In late November, I wrote about some excellent films featured in the 2016 New York African Diaspora International Film Festival. New Yorkers will get a chance to see a follow up screening of the “best of” films from the festival between January 13 to 15 including one called “Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories” that epitomizes the mission of the festival that began in 1993.
“Gurumbe” is a documentary that pays tribute to the Africans who were enslaved by the Spaniards in the early stages of capitalism but not transported to the Americas. Instead they were sold at the auction in Spanish cities to serve as household servants, factory workers and even assistant to fine artists. In the 1700s, for example, 10 percent of the population of Seville were slaves and another 5 percent were freemen. Whether slave or free, the Africans made an important contribution to Spanish culture, particularly to flamenco—an art form that has always been seen as exclusively a contribution from the Roma but that also owed much to uniquely African rhythms.
The film succeeds on two levels. For the mind, you get some of Spain’s top-flight anthropologists and historians who have been delving into the historical archives of cities like Seville to unearth evidence of the African legacy. Even more astonishingly, forensic anthropologists have discovered skeletons beneath the garbage dumps from hundreds of years ago that were certainly African. Since the slaves were not considered proper Catholics, they did not deserve a proper burial in the eyes of their masters. With some skulls bearing the marks of a lethal blow, you get proof of the deep-seated racism that persists until this day in Spain that the film’s creators and the experts they interviewed are determined to eradicate.
On another level, the film appeals directly to the heart through performances by a wide range of musicians who have mastered the flamenco style and particularly its likely African roots. There are also flamenco performances that have the rawness that are most often linked to the Roma sensibility but conceivably are testaments to the feelings of desolation and homesickness felt by slaves.
It was not just music where slaves left their mark. Juan de Pareja served as a slave in the studio of Diego Velasquez, one of Spain’s greatest artists, carrying out menial tasks. But when he showed an artistic ability, Velasquez gave him the opportunity to develop his talent and finally gave him his freedom in 1650. His painting “The Calling of St. Matthew” is exhibited in El Prado while Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant is at the Met.
The Calling of St. Matthew
Portrait of Juan de Pareja
The film is directed by Miguel Ángel Rosales, an anthropologist focused on Andalusia. His work is a labor of love that I can’t praise highly enough. The film is not only a great introduction to Spain’s past but a cry of protest against the racism that has been infecting Europe in the past few years. For many Spaniards, the boat people coming from war-torn and economically devastated Sub-Saharan Africa are viewed as a pestilence. The film will serve to demonstrate the debt owed to such peoples, including from Santander Bank that was the product of a merger historically with a bank that derived every penny from the slave trade.
“Watani: My Homeland” is a film that touches more directly on the refugee crisis. This is a forty-minute documentary that is being considered for an Academy Award alongside “The White Helmets”. Like “The White Helmets”, it is a response to the hell that has been visited on the people of East Aleppo by the Baathist tyranny and its foreign allies.
The film begins in East Aleppo where we meet Abu Ali, who is an officer of the Free Syrian Army and whose wife and four children literally dodge mortal shells, machine gun bullets and barrel bombs in their daily routines. The children have become shockingly inured to the violence as they even play games with toy weapons that mimic the real fighting taking place a stone’s throw from the hollowed-out buildings that surround them.
Abu Ali is frank about the prospects awaiting him, his family and his comrades in East Aleppo. Has he destroyed their lives in a futile attempt to change a brutal system whose brutality reached deeper levels of depravity as the war wore on? By the time the film was being made, it was too late to turn back the clock.
After Abu Ali is abducted by ISIS, his family becomes eligible for refugee status in Germany. They move to a small village that is populated by old people who are anxious to receive new and younger neighbors to keep it alive. This is a factor that probably explains the material basis for Angela Merkel’s specious humanitarianism.
The film was made by Marcel Mettelsiefen, a German citizen, who has been covering the Arab Spring since 2011 and began reporting from within Syria in April 2011. Since then he has filmed and photographed within Syria more than twenty-five times. He deserves a medal for risking his life to make such a powerful film.
Fortunately, much of the material that make up the film was shown originally under the title “Children of Aleppo” on a PBS Frontline documentary (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/children-of-syria/) that I recommend both watching and circulating far and wide. It will go a long way in countering the vicious propaganda campaign directed at the White Helmets and even the seven-year-old Bana Alabed that would have you believe that they are al-Qaeda agents.
Despite the horrors that took place yesterday in Istanbul yesterday, the city is capable of great warmth and solidarity, even extended to the street cats that are paid tribute to in the wonderful documentary “Kedi” (Turkish for cat) that opens on February 10th at the Metrograph theater in New York.
Unlike most cities, Istanbul has not been reduced to sterile concrete edifices. There are many nooks and crannies where cats can remain feral but amenable to interacting with human beings in a variety of ways but on their own terms. We see cats departing from their makeshift homes each day and making the rounds of nearby restaurants and shops where Turks are all too happy to share food with one of god’s creatures. What makes the film so effective is that the director has devised a camera rig that follows the cat around on its peregrinations at its eye-level. We see things from the cat’s perspective and also see it from behind as it circumnavigates restaurant tables, fishermen’s wharves, back alleys, trees, rooftops and other places where the cat feels at home.
And to top it off, we hear from Istanbul’s cat lovers who combine humor, self-deprecation and the uniquely Turkish sensibility that makes the country’s current troubles seem such a curse.
There’s a personal angle here worth mentioning. My wife’s brother-in-law moved to New York about a year ago to get away from the country’s troubles. He brought along with him a female cat named Boncuk (Turkish for jewel and pronounced bonjuk) that he spotted on the street in Istanbul and adopted. She has the supreme diffidence that makes cats so special as well as a beauty that will make her name seem so appropriate.
Moving from cats to dogs, I urge you to see “Stray Dog”, a documentary about a man who appears at first blush to belong to Donald Trump’s “basket of deplorables” but becomes something much more—far much more—as Debra Granik’s film unfolds. Granik’s subject is Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a Vietnam veteran who manages a trailer park in rural southern Missouri and who is married to a Mexican woman–a recent immigrant. His favorite pastimes seem to be driving his Harley-Davidson to memorial meetings for military veterans and sitting around with other veterans in the trailer park swapping tales about their past and ruminating on the miseries of old age, including the need for Viagra and dentures. Despite his advanced years, Hall is a formidable character with tattoos and garb that are distinctly Hell’s Angel fashion-wise. He looks exactly like the kind of person you would avoid if you ran into him on the way to a peace demonstration.
Granik ran into him in southern Missouri when she was casting for her film “Winter’s Bone” that is about the area’s hillbilly drug dealers. He was cast as type but in the course of making the film, she learned that appearances can be deceiving.
Hall, unlike many Trump voters, was open to marrying a Mexican immigrant and even making a home for her twin teenaged sons that he and his wife will be bringing up to the trailer park for a new life in the USA in the course of the film. He is also no war hawk, saying offhandedly at one point that it is the rich man who makes war and the poor who fight it.
Hall knows all about poverty, growing up the son of a cotton-picking sharecropper family. He joined the army to escape poverty and went to Vietnam for two tours of duty. He brought back terrible memories of the war that wake him up on many nights yelling in horror. In the press notes for “Stray Dog”, Granik explains her motivation in making such a film:
Stray Dog’s story is also about a Midwestern workingman negotiating the convulsions of our times – gun culture, unemployment and underemployment in recession-era America. Why does a relative or a neighbor join a militia group? How do you advise a grandchild who can’t make ends meet working two full-time jobs? When does boredom, frustration or lack of opportunities lead to changing the receivables on an AK-47?
As the Vietnam generation grows older, its history is being re-written, and is at risk of being whitewashed. Stray Dog is a warrior who sees the links between his struggles and those of today’s soldiers. He and some of his fellow vets can show us what PTSD is like many years later, long after the headlines fade. Now we have a name for the way it changes the brains of soldiers. We know that it’s one of the costs of war, and we know this mainly because people like Ron have taken the risk to tell us about it.
“Stray Dog” can be seen on Amazon streaming and is well worth the $3.99 to see a memorable portrait of a man who defies stereotypical thinking.
If you like me are filled with loathing over those BP ads that flood Sunday morning TV about how things have “returned to normal” in the waters off of Louisiana, I recommend “After the Spill” that documents the permanent damage to the wildlife and nature in general.
It is an indictment of Louisiana politicians who are all too willing to destroy the lives of fisherman and the general public in order to “save jobs”, the cry of the state’s venal politician Bobby Jindal and lesser-known legislators who are in the back pocket of oil companies.
Louisiana is literally being deluged by the Gulf of Mexico as a consequence of unwise “development” that removed the natural barriers to flooding. There are men and women of conscience in Louisiana willing to take on the despoilers, including John Barry whose expert commentary is heard throughout the film.
Barry is a historian who wrote about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that had as much of an impact on driving working people to the north as the Jim Crow system. Because of his expertise on water, he became a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East (SLFPAE) , the levee board overseeing the New Orleans metro area on the east bank of the Mississippi River. On July 24, 2013, SLFPAE sued Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, Chevron and 94 other oil, gas, and pipeline companies for their role in destroying Louisiana’s coastline. Barry’s expertise was reflected in the suit and he became its major spokesman. Governor Bobby Jindal fought against the lawsuit and a federal judge sharing his pro-corporate views dismissed it. It is now under appeal and obviously faces an uphill battle given a Trump White House.
Like “Stray Dog”, “After the Spill” can be seen on Amazon streaming and other VOD services.
Opening on January 20th at the Village East in New York, “They Call Us Monsters” is a look at three juvenile offenders trapped inside a prison system that now treats all offenders as adults no matter how young they are. The film shows one eleven-year old boy on trial for murder. The three youths in “They Call Us Monsters” are older but certainly not as capable as adults in acting responsibly, especially when they live in neighborhoods that are dominated by gang warfare. Even when they are released, as one of the three is, it is a struggle to avoid recidivism especially when you are homeless and unable to find work.
Into their world comes a filmmaker named Gilbert Cowan who is one of the documentary’s producers. His goal is to draw them into a screenplay writing class that will result in a film that they help write. Since they are facing long prison sentences, there is little hope that such an exercise will prepare them for work after release or even whether it will help make life behind bars more tolerable. Mostly, they take part in the exercise with a healthy degree of skepticism and find it mostly as a diversion from the boredom and despair of prison life.
Like Cowan, director Ben Lear (the son of Norman Lear) is a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition that teaches a weekly writing class within the high-security Compound of Sylmar Juvenile Hall and mentors former juvenile offenders.
Guess where this reactionary practice of treating 15-year olds as adults come from. You guessed it. It was part of Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill. Along with the draconian mandatory sentences, putting young people in prison for long stretches has cost our country billions of dollars and destroyed the lives of young people and their families as well. An article in Atlantic Monthly pointed out that a year in a New Jersey prison costs $7000 more a year than a year at Princeton. And a forty year prison terms costs far more than 4 years at Princeton.
Every so often, actually every day of the year, I am reminded of the irrationalities of the capitalist system. Leave it to the son of the good Norman Lear to work on such a project that fights for sanity and to make a film relevant to his humanitarian ideals.
(Screening information on “They Call Us Monsters” nationally can be seen here.
Heavy screening duties in early December prevented me from seeing “First Lady of the Revolution” until after it had finished its run in New York. This is a documentary about Henrietta Boggs, who became the wife of Costa Rica’s President José ‘Don Pepe’ Figueres in 1941. Boggs is still alive at the age of 98.
