Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 13, 2011

Barbershop Punk; A People Uncounted

Filed under: Film,media,Roma,technology — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

As a grandfather, self-described libertarian, registered Republican and ex-cop, Robb Topolski would appear to be the least likely opponent of corporate malfeasance one can imagine. But when this barbershop singer and aficionado suspected that Comcast was preventing him from sharing files of historic recordings with other aficionados, he decided to get to the bottom of things. As a professional network engineer, he had the know-how to examine TCP-IP logs and discover a pattern, in this particular case one that revealed Comcast’s disregard for what would become known as “net neutrality”.

The documentary “Barbershop Punk”, now playing at the ReRun Gastropub Theater (!) in Brooklyn, a theater seemingly created for such offbeat fare, is must seeing for anybody who needs to be informed about the threat posed to the Internet by corporations with a political agenda. (Plus, the $7 admission includes free popcorn and a cocktail.) Unless an informed citizenry acts, they can turn the Internet into a commercial and politically sanitized medium just as they have done already to radio and television. This is especially true in light of how both the Egyptian and American governments have pressured ISP’s and companies like Facebook to squelch leftist ideas. Perhaps pressured is not the operative term when we are dealing with knocking down an open door.

The punk part of the film’s title derives from the participation of two seminal figures from this world, Henry Rollins and the less well-known Ian McKaye of Washington’s legendary punk band Fugazi (I owned one of their records back in the day.) Rollins and McKaye are both men of the left and could be expected to denounce Comcast’s attempts to regulate free speech but Topolski’s crusade against the corporate giant would appear at first blush to defy conventional expectations.

However, this does not account for the deeply engrained beliefs in free speech in the United States, a nation where such liberties were not won by appeals to Platonic ideals but by blood in the street. Topolski’s immediate reaction to discovering that his mp3’s were being blocked was outrage, just as my regular readers would react to learning that an email containing references to the words socialism or Marxism had been blocked.

First-time co-directors Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield draw upon a wide range of interviewees, both pro and con net neutrality. On the pro side, we hear from John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier and a Grateful Dead lyricist (admittedly not a punk band). On the con side there’s Scott Cleland, a particularly oily character. At first blush, Cleland comes across as a giant-killer inasmuch as he has campaigned against Google’s monopolistic tendencies. But a review of the members of his netcompetition.board should leave no doubt about his intentions: AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, Time Warner, Qwest, et al.

Last Thursday the Senate voted to block Republican attempts to overturn net neutrality. President Obama is on record as stating that if any such bill came his way, he would have vetoed it—a rare example of him standing up for the rights of the 99 percent versus the one percent.

But it would be a huge mistake to rely on the Democrats considering the role of Mike McCurry, one of the “cons” interviewed in the documentary. In a valuable article by Counterpunch regular Joshua Frank, we learn:

There is quite an underhanded campaign going on by Net Neutrality opponents called “Hands off the Internet” who claim to want to protect the internet from regulators and Big Government. In the past year they have even run deceptive ads on blogs and other websites in hopes of pulling internet readers in to their camp. Some of the big names behind these cunning ploys include AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon.

Co-chair of this group is the ex-spokesman for President Bill Clinton and other Democrats, Mike McCurry who writes an occasional column at the Huffington Post. McCurry claims Net Neutrality will kill the internet.

Fact is Net Neutrality is what has gotten us this far. Yet McCurry writes, “The Internet is not a free public good. It is a bunch of wires and switches and connections and pipes and it is creaky. You all worship at Vince Cerf who has a clear financial interest in the outcome of this debate but you immediately castigate all of us who disagree and impugn our motives. I get paid a reasonable but small sum to argue what I believe.”

So how much does this guy get paid? Well, not sure how much the big telecom giants are dolling out, but McCurry charges $10,000 and up per speaking gig, so it’s likely he’s bankrolled by the telecommunications industry. Hands off the Internet wants to destroy the web just like the radio goliaths have killed the airwaves.

Stay vigilant!

Not long after I accepted an invitation from the publicist for “Barbershop Punk” to review a screener, she asked me if I would also be willing to review “A People Uncounted.” While the film has not yet been scheduled for theatrical release and is currently only showing in film festivals geared to independent works, I strongly urge everybody to keep track of the film on its official website to see if it is being shown in your area. As the definitive documentary on the oppression of the Roma people, this is a film that must be seen by progressives and revolutionaries everywhere.

