Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 7, 2018

Three outstanding documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

Under consideration are three outstanding documentaries, two from the 9th annual NY Documentary Film Festival that opens tomorrow and one available on iTunes.

As part of the film festival (Tuesday, Nov 13, 5:15pm and Wednesday, Nov. 14, 10:15am at the IFC Center), “Patrimonio” documents the struggle of fishermen in the small town of Todos Santos in Baja California in Mexico in defense of their livelihoods—and thus, their existence—against the Black Creek Corporation that was trying to impose a development called Tres Santos over the very beachhead they have used to launch their small fishing boats for over a century. The centerpiece of the development was a “Green” hotel that would appeal to people who read the NY Times Sunday Travel section in search of exotic or novel resort areas. Instead of gambling casinos and steak, you get yoga studios and vegan meals.

This development threatened their “patrimonio” as one activist fisherman puts it. If New York Film Critics Online did not restrict nominations to films that have only opened for general theatrical release, this would be my choice for best documentary of 2018.

“The Providers” refers to doctors and paramedics working out of a clinic in northeastern New Mexico that serves a desperately poor and neglected rural population. Seeing three of its staff members on their rounds reminds you that some people join the profession out of a love of humanity rather than the dollar. It also will be screened as part of the festival on Friday, November 9 at 5:30pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea and on Monday, November 12 at 12:45pm at the IFC Center.

Finally, on iTunes and as a DVD, is “Resistance at Tule Lake” that tells the long-neglected story of 12,000 Japanese Americans who stood up to FDR’s mass incarceration during World War II. Condemned as potential traitors, they were put into a concentration camp at Tule Lake Segregation Center, where they protested the attack on their rights as Americans, whether they were citizens or not.

Before Black Creek, an American corporation, set its sights on Todos Santos, it had created hotels and condos all along the Baja California coastline that would appeal to wealthy people looking for an alternative to the openly touristic beachfront hotels found in Acapulco or Miami Beach. To establish its credentials, it entered into a partnership with Colorado State University that built a campus at Todos Santos. The CSU’s website describes its mission: “Educating students and community members about sustainable practices in tourism, agriculture, and other subjects has become a cornerstone for Colorado State University’s Todos Santos Center in Baja California Sur (BCS), Mexico.” As I just told the director of this outlet of CSU, she and the snakes who own colonized Todos Santos belong in jail cells next to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

In 2004, David Harvey wrote an article titled “The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession” that built upon the insights of Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Accumulation of Capital”. Following Luxemburg, Harvey theorized that the primitive accumulation that Marx wrote about did not come to an end in the 18th century with peasants being victims of the Enclosure Acts or in the 19th century when slavery was abolished. It was an ongoing feature of capitalist exploitation. No other film I have ever seen depicts this tendency more than “Patrimonios”. Using the combined power of the Mexican courts, the cops, and the government agencies charged with the mission of protecting both the fisherman and the land and resources being threatened by Tres Santos’s hyper-development, the working people of Todos Santos were destined to end up like the vagabonds wandering the roads of 18th century England trying to find a way to survive. Or, for that matter, like the peasants who were made redundant by the tsunami of American corn entering Mexican markets after NAFTA, most of whom, it seems, ended up as dishwashers or restaurant delivery boys in New York. Or, even as members of a Mexican drug cartel.

Tres Santos or its Mexican affiliates in MILA, a corporation owned by the family of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the ex-President of Mexico who turned his country into a neoliberal hothouse, bother to follow Mexican law. The corruption at work in their land grab makes Donald Trump look like Ralph Nader. They refuse to turn over documents that supposedly gives them the right to build the new hotel and keep stonewalling the fisherman’s co-op who go through legal channels to validate them. Meeting after meeting is called to resolve the dispute but it is only the fishermen who show up, even when they have been convened by Mexican government bodies. When you see photos of the same officials hanging out with Tres Santos, you understand why. It was a massive conspiracy that saw the fishermen as beneath contempt. As their struggle mounts, including a blockade against construction crews, they repeatedly refer to the power that money gives their adversary. One of their wives says bitterly that Tres Santos shows the need for a new Mexican revolution.

They are led by John Moreno, an attorney with deep roots in Todos Santos who is both legally and politically astute. As you watch this stirring documentary, you sit at the edge of your seat wondering if he and the ostensibly weak forces behind him will overcome formidable odds. The suspense is as gripping as any Hitchcock movie.

“Patrimonio” is co-directed by two women, Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale. In the filmmaker statement, Jackson writes:

I have been involved in documentary filmmaking ever since I left MIT film school in 1971, and my career has been one where every project has been an immersion in a different reality. And a total immersion was the only way to get the intimate footage that Patrimonio required: long days on the boat with Rosario, long nights shooting the blockade, endless meetings and rallies and vigils and never knowing if the next day would bring an intimidating lawsuit or a devastating high tide, a new baby or the death of a patriarch. And over the course of those years of filming my connection to the place and its people only deepened to the point where in 2016 I left New York City after 35 years and am now a permanent resident of Todos Santos and the fight to preserve this pueblo magico has become personal.

“The Providers” follows physician’s assistant Matt Probst, nurse/practitioner Chris Ruge, and physician Leslie Hayes as they visit indigent people being served by El Centro, a chronically underfunded and understaffed clinic in Española.

No matter how marginal the patient, all three offer the kind of “bedside manner” that is often lacking in wealthier, cosmopolitan centers. When an elderly patient asks Chris Ruge for $10 to help meet expenses until his next social security check arrives, he gladly opens his wallet and his heart. Ruge speaks to each of his patients as if they were old friends even when most people would have cut ties with the alcoholic who appears to be a lost cause. While his visit to the man’s house might have been satisfied professionally simply by a physical exam, Ruge spends time offering counseling to help him get to the source of his problems. Since his wife committed suicide some years earlier, he appears unable to cope.

Despite his last name, Matt Probst is a Mexican-American who grew up not far from where the clinic is located. He feels a personal connection with the lost souls he treats because his own father and sister were addicts. Like Ruge, he is compassionate and patient. We see him making a pitch to high school and college students to enter the medical profession in one capacity or another since there was a need for skilled people in northeast New Mexico. The sad reality is that a lack of jobs forces many young people to move to cities, leaving mostly the unemployed and the elderly to stay behind.

Finally, Leslie Hayes understands the need to treat those addicted to opioids as suffering from an illness rather than as criminals or worse. We learn from her that Española, New Mexico has suffered from an opioid epidemic on a scale with any other town or city in places we associate with the plague, like West Virginia. In 2016, she wrote an article describing her approach:

As a family physician in a small town, I treat a lot of health conditions.

I treat high blood pressure and asthma. I treat the flu. I make sure small children get their vaccinations.

However, unlike most family physicians, I also treat patients with opiate addiction, or, as the medical world calls it, opiate use disorder.

Surprisingly to many people, they are the most satisfying patients I treat.

Even more surprisingly, I especially enjoy treating pregnant women.

In 25 years of practice, no one has ever thanked me for bringing their blood pressure under control. However, at least once a month, one of my patients with opiate use disorder thanks me for saving their life.

She, like the other two medical professionals, is the kind of doctor a socialist America would foster. Seeing this film is a reminder that human nature is good despite all evidence to the contrary.

“Resistance at Tule Lake” combines interviews with the elderly Japanese-Americans who were kept prisoner in one of FDR’s concentration camps with archival footage, including some shocking photos of army tanks that were deployed to suppress a non-violent prison revolt reminiscent of the armored vehicles that have shown up recently to intimidate or even kill Black Lives Matters protesters.

We learn from a remarkable spectrum of Tule Lake internees what they had to endure as their rights as citizens were being stripped during the anti-Japanese hysteria following Pearl Harbor. Among them is Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a renowned playwright and actor, who, when forced to fill out a “loyalty questionnaire”, refused to answer questions that implicitly questioned his citizenship. Rightfully refusing to them, he was charged with disloyalty, segregated with other “disloyals”, and even ostracized by other internees. Under pressure, he agreed to renounce his American citizenship and return to Japan on a boat with other “renouncees”, a fate that was a lesser evil to Tule Lake.

Needless to say, the film is both a badly needed chronicle of the Japanese-American experience during WWII as well as a reminder that Trump’s nativism was not a new phenomenon. As the most liberal president in American history, FDR was arguably much worse when it came to stigmatizing an entire nationality as “criminals or worse” as Trump might put it.

In 1959, with the help of attorney Wayne M. Collins, Kashiwagi had his United States citizenship restored. Kashiwagi would later dedicate his book “Swimming in the American: a Memoir and Selected Writings to Collins”, “who rescued me as an American and restored my faith in America”.

Collins son, named Wayne Jr., succeeded his father as a fighter for Japanese-American rights. He is seen speaking to an audience attending a ceremony where he received an award for his efforts. In an article for “Discover Nikkei (Japanese migrants and their ancestors) titled “Carrying the Torch: Wayne Collins Jr. on His Father’s Defense of the Renunciants”, Sharon Yamato writes:

I was fortunate to be at the biennial event ten years earlier in 2004 when the younger Collins had accepted an award on his father’s behalf from those who owed their very presence there to the man responsible for giving them back their citizenship. Collins’ son was responsible for taking on some cases his father left unfinished, including the defense of Iva Toguri who had been falsely accused of being a Japanese spy. As tears of joy and cheers of gratitude filled the auditorium, the younger Collins graciously accepted the award.

I remember thinking what a toll the relentless and selfless work that his father undertook must have taken on a young boy’s life. Yet he calmly spoke of his father’s around-the-clock work schedule and volatile temper as if they were necessary demons of a man fighting for something as important as democracy.

This is the same Wayne Collins Jr. that has been a Marxmail subscriber for the past 15 years or so. When I created the list, it was in the hopes that it would serve as a pole of attraction for people like Wayne. Seeing him the film is a welcome reminder that it has played a meaningful if modest role in uniting the left.

1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Comment by jamesbradfordpate — November 8, 2018 @ 3:28 am


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