Above: Aleppo Free Syrian Army statement calls on “the honorable Kurds” in Efrin “to put pressure on those gangs to withdraw from those violated towns.” by Michael Karadjis This piece deals with an…
February 28, 2016
February 27, 2016
This is the first in a series of articles about some of the films scheduled for this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival that I have been covering since its inception in 2014. This year I am proud to be on its Documentary award jury. I must admit, however, that my tendency would be to give a blue ribbon to everybody whose film is being shown in SR 2016 since making such films as an alternative to much of the junk receiving an Oscar tomorrow night is to be celebrated in and of itself.
As the founder of the SR film festivals, Nora Armani is blessed with an uncommon ability to curate some of the most important films being made today. As I have made clear in my survey of SR 2014 and SR 2015, these are films that are focused on the real problems of ordinary people and a welcome alternative to Cineplex escapism. It is not just that films about refugees or oppressed nationalities demand your attention as thinking and caring adults; it is that they are intensely dramatic as the struggles of refugees and the victims of national oppression tend to be.
These are issues obviously very close to Nora Armani’s heart given her Armenian ancestry. Indeed, she resolved to create such an annual film festival to honor two relatives that were killed by religious fanatics in Egypt. Given my strong identification with her artistic and social mission, I thought it would be appropriate to start off with two films about the Armenian genocide that were made a full century after it occurred. After watching them, it dawned on me that they are not just about a terrible crime committed against an innocent people. They also help to shed light on the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing that is tearing apart the social fabric of the Middle East and Anatolia today just as it did a century ago and for the same reason: to create a “pure” nation-state in whose name the elites can protect their own narrow class interests using the kind of demagogy that Hitler made infamous.
Co-directed by the Egyptians Mohamed Hanafy Nasr and Myriam Zaki, “Who Killed the Armenians?” may be the definitive answer to people like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who is seen several times in the film denying that a genocide took place. While well-known for his imperious manner, to hear him shrugging off the possibility that Turkey was responsible for the mass murder of women and children is enough to make your blood boil—especially in light of the pervasive visual evidence deployed by the directors through vintage photographs and newsreels.
If the film sufficed to make the historical record that a genocide took place, this would be reason enough to single it out for having exceptional value. But there is more to it than that. The film has an ability to put the mass murder into an historical context that will allow thoughtful people to fully understand how and why it took place. Speaking as someone who was anxious to find out why Hitler killed the Jews when I was a young member of the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I was fortunate to have someone recommend Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question”. This book, written by a young Belgian-Jewish socialist who died in Auschwitz, explained how Jews became scapegoats in a German economy that was torn apart in the 1920s as a result of being on the losing side in WWI. As it turns out, while not quite an exact analogy, the Armenians suffered the same fate when the Ottomans were suffering a similar military disaster.
We learn from the film that Germany saw Turkey as the ideal ally in a war with the British and the French since their extensive colonial holdings in Muslim countries could serve Germany’s propaganda goals. The German war was hailed by venal Ottoman religious officials as a jihad to liberate Muslims. So as should be obvious, religious obscurantism on behalf of imperialist war was not a recent invention.
The image of the Ottomans as being relatively tolerant toward the peoples who came under their rule as argued in books such as Mark Mazower’s “Salonika: City of Ghosts” does not quite hold up when it comes to the Armenians. Since the film relies heavily on the testimony of many credible scholarly figures, you will be persuaded–as I was–that long before the genocide there were signs that the Armenians were a persecuted people. For instance, the Hamidian massacres took place in the 1890s with as many as 300,000 fatalities. Since historians tie them to military defeats at the hands of the Russians in the 1877-1878 war and growing financial decline, you can understand why they would reoccur again with even greater ferocity in 1915 when the loss of Ottoman territory and economic collapse was far more advanced.
The documentary also explores the role of the Young Turks in whose hands the blood of the genocide became a permanent stain. It turns out that there were two factions in their party, the so-called Committee of Union and Progress, the “federalizers” who were open to Armenian rights in a democratic republic and the “centralists” who obviously were victorious in the political struggle. Indeed, the Young Turks were ultimately led by the most extreme centralists who were ready to implement the final solution as one centralizing official put it. Once they were done, the only Armenian left in Turkey could only be seen in a museum.
Some years back I read a book by Arno Mayer titled “Why the Heavens did not Darken” that explained the Judeocide (a word he preferred to holocaust) in terms of Hitler’s debacle on the Eastern front. When it began to become obvious to him that the war was lost, he made the decision to exterminate the Jews.
In late 1914 and early 1915, the Ottomans suffered a major military defeat in the battle of Sarikamish that one historian interviewee judged to have cost the lives of 80,000 Turkish troops. Like the Nazis in their invasion of the USSR, the Turks were not prepared for wintery conditions in the mountains bordering Russia. Like Hitler, Enver Pasha—the head of the Young Turks in 1908 and the Ottoman army in WWI–needed a scapegoat to blame the disaster on. He found them in the Armenians. And also like Hitler, Enver Pasha and other top military officials did everything they could to cover their tracks. They destroyed all sorts of paper records even though the evidence of dead bodies covering the eastern Anatolian landscape spoke for themselves.
Like the humanitarian-minded Arabs who made this film, there were Muslims in 1915 who were ready to come to the aid of fellow human beings whatever their religion. The most outstanding of them was Faiz El-Ghusein, a Bedouin Ottoman official in Syria who favored independence. Under suspicion for supporting the Arab cause, he was exiled to Diarbekir, a predominantly Armenian city at the time. (Now mostly Kurdish, it must be stated that the Kurds took part in the genocide and benefited from seized Armenian property.) When El-Ghusein began to see the death squads advancing on the Armenians, he was inspired to write “Martyred Armenia” that can be read online. There you will read:
After my arrival at Aleppo, and two days’ stay there, we took the train to a place called Ser-Arab-Pounâri. I was accompanied by five Armenians, closely guarded, and despatched to Diarbekir. We walked on our feet thence to Serûj, where we stopped at a khân [rest-house] filled with Armenian women and children, with a few sick men. These women were in a deplorable state, as they had done the journey from Erzeroum on foot, taking a long while to arrive at Serûj. I talked with them in Turkish, and they told me that the gendarmes with them had brought them to places where there was no water, refusing to tell them where water was to be found until they had received money as the price.
In a real sense, the genocide against the Armenians that El-Ghusein was describing lives on in places like Aleppo and Diarbekir. While not going to the same lengths as Enver Pasha, Bashar al-Assad has used the weapons of famine against people in places like Aleppo and Yarmouk. His goal is a “purified” Syria that will exist along the more heavily populated Western coastline along the Mediterranean. In order to create such a state, it will be necessary to ethnically cleanse all Sunnis who are not ready to accept hunger, torture and murder as the cost of Syrian citizenship. Let them go to Europe where their meager savings can be expropriated by the Aryans of Denmark and other “pure” societies.
While locked in a bitter struggle with al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ready for an all-out bloody war against the Kurds in places like Diarbekir. While elected on a nominally pro-diversity program, the declining state of the Turkish economy prompted him to rally the people around the flag just as has been the case in so many barbarous wars of the 20th and 21st century.
