Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2015

The Political Economy of Fashion

Filed under: fashion,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm
The True Costs of an Aesthetic

The Political Economy of Fashion


Perhaps there is no better example of Karl Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” than the clothes we buy. Since “Capital” refers almost continuously to the textile industry that was the lynchpin of the burgeoning capitalist system, this makes perfect sense. As Sven Beckert, the author of the highly acclaimed “Empire of Cotton”, put it in aChronicle of Higher Education article in December, 2014, the raw material and the manufacturing system it fed were midwives to a global system that continues to punish the workers who reamain its captives:

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not very much has changed since Karl Marx wrote about the textile industry except the geography. In the 1840s it was the factories of Birmingham, England and the cotton plantations of the slave states that were connected. Today it is China and India that are the largest producers of cotton, while the textile mills are no longer in the countries that were in the vanguard of capitalist development. They have relocated to places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the places that director Andrew Morgan visited in the course of making “The True Cost”, a documentary that opens on May 30 (see http://truecostmovie.com/ for screening information).

If not a documentary, the 2014 biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” is a very truthful account of the 20th century’s most famous high fashion designer. Now available on Netflix and opening as well at the Film Forum in New York on June 25th, the film is well written and acted, and is a good complement to the aforementioned documentaries.

As someone who owned a YSL suit many years ago, and who has a bottle of cologne with his imprint even now, I suppose I can be considered partial to the subject. So be it.

Thanks to this film, I have a much better idea of the man than the one I had when I would glance at his name in a gossip column where he was so ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, cheek by jowl with Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and other beautiful people.

Despite his sybaritic appearance, Yves Saint Laurent was a tortured soul through most of his life, especially in 1960 when he was drafted into the French army that was then trying to suppress a revolution in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth in Oran, 1936. Singled out as a gay man, he was tormented in basic training so much so that he ended up in a mental hospital where he received electroshock treatments. It is the trauma he suffered here that was likely responsible for the alcoholism and drug addiction that haunted him until death.

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April 17, 2015

Water, capitalism and catastrophism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Living Under the Shadow of a Sixth Extinction

Water, Capitalism and Catastrophism


Two films concerned with water and environmental activism arrive in New York this week. “Groundswell Rising”, which premieres at the Maysles Theater in Harlem today, is about the struggle to safeguard lakes and rivers from fracking while “Revolution”, which opens at the Cinema Village next Wednesday, documents the impact of global warming on the oceans. Taking the holistic view, one can understand how some of the most basic conditions of life are threatened by a basic contradiction. Civilization, the quintessential expression of Enlightenment values that relies on ever-expanding energy, threatens to reduce humanity to barbarism if not extinction through exactly such energy production.

This challenge not only faces those of us now living under capitalism but our descendants who will be living under a more rational system. No matter the way in which goods and services are produced, for profit or on the basis of human need, humanity is faced with ecological constraints that must be overcome otherwise we will be subject to a Sixth Extinction. Under capitalism, Sixth Extinction is guaranteed. Under socialism, survival is possible but only as a result of a radical transformation of how society is organized, something that Marx alluded to in the Communist Manifesto when he called for a “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

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April 15, 2015

Adalen 31

Filed under: Film,Sweden,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

After a number of false starts, I was finally able to upload Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 31” to Youtube, a film that I saw when it came out in 1969 and that has lingered in my memory all these years. The title is a reference to a general strike in the Adalen district by paper mill workers in 1931 that led to the first in a series of Social Democratic governments that for many people defined the word socialism. What I took away from the film, besides its stunning artistic power, was the idea that there was a dialectical relationship between revolutionary struggle and reform. If not for the four men and one young girl who were shot down in the village of Lunde on May 14, 1931, it is altogether possible that the modern Scandinavian welfare state never would have been born.

Yesterday I watched the film for the first time in 46 years and realize now why it has stuck with me. Despite the languid and pastoral quality of the first two-thirds of the film, which typified Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” made two years earlier, the final third is a powerful recreation of the armed attack on a demonstration that resonated with the struggles taking place around the world in 1969. And it will resonate now with people watching it for the first time who have the Marikana massacre fresh in their mind, or any other military attack on protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.

