Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 18, 2014


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 11:51 am

Conquistadors as Liberators?

The Mad, Mad Mayan World of Mel Gibson


Since I doubt that any CounterPuncher would be inclined to watch Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” except on a dare, I almost decided not to include a spoiler alert. Gibson’s reputation precedes him, so much so that I avoided watching the film for the longest time. On a particularly arid cable TV and Netflix evening a month or so ago, I decided to give it a shot partly out of boredom and partly out of morbid curiosity.

I will give the devil his due. Gibson threw caution to the wind and made a movie that defied conventional Hollywood studio expectations. This is a tale set some time in the distant past in the Mayan empire of Central America that pits a classless hunting and gathering society against Mayan class society, with Gibson standing up for the primitive communists—as Frederick Engels dubbed such peoples.

Ironically, the film echoes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with the hunting and gatherers living in a state of peace and harmony soon to be threatened by a technologically more advanced society but one with more retrograde values. Also, like the original “Planet of the Apes” that starred Charlton Heston, “Apocalypto” relies on a deus ex machinasurprise ending that is intended as a commentary on civilization and progress.

The plot of “Apocalypto” is quite simple. Within fifteen minutes after the beginning of the film, a Mayan raiding party attacks a small village living in Yanomami-like simplicity deep within the rain forest, killing women and children wantonly. The men are then put in chains and led off to a Mayan city, where they are doomed to be sacrificed to the gods in the grizzliest fashion. A high priest cuts open the captives’ chests one by one and plucks out the still-beating heart to the adulation of the Mayan masses.

Gibson makes sure to make the Mayans look as scary as possible, with tattoos and piercings in such abundance that you might think you are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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July 11, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”; “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:41 am

Counterpunch WEEKEND EDITION JULY 11-13, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

A Survival Guide to Summer Blockbusters


“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” are sequels to two films that made it to my five best list in years past. Two nights ago I attended a press screening for the first film that opens everywhere on Friday, while the second I saw in a neighborhood theater as probably the only person eligible for senior discount to have done so. The films deal with a question that is at the heart of the human condition under late capitalism, namely how to relate to animals—the quintessential Other. Of course, dragons never really existed but in the animated feature they have much more in common with horses and dogs. Even though they breathe fire and can fly, they turn out to be anxious to be domesticated, the conceit that makes the animated feature so endearing—even to an old crab like me. Unfortunately the Dragon sequel is not nearly so good as the first in the series, a victim of Hollywood’s lust for profits. But the Apes movie fares much better, to the point of topping the original. Of course, leaving James Franco out of the sequel would guarantee that.

For those who did not see the first film, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a canny fictionalization of the questions posed in the documentary “Project Nim”. Franco plays a scientist attempting to teach the chimpanzee Caesar how to communicate after the fashion of the experiments conducted by Columbia University professor Herb Terrace on Nim Chimpsky from an early age. The animal was named after the MIT linguist who was firm in the belief that only human beings can use language, either spoken or signed.

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July 9, 2014


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

This is the third and final installment on the 2014 NY Asian Film Festival.

Tonight’s feature “Firestorm” is a Hong Kong policier that can best be described as 118 minutes of blazing machine-gun battles between cops and gangsters rendered as artistically as a Balanchine ballet.

Veteran Hong Kong actor Andy Lau plays Inspector Lui (no relation), who seeks to capture or kill a gang that picks out targets on the basis of how “exciting” they are. It turns out that armored cars are their favorites, just as lions prefer wildebeests. In each of the robberies about as many bullets fly back and forth as in the Battle of the Bulge.

These gangsters are merciless. How merciless, you ask? Merciless enough to toss a 10-year-old girl out a 3rd story window as her father watches helplessly. That was his punishment for being a snitch.

Caught in the middle is a guy named Bong who upon getting out of prison returns to gangster life despite the threat that poses to his marriage. This is about as much human drama you are going to get out of a Hong Kong flick that makes “Kill Bill” look like an Eric Rohmer story. Gordon Lam plays Bong. Like Lau, he is a veteran of Hong Kong gangster movies well known to those addicted to the genre like me.

Alan Yuen wrote the screenplay and directed “Firestorm”. You almost get the sense that he was trying to establish a new benchmark for wild shoot-outs, one that would make John Woo retire from filmmaking or at least stick to Chinese counterparts of Eric Rohmer.

The climax of the film lasts for about 20 minutes and includes a mind-boggling exchange of gunfire that sets off a huge gas main explosion that leads to a sinkhole swallowing up cops, cars, buses, subway trains, and countless law-abiding citizens. It is the most breathtaking series of images I have seen since the closing moments of Takashi Miike’s “Dead or Alive” in which a standoff between a cop and a gangster leads to a nuclear Armageddon.

You will likely forget about “Firestorm” the minute you leave the theater but while it is rolling, you will have as much fun as if you were on a roller coaster. I loved it.

Check http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2014 for time and place.


July 7, 2014

I found it at the movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Over the past month I have watched two films for the first time since 1959, when I was 14 years old. Neither one of them will make it on the top hundred films of the 20th century, probably not even one I compiled, but both were my introductions to cinema, as well as having a profound impact on my world outlook and psychological development.

The first was “Sailor of the King”, a 1953 British war film about a Canadian sniper concealed in the cliffs of a South Pacific island just west of Chile holding off Nazi sailors trying to repair a battleship. It didn’t make it to the USA until 1959 apparently. For 54 years that film haunted me. I could never remember the title but just by happenstance a search of the NY Times archives using some combination of words like “Nazi”, “rifle”, “island”, “ship” turned up a 1953 review. Not only did I finally know the name of the film, I was able to track down a DVD from Amazon.com. The film was just as thrilling as when I first saw it even if it was “greatest generation” hooey.