When stopping to consider alternatives to a new Dark Ages, we start with people like Faiz El-Ghusein and the directors of this must-see documentary, as well as the historians they interviewed. Among them are good Turks like Uğur Ümit Üngör who teaches history and sociology in the Netherlands and is the author of “Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property” and “The making of modern Turkey. Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950”.
Profiled in the Massis Post, the newspaper of the the Social Democratic Hunchakian Party, which is the oldest Armenian political party in existence and that was founded by Marxist students in 1887, Üngör explains how he became a partisan of the Armenian struggle for historical truth and redemption:
“Turkey Has Acknowledged the Armenian Genocide” is Ugur Üngör article in The Armenian Weekly ( April 27, 2012…Yes, the Turkish state’s official policy towards the Armenian Genocide was and is indeed characterized by the “three M’s”: misrepresentation, mystification, and manipulation. But when one gauges what place the genocide occupies in the social memory of Turkish society, even after nearly a century, a different picture emerges. Even though most direct eyewitnesses to the crime have passed away, oral history interviews yield important insights. Elderly Turks and Kurds in eastern Turkey often hold vivid memories from family members or fellow villagers who witnessed or participated in the genocide. There is a clash between official state memory and popular social memory: The Turkish government is denying a genocide that its own population remembers.
To enlist in the ongoing battle against the “three M’s”, I strongly recommend seeing “Who Killed the Armenians?” at Bowtie Cinema, 6pm on Saturday the 19th of March. Full schedule information is here: http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/.
As the title indicates, “100 Years Later” is a documentary memorializing the genocide by John Lubbock, a filmmaker, journalist and former staff member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
The 55-minute film follows Armenian scholar and activist Ara Sarafian as he leads a tour in eastern Anatolia for Armenians living in the USA and elsewhere. He wants them to bear witness to remnants of Armenian society, including a church that Kurds now use as a feed storage bin for farm animals. Sarafian wryly observes that it is probably a good thing that it served that purpose otherwise it might have been blown up long ago.
I could not help but think of the parallels with Palestinians who might be organized to go on a similar tour of land they lost in the 1948 Nabka, another exercise in ethnic cleansing that sought to “purify” a state.
Throughout the film, Sarafian strikes an optimistic pose even though Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s witless comments alluded to above make me question whether reconciliation with such a man is possible, especially in light of observations made by analysts who see him aspiring to be a new Sultan presiding over a neo-Ottoman empire.
When I used to go on tours of Nicaragua on buses just like those used in “100 Years Later”, we used to explain to workers and peasants we spoke to that it was not Americans who wanted to destroy their country, only the government. In a way, the same distinction might be made about the Turks who despite the dominance of ultra-nationalist politics going back a hundred years still manage to see things clearly, at least my wife’s relatives in Istanbul and Izmir who see Erdogan in the same manner we see Donald Trump.
I recommend “100 Years Later” that can be seen at 2pm on Saturday March 19th, once again at Bowtie Cinema. And also, once again, check http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/ for full Schedule information.
February 26, 2016
February 25, 2016
by Angela Baker So like, I’m a hardcore radical leftist. I’m anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-militarism, anti-Zionism, etc. I marched against BusHitler’s war on Iraq in 2003, Obo…
This afternoon I was at a memorial meeting for Etem Erol who taught Turkish language classes at Columbia University. I took classes with him in 2006 and 2007 that were a real delight. Not long after I took these classes, he took a job at Yale where he taught until his death in January 2016. This is from the Yale Herald, a student newspaper:
When I walked into my Elementary Turkish class last Friday, no one was dressed in all black. There were no flowers, and no one was crying. Instead, there was birthday cake and a bottle of Sprite and cheerful echoes of Nasılsın? Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Death had slipped unnoticed into our tiny classroom—we just didn’t know it yet.
When Meriç, our TF, told us that she had learned of Etem’s whereabouts, I expected a story of how the fishing that week was too good for him to pass up, or of how Alpha Delta Pizza had needed a line cook on short notice, and, knowing that we would be alright without him for a few days, Etem had volunteered. I pictured him grilling freshly-caught sea bass or enjoying a full Turkish breakfast at home, complete with honeyed kaymak spread and spicy, cured pastırma. I wondered if he was chortling his full-belly laugh and playing backgammon with his friends.
But when Meriç started to cry, we slowly lowered our half-raised forks of double fudge supermarket cake and tried to believe what she was saying: that Etem Erol, our Etem Erol, would not return to us, would not fish again, would never down another peach-flavored shot of rakı. A heavy, tired silence draped itself over everyone. We could barely move ourselves to swallow our cake and continue reviewing prepositions.
The tragedy was confirmed a few days later via an email that began as follows:
I am writing to confirm what you probably already know or have heard rumored: the terrible news that our well-liked Turkish lector, Etem Erol, passed away after a heart attack in early January, while on vacation in Bulgaria. The funeral was in Turkey, and he was buried in his birthplace, as he wished.”
But even in the email, there was so much already missing, so much already on its way to being forgotten. In a few years, no one here will remember that Etem’s birthplace is an idyllic Mediterranean seaside town a stone’s throw across the straits from the Greek island Lesbos. No one will know that he was in Bulgaria furnishing the summer home he planned to retire to, or that he died in his brother’s arms. No one will know that he had a fondness for seftalı, or Turkish peaches, which he claimed to be an entirely different species than the faulty specimens we are subjected to in this country. People will forget that he could read coffee grounds, and that he believed that buying a lottery ticket was like buying yourself imagination for a week. No one will know that when faced with an impossible question in class, our default answer was “Etem çok yakışıklı,” or “Etem is very handsome.”
Etem has only been gone for a week, and already I feel him slipping away, piece by piece, until all that’s left of him is what we hold onto for safekeeping. Few among us will even care. And I don’t hold onto pretensions of special closeness with Etem; he was my professor, and I liked and respected him. I call him Etem only because he asked us to. But I don’t want to forget him. Not now and not ever. In fact, I’m afraid to forget him—if I do, what will that say about me? What will that say about our world and the place of death in our consciousness? Most of all, I’m afraid that I’m going to learn a cold truth: that these days, there is no space for death of the everyday, individual variety. We have no place for it anymore.
This is from my 2006 article on learning Turkish:
For most of the first semester of elementary Turkish I just completed, I felt like I was barely treading water and in over my head. Learning a new language at the age of 61 is tough enough as it is, but studying it at an Ivy League institution like Columbia University is even more daunting. Twice I came this close (picture a thumb 1/8th of an inch away from a forefinger) from dropping it, but just received my grade: an A-!
Learning a language in some ways is like rehearsing for a play. You have to memorize your lines. In my final exam, I remembered most of the words I was expected to use in an essay question about a father taking his daughter to the playground (a sandbox is a ‘kum havuzu’; a pail and shovel are ‘kova’ and ‘kurek’), but drew a blank when I tried to remember how to say ‘for 3 days’ (uc gundur).
My main problem is that my brain doesn’t work the way it did when I was the age of my classmates. It used to be like a camera, now it is like a sieve. Five days after I learn how to use a verb ending, the memory becomes faded. Oddly enough, the Spanish I learned in high school 46 years ago adheres better.