The film opens in the house of Harald Andersson, a man who has been out on strike for a number of months. He has three sons, the eldest of whom is named Kjell and is in his late teens. Kjell plays trumpet in the trade union marching band but probably prefers playing jazz.

The primary drama in the film revolves around Kjell’s romance with the daughter of one of the paper mill owners, a blonde girl named Hedvig who is troubled by the bitter strike but not to the extent of breaking with her father.

Widerberg is obviously interested in tensions between the personal and political since another story line involves Harald giving first aid to a wounded scab worker in his home. When he is confronted by his fellow trade unionists, he makes the case that violence undermines their cause and insists that negotiation was the only way forward.

When the army is brought in to defend the scabs’ barracks, the union organizes a march on their stronghold with the marching band in the front ranks playing the Internationale. In an interview with the NY Times’s Mel Gussow in October 1969, Widerberg revealed that 3,000 extras were used in the scene and that he developed the action just two hours before shooting began.

Despite the absence of the word Communist throughout the film, there is little doubt as to the affiliations of the leadership of the strike and many of the rank-and-file workers. Axel Nordström, who served 2 ½ years of hard labor for his role as a strike organizer, was a Communist member of Parliament from 1937 to 1940. In an article on the Adalen general strike that appeared in the Swedish section of Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (http://www.marxist.se/artikel/adalen-31-det-vi-aldrig-far-glomma), there’s a report on the killings that day from Harry Nordlander, a member of the Communist youth group in Adalen:

As we approached the ferry pier near the meadow, where we said that we would turn, a soldier on horseback charged us. The rider shouted something and then fired his gun over his shoulder, probably frightened by a banner that fluttered. Some of the marchers saw bullet holes in the banner. Then we heard clearly a loud command: Fire! The bullets began to whistle through the air. They did not come from the front, but from the side a few yards from the lead.

Then we saw how one of the musicians rushed forward in the hail of bullets and blew “cease fire” [recreated by Kjell in the scene]. The guns fell silent. It was the young Communist Vera who showed courage and presence of mind to stop the killing. But there were already five comrades dead or dying and several more wounded. One of those killed was a young girl who stood in the garden at the side of the road. Her name was Eira Söderberg and was a member of our youth club in Svanö.

 The best account of the Adalen struggles can be found on the Global Nonviolent Action Database located at Swarthmore University. Interestingly enough, Axel Nordström is cited in this article as being opposed to violence against scabs—this despite the fact that the CP’s were aligned with the Kremlin’s ultraleft turn at the time:

In the fall of 1930, the management of a sawmill in Lunde in the Ådalen Valley announced wage cuts for all workers. In response the laborers began a strike.

The workers continued their strike through the fall, shutting down the mill. The director of the Lunde mill also had investments in two pulp mills in nearby towns. In January 1931 the laborers in these two mills began a sympathy strike. Meanwhile workers and management held ongoing negotiations.

Axel Nordström, a communist leader, was one of the leaders of the strike campaign and the workers also had ties to LO.

On May 12, when management called in outside strikebreakers to commence work in the three mills, the strike leaders immediately put up fliers against the strikebreakers. These fliers also called for further protests, work stoppages in other industries, mass demonstrations, and a meeting scheduled for the next day.

The county government ordered police to protect the strikebreakers and sent several officers to the meeting. At the meeting Axel Nordström called for demonstrations, but did not condone violence against the strikebreakers. The strikers decided to march and demonstrate at one of the mills where workers were holding a sympathy strike. Once at the mill another leader spoke and a band played the workers’ theme song. The demonstrators there decided to get rid of the strikebreakers.

Police asked Nordström to prevent the protesters from hurting the strikebreakers, but he was no longer in control of the situation. Demonstrators pulled strikebreakers from the mill, and inflicted some minor injuries. The strikers then chose to hold another meeting the next day and follow it with a march to the mill in Lunde where the strike had begun. They continued protests that day, throwing stones at the strikebreakers’ barracks and knocking out electricity for the city of Lunde.

Bo Widerberg is pretty much a forgotten figure today with very poor representation on the usual sources. None of his films are available on Netflix or Amazon, and in the well-stocked Columbia film library you can only locate “Elvira Madigan”. Despite the fact that his films are now in the public domain, the only one that could be seen previously on Youtube was “Joe Hill”, a 1971 film about the martyred IWW member who was born Joel Emanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden.

