Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 2, 2015


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

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran

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

Read full article

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.

December 30, 2014

David Duke’s warning

Filed under: Iran,racism — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm


Ex-KKK leader David Duke: Lay off Steve Scalise or I’ll start naming other pols I met with

David Duke (DavidDuke.com)

In an interview with Fusion.net explaining his connection to current House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), Duke said that he is exceptionally well-connected within the U.S. political class and that charges of racism against him are a product of the media’s “zionist” and “tribalist” mentality.

Incoming Majority Whip Scalise has come under fire over a speaking engagement with Duke’s pro-white EURO (European-American Unity and Rights Organization) foundation in 2002.

According to Duke, the rush to repudiate Scalise and his possible white-nationalist sympathies is “all bullshit.”

“I’ve grown up” since his days as a Grand Wizard of the Klan, Duke told Fusion’s Brett Logiurato via phone. “And I know who the real racists are.”

* * * *

Yeah, and this is one of them:

November 22, 2014

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

Filed under: democracy,Iran,Lenin — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

A guest post by Reza Fiyouzat

The engineers know better, but the common story about Edison finally finding the one filament that did work suggests that it took more than a thousand tries. The social project of building a socialist society must surely be more complicated than that, and therefore will require many tries. So, let’s not be disheartened. We do know what does not work. That is a good continuing point; not a starting-from-scratch point, but a point of progress.

In the Manifesto, Marx draws a comparison between the transitions from feudalism to capitalism to the epoch of the transition from capitalism to socialism. In other words, for Marx, there would not be one major event that would bring about world socialism, but a series of events and a long period of class struggles that would eventually overthrow capitalism as the dominant mode of production and social relations.

Looking at it as a historical process, we must then assign characteristics to this process, so that we can determine at what stage of the historical process we stand today, and where to go from here. Traditionally, it has come to a few choices; one way to look at the transition to socialism is as a two-stage revolution with two historically distinguishable stages, the first ‘democratic’ and then ‘socialist’, with strict rules to be followed at each stage, in some prescriptions with experts at the helm of a revolutionary command center directing the revolution, deciding all the important decisions. Or, we can see it as a dynamic historical process with ups and downs for both sides of the class struggle, yet a process that can be influenced by the wise tactical and strategic interventions of revolutionaries, yet a process that has to be moved from below. Or, you can just characterize it as an uninterrupted process (as some do), or as the Trotskyist school suggests, a permanent revolution. If I were a Trotskyist, I would propose a reformulation in favor of a permanent revolution/counterrevolution.

All these different formulations point to the same basic historical fact: the fact that class struggle does not take a break. You’re either winning tactically or strategically, or you’re losing tactically/strategically. So perhaps too much energy is expended in some socialist quarters in the debate over ‘how many stages’ we should have. All sides agree that it is a historical process, not a one-step event.

For this reason it is important to take into consideration Gramsci’s insightful concepts of ‘war of maneuvers’ (as in, what we should do during revolutionary periods) as contrasted to ‘war of positions’ (characterized by spontaneous mass struggles that arise in non-revolutionary conditions, and what socialists should do in those fights). This conceptualization is much more productive than the simplistic and ultimately mistaken dichotomy, ‘reform v. revolution’.

For both Marx and Lenin, the transition to socialism was a dynamic historical process with ups and downs. In these ups and downs, the task of the socialists and revolutionaries is to find ways to intervene in spontaneous movements that arise and infuse them with the revolutionary input that would shape and elevate these spontaneous struggles to higher levels of self-consciousness, with wider outlooks, and help turn them into movements that could lead to the popularization of socialist answers to capitalist contradictions, thus creating the conditions to take a revolutionary leap as a society.

That is why for Lenin it had become clear that the most conscious and committed communists and socialist workers and intellectuals needed to organize themselves in a political party exactly because they are supposed to intervene in every struggle caused by the never-ending contradictions that capitalism throws up periodically. Your intervention is likely to be a lot more effective when you have an organizational capability for analyzing, planning and acting when you need to do so. This is just elementary politics.

Now, a political party based on ideas of Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries, at a particular time and in a particular place, should not be reduced to an organizational fetishism, attempting to replicate the Bolshevik party. The principle we need to take into account is far more basic, and is the antithesis of fetishistic. The basic principle is simple: Be Organized! For the obvious reasons that the other side is highly organized and a very violent and effective fighter.

The organizational form itself cannot be the main problematic; the form can and does vary and nobody can eliminate the possibility that, besides the old forms that have proven effective, newer forms of organization are possible and even necessary. Some will work, and some will not work, like the Occupy Movement’s ‘lack of structure’ structure. But the reason Occupy Movement fizzled out quickly had less to do with a ‘lack of organized structure’. ‘Lack of structure’ went along with a more fundamental lack. There actually was a structure, I went to regular peoples assemblies: the hand gestures and the people’s mike, as you remember, even came in handy for the late night comedians to get easy laughs. The structure, however, did not allow for a clear articulation of what concretely it was fighting for. It became the hallmark of the movement to declare even (and proudly so) that they must not explicitly state demands! Which, if you think about it, is the antithesis of a movement, in a way.

So, the main problematic is not lack of ‘proper organization’. Our most real concerns should be to engage with and intervene in reality, and while doing so let’s not forget to pay attention to how we’re doing it, ergo, the need for being organized and self-critical, always learning from our own practices and mistakes, always looking for more effective means of achieving political goals that actually have an effect in the real world.

That is where we can win the battle of democracy. Not just in struggles that come out with declared socialist aims. No such mass movements ever happen anywhere spontaneously. People come out onto the streets for very concrete demands. They don’t come out shouting, “We Want Socialism!” Most people come out shouting, “We Want Water! We Want Bread! We Want No More Wars! We demand equal rights! We demand safety from the random violence of the State! We want water sources that don’t burn up when you light a match to ’em!”

Democracy is not just some nicety or luxury, as some socialists are prone to think. It is not reducible to elections. Democracy is the essence of pushing capital to its limits and then pushing some more till it cracks wide open. This means that, as socialists, we don’t sit back and grade whatever movement arises in the society, giving it a ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’ before we decide whether or not it should be supported. Supported, as in, just in words even (not to denigrate the value of verbal support when that is all you can give). Notice the mentality though:  the movement hits the streets; we wait some time to give ourselves enough time to give it a grade; then what we mostly do is announce support or no support. The mentality is that of a reactive mode, not a proactive mode; not a mentality that tries to shape and change reality, but one that takes directions from social reality.

