turkey once again.


September 11, 2015

The Communist Condition in Film

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

The Communist Condition in Film

Each in their own way, three new films set in North Korea, China and Russia deal with Communism and its aftermath. As an experiment that will mark, but probably not celebrate, its centennial anniversary in October 2017, it is only Cuba that seems to have some affinity with the very early years of the Russian Revolution when everything good seemed possible. Today, we can talk about 21st century socialism and take heart from the continuing determination of the Bolivarian Revolution to defend the interests of working people, but there are few signs that any nation on earth is about to undergo a socialist revolution. As films, the three under consideration in this review can hardly substitute for the kind of rigorous analysis that a Marxist scholar can put forward about why this is the case but for anybody who has either dreamed about or worked to realize an alternative to capitalism, the films deserve your consideration and in one case demand it.

read full article

Trailers for films under review:


September 4, 2015

The Golden Dream

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm

Migrating Through Hell: Quemada-Diez’s “La Jaula de Oro”

Opening at Village East Cinema in New York on September 4th, “La Jaula de Oro” (The Golden Dream) is the latest in a series of films I have seen about immigration going back to 1983 when I was deeply moved by “El Norte”. Like that film, “La Jaula de Oro” is about Guatemalans going to the USA but under circumstances far more dire. With the three main characters in their teens, they are far less able to navigate the treacherous path toward an illusory freedom and prosperity. All that sustains them is solidarity borne out of a need to move collectively toward an elusive goal as an older man from Mexico on the trail with them articulates in the very beginning of this gut-wrenching film:

You learn a lot along the path. Here, we are all brothers. We all have the same need. What’s important is that we learn to share. Only in this way can we move ahead, only in this way can we reach our destination, only a united people can survive. As human beings, there is no place in the world where we are illegal.

Read full article

August 21, 2015

The Maids

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

Maid to Order: Scenes of Class Struggle in the Household

August 8, 2015

We Come as Friends; Tango Negro

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

Premiering on Friday, August 14th in New York, two documentaries perfectly illustrate the unequal exchange between colonizer and colonized. To use a word coined by Malcolm X, “We Come as Friends” that opens at the IFC Theater highlights the “vulturistic” assault on the newly formed state of South Sudan by both the West and China in search of oil, cheap land and any other wealth that can be extracted in a 21st century version of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation. In contrast to the baleful impact of capitalist exploiters, “Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango” that opens at the MIST theater in Harlem (46 West 116th Street) reminds one of the beneficial legacy of Africa in the New World. While few people need to be reminded of how the music of slaves was essential to the emergence of jazz and the blues, “Tango Negro” proves that without the African drum, the seemingly purely European tango never would have been born. This is obviously a result of Buenos Aires being mostly Black in the 1830s and 40s according to the people’s history from below that this remarkable film features.

Although director Hubert Sauper describes “We Come as Friends” as cinema vérité, it is not of the Frederick Wiseman fly-on-wall-variety. Sauper’s presence is felt in every frame as he chats somewhat noncommittally with the aforementioned vultures—UN officials, Chinese oil refinery workers, Christian missionaries, and Texas biznessmen—reveal their desire to do well (profiting) by doing good in South Sudan. Although he has no speaking role in the film, the oleaginous visage of George Clooney is part of this rogue’s gallery.

Although I have never bothered to watch one of those idiotic “Making of” features on HBO that give you the lowdown on how some piece of crap Hobbit movie was slopped together, “The Making of ‘We Come as Friends’” would be something I’d give my eyeteeth to see (what are eyeteeth anyway?) Sauper flies from one location to another in a tiny single-engine plane named Sputnik that has room for a crew of three and that looks like something a strong gust of wind will blow it out of the sky. If you have the slightest inkling of what a project it is to get film made anywhere, the idea that “We Come as Friends” ever got made at all is miraculous as Sauper relates in the press notes:

At times, it was even challenging to find the basics – food, water, or a safe place to sleep. Some of the film crew fell deadly ill from malaria and tropical parasites. And my co-pilot, Barney, was shot at by a gang of ten armed men, disguised as fake police. This hold-up ended with two people dead, all our film equipment stolen and a whole house destroyed by bullets.