Widerberg died on May Day 1997, a symbolic date for the radical filmmaker who was born into a working-class family in Malmo sixty-six years earlier. He started off as a film critic professionally, creating controversy with his 1962 book “The Vision of Swedish Cinema” that took aim at Ingmar Bergman and his followers for being “preoccupied with problems that didn’t interest me and my generation of comrades.” He found that the Sweden Bergman represented was “not contemporary at all”.

Clearly Widerberg was tuned into the Marxist detective novel authors that I wrote about for CounterPunch back in September 2014. Fortunately his 1976 “Man on the Roof” that was based on the Martin Beck novel co-authored by Marxist husband and wife writing team Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall can be seen with English subtitles at Daily Motion, something that I hope to see along with “Joe Hill” the first chance I get.

April 9, 2015

Black Souls

Filed under: crime,Film,Italy — louisproyect @ 8:59 pm

In American popular culture, the mafia gangster is either a tarnished hero like Don Corleone or a likeable lowlife like Tony Soprano. But for Italians, he is a much more malevolent figure especially as seen in a number of art films that are often infused with the leftist and neorealist traditions of the postwar period. More importantly, it is much harder for the average Italian to cheer for Michael Corleone taking revenge on a crooked cop and rival gang leader or Tony Soprano’s malapropisms when the mafia has functioned so often as a rightwing death squad.

In Paul Ginsborg’s Marxist-oriented “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988”, there’s an account of the mafia’s attack on a peasant protest in Villalba in central Sicily in September 1944. This was a village dominated by a mafia boss named Don Calò Vizzini, who had returned as part of the Allies entourage. Vizzini was among the gangsters who supposedly helped prepare the American invasion alongside Lucky Luciano and others.

The local CP leader, a man named Girolamo Li Causi, had asked for permission to hold a meeting in the village square. Vizzini granted permission but only if there was no talk about land reform or the mafia. Ginsborg quotes fellow Marxist Carlo Levi on what took place there:

Causi began to talk to that little unexpected crowd about the Micciché estate, about the land, about the Mafia. The parish priest, brother of Don Calò, tried to drown Li Causi’s voice by ringing the bells of his church. But the peasants listened and understood: ‘He’s right; they said: ‘blessed be the milk of the mother who suckled him, it’s gospel truth what he is saying.’ By so doing they were breaking a sense of time-honoured servitude, disobeying not just one order but order itself, challenging the laws of the powerful destroying authority, despising and offending prestige. It was then that Don Calò,. from the middle of the piazza, shouted ‘it’s all lies!’ The sound of his cry acted like a signal. The mafiosi began to shoot.

Fourteen people were wounded that day, including Li Causi.

There was peasant resistance in Calabria as well, the “toe” of southern Italy that appears to be kicking the island of Sicily. A 1945 CP report indicated that they had built peasant leagues with 40,000 members in Calabria, the very region that is the locale for “Black Souls”, an Italian film that opens at the Angelika and City Cinemas in New York tomorrow and at the Nuart in Los Angeles on April 24.

The blackness alluded to in the title is not skin color but the evil that dwells in the heart of brothers Luigi and Rocco Carbone. The two gangsters come from the town of Africo in Calabria, where their older brother Luciano raises goats on a picturesque mountaintop. Luciano’s son Leo, who is in his late teens, wants nothing to do with goats and only dreams of becoming an apprentice to Luigi and Rocco who run their drug importing business out of Milan.

When a traditional rival of the Carbone family, a local saloon-keeper in Africo, insults them, Leo arms himself with a shotgun and blows out his windows in the middle of the night. This is hardly the kind of offense that leads to gang wars of the sort that dominate American films but is in fact typical of what has turned much of southern Italy into a blood-soaked battleground.

If you are expecting Godfather type action of the “going to the mattresses” sort, not only won’t you find here but you shouldn’t. The violence in “Black Souls” is like that takes place over turf control by the Crips and the Bloods or the kind that has forced so many young people to flee El Salvador and Honduras. It is Luciano’s hope to dissuade Leo from a life of crime even though he knows it is a losing battle. The boy worships Luigi who is both charismatic in his own slimy fashion as well as filthy rich.