The other was “Roots of Heaven”, a 1958 John Huston film based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conduct nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa. It was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

But before I get into the films, I’d like to tell you about the movie house culture of the period. “Going out” in a small town in the Catskill Mountains back then meant one of two things, going to a restaurant or going to the movies. For those of us living in the village of Woodridge, this meant a 5-mile trip to South Fallsburgh’s Rivoli Theater and almost always on a Friday night.

Tony Balducci ran the theater with an iron fist. If he spotted some kids throwing jujubes at the screen, he’d trod down the aisle to accost the guilty party. You could hear him coming a mile away since he had a wooden leg, the result of a Japanese attack on his ship during WWII. Ka-thump, Ka-thump, Ka-thump. Just like Captain Ahab on the deck of the Pequod.

Here’s a local resident commenting on Tony Balducci at the Cinema Treasures website, where the above photo was found:

I too remember Tony Balducci-ie. Peg Leg. He was the terror of the entire kid population of Fallsburg. For if he ever had to discipline you in the theatre or eject you – there was double trouble ahead. Since he knew every child in town, he would call home and inform your parents of your crime and you caught hell when you got home. Tony had a son and a daughter – once I remember the son opened the forbidden door behind his father’s office desk that led to the vast dark and dank cellar of the theatre. I can still remember the sight and smell of the cellar.

Friday night was “date night”. Other than the yearly junior or senior prom, this was the only place where a young man and woman could “go out”. Generally those on a date sat toward the rear of the theater where they could avoid prying eyes. It was understood that if you were on a date, the boy would be entitled to drape his arm around the girl’s shoulder. Those who were “going steady” would “neck” during the film. Those of us who were a bit younger used to spend as much time looking at them as at the screen because we were curious about the dating game.

When the feature ended (usually something like “The FBI Story” featuring James Stewart”), we’d go outside and get picked up by our parents or hitch a ride home depending on the weather. A big part of the after-movie scene was older guys driving back and forth in front of the theaters in their prize cars, just like in George Lucas’s “American Graffiti”. A cool car would typically be something like a Ford convertible with a continental kit, fender skirts, and glasspack mufflers that sounded bad. Something that looked like this:

However, from time to time we went to a weekday feature, almost always when there was no school the next day. I am not exactly sure what went into Tony Balducci’s programming decisions (or perhaps his schedule was dictated by some higher corporate body) but the weekday features tended to be more substantial.

As far as I can remember, “Sailor of the King” was the first “foreign” film I ever saw. Despite being a British film, or perhaps because it was a British film, it was light years away from what I had been accustomed to out of Hollywood. The witch-hunt had robbed the film industry of some of its sharpest writers and directors. Even when they weren’t trying to smuggle in a progressive message (which turned out to be very rarely, even in the 1930s), they were always determined to push the artistic envelope—manifested most often as film noir rather than socialist realism.

C.S. Forester adapted his novel into the screenplay for “Sailor of the King” just as he did for “The African Queen” and “Sink the Bismarck”, two other Union Jack war stories. He is also the author of the Horatio Hornblower series of novels that celebrated British warfare on the open seas in the 18th century. Among the fans were Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway.

The film is something of an oddity in that it contains two separate stories with only a tenuous connection. In the first part we meet British naval officer Richard Saville shortly after the end of WWI. He is in the same train compartment as Lucinda Bentley on his way to his first assignment. The two fall madly in love at first sight and go off to a hotel to consummate their passion. It was all done very tastefully but still had enough heat to make a 15-year-old feel realize what he was missing.

Michael Rennie, the actor who played the spacemen in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, plays the officer while Wendy Hiller plays his love. Hiller was arguably the greatest actress of her time, performing Shakespeare on stage and Eliza Doolittle in a 1938 film.

After they part ways, the film skips ahead to WWII where we meet the crew of the cruiser Amesbury, one of three under the command of Richard Saville. They hope to find and sink the Nazi battleship Essen wreaking havoc in the waters off the Chilean coast. The Amesbury manages to hit the Essen with a torpedo but sinks after suffering heavy damage itself, leaving only two survivors in the water taken prisoner by the Essen. One of them is Andrew Brown, the long-lost son of Richard Saville, who is played by Jeffrey Hunter—John Wayne’s sidekick in “The Searchers”.

On board the Essen, Brown discovers that they plan to do repairs on the Essen in the inlet of an island in the South Pacific just out of range of the two remaining British cruisers. If they manage the repairs within twenty-four hours, they will be able to escape the British snare. Brown decides that it is up to him to pin them down until the British catch up and destroys the Essen. This will be done by stealing a rifle from the ship’s armory, sailing to the island in the dead of night, and taking cover in the rocks overlooking the Essen. When they begin doing repairs at the break of dawn, Brown opens fire on them—thus jeopardizing the Essen’s escape.

By 1959 I had probably seen dozens of war movies. After all, WWII and Korea were not that far off and Hollywood had become accustomed to churning out flag-waving spectacles that had the GI heroes killing off hundreds if not thousands of krauts or gooks. “Sailor of the King” is completely different. Although a hero, Brown is doomed to be hunted down by the Nazis who vastly outnumber him. Not to stretch an analogy too far, this war movie has more in common with existential literature of the time than the typical gung-ho John Wayne flick. “Sailor of the King” can be ordered as a DVD from both TCM and Amazon.

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

The peaceful guerrillas, whose main activity is shooting rifles in the air to disperse a herd just as poachers are arriving, are led by Morel, a former big-game hunter who grew sick of killing animals he admired. Trevor Howard, the actor who played the British officer in “The Third Man” as well as other roles incorporating the national stiff upper lip, plays Morel. Morel’s chief combatant is Forsythe, an alcoholic and disgraced ex-officer played by Errol Flynn, an alcoholic in real life who died less than a year after the filming. Huston wrote:

Errol Flynn was truly ill, but it had nothing to do with Africa. He had a vastly enlarged liver. He continued to drink, however, and he was also on drugs…. I remember seeing Errol sitting alone night after night in the middle of the compound with a book, reading by the light of a Coleman lantern. There was always a bottle of vodka on the camp table beside him. When I went to sleep he was there, and when I’d wake up in the middle of the night I’d see him still sitting there—the book open, but Errol not reading any longer, just looking into his future, I think, of which there not much left.