Despite the difficulties and despite my deep aversion to taking tests and being graded, I have found learning Turkish to be a deeply rewarding experience. Being finally able to converse with my wife’s friends and relatives in Istanbul and Izmir would make my trips there much more pleasurable. Since we would eventually like to have a summer place in Izmir, this makes learning the language a necessity.
Perhaps the main reason I stuck with the class was the teacher Etem Erol, who is without doubt one of the finest I have studied with ever. Erol brings an enormous amount of patience, enthusiasm and good humor to the subject that shows up even when the class is going through the most tedious of drills. Additionally, he is passionate about Turkish culture and history and leavens each class with comments about a wide range of topics, from the Kurdish question to Turkish cuisine. It is impossible to imagine a more qualified and more dedicated professor.
Since my understanding of Turkish culture and history are about as rudimentary as my understanding of the language, I treasured observations the professor made during the course of the semester. To begin with, I suppose that most people understand that the Turkish language is a relatively modern invention. After Mustafa Kemal led a successful revolution that led to the creation of the modern Turkish state in 1923, he instituted a number of reforms that were intended to modernize the country along the lines of certain Enlightenment ideals. One of them was to replace the Ottoman alphabet (a mixture of Arabic and Persian letters; words are read from right to left) with Roman letters. (There are additional letters in the Turkish alphabet that are distinguished by the presence of an accent or a symbol. For example, an i without the dot is pronounced “uh”; with it, it is pronounced more like the i in “in”.)
Juan Cole’s article titled “How the US went Fascist: Mass media Makes excuses for Trump Voters” reminded me that I wanted to say something about all this. It is not the first time I’ve run into a massive amount of warnings about a new Hitler or Mussolini running for President on the Republican Party ticket. Of course, with so many memes identifying Trump with Il Duce on the basis of his scowls and demagoguery, the temptation to make such an identification is irresistible especially if you are unfamiliar with historical materialism.
For Cole, the analogies with fascist Italy are obvious:
This is how the dictators came to power in the 1920s and 1930s. Good people remained silent or acquiesced. People expressed hope that something good would come of it. Mussolini would wring the laziness out of Italy and make the trains run on time.
Of course, what’s missing here is the threat to Italian capitalism that spurred the ruling class to throw its weight behind Mussolini—a revolutionary working class that supported anarchist, socialist and Communist parties. The Biennio Rosso, or “two red years” that lasted from 1919 to 1920, was marked by mass strikes and factory occupations. The Socialist Party of Italy had 250,000 members and the anarchists could count on up to 300,000 activists. From the Wikipedia article on the Biennio Rosso, we learn:
In Turin and Milan, factory councils – which the leading Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci considered to be the Italian equivalent of Russia’s soviets – were formed and many factory occupations took place under the leadership of revolutionary socialists and anarcho-syndicalists. The agitations also extended to the agricultural areas of the Padan plain and were accompanied by peasant strikes, rural unrests and armed conflicts between left-wing and right-wing militias.
Industrial action and rural unrest increased significantly: there were 1,663 industrial strikes in 1919, compared to 810 in 1913. More than one million industrial workers were involved in 1919, three times the 1913 figure. The trend continued in 1920, which saw 1,881 industrial strikes. Rural strikes also increased substantially, from 97 in 1913 to 189 by 1920, with over a million peasants taking action. On July 20-21, 1919, a general strike was called in solidarity with the Russian Revolution.
Comrades, I don’t know how to put this exactly but similarities between Italy in 1919 and the USA in 2016 are less than zero. What insurgencies are a Trump-style fascism supposed to overcome? Black Lives Matter? The Chicago Teachers Union? Kshama Sawant? The good news is that fascism is not on the agenda because the movements of the working class and other oppressed sectors are so weak. Meanwhile the bad news is that the movements of the working class and other oppressed sectors are so weak.
I wrote about the Pat Buchanan campaign in 2000, when exactly the same fears existed. Just change the name from Buchanan to Trump and it holds up pretty well:
Sally Ryan posted an article from the Militant newspaper the other day. It states that Buchanan is a fascist:
“Buchanan is not primarily out to win votes, nor was he four years ago. He has set out to build a cadre of those committed to his program and willing to act in the streets to carry it out. He dubs his supporters the ‘Buchanan Brigades’….
“Commenting on the tone of a recent speech Buchanan gave to the New Hampshire legislature, Republican state representative Julie Brown, said, ‘It’s just mean – like a little Mussolini.’….
“While he is not about to get the Republican nomination, Buchanan is serious in his campaign. The week before his Louisiana win, he came in first in a straw poll of Alaska Republicans and placed third in polls in New Hampshire, where the first primary election will be held. He is building a base regardless of how the vote totals continue to fall. And he poses the only real alternative that can be put forward within the capitalist system to the like-sounding Clinton and Dole – a fascist alternative.”
These quotations tend to speak for a rather wide-spread analysis of Buchanan that a majority of the left supports, including my comrades on this list.
I want to offer a counter-analysis:
1) We are in a period of quiescence, not class confrontation.
Comrades, this is the good news and the bad news. It is good news because there is no threat of a fascist movement coming to power. It is bad news because it reflects how depoliticized the US working-class remains.
There is no fascist movement in the United States of any size or significance. It is time to stop talking about the militias of Montana. Let us speak instead of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. Has there been any growth of fascism? Of course not. In New York, my home town, there is no equivalent of the German- American bund, the fascists of the 1930s who had a base on New York’s upper east side, my neighborhood.
There are no attacks on socialist or trade union meetings. There are not even attacks on movements of allies of the working-class. The women’s movement, the black movement, the Central American movement organize peacefully and without interference for the simple reason that there are no violent gangs to subdue them.
The reason there are no violent gangs of fascists is the same as it was in the 1950s. We are not in a period of general social crisis. There are no frenzied elements of the petty-bourgeoisie or the lumpen proletariat being drawn into motion by demagogic and charismatic leaders like Mussolini or Hitler. There are no Silver Shirts that the labor or socialist movement needs protection from.
There is another key difference from the 1930s that we must consider. Capital and labor battled over the rights of labor within the prevailing factory system. Capitalism has transformed that factory system. Workers who remain in basic industry are not fighting for union representation. They simply want to keep their jobs. Those who remain employed will not tend to enter into confrontations with capital as long as wages and benefits retain a modicum of acceptability. That is the main reason industrial workers tend to be quiescent and will remain so for some time to come.
In the 1930s, workers occupied huge factories and battled the bosses over the right to a union. The bosses wanted to keep these factories open and strikes tended to take on a militant character in these showdowns. Strike actions tended to draw the working-class together and make it easier for socialists to get a hearing. This was because strikes were much more like mass actions and gave workers a sense of their power. The logical next step, according to the socialists, was trade union activity on a political level and, ultimately, rule by the workers themselves.
The brunt of the attack today has been downsizing and runaway capital. This means that working people have a fear of being unemployed more than anything else. This fear grips the nation. When a worker loses a job today, he or she tends to look for personal solutions: a move to another city, signing up for computer programming classes, etc. Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” vividly illustrated this type of personal approach Every unemployed auto worker in this film was trying to figure out a way to solve their problems on their own.