“Black Souls” is based on a novel written by Gioacchino Criaco, who was born in Africo and a lawyer who returned home to write about his region’s troubles. Like Juarez in Mexico, Africo is one of Calabria’s most dangerous spots. The film benefits from the casting of Giuseppe Fumo, a local nonprofessional, as Leo. He must have known from first-hand experience the tragic attraction that the mafia has for youth with an uncertain future.

Criaco is far more interested in the family drama that pits brother against brother for the soul of a young man than in the social and economic forces that have given birth to the mafia. Before long, I will be researching Italian films about the mafia that draw from radical and neorealist traditions but do not hesitate to recommend “Black Souls”, a film that is uncompromisingly bleak but truthful. It is blessed by a good script and fine performances. There’s not much more than one can ask for nowadays.

April 7, 2015

About Elly; Salvation Army

Filed under: Film,Gay,Iran,Islam — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

Although I am generally put off by prizes and “best of” lists, I would be remiss if I did not cite Asghar Farhadi as one of the best filmmakers in the world today, who is to Iran what Nuri Bilge Ceylan is to Turkey: a supremely gifted dramatist that weaves the stories of individual men and women into the social and political fabric of his nation.

Opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York, “About Elly” is the third Farhadi film I have seen. Even though its release follows “A Separation” and “The Past”, it was made first—back in 2009. Made in 2011, “A Separation”—as the title implies—deals with the break-up of a husband and wife in Tehran whose marital problems are exacerbated by Iran’s charged political climate, especially for such well-educated and secular middle-class people. Made a year later and set in Paris, “The Past” examines some of the same family issues of “A Separation”. An Iranian husband has traveled to Paris to sign the divorce papers for his French wife. Although the primary tension in the film is about the pending break-up, a parallel drama revolves around the fate of foreigners in an increasingly nativist France.

This social milieu and its particular problems are once again the subject of “About Elly”, a film that works both as a story of responsibility and guilt after the fashion of Ian McEwan’s earlier (and better) novels, as well as the problems facing single women in Iran today.

“About Elly” opens with a small caravan of cars barreling through a tunnel in Iran as one of the women passengers is yelling out the window for no good reason except to be heard. She and the others are in high spirits since they are driving to a beachside resort on the Caspian Sea, the Iranian counterpart to a weekend in the Hamptons.

One of the male passengers is a handsome and bearded (but probably not for religious reasons) man in his thirties named Ahmad, who like the protagonist in “The Past”, has just separated from a European wife—in this instance a German. He is visiting Tehran where he hopes that Sepideh, a female member of the entourage, can fix him up with a nice Iranian woman.

Sepideh invites Elly, her daughter’s teacher, along for just that reason. Despite the Western-sounding name, it is just an informal version of Elizeh or Elika, etc. The fact that Sepideh has no idea of Elly’s full name might indicate that the ties between her and the rest of the group are tenuous at best. In essence, what is taking place in this well educated and secular milieu of law school faculty members is not that much different than traditional courtship rituals that have taken place for a millennium and one that usually empowers man at the woman’s expense.

As the group drives along toward the resort and even after they have unpacked, they tease the two who have just met about the upcoming marriage—to Elly’s mounting irritation. Perhaps the fact that all the women wear scarves—even indoors where it is not mandatory—indicates that their modernity is incomplete.

In the only moments when Ahmad and Elly are alone together, she asks why he and his German wife had divorced. His answered that she told him “a bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness.” He obviously agreed.

About twenty minutes into the film, there is an abrupt shift toward the tragic. Sepideh has asked Elly to keep an eye on her young son who is wading in the sea just behind their villa. As the film cuts to the group playing volleyball in their villa’s back yard, we see one of the younger children come crying. Sepideh’s son has been carried out to sea. The men rush into the turbulent waters and rescue the boy from drowning but Elly is nowhere to be seen. They fear that she has drowned trying to rescue the boy but hold out hope that she might have only left unannounced back to Tehran out of annoyance with their teasing.