The most interesting casting in the film was Juliette Gréco as Minna, Morel’s love interest. Gréco, still alive at the age of 87, was the quintessential bohemian who was very familiar with the French West Bank scene, hanging out with Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Miles Davis (also her lover) at various times in her life—the Metropolitan counterparts of Morel’s band of outsiders.

In addition to her affair with Miles, Gréco was also the lover of Darryl Zanuck, the film’s producer. Most of you might reasonably associate Zanuck with Hollywood schlock like the 1938 “Little Miss Broadway”, a Shirley Temple vehicle but also more serious films like “The Grapes of Wrath”.

“The Roots of Heaven” was echt Huston material, even though it never achieved the fame of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or “The African Queen”. Perhaps its meager box office figures simply reflected the failure of an audience to connect with realities that would become a lot more immediate in a couple of decades. 1959 was not a year for thinking in apocalyptic terms. That being said, there was a lot of concern about nuclear weapons, something that Qvist alludes to. In another scene, a minor colonial official is reading a book about the coming nuclear Armageddon.

The real inspiration for this film came from Romain Gary, a most compelling figure. Gary was born Romain Kacew, a Lithuanian Jew, in 1914, moving to France with his mother in 1928. After the Nazis occupied France, Gary joined the Gaullist wing of he Resistance and flew 25 missions as a fighter pilot.

Gary was married to Jean Seberg from 1962 to 1970, an American actress best known for her role in “Breathless”. Like Juliette Gréco, Seberg was an outsider—more of a radical than a bohemian. Well known as a sympathizer of the Black Panther Party, she was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (as was I). In 1970, the FBI circulated a tale that she was pregnant with a child fathered by Black Panther member Raymond Hewitt rather than Romain Gary. Gary blamed the FBI for her suicide in 1979, a product of the harassment she had suffered.

Although Gary was very much a man of the left, he never got sucked into the Communist Party, a fact that very likely explains why he was able to fight the good fight for so many years. I got a big chuckle out of what Romain Gary biographer David Bellos said in “Romain Gary: a Tall Story” (according to Bellos, Gary was something of a bullshit artist):

Gary remained as skeptical of the inheritance of revolutionary thinking as he did of its source. Conventional left-wing intellectuals in 1960s and 1970s France continued to distinguish their role from that of the bourgeoisie, even though virtually all such figures were either active or former civil servants (as university or school teachers, like Sartre) or persons of independent means, like Philippe Sollers. So when Gary has his stand-in Bondy ask him in “A Quiet Night”, “What is your position with respect to the bourgeoisie?”, he is asking a highly coded question. No other prominent French writer of the day would have dared answer as Gary does: “Right inside it.”

“The Roots of Heaven” can be seen on Amazon streaming.

July 1, 2014

2014 NY Asian Film Festival: “No Man’s Land”

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

In the opening scene of “No Man’s Land”, we hear voice-over as a falcon swoops down upon another bird on an arid and foreboding plateau somewhere in Northwest China surrounded by mountains. The narrator, a lawyer who is the film’s anti-hero, tells us that in ancient times two monkeys decided to cooperate with each other. One would serve as a sentry against tigers, while the other would gather up peaches that the two would share. That act of cooperation led to an increase in the monkey kingdom, to the point where they became homo sapiens.

As this is being explained to us, a man pops up from beneath a pit beneath the ground and begins reeling in the falcon that has been snared by the bird left there as bait. We eventually learn that he is a poacher bent on selling falcons to Arab oil sheiks that domesticate them for hunting other birds.

Thus is established the primary message of a Chinese film that is a perfect blend of politics and action. On one level, the “no man’s land” is a remote area far from the nearest city. On another level, it is China today—a land of criminality, corruption and greed that is a rejection of that primal pact of cooperation made between our legendary monkey ancestors.

Shortly after the poacher begins headed toward the nearest city with his caged falcon, he is intercepted by a game warden who puts him under arrest. As they are headed down the road with poacher and bird in the back seat, a massive pickup truck broadsides them, killing the cop. The driver of the pickup is a poacher himself who will use murder as a means to ill-gained profits.

After the second poacher is arrested for killing the cop, he hires a lawyer from the big city, the same man whose words we heard at the beginning of the film and who is a perfect symbol of China’s new middle-class. He is banking on the possibility that a victory in court will catapult him into the top rank of his profession. After he successfully defends his client, the lawyer—one Pan Xiao—presents him with a bill for services rendered. Duobuji, the poacher, tells him that he will pay up in 10 days. Since the lawyer probably understood that his client was a murdering scumbag to begin with and not likely to pay up, he demands immediate satisfaction or else he would go to the cops. Duobuji offers him his red sedan as collateral, which was as near to hard cash as he would get from the villain except for the pirated falcon.

As he tools down the highway in the middle of nowhere headed back to civilization, the lawyer runs into one misadventure after another, always revolving around the poacher’s attempt to get back his car or various road rage incidents that make California look like a Quaker meeting by comparison. In most cases, it was the cynical and self-serving lawyer who triggered the other driver’s rage.

This is a road movie that evokes any number of other films, starting with the Mad Max series. However, director Ning Hao, who also wrote the screenplay, was not interested in a dystopian future. He is describing the China of today, taking artistic liberties but not that far from the reality:

A scooter rider in China is lucky to be alive after being repeatedly rammed for seemingly no reason by an angry motorist.

Video of the incident shows the driver of the car speeding towards the rider on a busy road, before ramming into it.

After successfully hitting the bike, the driver then swerves his car and again aims at the rider.

