Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 15, 2020

Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:01 am

Last November, I discovered a new source of progressive documentaries in New York as a result of covering the Other Israel Film Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC. Now, only two months later, the JCC is presenting another important film festival called the Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival. Opening this Thursday and running through Monday, January 20th, it features nine documentaries with one narrative film on the closing night, the newly released “Harriet,” a biopic about Harriet Tubman. After having seen five of the documentaries, I recommend the entire film festival to New Yorkers since it is an antidote to the mind-numbing crap featured in your local cineplex. Given the political stakes we face in a decaying capitalist society, these are the sorts of films that help orient you to the real struggles taking place in the USA.

Scheduling/ticket information is at https://jccmanhattan.org/arts-film/film/cinematters

“American Muslim” encapsulates the spirit that guides these JCC programs. Focused on the Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of New York City’s outer boroughs, it integrates questions of faith, social identity and political imperatives in a period of rising Islamophobia. Adam Zucker, a 61-year old Jew, was inspired to make this film as a way of challenging Trump’s agenda by introducing viewers to the city’s Muslims, about whom he knew next to nothing starting out. In a profile that appeared in the Times of Israel, he said, “New York has a very large Muslim population, and I am a lifelong New Yorker, but I hadn’t really met any Muslims.” The same goes for me and probably many of you.

The film takes us on a tour of Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, Jamaica, and Ozone Park, all of which have substantial Muslim populations. The first thing you will learn is that most come from South Asia rather than the Middle East. Among them is Shamshi Ali of Jamaica, Queens, an Imam who emigrated from Indonesia, a nation that has more Muslims than those in the entire Middle East. We discover that the film got its title from his observation that pressures to unite as Muslims in the USA for political reasons create a dynamic where your country of origin and its culture will begin to matter less. Like the American Christian or the American Jew, the American Muslim will become a unified body. More importantly, it is likely to be a progressive-minded component of a society that needs all the help it can get. Reaching out to Jews, Ali confesses to Zucker that it sometimes feels like he is spending more time in synagogues building bridges to Jews that reject Donald Trump than he does in mosques.

We also hear from Debbie Almontaser, another Muslim on the front lines fighting on behalf of immigrant rights and the broader struggle against racism. A Yemeni-American, she lost her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s Arabic-themed school, after she was defended the use of the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan. Like Shamshi Ali, she is knowledgeable about the true spirit of Islam and the reactionary tendencies imposed on it by conservative elements, especially patriarchal norms that prevented women from driving cars in Saudi Arabia until recently.

As for the true spirit of Islam, you can see it manifested by the outreach program of Mohamed Bahi, an Algerian-American who founded and still directs Muslims Giving Back, a volunteer effort located at the Muslim Community Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Bahi organizes fund-raisers for newly arrived Muslim immigrants at the community center, including, as the film shows, Syrians that just arrived from Turkey. Fled might be a better word than arrived since the Turks were hostile to them despite sharing Muslim beliefs. Originally from Aleppo, life had become unbearable until they arrived in Sunset Park just before Trump’s Muslim ban. Destitute, they ended up sleeping on the floor until Bahi arrived one morning with a truck full of furniture. Bahi believes that Islam is more about deeds than beliefs, a lesson lost on the nativist Turks, Bashar al-Assads and Mohammad bin Salman.

Like Flavio Alves’s narrative film about a transgender female, “Changing the Game” is a much-needed documentary that will open your minds to one of the most despised minorities in the USA. In this film, we meet a trans male and two trans females who are high school students competing in wrestling and track respectively. As you may know, this has become a major controversy lately as parents of cisgender athletes demand their expulsion from competitions. Mack (born Mackenzie) has been forced to compete with cisfemales even though his deepest desire is to wrestle other boys. That mattered much more to him than becoming the 110-pound class Texas state champion in 2017 and 2018. What makes this film so great in addition to the utter honesty and magnetic personalities of its principals is the support they get from their parents or, in Mack’s case, the grandparents who adopted him after his mom could not provide adequate financial support. They are quintessential Red State personalities but utterly on his side. The grandmother is a cop and the grandfather is a good old boy in bib overalls but don’t let their appearance fool you. Every word out their mouth spells compassion in capital letters.