In the face of the atomization of the US working class, it is no surprise that many workers seem to vote for Buchanan. He offers them a variant on the personal solution. A worker may say to himself or herself, “Ah, this Buchanan’s a racist bigot, but he’s the only one who seems to care about what’s happening to me. I’ll take a gamble and give him my vote.” Voting is not politics. It is the opposite of politics. It is the capitalist system’s mechanism for preventing political action.
2) Buchanan is a bourgeois politician.
Pat Buchanan represents the thinking of an element of the US ruling class, and views the problems of the United States from within that perspective. Buchanan’s nationalism relates very closely to the nationalism of Ross Perot, another ruling class politician.
A consensus exists among the ruling class that US capital must take a global route. The capitalist state must eliminate trade barriers and capital must flow to where there is greatest possibility for profit. Buchanan articulates the resentments of a section of the bourgeoisie that wants to resist this consensus. It would be an interesting project to discover where Buchanan gets his money. This would be a more useful of one’s time than comparing his speeches to Father Coughlin or Benito Mussolini’s.
There are no parties in the United States in the European sense. In Europe, where there is a parliamentary system, people speak for clearly defined programs and are responsible to clearly defined constituencies. In the United States, politics revolves around “winner take all” campaigns. This tends to put a spotlight on presidential elections and magnify the statements of candidates all out of proportion.
Today we have minute textual analysis of what Buchanan is saying. His words take on a heightened, almost ultra-real quality. Since he is in a horse race, the press tends to worry over each and every inflammatory statement he makes. This tends to give his campaign a more threatening quality than is supported by the current state of class relations in the United States.
3) The way to fight Buchanan is by developing a class alternative.
The left needs a candidate who is as effective as Buchanan in drawing class lines.
The left has not been able to present an alternative to Buchanan. It has been making the same kinds of mistakes that hampered the German left in the 1920s: ultraleft sectarianism and opportunism. Our “Marxist-Leninist” groups, all 119 of them, offer themselves individually as the answer to Pat Buchanan. Meanwhile, social democrats and left-liberals at the Nation magazine and elsewhere are preparing all the reasons one can think of to vote for the “lesser evil”.
What the left needs to do is coalesce around a class-based, militant program. The left has not yet written this program, despite many assurances to the contrary we can hear on this list every day. It will have to be in the language of the American people, not in Marxist- Leninist jargon. Some people know how speak effectively to working people. I include Michael Moore the film-maker. I also include people like our own Doug Henwood, and Alex Cockburn and his co-editor Ken Silverstein who put out a newsletter called “Counterpunch”.
Most of all, the model we need is like Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Party of the turn of the century, minus the right-wing. Study the speeches of Debs and you get an idea of the kind of language we need to speak. Our mission today remains the same as it was in turn of the century Russia: to build a socialist party where none exists.
Opening on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York, “Virus of Fear” is identical thematically to the “The Hunt”, a very fine Danish film that I reviewed for CounterPunch in 2014. “The Hunt” starred Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher who is falsely accused of exposing himself to a girl in his class. In the “Virus of Fear”, a swimming coach named Jordi is accused of kissing a boy on the lips in his class for elementary school children, when in reality all he did was hug and kiss him on the cheek to stop his crying. The boy was deathly afraid of being in the water without his wings and broke down when Jordi insisted that he swim unaided.
Ninety percent of this tightly-coiled film takes place in the locker room of the upscale Barcelona sports complex where Jordi is interrogated by the manager, a hard nosed middle-aged woman named Anna who has been visited (besieged might be a better word) by the boy’s father. Except for the scene in her office where she fends off the father and some minor scenes between Jordi and another swimming coach named Hector in the locker room, this is essentially a two-character film that has much more in common with a stage play than a film. Whatever medium it conjured up, it made for powerful drama. While barely worth commenting on cinematically, it is a tour de force of dialog and character development that is better than anything you will see in a New York theater today, off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway (forget about Broadway, where a $150 ticket will rot out your brain.)
Anna has to walk a tightrope. She has to communicate the father’s accusations even though she is skeptical that Jordi would prey upon one of his pupils. Did he kiss the boy on the cheek or on the lips? Was he gay? Did he “like” children? The more she ratchets up the interrogation, the more defensive he becomes—finally to the point of throwing off his bathrobe and facing Anna buck naked. He asks, “What would someone say if they came in now?”
What makes “Virus of Fear” more effective than the standard TV “problem” drama is Jordi’s character. He is not that likeable. In a scene with his Hector in the locker room, he talks about how much he would like to bang the mother of one of his students. When Hector bridles at Jordi’s acting out having sex with the woman, Jordi taunts him with the question of whether he might be gay himself. He goes further and acts out taking Hector from behind. In other words, he is a typical locker room macho man.
But in the course of the day (the film elapses over a five-hour period or so), Jordi begins to break down psychologically as the pressure mounts. The word has gotten out that he is under accusation and a number of parents descend upon the club to demand Jordi’s head.
The film is directed by Ventura Pons, a highly regarded Catalan director who has made 27 films. Made in the Catalan language, it is reason enough to take a trip down to Cinema Village to hear it spoken. Born in 1945, Pons spent a decade in the theater before moving on to film. He co-wrote the script with Josep Maria Miró, another Catalan with a background in the theater. Unlike most films, this is one that cares less about cinematography than character. As such, it is a welcome anomaly especially in an age when “Mad Max: Fury Road” gets a 97 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I regret not having written anything about “Kings of Nowhere” that will be shown at MOMA tonight and tomorrow before now. My only excuse is that I am swamped by book reviews, film reviews and the constant need to do battle with the Putinite left.
This is a Mexican documentary directed by Betzabe Garcia about a handful of families still living in what amounts to a ghost town largely inundated by waters generated by a poorly engineered dam. When I first saw the press release for the film, I thought it would feature scientists and activists knowledgeable about the baleful effects of megadams. While there is no doubt that Garcia made the film out of a need to show the damage they do, it is not a “propaganda” film like “Up the Yangtze” that is about the social and environmental costs of the Three Gorges Dam.
Instead it is focused on the three families who stayed behind, mostly because they were too old, too poor and too much rooted in San Marcos, the tiny town in Sinaloa that fell victim to civil engineering gone bad, just as it and a myriad of other towns have fallen victim of the state’s drug cartel run by “Shorty” Guzman. Most of the film consists of playful recollections about life in San Marcos by the elderly stay-behinds but in one scene, a man talks about how a gunman in a truck pursued him down a dark road late at night firing a pistol at his car.
The film is a work of art visually with the waterlogged town looking more beautiful than Venice (in my eyes) as donkeys, pigs and dogs stroll aimlessly down the as yet unflooded streets. Garcia first visited the town when she was 13 and a member of a theatre company (TATIU) that organized plays in rural and hard-to-reach communities.
Although the film has a languid and ethereal quality, there was danger all about as Garcia explained to “Women and Hollywood”:
San Marcos is not only partly flooded by the dam, but also besieged by armed groups. Since the people who stayed in town largely avoid talking explicitly about the killings in the area, the biggest challenge was to show the fear in which they constantly live and confront on a daily basis, as well as their loneliness.
This surprising film with a sensibility all its own is a reminder of the decency of Mexican townspeople and the artistic vanguard that has made great sacrifices to tell their story. If you want to see some transcendental cinema, check out “Kings of Nowhere” tomorrow at MOMA.
February 23, 2016
The Committee for a Worker’s International is the aspiring Trotskyist Fourth International led by Peter Taaffe. It was one of two major groups that emerged out of Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency that had a long-term entryist presence in the British Labour Party; the other tendency is called the International Marxist Tendency and is led by Alan Woods. The CWI’s section in the USA is called Socialist Alternative and is notable for party member Kshama Sawant being elected to the Seattle City Council.
I don’t know much (anything actually) about the Australian section called the Socialist Party but the most prominent figure in the walkout is Stephen Jolly. I refer you to what Greenleft Weekly, the newspaper of the Socialist Alliance, wrote about him:
Stephen Jolly, the Socialist Party candidate for Richmond, is a high profile activist with electoral runs on the board.
He came to prominence with the campaign to reopen Richmond Secondary College in the early 1990s, and has been on the frontlines of many campaigns in Melbourne’s inner north since, including recent efforts to stop the East West Link and to defend public housing.
He was first elected to Yarra Council in 2004 with a 12% vote in his ward, and his record as a councillor fighting for working people is reflected in votes of 29% in 2008 and 34% in 2012. He received more than 9% in Richmond at the 2010 state elections.
His campaign is highly visible throughout the electorate, with numerous posters declaring the campaign slogan of “put a fighter into parliament”, “stop the East West toll road tunnel”, “cap public and private housing rents”, “plan our city for residents not developers, “free and frequent public transport”, and “protect our live music and arts culture”.
It is of course worth noting that this is pretty much a repeat of what happened to the British SWP in 2014. Does such a reoccurrence reflect a structural flaw in such “vanguard” formations? Very likely so. With so much authority vested in the top cadre that implicitly serves as the avatar of Lenin and Trotsky, there is a tendency to look the other way when cases like this develop. Keep in mind that Gerry Healy, who was the leader of the largest Trotskyist group in Britain, was expelled for preying sexually on young female members of his sect.
From Stephen Jolly’s Twitter account:
February 21, 2016
As most people probably understand, political analysis about a particular government leader is often largely driven by where they stand in the geopolitical chess game—most of all by the grandmasters who play it, namely the “anti-imperialist” left that is as single-minded ideologically as earlier generations of Kremlin apologists if not more so.
In my experience, Stansfield Smith is the Boris Spassky of this milieu. The tops at awfulness with no competition on the horizon. Back when he was on Marxmail, he never posted anything except talking points in line with the Pepe Escobar/Mike Whitney/Eric Draitser Chessintern.
To belong to the Chessintern, you have to master a few basic openings such as the need to defend every foreign policy initiative of the Kremlin or China and then to smear anybody who ends up on the other side of the chessboard as tools of the CIA or the NED.
Back in 2010, when Smith was still a Marxmail subscriber, he did everything he could to tarnish indigenous activists in Ecuador organized in CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) as tools of imperialism. That year there was a coup attempt in Ecuador that CONAIE supported. Rather than dealing with indigenous unhappiness with Correa, as I tried to do in an article on the Miskito rebellion in Sandinista Nicaragua, Smith approached the whole thing as a conspiracy in which NED payoffs to the Indians was the key factor. You don’t need Marxism to understand such conflicts, just Hal Holbrook’s line in “All the President’s Men”: “follow the money.”
Interestingly enough, the Chessintern-friendly CounterPunch ran a number of articles that year that refused to demonize the Indians. The late Roger Burbach called attention to a law that allowed for the privatization of water and that placed “no real restraints on the ravaging of rivers and aquifers by the mining companies.” Ben Dangl stated that Correa had been marginalizing the indigenous movements of Ecuador while Laura Carlsen seemed to have offered the most balanced approach: “Although Correa has required companies to pay a larger share of profits to the government as mentioned above, he promoted the extractive model of national development that encroaches on indigenous lands and rights and has led to massive environmental destruction.”
The same divisions exist in Ecuador today with indigenous people continuing to feel vitimized, especially when it comes to the exploration for oil in their territories. If you’ve seen “Crude”, you know how much damage oil companies can do to Ecuador’s water and soil. With the film’s focus on the attempt of peasants to sue Texaco and Chevron’s for damages, it is not difficult to imagine that Indians would have the same kind of grievances even if the government was part of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement and that oil drilling in Indian country was being done in partnership with a Chinese oil company. That is, unless you were Stansfield Smith.
With a title like “Propaganda as ‘News’: Ecuador Sells Out Indigenous Tribes and the Environment to China”, you pretty much know what to expect. Whatever the question (Syria, Ukraine, Tibet, Xinjiang), you trawl the Internet for any links between some protest movement and the NED, the CIA or some Soros-funded NGO and that’s all you need to know. Case closed.
Foolish me. I tried to transcend Chessintern thinking when I wrote about the Miskito revolt:
The best presentation of the Miskito case comes from Charles R. Hale, an American anthropologist who was a Sandinista supporter. The more time he spent with Miskito people, the more he came to realize that the government in Managua had misunderstood their legitimate demands. His book “Resistance and Contradiction: Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987” is essential reading.
Hale explains that Miskito unrest had preceded the Sandinista victory. The same economic forces that precipitated the revolution against Somoza were shaking up the Atlantic Coast. Large-scale commercial exploitation of the land for cattle-ranching and cotton production caused displaced peasants to arrive in the cities with dim economic prospects. When the earthquake hit Managua, these prospects completely disappeared and armed struggle seemed like the only reasonable path.
These peasants also moved eastward, putting pressure on communally owned Miskito land. The UN and the Alliance for Progress sponsored some large-scale projects in partnership with Somoza that the Miskitos resented, including the construction of a deep-water port. The construction interfered with traditional fishing activities. The Miskitos faced challenges on all front.
But mostly the Miskitos felt left out of the economic development that was taking place all around them. The Somoza family had pumped millions of dollars into nearly 200 industrial fishing boats on the Atlantic Coast. Commercial fishing accounted for 4 percent of foreign currency earnings in 1977, but nothing substantial flowed into Miskito improvement. The “trickle down” theory was as false in Nicaragua as it was in Reagan’s America. Capital to finance the expansion came from Cuban exiles in Miami and North American banks. All the stepped up economic activity was of no benefit to the Miskitos, who regarded the Spanish-speaking businessmen as little more than invaders. After the commercial fishers had taken the last lobster and shrimp out of the water, they would have gone on their merry way.
Essentially this is the same kind of clash in Ecuador today.
Smith’s article is an assault on Amazon Watch, an NGO that was supposedly the source of an article titled “Ecuador to Sell a Third of Its Amazon Rainforest to Chinese Oil Companies” that has made the rounds on the Internet. In Smith’s eyes, the article was “an invention” since to this date no land has actually been sold. He also believes that even if China began buying up land for drilling, the targeted area is practically the size of a postage stamp:
And, for comparison, the Alberta tar sands oil fields are 1,500 times the size of the small area Ecuador opened up for oil exploration in the Yasuni. In comparison, too, last May Obama approved oil drilling in the Artic Sea, where 20 billion barrels of oil and 90 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are now more available due to the melting of Arctic ice sheets.
I am not exactly sure how much drilling there will be in Yasuni National Park once the extractive juggernaut gets a full head of steam but it is bigger than the state of Connecticut. This does not even speak to the damage that will be done to a priceless natural habitat that Correa pledged to preserve after becoming president.
To wrap up his case against the indigenous peoples, Smith draws a contrast between their “corporate-backed funders” such as the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and China, which “provides loans at low interest rates, does not intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, respects other countries’ paths of economic and political development, and encourages South-South cooperation as a counter to Western hegemony.” I got a chuckle out of this since the organization I was involved with in the 1980s that trained Nicaraguans how to use high technology tried to get some donations from Mott. The executive director Michael Urmann, who died in 2012, told me about after going up to see Mott in his penthouse he was forced to listen to this knucklehead lecture him about world politics for an hour. That was bad enough but when no money came out of the visit, he was fit to be tied. Our attitude toward Mott, the Ford Foundation or any of a number of liberal charities was if they gave us money, it was their contradiction, not ours. Since both of us were sixties radicals (he was a Maoist), that is the way we looked at it. I have no idea what Smith was doing in the sixties but his inability to think in these terms suggests not very much.
But in terms of Smith’s ebullient description of Chinese beneficence, inquiring minds would naturally have to look a bit closer at the economic data to determine whether China is interested in helping the poor, especially since strikes and protests there set records in 2015. Worker militancy has led to increased wages in recent years, hence leading to a devaluation of the yuan to make Chinese exports competitive with other Asian countries that pay even lower wages.
All this has consequences for Ecuador. With a devalued yuan, which Ecuador uses, exports to China produce less revenue. When you take into account that the price of its main export—oil—has dropped precipitously in the last year or so, the consequences are drastic. Less money is available for social spending, the cornerstone of the oil-lubricated Bolivarian revolution. There is also the pain of increased prices on imported goods, including food and medicine. In other words, Ecuador is going through the same painful adjustment as other export-dependent Latin American countries and there is little that China or any other BRICS country can do to alleviate matters. We are dealing with a general crisis of capitalism, something that seems to escape the ideological framework of the Chessinturn. They have a classless notion of “development” that posits alignment with the BRICS as a kind of magic elixir that will vanquish poverty. Someone should remind these people that capitalism is a crisis-ridden system that has long outlived its usefulness even when it is practiced by someone who gave Julian Assange safe haven. We are for giving him safe haven but we are also for giving Ecuador’s Indians safe haven.
Finally, let me recommend what is probably the best left critique of Rafael Correa, an article by Marc Becker that appeared in the September-October 2009 Against the Current. Just to establish Becker’s bona fides, he is a major Mariategui scholar and considered to be a rock solid anti-imperialist. He even had the audacity to write an article putting the Shining Path in a relatively good light.
Titled “Ecuador: Left Turn?”, Becker’s article is quite even-handed. It refers to Correa as defending the idea that “socialism is both more just and efficient than capitalism” and promising to stand up for indigenous rights. However, the deeds don’t quite match the words as Becker points out:
Despite Correa’s attempts to mimic Chávez’s strategies, his policies are not nearly as radical as those of his counterpart. Of the many lefts that now rule over Latin America, Correa represents a moderate and ambiguous position closer to that of Lula in Brazil or the Concertación in Chile rather than Chávez’s radical populism in Venezuela or Morales’ Indigenous socialism in Bolivia.
The danger for popular movements is a populist threat with Correa exploiting the language of the left but fundamentally ruling from the right. It is in this context that a mobilized and engaged social movement, which historically in the Ecuadorian case means an Indigenous movement, remains important as a check on a personalistic and populist government. If Correa follows through on any of the hopeful promises of his government, it will be due to this pressure from below and to the left.
Correa continues to enjoy an unusually large amount of popular support in a region which recently has greeted its presidents with a high degree of good will only to have the populace quickly turn on its leaders who inevitably rule against their class interests. Chávez (and, to a certain extent, Evo Morales in Bolivia) have bucked this trend by retaining strong popular support despite oligarchical attempts to undermine their governments.
Correa is a charismatic leader, but in the Ecuadorian setting charisma does not secure longevity. José María Velasco Ibarra, Ecuador’s classic caudillo and populist, was president five times, but was removed from four of those when he failed to follow through on his promises to the poor. In recent history, Abdalá Bucaram was perhaps the most charismatic leader, but he lasted only seven months in power after winning the 1996 elections. Charisma alone does not assure political stability.
In the wake of Ecuador quickly running through ten chief executives in 10 years, Correa appears positioned to remain in power for 10 years if he can maintain his current coalition to win reelection in 2013. Correa has also said that it will take 80 years for his “citizens’ revolution” to change the country.
In quickly moving Ecuador from being one of Latin America’s most unstable countries to maintaining a strong hold over executive power, Correa appears to have been able to mimic Chávez’s governing style. Whose interests this power serves, and particularly whether it will be used to improve the lives of historically marginalized subalterns, remains an open question.
Needless to say, the drop in the price of oil since 2009, when this article was written, renders the question of enjoying an “unusually large amount of popular support” rather moot.
February 19, 2016
Maybe my affection for the film “Love Me” flows from of my marriage to a Turk and the sympathy I feel for the Ukrainian people maligned by the conspiracy-minded Putinite left but this remarkable one-night stand love story between a Turkish man and a Ukrainian woman is by far the best narrative film I have seen in 2016. If my film reviews have resonated with you over the years, this should be recommendation enough but let me now proceed to fill in the details. Unfortunately there is no trailer with English subtitles but this should give you a feel for it.
Made in 2013 by a husband and wife directing team that happens to be a Turkish man and a Ukrainian woman named Mehmet Bahadir Er and Maryna Gorbach, it is both a love story and a penetrating social analysis of today’s Ukraine and Turkey with all their foibles. As is often the case, such a film can tell you more than a thousand pages of social science hot off the Verso or Historical Materialism press. If you want your sociology presented as if a Louis CK routine, this is just the film for you.
I say Louis CK deliberately since two years ago his FX show featured a romance between him and a female neighbor visiting from Hungary who did not speak a word of English. Love conquered all? Well, not really. This is the dark world of Louis CK and for that matter the Gorbatch/Bahadir film.
In the opening scene, we meet Cemal (Ushan Çakir) who is the guest of honor in an engagement party on a boat in the waters near Istanbul to celebrate an arranged marriage with a woman his mother has found for him. With a forlorn look on his face indicating that his heart is not in an arranged marriage, a friend tells him that he looks more like he is at his circumcision than an engagement party.
Wearing a lascivious grin, Cemal’s uncle tells him that he has a big surprise for him. Sounding as if he has seen one two many Jude Apatow films, the uncle has organized a bachelor party in Ukraine. He, his cronies, and Cemal will spend a weekend there in what amounts to a sex tour. As he sits on the bus headed north looking even more glum than at the engagement party, Cemal is obviously accompanying his uncle out of respect—but not for Ukrainian women.