The film also suggests that the Coen brothers have influenced Ning Hao since the mix of homicide and bone-dry humor is cut from the cloth of films like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo”. There are also signs that he has absorbed the Spaghetti Western genre since his scenes of the northwest China desert and the mayhem that takes place within it have more than a whiff of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” as one villain after another fight over the falcon like it was a box of silver stolen from a stagecoach.

“No Man’s Land” was made in 2009 but it was not released for theatrical distribution until 2013. Even though it might appear superficially as a noirish comedy about dirt-bags, the authorities figured out that the film was really about Chinese society. The censors objected to a film with so many “depraved” individuals and “accused Ning of nihilism and forgetting his social responsibility as a film director.”  I would say that Ning Hao had social responsibility in abundance. That is why his film was suppressed for 4 years.

I have a very high regard for Ning Hao and recommend an earlier film titled “Mongolian Ping-Pong” that is available as a DVD from Netflix or streaming on Fandor, an arthouse counterpart to Netflix. Like “No Man’s Land”, it has a poetic grasp of the beauty of the desert and mountains of that part of the world.

In April 2014, Oliver Stone made a trip to China to meet with the country’s leading filmmakers, including Ning Hao. Stone berated them for not having his guts. Why didn’t they take on Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution? Ning Hao shot back, calling Stone “belligerent” and reminding him that steps toward free speech in China must be taken “step by step”.

One hopes that “No Man’s Land” can be distributed nationally in the USA before long. It is first-rate filmmaking. For New Yorkers, I urge you to attend tonight’s screening just to make sure that you can catch it. If you have found my film reviews reliable over the years, I can assure you that this is 4-star entertainment as well as a powerful critique of Chinese society. You can’t ask for much more than that.

June 29, 2014

2014 New York Asian Film Festival

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Screen shot 2014-06-29 at 2.59.57 PM

Last Friday night the NY Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) opened in New York. This is the thirteenth year for the annual event, one that I have been covering from its inception. After some general comments on Asian film, I will conclude with a review of “The White Storm”, a festival film showing at Walter Reade Theater tonight.

Unlike the Indian Film Festival that I covered a month ago, this one features movies that are geared to local audiences rather than Western film festivals and theaters specializing in indie and foreign films. So the typical NYAFF film will be about samurais or gangsters while one from the Indian film festival will be about the plight of Dalits. I would have preferred that the NYAFF curators include more political films but I confess that I am not even aware that they are being made. From what I have gleaned from the Japanese film industry over the past five years or so, there are very few—if any—directors or screenwriters in the Akira Kurosawa or Yoji Yamada tradition nowadays. Perhaps if there were a stronger left in Japan or Hong Kong for that matter, we’d see films being made with a social and political message.

That being said, I am totally devoted to Hong Kong and Japanese gangster and samurai films. In an age when Hollywood “entertainment” means the latest Michael Bay movie, we are better off with a lobotomy. I thought that Atlantic Magazine’s Christopher Orr got the latest installment of “Transformers” just right: “If it truly takes this long to save the world from the depredations of robots that turn into muscle cars, it may be that the world is no longer worth saving.”

It would appear that my first article on Asian action films dates back to July 3, 2003, just two years after the launch of the NYAFF:

Hit Men Movies

 posted to http://www.marxmail.org on July 3, 2003

 I had selected Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 “Le Samouraï” and Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s 2001 “Fulltime Killer” pretty much at random from the local video store. But comparisons between these two ‘noirs’ involving hit men and the cops who pursue them began to suggest themselves immediately. Especially after ‘fulltime killer’ Tok (Andy Lau), whose main interest outside of killing people on contract is movies, berates a thug for never having seen “Le Samouraï”.

 Melville’s Parisian hit man is improbably named Jef Costello. Played by Alain Delon, this character has the same laconic charisma as the just as improbably named master burglar Corey he played in Melville’s 1970 “Le Cercle Rouge”, a film I reviewed a while back (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/Le_Cercle_Rouge.htm). With their American names and their wardrobe lifted from a Bogart film, these quintessentially Melvillian characters live outside of society and eschew intimacy of any sort, except camaraderie with fellow outlaws.

 “Le Samouraï” begins with bogus quote from the East: “There’s no greater solitude that the Samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.” Written by Melville himself, but attributed to the Japanese “Book of Bushido”, this is the same gimmick that he used in “Le Cercle Rouge.” The film opens with a saying attributed to the Buddha, but written by Melville himself, that men who are destined to meet will eventually meet in the red circle of fate, no matter what.

 Of course, the affinity between bowdlerized Japanese culture and American b-movies is more than skin-deep. When Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” inspired the western “Magnificent Seven”, one might be led to take into account the influence of classic western films on Kurosawa himself early on in his career. Such is the nature of the film ‘lingua franca’ that fertilized and cross-fertilized the work of so many directors and screenwriters in the post-WWII period.

Speaking of cross-fertilization, even if you have never seen an Asian action flick, you can probably detect its influence here in many different ways. Quentin Tarantino’s films reflect the Hong Kong influence even before “Kill Bill” came out. His first film “Reservoir Dogs” was deeply influenced by “City on Fire”, a 1987 Ringo Lam film whose title also adorned a scholarly study of Hong Kong cinema by a couple of Marxists and old friends, Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes. The book can be read in its entirety here. You can get a flavor of their approach from the first paragraph of chapter three, “Whose Better Tomorrow?”

What better contemporary vision to describe early capitalism than the imprimatur of John Woo’s martial-arts-with-automatic-weapons movies, where competition rages among petty capitalists in the guise of Triads? From “A Better Tomorrow (1986) to “Hard-Boiled” (1992), Woo has tackled ethical questions by pitting his hero against a corrupt world built on the value of a dollar, where ‘necessity knows no law.’ In these movies, gunplay abounds and high body counts result. In the history of capitalism, ‘weapons were the means of expansion for commerce and conquest.1 From multi-round 9 mm pistols to pump-action double-barrel shotguns, Woo’s films unleash the destructive power of an arsenal as internecine feuds erupt between Triads over money and turf, and cops battle the underworld.