Throughout it all, Sauper retains his aplomb as he asks one scumbag after another what they expect to accomplish in South Sudan. So startling are some of the exchanges that you almost wonder if he convinced his interviewees to recite lines he gave them to look bad. For example, he is in the rec room for Chinese oil drillers as they are watching an old episode of “Star Trek”. They begin riffing on the idea of space exploration and the need to go to other planets with adequate weaponry so that when they are setting up for mineral extraction they will be able to fend off hostile aliens, thus evoking the plot line of “Avatar”. As is always the case in these scenes, Sauper expresses no outrage and simply asks them to continue. The end result is that they are hoisted on their own petard.

In contrast to the colonizers, the colonized are under no false illusions. Time after time, they recount their suffering and pessimism about “development” even as South Sudanese officials—the comprador bourgeoisie—blather on and on about the wealth that will accrue to their countrymen. One man promotes the idea that investors be given free land to build airports since it will provide jobs. When Sauper asks what kind of jobs, the man pauses for a second and then replies that airports need people to clean them.

In a scene that will remind you of how Manhattan was “sold” to the Dutch, an elderly tribesman shows Sauper a contract he signed without understanding what it meant. It allows a Texas company to have a lease in perpetuity on hundreds of thousands of acres that belonged to a group of native villages in order to “develop” the land and extract any minerals therein. Meanwhile villagers here and everywhere else that he visits are being evicted from land they lived on for a thousand years in some cases.

The film was the first time I had found myself thinking more deeply about what was happening in Sudan. As long ago as 2004, I had my doubts about the alliance between the USA and the rebels in the south who were trying to liberate their country from the admittedly oppressive Arab ethnic group that rule from the North. In a review of “Lost Boys of the Sudan”, I noted:

The SPLA became the beneficiaries of President Clinton’s largesse in 1996, when $20 million in military aid was sent to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, who were assisting the Sudanese rebels in much the same fashion as what took place in the mid 1960s. This was justified as part of the war on terror and had about as much basis in reality as this year’s war on terror. Just to show his dedication to Christian rights, Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical company in the country two years later.

In a reply to a couple of Clinton officials who were defending the bombing in the pages of the neoliberal New York Review of Books, Smith College professor Eric Reeves makes a point that sounds eerily similar to those that are being made continuously over the unilateralism that was on display in Iraq:

More consequentially, Benjamin and Simon give no sign of having considered the real issue in the al-Shifa episode; they never seriously ask what evidentiary standards should have obtained to justify an attack on Khartoum. Instead, they vaguely declare that “the perception of imminent danger was sufficient to overcome these concerns” (i.e., concerns about attacking a country on the basis of clandestine information in pursuit of “a strategy of preempting threats”).

Around this time, the Sudanese rebels became the favorite cause of Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who has been spending the past six months or so it seems castigating the Cuban government for repressing dissidents. Many of his columns were focused on the alleged enslavement of Christians:

Actually, when I started writing about the slaves of Sudan in the Voice about six years ago, the beginning of the New Abolitionist movement was driven by the American Anti-Slavery Group, headed by Charles Jacobs, who first told me of the horrors in Sudan.

“There was also a young graduate student at Columbia University, Sam Cotton, who traveled to black churches and newspapers around the country to spread the liberating word. In Denver, Barbara Vogel told her fifth-grade class that slavery was not dead, and those kids began collecting money to free slaves in Sudan through Christian Solidarity International. Other schoolchildren around the country joined in.