This mentality does nothing to intervene and affect the movements that arise spontaneously; to find, in the array of forces present, close allies and build them up and change the internal dynamics of the movement; to infuse good ideas into those movements, to facilitate their organizing, to bring them resources, etc. To intervene in all struggles thrown up by capitalism’s never-ending crisis-inducing nature, that is the duty of the socialists. Sometimes we get defeated, and sometimes we win and elevate the social discussion around particular issues, and make clear the universal elements in those localized struggles. And by so doing, we elevate the conditions to our benefit for the next struggle that is sure to come up. And only by doing all that can we shorten the timeline for creating conditions that would support a revolutionary leap. Revolutionary conditions don’t just materialize out of the blue all by themselves. They must be brought about.

Aside: This is why one can easily find fault with some socialists and Marxists who denigrate environmental issues as ‘liberal’ or ‘middle class’. Such arguments are erroneous on two counts because environmental issues negatively impact the working classes doubly. On one level, environmental degradations that lead to loss of quality of life are invariably targeted at working class and poor communities. Are socialists and Marxists justified in ridiculing as ‘liberal’, for example, the Appalachian poor working class residents, whose mountaintops are being obliterated, for demanding that their tap water should not be a fuel source as well?

On another level, environmental damages brought about by industrial capital must be looked at in terms of externalization of costs for particular capitalists (and capital is always concrete, not an abstract economic category), and therefore about maximization of profit margins. To externalize the environmental costs to the society (again, always targeted carefully) is an indication of the inherently anti-democratic nature of capital, something that should be exposed by socialists as such, and used to draw attention to the inability of capital to protect the environment, which belongs to all. On the flip side, by forcing environmental regulations on polluting industries, we reduce their profit margins, and place limitations on how freely they can exploit resources. For socialists to consider environmental issues as something to be denigrated as subsidiary, unworthy, below-me-so-blow-me, is to abdicate responsibility as socialists. End of aside.

Looked at in this framework, for Marx and Lenin (see his State and Revolution as well as his debates regarding the necessity for the independence of the labor unions from both party and state structures in post-revolutionary Russia, particularly debates starting in 1918 and continuing to early 1920s, before his death) the battle for democracy means exactly to push into the cracks (contradictions) in capitalist social contract and to force them wide open. As well, capitalist accumulation, by nature, will present us with an infinite reserve of spontaneous social movements sure to arise as capital develops, expands and consumes more spheres of social life globally.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents the now-well-known formulation, “winning the battle of democracy”. Elsewhere, Marx explains in detail how bourgeoisie presents an appearance of fairness when it presents the market as a place where equals meet and agree on a contract. According to the bourgeois ideologues, the market creates an equal playing field in which the two sides (labor and capital) come to a mutually agreed upon price for the labor hours to be purchased by the capitalist and provided by the laborer.

In the first and the second volumes of Capital, however, Marx clarifies how this ‘fair’ contract is in fact based on a history of forced expropriation of means of independent production for the workers, a historical process that stripped an entire class of the society, a vast majority, of all means of making an independent living, forcing that class to the position of having to sell itself, its labor power, in order to survive.

“The capitalist system pre-supposes the complete separation of the laborers from all property and the means by which they can realize their labor. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually expanding scale” (Capital, Vol. 1, Part 8, Chapter 26).

Part eight of the first volume of Capital then goes on to chronicle a short history of that process of expropriations: forced land expropriations driving peasants off their lands, through to anti-vagabondage laws, maximum wage laws, “forcing down of wages by acts of parliament”, as Marx describes it. Further, the original accumulation of capital was infused plentifully with the wealth stolen from the colonies, explicitly enumerated by Marx in part eight of the first volume. In the second volume, Marx reminds the reader that money should not be mistaken for capital since money cannot become capital unless under social relations in which the complete expropriation of all independent means of living has already stricken the vast majority; just as money can only be exchanged for slaves under social relations that allow slavery.

However, exactly because there is a gigantic historical theft hidden behind bourgeois presentation of the marketplace contract as fair, Marx could call the historical bluff. More specifically, throughout his seminal work, Capital, he shows the workers the exact mechanisms through which the employer extracts surplus value from them, and how capital enriches itself while spreading misery among the workers and property-less classes.

This fundamental contradiction in the social contract presented by bourgeoisie opens a crack in the system. By exposing the mechanisms through which surplus value is created and extracted by capital, Marx in effect shows the workers how to fight back, how to intervene in the cycle of capitalist production and accumulation, how to minimize (to start with) the surplus extracted from them; and how through a protracted struggle in a historical process, working classes will eventually be able to expropriate back all the surplus value.

So, to answer the question in the title, it is clear that capital is definitely afraid of real democracy. That is why it has had to distort and twist the concept beyond recognition, reducing it to mere elections, and it has had to work hard and tirelessly at this task, with the aid of millions of organic intellectuals it trains and retains in its educational institutions, mass media, the culture industry, its think thanks, industrial associations, financial cartels, etc.

But even while distorting the meaning of democracy in the public mind, selling it as cyclical elections of representatives, capital never forgets to fight back against, and attempt to repeal and reverse, all the real democratic gains of previous fights by the working classes. Why else the 30-some-year long attack by the right wing in the U.S. on women’s rights such as reproductive rights, or attacks on laws protecting collective bargaining by unions, attacks on public education? The list can go on.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy opposing reform to revolution, and to some others who are afraid of democracy, in very unexpected quarters: some socialists. In this unfortunately posed dichotomy, reform is the all-negative, as contrasted to revolution. I believe that the error arises from the assumption that we are always in revolutionary conditions. Under revolutionary conditions, of course, it would be folly to advocate reforms, when in fact the ground is well suited for a revolutionary leap. However, revolutionary conditions do not persist at all times. They are rare. So, what do we do when conditions are not revolutionary? Pack it in and wait?

Socialists who truly believe that reforms are bad, to be consistent, must join the Republican politicians and fight for the repeal of all laws protecting the environment, all child labor laws, maximum hours-in-a-workday laws, workplace health and safety laws, equal rights legislations banning racial and other discriminations, women’s rights legislations, and so on.