The tour guide on the bus preps them for the weekend by amusing them with a story about how Ukraine ended up with all the beautiful women. Once upon a time there was a psychopathic Viking king who hated ugly woman. On his way south, he stormed into Ukraine. Fearing him, all the ugly women jumped into the Black Sea and swam to Turkey. The beautiful ones remained in Ukraine.
Hearing this story made all the men on the bus crack up except for Cemal who looked more dejected than ever. We don’t know much about him at this point but we might assume that he is not comfortable with the rampant sexism that pervades Turkish society.
The film now cuts to Sasha (Viktoria Spesivtseva), a beautiful woman who is about to have her pubic hair removed at a salon. Although she tells the woman about to apply the treatment that it is to please her husband, we eventually learn that she is merely a woman kept by a Russian oligarch married to another woman. Later that night when she calls him on her IPhone, he tells her to call back because he is with his wife.
One slap in the face from the oligarch too many persuades Sasha to go out and get laid. She puts on her sexiest dress and goes to the disco cum brothel where Cemal’s entourage has begun partying. It is understood that the women hanging out there are like those in the classic Cole Porter song:
Love for sale
Appetizing young love for sale
Love that`s fresh and still unspoiled
Love that`s only slightly soiled
Love for sale
Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who`s prepared to pay the price
For a trip to paradise?
After Sasha tells the bartender that she is looking for a foreigner, he nods at Cemal whose sense of propriety and respect for women might have made him wary of a one-night stand but as the crude joke told by the tour guide might indicate, the beautiful women are in Ukraine and Sasha most of all.
Once back in Sasha’s luxurious apartment, obviously paid for by the oligarch, she directs him to take a shower sounding more like a physician about to give someone an examination rather than a partner in a shared intimacy. It is clear that at this point, Cemal means nothing to her except a cheap fuck. Like many newer films, this one has the audacity to demonstrate that women can be dominant if not predatory.
With ambivalence about the tryst being trumped by desire, Cemal prepares himself for sex. But just before the couple gets it on, Sasha’s mother rings the buzzer. Once inside, she tells her mother that granny has wandered off from the hospital where she is an Alzheimer’s patient. Since this has happened before, they know where to look—inside Kiev’s subway stations. As Cemal and Sasha go off in search of the grandmother, they begin to see each other as more than a quick fuck. With his willingness to become a helpmate rather than a sex object, she sees him in a different light than other Turkish men who are well-known in the city as predatory creeps.
Considering that there is almost no dialog to speak of between the lead actors, it is amazing how much emotion can be conveyed through their facial expressions and their body language. In a way, it is another Ukrainian film breakthrough like “The Tribe” that was cast entirely by deaf mutes in Kiev. Films like this prove that silent films are still worth watching, just as long as they aren’t empty genre imitations like “The Artist”.
If the Turks come to Kiev one rung up on the economic ladder, Sasha’s mother still considers them beneath her. She refers to Cemal as a “wog” and questions her daughter’s judgment. She also is worried about Sasha’s future since she is reaching the point when marriage is out of the question.
The relations between Turks and people from the former Soviet Union is charged with national and class contradictions. For many Ukrainians, there is nostalgia for the way things were including the disco where Sasha and Cemal meet. It was once a theater and like many places in the post-Soviet era, it has become degraded by the cash nexus with everything having a price including a woman’s body.
Given the tensions between Turkey and the former USSR today, the sex tourism business might be a thing of the past except for Ukraine of course. It is as bitter a rival of the Kremlin as Turkey. Given the complex social and economic connections between the two countries, the sex tours will likely remain as a source of foreign currency at the same time it drains the sense of national pride.
Suffice it to say that Sasha and Cemal’s affection and respect for each other develops as the story unfolds. With little interest in making a typical Hollywood date movie confection, the directors stick to the realities that such people would face in real life. This is to their credit.
Not very long ago, Ukrainians formed vigilante bands to deal with sex tourists:
An anti-prostitution group in Ukraine has attacked a Turkish citizen who had called for a prostitute by phone.
The group, known as Defacto, went and attacked the man at his address after he called a fake phone number for prostitutes that had been left by the group in a public place.
Defacto, which fights against sex tourism in Ukraine, forced the unidentified Turkish man to wander around streets in Kyiv in a bathrobe with a placard saying “Stop Sex Tourism” on it.
Given the miserable economic conditions that continue under Poreshenko, it is likely that such vigilantes will have their work cut out for them as desperate women do anything to survive. The “world’s oldest profession” was always something sustained by hunger and desperation. Until Ukraine has a genuine revolution that rids the country of oligarchs wrapped in either the Ukrainian or Russian flag, that is likely to continue.
When I was doing some research on the film, I discovered that there was another one with the same name that also dealt with sexual commodification in Ukraine, this time a documentary made a year later about “mail order bride” tours organized by an outfit called “A Foreign Affair”, whose website name reverberated in the film’s title: http://www.loveme.com/.
For many men, computer dating or the traditional dating done at singles bars does not seem to work (as well it wouldn’t). So the founder of this business, a guy named John Adams who married a Russian woman named Tanya under similar auspices, had the brainstorm to create a service that does not differ qualitatively from Turkish sex tourism. It connects men in places like the USA and Australia (the homeland of some of the characters featured in the documentary) to Ukrainian women. The men are desperate for love and the woman are desperate for economic security. Marriage to a man they often cannot possibly love (the film will demonstrate the hard choices imposed on the women) is the only escape route from a country sinking into the abyss all about them.
The Communist Manifesto was abundantly clear about the “sacred” bonds:
On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.
As I watched the documentary cringing about 75 percent of the time, I was reminded of how capitalism fails so many people who through no fault of their own cannot even find a way to put together even a “bourgeois marriage”. The men on the tour are either born “losers”, too busy to make the dating scene or simply lack the social networks to meet the opposite sex. Capitalism has little interest in whether you can find love. It is only interested in how your labor power can be used to produce commodities. The proliferation of computer dating sites geared to Christians or even Bernie Sanders supporters for that matter is a sign that the social system is dysfunctional.
One hundred years ago, you lived in a small town and knew everybody. Or, if you moved to the city you would likely belong to a church or a social club where introductions would be made. In our brave new world of high rises and 50-hour work weeks, it is a miracle that anybody can find love. When I see people in my own building never in the company of another human being and cuddling or cooing to their dog in the elevator, I feel for them. I only hoped for socialism. They hoped for a happy marriage. Who feels the keener disappointment? A good question.
Nearly 20 years ago I posted my tenth film review (I am up to 931 at this point—I drink champagne when I hit 1000) for a documentary called “Unmade Beds”. Unlike the two above that can been on Amazon streaming, this one is likely unavailable except maybe as a DVD from a research library. If you can get your hands on it, it will be a powerful experience.
I am posting my review since it is so close in spirit to the films considered above. I should add that although the Turkish-Ukrainian film is available on Amazon, I strongly urge you to take a look at the Film Movement website that sent it to me as a screener. Film Movement is one of those alternatives to Netflix I wrote about on CounterPunch and well worth your time: http://www.filmmovement.com/
“Unmade Beds” is a riveting portrait of two men and two women living in the greater New York area who rely on personal ads in order to meet the opposite sex. Their tales of woe are delivered with a self-deprecating and mordant wit that make for an grimly entertaining documentary.