There is not so much attention paid nowadays to the problem. This might be a consequence of John Garang’s manipulation of do-gooders anxious to purchase the freedom of Sudanese slaves under false pretexts. A February 26, 2002 Washington Post article reported:

The highly publicized practice of buying the freedom of Sudanese slaves, fueled by millions of dollars donated by Westerners, is rife with corruption, according to aid workers, human rights monitors and leaders of a rebel movement whose members routinely regard slave redemption as a lucrative business.

“The more children, the more money,” said Mario Muor Muor, a former senior official in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the leading southern rebel group in Sudan’s 19-year-old civil war. Insiders say that SPLA commanders and officials have pocketed money paid to buy captives’ freedom and in some instances stage-manage the transactions, passing off free southerners as slaves.

However sordid all this might be, the Christian people of the south deserve the best. One can only hope that oil proceeds are truly used for the benefit for the entire country and that people like Peter and Santino can enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future in their homeland.

As it turns out, I was overly optimistic as is so often the case with Marxists. As the film amply demonstrates, the humanitarian cause that people like George Clooney took up was a velvet glove concealing the iron fist of colonialism. If you want to get an idea of what is happening today in South Sudan (besides seeing this truly remarkable film), I urge you to read Nick Turse’s article in TomDispatch.com:

When South Sudan broke away, it took much of Sudan’s oil wealth with it, becoming sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola. In taking those resources out of Bashir’s hands, it offered the promise of more energy stability in Africa. It was even expected to serve Washington’s military aims — and soon, the U.S. began employing South Sudanese troops as proxies in a quest to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army.

That was the dream, at least. But like Washington’s regime change and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, things soon started going very, very wrong. Today, South Sudan’s armed forces are little more than a collection of competing militias that have fractured along ethnic lines and turned on each other. The country’s political institutions and economy are in shambles, its oil production (which accounts for about 90% of government revenue) is crippled, corruption goes unchecked, towns have been looted and leveled during recent fighting, the nation is mired in a massive humanitarian crisis, famine looms, and inter-ethnic relations may have been irreparably damaged.

On a happier (if not joyful) note, “Tango Negro” is a celebration of Black culture in places where few suspected it existed. If the distinctly non-African sound of the bandoneon (an accordion) puts a white stamp on this deeply nostalgic musical and dance form, Juan Carlos Cáceres, who is the star of this film and who died in April of this year at the age of 79, demonstrates that the rhythm is distinctly African.

Cáceres was a man of many talents. He came to Paris just before the May-June events of 1968 as an accomplished artist and musician. But not long afterwards, he began a career as a musician and musicologist with a focus on the culture of the Río de la Plata that flowed between Argentina and Uruguay. It was along this riverbed where most people of African descent, both free and enslaved, made home. He became an expert in playing and analyzing the distinct art forms of the region, including the tango, the milonga and candombe. The candombe is as closely related to native African ritual performances, as is the rumba in Cuba or the samba in Brazil.

As a pioneer of the study of the African roots of the tango and an able performer, Cáceres is an ideal personality to weave together all the different strands of this story. He performs with many younger musicians, including at the climax of this stunning film an Argentine woman who is a descendant of slaves and a passionate defender of Afro-Argentine culture. She sings as Cáceres plays the piano with a troupe of white and Black musicians ending the film on a rapturous note.

The film was directed by Dom Pedro, an Angolan, and will enrich the brain as well as the heart. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen the new Harlem with its excellent assortment of restaurants and other varieties of nightlife, this is a good place to start.


August 2, 2015

Still the Enemy Within; Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

While nominally covering seemingly divergent topics—the failed 1984 British coalminers strike and the rock-and-roll scene in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia—two documentaries end up having much more in common than meets the eyes. “Still the Enemy Within”, a DVD available from Bullfrog Films (reduced rates for activist groups), is a kind of oral history with miners and their supporters recounting what it was like to go up against a Prime Minister who was determined in advance to break their union, arguably the most powerful in Britain. Also an oral history, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” allows some of Cambodia’s leading rock musicians of the 1960s and 70s—now about the same age as the coalminers—to recreate a world that like pre-Thatcher Britain was crushed underfoot but in the name of Communism rather than TINA. (The film becomes available on August 4 through iTunes, Google Play, Amazon.com, Vudu, Cinema Now and Vimeo on Demand.) Taken together, both films help us understand the bleak conditions that we face today.