The film is a combination of her personal story and Costa Rican politics that was tangled to say the least. Bogg’s account of her husband’s political legacy was decidedly critical even though it is generally positive. I invite you to see it if becomes available as VOD (I will give you a head’s up) but it might be useful to consider my analysis of what happened in Costa Rica when Boggs was First Lady:
Another important element of the particularism of the modern Costa Rican state and society was the events surrounding the Presidency of Rafael Calderon in the 1940s. Calderon was a Roosevelt-styled reformer who won the election in 1942 and proceeded to institute a number of progressive social measures including Social Security, a first for Central America. Like Roosevelt, he instituted many of these measures from the top down and had no intention of allowing the working-class or peasantry to go beyond the boundaries this caudillo had set.
He had two powerful allies in this enterprise: the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of Costa Rica. The CP had a substantial base among banana plantation workers and under the influence of the popular front threw its full support behind Calderon in the same way its sister party supported FDR.
Calderon’s development model was based on export agriculture and for the most part had goal to undermine the power of the traditional oligarchies. While Costa Rica’s bourgeoisie was not as vicious as El Salvador’s, it still had no intention of allowing full-scale agrarian reform.
Calderon’s paternalism and his development model alienated much of the country’s emerging urban petty-bourgeoisie. They preferred a more modern capitalism that was diversified and less oriented to export agriculture. Furthermore, Calderon, like many of Central America’s traditional caudillos, was corrupt. The corruption was not as blatant as Somoza’s but it was just enough to anger the urban petty-bourgeoisie.
This most politically advanced members of this modernizing middle-class started a think tank called the “Center for the Study of National Problems” in 1948. This think tank was sharply anti-imperialist and thought that Calderon’s export-oriented model ceded too much to the United Fruit Company and other foreign companies. They produced studies that fed into popular discontent against Calderon.
They could be properly called “petty-bourgeois nationalists”, the formulation a list member used to falsely categorize the Sandinistas. They believed that Costa Rica’s main problem was domination by foreign and domestic capital, however they did not accept Marxist theory at all.
This group became allied with a grouping within the powerful bourgeois Democratic Party called Democratic Action. Its main leader was one Jose Figueres who was also a petty-bourgeois nationalist. Figureres’s group joined with the urban middle-class professionals in the Center for the Study of National Problems and created Costa Rica’s Social Democratic Party in 1948. This party also attracted the support of many of Costa Rica’s oligarchs who were nervous about Calderon’s populism and his Communist Party support.
When the anti-Calderon forces lost the elections in 1948, they launched a civil war that targeted many CP members. Martial law was declared and the junta threw its support to the Social Democratic rebellion. The civil war, while bloody, was inconclusive. The two factions eventually made peace and formed a coalition government. Neither of the contending class forces in the civil war were capable of achieving victory and the contradictions between them remained unresolved for the next several decades.
In order to mediate between themselves, they made a decision to suspend warfare and co-exist within parliamentary forms. They also decided to dissolve the army since they calculated that it could be counted on as a reliable ally to either faction. This act was unprecedented in Central American history. The irony, not at all understood by superficial Social Democrats like Village Voice writer Paul Berman, was that it required a bloody civil war to result in the abolition of the armed forces of Costa Rica.
Costa Rica managed to avoid the deep-going conflicts that marked the rest of Central America in the post WWII era largely because Calderon’s welfare state model was eventually accepted by both factions. This model allowed the bourgeoisie to coopt popular struggles. It has remained a successful counter-revolutionary strategy for some decades, but could break down in the 1990s as export agriculture-based economies continue their downward slide. Just as Sweden has begun to attack the welfare state measures that defined it, so has Costa Rica. What the political consequences of all this will be is difficult to say, but one thing is clear: Costa Rica’s exceptionalism is not permanent.