The remainder of the film consists of mounting tension between Sepideh and her husband over her role in procuring a date with Ahmad, especially in light of the fact that Elly has been engaged for the past three years. If Elly had mixed feelings about the arranged tryst with Ahmad, she is simply miserable about being engaged to a man who will not allow her to break it off. All of this takes place against a backdrop of a desperate search for her body in the foreboding waters of the Caspian.

It is worth mentioning what David Bordwell, arguably the most respected Marxist film critic in the world today, wrote about the film in 2009:

The best, and my favorite film I’ve seen so far this year, was About Elly. It is directed by Asghar Fahradi, and it won the Silver Bear at Berlin. I can’t say much about it without giving a lot away; like many Iranian films, it relies heavily on suspense. That suspense is at once situational (what has happened to this character?) and psychological (what are characters withholding from each other?). Starting somewhat in the key of Eric Rohmer, it moves toward something more anguished, even a little sinister in a Patricia Highsmith vein.

Gripping as sheer storytelling, the plot smoothly raises some unusual moral questions. It touches on masculine honor, on the way a thoughtless laugh can wound someone’s feelings, on the extent to which we try to take charge of others’ fates. I can’t recall another film that so deeply examines the risks of telling lies to spare someone grief. But no more talk: The less you know in advance, the better. About Elly deserves worldwide distribution pronto.

While not quite “pronto”, we can be grateful for the opportunity to see a film that according to Wikipedia was rated the 4th greatest Iranian movie of all time by a national society of Iranian critics. Considering the artistic merit of Iranian films in general, this is high praise indeed.

Arriving as VOD (identified at the distributor’s website), “Salvation Army” is a major breakthrough since it is the very first film with a gay protagonist to come out of the Middle East and North Africa.

Abdellah Taïa, the first openly gay author in the Arab world, has now adapted one of his novels as a film, one that showed at the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York last year. Set in Casablanca, this is a bildungsroman in Taïa’s own words. The main character is a teenaged boy named Abdellah who is a closeted gay who has desultory trysts with older men in his neighborhood but whose most amorous feelings are directed toward his older heterosexual brother. His mother, sensing that there is something “wrong” with him, abjures him from spending too much time going through his brother’s clothes, especially his underwear.

It is obvious that family life has gotten the better of him. With a father who beats his mother and a mother who treats him like a servant, and sisters who laugh at his softness without actually openly engaging in gay bashing, there is not much joy to be found in Casablanca. In many ways, this is a tale that subverts the stereotypes many people have developed from reading Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs and the like.

Deliverance arrives in the form of a gay Swiss professor who kept Abdellah as his courtesan in exchange for help in a visa and entrance into the college where he works. The second part of “Salvation Army” depicts and older and wiser Abdellah fending off the professor and trying to eke out a living in Switzerland just before his first semester begins. This includes crashing at the local Salvation Army, the title of the film.

The film does not have a conventional plot but moves along as a series of vignettes that reflect different aspects of gay life in Morocco. It is not surprising given its provenance that it has a novelistic quality, with most of the drama having a subdued if not repressed quality. In the most evocative scene, Abdellah has gone to a beachside resort with his older and younger brothers. Just before they leave, the mother gives him an amulet to put under his older brother’s bed as a spell to ward him away from prostitutes. When he hooks up with a surly but willing waitress, Abdellah phones his mother to advise her that a stronger spell was needed.

I strongly recommend the Wikipedia entry on Abdellah Taïa that reveals him to be a multifaceted figure with a willingness to take up many other issues besides gay rights, including repression in Putin’s Russia and the terrorism that afflicts the Muslim world.

There is also a N.Y. Times article that is very much worth reading that I include below, just so that you do not run into the usual paywall issues:

HE was born inside the public library of Rabat in Morocco where his dad worked as a janitor and where his family lived until he was 2. For most of his childhood, he hid his sexuality as best he could, but his effeminate demeanor brought mockery and abuse, even as it would later become a source of artistic inspiration.

About eight years ago, the author Abdellah Taïa, now 40, came out to the Moroccan public in his books and in the news media, appearing on the cover of a magazine under the headline “Homosexual Against All Odds.”