Of course, no socialist would do such a thing. Why then hold such dichotomies as if they were true?

Any past democratic gain by our side is a limitation we have been able to force on capital, a limitation on how freely capital can act, and is therefore a positive. It is a platform from which we can deploy a more effective fight, something to be cherished and appreciated and not denigrated. For capital will not rest until it has snatched back every single one of those platforms.

However, there are other indications that some Western socialists do not really understand the importance of democracy and democratic movements that arise spontaneously all over the world, all of which movements are pooh-poohed by these kind comrades, who are adept at missing opportunity after opportunity to be actually effective for the right side of the battle.

A case in point is the massive popular movement that filled the Iranian streets by the millions, in the aftermath of the too-obviously stolen elections of June 2009. Now, let me clarify that normally everybody in Iran knows the elections are a farce as a matter of routine. But in 2009, people came out agreeing to go along with the farce, and asked only that state functionaries at least follow the script they themselves had written; as in, allow the real votes for the two candidates to be counted fairly, since the state had allowed the two to run., So, when the functionaries suddenly did switch scripts in mid-process, then people had every right to take to peaceful massive protests to declare they were pissed off.

Let’s look at that historical moment, just for two more seconds. In Tehran alone, in a matter of three days after the hasty announcement of the results in favor of Ahmadinejad, in a highly irregular manner, more than three million people occupied the streets of the capital city. By contrast, if any political organization in the U.S. could bring three million people onto the streets (less than one percent of the U.S. population), they would announce it as a revolution in itself. Now, when that happened in Iran (a country of 70 million at the time), in just one city (and there were massive street protests in many major cities), some leftist writers and activists in the west argued that the whole thing was an imperialist conspiracy, the work of CIA. These socialists concluded that the movement as a whole was engineered in the west to destabilize the Iranian regime, and therefore the movement had to be condemned.

The enormous absurdities in that explanation are so numerous that will go way beyond the scope of this piece. Still. That is quite a conclusion coming from socialists, but believe it or not some were actually publishing articles arguing exactly that. Iranian socialists, of course, were shocked and awed, not so much by the sheer ignorance of such statements, in themselves enough to cause extreme alarm, but mostly because it sounded exactly like the propaganda by the theocracy that was busy shooting at peaceful demonstrators, imprisoning them by the thousands, torturing them at will, raping them, or threatening them with rape in their dungeons. So, yes, we were truly shocked by the depth of antipathy toward just plain human decency displayed by socialists.

How can CIA have such superpowers as to bring people onto the streets of Iran, in millions, at will? Really? I am sure CIA analysts get a good laugh when they hear of these superpowers they are supposed to have. It seems amazing that all the enormous and very real internal social contradictions, the suffocating puritanical social rules dictated by a theocracy of a minority, the massive economic pressures of mass unemployment and huge inflationary rates, all these obvious sociological factors figure not at all in the political explanations of these socialists. One would have hoped that socialists would have, by now, left the bizarro land of conspiracies and returned to the firm terrain of scientific historical materialism.

All kinds of social demands started percolating up to the surface as a result of that mass movement in Iran, a movement that initially took to the streets asking merely: “Where is my vote?” That movement very rapidly graduated onto more general demands regarding governmental accountability, political rights of free speech, free association and free assembly rights, just to name the obvious ones. Even the legitimacy of the theocratic state apparatuses came under open and loudly expressed social questioning. This was a huge move forward, and if it had been helped and supported, it could have led to better places and could have provided some breathing space for the Iranian working classes. Which section of the working classes would not benefit form the advantage of being able to organize freely and protected by law? Who would gain the most from legal equality between men and women? And who would lose the most? Who would gain the most from limitations put on state security forces so that they are not able to torture political prisoners at will?

How a big segment of the western left behaved toward the massive spontaneous movement of the Iranian people in June-December 2009 is indicative of a fundamental malaise that runs deep and far too widely in the global left: misunderstanding the importance and the meaning of democracy.

It is time for socialists, and leftists in general, to stop being afraid of democratic movements that arise spontaneously. It is time to expose capitalist development as inherently anti-democratic and to fight to win the battle of democracy anywhere we can.

Reza Fiyouzat may be contacted at: rfiyouzat@yahoo.com

November 10, 2014

Rosewater — Jon Stewart goes to Iran

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

Despite being a long-standing enemy of the Iranian theocracy, I found “Rosewater” very unsatisfying. As cable TV comedian Jon Stewart’s maiden voyage in film (he directed and wrote the screenplay), it is hobbled by both his inexperience in this medium as well as subject matter that might defy the best efforts of a Costa-Gavras. This is a tale based on the real-life persecution of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bihari who was in solitary confinement in Evin prison after being arrested on trumped-up charges for spying in 2009.

Stewart had a personal stake in making the film since Bihari was a guest on his show and a cause célèbre for the Daily Show after his imprisonment. For those who have tuned into his half-hour satire from time to time, you’re probably aware that there’s a special place in his heart for journalists up against a repressive state like Egypt’s Bassem Youssef. For Stewart, there’s an emphasis on freedom of the press even if there’s not quite an understanding that such freedom only exists for those who own one, as A.J. Liebling once put it.

A good ninety percent of the film takes place in the confines of Bihari’s cell in Evin Prison as an Iranian cop nicknamed Rosewater for the cologne he wears pressures him to confess to being a CIA agent. No matter how committed you are to the rights of journalists, there is simply not that much drama you can wring out of an interrogator making absurd demands on a prisoner when he is not beating him. Additionally, there is very little suspense as to how things turn out since one can only surmise that Bihari did not end up with a bullet in the head. Jon Stewart is not the sort of person who would spend good time and money on creating such a downer.

An additional problem is that as a character, Bihari has no strong beliefs. Although obviously in support of the Green movement that was protesting in the streets against what it considered a rigged election, he is like most professional reporters–somebody making a living rather than a fuss. As such, his tendency is to remonstrate with Rosewater that—as Joseph K. put it—there must be some kind of mistake. There are and were revolutionaries locked up and tortured in Evin but surely we can agree with Jon Stewart that a Newsweek reporter was there only because an out-of-control theocracy was ready to victimize a reporter seen mistakenly as an enemy of the Islamic Republic.

Maziar Bihari was nothing like his father who spent years in Evin prison in the 1950s for his Communist opposition to the shah. To create a contrast between father and son, Stewart has an actor play the father in a number of scenes in which the son conducts an imaginary dialogue with his father. As expected, the father speaks in terms of a revolutionary duty to oppose dictatorship while the son replies that he is mostly interested in getting out and back to his pregnant wife and his job.

There are some odd casting choices in the film. Best known for his performance as Che Guevara in Walter Salles’s “Motorcycle Diaries”, Mexican actor Gael García Bernal plays Bihari while his tormentor is played by Kim Bodnia, a Danish actor who was unforgettable as a low-level drug dealer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Pusher”. Given such an international cast (Rosewater’s superior is played by a Turk and Bihari’s driver is played by a Greek with British citizenship), he directed everybody to affect an Iranian accent—something that was a bad mistake especially in the case of Rosewater who kept reminding me of those American or British actors playing Nazi prison guards: “Ve haff a way of making people talk.”

But the worst miscalculation—a function of the “based on reality” framework—was turning Rosewater into a stick figure, a prison interrogator out of central casting. Now I would be the first to admit that anybody serving in that capacity for the Islamic Republic would be a real rat-hole but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the character had some complexity? There was a scant 30 seconds when that possibility floated past. Toward the end of the film, when Bihari was about to be released, Rosewater tells him that he was never tortured like his father was in Evin prison.

If I had written the screenplay for “Rosewater”, I would have turned that into a backstory. I would have made the extremism of the interrogator more plausible by showing what his father endured and what led Iranians to back a dictatorship that harped on American imperialism so much. An American audience does not need to be convinced that Ahmadinejad and his tools were shit but it certainly needs some education on why Iranian students so often burned Uncle Sam in effigy.

As absurd as the charges against Maziar Bihari, the Iranians were on to something when they kept harping on Newsweek being a den of spies. Again, if I had written the screenplay, I would have had Rosewater read excerpts from Carl Bernstein’s Rolling Stone article from October 20, 1977—back at a time when the CIA rather than reporters like James Risen were on he defensive:

… At Newsweek, Agency sources reported, the CIA engaged the services of several foreign correspondents and stringers under arrangements approved by senior editors at the magazine.

… “To the best of my knowledge:” said [Harry] Kern, [Newsweek’s foreign editor from 1945 to 1956] “nobody at Newsweek worked for the CIA…. The informal relationship was there. Why have anybody sign anything? What we knew we told them [the CIA] and the State Department…. When I went to Washington, I would talk to Foster or Allen Dulles about what was going on …. We thought it was admirable at the time. We were all on the same side.” CIA officials say that Kern’s dealings with the Agency were extensive.

… When Newsweek was purchased by the Washington Post Company, publisher Philip L. Graham was informed by Agency officials that the CIA occasionally used the magazine for cover purposes, according to CIA sources. “It was widely known that Phil Graham was somebody you could get help from,” said a former deputy director of the Agency. . . . But Graham, who committed suicide in 1963, apparently knew little of the specifics of any cover arrangements with Newsweek, CIA sources said.

I am not sure what Americans will get out of this film, but there is at least one Iranian it left cold. This is what Kaveh Mousavi, “the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies” and “a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher”, had to say:

Bahari appeared on a program called Pargar, on BBC Persian TV. In that program he not only defended his caving as a right thing to do (which is defensible), he attacked people who remained resilient under torture. He called them – repeatedly – romantics, and foolish revolutionaries behind the flow of times, and he said all of this to the face of Iraj Mesdaghi, a man who was a political prisoner in the 80s, when the regime was ten times more vicious than 2009, who had barely escaped a massacre, and had remained resilient under severe torture, which eclipses Bahari’s torture by miles.

It was from that time that I abhorred Bahari. Many of people I knew abhorred him already for confessions, but I find that wrong. No one can demand others to act in a certain in face of torture. He had the right to choose his own safety and freedom. But I abhor him for belittling real heroes, real freedom fighters, people he’s not worthy of licking their shoes. It’s one thing to defend your own choice, it’s another to demean the choice of those who made other (arguably more honorable) choices. And this was in the heat of the time we felt Green Movement is being defeated, and we felt desperate and very angry. It wasn’t a good time to shit on the heroes of an oppressed movement, and there was no need to.

Let me conclude with a few words about Jon Stewart, a comedian I tend to avoid nowadays for the same reasons I avoid Stephen Colbert and MSNBC. For the past six years we have been living under a regime that is in many ways worse than the one that preceded it, at least if you compare it to George W. Bush’s relatively chastened second term. I simply don’t want to be reminded of how lousy the Koch brothers are when Obama has deported more “illegal” immigrants than Bush.

Comedy is all about biting the hand that feeds it. The Viacom Corporation owns Comedy Central, the cable station that hosts “The Daily Show”. Viacom’s Rupert Murdoch is a nonagenarian named Sumner Redstone, whose net worth is $6.2 billion. Despite being a life-long Democrat, Redstone endorsed George W. Bush in 2004. In addition to his control over Viacom, he also has effective ownership of CBS, formerly the parent company of Viacom.

CBS and Viacom are major players in a media oligopoly that has been reduced to a smaller number over the past several decades, the fiefdom of people like Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch. In a country where the free press reigns, there is no need to torture journalists or imprison them. The system works by making the stakes for reaching a mass audience so impossibly high that critics of the system in effect suffer solitary confinement. There is no need to put a gag over the socialist press since the costs of becoming a “player” are so high. Once that movement begins to gain the hearing that the Green Movement got in Iran, trust me that our own Maziar Biharis will end up in our own Evin prisons. Take a look at what James Risen is up against right now to get a feel for what awaits us.

October 26, 2014

Must reading on Iran

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 12:57 am

(The author is someone I know very well and respect highly.)


Dancing in the Dark?

The Iran-US Tango


Four steps forward, four steps back,

Right foot forward, left foot back,

Two steps sideways, one step back.

