Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 5, 2017

Four documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Alone among all nations in the Western Hemisphere, Costa Rica has no armed forces. In 1948, the country dissolved the military as part of an ambitious social democratic program that included free medical care and education and that led many to describe it as the Sweden of Central America. And like Sweden, this social democratic showcase was midwifed by a bloody struggle. In Sweden, a general strike in Adalen the rightist government drowned in blood in 1931 so repulsed working people that they voted for the first in a string of socialist governments that defined the “Scandinavian Model”.

In Costa Rica, the decision to dissolve the military was made by a most extraordinary politician whose militias had defeated its rivals in a civil war that was so violent and protracted that you can still see bullet holes here and there in San Jose, the capital city.

All of this is detailed in a film titled “A Bold Peace” that is available from Bullfrog, a distributor of leading edge documentaries. Bullfrog’s primary market is institutional sales but it sells the DVD at a reduced price to activist and grass roots organization. For peace groups and the left, this is a film that would be of enormous value since it demonstrates the benefits that social democracy can deliver, even if they only became possible through armed struggle.

Rafael 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. He had two powerful allies in this enterprise: the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of Costa Rica.

Despite his left-populist goals, Calderon was paternalistic and corrupt, so much so that he antagonized the country’s emerging urban petty-bourgeoisie. They preferred a more modern capitalism that was diversified and less oriented to export agriculture. Calderon’s corruption was not as blatant as Somoza’s but it was just enough to anger many Costa Ricans who found a spokesman in Jose Figueres, the founder of a think-tank called the “Center for the Study of National Problems” in 1948. It 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 the popular discontent against Calderon.

Contrary to dogmatic Marxist formulas, Figueres had the support of the country’s oligarchs that felt threatened by Calderon’s reforms. In 1948, after Calderon lost the election to a candidate backed by Figueres, the legislature dominated by Calderon’s party overturned the results—thus leading to a civil war that cost the lives of 2,000 Costa Ricans. Fighting on Calderon’s side was the Communist Party, while Figueres’s forces were composed mostly of students and professionals funded by sectors of the bourgeoisie. Figueres sought not only to topple Calderon but to foment revolutions against the big three oligarchs in the region: Batista, Somoza and Trujillo. As should be obvious, attempts to pigeonhole Costa Rican history are doomed.

After taking power, Figueres vowed to continue with Calderon’s social programs and to deepen them under the new Social Democratic party he founded. From that point on, Costa Rica became the bête noire of American imperialism and its allies in the region. Despite the threat they posed, Figueres believed a regular army was not only unnecessary but an institution that could easily transform Costa Rica into just another oligarchy. Instead, he urged the creation of a citizens militia but only during a national emergency—an approach not that different from that of the founding fathers of the USA.

The film presents a detailed account of a period I am deeply familiar with, when President Óscar Arias sought to fend off Reagan’s counter-revolutionary attack on Nicaragua. He relied on diplomacy buttressed by close ties to Western European governments that at the time were much further to the left and that were actually providing most of the desperately needed material aid Nicaragua required.

The last twenty minutes or so of the film deal with the enormous pressures being put on Costa Rica to “get with the program”, which meant agreeing to free trade deals and even backing Bush’s invasion of Iraq as part of the “coalition of the willing”. Costa Rica went along with the first demand but rejected the second. As a willing partner in the Washington Consensus, Costa Rica is being transformed into a poster child for neoliberalism with Walmart stores replacing locally-owned small stores and five star hotels springing up everywhere to lure tourists.

One might quibble with the documentary’s embrace of the current president Luis Guillermo Solis whose election in 2014 had been hailed as if the country had become part of the “pink tide”. He announced, “We need to shift away from … a violence expressed in poverty, in inequality and in the utterly perverse form of corruption.” This is easier said than done unfortunately. Last August, The Tico Times, a Costa Rican daily, reported that his approval rating was lower than any president in the last 38 years.

This is a result of the same malaise affecting every agro-export country in the Global South as well as country’s failed experiment to become a high-tech manufacturing center. In 2014, Intel moved from Costa Rica to Asia in order to take advantage of lower wages. When Solis first began to emerge as an important politician a decade ago, he staked his reputation on opposing CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement just as Alex Tsipras campaigned against Eurozone austerity.