The first person we meet is a Jersey City Italian-American woman in her forties who is up-front about her purposes. She makes $2000 a month, but her expenses come to $3000. So she is not interested in romance, but in balancing her checkbook. She tells one man that he will have to pay her $100 for their date, even if there is no sex involved. The money is supposed to pay just for her time and trouble. She is totally without illusions. She says that she can get “dick” whenever she wants. Men find her sexy, even though she is starting to worry about some bulges appearing around her midsection. “Where did that come from,” she tells the camera as she eyes herself in the mirror in a skimpy bra and panties, while grabbing a fold of her flesh in her fingers. “I woke up one morning and it was just there.” She is proud of her ability to attract men, but has no use for men who can’t deliver some cash. Younger men have been following her around lately because they want to learn about sex and love from an older and wiser woman. She blows them off because there is nothing in it for her. If they want an education, let them pay her tuition.
We then meet another Italian-American, a 40 year old man who lives in a very traditional ethnic neighborhood in one of the outer boroughs where it is considered abnormal to be a “bachelor.” He spits the word out and tells us how much he hates it. He is cursed to be a mere 5’4″ tall and rails against all the baby-boomer women who demand that their men be taller than them. He describes the agony he has to go through when he has to confess his height to a woman while setting up their first date. He is an only child and visits to his parents in Florida have become hellish as they broach the subject of his bachelorhood and their need for grandchildren one more time. He resolves to visit them only at Christmas time in the future. While in a neighborhood deli, he overhears an old woman referring to him in Italian as a “fag” because he is unmarried. Knowing Italian, he is offended and considers defending himself. He changes his mind at the last minute because it is not socially acceptable to yell profanities at an 80 year old woman. As a last resort, he goes to a dating counselor. He looks into the camera and wonders why he is spending his hard-earned money on learning about life. You shouldn’t have to pay for that, he complains.
The next character we meet is a 28 year old woman who has moved to NYC from the Midwest. She is 220 pounds and states that fact openly in her ads. She is a professional woman with conventional attitudes who seems fairly oblivious about her appearance. If anything, she is overly critical about the appearance of her dates. One man was balding and at least 225 pounds, she huffs. Like most Manhattanites, she considers a mate to be part of making it. It is a sign of success. Her big fear is that she only has two years to go until she is thirty, when her chances will be over. Notwithstanding her weight, she has a rather active social life constructed through the personal ads. Her last affair was with a cab-driver who was into S&M. She laughs about their first sexual experience. She brought him back to her apartment, where he opened an overnight case filled with whips, handcuffs, leather masks and a French maid’s uniform. After agreeing to be the dominant one, she discovers that she sort of enjoyed the sex although it wasn’t exactly her cup of tea. She is crushed after he leaves her. “Can you imagine being dumped by a submissive,” she tells the camera.
The final character is a man in his fifties. He is a classic case of arrested development. His attitudes toward women haven’t changed since the 1960s and 70s when he only went out with beautiful women, like belly dancers and Playboy waitresses. He shows photos of himself and some of these women. He is dressed in clothing straight out of “Saturday Night Fever.” He doesn’t seem to realize that life has moved on and that he has gotten older. He escorts the camera crew through his apartment which is furnished in a garishly “erotic” manner with dim lighting and nude sculptures. “My apartment spells sex. If a woman doesn’t like the looks of it, she can take off.” The only problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize that he, like the furnishings, has a dated and seedy quality. Sometimes the brute realities sink in on him, such as the time he is charged for a senior citizen’s admission at a movie theater. “Can you imagine that? She thought I was 65?” Anybody looking at his weathered appearance will of course understand the ticket seller’s mistake. The only thing that makes this character at all sympathetic is that he describes his personal ads hell with a masochistic relish. He describes taking a woman out to a fancy restaurant on their initial date where the bill came to $190. She was a judge and spent the entire dinner telling him why she wouldn’t see him again. She moved in elite social circles and he wouldn’t be appropriate for her. What would you expect from a judge, he comments bitterly.
I answered a personal ad myself once. The woman who had placed it was Kerri Jacobs, a high-profile journalist who wrote for Metropolitan magazine on architecture. She has moved on to New York Magazine, where she is a regular columnist on the same topic. New York Magazine is one of the prime locations for personal ads, especially for conventional New Yorkers. She had placed her ad in the New York Review of Books, a locale for the more intellectually pretentious. Since she was an extremely good-looking young woman, I couldn’t exactly figure out why she had placed an ad. After a few moments, I figured it out completely. Nobody was good enough for her. The ads were supposed to help weed out “losers,” as she put it. I didn’t even want to find out if I was a winner and never called her back.
What dates like these remind me of is job interviews. Everything is riding on your initial appearance. Not only do you have to look right, you also have to find the words that the interviewer wants to hear. I had to put up with this nonsense when I worked on Wall Street. Why would I or any sensitive person have to put up with it in affairs of the heart? One of the reasons that Columbia University was such a deliverance for me was that I would no longer have to put up with the stupid questions of people in the Personnel Office. “Why do you think Paine-Webber and you are suitable for each other?” “I don’t know. The thought of working at another one of these Wall Street dumps makes me sick to my stomach. I just need the money to pay for my rent, scholarly Marxist books and African music CD’s.”
The unstated, and therefore more powerful, message of this movie is that the cash nexus distorts everything. Everything in capitalist society, including people and nature, are seen from the point of view of their exchange value. This colors everything. The way we speak reflects this alienated existence. We speak of the “investment” we have in an intimate relationship. We are worried whether our “assets” are to be found in our appearance, like Richard Gere’s, or in our intelligence or wit, like Woody Allen’s (well, from 25 years ago anyhow).
Director Nicholas Barker, who hails from England, allows the stories of the four subjects to speak for themselves, but the points they all make cry out for a different way of human beings relating to each other. There are some very effective cinematic means he uses to enhance this theme. In an early scene in the film, we see an Edward Hopper poster on somebody’s living-room wall. Hopper is the poet laureate of urban loneliness. His figures are always depicted in isolation from one another. Barker cuts between this Hopper poster and shots of real New Yorkers sitting at luncheon counters or staring out their windows. New York never looked more Hopper-esque than it does in this film.
The film score is also very effective. He alternates between Charlie Mingus big band sounds, which usually accompany one of his characters on their way in a taxi cab to a date, and minimalist electronic music when they sit home alone after the disappointing evening.
There is an epidemic of loneliness in America. The Communist Manifesto hails the process of urbanization that destroys traditional societies. We are accustomed to grieving the loss of peasant villages as this takes place. Another loss that people have not been able to connect to the ravages of capitalism is the breakdown of our social lives. The vast impersonal cities where corporations are located serve the interests of the employer, but make no provision for the social life of the working people. They drift from bar to health clubs in search of the significant other. They blame themselves when they can’t make the right connection. Some day all these poor souls will wake up to the reality that capitalism is the cause of their loneliness and not their height, weight or income.