It is a remarkable feat to witness the inexplicable and sudden disappearance of the legions of leftist doom and gloom as regards the Iran-US relations. Indeed some readers may not even remember such legions at all. It is excusable to forget that for some years we were audience to regular warnings of “imminent military attacks” to be unleashed by the US against the Iranian regime. Likewise, you might not remember that some commentators made a lucrative living going around forewarning, “Imminent attacks coming! Imminent attacks coming!” Stirring up hysteria, the legalistically oriented lobbied the US Congress Quixotic style to avoid such eventuality; in leftist publications, the literarily oriented filled columns quoting previous write-ups of warnings as evidence that imminent attacks were forthcoming any time, very soon and inevitably. All the while throwing a thick cover over the internal oppressions committed against, and the rights denied, the Iranian people.

For some time now, however, those commentators have been uncharacteristically silent about imminent attacks. What happened? If the Iranian and the US governments were such enemies and if the US had been planning for years to launch a military attack, what changed then? Or is the situation still the same? Those commentators should not be so quiet. In fact, they owe everybody a detailed explanation of how it came to be that such imminent attacks never took place.

Well, as it has turned out, no such attacks were forthcoming. Everybody can now breathe a sigh of relief and thank whatever deity they are deferential to (personally I’ll be thanking JD while playing James Brown’s Say It Loud).

Some Iranian socialists were however explaining for all those same years that no such attacks would materialize. They were likewise advising to pay more attention to the miseries and injustices meted out daily to the Iranian people not just by imperialist outsiders (be it the US-imposed sanctions for example, or the Russians extracting ransom from a regime under pressure), but by the internal theocracy choking the Iranian people: a theocracy that is in fact the embodiment of imperialism inIran. The point is seldom acknowledged that this regime is actually not disliked by imperialist powers. Ask IMF. Iran gets decent grades from that international institution epitomizing finance capital, the quintessential imperialist institution of record if ever there was one.

Imperialist countries house a long list of definitely eager corporations willing to stand in line to get to do business with this regime: no regime-changes here, they agree, no thank you please! The multinationals and international finance institutions also know best how effectively Iranian state has privatized state assets, and how much more privatizing can still happen; they have observed in detail the cutting of subsidies of all kinds, which actually started with Ahmadinejad’s administration and continues under the current administration of Rouhani; they know, in other words, how willing the regime is in sticking it to the poor. Multinational corporations are as well the biggest promoters of anti-labor laws, which Iranian government is prolific at legislating. In Iran, international companies get the additional bonus of a robust legal system promoting anti-women, puritanically anti-communist, anti-dissent and just plain anti-everything-normal-human-beings-may-enjoy laws. Just for one item, Iranian authorities recently issued an order for imprisonment and lashing for a bunch of kids dancing to a song! You realize how many coups imperialists and their local cohorts have had to organize in some other countries just to get to this level of social repression written into law? So, why would the US militarily destroy such a golden goose?

read full article

March 4, 2014

Particle Fever; The Iran Job

Filed under: Film,Iran,sports — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

“Particle Fever” would be compelling enough in its own right as a you-are-there documentary that follows the leading scientists of the Large Hadron Collider project as they move inexorably toward the experiments that will reveal whether the Higgs Boson (the God particle) exists or not. But when you factor in that the film was produced and directed by nuclear physicists with uncanny filmmaking abilities, including a knack for including graphics and animation that makes the most fearsomely abstract things concrete, you are in for a rare film-going experience, as exciting in its own way as the class trip I took to the Hayden Planetarium when I was in junior high school.

A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.

The film explains that there are two kinds of physicists, theoretical and experimental. Both came together to make the Hadron Collision work. The collider itself is one of the greatest engineering feats of modern history, consisting of a seventeen mile magnetized tunnel in a seven-story building beneath the ground in Switzerland that is designed to hurl subatomic particles through the tunnel in opposite directions like greyhounds on performance enhancing drugs until a switch is turned on to make them collide in four separate locations in the tunnel to be examined by high-powered computers networked around the world.

The film consists largely of physicists at work either in the US or in Switzerland putting the finishing touches on the eagerly awaited experiments and explaining to laypeople like us in the movie theater what it is they are trying to accomplish. Their sense of excitement is infectious, especially so from Monica Dunford, a startlingly young woman who works on the experimental side. You see her with a hardhat on her head tightening bolts and connecting wires on the mammoth collider in the final stages before countdown. When she is not at work, she is off running marathons or mountain climbing. Leave your stereotypes of nerds at the door. All of the principals are exceedingly well adjusted and don’t take themselves too seriously.

One of the key interviewees is David Kaplan, a 56-year-old theoretical physicist who held research positions at the U. of Chicago and Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center. He looks about 30 years younger and wears his hair in a ponytail. He is also the producer of the film.

The director is Mark Levinson who has a PhD in particle physics from U. Cal Berkeley. He was the producer/director/writer of a narrative film titled “Prisoner of Time”, about the lives of dissident artists after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As compelling as the interviews are, the film reaches an even higher level with the graphics and animation developed by MK12, a studio that did the FX for “Stranger than Fiction”, a comedy starring Will Farrell. Their talents are served better here.

When asked how he made the transition from particle physics to filmmaking, Levinson replied in a way that reminds us of how inadequate CP Snow’s notion of “Two Cultures” was:

The transition actually seemed remarkably straightforward to me. What entranced me about physics was the profound beauty and elegance of the theories, and the magic and mystery in the fact that abstract symbols encoded deep truths about the universe. I made the transition to film when I recognized an alternate avenue for exploring the world around us, in the human dimension, that also seemed mysterious and magical. For many years, I harbored the hope that I could find some project that could weave together the two seemingly disparate strands of my life. The start-up of the Large Hadron Collider provided the perfect combination of both a profound scientific and human endeavor. One of the characters in Particle Fever speculates, “Why do we do science? Why do we do art? It is the things that are not directly necessary for survival that make us human.”

“Particle Fever” opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York.

Like “Particle Fever”, “The Iran Job” benefits from an appealing protagonist—in this case a 28-year-old journeyman (as he frankly describes himself) basketball player from the Virgin Islands named Kevin Sheppard who was not good enough to make to the NBA but good enough to work professionally overseas, including Iran.

He has signed a contract to play for Shiraz AS for one year on a tryout basis. If he produces results, they will renew his contract. Since American basketball players are so highly regarded, they will pay him double the going rate. He and a 7-foot Serbian named Zoran “Z” Milicic, hired to play center, are the maximum number of foreign players allowed on Iranian professional basketball teams.