Until now, every film on the Roma has pretty much been the exclusive creation of the very gifted Roma director Tony Gatlif. Even in the case of “Korkoro” (the Roma word for freedom), a fictional tale about a Roma band exterminated by the Nazis, Gatlif’s emphasis has been on personal stories rather than the social and political context in which Roma have become scapegoats.

All of the principals behind “A People Uncounted” are Jewish, including the children of concentration camp survivors—the producers Tom Rasky and Marc Swenker. In acting as tribunes for the Roma people, they represent Yiddishkeit at its best.

The film is divided into two parts. The first is an examination of stereotypes about the Roma people and the threats they currently face in an economically stressed Europe. The second, drawing from the information gathered in the first part, is very much in the vein of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and consists of extremely moving interviews with Roma survivors of the Nazi death camps.

Perhaps no other people in European history have been the victims of vicious stereotyping than the Jews and the Roma. In one of the more powerful moments of the film, we see a sorry procession of pop singers like Cher singing songs with lyrics like this:

Gypsies, tramps and thieves
We’d hear it from the people of the town
They’d call us gypsies, tramps and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down

Like the Jews, the Roma were very much circumscribed by the economic conditions laid down by the majority nationality of each country they found themselves in. In countries where they were prevented from owning land or businesses, they would travel from town to town in search of day laborer or where they could ply their trades as musicians or metal workers. This explains the “love of the road” attributed to them. When laws were passed to give them the same rights as other nationalities, they bought houses and settled into a stationary existence.

The film benefits from the expert testimony of some of the world’s leading Roma scholars, including Ian Hancock (née Yanko le Redžosko), the dean of Roma studies. About forty years ago, I read his history of the Roma people and can’t recommend it highly enough.

The European left has a big responsibility to help defend the Roma against increasingly deadly attacks by ultranationalists who want to make scapegoats of this community in the same fashion as the Nazis. The film has footage of the Jobbik Party in Hungary, modeled on fascist movements of the past. Harping on “gypsy crime”, the party openly calls for ethnic cleansing along the lines of “Hungary for the Hungarians”. It has organized a paramilitary called the Hungarian Guard that parades in uniforms that resemble the Hungarian fascist movement of the 1930s.

Things are not that much better in “civilized” and prosperous France where Sarkozy, of Hungarian descent, has declared open warfare on the Roma, expelling “illegals” by the hundreds.

“A People Uncounted” is a major contribution to civil rights movement that is unfolding throughout Europe. In our day, the famous words of Martin Niemöller would require some changes to reflect new realities:

First they came for the Roma, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Roma.

Then they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

August 1, 2011


Filed under: music,Roma — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

April 14, 2011


Filed under: music,Roma — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

March 18, 2011

Korkoro; Korean American Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Korea,Roma — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Despite some problems, Tony Gatlif’s “Korkoro” (Roma for freedom) is one of the most important films scheduled for release in 2011 (it opens at the Cinema Village in New York on March 25th) since it is the first film to deal with the Nazi slaughter of the Roma people. In the closing credits, it states that perhaps as many as 500,000 of Europe’s two million “gypsies” died in concentration camps or on the killing fields.

To my knowledge, Tony Gatlif is the only director of Roma descent. Two of his movies are favorites of mine. The 1993 documentary Latcho Drom shows Roma musicians from every corner of the world performing their own music but with the influences of the country they are living in. The 1997 Gadjo Dilo (crazy outsider)  is a fictional study of a love affair between a gadjo and a Roma woman that is fraught with the expected cultural clashes.

“Korkoro” is set in rural France on the eve of WWII and begins with a small horse-drawn caravan traveling down a dirt road in a forest. When they stop for a rest, one of the men spots something in the distance and begins running after it. It turns out to be a young French orphan named Claude who prefers homelessness to the prison-like conditions of a French orphanage. After debating what to do with this gadjo, the elders decide to take him as one of their own.