As inspiring as “Pride” was, the film sidestepped the sorry end to the coalminers strike that was in some ways understandable since its purpose was to celebrate the solidarity that developed between gays and socially conservative workers. “Still the Enemy Within”, whose title derives from Thatcher’s epithet directed at the miners, pulls no punches. Watching it will evoke the same sorts of anger that many now feel over the capitulation of Syriza in Greece even though there’s little apparent similarity between Alexis Tsipras and the president of the miners union Arthur Scargill. Indeed, one might argue that if Tsipras had adopted the same sort of militant stand as Scargill, the results would have not been that much different given the relationship of forces.

If you want to understand how we ended up with the austerity regime that prevails in all industrial countries in the West and in Japan, there are a number of strikes whose outcome would determine economic conditions for decades to come. As is obvious the bourgeoisie won them all and plunged us into a world resembling the 1890s in many ways. When American airline controllers went on strike in 1981, Ronald Reagan fired them on the spot. Four years later meatpacking workers organized by P9 went on strike against Hormel. After 10 months the strike came to an end under conditions almost identical to those faced by the British miners: a lack of solidarity from other workers, bureaucratic treachery, media lying and governmental scorched earth tactics.

In 1990 I saw Barbara Kopple’s documentary on the P9 strike. If many ways, this is was the same kind of film as “Still the Enemy Within”, an unstinting portrayal of a heroic attempt for working class demands against a sadistic enemy. Roger Ebert’s description of the film could easily be applied to “Still the Enemy Within”: “This is the kind of movie you watch with horrified fascination, as families lose their incomes and homes, management plays macho hardball, and rights and wrongs grow hopelessly tangled…The people in this film are so real they make most movie characters look like inhabitants of the funny page.”

The miners interviewed in “Still the Enemy Within” are the salt of the earth (yes, I have the 1954 film in mind). They are class-conscious to a fault and were utterly aware at the time of the stakes of the struggle. If they won the strike, the working class as a whole would benefit. If they lost, their jobs would be lost and Thatcher would have a green light to attack other unions.

Starting with their wives who became front-line fighters in the struggle, the miners eventually became a cause for others in British society who understood what Thatcherism meant. The film has an eye-opening interview with Mike Jackson, a veteran of the gays and lesbian support group whose character was featured in “Pride”. While those who are familiar with this story will find Jackson’s reminiscences fascinating, what really intrigued me was the support that miners received in British Black nationalist circles. Archival footage of Black leaders stating their support for the miners will command your attention.

Ultimately the strike failed because miners in Nottinghamshire refused to go out with their brothers. Unlike the Welsh, Scottish and northern British miners, those in Nottinhamshire, which is in southern England, earned higher wages and worked in better conditions. Since the bosses had ordered miners to produce a huge inventory of coal before they went on strike, they were able to rely on that reserve and continued production in Nottinghamshire to keep factories going. When striking miners decided that shutting down steel production would help throttle capitalist production, they formed a picket line at Orgreave—a steel coking plant in South Yorkshire. This led to a brutal police attack on the miners that is shown in gut-wrenching detail in the film. It was the utter smashing of this mass picketing and growing desperation of workers who had been on strike for the better of a year that finally led to scabs getting a foothold in the mines and—finally—their surrender.

My only question about the film is its failure to interview Arthur Scargill who is now 77 years old. I would have loved to get his take on why the strike failed. He is vindicated toward the end of the film when a Nottinghamshire miner, who lost his job not long after the strike was broken, admitted that Scargill had been right all along.

“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” can serve as a companion-piece to “The Last Reel”, a narrative film I reviewed for CounterPunch on June 26th  that celebrated the golden age of Cambodian film. As a loving tribute to Cambodian pop, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” will be a pure joy to amateur musicologists everywhere. As I sat spellbound watching performers from the late 50s to the eve of the Khmer Rouge entry into Phnom Penh, I kept pausing the film to search for clips of the artists on Youtube—largely to no avail. If there’s no other reason to watch “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten”, it is to savor performances of Cambodian musicians playing in the style of Santana, Afro-Cuban (cha-cha-cha was huge in the early 60s) and the Beatles.

In my view, there is such a thing as benign globalization. For example, the soukous style that became dominant in the Congo was an adaptation of Afro-Cuban music that Congolese musicians heard when Cuban sailors would play 78s for them when they were in Kinshasa. Cambodians were open to all sorts of influences, including Johnny Halliday the French rocker who was basically an Elvis imitator.

Some of the greatest Asian musicians of the period were notable for blending Western sounds with native traditions, especially Sinn Siamouth who was as huge in Cambodia as Elvis was in the USA. He started off as a Frank Sinatra type crooner but was determined to become a rocker in the 1970s, more or less like Miles Davis going electric.

It is a total trip to watch archival footage of Cambodians doing what looks like the twist but with their own inflection, mostly involving arm movements borrowed from native folk traditions. The film is a glowing tribute to the universality of art.

This was something that the Khmer Rouge could not abide. Long hair, Western music, and urban life were considered decadent. Some musicians cut their hair and lied about how they earned a living—others who were too famous like Sinn Siamouth were simply executed on the spot.

As used as we are to the idea that radical Islam is prone to such cultural slaughter, we should never forget that the Khmer Rouge dipped into the Stalinist arsenal to force their warped vision on Cambodian society. Back in 1982 when I was working to build the North Star Network, I ran into a comrade who had left the SWP and seemed the kind of person who would be interested in what Peter Camejo was up to. But he said no thanks, the Khmer Rouge had persuaded him to avoid radical politics. Fifteen years later I heard the same thing from a well-known journalist of the left whose cynical nature interacted with genuine loathing of what took place in Cambodia convinced him that radical politics were not for him. (He eventually joined a socialist group after figuring out that capitalism was no bargain either.)

The film is also a useful introduction to the politics of Cambodia at the time with particular attention paid to Norodom Sihanouk who was a capable musician as well as being a patron of the arts. In the 1970s most on the left considered him something of a buffoon but the film reveals a leader who looks quite good in comparison to the run of the mill ruler in Asia today, including Vietnam.

It took director John Pirozzi ten years to make this film, a product of love and dedication. It is worth posting his statement from the press notes since they are a testament to the sheer will that was required to turn his passion into art:

I knew from the beginning that I wanted the film to reflect the wide range of artists/music that was Cambodia’s popular music scene during the 60’s and 70’s. As we began collecting music it became apparent that there were many artists with their own unique styles making large quantities of high quality music. The problem was there was nowhere to turn for information about them – no books, no magazine articles, no primary research material. Nothing.

I started with a handful of singers’ names and began interviewing people whose recollections were foggy at best. They had gone through incredible hardships, suffering through a harsh civil war and then the brutal Khmer Rouge era where their very identities had nearly been erased. It took shooting 75 interviews in 4 countries to be able to piece this story together.

On the surface there was very little visual representation of Cambodia’s golden era, as it has come to be known, to be found. It’s astounding to think that most of the archival material detailing this crucial period of Cambodian history had been destroyed.

So finding the necessary materials needed to tell this story became a daunting challenge. Many people, who care deeply about Cambodia and its popular music, began to surface with bits and pieces of the puzzle. Meeting so many of these generous people and collaborating with them became a big part of the process. It’s something that I feel very fortunate to have experienced.

– John Pirozzi, 2014

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