It was an act that made him one of the few to publicly declare his sexual orientation in Morocco, where homosexuality is a crime. The hardest part, he recalls, was facing his family. They probably always knew, he said, they just never talked about it. Still, it took years to overcome the rifts.

“They cried and screamed,” said Mr. Taïa, who now lives in Paris. “I cried when they called me. But I won’t apologize. Never.”

In February, Mr. Taïa screened his film “Salvation Army” at the National Film Festival in Tangier, an adaptation of his book of the same title, and a promising directorial debut that gave the Arab world its first on-screen gay protagonist. The film, which has already been shown at festivals in Toronto and Venice and won the Grand Prix at the Angers Film Festival in France, was shown at the New Directors Festival in New York last month.

“Salvation Army” is based on the author’s life growing up in Morocco, his sexual awakening, his fascination with a brother 20 years older, his encounters with older men in dark alleys and his complex relationship with his mother and six sisters who mocked him for being too girly or too attached to them.

SHOOTING the film in two countries, he made clear artistic choices: no voice-overs, no music, no explicit love scenes. The film details a trip with his brother on which the two men bonded and also, a few years later, an affair with a Swiss man. After he moves to Switzerland in his 20s, he connects again with his mother.

But the film also shows the anger and frustration of the young Abdellah, as he fends off the advances of older men in a society that publicly rejects homosexuals.

“A lot of men in Morocco have sexual relations with men, but I looked feminine so I was the only homosexual,” he said. “In Morocco, sexual tension is everywhere and I wanted to show that in my film without having crude sex scenes; to stay true to these secretive behaviors.”

One night when he was 13 and with his family, drunken men outside called out his name and asked him to come down to entertain them, a traumatic scene he recalled in a New York Times Op-Ed article, “A Boy to Be Sacrificed.” After that he decided to change his persona, to eliminate his effeminate mannerisms to stop men asking him for sexual favors.

He worked hard to learn French so he could move to Europe to escape the oppression, moving to Switzerland in 1998 and then to France the following year.

“I can’t live in Morocco,” Mr. Taïa said in an interview in a Parisian brasserie. “The entire neighborhood wanted to rape me. A lot of people in Morocco are abused by a cousin or a neighbor but society doesn’t protect them. There, rape is insignificant. There is nothing you can do.”

Mr. Taïa spent his childhood watching Egyptian movies, detailing them in a scrapbook where he collected pictures of movie stars he admired, like Faten Hamama and Souad Hosni. The freedom in Egyptian cinema, where women appeared without veils and alcohol was consumed openly, pervaded his living room and gave him hope. In a scene in “Salvation Army,” the family is seen watching “Days and Nights” (1955) by Henri Barakat, and a scene where Abdel Halim Hafez sings, “Ana Lak ala Tool” (“I Am Yours Forever).

“Egyptian movies saved me,” he said. “There was already the idea of transgression through television happening in my house with my sisters. In my head, I connected that to homosexuality.”

THE author says he considers himself Muslim because he is very spiritual, and he believes that freedom has existed in Islam through those such as the Arab philosopher Averroes and the Iranian poet Rumi, and in works such as “1001 Nights.”

“I don’t want to dissociate myself from Islam,” he said. “It is part of my identity. It is not because I am gay that I will reject it. We need to recover this freedom that has existed in Islam.”

His books have stirred some negative reviews and reaction. His writing, in particular, has been criticized as undisciplined, as if it were dictated. Others say that it is the rawness of the writing that makes his work authentic and touching.

Mr. Taïa says he always wanted to become a filmmaker. He became a writer by accident after writing all his thoughts and experiences down in a journal to learn French. While he draws on his experiences growing up, he says he has never looked to art to exorcise the pain and abuse he experienced as a child and teenager.

“Books, like the film, do not solve anything,” he said. “My neuroses are, at some level, what we might call my creativity. But what I produce artistically does not help me in any way in my real life. Nothing is resolved. Everything is complex, complicated. I sincerely believe that there is only love to heal and soothe troubled souls.”

He says he has no preference between writing and filmmaking. “To me, both have the same source: the wonderful Egyptian films that I discovered with my family on Moroccan television during my childhood. Everything comes from images. For years, my brain has been structured from images of films I thought and rethought, in a manner at once naïve and serious. I will continue to write books inspired by images — and by my neuroses, of course.”