But on May 1, 2017 the Economist reported: “The administration of the president, Luis Guillermo Solís, is committed to capitalising on Costa Rica’s accession to the Dominican Republic-Central America Free-Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) and attracting new foreign investment.” One can accuse Solis of betraying his voters but no more so than any other pink tide politician. When enormous pressure is placed on a government by a worldwide capitalist system that is headed willy-nilly toward a confrontation with working people, it is impossible to expect much different from a left-centrist President. In covering the presidency of Oscar Arias, the film noted that the Costa Rican people were deeply opposed to the FSLN in Nicaragua even though it opposed Reagan’s military intervention even more. It is not out of the question that the Scandinavian model in Costa Rica will be sorely tested in the next big regional upsurge. Let’s hope that an army will not have been created in the meantime since it will surely be used against the people if they decide to take control of their own fate.

Opening at the Quad Cinema in New York on Wednesday, July 19th, and at Laemmle’s Music Hall Movie Theater in Los Angeles on Friday, July 28th, “Santoalla” is a crime melodrama that would have been beyond the ability of even the most imaginative screenwriter of fiction to dream. As is so often the case, documentaries are far more capable of revealing social dysfunction than any narrative film. Santolla, a tiny farming village in the mountains of the Galicia region of Spain, was at the most extreme edges of Spanish society and capable of forcing what appeared to be fairly normal people into a crucible with deadly results.

In 1997 Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, a Dutch husband and wife, came to Santoalla in order to live off the land—not unlike the people who moved to Vermont in the 1970s. They were not interested in starting a commune, only getting away from city life and working with their hands.

By that point, Santoalla had become a virtual ghost town. Like many Spanish farming villages, it had become a victim of competition from larger corporate-based agriculture. When the couple arrived, there was only one family still living there—the Rodríguezes, consisting of an 80-year old retired farmer, his wife and their two fortyish sons still living at home. The older son was the main producer, raising cattle and crops on the picturesque mountainside, while the other could only be relied upon for unskilled labor since he was developmentally disabled.

The village was a shambles. All of the houses were falling apart and the streets were littered with debris. That did not matter to the Rodríguez clan that embodied traditional values with a vengeance. When Martin Verfondern began tidying up the streets and repairing fences, they felt infringed upon and began to see the Dutch couple as invaders.

To some extent, there was a big culture clash with the Dutchman harboring dreams of transforming the tiny village into a showplace for the arts and progressive farming techniques. With his Protestant work ethic, he must have struck his neighbors as overbearing. Squabbles over relatively minor things escalated to the point where the two households stopped talking to each other. Tensions reached the boiling point when the Dutch couple challenged the Rodriguezes for the right to share in the common property of the village, an economic institution that might have dated back to medievalism. In court, the older son testified that Verfondern was only there a couple of months a year, a lie that was easily refuted. The judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Dutch.

On January 19th, 2010, Martin drove to a neighboring town to do some shopping. Afterwards, several people spotted his SUV headed back up the mountain toward Santoalla. It was the last time he was ever seen. The film consists mostly of Margo Pool reminiscing about the good times they had in the village as well as the dark period when tensions might have led to his disappearance—and possible murder.

As this true crime story unfolds, you will be galvanized by the search for what took place in 2010 and the versions put forward by Margo Pool and her adversaries. In the press notes, co-directors Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer state:

While the Rodríguez family revered the pueblo as a place that preserved centuries-old customs and traditions, Martin and Margo envisioned their adopted home as a location to build their own utopia and foster their progressive ideals. Despite their mutual love for the village, neither side accepted the other’s concept of what Santoalla should be. That’s when we knew that the film was about more than just a disappearance.

In fact that sounds like the sort of clash that is taking place all over the industrialized world today between urban elites and rural “deplorables”. The film is both a gripping crime story as well as a parable of social conflict in late capitalism.