They set up camp outside a small village in wine country, looking to get seasonal work as grape pickers or to sell their wares on the street. The village is divided between those who would welcome the nomads and those—who like today—would support their removal, or even their extermination. Two of the friendlier townspeople are the mayor Théodore Rosier (Marc Lavoine) a veterinarian by trade, and a schoolteacher named Lundi (Marie-Josée Croze) who also works as a clerk in city hall. In an early scene, she processes the tribe’s passports, a reminder that such papers were originally intended to control movements within a country. (I examined this history in a Swans article.)

One day in the course of his work as a veterinarian Rosier is injured by a horse on a road outside the village and lies helpless in deep pain, where he is discovered by members of the Roma band who perform first-aid using potent folk medicine. This binds him to the group, even to the point of selling them his father’s house for five francs. The fascists have made a nomadic existence punishable by imprisonment or worse and having a house protects you. The problem, however, is that the Roma view such a stationary existence as barely more tolerable than the jail Rosier rescued them from.

Lundi develops affection for the Roma children who are enrolled in her school. But like Rosier she discovers that they resent the discipline of traditional learning, a fetter that is in its own way as constraining as the house he bestowed upon them.

This is the central dramatic conflict in the film that serves as a counterpoint to the more deadly conflict between the fascists and the nomads. As members of bourgeois society, Rosier’s offer of a permanent location and Lundi’s of classroom discipline appear far preferable to the Nazis and their Vichy cohorts. As it turns out, the two are not exactly bourgeois. They are members of the French Resistance and are in as much danger as their devil-may-care wards.

Gatlif made a calculated decision not to develop his Roma characters with as much depth as the French couple or Claude, the young boy. Perhaps this was a function of any minority’s director and screenwriter’s belief that the majority audience member needs someone to identify with. However, this leaves one with the feeling that more had to be said about the Roma characters whose main role in the film is to play music (exceedingly well) and to serve as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the dilo (crazy) ways of the French villagers who hate them.

Despite the Zionist establishment’s harping on a new holocaust, the only people who have reasons to worry about such a thing are Europe’s Roma who are facing the same threats as depicted in this movie—short of extermination, at least at this point. In an interview with the director in the press notes, Gatlif is asked “Do you think this film resonates with current times or is it just a historical recreation of the past?” His reply:

Writing it, I wanted it to echo what’s happening today. We’re living through the same thing today, only there’s no death in the end. There’s no more political extermination, but from a psychological and political point of view nothing has really changed. In Italy under Berlusconi, the Roma are still subjected to discriminatory laws. Same thing in Romania and Hungary. Even in France the Roma are often parked in unhygienic places, from which they are driven away and expelled. French law only authorizes Traveling People to stay in one place for 24 hours. The number of authorizations they need to be able to stop somewhere is incredible, which by the way enables them to be constantly tracked.

Long-time readers of my blog will know that I am a huge fan of Korean film. The good news for New Yorkers is that you will be able to see some recent work at a Korean American film festival (http://www.kaffny.com/) that began yesterday. I had the opportunity to see two of its scheduled full-length films that are confirmations, if any was needed, that this country is miles ahead cinematically even if its economy is sputtering. (Perhaps the two trends are related.)

The House of Suh” is a documentary that reminds one of Tolstoy’s epigraph in “Anna Karenina”: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This is a family tale that has the dimensions of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. A Korean military man decides to leave his native land after his young son accidentally falls off a roof and kills himself. He brings with him his wife and two other young children, a boy named Andrew and his older sister Catherine.

They move to the Chicago suburbs and begin the kind of life that appears conventional, at least on the surface. They are church-going and hard-working, a profile that matches practically any Korean dry cleaner in New York. But the father soon develops a conflict with Catherine, who develops an unruly streak in high school. She runs with a fast crowd and resents authority. Eventually the clash between father and daughter leads to bloody altercations at home. When he dies of cancer, she doesn’t even bother to pay her respects.

Eventually Catherine leaves home and becomes romantically involved with a man named Robert O’Dubaine who is as amoral as her. Both live for the moment and appear to be fairly representative of the kind of cocaine/disco culture that made the 80s so memorable. Her younger brother Andrew chooses another path and stays loyal to his mother who opens a dry cleaning business.

When Catherine and Robert clash over money and more intimate matters, she decides to kill him. Using her obvious power over her sibling, she persuades Andrew to shoot Robert. He is arrested shortly after the incident and found guilty of murder. Eventually Catherine is arrested as well.

