Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 2, 2015

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

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– John Pirozzi, 2014

7 Comments »

  1. Scargill is something of a recluse now as it says here: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/feb/28/in-search-of-arthur-scargill-miners-strike ( there are interviews with Anne Scargill and Ken Capstick ).. Indeed I think that I say someone Tweeting a request for his telephone number only yesterday. BTW Nottinghamshire is in the East Midlands of England. A friend of mine grew up in Nottingham and found when she moved to York in the 60s that she was from the South; she then moved to London and discovered she was from the North

    Comment by Derek Bryant (@DerekJohnBryant) — August 2, 2015 @ 9:53 pm

  2. ‘…what really intrigued me was the support that miners received in British Black nationalist circles.’ This may have been a consequence of the miners widespread involvement in anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations in the late 1970s/early 1980s, organising against and physically confronting the fascist National Front.

    Comment by Doug — August 3, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

  3. Sorry, forgot to mention that when I was involved in a miners support group, this was in a town with a relatively large number of people who had come from the Indian sub-continent. They gave a great deal of support to the miners, much of this organisationally through the Indian Workers Associations. As with many black people, this was because of their knowledge of the miners anti-fascist credentials and good old-fashioned class solidarity.

    Comment by Doug — August 3, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

  4. As Derek points out, Nottinghamshire is NOT in the south, but the East Midlands, with something of a cultue if its own. I used to visit striking miners in the Notts coalfield (as I live in the county). Yes there was a small minority loyal to the NUM. It was incredibly tough for them, isolated as they were. Cycling round the Notts coalfield back then was like visiting an occuppied country, turn a corner in a country lane near a pit and there are a couple of vans full of cops with riot gear. Waiting for pickets from the Yorkshire pits.

    Comment by FergusD — August 3, 2015 @ 3:19 pm

  5. Thanks for the correction. I was thinking south only in terms of its relationship to Scotland where most of the militant miners were based. But you’re right. It is obviously in the center of England.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 3, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

  6. We would love to have interviewed Arthur Scargill, but had he agreed to the interview then we would have had to make a very different film. As it is, our film’s strength, i believe, is that it talks to people who were a long way from the national leadership of he strike and then backs up what they say with archive footage. I don’t think there has been a film made in recent years that allows working class people the opportunity to speak – and those on our film do so with clarity, passion and humour.

    Arthur Scargill is reluctant to appear in public these days because he is abused and smeared by the Tories, media and those labour movement leaders and politicians who should have done more to help the miners. I don’r blame him for being cautious, but we do need him to tell his story.

    Comment by Mike Simons (Executive Producer) — August 3, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

  7. “…Scotland where most of the militant miners were based”

    The Scottish miners were certainly an important component of the NUM, but the Yorkshire region was where it was strongest numerically and had its headquarters.

    The Tory government’s plan to close Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire, Polmaise in Scotland and Snowdown in Kent sparked the 1984-1985 strike.

    The small Kent region was the only one located in Southern England.
    Many of the miners there came from families which had moved south during the depression to find work, as is described here:-

    http://www.60yearsofstruggle.org.uk/page2.html

    Betteshanger in Kent was the only pit to strike during the Second World War, which resulted in three union officials being imprisoned and over 1000 men being given the option of a fine or hard labour.

    As Peter Holden, a former Betteshanger miner explains:-

    “There was danger that the strike would spread to other mines and the Government couldn’t afford a strike in the middle of a war. All but nine refused to pay and in the face of having to find prison spaces for 1000 men, the government decided to take no action and also to release the three imprisoned officials.”

    The NUM branch committee at Betteshanger occupied their pit at the end of the ’84-5 strike and it was the last colliery in Britain to resume work, before being shut in 1989.

    http://www.dovermuseum.co.uk/Exhibitions/Coal-Mining-in-Kent/History/Betteshanger-Colliery.aspx

    Comment by prianikoff — August 4, 2015 @ 9:17 am


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: