As opening night of the 2016 Socially Relevant Film Festival nears, I want to share my take on three outstanding films that I was asked to judge as a member of the documentary awards jury. (An earlier review can be read here.)
The first is “Beneath the Olive Tree”, a film about the Greek Civil War focused on a group of women now in their eighties who were exiled to island prisons where they were tortured by the former cops and soldiers of the pro-Nazi regime that the revolutionary anti-fascist movement overthrew during WWII. The civil war began in 1946 after Churchill and Truman decided that the left in Greece that had lost thousands of lives in struggle were not to be trusted in the reshaping of the country as a NATO vassal. As the film states in the outset, many of the problems facing Greece today are rooted in the trauma suffered just seventy years ago.
The title of the film derives from journals that women prisoners buried near an olive tree during the time that they were imprisoned on Trikeri island. Filmmaker Stavroula Toska, whose mother was a child during this period, never understood why she never spoke about how it impacted her. It was only when she learned that her grandmother had been one of the imprisoned women that the pained silence became understandable. A key part of the drama of this wrenching documentary is how Toska’s mother managed to come to terms with the trauma and transcend it in the course of telling her daughter about her memories.
As soon as the allies decided that the popular forces stood in the way of consolidating an anti-Communist but “democratic” Europe, they imposed a regime that differed little from the one that had been overthrown. Leftists were forced to sign a statement renouncing Communism, even if they were not party members. Like the Nazis, the rightwing government favored by Churchill cast a wide net often jailing young people who had simply carried supplies to the guerrillas who were often just the sons, daughters or spouses of those fightine.
All of the women interviewed in the film demonstrate the kind of unrepentant belief in social justice that led them to support the resistance 70 years ago and today. Ironically, Alex Tsipras, who was the only party leader in Greece willing to speak about the repression, told Toskas that Syriza supports a new textbook for Greek students that would reveal the great crimes of Truman and Churchill’s Vichy style dictatorship that are barely discussed in high school. With Germany playing the role today that England played in 1946, it is open to question whether Tsipras can do anything to overturn the country’s virtual colonial status except mandate a more truthful history textbook—if that.
Towards the end of the film the women interviewed in the film tour Trikeri island and reminisce about life in a concentration camp used by a “democracy”. It evokes the tour that Armenians took in eastern Anatolia in the very fine documentary “100 Years Later” that is also being shown as part of SR 2016. Put both on your calendar for an enlightening take on how people maintain the spirit of resistance against the barbarisms of the 20th century.
“Beneath the Olive Tree” can be seen at Bowtie Cinema, Wednesday 3/16 6 PM. Full schedule information is here: http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/.
When I used to visit my wife up in Albany when she was a graduate student, I always had trouble wrapping my head around the architecture of downtown Albany as the bus entered the city. The soulless architecture had a certain fascist redolence that was in keeping with the cold and foreboding university architecture itself, an expression of 20th century modernism that haunted capital cities in the USA, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia alike. It was an attempt to project the strength and permanence of regimes that in two out of three cases turned out to be fairly short-lived. Our best hope is that the third will join them in the dustbin of history before too long.
The government center known as Empire State Plaza in Albany that dominates the downtown was one of the gifts that Nelson Rockefeller bestowed on the city during the time he was Governor. This “liberal” Republican decided that the city’s south side with its largely Italian population was a slum that had to be condemned and removed. Using the same dictatorial powers that Robert Moses made infamous, Rockefeller used eminent domain to condemn neighborhoods that hardly matched the descriptions the governor used.
In a series of interviews with people who lived on Albany’s south side up until their buildings began being demolished in 1965, we learn in Mary Paley’s “The Neighborhood that Disappeared” that this was a community united by food, music, religion and above all a sense of solidarity that has largely evaporated in most urban settings. As one interviewee put it, if an elder sitting on a stoop saw a kid stepping out of line, he’d report it to his or her parents. Nowadays it is a cop’s bullet that enforces discipline.
Rockefeller got the idea for the complex after Princess Beatrix visited the city. Afterwards, the governor rued that “the city did not look as I think the Princess thought it was going to”. So what was it supposed to look like? Rockefeller believed it should look more like Brasilia, another one of those cities like Ankara and Stalingrad that incorporated an esthetic that had more in common with a cinder block.
As might be expected, Albany’s mayor Erastus Corning was a Democrat who promised the residents that he would resist their urban removal and then folded like a two-dollar suitcase afterwards (besides making millions as a businessman benefiting from the project). All of the wonderful little Italian bakeries and restaurants were demolished, replaced by an underground city filled with McDonalds restaurants and the like. In a July 2, 1976 article for the NY Times, architecture critic Paul Goldberger summarized his view of the Empire State Plaza as follows:
Ultimately, of course, one realizes that the entire mall complex is not so much a vision of the future as of the past. The ideas here were dead before they left the drawing board, and every design decision, from the space allocations to the over-all concept, emerges from an outdated notion of what modern architecture, not to mention modern government, should stand for.
The mall may look like Buck Rogers, but it is important to remember that the Buck Rogers comic-book visions were all drawn decades ago. Now they have become a comfortable part of our popular past, and it is only a tragically misguided kind of thinking that could turn them into icons for the present.
Truer words were never written.
“The Neighborhood that Disappeared” can be seen at Bowtie Cinema, Friday 3/18 6PM. Full schedule information is here: http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/.
At the beginning of Davison Mudzingwa’s “Lost Tongue”, we learn that of the 60,000 languages now being spoken today, half of them will be extinct by the end of the century, something that might evoke nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders if you identify with the crypto-fascist mindset that gave birth to the Empire State Plaza
The language threatened in this documentary is N!uu, a language spoken by the Khomani-San people from the Kalahari region of South Africa, commonly known as the Bushmen. They predate all other peoples in the country with evidence of their tools being excavated from a site in KwaZulu-Natal that is 44,000 years old.
I am not exactly sure how to pronounce N!uu but the language is replete with the “clicking” sound we associate with the Zulu and Xhosa languages for which it possibly served as a base. As is the case with most indigenous peoples, the San were forcibly assimilated by the Boers and today speak Afrikaner. Except for elders like Ouma Katrina, there are few who grew up speaking San. Determined that the language continue, she set up a rudimentary school and enlisted a young San woman named Helena Steenkamp to become her apprentice. As is the case with African-Americans, the victims of white oppression ended up with the surnames of their oppressors.
As someone who has written fairly extensively about American Indian issues, the language question is very close to my heart. If genocide is defined by the UN includes the systematic destruction of a people’s culture—including its language—there is little doubt that all those who believe in human rights should identify with and support the efforts of people like Ouma Katrina and Helena Steenkamp.
Another thing worth noting is that the principals involved in making this film are black South Africans who obviously understand such a need as reflected in the statement that can be found on the film’s website:
Imagine if you could not speak your own language and all you do is speak the language of the people who once persecuted and exploited your community.
Imagine if there were only three people in the entire community or world who could speak the language and you are not one of them.
Imagine if these people were elderly, reaching the end of their lives but there is only a small window for you to reclaim your true identity and history and unlock the hidden secret clicks of your ancient language. The language of your forefathers.
Fellow human beings, this is the dire situation facing the Khomanl San – a deeply marginalized indigenous minority in South Africa who centuries have endured slavery, colonialism, land dispossession, persecution and cultural genocide. Along with this untold suffering, their ancient language — N!uu — underwent systematic attack from colonialists who forced them to speak their own language — Afrikaans.
As is so often the case today, documentary filmmakers are the conscience of a society and a true vanguard in political terms. With young Black South Africans making the effort on behalf of South Africa’s most downtrodden, there are reasons to hold out hope that a better future is possible in a country that was once a shining example of how to struggle for social justice.
“The Neighborhood that Disappeared” can be seen at Bowtie Cinema, Thursday 3/17 10PM. Full schedule information is here: http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/.