Most of the film consists of Andrew speaking from behind bars, where he sizes up his family’s tortured tale and reflects on Korean immigrant values in general. While Korean Americans obviously do not have an Arthur Miller in their midst (and which ethnic group does, for that matter?), director Iris Shim does a very good job of transforming the raw material into a totally compelling tale.

Toru and Hyung Gu

Although “The Boat is nominally a gangster film, it has much more in common with the French Nouvelle Vague of the late 50s and early 60s, especially “Jules and Jim” or “Breathless”.

The main characters are two young men named Toru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who is Japanese, and Hyung Gu (Jung-woo Ha), who is Korean. They work on a small boat that smuggles goods back and forth between Korea and Japan.

Their boss is a Korean who seems pleasant on the surface but is given to bouts of rage. Early in the film, Toru tells his boss that he would like to serve him as a dog serves his master. To drive his point home, he begins barking to the amusement of his boss—at least initially. After a minute or so, the boss glares at him and growls, “Do you think this is a joke?” It is a bit like the scene in “Goodfellas” where Joe Pesci intimidates Henry Hill at one of their first meetings: “Do you think I am funny?”

When the boss has Toru and Hyung Gu kidnap the daughter of an enemy and bring her to Japan, their loyalty to each other and to the boss is severely tested. While someone operating on more conventional grounds would emphasize the gangster elements of the plot, director Young-nam Kim is far more interested in how the two men, who barely understand each other’s language, begin to bond with each other. In one of the more memorable scenes, the two perform an off-kilter Karaoke number that is truly inspired.

Go to http://www.kaffny.com for scheduling information on these two films and what I am sure will be other top-notch offerings.


May 3, 2007

Gypsy Caravan

Filed under: music,Roma — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Scheduled for theatrical release in June (NYC, the 15th; Los Angeles the 29th), “Gypsy Caravan: When the Road Bends” is a film that is very much in the mold of “Buena Vista Social Club” and just as likeable. It also evokes the 1993 “Latcho Drom” (“safe journey”), another great film about Roma music.

It documents a six-week tour in 2001 by some of the greatest Roma musicians in the world, who are seen performing, socializing with each other in hotels and on the bus, and participating in village life back home. It is directed by Jasmine Dellal, who directed “American Gypsy: a Stranger in Everybody’s Land” for PBS in 2001, and filmed by Albert Maysles, the legendary director of “Gimme Shelter,” a record of a Rolling Stones tour, and other works.

The tour was organized by the World Music Institute (WMI), a New York-based nonprofit whose concerts I have reviewed in the past and who I have contributed money to. Given New York’s relentless drive toward high-rise yuppie hell, the WMI is one of the remaining cultural artifacts that make life livable here. Furthermore, the culture of the Roma people is about as at odds with the profit-driven world of real estate and banking as can be imagined. Besides their cultural legacy of some of the world’s greatest music, these unfairly maligned peoples can teach us about how to live better lives. Macedonian Esma Rezepova, one of the tour’s starring performers, put it this way: “The Roma have never made war or invaded another country.”


I was fortunate enough to attend the Gypsy Caravan concert in New York back in 2001 and was simply bowled over by Esma, who I would regard as one of the great female popular singers of the 20th century along with Oum Kulthoum. Although I own her CD’s, nothing can compare to seeing her in concert. The film, however, does bring you closer to that experience.

Her best known single “Čaje Šukarije” is the feature song on the 2006 Borat movie soundtrack, which she claims was used without her permission. You can listen to it here. Along with fellow Roma musicians Naat Veliov and Kočani Orkestar, whose music was also used without permission, she is planning an 800,000 euro ($1,000,000) lawsuit against the producers of the film.

This leads me to the question of Roma village life, which is really at the heart of this wonderful film. As you probably know, Sasha Baron Cohen filmed a Romanian gypsy village, supposedly Borat’s hometown, in order to establish his backwardness, as well as the backwardness of the villagers. Since he is not identified as a Roma, but as a citizen of Kazakhstan, one might wonder how much damage was done to their reputation. It is difficult to say.

But if Sasha Baron Cohen could find some time in his busy career to look at the deeper reality of Roma life, he would be well-advised to see “Gypsy Caravan” for an object lesson in how life should be lived.