Internecine feuds erupting between Triads over money and turf…cops battling the underworld. This pretty much describes “The White Storm”, the 134 minute film whose original title was much better: “The Cartel War”.

The three main characters are Hong Kong cops in the anti-drug department who are trying to track down the elusive Eight-Faced Buddha. With a villain so named, you know that you are entering the rarefied realm of Hong Kong policiers.

One cop is Chow, who is working undercover. The other two are Tin and Tsz-wai, childhood pals of Chow. Recently relations between the three men have become strained as Chow’s wife has threatened a divorce over his growing distance from her, now in her late pregnancy. As frequently occurs in this genre, cops are torn between loyalty to their mission and family ties.

Undercover cops figure in many Hong Kong gangster movies. They are a natural for dramatic tension since they are always in danger of being identified and for their uphill battle to maintain a life outside their job. Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” starred Leonardo DiCaprio as a Boston cop trying to penetrate a gang led by Jack Nicholson, obviously influenced by Whitey Bulger’s South Boston crew. It is nowhere near as good as the Hong Kong movie it was based on, “Infernal Affairs”, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.

Eventually the three cops end up in Thailand trying to capture Eight-Faced Buddha in his lair inside The Golden Triangle. Without divulging too much, Chow reveals the plan of the impending assault to the gang in order to avoid a battle that might cost him his life. His wife has just given birth and is suffering major complications that might cost her life.

Expecting Eight-Faced Buddha’s gang to avoid running into the cops, Chow is shocked to discover that he has set a trap for them. In a wild fifteen-minute scene, gangster helicopters annihilate the cops until only a handful remain, including the three cops. Tin, Chow and Tsz-wai’s superior, is given a choice. Either Chow or Tsz-wai will be spared. Which one will it be? After agonizing for several minutes, Tin decides to sacrifice Tsz-wai who is shot in the chest and falls into a crocodile pit. Don’t forget—we are dealing with Hong Kong action films, not Sundance Festival mumblecore.

After returning to Hong Kong, Tin is blamed for not anticipating the ambush and demoted to running the police department’s IT. (Gosh, what a blow to my self-esteem.) Chow, of course, is stricken with remorse and even fails to save his marriage. And what about Tsz-wai, who was likely eaten by crocodiles? My recommendation is to go see “The White Storm” tonight and to catch as many of the NYAFF movies as you can. They will entertain you beyond your greatest expectations as well as give you an idea of where the future of filmmaking lies.

Look for more reviews of NYAFF films in the coming period.

June 27, 2014

Secret Reunion

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

Jang Hoon’s “Secret Reunion”

Korean Border Noir


In April 2013 I wrote a survey for CounterPunch  on Korean War movies made by Koreans that included Jang Hoon’s The Front Line, about which I wrote:

Set during the final months of the war, soldiers from either side have not only grown war-weary; they have gotten into the habit of dropping off gifts to each other-like wine and cigarettes-at a designated secret store-box at the bottom of a bunker near the front lines.

This is the second reconciliation film directed by Jang Hoon. His “Secret Reunion”, a 2010 film I have not seen, is about former north and south Korean spies bonding together out of a shared interest.

The very good news is that “Secret Reunion” is now available on Netflix streaming. It is Korean filmmaking at its very best. If you are familiar with Korean film, that’s reason enough to check it out. If Hong Kong cinema has seen its day, you can make the case that Korea not only carries on in the grand tradition but also elevates it to a higher level.

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June 20, 2014

Children of Paradise and the Redemptive Power of Art

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Marcel Carné’s Masterpiece

Children of Paradise and the Redemptive Power of Art


Recently Jeffrey St. Clair polled a group of CounterPunch contributors on what they considered to be the greatest 100 films ever made (coming soon). My list omitted “Children of Paradise”, a 1945 French film that was sitting on my shelf for a couple of months incarnated as two Netflix DVD’s (the film runs for 195 minutes). Let me make amends for that now after having seen it for the first time—where have I been all these years? Although I didn’t rate my top 100 in order of greatness, Marcel Carné’s masterpiece, about which Francois Truffaut once said “I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise”, would certainly be among the top ten.

When you enter the world of “Children of Paradise” that is set in the 1830s, you recognize immediately an air of artifice that begins with the opening scene, an image of a curtain that upon lifting reveals hundreds of Parisians milling about a street filled with acrobats, clowns, magicians, jugglers and other artists performing in the open air. The street was known as the Boulevard of Crime, not so much for assaults on the citizens who flocked there but for the theaters that specialized in policiers.

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June 13, 2014

Three films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

The world of Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” will remind you of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, so much so that you begin to wonder whether the Iranian political elites mined Soviet history to figure out how to keep a lid on society. This would have not been the first such attempt to do in the region if we can rely on reports that Saddam Hussein’s library was larded with Stalin’s writings.

Like Koestler’s main character Rubashov, who was modeled on Bukharin, the victims of repression in Rasoulof’s film were unlikely threats to a police state that was reinforced by popular assent to clerical authority. They are three elderly writers who have joined together in a bid to publish a novel based on an incident that actually occurred to them, at least within the fictional parameters of the plot. Twenty-one writers were invited to a conference in Armenia on artistic freedom, including the three. Unbeknownst to them, the regime has lined up a driver who has agreed to drive the bus over a cliff, killing everybody including him. At the last minute he flees from the bus as it sits on the edge of the cliff.

Early on there is a scene between one of the writers and the author of the novel where tensions among the intellectual opposition to the dictatorship are displayed, a likely reference to the state of affairs in the 1990s when a crackdown was taking place. The author is determined to see the novel published, no matter the consequences. His friend, a poet, tells him that is not worth the trouble since the youth of Iran are not interested in politics. It is Steven Jobs they idolize, not Che.