Today, he has patched up relations with most family members, though there are still awkward moments. His older brother, always cold and distant, remains estranged, a point of particular pain for Mr. Taïa. The brother was worshiped by the entire family not only for his charisma but because he saved them from poverty when he took several government jobs before marrying at the age of 35.

His mother died shortly after Mr. Taïa came out, and he now has a cordial relationship with his sisters. He has over 40 nieces and nephews who symbolize a new more open-minded generation of Moroccans — they often post messages of encouragement on his official Facebook page.

Still, Mr. Taïa finds it very difficult to go home.

“I can’t talk to them,” he said. “I am just a human being. They were ashamed of me. I always felt they were. I don’t want them to be proud of me. And anyway, they’re not.”

HE was one of the few Moroccan authors to denounce the oppressive policies of the kingdom and to strongly back the Feb. 20 movement that led protests in Morocco in 2011 demanding democratic reforms. His thoughts on this experience are detailed in chapters of the book “Arabs Are No Longer Afraid,” which was released at the biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York in March.

Mr. Taïa is working on his next book: a tale about old Moroccan prostitutes who at the end of their careers touring the world have landed in Paris. He lives in a small studio apartment near the central Place de la République, and worked as a baby sitter for over 10 years to finance his work. He still hasn’t found love but is convinced it is what will heal his wounds.

April 3, 2015

The Hand that Feeds

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm


Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick’s “The Hand That Feeds”
The New Face of the American Class Struggle

A 1954 film titled “Salt of the Earth” told the story of a courageous strike by the mostly Mexican-American zinc miners against a ruthless corporation that was based on a 1951 strike in New Mexico. Produced by Paul Jarrico and directed by Herbert Biberman, two Hollywood blacklistees, it was remarkable for both its power as film and for its fearless radicalism in a time when the left was being hounded out of existence. It derived much of its strength from the casting of New Mexican miners in leading roles, such as Juan Chacon, the president of a miner’s union, as a strike leader. And of critical importance in a time when reaction was running full throttle, the film depicted a victory of workers against insurmountable odds, just as had taken place in 1951.

I could not help but think about the 1954 classic when watching a screening of “The Hand that Feeds”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. If “Salt of the Earth” was a fictional film based on the facts of a real life strike, “The Hand that Feeds” is by contrast a factual film with all of the heartrending drama of a fictional film blessed with a “star” who led a struggle of twenty workers at Hot and Crusty, a bagel shop that was a stone’s throw from Bloomingdales in New York. In a panel on storytelling I chaired at this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival, a documentary filmmaker explained that casting is as important for the documentary as it is for narrative films. One cannot imagine better casting for this documentary than the mostly undocumented Mexican workforce at Hot and Crusty, starting with Mahoma López, the 2014 counterpart to the Juan Chacon of sixty years ago.

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March 27, 2015

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

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

A Quixotic Longing for a Benign Authority

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq


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

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

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March 25, 2015

A Wolf at the Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 24, 2015

Socially Relevant Film Festival wrap-up

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Screen shot 2015-03-24 at 3.32.31 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Awards:

  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

In Memoriam

Lifetime of Inspiration

Albert Maysles



  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

The Challat of Tunis

By Kaouther Ben Hania

Feature Film Award

Grand Prize

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


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Lighter Than Orange

By Matthias Leupold

Documentary Film Award

Grand Prize

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


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Vanya Exerjian Award

(Empowering Women and Girls)

E’ Stata Lei (It Was Her)

by Francesca Archibugi

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


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Justice and Peace Award

Guy Davidi – High Hopes


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Documentary Short

Mamma är Gud

by Maria Bäck

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


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

Narrative Short

Zacharie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

by Alberto Segre

The award was accepted by a friend of the filmmaker.


  1. SR Socially Relevant Film Festival

New York 2015

WFCC Award

We Cannot Go There Now, My Dear

by Carol Mansour

The award was presented by Edie Nugent of WFCC.




SR Socially Relevant Film Festival NY

Nora Armani or Lucie Tripon


(917) 318 2290


New Directors/New Films 2015

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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