The style of “The Iran Job” is almost DIY and consists mostly of the filmmakers following Sheppard around as he practices, leads the team as a point guard as they advance their way toward the playoffs, and develops a friendship with three young Iranian women who chafe at the restrictions put on them by a paternalistic clerical state. When they are sitting around Sheppard’s apartment making small talk and teasing each other, the women have to go to the bathroom and hide whenever there is a knock on the door since they might be arrested for un-Islamic behavior. When they drive around with him, they risk getting busted by the morality police who have the power to investigate whether they are up to no good. They also had to put up with a temporary ban on women attending sporting events. No wonder the three women became activists in the Green Movement.

Throughout it all, Sheppard remains an extremely likable and self-effacing character, exchanging high fives with a merchant who says he likes Black people and used to smoke pot when he lived in the US. Without being prompted, the merchant breaks into “’Everythings Gonna Be Alright”—a Bob Marley song.

The film is an eloquent statement about the need to stop demonizing Iranians and to finally put an end to a system that is as restrictive toward women in its way as foot binding. During one of their bull sessions, one of the women insists that Islam has nothing to do with keeping women in their place. It is a clerical dictatorship speaking in the name of Islam that is at fault.

As an indication of what a gifted filmmaker is capable of, director Till Schauder (his wife Sara Nodjoumi, an Iranian-American, produced) told Indiewire how he filmed under obviously difficult conditions:

Journalist visas were denied so we had to shoot under the radar. We decided it was safer for me to go on my own, entering as a German tourist. I packed an HDV camera – small enough for an unassuming backpack. If I got into trouble I could say I’m just a tourist filming the sites. I used that line a few times until (before the presidential election) I was detained. Shooting like this was challenging. I didn’t have the best equipment, nor a crew. But it was a blessing in disguise, and crucial for building trust and intimacy with the film’s subjects.

It is so interesting that someone who has something to say can be ten times as interesting using a camera that probably cost less than one minutes worth of production on some of the offal that earned prizes on Sunday night at the Academy Awards.

“The Iran Job” is available from http://www.filmmovement.com, the Netflix for the cognoscenti.

December 22, 2013

The Past; Wadjda

Filed under: Film,Iran,Islam,middle east — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

In many ways, the biggest impacts made by Iran and Saudi Arabia this year were not on the battlefield or at the diplomatic roundtable but in film. “The Past”, made by Asghar Farhadi, was Iran’s official selection for the 86th Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. I always have had problems with the designation “foreign” when it comes to film since it smacks of Hollywood corporate narcissism, more so in this instance since I nominated “The Past” for the N.Y. Film Critics Online best picture of 2013. Period. “Wadjda” was the first film ever directed by Haifaa al Mansour, who grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia and now lives in Bahrain. The film depicts the struggle of an 11-year-old Saudi girl to own a bicycle in violation of patriarchal religious norms. It is a tale reminiscent of “Offside”, the 2006 Iranian film about young women trying to sneak into a football stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying match. Ironically, despite all the bitter rivalries over whether Sunni or Shias represent Muslim orthodoxy, the two authoritarian states have much in common when it comes to women’s rights or the lack thereof.

Let me make a bold statement. On the basis of only two films, the 2011 “A Separation”, and “The Past” that opened at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, I would regard Asghar Farhadi as the finest film director today. “A Separation” won an Oscar for the best foreign film of the year in 2011, and like “The Past” was the best film period. Unlike another brilliant Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who directed “Offside” and was arrested for opposing the government in 2009, Farhadi’s films are much more personal and less likely to give offense to the authorities. That being said, he is still very much a political filmmaker even if his message is more subtle. “A Separation” dramatized the class and cultural differences between a middle-class, secular-minded family and the pious housekeeper they hire.

Set entirely in Paris, “The Past” is even less about Iranian society. While focused on domestic conflicts like “A Separation”, it is still a politically engaged film. This is one instance where I would not dream of giving away a surprise ending but suffice it to say that the film is very much about the experience of the “foreigner” in a racist society.

In the opening scene, Marie (Berenice Bejo) is picking up her estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport, where he has just arrived from Tehran. Separated from her for some time, he has come to Paris to sign some papers for their divorce and to appear in court with her to finalize matters.

Despite the obvious tension that still exists, she convinces him to stay at her house instead of a hotel. Upon arriving there, he is puzzled by the hostility of Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the 8-year-old son of Samir (Tahar Rahim), the man she plans to marry. Marie’s daughter Lea, who is the same age as Fouad, is happy to see her dad. Another daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a product of another marriage prior to the one with Ahmad, is in her late teens and just as troubled as Fouad in her own way. Marie alludes to the problems she is having with Lucie that become clearer as the film unfolds.

Within a half hour of Ahmad’s arrival, Fouad throws a violent temper tantrum and locks himself in his room. He cries out that he wants to go back to his dad’s apartment. (Samir has only partially moved in with Marie.) As is the case with “A Separation”, this is a family setting all sorts of records for dysfunctionality and a reminder of Tolstoy’s epigraph to “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Eventually we learn of the source of the disquiet. Samir’s wife lies in a coma, the victim of a failed suicide attempt after discovering that he has been having an affair with Marie. Like a late 19th century Gothic tale updated for the current epoch, “The Past” is a drama about the most evil spirits imaginable—those summoned up by our own psyche.

While this is a film that is remarkable on all accounts, it was a stroke of genius for Asghar Farhadi to make a highly melodramatic story about the lives of ordinary people. Marie is a pharmacist and Samir is a dry cleaner, just the sort of people you meet everyday when you are out shopping. As any smart writer understands ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the best tragedy comes out of the lives of ordinary people, not kings and queens. When Ali Mosaffa was asked in a press notes interview whether the film was a French or an Iranian story, his answer was very much on point: “I think the strength of the script is that it’s neither French nor Iranian. It’s a human story.”

Like “The Past”, “Wajda” is about ordinary people. Wajda is a 10-year-old girl who lives in the suburbs of Riyadh with her mother, who is trying to convince her husband not to take a second wife.