As the three writers wrangle with each other over these and other matters that involve their role in a society that appears to have little use for them, two men are bearing down on them under the orders of top security officials who apparently do see them as a threat. Their job is to track down the manuscripts and terminate the writers. In cases such as this and the Moscow Trials, genuine fear and paranoia among the elites tends to overlap. One of the two is a muscle-bound enforcer named Morteza; the other is his assistant, a pious working-class man named Khosrow who is only working as a hit man for the money even though he continuously assures Morteza that he doing it to serve god. That does not stop him from checking an ATM every few hours to see whether the payment for his last execution has been posted to his account. With a sick son and major medical expenses, Khosrow would pcontinues at his dirty job even though he cannot help wondering whether god was punishing him for being a professional killer.

The two killers report to a man who is the counterpart to Ivanov in “Darkness at Noon”, the old Bolshevik who has become a hardened administrator of Stalinist “justice”. Despite having been part of a powerful revolution for human freedom, Ivanov justifies his role as necessary for the survival of socialism. In “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, the security official served time in the Shah’s prisons just as Ivanov did in the Czar’s. When he meets with the writers, one at a time, he makes sure to remind them that he had somehow earned the right to be their judge, jury and executioner since he had a revolutionary past like them. But unlike them, he stood for the survival of the Iranian revolution against the “cultural NATO”, a term that I had not heard before but that clearly resonated with what I have seen from the Iranian media and its friends in the West.

The film is based on the Chain Murders of Iran that occurred over a ten-year period, beginning in 1988. Even though I try to keep track of what is occurring in Iran, I had not heard about this before. Wikipedia supplies the names of some of the victims:

  • Pirouz Davani – an Iranian leftist activist last seen in late August 1998 while leaving his residence in Tehran.
  • Hamid Hajizadeh – a teacher and poet from Kerman, along with his 9-year-old son, were found stabbed to death in their beds on the rooftop of their home on 12 September 1998.
  • Kazem Sami – Iran’s first Health Minister after the 1979 Islamic revolution, was stabbed to death November 1988 by an assailant posing as a patient at a clinic. No one was arrested.
  • Ali Akbar Saidi Sirjani – Iranian writer, poet and journalist who was imprisoned in 1994 and died shortly after while in prison
  • Ahmad Tafazzoli – a prominent Persian Iranist and master of ancient Iranian literature and culture found dead in January 1997.
  • Ebrahim Zalzadeh – editor of the monthly magazine Me’yar and the director of the publishing house Ebtekar, aged 49, went missing after leaving his office for home. His corpse was found on 29 March 1997 stabbed to death.

A full list of the 107 victims of death squads can be seen here: http://www.iran-bulletin.org/witness/infominlist.html

Mohammad Rasoulof used non-professionals and a digital camera to make this remarkable film. For the security of the actors, they are not named in the closing credits. Given the constraints he operated under, it is remarkable that he has made such a fully realized treatment of the Iranian political situation that will certainly have an impact in his country and the rest of the world. It has the tautness of a Costas-Gravas film with a knowledge of the country’s dissident intellectuals that can only come from direct experience. In 2010 he was sentenced to six years in prison but eventually the sentence was reduced to one year. When visiting Iran from Germany, where he now resides, his passport was seized and he cannot leave the country.

The film opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. My suggestion to New Yorkers is to make plans to see it because it is both a powerful drama and a document of how the Islamic Republic treats the real elites, the men and women of conscience who refuse to be silenced. It will open again in the fall at theaters everywhere and on VOD. I will make sure to post an announcement when the dates are firmed up.

“Evergreen: the Road to Legalization” opens today at the Cinema Village in New York. This very timely documentary deals with the fight to pass proposition I-502 in Washington State, a referendum that would make marijuana legal.

Because the film comes from First Run Features, a film distribution company that is heavily committed to progressive documentaries and feature films, I had expected it to be a straightforward advocacy for the bill. But as it progressed, it became much more of a treatment on the rather complex social and economic forces at work in the legalization campaigns nationwide.

You certainly might have expected the opponents of the bill to have their say but like me you might have been surprised to discover that the opponents were not exclusively “just say no” conservatives. A large part of the no vote was based in the pro-legalization camp that argued that the bill did not go far enough, particularly on its acceptance of a DWI provision that would victimize people who had enough of the drug in their bloodstream to earn them a jail term but clearly not enough to impair their driving. As many pot smokers allege and as evidence points out, there are no indications that users of medical marijuana ever get into accidents on the highway.

Some of the pothead opponents of the referendum were people who would have lost money if it passed. If you were in the black market, you could make a fortune. But if it was legal and subject to regulations, it was going to be less profitable.

The bill did pass. While it is not as deep-going as the Colorado legalization referendum that also passed, it opens the door to further advances. In a way, the cries of sell-out that emerged during the campaign for Proposition I-502 remind me of the denunciations of Kshama Sawant for voting for a $15 per hour minimum wage bill in Seattle, a base of support for the marijuana legalization campaign. You can read a letter to the ISO newspaper along these lines (When $15 isn’t really $15) as well as an editorial that took note of the importance of having the bill passed but with some questioning of Sawant and Socialist Alternative’s failure to keep their supporters abreast of their thinking. They were originally opposed to a bill weaker than the one they had initially supported but felt it necessary to have it passed before it was weakened any further.

These sorts of questions are exactly the kind that the left will be confronted with as it continues to grow in size and influence in an epoch of declining wages and living conditions. “Evergreen” is a good film to watch on how to maneuver in complex political situations even if the goal was not as essential to working-class survival as the minimum wage. However, for a close relative of mine who served four years in prison this was a matter of life and death. You can read about the ordeals of Joel Proyect here: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1992-03-01/news/1992061029_1_lawyer-growing-marijuana-sentence

“Northern Light” opens at the Maysles Cinema in New York on June 16th. As is the case with many indie films being made today, it relied on Kickstarter for the $25,000 it needed to complete.