We also meet Sarah Rose Huckman, a cross-country skier from New Hampshire. Referring to the state’s motto “Live Free or Die,” Sarah insists that her only wish is to be free to live her life without putting up with ignorance and hatred. That’s also the wish of Andraya Yearwood, an African-American runner from Connecticut, a state that permits trans teens competing in sporting events based on their sexual identity. Considering that 40 percent of all trans teens attempt suicide at one point in their lives, Connecticut’s attitude is most welcome. Even more welcome is Michael Barnett’s film that deserves the widest possible audience in a period of deepening intolerance. Rated 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, this documentary deserves its accolades.

Like “Changing the Game,” “The All-Americans” focuses on teen athletes targeted by Donald Trump’s bigoted administration, in this instance Mexican-American high school football players in East Los Angeles.

Each year, there is a big game called “The Classic” that pits two traditionally Mexican-American dominated high schools against each other, Roosevelt and Garfield. If playing football is a daunting task for any student trying to keep up with geometry, even more daunting is staying a step ahead of La Migra and helping your parents make ends meet in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. In addition to being a traditional sports documentary of the kind that would be produced by ESPN, it is a guided tour of a neighborhood like those we see in “American Muslim”. Although I’ve been to LA at least 15 times in my lifetime, I’ve never gone far from Hollywood, just as I’ve never been to Sunset Park or Jamaica in New York City.

Like the best documentaries, “The All-Americans” opens your eyes to peoples you’ve met and places you’ve never been. When I used to come back from Nicaragua in the 1980s, I was always struck by how despite being materially poor, the country was spiritually wealthy. As soon as I got off the plane, I was always reminded that it was just the opposite of the USA—materially rich and spiritually impoverished. After you’ve met the football players and their families in “The All-Americans,” you’ll understand why Trump wants to build a wall. It will be the only way he and his bigoted supporters can slow down the eventual and inevitable salvation of the country.

“Always in Season” is a study that reinforces the conclusion of Project 1619 that racism is in the DNA of the USA. It is both an investigation of the possible lynching of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year old African American teen who was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina, on August 29, 2014, as well as an overview of lynching in the USA.

This is a debut film by Jacqueline Olive, an African-American filmmaker with fifteen years of experience in journalism and film.

Lennon’s mother Claudia and his brother Pierre insist that he had no reason to kill himself. So do his classmates and friends. The only people who are fixed in their opinion about this being a suicide are the local cops, no big surprise there.

In addition to covering the events that took place prior to August 29, 2014, Olive shows us the yearly reenactment of a notorious lynching that took place at the Moore’s Ford Bridge near Monroe, Georgia in 1947. Like the Civil War reenactments that has men dressing up like Yankee or Rebel soldiers, these reenactments have white men and women playing those who shot two married black couples in 1947, also played by local blacks. They were tied to a tree while a white mob shot them sixty times. After the pregnant wife of one of the men was dead, a racist carved a fetus out of her womb.

To show that some whites have repudiated the past, one of the women reenactors was the daughter of a KKK member and takes part as an act of solidarity. After seeing her father participating in a lynching when she was three years old, she decided that racial hatred was not in her DNA, at least.

Unsurprisingly, the cops have refused to reopen the mysterious hanging of Lennon Lacy as well as deciding in 2015 that there were no sufficient grounds for prosecuting anybody involved with the Moore’s Ford Bridge murders.

Directed by BBC reporter Leana Hosea, “Thirst For Justice” is as timely as the other films reviewed above. It is about the contamination of the world’s waters with spotlights on three occurrences. First, uranium waste seeping into the water of New Mexico’s Navajo peoples; second, lead in the water of Flint, Michigan; and finally, the petroleum industry’s forcing American Indians to abide by the presence of a pipeline funneling fracking output through the sacred Standing Rock burial grounds.