Wadjda is the quintessential “tomboy”, the sort of girl I went to elementary school with and found much more interesting than those preoccupied with Barbie dolls. Wadjda wears high-top sneakers that look like Converses and enjoys listening to pop music cassettes. All in all, she will remind you very much of Marjane Satrapi, the spunky Iranian girl who turned her battles with the clerics into the comic book “Persepolis”.

Wadjda wants more than anything to ride a bike. I know what it feels like for a 10-year-old to be determined to own a bike. When I was exactly that age, I threw such a tantrum that my parents drove through a hurricane to go to a Sears 25 miles from our home to pick me up a Huffy two-wheeler. In Wadjda’s case, the adversary is not a storm but the backward authorities that consider bikes for boys only. In essence, Wadjda’s lonely and stubborn battle is the same as women two and three times her age fighting for the right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia.

It is also, unsurprisingly, the same sort of challenge that the director faced as a woman making a movie in Saudi Arabia, where there is not a single movie theater because of Wahhabist backwardness.

Every step was difficult and it was quite an adventure. I occasionally had to run and hide in the production van in some of the more conservative areas where people would have disapproved of a woman director mixing professionally with all the men on set. Sometimes I tried to direct via walkie-talkie from the van, but I always got frustrated and came out to do it in person. We had a few instances of people voicing their displeasure with what we were doing, but nothing too disruptive. We had all of the proper permits and permissions so overall it went relatively smoothly.

“Wadjda” played at various theaters in the middle of 2013. Look for it soon on Netflix or Amazon streaming.

November 26, 2013

Crystal-ball gazing ain’t what it used to be

Filed under: Iran,Syria — louisproyect @ 3:41 pm

Eric Draitser: no Nostradamus

Eric Draitser, “The war on Iran begins…in Syria”, August 28, 2013

In the decades since the revolution of 1979 which created the modern Islamic Republic of Iran, the US policy toward that country has been antagonistic and belligerent to such a degree that Iran has been forced, out of sheer necessity, to rely very heavily on its few regional and international allies. And so, given the political posture of Bashar Assad, like that of his father before him, Damascus has been viewed as Iran’s key political partner, providing Iran with a crucial ally along the border with Israel and a bridge to the Hezbollah organization in Southern Lebanon. Additionally, a multi-ethnic society like Syria with a dominant Shiite-Alawite demographic presents itself as a natural friend to Shiite Iran. However, the importance of this relationship does not stop at mere similarities.

When one looks at the players involved in the war in Syria, it becomes clear that the Sunni monarchies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar primarily – have committed to the war in order to ensure their own continued hegemony, especially in terms of energy production. Qatar, being one of the world’s wealthiest gas exporters, views the growing relationship between Iran and Syria, especially the gas pipeline deal, as an existential threat to their own standing. The Saudis, long since mortal enemies and rivals of the Shia Iranians, also have come to view Syria as merely a battleground in the larger proxy war with Iran.

And then of course, there’s Israel. Perched comfortably on Syria’s border, Israel has played a key role in stoking tensions and fomenting unrest on the other side of the Golan Heights. Not only did Israel carry out a number of blatantly illegal bombings inside Syria’s borders, there have been dozens of mainstream accounts, including videos, of Israeli Special forces commandos inside of Syria. Naturally, Israeli intentions are to further their own interests which for decades have been centered on the destruction of Iran, their main regional competitor and rival.

 * * * *

NY Times November 25, 2013

U.S. and Saudis in Growing Rift as Power Shifts


WASHINGTON — There was a time when Saudi and American interests in the Middle East seemed so aligned that the cigar-smoking former Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was viewed as one of the most influential diplomats in Washington.

Those days are over. The Saudi king and his envoys — like the Israelis — have spent weeks lobbying fruitlessly against the interim nuclear accord with Iran that was reached in Geneva on Sunday. In the end, there was little they could do: The Obama administration saw the nuclear talks in a fundamentally different light from the Saudis, who fear that any letup in the sanctions will come at the cost of a wider and more dangerous Iranian role in the Middle East.

Although the Saudis remain close American allies, the nuclear accord is the culmination of a slow mutual disenchantment that began at the end of the Cold War.

For decades, Washington depended on Saudi Arabia — a country of 30 million people but the Middle East’s largest reserves of oil — to shore up stability in a region dominated by autocrats and hostile to another ally, Israel. The Saudis used their role as the dominant power in OPEC to help rein in Iraq and Iran, and they supported bases for the American military, anchoring American influence in the Middle East and beyond.

But the Arab uprisings altered the balance of power across the Middle East, especially with the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of both the Saudis and the Americans.

The United States has also been reluctant to take sides in the worsening sectarian strife between Shiite and Sunni, in which the Saudis are firm partisans on the Sunni side.

At the same time, new sources of oil have made the Saudis less essential. And the Obama administration’s recent diplomatic initiatives on Syria and Iran have left the Saudis with a deep fear of abandonment.

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/world/middleeast/us-and-saudis-in-growing-rift-as-power-shifts.html

October 26, 2013

Documenting the Egyptian and Iranian revolutions

Filed under: Egypt,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

If John Reed had been equipped with a digital camera rather than a typewriter in Mexico in 1913 or Russia in 1917, I doubt that he could have produced a film that surpasses “The Square” that opened yesterday at the Film Forum in New York (it arrives in three different locations in California on November 1.)  Directed by Jehane Noujaim, a 39-year-old Egyptian-American whose best known previous credit was the al-Jazeera documentary “The Control Room”, was on location in Egypt from the inception of the Tahrir Square occupation to the overthrow of Morsi. Not only was she on location, she appeared to be in the middle of the most decisive events, at times involving triumph and other times defeat. And even more decisively, she extracts the maximum drama and visual impact out of each moment, making her arguably one of the finest documentary filmmakers on the scene today.

The film “stars” a group of Egyptians who were on the front lines of the revolution, including a young man named Ahmed Hassan who narrowly escaped with his life in a skirmish with the Egyptian military. When he was 8 years old, he was selling lemons on the street. His hope is only that Egyptians can live in a society where there are democratic rights, opportunity for all, and free from corruption. Throughout the film he voices both his elation at feeling that moment might be arriving and despair at realizing that it might be some time in arriving.