Opening at the Film Forum on July 26th, “Rumble” gets it title from a Link Wray tune recorded in 1958 that was banned in New York and Boston since it might incite teenage gang violence. Like much else in the 50s, including the witch-hunt against EC comics, it was just another example of Cold War hysteria and fear of young people straining against its repression.

The song outlived the censors as both the film and Wikipedia relate. Iggy Pop says that when he heard the opening chords of “Rumble” in a college student union, he decided then and there to become a rock-and-roll musician. According to Rolling Stone, Pete Townshend of The Who once said, “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I never would have picked up a guitar.” Meanwhile, my favorite rock musician—Mark E. Smith of The Fall—has stated: “The only people I ever really looked up to were Link Wray and Iggy Pop. Guys like…Link Wray…are very special to me.”

What is much less known about Link Wray was that he was an American Indian from the Shawnee tribe in North Carolina. While never reaching the level of recognition as “Rumble”, Wray recorded three songs that celebrated his origins: “Shawnee”, “Apache”, and “Comanche”.

Combining groundbreaking musicology, including interviews with both native and non-native experts, and stirring excerpts from the recordings and performances of a panoply of American Indian musicians, “Rumble” is one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen.

Executive Producer Stevie Salas, an Apache who played guitar with Mick Jagger and Justin Timberlake at different points in a long and distinguished career, explained his motivation for making the film possible:

I am a Native American guitarist who has worked with some of the most amazing and diverse acts in history such as Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake, Jeff Healey, Public Enemy, George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Adam Lambert to name a few.

This whole thing happened because at a young age I was playing sold out arenas and stadiums with Rod Stewart and while on the road across America I started to wonder, why are there were no other Native Americans in the biz? So after a bit of digging I discovered there were indeed others who, for reasons unknown to me, people didn’t know about. In fact to my surprise I was playing guitar parts on Rod Stewart songs that were recorded by a Kiowa Indian named Jesse Ed Davis…and I had no idea!

Jeff Beck who is considered one of the greatest guitar players on the planet loves Link Wray and loves Native American culture. He even told me how he and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin would play air guitar to Link’s records as teens BUT he didn’t know Link Wray was a Shawnee Indian and yes he flipped when I told him.

“Rumble” is both great entertainment and a contribution to understanding American popular music that will have you smiling every single minute of the film. It is also a major contribution to American Indian studies that demonstrates how native peoples were able to preserve their musical traditions even though the white master race tried to destroy it. Not to be missed.

Until August first, PBS POV has made available a documentary on its website titled “The War Show” that is a 90 minute history of the Syrian revolution made from the footage of media activists who were in the middle of the action. Starting out with giddy expectations, they are now profoundly distressed by the outcome—except for those who were murdered by Assad during the period the footage was being assembled.

Early on we meet a group of college students who look exactly like NYU students and behave like them. The women do not wear hijabs and wear tight jeans. The men are bearded but it is in the hipster style rather than in compliance with Islamic norms. And they are constantly smoking, either tobacco or reefer.

As soon as the protests began in 2011, they went out into the streets and began recording the protests and putting them up on Youtube. The film depicts them traveling around Syria meeting up with other young people, including those who were army defectors joining the FSA in order to defend peaceful protests.

As the military conflict escalated, the rebels were forced more and more to rely on Arab states and Turkey for weapons and funding, which meant that those militias with an Islamist orientation had the inside track.

And all the while, the destruction of Syrian society grows apace. With the sectarianization of the struggle, people like those who made this film were either killed or driven into exile. In one of the key scenes in the film, we see a standoff between activists of the Kafranbel Media Center famous for their English-language banners protesting the regime and Islamists marching under slogans like “We need an Islamic state”.

Like other documentaries about Syria, I have seen in the past two years or so, this one leaves you feeling rather dispirited. It is doubtful that anything good can come out of Syria today but if it does, it will be because there are people like those who made the film finally reentering the public space to defend the values of the Arab Spring.

1 Comment »

  1. You may also want to watch Link Wray talk about his background and musicians he was influenced by and hung out with, in this documentary (produced by a Brit):

    Link Wray – The Rumble Man

    Comment by Reza — July 5, 2017 @ 10:21 pm


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