Directed by Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff, this is a cinéma vérité documentary about the men who participate in a yearly 500-mile snowmobile race in northern Michigan on an ice-covered lake in the dead of winter each year. Bentgen grew up in a small town in the area and decided to spend several years with his co-director filming the families of three men who were participants.

Like the documentary about the four young African-American lesbians from Newark I reviewed in conjunction with the Human Rights Film Festival, the subjects of “Northern Light” are just as remote from most of our experiences. That is what makes such documentaries so valuable. They give people committed to social change and understanding of how ordinary working people live and play, getting past the stereotypes of NASCAR races, etc. Even though the men are racing snowmobiles, they come from the same milieu as stock car racers, although admittedly those driving at county fairs rather than at courses where first prize could be a million dollars.

The families in “Northern Light” are just one step beyond foreclosure. One man drives a sixteen-wheeler but says that he could make more money working in a Burger King. They attend church every Sunday but don’t appear particularly pious. For most, the snowmobile races are a way to transcend the bitter cold and bleak economic conditions of northern Michigan. This statement by co-director Nick Bentgen should give you an idea of what to expect from his film:

Throughout the production of this film, I was humbled by the stubborn work-ethic of the families I came to know. Walt woke before dawn to drive his eighteen-wheeler to Alabama, Texas, and Pennsylvania. In the span of a single day, Marie worked the early shift at Walmart, picked up extra hours as a cleaning lady, cooked dinner for her children, and studied for her exams late into the night.

The families of rural Michigan are the inheritors of pioneers and homesteaders; ruggedly independent and determined, living with hope in an unforgiving environment and retaining a spirit of self-reliance I can know only by example. I’m amazed by the footage we’ve captured–its quality not created by any technique, but found, in the genuine and generous nature of three compelling American families. I’m proud to have shared this experience with them.


June 10, 2014

Human Rights Film Festival 2014

Filed under: Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 12:44 am

Screen shot 2014-06-09 at 8.31.03 PM

Thanks to the growing use of Vimeo online screeners, it has become much easier to write articles in advance of film festival openings that relied in the past on DVD’s or special press screenings that usually occurred during the hours when I was at my desk at Columbia University.

That was one of the reasons I never made to the annual Human Rights Film Festival screenings in the past but this year I was able to view seven films that will be shown from June 12th to June 22nd. The festival is a project of Human Rights Watch, an outfit that has a mixed record to say the least. When it comes to nations that are on the State Department’s shit list, they can be quite reprehensible—their role in Venezuela has been most shameful. On the other hand, if I were a political prisoner being tortured somewhere whose cause that HRW had taken up, I’d be glad for their support. If your tendency is to reduce politics to a global chess game in which you have to play either White or Black, HRW will naturally be black. But reality contains 50 shades of grey, none of them having anything to do with sex I should add.

Furthermore, the young and often very far to the left documentary filmmakers whose works get shown at the festival are reliant on it for a screening since the commercial possibilities for a film about—for example, as you will see below—four lesbian women from Newark serving prison terms for attacking a homophobic bully in Greenwich Village are quite limited. On the other hand, that is exactly the kind of film that interests me as well as my readers.

Given the urgency of the Arab revolt, it is not surprising that a number of films dealt with it from a number of different perspectives. Let me start with them.

Because Cyprus is part of the EU, the Greek sector became a designated destination point for political refugees, including a preponderant number of Palestinians feeling sectarian violence in Iraq. Most are determined to make it to Europe and see Cyprus only as a way station. Despite being totally reliant on EU support and being prohibited from taking jobs in Cyprus for at least six months, a wave of xenophobia has swept the island after the fashion of Golden Dawn in Greece. When fascist threats fail to intimidate newly arrived refugees, there is the additional barrier represented by local immigration officials who put all sorts of obstacles in their path. The local branch of Golden Dawn in Cyprus is the ELAM, or the National Popular Front. As is the case with Greece, Cypriotes committed to human rights have mobilized against them. Their cause is taken up in “Evaporating Borders”.

“First to Fall” traces the steps of Hamid and Tarek, two young Libyans and close friends who live in Montreal and enjoy a peaceful and secure existence. When the revolt against Gaddafi erupts, they are riveted to news from their homeland and reports from Youtube and various websites. So inspired are they by the resistance to a 42-year-old dictatorship that they decide to return to Libya and become part of the armed struggle.

What strikes you almost immediately is that while the two young men are obviously motivated by political ideals (one lost family members during one of the waves of repression), they chatter about taking up the gun as if they were going to spring break in Florida.

Hamid, the older of the two, starts off as a videographer in Misrata but soon gets “promoted” to be a fighter after almost no training. In the bloody attempt to prevent the city from being overrun, he is hit by shrapnel and forced to undergo three surgeries to save his leg. In trying to deliver arms to combatants in Zawiya, the city of his birth, the 21-year-old Tarek is ambushed by Gaddafi’s troops and suffers wounds that leave him as a paraplegic.

Hamid stays in Libya to work in the Ministry of Defense. In the final moments of the film, that were recorded one year after the fall of Gaddafi, he describes himself as depressed by the government’s inability to move the country forward. For his part, Tarek, who has returned to Montreal, is preoccupied by his disability and cloudy future. Neither young man understood the full implications of going into battle against a well-armed professional military. Both would have been better off working for peaceful change inside Libya but Gaddafi made that impossible just as Bashar al-Assad is making it impossible in Syria. There are estimates of up to 15,000 casualties in the Libyan civil war, including Gaddafi’s soldiers. Proportionately, that would represent 750,000 dead in the US over an 8-month period. By any measure, this is one of the greatest bloodlettings in the Middle East and North Africa in recent memory. “First to Fall” is the definitive take on these events and should be of interest to anybody who has been following my articles on Libya, including to those who are violently opposed to my views. You owe it to yourself to see unmediated Libyan reality and not something filtered through the lens of Russian, Cuban or Venezuelan media.