The film takes us to the village of the members of Taraf De Haidouks (“band of brigands”), who are led by patriarch Nicolae Neascu and who died during the tour. His funeral is part of the film and is truly heart-rending. Although his recordings and tour made Neascu a wealthy man, he chose to live modestly and gave most of his money to the villagers. During an interview, Neascu relates a Roma story about the fates asking whether one prefers a good life during youth and a hard life in old age, or vice versa. He chose the latter. All in all, with his affable senior citizen charm, Nicolae Neascu comes across as second cousin to the musicians in “Buena Vista Social Club.”

Taraf De Haidouks, the late Nicolae Neascu to the left

“Gypsy Caravan” also features Maharaja, Indian Roma musicians, who blend Arabic, Sufi trance and other styles with the music of their native Rajasthan. The other featured groups are Fanfare Ciocarlia, an 11 man brass band from the Romanian-Moldavian border, and the Antonio Pipa Flamenco Ensemble.

The film is dedicated to Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, an initiative of 8 governments, the UN, George Soros and the World Bank which is intended to fight poverty and discrimination, as well as improve education, employment, health and housing.

As it turns out, I saw and reviewed Jasmine Dellal’s 2001 PBS documentary “American Gypsy”. It is worth repeating my opening paragraphs:

Last night PBS Frontline aired “American Gypsy”, a documentary that made a brief appearance in NYC theaters last year. It features Jimmy Marks, a Spokane based used car dealer, who was the first Rom in the United States ever to challenge the racism of the dominant society, in his specific case an illegal cop raid on his home.

As PBS tends to repeat shows, my advice is to look for it. This film is a fascinating introduction into a world that tries to exist outside of the world of the “gadjo” or non-Roma. They fear that assimilation will destroy the unique Roma culture. These sorts of fears would remind us of another “unassimilated” group, the Orthodox Jew, who tries to co-exist as economic actors in gentile society, while preserving their own customs and beliefs inside their community.

Although I doubt if such a history has ever been written, a Marxist account of the Roma people would account for them in terms of what Abram Leon called the “people-class” in “The Jewish Question.” The Jews, according to Leon, “constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely a people-class.” That economic function is tradesman. The Jew, from the days of the Babylonian exile, have functioned as tradesmen. Their location in the Mid-East facilitated commercial exchanges between Europe and Asia. As long as the Jew served in this economic capacity, the religious and national identity served to support his economic function.

As a people-class Jews are able to maintain their ethnic identity no matter what country they live in. The same thing is true of the Roma who emigrated westward from India about a thousand years ago. Unlike the Jews, their economic function was not related to trade but to handicrafts which could be picked up and moved at the drop of a hat. This included horse trading and repairing pots and pans. In modern times these crafts have evolved into auto dealing, Jimmy Marks’s profession, and auto body repair. Also, Romas are some of the world’s greatest musicians who have made their mark on flamenco, jazz and Eastern European folk music. (For a great introduction to Roma music, I recommend the documentary “Latcho Drom” and the feature “Gadjo Dilo”, both by Roma director Tony Gatlif.)

According to Roma scholar Ian Hancock, who is at the University of Texas and of Roma origin himself, the Romany term gadjo, or outsider, is related to the Sanskrit “gajjha,” which means civilian. In the documentary Jimmy Marks is shown playing with his grand-daughter. As he counts off from one to ten, the narrator and director Jasmine Dellal (a British Jew) notes that the words for the numbers are the same as they are in Sanskrit.

The Marks clan are part of the Romanian Gypsies, or Vlax, who migrated in large numbers to the United States around the turn of the century and for the same reason that Jews and other groups did: to flee oppression. The Vlax had been enslaved in Romania for nearly 500 years. This fact more than any other explains the suspiciousness with which they regard the outside world. When I was growing up in the Catskill Mountains in the 1950s, my parents would often remark without much prompting, “You can’t trust the goyim.” Roma, who despite being murdered in equal numbers by the Nazis, have never been given the kind of moral or financial reparations given to the Jews. They are still despised and persecuted.

“Gypsy Caravan” website

Esma website

A video of Taraf De Haidouks in performance

A video of Fanfare Ciocarlia

Antonio Pipa Website

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.


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