His old friend Magdy is a bearded Muslim Brotherhood member who defies the instructions of his leaders to take part in Tahrir Square protests. He has earned credibility with Ahmed for withstanding torture over the years in pursuit of what he perceived as a better Egypt under Islamic rule even though Ahmed has little interest in a Muslim state. His vision is one of an Egypt in which Muslim, Christian, and nonbeliever can stand together in pursuit of the common good.

The film includes a couple of notables, who despite their celebrity take risks equal to Ahmed and Magdy. One is Khalid Abdalla, the Egyptian-British actor who starred in “The Kite Runner”. He is seen in Skype conversations with his father who has been a long-standing opponent of the Mubarak dictatorship. We also meet Ramy Essam, the singer who is the unofficial voice of the revolution. After the overthrow of Mubarak, he is picked up by the cops and tortured in the Egyptian museum—a site that is the nation’s counterpart to the notorious soccer stadium in Chile where Victor Jara was murdered.

Among the courageous women profiled in the film is Aida El Kashef, the young filmmaker who is friends with Ramy Essam and who used her camera to expose the brutality and lies of the dictatorship.

The film consists of three acts:

–The overthrow of Mubarak

–The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood

–The growing disenchantment with the Brotherhood and the military coup that exploited those feelings.

Like a Shakespearean play, the characters are constantly in dialog weighing their decisions on the street corner or in living rooms. There is tension throughout since the stakes are so high. When the Muslim Brotherhood assumes power, Ahmed lashes into Magdy who has little in the way of a defense of a constitution that gives Morsi more power than Mubarak ever had. But when the army topples Morsi, Ahmed rushes to Tahrir Square to close ranks with the Muslim Brothers.

The film also includes a couple of military figures who are hoisted on their own petard as they reveal to Jehane Noujaim how little they believe in democracy even as their top officers are announcing on Egyptian television that they are with the protesters.

In the final paragraph of the synopsis found in the press notes, we encounter a statement that not only serves as a compass for the directions of a successful Egyptian revolution but one that should be carefully noted by the Western left so frequently demoralized by its own failure to achieve a swift and decisive victory:

Our goal for audiences is to experience the evolution of a revolution in the 21st century and understand what these activists are trying to say: civil rights and freedoms are never given away, they are fought for. Historically, this has always been the case, from the Civil Rights movement to the fight against Apartheid.  But how does this fight begin and sustain itself and ultimately become successful? This film shows that true change in a society does not begin with a majority, but the relentless and ongoing commitment of individuals to those principles of change.

While by no means as politically and artistically realized as “The Square”, “The Green Wave” that becomes available as a DVD and through ITunes on November 5th (check http://www.thegreenwave-film.com/ for information) is a good companion piece.

Unlike Jehane Noujaim, Ali Samadi Ahadi, the 41-year-old Iranian filmmaker who has lived in Germany since the age of 12, was not in Iran during the events depicted in “The Green Wave”. Like “The Square”, “The Green Wave” begins in jubilation and ends in despair. The 2009 election campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi united every Iranian tired of the brutality and the crony capitalism of the Islamic Republic, which behind its pious pretensions had much more in common with Mubarak than might be apparent at first glance. And even more to the point, it might make sense to think of the election campaign as a harbinger of the Arab Spring even as many on the left tend to regard the Green Movement in Iran as some kind of imperialist plot.

Despite his absence from the battlefield, Ahadi manages to produce a coherent documentary out of three separate strands:

–Footage of rallies and protests that were obviously taken by activists given their often-unfocused quality. What they lack in visual acuity is made up for by their impact as living history.

–Animated representation of the experience of young bloggers who worked on the Mousavi campaign and suffered repression for their “impious” behavior.

–Interviews with leading critics of the Ahmadinejad dictatorship such as Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi who went into exile in 2009. Despite the tendency of some leftists to depict any opponent of Ahmadinejad as an imperialist tool, Ebadi’s credentials are impeccable. She was a supporter of Mossadegh and even backed Khomeini initially. She is also an outspoken critic of Israel and supported a California BDS bill.

But unlike “The Square”, the emphasis is entirely on human rights rather than revolutionary strategy. Almost every moment of the film is devoted to exposure of state brutality, including summary executions, torture, and beatings on the street.

Despite the glum conclusion of the film, the promise of the Mousavi campaign might be finally realized in the election of Hassan Rouhani last month who has released political prisoners, defended equal rights for women, and called for greater political freedom. Whether or not this will whet the appetite for greater change in Iran is uncertain at this point, given the body blow the mass movement suffered in 2009.

When watching these films, I found myself pondering the question why revolutions are vanquished time and time again. In a pattern that is repeated over and over, the “people” unite against a hated dictator only to suffer a new period of suffering often under an ostensibly democratic and popular government. This is generally regarded as the “Arab Winter” today but the phenomenon can be just as easily perceived in Burma where the nation’s “Nelson Mandela” is now seen as a too-willing partner of the army and indifferent to pogroms against Muslims.

Perhaps it is time to retire the “new Nelson Mandela” meme while we are at it since South Africa is probably the best symbol of unrealized revolutionary hopes anywhere in the world.

It seems that in almost every instance of such uprisings, the “people” come to the fore in a kind of nationalist desire for redemption and rebirth but without a class dimension and often placing hopes in a military that is on “the side of the people”, the classic example being the Kerensky government in Russia.

For those educated in the Trotskyist tradition, it is easy as pie to come up with an answer. The revolution has to be “Bolshevik” in character with the working class in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, groups established upon such principles tend to be ignored by the masses since they rest on the assumption that the masses will gravitate to them on the virtue of their profound thoughts.

I wonder if the answer is to synthesize the popular hopes of the Arab Spring with a class orientation that is more implicit than explicit. Keep in mind that the Bolsheviks called for “Peace, Bread, and Land”—not a proletarian dictatorship. Also, keep in mind that the July 26th Movement in Cuba formulated its demands in terms of fulfilling democracy and social justice rather than Communism. When Cuba did become communist (for lack of a better word), it was only as a result of the dialectics of defending democracy and social justice.

At any rate, I recommend these two films for anybody interested in deepening their understanding of revolutions in the 21st century, particularly in nations with a strong Islamic presence. Karl Marx never had to grapple with such complexity and it is up to us to come up with answers that make sense and can move the struggle forward—remembering to leave your dogma at the front door with your shoes.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,616 other followers