As you probably know, “Return to Homs” depicts events that have been superseded by history. Largely because they were forced to confront tanks, helicopters and MIG’s with small arms, the young men defending Homs were forced to abandon the city. As Tacitus once said, “They make a desert and call it peace.” I reviewed the film a while back (http://louisproyect.org/2014/03/26/return-to-homs/) and urge you to see this most powerful film that will either remind you of the dedication and heroism of those who took arms against the Baathist dictatorship or perhaps convince you of why you were wrong to regard it as an instrument of American foreign policy.

To put it bluntly, “The Green Prince” is an Israeli propaganda film about Shin Bet’s recruitment of he son of a Hamas founder as an informer. Unlike the great feature film “Omar” that shows the brutal methods that made a Palestinian youth become a snitch, this documentary represents the informer as acting on higher beliefs—his newfound commitment to stop terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. If you get past the obvious propaganda intentions, the film is a fascinating look at Israeli strategy at creating divisions in the Palestinian movement after the fashion of the FBI’s decades-long operations. Fascinating in its own way, like looking at photographs of some debilitating disease.

Director Sara Ishaq was born to a Yemeni father and a Scottish mother who separated when she was young. After deciding that Yemeni society was too restrictive, she moved to Scotland to be with her mother.

“The Mulberry House” was made during one of her infrequent visits to Yemen that coincided with the version of the Arab Spring that was occurring there. It is both a family drama and a drama of Yemenite society as the household joins the movement opposed to the corrupt dictator Ali Saleh who resigned under pressure but left his deputy in charge. This solution has evaded Syria, where the Baathists and the military/corporate elite run the state like a mafia.

Overhearing the conversations in the forward-thinking Ishaq household over whether Sara is dressed “modestly” enough leads you to believe that Yemeni society is in need of a social revolution that drives a stake through the heart of the patriarchy. Indeed, the plaints heard throughout the household from the male members about the “damned” Yemenis who tolerate Saleh make you wonder if the patriarchy is a sine qua non for the ongoing corrupt and dictatorial rule.

Continuing with the themes of patriarchy and democracy, “The Supreme Price” focuses on the efforts of Hafsat Abiola, a Harvard educated Nigerian woman, to challenge the military dictatorship in her country as well as the current government that serves its interests as well as that of foreign oil companies interested in one thing and one thing only: a steady supply of crude oil.

Hafsat is the daughter of M.K.O. Abiola, who was elected president in 1993 but overthrown by a coup almost immediately. As one of Nigeria’s richest men, he was apparently too committed to redistributing the nation’s wealth and was removed. In some ways, he was Nigeria’s Thaksin Shinawatra. When his wife gave interviews and led protests about her husband’s removal and subsequent jailing, thugs hired by the coup leaders killed her. Shortly afterwards, her husband died in jail supposedly from a heart attack but more likely from poison.

The film is an excellent introduction to Nigerian history, all the more important given the rise of Muslim “extremists” in the North. After seeing the film, you will wonder why the entire country is not swept by terror against the elites. Sadly, the only target Boko Haram deems worthy of targeting is schoolgirls.

“Nelson Mandela: the myth and me” is to my knowledge the first documentary since “Dear Mandela” (http://louisproyect.org/2012/09/26/dear-mandela/) that reflects the disillusionment that has set in since the ANC’s neoliberal betrayal became too obvious to ignore.

To give you an idea of he road that director Khalo Matabane has traveled, he made “Story of a Beautiful Country” in 2004, a documentary described on IMDB as follows:

This is an interesting, upbeat documentary that presents a cross-section of South African society several years after the end of apartheid. Especially interesting are the comments of the white South African and the married couple, a black Soutt African, and his South-African American wife who looks white but in fact isn’t. These interviews give the impression of the country populated with wonderful people who have lots to say and live in a country that is worthy of respect. Apartheid is gone, a relic of the past. Today’s South Africa has moved forward. Judging by the tone and quality of the interviews, South Africa is moving in the right direction.

If the ANC has lost people like Khalo Matabane, its days are numbered.

Unlike most films shown at the festival, “Siddharth” is a narrative film about the search of an impoverished Indian father for his son who has gone missing after being sent off to work as a child laborer, an all-too-common fate in a country whose “economic miracle” is not enjoyed by the overwhelming majority. I reviewed it last December (http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/03/2013-south-asian-film-festival-in-n-y-not-to-be-missed/) and can recommend it as a neorealist critique of a society that will certainly go from bad to worse under a government that promises to go full speed ahead with neoliberal “reforms”.

Finally, there’s “Out in the Night”, a film I alluded to earlier in this article. As is the case with documentary films on the leading edge, it takes up the cause of society’s most marginal figures: a group of four young women who defended themselves against a Black male homophobe whose hatred of “deviants” was as toxic in its own way as George Zimmerman’s of Trayvon Martin. Loved and accepted by their friends and parents, the four women had to put up with plenty of harassment in “the hood”. They came to the Village as often as they could to be among same-sexers, after the fashion of generations that came before them as described in Paul Buhle and David Berger’s “The Bohemians”.

Director blair dorosh-walther, who “identifies as gender non-conforming and uses both male and female pronouns”, described her/his inspiration for the film:

Immediately following the arrest of seven young African American women on August 18th, 2006, I became interested in their case. I read the many salacious headlines like “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” “Gal Gang,” “I’m a man, lesbian growled” and on and on. However, it was the first of many New York Times articles that really gave me pause. The headline read: “Man is stabbed after admiring a stranger.” An admirer?? I really could not believe it. A man does not ‘admire’ teenage girls on the street at midnight. That is harassment. And I have never met a woman who hasn’t been harassed on the street at some point in her life, never mind in New York City where it is commonplace.

I don’t know about the “admiration” this creep had for the four teenagers, but my admiration for blair dorosh-walther is undying.

Go to http://ff.hrw.org/new-york for scheduling information on these and other films.

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