With a clear identification with the struggles against the polluters, Hosea interviews activists and victims of the contamination. In New Mexico, the contamination led to a cancer epidemic while in Flint, it led to neurological illnesses, especially in children.

In a Close-Up Culture interview, Hosea is asked what inspired the film. Her reply:

This journey really started in 2010 when I first visited the South West to do a story for the BBC on the proposed resurgence of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area.

As part of the report I visited the nearby Navajo reservation, where I heard there had been some historic uranium mining from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. But nothing prepared me for what I saw.

Communities were living amidst some 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and piles of waste. When the uranium price crashed in the mid-1980’s the big mining companies declared bankruptcy and left behind piles of mine waste and open pit mines, which filled up with rain water. Children swam in them and the sheep – the food staple of the Navajo – drank the water and so did the people.

Helen Nez, now an elderly lady, told me that her sheep were born with deformities, some without eyes. Then her children were born with a DNA depleting disease and died painful deaths at a young age.

Instead of investigating environmental factors, the white doctors told her it was because Indians practice inbreeding and labelled the disease Navajo neuropathy. This disease has now been linked to uranium contamination.

I had an interview with a lady one morning, but she didn’t turn up. With the roads as terrible as they are on this impoverished community, I assumed she had got a flat tire and didn’t think anything of it. But a week later I found out she had died the morning of our interview of kidney cancer. Drinking uranium contaminated water has been linked to kidney disease and reproductive cancer.

I knew this story was big and that I needed to spend more time to investigate it to do it justice. Soon after I returned to London as I got a BBC posting to the Middle East – just in time for the revolution and spent a number of years there. But I didn’t forget my time on the Navajo.

As I have said on numerous occasions, the people who make such films are the true vanguard of our time. My only hope is that the rest of the left can catch up with them. Without major financial backing assured, they risk arrest or hardship in making films at a place like Standing Rock, where journalists were considered enemies. Leana Hosea was arrested there and can likely be expected to be arrested again in some other filming project where the class struggle is at a fever pitch, god bless her.

1 Comment »

  1. Loius writes: As for the true spirit of Islam …” I think your judgment about what is and is not the true spirit of Islam is fantastical. Islam, like Judaism, is a religion of laws. Those laws are, if you live in the West, rather difficult to follow because they contradict Western notions of justice and, most certainly, progressive morality. Of course, in some areas, Islamic notions for society include serious protections for those not well off and, at least, theologically, non-racist (although, in practice, racism has been a serious issue, historically, in the Islamic regions). But, the true spirit of Islam is not a simple thing.

    My point about your comment: what you have written is another example of Marxist thinking that manipulates reality to fit that ideology’s agenda. Now, that does not make the content of the films – which I have not seen – any less authentic, does not make the films any less worth seeing and does not make those in them any less worthy as human beings. In fact, they sound like very worthy human beings. My comment is directed at the imaginary world that you project onto Islam.

    Gender topics will always be complicated. So, I don’t know what one might say about that other than the film, as you describe it, presents a perspective on a complex and deeply personal subject.

    I think that your comment that racism is in the DNA of the US has some merit. But, at the same time, the DNA of the US also includes many other genes, some of them very admirable. Otherwise, we would still be a slave society or, if not that, Jim Crow would still be the law in the South. Otherwise, all the marches that we saw and, in some instances, participated in when we were young would have not been worth the time. Again, it is certainly the case that race is an important element in comprehending the US. However, understanding that there is a lot more than racism that is a part of the DNA of the US is an important component in fighting the racism that is in the DNA. Otherwise, what you are really advocating for is the ideology of someone like the bigot and hatemonger Louis Farrakhan.

    Comment by Neal — January 15, 2020 @ 2:03 pm

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